31 Days to Scare ~ Anaconda

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A film crew traveling on the Amazon River is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer

Director: Luis Llosa

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If there’s one thing you should have gathered by now if you follow this blog on any kind of regular basis, it’s that The MN Movie Man loves a good creature feature.  Though they often fail to meet their potential, I’m notoriously a sucker and pretty forgiving for any movie that has a slimy monster, razor toothed alien, or, best of all, some underwater beast.  Big studios have become averse to toss their money toward these movies because they’re often heavy on CGI or animatronic effects, which increases the costs significantly, making the possibility to turn a profit more difficult for a genre that gets the most bang on opening weekend. However, don’t forget that in the late ’90s the teen slasher film was back on the rise so young audiences looking for thrills were being catered to more than ever. So while Sony was getting I Know What You Did Last Summer into production and ready for release, they already had a stealthy sleeper hit ready to slither into theaters in early 1997.

Keep in mind that when Anaconda was released in April of 1997, it carried with it a $45 million dollar price tag and a cast not known for raking in audiences.  Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t exactly a cover story anymore and Ice Cube (21 Jump Street) the actor wasn’t nearly as popular as Ice Cube the rapper.  Eric Stoltz (Kicking and Screaming) was more recognized for his brief turn in Pulp Fiction than he was for his dynamite roles in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful or 1985’s Mask and Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) was just perfecting  his California surfer boy cool vibe that would land him a number of roles for the next two decades.  Then there was female lead Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) who we now always remember as being a star but back then hadn’t yet fully capitalized on her sensational breakthrough in Selena — that would happen in 1998’s Out of Sight.

So there was nothing to suggest Anaconda would be anything more than a silly B-movie of with a decent mechanical snake that would be substituted for a semi-convincing computer generated one for the fast moving shots.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what it is…and it’s great.  Sometimes it’s nice to just kick off your shoes and relax into a horror film that’s going to give you a little zing but isn’t going to to send you leaping out of your seat every six seconds.  There’s a particular level of fun to be had with a film like Anaconda because it gives you exactly what it promises (and a little extra) and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s campy but in all the right ways and takes itself only as seriously as the material will allow — to spoof it or make it joke-y would spell disaster so the cast (and even the snake) seem to have a tiny twinkle in their eye.

Not that it really matters, but the plot finds a film crew led by Stolz and Lopez floating down the Amazon that picks up a stranded man (Voight) who turns out to be a psycho snake hunter.  He’s obsessed with capturing a large anaconda said to lurk in the waters far off the beaten path and takes control of the expedition so that he may use their boat to get where he’s going.  Looping crew member Wilson into his plot, Voight (sporting an accent questionable for its authenticity and political correctness) may prove to be more dangerous than the snake as the rest of the cast fights to survive being offed by him before the snake can give them a good squeeze.  Director Luis Llosa keeps the action brisk and and, considering the deadly subject matter, surprisingly jovial.

When the snake does appear, the results are mostly good but can be mixed at times thanks to mediocre CGI that can make its actual size confusing.  The practical snake is finely detailed and quite effective but the computer generated one looks an awful lot like a cartoon in some shots.  Then again, the editing is so fast and quick that you don’t get much time to see it in full and Llosa goes the Spielberg route and keeps it out of sight as much as possible for as long as he can.

Ultimately, it’s a solid effort and for the time period the movie was made you can see where the money went…although you look at a movie like Jaws and wonder how they made such a realistic shark in 1975 with absolutely no computer effects yet twenty two years later they can’t make an anaconda go from point A to point B and appear mostly convincing?  Say what you will about Voight nowadays but he’s never less than fully committed to the role and the loopy performance…and his famous “wink” scene is well worth the wait.  You don’t get a huge sense of the star Lopez would become but there’s definitely something there that makes you want to see more.  Audiences clearly were charmed by this big snake film because Anacadona wound up rattling the box office with a final take of nearly $137 million dollars.  It’s no wonder it was followed with several sequels of gradually decreasing quality, many of which bypassed theaters entirely.  There’s nothing quite as entertaining as the original and it holds up well even now.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Cell

The Facts:

Synopsis: An F.B.I. Agent persuades a social worker adept with a new experimental technology to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Colton James, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff

Director: Tarsem Singh

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Aside from a few bright spots here and there, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t remember many of the movies that came out during the summer of 2000.  Between May and August, the only notable releases that may be part of your library were Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, The Patriot, The Perfect Storm, Scary Movie, What Lies Beneath, Hollow Man, and the first X-Men.  At the tail end of it all came The Cell and it sure wasn’t like the rest of them.  Featuring two stars on the rise and with a focus more on breathtaking (and sometimes horrifying) visuals than, oh, consistent logic, it’s a beautiful film to look at but not one you should think too hard about.

Serial killer Stargher  (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) has been abducting young women and using them to fulfill his fantasies involving pain and purification.  Keeping them locked in a glass cell until he is ready to dispose of them by drowning them slowly and videotaping it, the women all have a limited amount of time before they run of breathing space.  Stargher has been getting sloppy, though, and that’s how Agent Novak (Vaughn, The Internship) tracks him down only to find Stargher has lapsed into a coma brought on by a schizophrenic illness.  Desperate to find the latest victim Stargher has kidnapped, Novak is referred to a clinic where Catherine Deane (Lopez, Second Act) has been pioneering a new method of reaching patients suffering from the same condition.

Through some scientific sleight of hand, Catherine is able to enter the mind of her patient and can help unlock them from their perpetual dream state.  Once she’s inside, though, she’s susceptible to any kind of deceit or harm the patient might inflict which is why up until now the experiments have always been with children.  Novak needs Catherine to go into Stargher’s mind to see if she can find where he’s hidden his most recent prey (Tara Subkoff) before it’s too late.  As evil and torturous as Stargher is on the outside, what goes on in his brain is even worse.  The deeper Catherine goes into Stargher’s mind, the more challenging it is to separate reality from fantasy and soon she’s stuck in a hellscape with no end in sight.

While recently re-watching The Cell for the first time in well over a decade, my mind began to play tricks on me.  For some reason I got it into my head this surreal thriller was an early entry in the resumes of stars Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn when actually both actors had already made quite a splash on the big screen.  After a strong debut in Selena, Lopez was just coming off the rousing success of 1998’s brilliant Out of Sight, which firmly established the former Fly Girl as an actor that could hold her own against A-listers like George Clooney.  Vaughn had managed to survive a dino attack in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and come out unscathed from Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho.  So…both were sitting pretty.

It must have been a curious experience for fans of the stars to see them in this strange mix of fantasy and horror, taking themselves very seriously in situations that come off more than a wee bit goofy nineteen years later.  Director Tarsem Singh (Mirror Mirror) makes his feature film directing debut and the movie is a dream to look at…literally.  Even viewed all these years later when we have the benefit of advanced CGI and drone cameras that could capture the same shots, what he’s done with cinematographer Paul Laufer (who has never made another movie, strangely) is nothing sort of brilliant.  Ditto to Eiko Ishioka’s (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and April Napier’s (Lady Bird) stunning costumes, which somehow managed to not get nominated for an Oscar…though the impressive make-up work did get a nod.

Where the movie starts to lean into silly territory is when Mark Protosevich’s script has Lopez and Vaughn giving the material more weight than it probably deserves.  This is, after all, a serial killer thriller with a sci-fi edge so to have theoretical discussions of good and evil acts only as padding instead of character development.  There are large chunks of Lopez/Vaughn scenes that could be excised without us losing anything from either – both are strong enough actors to convey exactly what we need with less.  Vaughn, in particular, is weighed down by one histrionic monologue that’s almost laughable in its attempt to be the next dramatic piece favorited by future Julliard applicants.

Even sitting at almost two decades old, The Cell holds up rather well and it was pleasing to see this so soon after watching Lopez turn in some of her best work in years in Hustlers.  Though she’s made some frothy fun ones over the years, it’s when she takes a shot at being serious and different when she shows just how good of a performer she really is.  It may not goose you in the fear department as it could have when it first premiered but it gets an A for effort — the images Singh whips up have a certain grotesque beauty to them.

Movie Review ~ Hustlers


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of exotic dancers get their revenge on wealthy, drunk and abusive clients by maxing out their credit cards after they’ve passed out.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, Lili Reinhart, Julia Stiles, Madeline Brewer, Keke Palmer, Mercedes Ruehl, Lizzo, Cardi B

Director: Lorene Scafaria

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few years back, a different side to the world of male strippers was shown in Magic Mike and its superior sequel Magic Mike XXL.  Both films went beyond the flesh flash to give insight into a different walk (lapdance?) of life, with the results trending more toward the comedic than the dramatic.  Solidifying the rising star of Channing Tatum and partly based on his own life, the movie opened the door for A-list talent to approach parallel roles with confidence.  The first film was also notable for being one of the first stops of the infamous McConaissance, highlighting Matthew McConaughey’s return to fine form that wound up with him just narrowly missing being nominated for an Oscar for his work.  There’s similar Oscar buzz surrounding Hustlers, another true-life tale of strippers behaving badly, but this time I think the performance in question has the goods to go all the way.

Based on the 2015 New York Magazine article “The Hustlers at Scores” by Jessica Pressler and adapted by director Lorene Scafaria, Hustlers charts the rise and fall of a group of exotic dancers that started bilking their customers for thousands of dollars through an elaborate scheme involving unscrupulous measures.  Sticking close to the source material, Scafaria changes the names and softens a few of the situations but manages to remain remarkably in step with Pressler’s original story.  The article is a good read and the movie is a decent watch, though neither linger substantially in the memory long after you’ve completed them.

In 2007, Dorothy (Constance Wu, Crazy Rich Asians) is working at a popular NYC strip club under the name Destiny but not seeing much of a future in the work.  Pulling in pennies compared to the wads of cash her colleagues take home, she’s barely scraping by in the New Jersey house she shares with her grandmother.  One night, she catches an onstage performance from Ramona (Jennifer Lopez, Second Act) and witnesses the way men literally throw mountains of bills at her feet.  Going beyond mere stage presence, Ramona possesses an immeasurable “it” factor that can’t be taught…but she takes Destiny under her wing anyway.  Together, the two women become a dynamic duo…until the financial crisis throws everything into a tailspin.

Though she leaves the club life for a while, eventually Destiny returns to a much different climate and without her partner.  When she crosses paths with Ramona again, she finds her old pal has a different way of earning money and, while it might not be on the up and up, it’s a lot easier than what they’d been required to do before.  Looping in two former dancers (Keke Palmer, Joyful Noise and Lili Reinhart, The Kings of Summer), the ladies begin targeting wealthy men and drugging them, bringing them back to the club, running their credit cards up, and pocketing the cash.  The men don’t report it because they can’t remember what exactly happened, for all they know they had a great time and just passed out.   For a while, this system works but, as with most organized crime set-ups, the good times don’t last and soon things start to fall apart.

What keeps the film interesting at every turn is Lopez doing some of her all-time best work as Ramona, the ringleader of the operation.  While the brains of the business eventually fall to Destiny when Ramona’s focus strays elsewhere, the original orchestration of the scam was Ramona’s and Lopez makes the character’s motivations understandable if not downright likable.  Lopez is in killer shape and has several meme-worthy moments – it’s totally likely an Oscar nomination is in her future for her performance, though I wouldn’t exactly engrave the statute quite yet.  As good as she is, I’m not completely convinced it’s an Oscar-winning role.

Less successful is Wu, struggling in vain to hold our attention anytime Lopez is off-screen (and anytime she is onscreen, actually) and the movie is weakened substantially for it.  Giving rather blandly blank line readings that are missing key emotive shifts, Wu doesn’t build on the promise she showed so well in Crazy Rich Asians.  You’re tempted to blame Lopez on shining too brightly but there’s a generosity of spirit in what Lopez is doing, gamely sharing the screen with anyone/everyone and Wu should have taken better advantage of this.  In all fairness, Reinhart and Palmer are kinda duds as well so Wu gets little help from them either.  Boo to the marketing materials flaunting Lizzo and Cardi B on the poster for the film, both appear briefly in glorified cameos.

Scafaria (Seeking a Friend for the End of the World) keeps the movie going at a good clip, bouncing between Destiny in 2007 and again in 2014 when Elizabeth (Julia Stiles, Closed Circuit) is interviewing her for a magazine article about her crimes.  The narrative device works well, though I missed the article’s slight assertation that Destiny might not be the most reliable of narrators.  In Scafaria’s eyes, Destiny is playing straight with Elizabeth and it colors too inside the lines to make the character truly come to life with any added dimension.  While it’s a smart move to have a woman in the director’s chair to tell this story, there are some elements that feel too restrained or, dare I say it, respectful.  Taking place in a hard-edged NYC strip club, this one happens to be the one in which no one is naked 98% of the time.  I don’t need nudity, don’t get me wrong, but a little more authenticity would have helped.

While the movie is fun, it’s rarely more than your standard caper film with the ultimate expected dénouement lurking around the corner at the 90 minute mark.  I kept wanting things to get taken up a notch or pivot in a different direction but found the material and some of the performances didn’t measure up, especially when Lopez seems to be so polished.

Movie Review ~ Second Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A big box store worker reinvents her life and her life-story and shows Madison Avenue what street smarts can do.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Leah Remini, Vanessa Hudgens, Treat Williams, Milo Ventimiglia

Director: Peter Segal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s a feeling you get while watching Second Act that you’ve been magically transported back to the early 2000s when movie studios were still making mid-range comedies that weren’t based on a comic book or an established franchise.  This was a time when a 30 million-dollar movie could get greenlit on star power alone and make its money back in the opening weekend before going on to enjoy a healthy life with repeat viewings on cable or well-worn DVDs.  Alas, this is 2018 and even if Second Act isn’t the same kind of slam-dunk destined for repeat viewings guilty pleasure we want it to be, it’s certainly a nice blast of nostalgia with several modern twists that keep it interesting.

When she misses out on a big promotion at her Wal-Mart-ish job she more than deserves that coincides with a milestone birthday, Maya (Jennifer Lopex, The Boy Next Door, radiant as ever) is feeling down in the dumps.  Though comforted by her best friend Joan (Leah Remini) and boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia, Kiss of the Damned) she can’t get over the fact that just because she doesn’t have a college degree it means she can’t advance in her career even if she has earned it.  Thanks to Joan’s whiz-kid son, with a little fancy internet tweaking and resume fudging Maya lands and interview and eventual consulting job with a beauty company in New York City.

I’m going to stop right there because that’s what the previews for Second Act have told you and it’s better if I let you see for yourself how the story develops.  Let it be known that Second Act isn’t exactly the movie it has marketed itself to be (sorry ladies, an early shirtless Ventimiglia scene is the closest you’re going to get to romantic territory) and that’s not entirely a bad thing.  You can see why Lopez, who scored so many early hits in the rom-com genre got the script for this and found it to be worthy of her time and producing effort.  It’s formulaic as all get-out but it works in ways that surprised me more than I thought it would.

Playing to its target audience by sending Maya on a Cinderella-esque story from rags to riches (with stops at all the major designer stores along the way) and putting her up in a swanky NYC apartment, the only thing screenwriters Justin Zackham and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas don’t give Maya is much of a personality.  Lopez sells the material well but Maya is often the passive viewer in her own life story, acquiescing to the wishes of others and not standing up for herself.  Case in point, though she has told him over and over again she wants to advance in her career Ventimiglia’s character keeps giving her a guilt trip about delaying starting a family — why doesn’t Maya ever say “No, dude, I don’t want to start a family…I’m 40 years old and want to be an executive!”  In all honesty, the entire Ventimiglia storyline could be excised without losing anything major…except for a small sampling of its female demographic.

Director Peter Segal (Grudge Match) doesn’t do anything special from a technical perspective but he gets the right people in the room and lets the charm of the collective hive carry the movie through some of the cheesier fare.  Aside from Lopez (who seems to change into one glorious costume/hairstyle every 30 seconds), Remini scores a win as Maya’s smart-acre sidekick (you can absolutely tell the two are besties in real life) and I got a kick out of Annaleigh Ashford (Frozen), Charlyne Yi (The Disaster Artist), and Alan Aisenberg as Maya’s coworkers who bring their own comedic oddities to their screen time.  Only Vanessa Hudgens (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as Maya’s corporate rival struggles to stay convincing, though Lopez tends to elevate her anytime they share a scene.

With so many movies out this holiday season, I’m guessing this isn’t going to make that big of a dent in the box office but will likely find a better audience when it’s available to watch at home.  It likely will play better on the smaller screen, too, and might have even made a bigger splash as, say, a Netflix original film.  Still, for those like me who mourn the death of these types of smaller genre films Second Act is a nice reminder that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Movie Review ~ The Boy Next Door

boy_next_door

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman falls for a younger man next door, but their torrid affair takes an obsessive, dangerous turn.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, Kristin Chenoweth, John Corbett, Ian Nelson

Director: Rob Cohen

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Sometimes when I’m sick in bed I can’t resist putting on one of those so bad its good trashy erotic thriller films from the 90s. I’m talking “classics” like Mark Wahlberg’s Fear, Sharon Stone’s Sliver, Bruce Willis’s Color of Night, and Kevin Bacon’s Wild Things. All totally B-grade films with A-list stars released by major studios that probably should have known better. We’ve been largely starved for these films recently but leave it to a former Fly Girl and the man that directed the first Fast and Furious film to bring home the bacon.

Ham is featured heavily in The Boy Next Door, actually, with its hambone script, hammy acting, and ham-handed direction. No cliché is off limits according to screenwriter Barbara Curry and much of the plot holes, contradictions, and outright impossibilities began to make sense once I found out Curry is an ex-Assistant U.S. Attorney from Los Angeles.

Curry’s set-up comes across like a movie on the USA Network you’d have on as background noise while you dusted your tchotchkes on a lazy Saturday afternoon. In the midst of a painful separation from her philandering husband (John Corbett), high school teacher Claire (Jennifer Lopez, who looks like anything but a woman named Claire) spends the final days of summer eating huge plates of food and staring lasciviously out the window at new boy next door Noah (Ryan Guzan, looking like he’s pushing 30 instead of 20) who has befriended her awkward son (screechy voiced and intolerable Ian Nelson, The Judge).

In a moment of “weakness”, i.e. she’s just a girl that can’t say no, Claire and Noah do the nasty in one of two surprisingly explicit and raunchy sex scenes. Waking up and realizing her mistake, Claire rejects Noah’s further advances, changing Noah from a horndog to a hellhoud in the process. Somehow the script finds a never ending supply of rationales for why she doesn’t come clean to anyone…least of all her friend and colleague played by frozen faced Kristin Chenoweth (Rio 2) and Kristin Chenoweth’s Botox (Hit and Run).

Made in less than a month for the chump change price of 4 million (half of which must have gone to lighting J.Lo’s house to constantly look like a purple-hued nightclub), the film doesn’t look bad nor is it assembled poorly…it just doesn’t hide any of the multiple faults at play. Clearly filmed out of sequence as evidenced by performances that are routinely caught in mid-hysteria only to be near comatose in the very next location shot, the film is only 90 minutes long but has no forward momentum.

Lopez has shown that she’s not a bad actress and I’m frankly surprised it’s taken her this long to try her hand at this kind of quick buck film, but she deserves better than the slack direction from Rob Cohen (Alex Cross) and nonsensical script but at least she looks fabulous in every single shot. Guzman may have been trying to have a permanent case of bedroom eyes but it comes off like he’s reading an eye chart on a distant horizon, the character is more bratty than diabolical and I kept wanting Lopez to just give him a good spanking and have the credits roll.

Personally, I would have been interested in having the titular boy next door be Lopez’s son…since Nelson plays him as such an oddball knob that having him flip out over his mom dating his friend might have been more intriguing to watch. Hard to say what exactly Chenoweth was going for here, one minute she’s concerned best friend, the next she’s a sassy woman of the world sporting jewelry four sizes too big for her neck. Though she gets to deliver the most hilariously awful in the film, she’s dealt no favors by Cohen featuring the pint sized Broadway imp in too many shots next to his Amazonian curvy star.

This being the film it is there was no ending to be had but the one that finds Lopez fighting for her life in a musty old barn while Guzman terrorizes her with a variety of ishy violent acts before getting his well-earned (and equally ishy) comeuppance. It’s maybe the only thing marginally satisfying about this well below average effort. Maybe worth a rental if you’re planning a night of adult cocktails…this can take the place of your cheeseball if you’re counting calories.

The Silver Bullet ~ Parker

parker

Synopsis: A thief with a unique code of professional ethics is double-crossed by his crew and left for dead. Assuming a new disguise and forming an unlikely alliance with a woman on the inside, he looks to hijack the score of the crew’s latest heist

Release Date:  January 25, 2013

Thoughts: The synopsis reads like any number of similar double crossed man on the run films and pretty much every Jason Statham film released.  What I think may just set this one apart is director Taylor Hackford at the helm and smart screenwriter John McLaughlin (Black Swan, Hitchcock) adapting Donald Westlake’s pulpy novel.  The presence of Lopez instantly puts Out of Sight into my brain so I’m going to have to put that excellent movie aside if I’m going to enjoy Parker in the slightest.  I’m thinking this will be a nice diversion and nothing more…but am hoping it delivers like I think it might.