Movie Review ~ Widows


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Robert Duvall

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one truly unfortunate thing that happened at the movies this year it’s that Steve McQueen’s Widows failed to catch fire at the box office.  The director of 12 Years a Slave and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, have adapted an ‘80s UK crime series and updated it to present day Chicago and cast some of the best actors working today.  It’s a gritty, great film and that it went largely unnoticed just totally baffles me.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) turns in what I think is the best performance of her career as a woman whose life is totally turned upside down and then is tossed sideways by a series of revelations that shock her and the audience.  Gathering together a group of disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby, Michelle Rodriguez, Furious 7) to follow through on a crime their husbands were planning, just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie is going it throws in multiple twists that I just did not see coming.  It’s hard to pull one over on movie-goers but McQueen and Flynn do it twice.

Hopefully, this is one movie that people will rediscover when it arrives on streaming services and then kick themselves for missing it when it was on the big screen.  Perhaps it was marketed wrong or maybe it was released at a bad time of year, but something strange happened with Widows because this is one of the best films of the year that just totally vanished way before it should have.  Find it, see it…you’ll understand what I’m saying when you do.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Haunting (1999)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Eleanor, Theo, and Luke decide to take part in a sleep study at a huge mansion they get more than they bargained for when Dr. Marrow tells them of the house’s ghostly past.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, Lili Taylor, Bruce Dern, Marian Seldes

Director: Jan de Bont

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Boy, The Haunting sure brings back a lot of memories for me.  It’s 1999 and I’ve finished my first year of college.  I’d been a hardcore movie fan all through high school and middle school but with my growing independence I was able to pick what movies I wanted to take myself to and involve friends with.  The net was still in its relative infancy so to watch trailers outside of a movie theater you had to go on the web and hope your connection was strong enough to keep the preview from buffering forever.  I remember watching the original teaser trailer for The Haunting on TrailerPark.com about a hundred times because it had everything going for it.  Scary movie? Check. Famous director? Check. Popular stars? Check. Prestige producers? Check.  It was all there.  Then the movie came out.

Here’s the original teaser to jog your memory:

Speaking of memories, I remember seeing The Haunting on its opening day and being more than a bit baffled by what was going on with my sure-fire sure thing.  I mean, I had spent $20 to have the glossy double sided theatrical one-sheet poster sent to me so I could display it in my room – I didn’t spend that much money on a turkey, did I?  At the time, I felt I had.  The audiences were laughing at moments meant to be scary and the effects felt like a let-down considering the budget and who was involved.  I was so frustrated I think I saw the movie once more when it came out on DVD but hadn’t seen it in probably a decade and a half.

We’re in the season of scary movies so I figured now would be better than ever to revisit this remake of Robert Wise’s undisputed 1963 classic.  Also, seeing that the original novel by Shirley Jackson has received another remake in the form of a 10-part Netflix show, I wanted to give this one another look before diving into that new production.  Produced by Steven Spielberg’s (JAWS) studio Dreamworks SKG, aside from a few admittedly cheesy bits and those same iffy effects, I was amazed to discover that The Haunting wasn’t the corny mess I remembered it to be. Not by half.

The same day her sister announces plans to sell the apartment she shared with her recently deceased invalid mother, Nell (Lili Taylor, The Conjuring) receives a call inviting her to participate in a sleep study at a secluded mansion.  She’ll be paid well and room and board is provided.  It seems the perfect solution to her dilemma.  Arriving at the ominous Hill House, she’s transfixed by the large estates beauty and ornate interior design.  Joined by bisexual vixen Theo (Catherine Zeta-Jones, Side Effects) and all-American dude Luke (Owen Wilson, Inherent Vice), Nell settles in far easier than her fellow test subjects, seemingly unfazed by the house’s nighttime activities which involve strange noises and ghostly apparitions.

The study is being conducted by Dr. Marrow (Liam Neeson, The Commuter) and, unbeknownst to the three, the study they are participating in has less to do with their sleep patterns and more to do with their fear reflexes.  He’s chosen Hill House for its storied history of being haunted and before he knows it the ghosts truly do come out to play in increasingly aggressive methods.  Soon, Nell comes to realize there are two sets of ghosts at work in the house.  One group is steering them all to a mystery hidden within while another more malevolent force wants to make sure Nell never leaves.

The first hour or so of The Haunting is a well-constructed vice grip that continues to tighten as the people explore the house and its impressively crafted rooms.  The production design here is out of this world, rich and detailed with no two spaces looking exactly alike.  Much of the huge budget must have been devoted to these playing spaces because while you sort of always know they are sets and not practical rooms in a real mansion the overall illusion is a wonder.  From the large ballroom to a panic inducing revolving room of mirrors, each door opens up to a new feast of the eyes.  Even nearly twenty years later it’s remarkable.

Where the film tends to run off the rails (and was then savaged by critics) is in the visual effects which look one step up from Casper the Friendly Ghost-style floating images. Some of them are downright laughable, especially the wooden cherub faces that decorate Nell’s room.  One moment they are giving you the creeps as their dead eyes bore into you, the next you’re giggling when their expression changes to horror with wide eyes and their mouths forming an “O”.  The final sequence is nearly all CGI and it fails to captivate you, though cinematographer turned director Jan de Bont (Flatliners) does stir up some good camera work during the final act.

Yet for all these problems which do play a part in diminishing the overall effect The Haunting was going for, I still found myself enjoying this re-watch all these years later.  It’s well-intentioned and largely well-made with a great cast (more Lili Taylor in everything, please) and is a masterpiece of set-design.  I went in thinking it would still be that cornball loser I had written it off as being all those years ago but found myself invested in the material and characters.  Sadly, this hasn’t been released on BluRay (why the heck not?) but do yourself a favor and find an HD streaming copy to rent.  It’s worth another look.

The Silver Bullet ~ Widows

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except debts left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Thoughts: Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) had a fondness for Widows, a UK television series created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).  In fact, McQueen liked it so much that he brought on Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn to modernize the story and signed on top notch talent to bring it stateside.  The result can be glimpsed in this trailer, an exciting first look at a hard-boiled crime drama that could be an award contender when all is said and done.  The cast is made up of Oscar winners Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) and Robert Duvall (The Paper), Oscar nominees Liam Neeson (The Commuter), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), and Jacki Weaver (Life of the Party), not to mention impressive names like Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (Furious 7), and Cynthia Erivo.  If the finished product is as impressively dynamite as this trailer, McQueen and company will have a very good fall.

Movie Review ~ The Commuter


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A businessman is caught up in a criminal conspiracy during his daily commute home.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Neill, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Banks, Andy Nyman, Florence Pugh

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: Bless Liam Neeson, that Irish Energizer Bunny. For the last decade or so he’s perfected starring as the everyman that takes a licking but keeps on ticking. In movies like Taken and its two sequels, Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night, Neeson has been a dependable action hero that manages to make tired premises seem like new ideas, even if they just magically vanish from your memory the moment the lights come up in the theater. Teaming up for the fourth time with director Jaume Collet-Serra (The Shallows), Neeson and his frequent collaborator aren’t navigating to any new destinations  in The Commuter but instead are focused solely on the ride.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson, The Grey) is having a bad day. He’s just been let go from his job in life insurance and isn’t sure how he’s going tell his wife (Elizabeth McGovern, Ordinary People, in a glorified cameo) that their already hand-to-mouth life is going to get that much more difficult. A former cop that had Patrick Wilson (Insidious) as a partner and Sam Neil (Jurassic Park III) as his boss, MacCauley is pondering his next move when a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring) approaches him on his commute home from NYC to the outer suburbs. She poses an interesting proposition to him, identify the one person on the train that “doesn’t belong” and he will be rewarded with a $100K payday.  Of course, this being a thriller desperate to be called Hitchcock-ian, there’s a deadly twist to taking the money. As soon as MacCauley pockets ¼ of the cash he’s thrust into making good on his promise to locate a material witness or suffer increasingly dangerous consequences.

So begins a game of Neeson trekking back and forth through the train, eliminating suspects with each stop before gathering the remaining passengers in one car in an Agatha Christie-esque wrap-up.  While you may feel the movie is constructing a bit of skilled puzzle, I’d advise you to trust your instincts for the identity of the witness nicknamed Prynne isn’t that hard to decipher.  The movie throws in enough red herrings to nearly make a trip to the dining car a necessity but anyone familiar with these types of films will catch the subtle clues that point to the solution rather quickly.

Like the previous Neeson/Collet-Serra vehice, Non-Stop, the set-up rather amiably carries the film for the first 50 minutes or so but the more the movie shifts from its early mystery intrigue to more action based sequences the less engaging it becomes. While Neeson looks game but gaunt, the most interesting character is Farmigia and (slight spoiler) she’s not on screen for the majority of the film. Shoddy CGI effects and some pretty lousy acting by a bunch of Brits desperately trying to disguise their accents aids in the film running of a steam long before a protracted finale and lame epilogue completely derails it.

No doubt about it, this is slick entertainment but largely a hollow experience. Typical for a January release after the big holiday push of new releases, The Commuter offers no real challenges but is a decent bit of counter-programming to the Oscar-bait entries filling most theaters right now.

The Silver Bullet ~ Silence (2016)

silence

Synopsis: In the 17th century two Jesuit priests face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity.

Release Date: December 23, 2016

Thoughts: Much like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, Silence is a late breaking entry into the serious awards season discussion.  Buzzed about for months (years if you count its overall development time) but as yet unseen, you never can really tell where a Scorsese flick will land in the eyes of critics but Silence looks compelling from the outset. Tackling the not super blockbuster themes of Christian oppression in a foreign land, it certainly has the visual hallmarks of a Scorsese film…including a lengthy run time.  Stars Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) and Adam Driver (Midnight Special) are stars continuing to rise and if you believe early odds, Liam Neeson (Non-Stop) could net a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.  We’ve got a few more weeks until Silence roars into view but count on this one to factor heavily in Oscar talk as the year concludes.  

The Silver Bullet ~ A Walk Among the Tombstones

walk_among_the_tombstones

Synopsis: Private investigator Matthew Scudder is hired by a drug kingpin to find out who kidnapped and murdered his wife.

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: I saw the poster for this adaptation of Lawrence Block’s bestselling series of novels before I took in the trailer below and felt a tad dejected.  Here we go again with another gristle and knuckle rock ‘em sock ‘em film from Liam Neeson (Non-Stop, A Million Ways to Die in the West, The Grey) and it would be light on logic and heavy on Neeson trying his best to whisper in a basso profundo.  Then I dug a little deeper and watched the preview and while I’m still not holding my breath this will help reestablish Neeson as more than a strong arm action hero this grim looking thriller may have the one element so many of his films don’t…smarts. 

Movie Review ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a cowardly farmer begins to fall for the mysterious new woman in town, he must put his new-found courage to the test when her husband, a notorious gun-slinger, announces his arrival.

Stars: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Liam Neeson, Amanda Seyfried, Giovanni Ribisi, Sarah Silverman, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Seth MacFarlane

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The posters for A Million Ways to Die in the West tout “From the guy who brought you Ted”…that should have been enough of a warning for me to head for the hills.   For the “guy” in question is Seth MacFarlane and Ted wasn’t exactly my favorite film of 2012.  Though I’ve come to a point of forgiveness with MacFarlane after his arguably unforgivable job hosting the Oscars in 2013, I got saddle sores while sitting through his attempt to make a Blazing Saddles for his Family Guy audience.

I realized while watching (more like grimacing through) MacFarlane’s latest directorial effort that Westerns don’t often get a new spin but when they do, more often than not they work.  Blazing Saddles from 1974 and Django Unchained from 2012 are the first examples that come to mind.  While Saddles was a Mel Brooks exercise in comedic buffoonery, Quentin Tarantino’s spaghetti western revenge epic was bloody good fun.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is an example of the wide, wide chasm that exists between films like Saddles and Django and MacFarlane’s raunchy and ribald supposed comedy.

There’s a good laugh right off the bat but sadly, like the roles played by Sarah Silverman and Giovanni Ribisi, the funny stuff all but disappears for more than half the film.  In place of actual laughs is MacFarlane’s ill-advised attempt to Woody Allen-ize every paranoid, fatalist diatribe he’s written for his character.  His clueless sheep farmer in 1822 speaks like an overindulged frat boy from Yale and looks like he got lost on a back lot tour of the set of Gunsmoke.  MacFarlane is so pasty white and healthy looking that when he’s in crowd scenes with his fellow dust bowlers he stands out like a sore thumb…either he didn’t want to get dirty or he’s going after an endorsement deal with Noxzema.

In Ted, MacFarlane only provided the voice for the naughty bear and that was somewhat tolerable.  This film makes it clear that he’s better suited doing his various voices behind the camera than being front and center.  Previously mentioned team players Silverman (Wreck-It Ralph) and Ribisi (Contraband) don’t have much to do but make voraciously explicit sex jokes that had the college age guys sitting next to me literally falling out of their seat with laughter.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) spends the entirety of the film rolling her eyes (possibly mimicking the audience?) and Liam Neeson (Non-Stop, The Nut Job) provides another cinematic example of why needs to learn to say no to every role he’s offered.

Rounding out the cast is an unusually game Charlize Theron as bandit Neeson’s wife that takes a head-scratching interest in MacFarlane’s character.  Theron (Snow White and the Huntsman) hasn’t done much in comedy and if she isn’t entirely successful here, I hope she gives it another go with a better script, director, and leading man because she has good instincts.  Neil Patrick Harris (Gone Girl) is overexposed.  There, I said it.  Even more in love with himself than MacFarlane, Harris’ broadly drafted mustached louse is a painful sight to behold — especially when he’s seen defecating in not one but two hats.

The defecating (and its fully visualized aftermath) is just one example from a film filled with an endless supply of gross out gags, aroused animal genitals, rogue bodily fluids, and rancid jokes that are lingered on and even explained for good measure.  I don’t doubt that the population in the early 1800’s knew how to swear a blue streak, but I have mixed feelings that the phrase “Let’s get f***ed up!” was popular at the time.

I’d like to say I’m not the target audience for the film…but that just isn’t true.  I’m all for dumb humor and the kind of time wasting that movies allow and provide excuses for enjoying…but this just takes things too far.  Thanks to MacFarlane’s major miscalculation that he knows from funny, A Million Ways to Die in the West should D.O.A. by high noon the day it opens.

Note: If you simply MUST see this film, there are several cameos that may make it worth your while.  One cameo in particular is brilliant…you’ll know it when you see it.

Movie Review ~ Non-Stop

nonstop
The Facts
:

Synopsis: An air marshal springs into action during a transatlantic flight after receiving a series of text messages that put his fellow passengers at risk unless the airline transfers $150 million into an off-shore account.

Stars: Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Nate Parker, Michelle Dockery, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Linus Roache, Corey Stoll

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m that weird duck traveler that loves to head off for an adventure but dreads the flight that will take me to my destination.  I don’t know why I have this irrational fear of flying and though I’m not someone that white knuckles it from wheels up to wheels down let’s just say that the sooner I’m back on solid ground the better.   

All that aside, can I just tell you how much I enjoy a thriller that involves any sort of in-flight dilemma?  I’m sure the root of some of my fears has come from seeing various maladies befall passengers in the Airport films and the hostile takeovers of Flightplan, Executive Decision, Passenger 57, Turbulence, et. al.  Though flying is the safest way to travel it can be the most dangerous when you toss in an action star like Liam Neeson looking for a killer on a transatlantic flight.

Let’s get this straight…Non-Stop is exactly the quality of film that you think it is.  It’s all muscle with little logic available to explain away large leaps of faith that it asks the audience to just go with.  And y’know what…for the most part it works well as a short fused thrill ride that gets you cruising along nicely up at 40,000 feet before encountering some midflight turbulence in anticipation of a watery landing.

Neeson (The Grey, The LEGO Movie) doesn’t have to stretch much to play a weary air marshal first class-ing it on a plane bound for London.  The film opens by letting us know there’s more than a few red herrings that will be joining him as each person he passes in the airport somehow manages to turn slllloooowwwlllly around with a grimace on their face.  For all we know, the entire plane is full of psychopaths.

Though he’s seated next to a kinda quirky kinda mysterious female (Julianne Moore, Carrie) and doted on by a lovely trolley dolly (Michelle Dockery, showing she’s capable of more than merely looking glum on Downton Abbey) his attention turns to the mysterious in-flight texts he receives from a passenger threatening to trim the flight manifest every twenty minutes until a payload of 150 million dollars is delivered…to a bank account in Neeson’s name.

So begins an in flight cat and mouse game that gets less interesting the more implausible it gets.  Non-Stop shows early promise with its slow burn first half but winds up flaming out long before the end is near.  And that’s too bad because had it capitalized more on the Hitchcockian mystery it aspired to it may have been a film that would be worth repeat viewings. 

Director Jaume Collet-Serra has been behind the camera for several flawed but interesting thrillers in his short career.  After the guilty pleasure House of Wax he scored nicely with the creep-fest Orphan before scaring us even more by casting the awful January Jones alongside Neeson in the marginal UnknownNon-Stop is more middle of the road work and wind up being best known for wasting 12 Years a Slave star Lupita Nyong’o in a throwaway role – though she does rock some serious Fresh Price of Bel Air meets Grace Jones afro realness. 

If you’re willing to check your logic in the overhead bin and keep your rolled eyes in the upright position, Non-Stop is harmless entertainment.

Movie Review ~ The LEGO® Movie

lego_movie_ver9
The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ordinary LEGO minifigure, mistakenly thought to be the extraordinary MasterBuilder, is recruited to join a quest to stop an evil LEGO tyrant from gluing the universe together.

Stars: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Nick Offerman, Alison Brie, Liam Neeson, Morgan Freeman

Director: Phil Lord, Chris Miller, Chris McKay

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The first preview for The LEGO® Movie gave me one heck of a headache…so much of a headache, in fact, that I questioned if I’d be able to sit through the full length film upon its release.  The filming style, a mixture of stop-motion and computer animation made to look like stop-motion, was a little too overwhelmingly retro for my tastes and I found myself wishing instead for a Lincoln Log drama instead of LEGO adventure.

After a recent screening of the assembled finished product I found myself desperate for an aspirin (or four) because while the film is endlessly creative and as weird as the day is long, it’s also one of the most overwhelming mind melters you’re likely to see stone cold sober.  I can’t say I liked the film enough to see it again because so much of it was BIGGER BOLDER LOUDER than it had to be but I also can’t rightly tell you not to see it either.

At 100 minutes long, the first 50 minutes plays like a Nintendo game on fast forward, barely stopping for air as it zips through introductions to our main character, an ordinary construction worker named Emmet (Chris Pratt, Her) that’s part of a futuristic society conformed to following instructions to be happy.  It’s a thinly veiled condemnation of our own society and how we follow the popular trends and are content to NOT stand out from the crowd.

Individuality is the lesson of the day kiddos and it’s a message the script from directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller makes abundantly clear as it points out all the ways that Emmet is a drone follower with nary a leadership bone in his plastic body. That all changes when he becomes attached to (literally) the  Piece of Resistance, a mystical object that has the potential to save the world from the evil President Business (Will Ferrell, The Internship, The Campaign) and his  plot to…well…do something that involves Krazy Glue.

Joining forces with a hip rebel (Elizabeth Banks, Walk of Shame, Man on a Ledge), her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett, The Nut Job), a wise sage (Morgan Freeman, Now You See Me, Oblivion), and a host of wacky LEGO creations, Emmet travels through several cleverly designed LEGO worlds as he overcomes his normalcy to save the world.  Listen up for nicely rendered vocal work from Jonah Hill (This is the End), Channing Tatum (Magic Mike), Liam Neeson (The Grey), Will Forte (Nebraska), Nick Offerman (We’re the Millers), and Charlie Day (Pacific Rim).

Just when I was starting to be won over by the good natured humor and laudable creativity Lord and Miller throw a curveball into the final act that was a heinous mistake.  Not only does it introduce a deus ex machina twist that makes little sense, it can’t maintain consistency with the new rules it set for itself.  It’s a disappointing misstep that unnecessarily breaks up the action, betrays the theme, and isn’t well executed.

Overall, the film is a mish-mash of wild ideas that work well 65% of the time with the other 35% teetering between eye rolling frustration with its brain-stem shaking animation.  I’m not quite sure who the target audience is either.  It’s too sophisticated a concept for small children, even if it does go over their head there are some scary moments they may recoil from (several unhappy children beat a hasty retreat in our theater) so parents should proceed with caution.  While I’ve no doubt it will open big, I get the sneaking suspicion the film will play better at midnight screenings down the road where potheads and hipsters alike will bask in the Crayola box colors on display and acid-trippy stylings.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Synopsis: A cowardly farmer seeks the help of a gunslinger’s wife to help him win back the woman who left him.

Release Date: May 30, 2014

Thoughts: Tough call, friends, tough call.  On the one hand, A Million Ways to Die in the West is headlined by Seth MacFarlane, a comedic presence that I’ve never really warmed to.  Complete annoyance as Oscar host aside, I’m not a devotee of Family Guy and felt Ted had some snuggle up and laugh moments but ultimately was a one-trick teddy bear of a film.  On the other hand, MacFarlane has assembled an impressive posse of actors that are worth their salt when it comes to wry comedy.  Charlize Theron didn’t get the credit she deserved for her bitingly funny turn in Young Adult so it’s nice to see her stretching her funny bone again.  While MacFarlane seems to be aiming for a next-gen Blazing Saddles, his go big or go home attitude assures us that like it or not this will rise or fall in a blaze of glory.