Movie Review ~ Angel Has Fallen


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Secret Service Agent Mike Banning is framed for the attempted assassination of the President and must evade his own agency and the FBI as he tries to uncover the real threat.

Stars: Gerard Butler, Piper Perabo, Lance Reddick, Morgan Freeman, Jada Pinkett Smith, Nick Nolte, Danny Huston

Director: Ric Roman Waugh

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: From the law of diminishing returns, it wouldn’t have been out of the realm of possibility for me to think Angel Has Fallen was going to be a disaster.  Consider the facts.  When Olympus Has Fallen was released in 2013 it became a surprise success, coasting along and benefiting from the abundant patriotism of its audience.  It restored some faith to star Gerard Butler’s shaky career and gave stalwart actors such as Morgan Freeman, Melissa Leo, Angela Basset, and Aaron Eckhart a chance to chew the scenery without getting too much gunk caught in their pearly whites.  Three years later, London Has Fallen arrived and, though it made a sizable amount at the box office, it was an ill-timed, ugly-American movie that was film garbage at its most xenophobic.  Truth be told, I wasn’t even aware a third movie was on its way until the first poster and preview popped up a few months back.  After the disastrous previous outing, I had little interest in seeing where this franchise was heading.

So imagine my surprise to find that Angel Has Fallen is not only better than London Has Fallen but wound up being the best of the series so far. Turns out that all these movies needed was a judicious trim of the star quotient, a refocus on more homegrown enemies, and a director with a fresh take on balancing action with drama that doesn’t detract from the pace.  With Butler and Freeman the only two returning actors from the first movies (Piper Perabo replaces Radha Mitchell as Butler’s wife), there’s space for screenwriters Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook to make this outing less wholly about wall to wall action and give more time to personal moments for Butler and a few new characters.

Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler, How to Train Your Dragon 2) remains a top performer in his role leading the security detail around the President of the United States (Morgan Freeman, Lucy, happily awake and alert) but the job is taking its toll physically and emotionally.  Though he’s in line to take over as director of the Secret Service, he’s hiding a growing reliance on painkillers and shrugging off lasting effects of numerous concussions and injuries sustained in the line of duty.  More concerned with being there for his wife (Perabo, Looper) and a consistent presence for his young daughter, he’s weighing the President’s offer to take on the role when his team comes under siege during an otherwise routine fishing trip.  The first of several well designed action sequences employing a clever use of next-gen technology, it doesn’t bother too much with logic but sets its target on maximum thrill.

Though he winds up saving the President, Mike is the only one from his unit to survive, which raises suspicions from his direct leader (Lance Riddick, White House Down) and a no-nonsense FBI Agent (Jada Pinkett Smith, Girls Trip, giving her most no-nonsense glares toward the camera) who launches an investigation into Mike. When Mike is discovered to have suspicious documents with ties to Russian intelligence on his computer not to mention a few extra million dollars in an offshore bank account, he realizes an old colleague (Danny Huston, All I See Is You) and perhaps another mystery player to be revealed later are framing him.  With the President out of commission and the Vice President (Tim Blake Nelson, Lincoln) stepping in as Commander in Chief, the tensions mount as a growing distrust of Russia is used as ammunition in firing up the war machine that’s long been dormant.

So begins a cross-country chase with Mike trying to stay one-step ahead of government agents and a horde of shadow operatives desperate to keep their agenda hidden and larger plans on track.  By cutting Mike off from his crew, family, and friends it allows Mike some good moments to get creative with his evasion, not to mention escaping one dangerous situation after another.  It also lets Butler show some new sides to this character, something the actor clearly is enjoying.  For a while Butler was appearing in some real turkeys and not seeming to care how much his reputation was suffering from it.  In the last few years his films have taken a more deliberate path – the movies may not be all that different on the surface but looking at the flawed characters he’s taking on now you can see what drew him to the role.

I’m betting a reunion with a man from Mike’s past (Nick Nolte, A Walk in the Woods) is a large part of what got Butler excited to come back for a third time.  Bringing in Nolte was an inspired choice as the actor, like Butler, got a little lost inside his image for a time until he took a step back and got a hold on his career in a more concentrated way.  Nolte is the highlight of the film, a lovable grump living a solitary life in the forest and none to happy to be disturbed by Mike’s appearance.  It’s nice to see Nolte and Butler so engaged on screen and with each other, especially in one grand scene where Mike discovers just how much this mystery man has been preparing for unwanted visitors. The squabbling between the two drifts ever so slightly into a buddy-comedy film at times but it’s a welcome reprieve from some of the darker turns the film takes.

That’s one thing about all these films that I, in many ways, respect.  Though it features recognizable faces and notable nearly A-list stars, the filmmakers are not at all opposed to killing people off in rather cruel ways.  The difference in this film is a less cavalier attitude after the fact.  In Olympus Has Fallen there were too many wisecracks with each deathblow. With London Has Fallen, the bloodlust overwhelmed the plot and added to the overall nastiness of that film.  Here, though people are snuffed out with brutal efficiency (including one that’s truly shocking) there’s no pleasure taken by those on screen or in the audience.  Just that small adjustment makes a huge difference in the tone of the film and how it rolls out over the audience.

Director Ric Roman Waugh makes some smart choices in the assembly of the movie but ultimately he does allow the movie go on too long.  One more pass by an experienced editor could have trimmed some extra fat off the running time but for the most part Angel Has Fallen trucks along nicely.  The plot is entirely predictable and if I didn’t know better I would have sworn this was a script unrelated to the franchise that Butler scooped up and had tailored into a Mike Banning film.  Though you’ll be able to spot the plot twists a mile away, it somehow doesn’t make much difference because the movie is so otherwise engaging.   I did have trouble following some of the action/chase sequences that were set at night, at times everything just became a blur of flack jackets, fists, blood, and scruff. Thankfully, the important moments in the film happen in the daylight so it’s easy to follow the well-choreographed fight sequences, though some of the special effects, especially near the end, get pretty iffy.

I thought after the last film that I was done with Banning and could easily see this character be put to bed but I’m cautiously optimistic there’s a continuing future for this character if Butler and his team keep additional chapters as sturdy as this one is.  It’s clear the wrong steps of the other films were in the direction of making the threat too broad; by making the danger closer to our hero it upped the ante for him and the audience cheering for him to clear his name. Maybe next time they can let Perabo get out of the kitchen (I swear every scene she’s doing something around her center island) and allow her to get into some of the action…

Movie Review ~ Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Stories have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover the terrifying tome of a young girl with horrible secrets.

Stars: Zoe Colletti, Austin Abrams, Gabriel Rush, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Natalie Ganzhorn, Dean Norris, Gil Bellows, Lorraine Toussaint

Director: André Øvredal

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There were a few books in my elementary school library that, should you be lucky enough to catch them on the shelf and check them out, were signs of great prestige. As a fifth grader, I remember being so desperate to read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that through some junior detective work I found out who currently had the book and made a deal with them to be there when they returned it so I could swoop in and have it next. Then they went and screwed it up by returning it in the book drop first thing in the morning, forcing me to haunt the library until they opened and I could retrieve it. I definitely carried the book around on top of my Trapper Keeper so all could see during the day while I saved the reading for the evening.

The three books that make up the trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have become famous, if not quite literary classics on a Dickens level but legendary in their own right for their popularity with youngsters and their unpopularity with their parents. Often banned in libraries for their intense content and routinely challenged at school board meetings, the slim (none are more than 130 pages) collections of terrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz have inspired countless imitators over the years. It’s telling that none have come close to the simplicity of the way Schwartz relayed his collected stories of urban folklore with sinister twists.  Since the first entry was released in 1981, they have held up remarkably well.  Revisiting a few selections recently I was amazed at how vivid the storytelling remained all these years later.

I’m actually surprised it took so long for a film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find its way to the light.  It just missed the anthology-movie boon of the late ‘70s and lacked the hard edges that became popular in the mid ‘80s. Some of the urban legends have expanded into their own films or were lifted in part into the plots of other horror flicks but nothing has come out that bore the title that stirs so much nostalgia in my particular generation. These small volumes were to me what the Goosebumps books were to kids that came up after I did. While I was unsure at first in the wake of the recent silliness of the Goosebumps film and its even wackier sequel, it was encouraging to see this movie greenlit under the watchful eye of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) who then hired up and coming Norwegian director André Øvredal to handle the directing duties.

While I’d love to report the final product was every bit as spine-tingling as I wanted it to be, the overall experience was more like revisiting something that was scary when you were younger but had decidedly less of an impact when you returned to it as an adult. Though it has a handsome production design and a fairly engaging and intense opening act, it quickly turns back from the horror elements I craved in favor of embracing its PG-13-ness in all its vanilla gore-less glory. Usually, I’m a fan of less is more and wishing a filmmaker would be creative in their power of suggestion rather than crude in their need to shock but by the end I desperately wanted Øvredal to amp up the chills.

On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie), Auggie (Gabriel Rush, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight) run afoul of a local bully (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) and wind up exploring the deserted Bellows mansion and uncovering its dark history. With a drifter (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) along for the ride, the friends uncover a mystery tied to the family that owned the house and ran the local paper mill before vanishing into thin air. When Stella takes a book from a hidden room within the expansive manse, she unleashes a vengeful spirit that starts writing stories in the book, stories of murder, stories of monsters, stories that feature her friends who begin to disappear at an alarming rate.

It was a nice touch for screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie) to set the film in the low-tech 1968 when the country was tuned into the continued conflict in Vietnam while deciding between Nixon and Humphrey for the presidency. By having the movie take place half a century ago, there’s a certain unsullied charm to the investigation Stella launches into the sordid history of her town. The kids may be going through some of the same growing pains experienced nowadays but with the war not yet totally encroaching on their lives they remain, well, kids and not the woke meta meme-ified generation that we have now.  If anything, there’s too much time spent on character development at the expense of keeping the forward momentum the movie really needed to gain some steam.

As he showed so brilliantly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (for real, check out that underseen gem), Øvredal has a way with creating a distinct atmosphere that greatly influences the overall feel of the production. Though set in 1968, the movie isn’t screaming ‘60s and Øvredal puts more emphasis in fleshing out the Bellows mansion and, later, a hospital that holds key clues to the mystery. I only wish once we were in these locations Øvredal was able to turn the dial on frights a few degrees higher. It’s all appropriately creepy but never truly scary, like the filmmakers were afraid (or opposed?) to delivering what seems inherently promised by the title.  Aside from several notable sequences that achieved their desired impact of raising both goosebumps and pulses, there’s a curious lack of follow-through despite a valiant set-up.  A creepy scarecrow turns out to look more menacing than he actually is, a toe-less ghoul is all moan but no mayhem, a plain teenage zit harbors the best pop for your buck even if it’s achieved with some iffy CGI.

Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie though. Perhaps the books were meant for my generation while this film is intended as a low-impact primer for budding (young) horror fans. After all, reading the books opened up my imagination to run wild with the delightfully demented legends Schwartz included. So could it be that Øvredal and del Toro held back from giving the full horror monty to viewers in the hopes they would create some of the scares themselves in their minds? It seems a bit of stretch but at the same time this isn’t your standard cut and paste waste of space either. There’s some sophistication to the movie, for sure, just not the quality scares I had came looking for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Knives Out



Synopsis
: A detective investigates the death of a patriarch of an eccentric, combative family.

Release Date: November 27, 2019

Thoughts: This November, writer/director Rian Johnson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) is hopefully going to give this Agatha Christie murder-mystery loving guy something to be thankful for when Lionsgate releases the star-studded whodunit, Knives Out.  Packed to the brim with A-listers and a few solid B-list mainstays, this looks like a cheeky and fun black comedy with a bit of death thrown into the mix.  With favorites like Jamie Lee Curtis (Halloween), Toni Collette (Muriel’s Wedding), Chris Evans (Avengers: Endgame), Daniel Craig (Skyfall), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special) among the suspects and sleuths, all bets are off on what Johnson has in store for us but I expect some twists to be turned and rugs to be pulled as we get to the final reveal.  Fingers crossed this is as entertaining as it looks.  Though I’m sure this must contain some sort of spoilers – the first look at Knives Out is fairly sparse and feels like it’s holding back big reveals for the finished product.

Movie Review ~ Long Shot


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An unemployed journalist battered by his own misfortune endeavors to pursue his childhood crush and babysitter, who now happens to be one of the most powerful and unattainable women on the planet.

Stars: Charlize Theron, Seth Rogen, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Andy Serkis, June Diane Raphael, Alexander Skarsgård, Ravi Patel, Bob Odenkirk, Randall Park

Director: Jonathan Levine

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Don’t look now, but we may actually be in a small scale renaissance of the mid-range romantic comedy. There were rumblings that it was coming back when last year’s Crazy Rich Asians made a splash, only to be followed by the popular streaming releases like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Set Up. So far this year, we’ve had the modest hit Isn’t it Romantic and soon after Long Shot’s May release there’s still The Sun is Also a Star to look forward to and Last Christmas for the holidays…plus several more Netflix offerings along the way. It’s not a full scale rebirth of the genre but it definitely gets a healthy dose of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation courtesy of Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron in Long Shot.

Originally conceived as more low-brow comedy titled Flarsky, the script from Dan Sterling attracted the attention of Seth Rogen after it got good buzz on The Blacklist, the infamous Hollywood insider-y annual survey of the “most liked” motion picture screenplays not yet produced. Rogen brought in screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post) who gave the film a good polish, making the starring female role more of real person and creating more equality between the lead protagonists. With a new title and Rogen’s friend Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies) in the director’s seat all they needed was a star. And boy did they get one.

Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) is the real reason you should be buying a ticket to see Long Shot and is the film’s not-so-secret weapon. Sure, you may be a fan of Rogen, romantic comedies, or just need a solid two hour film that is worth your time but Theron is by far the main selling point Long Shot has to offer. Already adept at playing any genre she’s thrown into, Theron dives headfirst into a role that requires the actress to convince us her gorgeous buttoned-up Secretary of State could fall for Rogen’s lumpy (but lovable) political journalist, all while keeping her composure as she plots out an environmental treaty to lay the groundwork for her presidential run.

Recently fired from his grassroots publication, Fred Flarsky (Rogen, This is the End) is drowning his sorrows with his best friend (O’Shea Jackson Jr., Straight Outta Compton) at an upscale benefit when he runs into his old babysitter Charlotte Field (Theron). Flarsky may have written a few popular pieces on the internet but Field has done considerably better for herself; she’s the youngest Secretary of State under a dim bulb President (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) who was elected after playing the Commander in Chief on TV for years. When the President decides not to run again and offers to endorse Field, she gets early reports (from a too-brief cameo by Lisa Kudrow, Friends with Kids) that the public doesn’t think she has a sense of humor. Running into Flarsky and reading his material gives her an idea: why not hire this guy who knew her back in the day and see if he can punch up her image?

For Field, this starts as a business proposition. For Flarsky, this is a chance to get closer to a girl he has had a crush on since he was a pre-teen. Even more than that, he believes in her as a politician and gets behind her as a potential presidential nominee. As they make their way around the globe gathering support for her environmental protection plan, the two get closer…much to the horror of her staff members (June Diane Raphael, Girl Most Likely and Ravi Patel, Master of None) until they become an unlikely item.

It really is on Theron to sell us on her character falling for Fred and Rogen and Levine help her get there (with no small assistance from Hannah’s script) by keeping Charlotte aware of their differences but following her heart anyway. That’s what makes it all work because, unlike other Rogen vehicles where he’s paired with beauties just…because, here he initially winds up with the girl by winning over her brain first before anything physical happens.

Clocking in a tad over two hours, the movie comes in just a hair too long and a wiser editor could have excised more of Jackson’s unnecessary scenes as Fred’s friend that don’t wind up informing the action on anything we don’t already know. As good as Raphael and Patel are, they only work in small doses and their business could be trimmed as well because we really want more time with Theron and, to a slightly lesser extent, Rogen.  I can’t forget to mention Andy Serkis (Black Panther) popping up in a truly bizarre role as a publishing magnate with ties to Charlotte and Fred.  It’s not that the role is bizarre, it’s that Serkis is under heavy layers of make-up to render him unrecognizable.  Why?

The film almost makes it across the finish line without resorting to gross out gags but can’t resist a fairly atrocious bit of toilet humor that cheapens things up at the wrong time. Honestly, I get why they inserted it in the grand scheme of things but it sinks the film to a different level that I thought it was rising above.  Still, that and a rather perfunctory ending can’t erase the fun of the previous 100 or so minutes and any movie that prominently features Roxette’s mega-anthem “It Must Have Been Love” on more than one occasion already scores high in my book.

Movie Review ~ Hellboy (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Hellboy and his closest allies battle an undead sorceress who has the intention of destroying the world

Stars: David Harbour, Ian McShane, Milla Jovovich, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim, Thomas Haden Church, Penelope Mitchell, Sophie Okonedo, Brian Gleeson, Alistair Petrie

Director: Neil Marshall

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I believe it’s best for me to out myself right at the top of this review. I was not a comic book kid so have never been well versed in the mythology of the characters that have turned up in the pages over the years. From Marvel to DC to the Dark House imprint that published the Hellboy comics, it was just never something that I found any traction with so I was left to be a happy fan that would see these characters come to life for the first time on the big screen. I mean to show you how out of the loop I was, when The Avengers was first announced I thought it was another remake of the UK series from the 1960’s.

I give this disclaimer at the beginning of my review of Hellboy because I’m coming at this with no knowledge of what the characters SHOULD be or what the tone of the comics was. All I can report back on with my modicum of authority is the quality of this rebooted product taken as an outsider. Though it starts off with some verve and vigor, far too soon it becomes packed with the kind of noise and shoddy CGI that overwhelms the audience instead of impressing them.

The road to this Hellboy restage has been a long one, with plans for a third film under director Guillermo del Toro’s watch being abandoned in favor of starting fresh. That meant del Toro (who would wind up winning an Oscar for The Shape of Water) and original star Ron Perlman (Pacific Rim) were out and director Neil Marshall (The Descent, Tales of Halloween) and David Harbour (Suicide Squad) were in. Further separating this film from the 2004 original and its 2008 sequel was a desire to bring the character back to his darker roots and away from the more outwardly heroic (and PG-13) character del Toro and Perlman created. This new Hellboy was going to be an R-rated brawler pitted against a host of ghastly foes.

Marshall makes it clear from the opening that his approach will be different. The first shot of the film finds a crow picking the eyeball out of a corpse while Ian McShane (Jack the Giant Slayer) narrates a prologue littered with foul language. It’s here we’re introduced to the evil witch Nimue (Milla Jovovich, Zoolander 2), known as The Blood Queen, who is defeated by King Arthur and cut into pieces that are spread around the world so her powers can never again be restored. Jumping ahead to introduce Hellboy as he searches for a missing agent within a nest of Tijuana vampires, the bloodletting continues.

These early scenes kick off the movie with some semblance of charm and hint there is some playfulness afoot in Andrew Cosby’s screenplay that mixes Arthurian lore with tales of vampires, witches, giants, and various other ghoulies and beasts. It’s when Hellboy’s dad (McShane) sends him off to England to assist members of The Osiris Club take down a trio of ugly giants that the film begins its gradual decline into less interesting territory. It’s also when the two weakest links in the film are introduced.

Daniel Dae Kim (Allegiant) and Sasha Lane (American Honey) become allies of Hellboy as he hunts down Nimue and her warthog henchman and you’ll wish he were working alone. As Ben Daimio, an agent harboring a dark secret, Kim barely registers as Hellboy’s opposites attract sidekick who starts off trading barbs with the red devil before softening the more he gets to know him. While Kim may struggle with his British accent it’s nothing in comparison to the abysmal effort from Lane as Alice Monaghan, a woman abducted by faeries as a child that has the ability to speak for/as the dead. Everything about Lane is wrong, from her atrocious accent (when it’s there) to her basic line readings that often arrive without inflection – if ever a single performance could ruin a movie, this is it.

As our main guy, Harbour brings the requisite attitude to the proceedings, with his Hellboy a more tortured soul haunted by his past than Perlman chose to play him. I feel like Perlman still has the edge on the role, though Harbour makes his Hellboy wholly separate and his own. The person that seems to be having the most fun and who recognizes what movie she’s actually in is Jovovich as the villainous Blood Queen seeking to find a king to rule alongside her. Reaching out to Hellboy as a possible contender for the throne, Jovovich manages to find some strange sparks with Harbor – it’s not exactly sexual chemistry but something a little more meaty and wicked. Jovovich has been relegated to Resident Evil sequel hell for years and it’s nice to see her show up in something different.

Most of the practical make-up effects are quite impressive, from Hellboy’s detailed horn stumps to the truly terrifying character of Baba Yaga. Their meeting in a nightmare-scape is a highlight of the film and I wished that Baba Yaga was given more screentime, though it feels like the studio is holding onto her for intended future installments. It’s the CGI effects that are uneven throughout. Some of the visual effects look downright terrible, a few notches up from something you would see on the SyFy channel. We’re supposed to be immersed in this world yet the sub-standard effects keep jarring us back into the reality we’re in a theater. Some late in the game scenes of extreme gore (think innocent Londoners literally ripped in half) are kind of a hoot but wind up so fake looking that the impact isn’t what the filmmakers intended.

I’ll be interested to hear what fans of the Hellboy comics think of this new film and if it aligns more with their vision of the character. Two post-credit scenes signal intentions on keeping this franchise going and if a sequel ditches Kim and Lane, improves the effects, and maybe uses make-up that is more practical than computer generated it might smooth out some of the rough edges of this reboot.

Movie Review ~ A Simple Favor


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mommy blogger seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Bouncing back nicely from the unfortunate misfire of the Ghostbusters reboot, director Paul Feig wisely cleared his stable of familiar players and cast Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 3) and Blake Lively (The Shallows) in this supremely fun adaptation of Darcey Bell’s mystery novel.  It’s a darker, edgier film for Feig and one that doesn’t rely on silly humor for its amusement.

Kendrick is a do-it-all divorced single parent befriended by Lively’s chic married professional.  The two become fast friends over afternoon drinks during their kids playdates and while Kendrick’s character is a bit of a wet blanket at first, Lively gives her some good advice on how to get what you want by speaking  up.  When Lively disappears and doesn’t seem likely to return, a national search is enacted by her husband (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) and Kendrick who grow closer the longer she is away.  There are twists aplenty as dead bodies are found and skeletons in closets are uncovered, leading to a solution to the mystery that’s intriguing and competently executed by Feig and company.

Apart from keeping the movie floating along with ease, Feig has filled the film with a great color palate and wonderful supporting characters (Jean Smart is a riot in a small but pivotal role), not to mention snazzy costumes for all.  Kendrick leans into the complexities her character is given but it’s Lively who has the most interesting material to work with.  To say more might tip you off as to what transpires in the second half of the movie but just when you think you’ve figured out what’s happening a new wrinkle is tossed in to throw you off balance.  This was one of the most fun movies I saw in 2018 – a highlight to be sure.

31 Days to Scare ~ Hell Fest (2018)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A masked serial killer turns a horror themed amusement park into his own personal playground, terrorizing a group of friends while the rest of the patrons believe that it is all part of the show.

Stars: Amy Forsyth, Reign Edwards, Bex Taylor-Klaus, Christian James, Matt Mercurio, Tony Todd

Director: Gregory Plotkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I’ve always been a fan of haunted houses and a few years back I had the chance to step behind the scenes and be a part of one of them in my hometown.  As much fun as it is going through a creepy maze or demented house of horror I have to say that when you’re the one doing the scaring the enjoyment factor is raised several notches.  On the flip side, it makes it hard to go back to the other side of the scare which is why movies like the otherwise respectable Hell Fest don’t have quite the same impact on me now.

Though it possesses little in the way of actual scares, director Gregory Plotkin (Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension) has crafted a good-looking movie that hums along nicely for it’s brief running time.  Plotkin has assembled a cabal of fresh-faced actors that do fine with the material and even at times elevate it from the paint-by-numbers schlock it most certainly is.  That’s not to say the script from Seth M. Sherwood and Blair Butler is total hogwash because there’s an interesting concept here: killer blends in among the revelers at Hell Fest, eventually targeting a woman and her friends as they work through mazes and rides that take them deeper into frightening territory.

Arriving in town just in time to accompany her friends to Hell Fest, Natalie (Amy Forsyth) isn’t much for scares but is interested in seeing potential love interest Gavin (Roby Attal) who has secured VIP passes for everyone.  Best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) and smart-acre Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus) have their own boyfriends in tow so it becomes a triple date that’s quickly interrupted by a masked killer that starts to pick people off one-by-one as the night progresses.  Instead of heeding her own gut instincts, Natalie writes off her fears she’s being stalked as just a part of the price of admission in being scared but realizes too late she’s right on the money in feeling like her neck is on the line.

A few things don’t quite pan out here.  We’re told Hell Fest is so popular the entire run of dates has sold out yet nothing ever seems too busy.  Anyone that has ever been to an even marginally popular haunted attraction knows you are almost always packed shoulder to shoulder with other guests; that Natalie and her friends seem to have plenty of room to move about (and hang out in) these spaces is far-fetched.  Also, everyone seems to brush off the impending threat of death without much fanfare.  I know it’s a “busy” night and scares are the name of the game but is no one actually working at these places were bodies are left and discovering the gooey remains?

Those quibbles aside, this is a strange R-rated feature that doesn’t go all the way with its rating.  The kills are relatively tame and a few characters are disappointingly dispatched without much of a send-off.  With the size of the cast you would think that the writers and director could have come up with more showcases of gory offings just to please those looking for something a step up from a PG-13 rating.  Only a death by mallet and a guillotine sequence manage to stir some creative juices but they aren’t enough to help separate Hell Fest from other low-impact horror flicks available.  For reference, seek out The Funhouse from 1981 instead, it isn’t great either but that one at least makes good on some smart kills.

Even so, I’m giving this one a partial recommendation on the basis that it’s more than decent in production quality with respectable performances.  Also, I for one liked seeing the different attractions the gang screams their way through.  I can only imagine what those VIP tickets cost to the fictional Hell Fest of the movie but gaining entrance to Hell Fest at your local theater is worth a $5 matinee admission.

Movie Review ~ Early Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: With all due respect to our prehistoric ancestors, I’ve always found movies about the dawn of man to be a bit of a drag. In films like the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. to 10,000 B.C. to The Croods, there’s only so far my imagination can take me before I’m wondering when technology will find its way into the lives of primitive man. That may help explain why I wasn’t thrilling to the notion of spending an hour and a half with the cavemen and women brought to stop-motion life in Early Man.

I’ve been a fan of Aardman Animations since their Wallace and Gromit days and they’ve continued to churn out quality work for the past several decades. They’ve brought the barnyard to life in Chicken Run and the Shaun the Sheep Movie and snagged an Oscar nomination for their work on The Pirates! Band of Misfits in 2012. While their latest effort is packed with jokes on top of jokes and is another wonderful use of the stop-motion technique, it falls far short of the overall entertainment package Aardman has come to be known for.

Early Man is set at the tail end of the Stone Age and introduces us to the tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner). Hunting rabbits as a group and going about their daily lives without much disruption seems like the long-term plan for all but young Dug (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) dreams of something more. Instead of the mammoth mammoth hunt he years for, he gets a taste of the future when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Muppets Most Wanted) and his Bronze Age army tries to take over their land.

When Dug mistakenly hitches a ride back with Nooth’s troops he gets an eyeful. The crude stone utensils, clothes, and housing he’s used to give way to the latest in advanced design. Then there’s the stadium which houses the popular football (aka soccer for us Americans) games and it’s when he accidentally finds himself on the field and under Nooth’s glare that Dug proposes a challenge. If he and his tribe can beat the best players Nooth has to offer, Nooth will vacate the land. If they lose, they’ll be a nomadic tribe without even the most basic creature comforts they were used to.

The bulk of the film has Dug getting his team in gear with the help of a could-be love interest named Goona. As expected, the rag-tag members of this football party start without a prayer but (spoiler alert!) get good enough to take on Nooth’s ace team. It’s a disappointingly predictable affair with many of the standard lessons learned along the way. There are ample bits of comedy and visual sight gags but its low impact laughter if you think about it.

Director Nick Park could have trimmed the movie by a good ten minutes, truncating some of the characters more repetitive tics and eliminating a few of them all together. I kept waiting for something to inspire as well as entertain but Park and company just can’t get out of the deep valley of familiarity they’ve found themselves in. If there’s a strong positive for the movie, it’s that it’s as family friendly as they get. While adult audiences have had a spotty run in theaters lately, with Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and now Early Man, families looking to spend some time at the theaters have at least three decent options.

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 ~ Leatherface

Synopsis: in Texas, years before the events of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, in the early days of the infamous Sawyer family, the youngest child is sentenced to a mental hospital after a suspicious incident leaves the sheriff’s daughter dead.

Release Date:  October 20, 2017

Thoughts: At this point, I don’t know where the hell we are in the vast landscape of the sequels, prequels, sequels to prequels, and reboots of sequels and their prequels as they relate to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  Last time Leatherface was seen on screen was back in 2013 with Texas Chainsaw 3D and while that was an enjoyable watch it didn’t seem to make a dent in the box office.  It’s rumored that Leatherface will swing by a few theaters before going to DirectTV On Demand but with interesting character actors like Lili Taylor (The Conjuring) and Stephen Dorff (The Iceman) taking roles in this I have to say I’m a bit intrigued.  Couple that with direction from Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo who delivered the stomach churning but impressive Inside and my intrigue turns into full blown curiosity.