Movie Review ~ Lady of the Manor

The Facts:

Synopsis: An aimless ne’er-do-well becomes a tour guide in a historic estate and winds up befriending the manor’s resident ghost.

Stars: Melanie Lynskey, Judy Greer, Justin Long, Luis Guzmán, Ryan Phillippe, Patrick Duffy

Director: Justin Long and Christian Long

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (2.5/10)

Review:  This last month has been awfully good for ghosts…and it’s not even October yet.  You may recall that just a few short posts ago I gave a marginal thumbs up to the rather decent Afterlife of the Party, a Netflix film starring Victoria Justice that was pleasant in a goopy, Clorox-wiped clean sort of way.  I also broke the news that I’m a closet fan of these types of films where a ghost haunts a living human and either works with them or against them to right a wrong so they can rest in peace.  I’m sticking by that statement, even after being truly haunted by the presence of Lady of the Manor, another movie with some similar themes.  If you asked me two weeks ago which of these ghost movies I’d be less impressed with, I’d surely have said Afterlife of the Party based on who was involved with Lady of the Manor…sadly, this one is a D.O.A. P.O.S.

Remember when Justin Long dated Drew Barrymore and it was weird?  And weird only in the sense that Barrymore has always seemed like such an adult and Long has felt like a forever teenager so the pairing felt like a May-December romance that even though it was more like a May 12 and June 18 one?  Long clearly remembers it too because he’s cast the talented Melanie Lynskey in a role I have a hunch Barrymore would have played if they were still together (and possibly written with her in mind) and then asked her to emulate the kewpie doll mannerisms of the star so easy to imitate to seal the deal.  Even at a subconscious level, it’s impossible not to watch the movie without having Barrymore firmly in your mind and, not to take anything away from Lynskey, wonder if she’d have brought a tad more sparkle to the role.

Lynskey (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) plays Hannah, described in the press notes as a “ne’er-do-well” which is fancy talk for the lay about freeloader she is, occasionally delivering drugs via bike but too dim to even do that right.  When she’s mistaken for a sexual predator (cue an uncomfortable sequence involving pedophile jokes) she’s hauled off to prison where she’s dumped by her boyfriend and kicked to the curb.  As she drowns her sorrow at the local watering hole, she attracts the attention of spoiled lothario Tanner Wadsworth (an extremely puffy in the face Ryan Phillippe, Wish Upon) heir to the Wadsworth estate and recently tasked with its operations.  He’s in need of a new tour guide to dress like the former, you got it, lady of the manor and decides Hannah is the best one for the job.  Mostly, he just wants to sleep with her.

Before she knows it, Hannah has a new job that comes with a free place to live.  The only trouble is that the estate already has a permanent live-in guest (Judy Greer, Halloween) and she isn’t happy with the new arrival that’s loud, obnoxious, and brings with her a large supply of rubber bedroom toys named after famous movie stars.  Dead for a number of years, Lady Wadsworth still holds some values close to her heart and is horrified to see Hannah exhibit the type of extreme unladylike behavior that can only be found in a movie written and directed by men.  Where else can you see a childless female ghost murder victim from colonial times and a rudderless loser men use as little more than a sexual object discuss breaking wind and the best way to excuse yourself from the room when you have to let one rip?

When the validity of Lady Wadsworth’s will is questioned, Hannah will have to step up and help out her phantom friend (spoiler alert?  I mean, c’mon…you have to know they start to get along eventually) prove what her original intentions for her estate were before it falls into the wrong hands for good.  At the same time, Hannah balances a physical relationship with Tanner and something a bit sweeter with a local historian (Long, Tusk) who initially went on one of her disastrous tours.  I feel like I should at least mention Luis Guzmán (Guilty as Sin) seeing that he appears so high up in the credits but has little to do as a nameless bartender other than dry a few glasses and wipe down a counter or two while the main actors get sloppy drunk in front of him.  Surely there was more to this role…or was Guzmán visiting his friends on the set and they needed a last minute replacement?

There’s been a lot of fingers pointing lately toward movies that are deemed “more like TV movies” and the plot for Lady of the Manor is torn directly from the listings on Hallmark or Lifetime.  At its heart, it’s your typical ghost meets girl story and uncovering a not that interesting mystery is a way to spend the time while you reorganize your sock drawer.  Long not only stars in this but wrote and directed it with his brother Christian and it’s as if they took that vanilla plot and wiped their noses with it.  It’s such a snotty booger of a movie and takes every chance to go low with the cheapest possible jokes always seemingly the first choice.  Even blessed with someone comedically talented like Greer, the script favors gross-out humor and dialogue laced with trash talk – there’s little trust shown in the actors or the audience to find the comedy.

What’s most disappointing is that Long has been at this for so long now that you’d think for this first time up to bat he’d have something a bit more to offer, something better to represent him (and his family) on his debut.  Even if Barrymore had taken the lead from Lynskey (and, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with what Lynskey is doing, she deserves some sort of medal for surviving this train wreck) it wouldn’t have saved things because Lady of the Manor is just rotten, a few laughs along the way notwithstanding.

Movie Review ~ Midnight in the Switchgrass

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While in Florida on another case, FBI agents cross paths with a state cop who is investigating a string of female murders that appear to be related. When an undercover sting goes horribly wrong, it plunges the team into grave danger and pitting them against a serial killer in a twisted game of cat and mouse.

Stars: Megan Fox, Bruce Willis, Emile Hirsch, Lukas Haas, Colson Baker (aka Machine Gun Kelly), Caitlin Carmichael, Sistine Stallone

Director: Randall Emmett

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  I think we all need to stop and have some kind of memorial service for the Bruce Willis we once knew.  The Bruce Willis of the 1980’s and 1990’s who gave us some of the most memorable action movies out there.  The risk-taking Bruce Willis who went blonde for Luc Besson in The Fifth Element and went in the buff for Richard Rush in Color of Night.  This was the Bruce Willis married to Demi Moore who was part owner of Planet Hollywood and looked like he enjoyed making movies and being a member of the Hollywood A-List.  Scanning over the last several years of films on the IMDb credits for Willis, it’s clear this version of him is gone.

It’s hard to even call what Willis is doing in Midnight in the Switchgrass acting because he’s basically “present” in the film more than anything.  Sitting most of the time and only standing/moving in blink and you missed it moments, Willis has made a habit of this type of show-up-and-speak kind of roles that represent a sorry state of affairs for the actor that used to have so much pull in Hollywood.  If Midnight in the Switchgrass had been a better movie, this type of appearance might be just a minor bummer because you’d wish Willis had wanted to participate more.  Sadly, the movie is resoundingly terrible and now the lack of energy Willis shows in his appearance only signals what the audience will feel after sitting through this ungainly schlock which never figures out who the star is or what mood it wants to set.

Someone is abducting vulnerable women and leaving their bodies (not in the switchgrass!) along various roadways.  Pretty early on in Alan Horsnail’s leaden script, we find out that someone is truck driver/family man Peter (Lukas Haas, First Man, forever trying to extricate himself from his baby-faced child acting days) and his ugly, backward attitudes toward women (the ones he kills and otherwise) are laid on so thick you wonder if Horsnail is making a point or just exacerbating one.  His latest catch wanders out in a drug haze from a motel that also happens to be the site of an FBI sting operation originally set to trap him – what a coincidence.

Though she purposely set out to trap Peter, beautiful (but tough!) FBI agent Rebecca (Megan Fox, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) instead nabs a disgusting pimp (the equally disgusting Colson Baker aka Machine Gun Kelly, Fox’s real-life boyfriend) and their grueling matching of {nit}wits make an already lengthy first act set-up that much longer.  Sitting out in the car listening to all this and constantly threatening to “come in there!” is Karl (Willis, Glass), Rebecca’s partner who thinks she’s playing with fire tempting a killer out of hiding.

Also looking for the killer is state police office Byron (Emile Hirsch, The Autopsy of Jane Doe), who arrives at the scene of a victim and makes some stunning conclusions on motive and method having seen ¼ of the crime scene.  After promising the mother of the victim that he’ll find the killer, after sitting through her looooong story that is only important because it gives us the title reference, he ditches all other responsibilities (and his weepy wife played by Here After’s Jackie Cruz in a thankless role) and eventually teams up with Rebecca to track Peter down.  Doing some good old fashioned detective work, the film hits some sort of mild stride when the younger cops work together, only to be quickly flattened by a drawn-out finale that just sort of slumps over and gives up.

Director Randall Emmett makes his feature directorial debut after producing, wait for it, 119 movies, the bulk of those within the last 10 years.  Even the most prolific producer can’t have quality control over 20 good movies over 10 years…so that should tell you why there are multiple gaffes in the film, evidence of a shoddy production where even relatively smart actors like Fox and Hirsch get tripped up every now and then.  Recently on a redemptive streak and scoring in Till Death just a few weeks back, Fox is dragged down by the man in her life (Machine Gun Kelly) and her scene partner (Willis), both of whom give her little to work with.  When she’s left to her own devices, the movie at least gets somewhat interesting.  Hirsch oversells his role to the extreme, but at least he’s hawking something…even if he fully changes accents several times throughout the film and at one point even adopts a lisp for a brief scene. 

This is a cheap, stupid, pointless excuse of a film that represents nothing but $$$ for everyone involved.  It will keep the lights on in whatever lake cabin they have or perhaps an acting class or two for some of the local supporting cast that desperately need it.  It doesn’t meet the demands for the thriller genre and Midnight in the Switchgrass certainly won’t cut it as an action suspense picture.  I suggest firing up the lawnmower and cutting this weed down to the root.

Movie Review ~ Spiral: From the Book of Saw

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Working in the shadow of an esteemed police veteran, brash Detective Ezekiel “Zeke” Banks and his rookie partner take charge of a grisly investigation into murders that are eerily reminiscent of the city’s gruesome past.

Stars: Chris Rock, Samuel L. Jackson, Max Minghella, Marisol Nichols, Morgan David Jones, Frank Licari, Zoie Palmer

Director: Darren Lynn Bousman

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Sure, I’ve seen all of the films in the Saw series but with that particular franchise, it truly is a case where the old saying is true: when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  Though I enjoyed the original film from 2004 for its brazen methods of going all-out in its gory violence and clever narrative construction, the subsequent sequels were each like a new dub of the previous copy taken from an existing VHS master.  Each new entry got more and more distorted, the plots more convoluted, the acting less convincing, and the overall threads that tied the series together started to grow threadbare and snap.  By the time Saw: The Final Chapter sliced through theaters in 2010 (in 3D, natch), the viscous well had long since dried up.  When Jigsaw, a feeble attempt to shock the series back to life in 2017 during the swell of reboots failed to wake the dead, it seemed as if the plug had officially been pulled on the Saw franchise.

What happened next was a surprise to many.  Shortly after Jigsaw’s disappointing debut, Lionsgate found out they had a Saw fan in comedian Chris Rock and it just so happened the star was looking to get into the horror business.  Accepting Rock’s offer to provide a treatment to take the franchise on a new path, the studio lined up Saw II, III, and IV’s Darren Lynn Bousman (Mother’s Day) to direct and hired Piranha 3DD writers Josh Stolberg & Pete Goldfinger to flesh out Rock’s original storyline into the full feature length version that became known as Sprial.  Tacking From the Book of Saw onto the title to fully tie the new film to the existing world confirmed Spiral would be related to the original eight films and not a reboot, and suddenly the internet was abuzz wondering how Rock and newly announced co-star Samuel L. Jackson would work their way into the Saw universe.

Delayed from it’s October 2020 release due to the pandemic, Lionsgate opted to hold off on letting their twisted game out of the bag until now and it’s good they did because the Saw films are always something of an event to see on the big screen. (Note: I say that with full acknowledgement of the hypocrisy of my watching it via a screening link at home.)  Now, audiences would be forced to witness some of the series most gruesome death devices going full bore and wouldn’t be able to simply leave the room like they could if they viewed it from the safety of their living room.  Spiral was promised to be a film that was more of a mystery than the ghastly Grand Guignol torture nastiness the previous eight films had begun to wallow in.  What a bummer to report that it’s more than a little disappointing to see before the title card is even shown a man forced to choose between ripping out his own tongue or death by subway train.

Labeled a rat by his colleagues after testifying against his crooked partner, Detective Zeke Banks (Rock, The Witches) is going through a divorce and has a strained relationship with his father (Jackson, Shaft), a former police captain of his division.  Assigned by his ball-busting captain (Marisol Nichols, Scream 2) to mentor rookie William Schenk (Max Minghella, The Internship) their first case is a doozy: identifying a homeless man run over by a train using only the bloody pieces that were salvageable.  Having seen the prologue, we know these fleshy bits used to be someone quite different and the two detectives will soon receive their first clue from a creepy killer in a pig mask that will point them in the right direction. 

Once Banks and Schenk discover the man was a cop that Banks knew well, the dominos start to fall rapidly as other members from their precinct start to die in all sorts of terrible manners.  Could this be the workings of another disciple of the long-dead killer Jigsaw or is there a copycat using the murderers methods as a cover to enact their deadly game of revenge?  With clues pointing to suspects that wind up mincemeat, Banks is left to read between the lines and remember the past if he’s to save himself and his loved ones from a killer’s deadly plans for the future. 

Had Stolberg and Goldfinger’s script stuck to the mystery angle, Spiral could have been an interesting film that benefitted from its ham-fisted bit of social commentary it clumsily thumbtacks on at the end. (Oh, it’s so stagnant you’ll groan.)  I get the feeling Rock’s original idea was far less grandiose than what Spiral turned out to be and it took the extra attention of the writers (and maybe Bousman) to make this new film fit more into the lore of the Saw films.  How else could you explain some of the random shifts in tone from detective story to the grisly reveling in brutalization?  With the previous movies, this was expected because past the second sequel they truly had no central story that made them a mystery worth solving.  Bringing in Bousman also accounts for the movie having the look of a Saw film as well, with the jittery camera angles and overall grimy feel that permeated the vibe of earlier entries…there’s little to set this one apart from the others.  Bringing someone new in, like Universal did with the 2018 Halloween, would have been an inspired choice, though Bousman is no slough as a filmmaker.

It also just has to be said that for as brilliant a comedian as Rock is and as gifted a performer he is onstage, an actor he is most definitely not.  Rock’s performance is possibly the biggest problem with the film, aside from its profound reliance on useless profanity (and this is coming from someone with a sailor’s vocabulary), and in scene after scene he drags every other actor down just as they are trying to bring him up.  Not even Jackson can rescue Rock from himself, mostly because for all the attention his casting received, Jackson is barely in the movie.   The character is just unpleasant.  In the process of creating a new direction for the series, did no one remember to think up a leading man that audiences would enjoy as well? 

Even the solution to Spiral is met with sort of a indifference and the typical zip-zap-here-are-the-closing-credits wrap-up.  As much as the star, filmmakers, and studio touted Spiral as being different than what has come before, it is shockingly stuck in the past and falls into the same trap as the later sequels when the franchise was already on tenuous ground.  I expected a great deal more from all involved and if it’s true like one character says everything is in a spiral and comes back around, I’m hoping the next film really does return to what captured our attention back in 2004 when the game being played required more brains than…well, literal brains.

Movie Review ~ Above Suspicion

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: A newly married FBI agent is assigned to an Appalachian mountain town in Kentucky and drawn into an illicit affair with an impoverished local woman who becomes his star informant. She sees in him her means of escape; instead, it’s a ticket to disaster for both of them.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston, Johnny Knoxville, Thora Birch, Sophie Lowe, Austin Hébert, Karl Glusman, Chris Mulkey, Omar Benson Miller, Kevin Dunn, Brian Lee Franklin 

Director: Phillip Noyce 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 104 minutes 

TMMM Score: (6/10) 

Review:  I’m the first to admit that it’s taken me a while to buy a ticket on the Emilia Clarke train.  I’m likely one of the last people to have avoided playing the Game of Thrones, I’ve yet to be completely won over by Clarke’s charms in films like Me Before You and Last Christmas, nor was I convinced she was destined to be an action heroine by Terminator: Genisys or Solo: A Star Wars Story.  I just wasn’t seeing a star there like most people did.  In the end, what I needed was a movie like Above Suspicion to turn my head and finally notice there was an actress with some depth there…and unfortunately this time she’s the best thing about the film. 

That’s partly due to strength of Clarke’s performance as Susan Smith which, through no fault of her own, winds up overshadowing everyone else in the film.  She sets a high bar for commitment: to the look, the accent, the demeanor, everything is considered and casts a believable picture of the local high-school dropout and sometime drug abuser.  Living in a cramped double wide with her drug dealing ex-husband (a bedraggled Johnny Knoxville, We Summon the Darkness) and a menagerie of rogue deplorables while raising their two children, Smith busies herself with small-time crimes like check fraud to help her stay afloat. Smith senses an opportunity for change when she hears new FBI agent Mark Putnam (Jack Huston, The Longest Ride) is working with the town’s law enforcement (Austin Hébert, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) to ferret out who has been robbing rural banks. 

Armed with firsthand knowledge of the culprit and not unwilling to give up names in exchange for payment, Smith’s informant relationship with Putnam escalates quickly to a physical level, even as she befriends his new wife Kathy (Sophie Lowe) at the same time.  However, once Agent Putnam has what he needs from Smith she becomes more of a liability than an asset and as her usefulness wanes, so does his interest in her on an intimate level.  With Putnam moving on and leaving Smith to deal with the fallout from the town who now views her as a snitch, she becomes desperate to either get her man back or make sure his success is short lived.

Little more than a juiced up made for television movie about the real-life scandal that rattled a small Kentucky town in 1988, Above Suspicion should work on screen as well as it does on the page.  Based on Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name and adapted by Chris Gerolmo, who penned Mississippi Burning, it’s hard to fathom this tale of an FBI agent’s affair with his informant that led to murder could ever be called lackluster but absent in overall polish it certainly is.  Surprisingly, it’s directed by Phillip Noyce who is no slouch when it comes to putting together a crackerjack thriller with films like Dead Calm, Patriot Games, The Bone Collector, or heck, even the severely compromised 1993 Sharon Stone film Sliver to his credit.

The whole film feels flat and even though cinematographer Elliot Davis (Love the Coopers) captures some beautiful Appalachian scenery, he has a curious obsession with filming Clarke on a diagonal tilt and it doesn’t make the rest of the movie have any more depth to it.  It just makes you cock your head to one side in all of her close-ups.  Clarke is also underserved by Huston as her co-star, with the two exhibiting zero of the chemistry necessary to create the kind of heat that would convince us of the passion that burned hot but cooled dramatically once Putnam, a clear opportunist, saw something shinier ahead of him.  Huston plays the endgame at the outset, leaving little room for his characterization to grow having one foot out Smith’s door from the beginning. 

If there’s one actor that feels like a match for Clarke, it’s Lowe as Putnam’s short-suffering wife.  Not being married that long, Kathy Putnam already seems to understand that her husband is a flawed man who will need constant attention throughout their union.  Lowe brings a brittleness to the role that doesn’t stem from being a jilted wife but from being resentful of having to do all the hard work with her husband while Smith gets him for the fun parts.  Together, Clarke and Lowe share some excellent scenes that spark with the kind of liveliness the rest of the film really needed.  Popping up in a brief role, so brief I have to believe more of it was left on the cutting room floor, Thora Birch (Hocus Pocus) is Clarke’s bouffant-coiffed beautician sister that I wanted additional time with.  Sadly, the script favors more scenes between Putnam and Smith that just rehash the same arguments over and over again on why they can’t be together. Point taken, point made.

Originally intended for release in 2019, Above Suspicion fell victim to the delays of the pandemic and is flying below the radar into theaters before joining the other generic-named titles in the Redbox machines at your local gas station.  The entertainment value is marginal, and it’s mostly due to Clarke and some high production values that keep the film buoyed for most of it’s average running time.  Is it a total wash? No, nothing about tips the scales so much that I would say to skip it but thinking about how a tweak in the casting or even adjustments in performances could have helped up the ante just makes me wish I’d seen that better movie instead.

Movie Review ~ The Virtuoso

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Danger, deception, and murder descend upon a sleepy country town when a professional assassin accepts a new assignment from his enigmatic mentor and boss, given only a cryptic clue to identify his mysterious mark from among several possible targets.

Stars: Anson Mount, Abbie Cornish, Anthony Hopkins, Eddie Marsan, David Morse

Director: Nick Stagliano

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Wow, do you think the producers and distributors of The Virtuoso went to bed this past Oscar Sunday a little more excited for the prospects of their small thriller?  Prior to that day they had an Oscar winning star listed above the title but thanks to his unforgettable performance in The Father star Anthony Hopkins earned himself another one and under some fairly high-profile circumstances.  That will surely get people a little more interested in his next project and while The Virtuoso isn’t top tier stuff (I’m not sure it ever quite makes it to second shelf status, actually) it’s good for a little distraction in our post-Oscar palette cleanse.

It’s really not even fair to say Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) has much of a role in the film; ads show him as much more involved in the action than the 83-year-old actually is or would probably want to be.  Instead, Hopkins’ scenes are largely contained within one room and constitute one half of phone conversations between himself and The Virtuoso (Anson Mount, Non-Stop), a nameless assassin.  As The Mentor, he’s there to provide The Virtuoso with information on his next assignment and stay out of the way, which seems to be the perfect fit for the distinguished actor as well as the natty gentlemen he’s playing. 

Opening with a nifty bang, things go south for the hitman when he bungles an assignment that leaves an unfortunate instance of collateral damage.  He’s trained not to care about such blips but something about this moment shakes him, sending The Mentor in for a face-to-face meeting to check on his viability moving forward.  Cleared for his next task, The Mentor sends him to a quiet township in the middle of nowhere important with the vaguest of clues provided by their contact.  With two words, White Rivers, his only cue to go off of and a rendezvous location named, The Virtuoso arrives in town to find he isn’t the only one to show up with a mission to kill. 

There’s some good stuff to be found in the basic premise of the script from James C. Wolf, even if it annoyingly tends to favor voiceover to get us inside The Virtuoso’s head.  Narrating the film to give us outsiders his inside take on every situation and angle of defense, The Virtuoso isn’t exactly the most engaging of narrators thanks to his occupational hazard of removing emotion from his business.  In Mount’s hands, or voice rather, it does begin to drone on and sound like an adult character from Peanuts after a while.  You wish Wolf or director Nick Stagliano would have found an easier way to crack the surface and allow some sort of sentiment or personality into The Virtuoso’s hemisphere.  Where the voiceover comes in handy is when he’s sizing up who has also appeared at the same time he’s arrived, and his rundown of the suspects is one of the first ways the movie sends us down a tricky path that isn’t always what it appears to be. Even with our leading character serving as narrator, don’t trust everything you’re hearing.

The list of suspects fills out the remainder of the cast.  There’s The Waitress (Abbie Cornish, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) who catches The Virtuoso’s eye just out of town and winds up being a happy accident run-in later on.  Still…was their meeting by chance or a carefully plotted bit of intrigue?  Or what about The Loner (Eddie Marsan, Atomic Blonde) or Handsome Johnnie (Richard Brake, Spy) or even The Deputy (David Morse, Concussion) who The Waitress doesn’t remember seeing before today.  All provide their own contributions to the puzzle we’re putting together at the same time The Virtuoso is and I don’t know if I wasn’t paying attention or what but the solution to it all is truly there from the beginning.  Careful viewers could catch it if they are looking at the right time.

As far as blank stares go, Mount has it down so his casting likely is perfect though I’d wonder what an actor able to convey greater range with such little outward dialogue could have done.  Cornish earns points for committing to a gratuitous nude scene but scores the most in the way she’s able to keep a poker face far longer than we might expect from the character. How much his recent Oscar win will get people to check this one out is anyone’s guess but if they do, they’ll be treated to an all-in Hopkins performance and not merely a quick money grab like a number of his peers are starting to sign up for (I’m looking at you, Morgan Freeman and Vanquish from a few weeks back.)  Hopkins delivers the single best scene in the entire film and it’s a doozy of a monologue.  If you haven’t already, follow The Virtuoso up with The Father and watch his masterful skill really go to town. 

Movie Review ~ Vanquish

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother is trying to put her dark past as a Russian drug courier behind her, but a retired cop forces her to do his bidding by holding her daughter hostage.  Now, she’ll use guns, guts, and a motorcycle to take out a series of violent gangsters — or she may never see her child again

Stars: Morgan Freeman, Ruby Rose, Patrick Muldoon, Julie Lott, Ekaterina Baker, Nick Vallelonga, Joel Michaely, Miles Doleac

Director: George Gallo

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (0/10)

Review:  It’s a good thing screeners for Vanquish were sent out so far in advance of its mid-April release because I’ve legitimately needed a solid three weeks to process just how bad the movie is.  Honestly, that may sound extreme, but you obviously haven’t seen this sorry excuse for an action thriller yet.  I’m hoping to turn you toward something more entertaining, like lying on a bed of discarded dentures watching an army of ants carry away a breadcrumb soaked in root beer.  Movies (and Oscar-winning acting careers) don’t get much more crud-tastic than this and if you aren’t popping your third Aleve after the headache inducing lighting and camera work by the time this is all over, there should be some ice cream coupon digital reward for your efforts. 

Once upon a time, seeing Academy Award winner and everyone’s favorite disembodied voice Morgan Freeman’s name attached to a film meant something.  If it wasn’t exactly clout, then it was that the production had something interesting going for it that attracted Freeman to sign on.  Other than the fact that he gets to sit for the entire film, I’m not sure why Freeman is co-starring as a retired cop playing mind games with a former drug runner who happens to be his housekeeper (or cook? It’s never clear but cleaning and cooking are mentioned, though lead Ruby Rose doesn’t show up to his unfurnished house dressed to do either.)  Instead, Freeman (Lucy) literally cools his heels for 96 minutes and totally tanks his reputation in writer/director George Gallo’s insanely gaudy and lurid female John Wick-ish wannabe flopparoo.   

The phrase “you know you’re in trouble from the start” is used often but it’s right on the money in the case of Vanquish because the credits alone tell you everything you need to know on the quality of the film about to unfold.  Clocking it at a zombifying six minutes and featuring some of the poorest photoshopping of old Freeman photos into fake newspaper stories that look like a fourth-grade book report only less literate, I stopped counting the number of times they used the same press photo from a previous Freeman film.  If you want to add some extra hilarity to your night, pause and read some of the headline gems. All sound like they were lifted directly out of Babelfish translator from one foreign language into English.  None of them read quite right.

This jumps into Gallo’s tacky, neon-colored fantasy version of (I think) Los Angeles, though I’m not sure it’s ever explicitly stated, where ex-cop Freeman sets up his personal care attendant (Rose, The Meg) to gather a wealth of cash from a series of rogue criminals, and not very nicely holding her daughter (cast with a young actress that appears incredibly tired the entire film) as collateral.  Obtain all the money for him and his goomba associates (played by the most offensively stereotypical and dumb character actors that obviously called in a favor to maintain their Screen Actors Guild benefits) and she and her daughter will go free.  Ah…but never get between a woman with a buzzcut and her child, especially one that decided to get out of the business, has successfully stayed clean, and doesn’t like to be pushed around. 

Described in the press notes as “glossy and stylized”, I’d describe Gallo’s vision as “syrupy and trite”, offering nothing of value either in the directing or writing categories.  Whatever mileage could have been gained from the very playable set-up of mother fighting back against all odds and punishing the vile men that put her in this position is lost among the noise of terrible filmmaking and worse acting.  This includes Freeman who doesn’t look like he doesn’t know what’s going on – he knows exactly what movie he’s in and decided to do it anyway.  He rightly blows every scene partner he has out of the water (poor Rose is practically mush when he’s through with her) but it’s such a surreally weird performance for Freeman to have taken that you spend most of the film wondering if Freeman simply saw the paycheck and signed on to the script sight unseen. 

Consider that Rose was once supposed to be the next thing and then take a look at the work being done here.  Strange line readings and emotions that are, misplaced would be putting it nicely.  As in the recent S.A.S. Red Notice, she’s decent when it comes to the non-dialogue action scenes but strap yourself in anytime she starts to act as that’s when the big trouble begins.  Thinking of how many strong female stars Freeman had shared the screen with and then watching him try to work his way through a scene with Rose and it’s almost laughable.  For an even more depressing thought, consider there is a double Oscar-winner Nick Vallelonga (producer and writer of 2018’s Green Book) playing a hammy supporting character (also terribly) present and realize that Freeman’s Oscar status is still likely the only one that will be discussed in the bad reviews for the film.  Then again, when the performance of Freeman ranks significantly lower than the one he gave several months earlier in a cameo as an animatronic crab in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, there’s clearly a big problem to solve. 

I cannot overstate what a flaming piece of garbage Vanquish is.  Every piece of the production is terrible.  Direction, writing, production, acting, music, cinematography…all awful.  Even the costume design looks like it was done via a straw poll between the actors.  What a pity as well because this one could have had some decent traction with better stars and a new director.  Alas, no, it is what it is and it is heinous. Vanquish is it named and vanquished from your must-see list it should be. 

Available in Select Theaters on April 16th and on Apple TV, and Everywhere You Rent Movies on April 20th
Available on Blu-ray and DVD on April 27th

Movie Review ~ Voyagers

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the future of the human race at stake, a group of young men and women embark on an expedition to colonize a distant planet. But when they uncover disturbing secrets about the mission, they defy their training and begin to explore their most primitive natures.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Lily-Rose Depp, Tye Sheridan, Fionn Whitehead, Archie Madekwe, Chanté Adams, Quintessa Swindel, Madison Hu, Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Viveik Kalra

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: It’s an odd thing to look over the IMDb credits for director Neil Burger and see just how many of his films have found eerie similarities in other work.  Though it technically came out first, 2006’s The Illusionist is often dwarfed in memory by Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige which also featured dueling magicians and a woman that causes trouble between them.  The surprise 2011 hit Limitless may have secured some box office clout for Bradley Cooper but it had all the calling cards of a Luc Besson film just without the Frenchman’s guts to go truly wild.  Burger was behind the start of the Divergent series which was on shaky legs even in 2014 when it suffered big time comparisons to The Hunger Games, and this was before it released two more Burger-less sequels that were so bad they didn’t bother to even make the last movie.  Remaking the French blockbuster The Intouchables as The Upside in 2017 seemed like a ghastly prospect but while Burger’s take was harmless it made so much money that who directed it didn’t seem to matter much.

That brings us to Voyagers, which won’t remind you so much of any movie you’ve seen recently but perhaps a book you may have trotted out during quarantine.  Plenty of reviews of Burger’s new sci-fi yarn will correctly label it as Lord of the Flies set in space but to just put it in that ready-made box is doing a disservice to William Golding’s 1954 morality barometer disguised as a dystopian novel as well as this Lionsgate production which is entertainment at its coldest and most obvious.  Yes, it follows an uprising that divides two factions of young adults left to fend for themselves in a solitude from which there is no hope of escape, but Burger doesn’t forget what his job is in this concoction.  His audience isn’t at home under the covers reading a browning paperback by flashlight.  They’re in a theater (if you’re into that kind of thing being fully vaccinated and/or masked up) where this film opens on Friday or, as Voyagers will be in several weeks, in their homes waiting for the fun to begin.

With the Earth’s resources being depleted at a rapid rate, scientists continue to explore the boundaries of space for signs that there could be another planet humans could survive on.  Forty years from now, that planet is found but it will take another 86 years to get there.  A crew will need to be assembled to travel to this new world and report back what they find, but due to the time it will take to get there the crew that starts out the mission won’t be the ones that actually make the discovery…their grandchildren will.  Unable to find a crew of thirty to make that commitment, the team behind the mission resort to conceiving them via IVF with, ahem, contributions from the best and brightest minds of the day.

Watching over these children as they grow (literally) is Richard (Colin Farrell, Dumbo) a scientist that winds up being the sole chaperone when the young crew finally enter space and begin their journey.  Ten years later, the group are now teens that go about their daily ship business with a detached efficiency that’s only upset after Christopher (Tye Sheridan, Mud) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead, Dunkirk) stop taking ‘the blue’, a daily dose of liquid they discover has a mood controlling and sensory dulling drug added in.  Free to finally feel for the first time, the rest of the squad follows suit including Sela (Lily-Rose Depp, Tusk) the pretty chief medical officer that’s both a confidant to Richard and his bridge to the other teens.  Sela also begins to catch the eye of the newly hormonal Christopher and Zac, both fueled by alpha male frustration that’s built up for quite some time. 

After an accident leaves them stranded, on their own, and unable to communicate with Earth, at first the niceties of protocol are followed until Zac and others (including Midsommar’s Archie Madekwe) realize that no one is going to hold them accountable for stepping out of line.  They’ve been bred to produce and that’s all so why not take as much as they want, when they want it, while they can?  This pits former friends against one another and forces all to take sides.  The wider the division gets, the larger the danger of everyone losing in the end becomes.   

It’s easy to be a bit confused by Voyagers at first glance.  The trailers make it look like a clunky C-list castoff you’d settle on when all else fails and the poster gives off the impression it’s more of an erotic trip into teen space angst.  So I was surprised that the first half of the film gets off to a rather crackling start, luring the audience in with an engaging premise and laying the groundwork for an intriguing mystery that might factor into the plot (I won’t spoil it).  Burger takes his time with things…at first.  Rather suddenly, however, the rushing begins and the time between realization and full on knowledge of the facts shortens considerably for everyone in the film.  Everyone just seems to “know” what things mean the moment they see them, or if they don’t, they understand it quickly and these leaps are more for the plot to continue to make haste than anything else.

It’s also a bit uncomfortable to watch the teens embrace their hormones with such vigor – one character goes from touching a girl’s shoulder to pretty much honking her breast in an instant.  I know none of them have experienced these sensations before, but have they never read a book or learned about etiquette?  It’s like the scientists taught the boys everything but how not to fondle girls and taught the women all about plant hydroponics yet skipped over the “no means no” conversation.  The male dominance of it all was a bit suffocating and if Burger had just given one female a bit of the nasty business to do instead of relegating it all to the guys it might have come off better.  As it is, the females become galactic wallpaper, aside from the standout Chanté Adams (Bad Hair) as a strict-rule follower that won’t be silenced by the bullies that have risen to power.  While we’re talking about the cast, Sheridan comes across like he always does…perfectly fine but terribly shallow.  If you ask me, Depp reminds me more of her model turned actress mother Vanessa Paradis than her much in the news Oscar-nominated father, and that’s not a bad thing in the least.  The standout in the cast is Whitehead who achieves a goal of creating an oily villain that you can easily root against – none of this ‘redeeming quality’ nonsense.

Despite some sag in the middle which shows some areas where the 108-minute film could be trimmed a bit, Burger gets to a fairly lively final act quite nicely.  While the effects aren’t going to win any awards, for a film of this size and with a cast of this caliber (no shade here, all are decent and acquit themselves nicely in roles that carry troublesome moments throughout) they mostly look good but I’d imagine they’d appear crisper in a theatrical setting.  For fans of sci-fi or space like myself, Voyagers is a worthy watch but know that it’s purely surface level material that is good for a distraction and little more. 

Movie Review ~ The Courier

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Cold War spy Greville Wynne and his Russian source try to put an end to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Iva Šindelková, Željko Ivanek

Director: Dominic Cooke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: At first glance, you may be wondering why an espionage drama with an accent on the drama was opening in theatrical release during a pandemic the same weekend a major superhero movie was debuting on a streaming service at home.  Wouldn’t most audiences be otherwise engaged devouring the much-anticipated arrival of the four-hour epic that is Zack Snyder’s Justice League, especially after the reviews were deservedly glowing?  Ah…but let’s not forget the art of counterprogramming because I think Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, the studio and distributor behind The Courier, was going for everyone else who weren’t comic book inclined and up for something a little less gargantuan.  It’s a smart move to match a surprisingly smart film, one that is far better than its staid title and dusty looking premise would otherwise imply.

I’ll be upfront and say that these murky spy thrillers are becoming slightly old hat to me, especially after seeing them done so well in stalwarts like any of the early James Bond films, 1973’s The MacKintosh Man, or even in homegrown films such as Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View.  Heck, even Benedict Cumberbatch, the star of The Courier, has had his run at the spy game before in 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or in his 2014 Oscar Nominated role as Alan Turing in the WWII tale The Imitation Game.  Last year’s A Call to Spy was dismally dull and I half expected The Courier to turn out in much the same way: dry and demanding of your rapt attention with not a lot to show for it all when the lights come up.

So it was refreshing to find almost from the start there is a palpable current of energy running through the film.  It’s subtle, and the movie couldn’t ever be classified as suspense-driven or even ramped up enough to get your pulse racing (unless you get all a flutter seeing Cumberbatch’s bare backside), but it’s there and it separates The Courier from the rest of the pack.  That’s what also elevates the story of English businessman Greville Wynne’s involvement with MI6 during the early days of the Cuban Missile Crisis from coming off as a forgotten footnote during an important historical incident.  Screenwriter Tom O’Connor and Dominic Cooke aim to inform but don’t forget the entertainment part of moviemaking at the same time.

When USSR military intelligence agent Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze) reaches out to the American embassy via a covert coded message with news that current leader Nikita Khrushchev is fast-tracking nuclear plans that would lead to war, MI6 and the CIA step in.  Their goal: find a way to pass information back and forth with Penkovsky to obtain precise information that will prevent Europe and the US from entering a high stakes battle with the Soviet Union.  Recognizing they need someone the Russians wouldn’t suspect but who could also handle the assignment, Wynne’s name is floated due to his business dealings throughout Europe.  At first, the upstanding Brit needs some convincing, but when reminded of the whole Queen and country pledge, he agrees and begins traveling back and forth to meet with Penkovsky.  Keeping both of their wives unaware of their dealings, the men strike up a friendship over time, and this personal relationship begins to threaten their overall mission, alliances, and allegiance when Khrushchev’s secret police get a whiff that a mole has burrowed its way in.

After a not-so-great showing in The Mauritanian back in February, Cumberbatch is back in the groove, nicely tuning into Wynne’s businessman persona at the outset of the film and letting the weight of the deception start to chip away at him over time.  The lies he tells his wife (an underused but still powerful Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) threaten to destroy the peaceful life he had previously held at home.  While he serves his country gladly, the aftereffects and extraordinary price Wynne will pay may be too great to come back from.  On the other side of the border, Ninidze is a strong counterpart to Cumberbatch as a father and husband with his own set of secrets to hide.  Struggling with similar fears that spring from seeing traitors executed in front of his eyes, he knows what’s in store for him if he’s caught.  The film largely belongs to the two men, but aside from Buckley there’s a very Mrs. Maisel-y performance from Rachel Brosnahan (I’m Your Woman) as a CIA handler and an always welcome appearance from Željko Ivanek (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) as Brosnahan’s superior.

What a pleasant surprise to find this nifty little package being delivered with some confident finesse during an extended awards season that’s seen all types of overly earnest films sputter out.  Originally seen at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival under the title Ironbark (a much better title taken from a code name that’s used by one of the operatives), it was filmed in 2018 and finally seeing a release now.   Though it’s not eligible for anything and definitely isn’t going to be on the radar for next year’s haul, it’s a strong showing for everyone involved and a worthy way to spend two hours.  I can’t quite recommend running out to theaters to catch The Courier but when it arrives for home viewing I would encourage you to give this one a spin.  Wynne’s involvement in the civilian spy business is fascinating to learn about and is carried off well by a cast and production team that funnels their energy and resources in the right direction – and it makes all the difference for an audience to understand the subtleties between a story that is told once and one that bears retelling in the future.

Movie Review ~ Chaos Walking

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two unlikely companions embark on a perilous adventure through the badlands of an unexplored planet as they try to escape a dangerous and disorienting reality, where all inner thoughts are seen and heard by everyone.

Stars: Daisy Ridley, Tom Holland, Mads Mikkelsen, Demián Bichir, Cynthia Erivo, Nick Jonas, David Oyelowo, Kurt Sutter, Ray McKinnon

Director: Doug Liman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know, folks, there may be some trouble keeping Tom Holland on the A-List if these past few weeks at the movies have been any indication.  It’s no wonder the hype machine on the third Spider-Man movie (titled Spider-Man: No Way Home, due later this year) surprisingly kicked into high gear right around the time the blistering review for Holland’s Apple TV+ film Cherry started popping up.  Just two weeks later, Holland has a new project coming out and another reason for his team to be sweating.  I can only imagine what bit of Spider-Man news will come out this weekend to direct attention away from the news that Chaos Walking is another dud from Holland, though this time it’s not entirely his fault.

This long in the works adaptation of the first book in a trilogy of YA novels by Patrick Ness published in 2008, it’s not shocking in the least why Chaos Walking struggled to get off the ground over the years.  Arriving on the scene in the midst of a number of other popular series for teens being adapted into movies with more of an adult slant, a fair share of high-profile writers tried their hand at the script before it finally wound up back with Ness who gave it a final polish.  At one point, Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis was circling the project and while that might have been an interesting route to take, I actually think the director Lionsgate wound up with, Doug Liman, is a solid choice.  Responsible for admirable work like The Bourne Identity and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is no stranger to complex narrative or impressive visuals so he wouldn’t have struggled with bringing to life a world that has unique characteristics while not getting too deep in the fantasy of it all.

Two hundred years in the future on another planet called, of course, New World, is the small settlement of Prentisstown, named after the malevolent mayor (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale) who presides over the entirely male population.  All of the females of the group were killed by the Spackle, native inhabitants to the planet that descended on the group one day not long after the settlers arrived on the planet, around the same time both genders discovered the planet gave them the ability to hear and sometimes even see the thoughts of other men.  The women’s thoughts, however, were hidden. These thoughts on display came to be called “Noise”.  While the book has the luxury of explaining this phenomenon in detail, the movie skirts the subject fairly quickly so we’re left with a “that’s that, move on” sort of attitude, not that we can ever hear the “Noise” that clearly thanks to the sound design being so muffled throughout.

Too young at the time of her death, Todd Hewitt (Holland, The Impossible) never knew his mother but is aware she trusted Ben (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight) and Cillian (Kurt Sutter, writer of Southpaw & creator of Sons of Anarchy) to care for him as his adoptive parents after she was taken.  So he spends his days trying to suppress his Noise while helping on Ben and Cillian’s humble farm.  He’s returning from the field one day when he sees something he’s never encountered before but only heard about…a girl.  Crash landing on the planet as part of the Second Wave, Viola (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) is the only survivor from her crew and needs Todd’s help to find a communication device to contact her ship so they know she made it and won’t abandon their mission.  However, Viola’s arrival uncovers a deadly secret from the history of Prentisstown that a number of people, including the town’s holy man (David Oyelowo, The Midnight Sky) would just as soon stay buried.  Pursued by those he formerly trusted, Todd and his dog Manchee accompany Viola to the far ends of New World where they’ll discover more truths about Noise, New World, and each other.

To his credit, Ness has laid a groundwork for a series that has potential.  So why is Chaos Walking so decidedly unexciting in its action and unmoving at its core?  Much of that comes down to what I think are simple logistics; nothing in the movie ever works in harmony so you have, essentially, chaos throughout.  The acting doesn’t seem to gel with the script, finding some of the cast exceling by tuning in their performances and taking the material for what it is and nothing more (like Ridley who got good at that working on the Star Wars films) while others take it too far in the other direction, working so hard to uncover what’s not there that they wind up totally blank themselves (sorry, Mr. Holland).  The simplistic, truncated script doesn’t seem to work with the style of movie Liman wants to make, either.  Liman’s action sequences are the best parts of the movie without question but they’re few and far between and never turn the dial up far enough so that you feel like any stakes are raised.

Chaos Walking also has a very bad habit of letting the focus fall on the wrong people for too long and forgetting (sometimes entirely) about characters that were introduced as important.  I won’t say who, but there’s one character played by an Oscar-nominated performer who never gets a final scene, so we have no idea what happened to them.  The last time we saw them, they may have been in danger but Liman and Ness never make it clear which way the teeter was tottering. It’s unfair to leave people hanging like that.  Also, the movie commits a cardinal sin that you simply do not do if you want a compassionate audience to remain even the slightest bit on your side.  Again, I don’t give out spoilers but if you’re paying attention to who goes with Viola on her journey you might be able to guess what said sin is.  And it’s not pretty.  It’s a cheap movie device that screenwriters should find a way out of using because it’s expected and, when it happens, only serves to show the inherent weakness in creative thought for how to motivate your hero/heroine.

Before I forget, we have to circle back to Ridley and Holland again.  Though Ridley manages to come out slightly unscathed here, there’s still a bit of a wonder why she’s back in this neo-sci-fi work so close to the end of her tenure in Star Wars.  If I were her agent, I’d be steering her away from these types of roles in favor of work that is completely different, so she isn’t pigeonholed.  Ridley is a solid actress but there isn’t much for her to work with, but at least she’s able to fashion it into something not totally goofy.  The same can’t be said for Holland who is reduced to muttering most of his lines (turn the subtitles on, you’ll thank me), many of which are descriptions rather than actual sentences, so he comes off like he’s just verbally pointing out things. “Yellow Hair” “Girl” “Pretty” “Bug” “Girl” “Pretty”.  Could another actor have fixed this?  Maybe not, but Holland seems more confused with what to do than anything… all the way up to flashing his bare bottom while fishing for his dinner.  The scene feels there to wake up anyone that might have been about to doze off.

Though this is based on the first book in a trilogy I’d be amazed if Chaos Walking performs well enough to warrant a sequel and it seems as if the filmmakers knew that too.  Thankfully, while the door is clearly open for a continuation, the ending can be interpreted in a number of different ways depending on how you’re approaching the film.  As a fan of the novels, I’m sure you’ll see the possibilities of what’s to come.  If you are new to the series and were entertained, could be that now you are invested and are crossing your fingers they can get Ridley and Holland back together again to finish the story.  However, my camp is the one that gets to the end and is ready to walk on past any more installments.  It doesn’t walk, nor run, nor jump, nor fly…Chaos Walking merely limps along, disappointingly so.

Movie Review ~ Wrong Turn (2021)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Despite warnings to stick to the Appalachian Trail, hikers stray off course and cross into land inhabited by a hidden community of mountain dwellers who use deadly means to protect their way of life.

Stars: Charlotte Vega, Matthew Modine, Emma Dumont, Bill Sage, Daisy Head, Adain Bradley, Tim DeZarn, Dylan McTee

Director: Mike P. Nelson

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Like them or not, you have to give a certain amount of credit to anyone attempting to reboot a popular film franchise for their sheer chutzpah.  Going beyond the mere land of the sequel where you are tasked with continuing on the thread of characters and staying as true as you can to what has been established in previous installments, to reboot means to really start from scratch and that can be scarier than any madman in a mask chasing after a nubile teen with a knife.  Now, you have the fate of the future essentially in your hands so you better know what you’re doing or else the fans will come to get you and let me tell you a truth universally known by many doomed directors hoping to kickstart their own bloodline using a beloved series: a loyal fan is a hard gnat to swat.

What’s always energizing to find is a situation like we have with this reboot of the 2003 minor hit Wrong Turn.  While the original was a decently conceived and executed bloody cut ‘em up that did well enough to spawn five sequels (including one attempt at a reboot already) that went direct to video, it wasn’t exactly a classic destined for historical preservation.  The intriguing bit of trivia here, and what should catch the attention of devotees to the Wrong Turn lineage, is that the story and screenplay come from Alan B. McElroy who wrote the initial film.  How often does an individual responsible for the creation of a series that hasn’t been heard from in a while come back and willingly start again, jettisoning nearly everything that’s been built over the past two decades and offer a fresh idea?

Now, I can’t say for sure if McElroy (who also wrote Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, one of my favorite sequels in that franchise) had always planned this new Wrong Turn or if he hadn’t already worked out this plotline for another potential movie all together that just happened to be similar to his first hit.  Whatever the case, I’m glad the folks that owned the rights to the title came knocking because McElroy has found a clever way to begin again without doing any harm to the memory of the six films already containing a whole world created from his spare plot elements.  If anything, it allows both those films and this new take to co-exist independently from one another and I think fans of the original are going to find a lot has gone right for this new Wrong Turn.

Scott Shaw (Matthew Modine, Pacific Heights) has come to Wrenwood, Virginia for answers.  Over six weeks ago, his daughter Jen (Charlotte Vega) and five of her friends came through the sleepy town on their way to the Appalachian Trail for an innocuous hike as part of a longer road trip.  They haven’t been heard from since.  The town police offer no help nor do they seem to be interested in upsetting the ‘look the other way vibe’ Scott keeps picking up from the locals.  Only an otherwise tight-lipped owner of the tiny inn has an inkling of what might have happened to his daughter and her companions…and the prospects aren’t good.  As the film flashes back six weeks, we’ll see how right she is.

Largely an easy-going sextet of travelers not out to stir up trouble, Charlotte, her boyfriend Darius (Adain Bradley), loud-mouth Adam (Dylan McTee), medical student Milla (Emma Dumont, Inherent Vice) and boyfriends Gary (Vardaan Arora) and Luis (Adrian Favela) just want to get out into nature and explore the beauty of the land.  Looking for any final tips from the locals, their host at their lodging (who becomes an ally to Scott six weeks later) just advises them to “Stay on the trail.”  Of course, once they get too far to turn back Darius tells them about an abandoned Civil War fort that’s not too far off the well-marked trail and like clockwork it isn’t long before they’ve ventured into a part of the forest that’s already well occupied.

Instead of the greasy backwoods hicks the doomed youngins met up with in the first film, Charlotte and the gang wander into something far more sophisticated and long-standing and that’s something that deftly sets this Wrong Turn apart from the others.  Protecting their space and the privacy of their way of life is key and this “foundation” have the macabre traps to show they mean business.  As the numbers of the hikers dwindle, director Mike P. Nelson and McElroy capably change the gears of the film several times into different levels of suspense, nearly all to good effect.  There’s enough carnage to satisfy the gore hounds with some ingeniously nasty deaths and well-done make-up effects as well as a balanced amount of suspense leading up to these shocks.  For the most part, the movie lets you get to know everyone before it finds a way to send them to their maker.  While it clocks in at a lengthy 111 minutes (even the credits are worth sitting through for a bit), it doesn’t feel like it overstays its welcome or has the kind of filler that stretches out an already thin idea.  More often than not, McElroy and Nelson find ways to keep us engaged.

The performances are also in line with the strength of this new direction.  With Modine the only true mainstream vet in the mix, it’s left to the rising stars and a few seasoned character actors to carry the weight of plot and they do it admirably.  Making for a confident lead that proves to be no damsel in distress, Vega has some interesting developments in the final act and an intriguing coda that I wanted to know more about.  Long time journeyman actor Bill Sage (The Pale Door) heads up the band of terrorizers that dole out justice as they see fit, with death not always the answer even if the accused will wind up wishing that was their sentence.  Then there’s Modine who never makes it seem like he’s slumming it in a C-grade horror film.  Having worked with some of the top directors in Hollywood, he treats the role with consideration and that goes a long way in our taking everything as seriously as he is.

Far less problematic in the way it categorizes the people of Appalachia than all of its predecessors, I have a feeling this Wrong Turn will go over nicely with its intended audience.  Will it win over any new fans?  Possibly, and that’s thanks to a leveled measure of restraint in the usual over-the-top spewing of viscera and a stronger focus on the build-up of suspense.  A new route has definitely been charted for the Wrong Turn franchise and I’d be on board for another trip should McElroy want to map it out for us.