Movie Review ~ Licorice Pizza

The Facts:  

Synopsis: The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973. 

Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ryan Heffington, Nate Mann, Joseph Cross, Danielle Haim, Este Haim, Moti Haim, Donna Haim 

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 133 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Some filmmakers get to a point in their careers where they can evoke a particular response in their devotees just by performing the most mundane of movie marketing tasks.  Take Paul Thomas Anderson (or PTA, if you will, and you must if you are in the PTA fandom universe) and the release of his newest film, Licorice Pizza. The director debuted the simple poster for his coming-of-age story set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 and according to the internet activity you’d have thought it was an undiscovered Rembrandt being displayed for the first time.  Following up with a trailer edited in typical PTA style to give you a taste of the movie without much of the flavor and the eyes of #FilmTwitter collectively rolled back in their head, unable to sustain the force of such wonder.

Then there was me, over in my corner, wondering what the fuss was about.  Sure, I’ve had my rocky relationship with PTA over the years and often felt like he’d wandered away from the fray more than he partied down with the crowd, but that’s just my particular preference.  I get that PTA’s signature auteur-ism is what the film cognoscenti take pride in dissecting with loud voices in small crowds or displaying on their homemade media shelves filled with every one of his movies, and while my IKEA shelf certainly contains the PTA old school essentials like Boogie Night and Magnolia, you won’t find later efforts like The Master and certainly not Inherent Vice.  He won me back with the elegant Phantom Thread, tearing at the seams of a spikey relationship (while somewhat examining his own marriage to Maya Rudolph in the process), but each new movie feels like starting over again with him.  So the poster and the trailer and the crazed early buzz were taken in with several pinches of Kosher salt.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, I finally had my bite of Licorice Pizza and found it, unsurprisingly, meaty. There were some slices of PTA’s episodic yet extremely loosey goosey structured film that I favored more than others and absolutely understand the hype for its star Alana Haim, but at the same time it’s a film that drifts when it should be forging ahead and drags when it could use a significant boost of energy.  Fueled by a blazing soundtrack and a colorful cast of supporting characters that help balance out Haim’s less successful co-star, PTA’s film is his most easily accessible and commercially minded film to date and that’s going to attract a number of new viewers to get on his bandwagon.

Inspired by the stories PTA heard from child actor turned producer Gary Goetzman as well as his own observances, Licorice Pizza opens with Alana Kane (Haim) first meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) as he waits in line to have his high school photo taken.  Charming the bored young woman nine years his senior with his quick wit and stories of his time as a child actor, by the time Gary says “cheese” he’s made a bold pitch to get her to meet him for dinner.  Intrigued by the teen, she goes, and the two form a quick bond based on his not-so-secret pining and her pretending not to recognize just how much he’s fallen for her. 

This isn’t your typical romantic pairing, however.  Gary and Alana wind up being more than potential love interests after they go into business selling the latest hot craze in CA at the time: waterbeds. With Gary’s days as a child actor fading and Alana’s career as a would-be ingenue starlet ending before they even began (a lengthy interlude with Sean Penn as Jack Holden should have been excised completely, it’s the weakest part of the film), they recruit their equally young friends to be employees in their enterprise, a get-rich-quick scheme that pays off…for a time.  They even manage to snag a celebrity client and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Jon Peters, the infamous Hollywood hairdresser who became an enfant terrible film producer and boyfriend to Barbra Streisand, is where the best material in Licorice Pizza begins to take form.

It helps if you know about Peters, his attitude and style, his penchant for violent outbursts and pompous actions of egotistical preening.  Cooper (Nightmare Alley) nails the man in an eerie way and I don’t doubt the real deal was just as terrifying to come face to face with as he is shown here, though it winds up coming across with a comic effect more than anything.  This entire sequence where Alana, Gary, and a few of their cohorts make a delivery to the home Peters shared with Streisand in the Hollywood hills featuring a series of mishaps is what the movie is leading to and then never manages to live up to later on.  If only the rest of the film were this funny and smartly constructed.

It can’t be stressed enough how correct all the advance word about Alana Haim was.  The more you hear about a performance the less it seems like it could actually be as good as they say but Haim is a terrifically engaging, unique, talent that brings something interesting to the role.  Perhaps not an A+ right out of the gate but skirting pretty close and consistently the one person in the film that gets most of her laugh lines right.  It likely helps that her actual family plays her two sisters (the trio form the Grammy-nominated band bearing their surname) and parents as well.  If only Hoffman was as strong as Alana…or shows the same kind of raw honesty his father, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, did.  I didn’t buy him in this role and while Gary and Alana are supposed to feel mismatched, the actors shouldn’t and it’s largely due to Hoffman that they do.

Aside from Bradley Cooper’s good turn and Penn’s (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) removable one, Harriet Sansom Harris (Memento) gets a killer scene as Gary’s edgy agent that pulls no punches and hasn’t yet been cited by the PC Police.   The PC Police would definitely be knocking on the door of John Michael Higgins (Pitch Perfect 3), as a restaurant owner with a revolving door of Asian wives who has a rather horrendous way of talking to them. Though his storyline was a bit extraneous and fit into that episodic feel, Benny Safdie (Pieces of a Woman) does good work as a politician Alana gravitates toward.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Christine Ebersole (The Wolf of Wall Street) as a Lucille Ball-ish star that Gary has to make appearances with and Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a rival for Alana’s attention.

Controversy swirled very briefly around Licorice Pizza because of the age discrepancy between Alana and Gary but y’know what, I’m not even going to go there.  Plenty of films have had the situation flip and no one mentions it.  Besides, PTA handles the nuances of their relationship so kindly on both sides of the coin that whatever the outcome of their time together, both will be in each other lives for longer than we’ll ever be.  Never striving for meaning that is too deep or analytical was a refreshing respite in PTA’s examination of emotions and he’ll likely bounce back with something totally different.  For now, we should enjoy our meal that’s been put in front of us.  It may be extra long, er, large but it’s filling.

Bond-ed For Life ~ No Time to Die

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: James Bond has left active service and is enjoying a tranquil life in Jamaica. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA turns up asking for help. The mission to rescue a kidnapped scientist turns out to be far more treacherous than expected, leading the former MI6 agent onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Rami Malek, Léa Seydoux, Lashana Lynch, Ralph Fiennes, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Wright, Christoph Waltz, Billy Magnussen, Ana de Armas, David Dencik, Rory Kinnear

Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 163 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So…here we are.  After a long, very long, extremely long, wait…the new 007 film has arrived.  It’s also the last time Daniel Craig will don the James Bond suits, drive the fancy cars, and play with the cool gadgets, so it’s understandable why the producers and studio behind No Time to Die kept firm with their decision to push back the release date over and over again so audiences could only experience this important chapter in theaters.  This, after the movie was initially delayed on its way to the screen because of a departing director (Oscar-winner Danny Boyle left after disagreements on how the story should go), cast injuries, and damage to the filming studio.  For a time, it looked like James Bond would NOT return, to riff on the famous last words at the end of each previous films’ closing credits.  A release date was finally locked in but then…pandemic.

All that is behind us because the movie is arriving and now the question for the viewer will likely be two-fold.  1) was it worth the wait and 2) is it a fulfilling sequel?  For me, as a life-long Bond fan and with a certain affinity for most of this last cycle of Bond movies with Craig as the star I will tell you what I responded when both the studio and my friend asked me what I thought.  To me, when the 163-minute No Time to Die was over I felt like I had eaten a nine-course meal of my favorite dishes and then topped it off with an extra dessert.  After something so huge, you need time to digest so I was happy to have over a week to think more about it.  Craig’s tenure as Bond has had its highs (Skyfall, Casino Royale) and lows (Quantum of Solace, Spectre) and I would place No Time to Die smack dab in the center of them all, leaning strongly toward high praise for the elegant way it manages to close this part of what has already been a long adventure.

For the first time, a James Bond opening begins in the past and doesn’t even feature Bond at all.  This intro becomes a key piece in action and location later in the movie and is but the beginning of the longest pre-credit sequence in any Bond film yet.  By the time Daniel Kleinman’s haunting opening credit sequence pays over Billie Eilish’s spine-tingling title track (I originally found this song to be slow and boring but, in the context of the movie, the tone and purpose make it near perfect), retired 00-agent Bond and his love Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux, The Grand Budapest Hotel) have faced down a vicious attack in Southern Italy and in the process revealed certain secrets from the past that have come back to snap at both of their hearts.  Five years later, Bond is alone in Jamaica when he is visited by both his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, The Good Dinosaur) from the CIA and an MI6 agent (Lashana Lynch, Captain Marvel) who has been assigned his 007 number in the field.  Both are interested in Bond getting involved with Project Heracles, a chemical weapon that has been stolen by a rogue villain.  The CIA wants Bond’s help, 007 wants him to stay out of her way.

Bond can’t help but be curious and when he travels to Cuba to investigate, he’s teamed with new CIA agent Paloma (Ana de Armas, reuniting with her Knives Out co-star Craig) to infiltrate a secret SPECTRE party where they find an old friend has been keeping a watchful eye over them all.  The deeper Bond seeks the truth, the more he finds that Project Heracles has ties not just to his old foe Ernst Blofeld but to a new enemy, Safin (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody), as well as Madeleine.  And all three are about to re-enter his life in a big way…with a number of surprises yet to come.

As is usually the case, there are a stable of screenwriters credited for this 25th Bond film but it doesn’t feel slap-a-dash or story by committee.  Aside from usual suspects Neil Purvis and Robert Wade, director Cary Joji Fukunaga (Jane Eyre) contributed to the final script, and it’s widely known that Emmy winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge was brought in to punch up some of the dialogue and give the film some humor.  Hold that wince if you are thinking there’s an extra dose of comedy that’s been shaken and stirred…yes there is more of a sense of humor to the proceedings, but they are small touches here and there which result in the characters feeling more fleshed out than anything. 

It’s great to see the players back in action, from Ben Whishaw’s (Cloud Atlas) tech-guy Q to Naomie Harris’s (Rampage) Moneypenny.  I’m glad the writers gave Ralph Fiennes (Dolittle) as M a bit more depth this time around because in Spectre there seemed to be a bit of stunted growth after being introduced so nicely in Skyfall.  (Note, make sure to keep your eyes open for a scene where M is sitting in a portrait gallery and observe the paintings – it’s just one of several nice touches that callback not just to other Craig films, but all the way back to the beginning.) Waltz (Big Eyes) had his chance in the previous film to make an impression and he was sort of just…Waltz.  There’s little more to elaborate on than that.  Of the new crop, Lynch has the best success in a role that feels like a good step forward for the series but, like Halle Berry’s Jinx who played opposite Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day, the character becomes a second thought once Bond decides to get back in on the action.  Per usual, I’m not entirely sure what Malek is up to in performance or accent but it’s one of the weaker villains in the Bond franchise…yet he has one of the deadliest lairs.  The appeal of Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods) is totally lost on me.  So, there’s that.

Fans have been waiting eons for Bond to return and he’s come back with a high-wire epic that delivers maximum bang for your buck.  It’s a hefty movie with a generous run time so be prepared to settle in and I’d advise skipping any/all bathroom breaks so you don’t miss any action.  Things change on a dime in the life of a secret agent and despite the constant aural reminder of another title tune from an older Bond film, you do not have all the time in the world to take it in.  When the stakes are this high, there’s no time to wait for No Time to Die.

Movie Review ~ The Addams Family 2

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: To reclaim their spooky family bond Morticia and Gomez decide to cram Wednesday, Pugsley, Uncle Fester and the crew into their haunted camper and hit the road for one last miserable family vacation. What could possibly go wrong?

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Charlize Theron, Chloë Grace Moretz, Nick Kroll, Javon ‘Wanna’ Walton, Bette Midler, Wallace Shawn, Snoop Dogg, Bill Hader

Director: Greg Tiernan, Conrad Vernon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  My my, doesn’t it seem like we were just singing this theme song and snapping our fingers?  It was only two Halloweens ago that the animated reimagining of The Addams Family was released to theaters and even though it took in 100 million at the box office, that doesn’t necessarily guarantee a sequel in this fickle market.  However, MGM must have looked at the receipts and their upcoming schedule and figured that it was worth the bet and greenlit the follow-up almost as soon as the original was released.  Good thing they did, too, because now The Addams Family 2 has arrived in time for Halloween 2021 as theaters are opening up more and also releasing this to streaming services so it can be viewed at home as a safe alternative. 

I had my reservations about the first film, having come of age with the live-action films of the early ‘90s starring Raul Julia and Angelica Huston as the dark heads of a strange family of characters.  My overly precious feelings were broken down just a tad by the friendly good-nature vibe created by directors Conrad Vernon (Kung Fun Panda 2) and Greg Tiernan (Sausage Party) and despite some, let’s just say it, ugly animation, it was a mostly harmless exercise in update for generational purposes.  My parents’ generation had their version of the family created by Charles Addams, I had mine, now a new crop could have theirs.

The directors have returned with a sequel that scores higher because it’s less about re-telling an origin story and more about getting into the fun adventure of it all, exploring the dynamics of family (even the kookiest and spookiest) in between wild bits involving tourism throughout the U.S.  Coming out of a summer in which many people re-discovered the simplicity of the road trip, it could very well speak to families that dealt with similar issues of cramped quarters and too much togetherness, while highlighting the overall value of these moments you can never get back if you pass them up.

Wednesday Addams (Chloë Grace Moretz, Suspiria) is aghast when everyone receives a participation ribbon at the school science fair.  She had, after all, worked hard and believes in rewarding that effort with…some kind of prize.  The sponsor of the competition, Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader, It Chapter Two), agrees and is impressed enough with her invention that swaps human personalities with those of other animals that he asks her to share the creation with him.  She politely declines but it gets her thinking about her place within her own family, leading her into a glum (or glummer) state.  Mother Morticia (Charlize Theron, Bombshell) thinks a road trip that forces them all to spend more time together might break Wednesday out of her funk and encourage more interaction with the rest of the family.

Leaving Grandma (Bette Midler, Hocus Pocus) behind to watch the mansion (she immediately begins planning parties and charging admission), the Addams set off to familiar points of interest on a cross-country journey.  A stop at Niagara Falls means someone is going over in a barrel, then there’s the Alamo, Grand Canyon, etc. etc. all given to some kind of foible, often related to Uncle Fester (Nick Kroll, Vacation).  There’s another reason why Morticia and Gomez (Oscar Isaac, Annihilation) decided to head out of town quickly…but I think I’ll keep that bit of news under wraps and let the viewer find that out on their own.  All I’ll say is that it’s a plot turn and resolution we’ve seen countless times before but given an Addams twist and then another flip for good measure. No points for originality at the outset but I’ll toss some back for having fun.

If the animation has improved greatly from the first film, the voice talent has slipped a notch or two.  Perhaps the voices were done differently than they were previously when all the actors could be in the same room but it has the feeling of no one being in close proximity when they laid down their voice tracks.  Theron sounded sleepy enough in the first film but for the sequel it’s as if she’s at the stage where one eye is completely closed and the other has an eyebrow raised so high to keep the eyelid up just one fraction of an inch.  Someone needs to call Huston and give Theron some pointers – she’s too good an actress to biff this classic vamp of a character.  Moretz seems to be following suit in the snooze-button department.  Even Isaac as the excitable Gomez comes across as lacking that pizzazz that makes the role such a flavor burst for any actor taking it on.  There’s just a curious lack of connection anywhere and for a movie in which the main theme is bonding with one another, it only sticks out more.

Look, these are all things that adults are going to pick up on more than a kid.  In fact, maybe I just need to write a review from a kid’s perspective and call it a day.

I liked The Addams Family 2 because it was funny, colorful, and I ate a handful of candy while I watched it.

Snap Snap. 

Movie Review ~ Respect

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: The rise of Aretha Franklin’s career from a child singing in her father’s church’s choir to her international superstardom.

Stars: Jennifer Hudson, Forest Whitaker, Marlon Wayans, Audra McDonald, Mary J. Blige, Marc Maron, Tituss Burgess, Saycon Sengbloh, Hailey Kilgore, Tate Donovan, Skye Dakota Turner, Heather Headley, Leroy McClain

Director: Liesl Tommy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 145 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The heat in St. Louis, MO brought me into the theater to see Respect and the hurricane-level rain and winds nearly sent me right back to the streets when the power went out during a preview for the new James Bond film No Time to Die.  Having missed the press screening for this during my vacation, I was determined to see this much-hyped Aretha Franklin film in theaters as soon as possible because I had a notion this wouldn’t be just another standard biopic which recounted the same story.  So, when the power went out and the theater ushers said we could either wait fifteen minutes or get our money back, I thought: “Hmm…wait a bit or leave in the torrential rain?”  Take a guess what we did.

I’m not going to lie to you, Respect is largely your formulaic story of the rise of a legendary singer from humble beginnings to superstardom and all the bumps and tumbles along the way.  Then again, isn’t that how it all happened in the first place?  How else is this story supposed to be told?  People are always out to complain about these types of films but there are some entities and life stories that just have to be told in a particular way and you just have to sit there for over two hours and listen to it…and if you don’t like it, you’re clearly not a fan of the artist in the first place.  The movie wasn’t made for you to begin with – so why are you reviewing the film? 

I happen to be a huge fan of Aretha Franklin and trusted that when the Queen of Soul hand picked Oscar-winner Jennifer Hudson to play her, she knew what she was doing.  Even though a TV biography of her life starring Cynthia Erivo played earlier this year (to no audience or critical notice), it wasn’t approved by the Franklin estate so Respect is the one “true” story that should be considered from the point of view of the woman herself.  While Franklin, who died in 2018, didn’t live to see the movie released, her presence hangs greatly over the film and there’s ample reverence paid to her during the credits. 

Frankly, I was glad we didn’t have the messiness of the obtrusive bookends to open the film that awkwardly take us back in time to Aretha’s childhood.  Instead, screenwriters Tracy Scott Wilson and Callie Khouri just start at the very beginning (a very good, oh you know..) and show little Aretha (powerhouse Skye Dakota Turner) being woken up by Rev. C. L. Franklin (Forest Whitaker, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey) to sing for his friends at one of his famous Saturday night parties. Asked how old she was, family friend Clara Ward (Broadway’s Heather Headley) says “She’s 10, but her voice is going on 30.” and then she proves it loud and clear.  It’s a sign that the monumental vocal instrument we all knew was always present.  Estranged from Aretha’s father, her musical mother (Audra McDonald, Beauty and the Beast) encouraged her daughter to always demand to be treated with dignity and to say “no” when she doesn’t want to do something.  It will come in handy down the road.

As Aretha grows into adulthood (the film largely skips over the children she has at 12 and 14, a sensitive subject Franklin herself was always reluctant to discuss) and begins to have a mind of her own, the larger-than-life voice starts to reflect in her attitude.  Signing with Columbia records but producing no hits, she eventually has to leave the comforts of home and the care of her father in order to record the kind of music she needs in order to have a hit record.  By this time, Aretha (Hudson, Cats) is with Ted White (Marlon Wayans, On the Rocks), a relationship that will provide most of the rocky slips and skids onscreen.  The higher Aretha climbs and the more famous people she meets, the more she tries to keep the peace with the men in her life that jostle for position as alpha in their relationship…even though she is always the Queen.

While it may seem exhausting to consider watching another story of a woman demurring to men that don’t have her best interest in mind and who often stays in relationships that cause her physical and emotional pain, it’s important to understand the context of the time and the woman living through it.  That’s what Respect and the script does better than the other films telling similar stories.  There’s far more attention paid in the direction and performances into pitching these characters just right, so that they don’t become just another battered wife, unloving parent, or ego-centric man.  That’s what keeps it from droning on as it passes the two-hour mark.

Speaking of which, the film makes it to its long length because it takes its time with the music and gives audiences full throttle versions of Franklin’s greatest hits.  What’s better, on more than one occasion we are taken step by step through the creation of the songs from a songwriting perspective as well.  Want to know where the earworm chorus for “Respect” comes from?  You’ll find out here.  Even Franklin’s historic performance of “Amazing Grace” at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles is recreated to perfection by Hudson who does new wonders with her voice as she reigns in her tendency to oversing for this most important of roles.

I guess now is as good a time as any to talk about Hudson and the incredible work that’s going on in Respect.  Going into the movie, I felt like I had a good read on how Hudson would play the role but I wasn’t quite prepared for the transformation she made into Franklin.  The way she carries herself, the way she sings, the way she speaks, it’s a head-to-toe creation by the actress that is modeled after her idol and it’s less of an impression and more of a recreation of greatness.  Those disputing the performance need to go back and watch the film again, particularly Hudson’s gut-wrenching bottoming-out scenes when Franklin was at her lowest point in relation to substance abuse.  It should be more than enough to earn her an Oscar nomination…deservedly so. 

The rest of the cast largely rises to Hudson’s level as well, even Wayans who I was initially skeptical of.  While he didn’t make it over the finish like in my good graces due to his tendency to use a strange hollow voice of speech to suggest, age?, maybe? but for the most part he’s better here than he’s been in his last twelve films combined.  Whitaker feels like he’s working himself toward another Oscar nomination in something…not in this, but something.  I’ve gone on record not loving Blige’s (Rock of Ages) acting and I still think it’s iffy but her cameo role as Dinah Washington was perfection.  I’m not totally understanding where the fanaticism for Marc Maron (Joker) is for his contributions to the movie – I like Maron’s podcast but the acting here just seems like an extension of the man instead of a stretch of the man’s talent.

Having suffered through a number of these types of films (onstage as well!), Respect could easily have found its way to a Broadway theater or, shudder, a bus and truck tour.  I’m glad those in power took the time to craft a well-tailored movie for its Oscar-winning star and even if it presents a somewhat sanitized view of the singer – it also shows the darker times as well.  Even the areas the film glosses over are at least introduced.  It may not stay there long but they are indicated…other films coughcoughBohemianRhapsodycoughcough completely skip over major happenings in order for their (still living) talent to look good.  Show some respect for the Queen of Soul and the filmmakers of Respect and catch this one in theaters.

Movie Review ~ Wrath of Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mysterious and wild-eyed new cash truck security guard surprises his coworkers during a heist in which he unexpectedly unleashes precision skills. The crew is left wondering who he is and where he came from. Soon, the marksman’s ultimate motive becomes clear as he takes dramatic and irrevocable steps to settle a score.

Stars: Jason Statham, Josh Hartnett, Scott Eastwood, Holt McCallany, Jeffrey Donovan, Laz Alonso, DeObia Oparei, Niamh Algar, Eddie Marsan, Rob Delaney

Director: Guy Ritchie

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Ever since his smash bang debut feature Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was released in 1998 and made him a hot ticket in Hollywood (not to mention catching the eye of future ex-wife Madonna), director Guy Ritchie has gone through various stages of an identity crisis.  While his follow-up two years later, Snatch, delivered the goods with a bigger budget and the star power of Brad Pitt, he stumbled hard teaming up with his then-wife for the messy vanity project Swept Away before firing off two other crime capers seen as pale imitations of his earlier work.  Finally giving himself over to the studio machine, he was behind the monumentally successful (but strangely forgettable) Sherlock Holmes films and the less seen but far better update of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Things were looking grim after his King Arthur movie tanked and even a surprising foray into Disney musicals with the Aladdin remake was also met with middling reviews and marginal box office.  Then, in 2019 it seemed like the Ritchie that showed such a knack for knotty narratives was back (not to mention his eye for luxe style) with The Gentlemen, an impressive but slight crimedy (crime+comedy…did I create a new genre?).  Though not exactly up to pace, it at least showed Ritchie was limbering up to get back in the race with material he obviously displayed a greater interest in spending time with.

I find that I get a little tense when approaching American remakes of foreign films, especially by established directors that have their choice of unproduced screenplays by new writers.  Why take the time to re-do the work of another artist?  You’re just asking to be compared to that earlier work.  Seeing that Ritchie’s newest was a remake of the 2004 French thriller Le Convoyeur, I wondered if Ritchie was stepping back into old habits.  As it turns out, Wrath of Man is Ritchie’s best film in ages, a lean, (very) mean, muscled grunt of a revenge thriller that will have audiences on the edge of their seats.

Before its moody opening credits sequence (oh, how I love a title sequence!), Wrath of Man opens on the robbery of an armored truck gone wrong, a scene viewers see played out from a static position that limits what we can take in.  It’s the first of many ways Ritchie and his co-screenwriters Marn Davies and Ivan Atkinson (adapting the original script from Nicolas Boukhrief and Éric Besnard) work with cinematographer Alan Stewart (Mary Poppins Returns) to point us in the direction they want us to go, which may not always tell the whole truth.  It’s not cheating, mind you, but it’s a form of misdirection for the moment that helps keep the larger secrets of the film hidden longer. 

Sometime later, a man (Jason Statham, The Meg) arrives as the Fortico armored truck company to apply for an open position as a driver/guard for the cash deliveries and deposits across the Los Angeles area.  This is the same company who had the guards held up in the prologue and are still on high alert after the guards wound up dead.  Needing to fill an empty space on their roster, hiring manager Terry (Eddie Marsan, The Virtuoso) appears to think the new recruit is perfect for the job, but we can tell he isn’t entirely convinced he’s the one to hire.  Passing all the background checks and meeting the requirements for the job, he joins the elite squad anyway and is paired with Bullet (Holt McCallany, Greenland) a senior guard with the company.  All the guards are gifted their own nicknames and soon the quiet new employee earns the moniker, H, “as in Jesus H.” 

H isn’t on the job long before a routine run with Boy Sweat Dave (Josh Hartnett, Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later) turns into a tense stand-off between the two men and an array of armed men wanting their deposits.  H’s response to this situation (spoiler alert: he’s a man of hidden talents) impresses the higher ups at Fortico but raises suspicion within the team that there’s more to H than meets the eye.  Everyone has a right to be somewhat concerned because H is there for more than a paycheck and through a series of detours in the narrative that folds the movie around like a pretzel it becomes brutally clear he’s shown up for something no money can buy…payback. 

To say more would spoil that pretzel plot which is baked to near perfection by Ritchie and his rough and tumble gang of amped up actors.  While the pieces start to naturally fall into place with a casual meter, they never present themselves as a workmanlike schedule of beats to hit.  There are some genuine surprises throughout the film and even if the biggest one is almost shockingly delivered as a throwaway line, I found that to almost be kind of amazing, too, because the film clearly thinks it has something better up its sleeves…and it does.

Continuing their decades long working relationship, Statham and Ritchie make a great team and if this represents Ritchie’s best work in years it’s also Statham’s most mature acting on screen to date.  Affording him the opportunity to remain an action heavy while showing range simultaneously, it’s a perfect role for the actor that has been known to make a trove of films that seem interchangeable playing characters indistinguishable from the next.  He receives some nice back-up from the always underrated McCallany as his guide into Fortico and while I’m not entirely persuaded with Hartnett turning up as a gruff and rough big-talker, I was convinced he’d go pale when faced with real life danger.  I’ll opt out of saying how they figure into the plot, but Andy Garcia (Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar), Jeffrey Donovan (Lucy in the Sky) and Scott Eastwood (Texas Chainsaw 3D), round out the top-notch supporting cast.  Mostly a male-dominated roster, the few women in the picture are wives that float into the frame to kiss their husbands goodbye on their way to work or cry over the loss of a loved one, but the lone female working at Fortico (Niamh Algar, The Shadow of Violence) is shown as just one of the guys but hops into bed with H after he barely blinks at her.  Strong female roles have never been Ritchie’s most dependable suit and that’s one of the film’s blatant weaknesses.

Now working on a television adaptation of The Gentlemen (smart move), another thriller with Hartnett, Aubrey Plaza, and Hugh Grant (interesting), and a likely sequel to Aladdin (please, no), Ritchie seems to be back in the groove of things.  Films like Wrath of Man are exactly the tone and temperament he excels at and knows when to pull back on.  There were a number of times I noticed acts of violence that could have been shown in greater detail were either omitted or quickly cut away from, giving the viewer the general idea because he’s engineered the film to paint that picture already in our mind.  Combine that with Statham’s blistering performance and Ritchie’s typically interesting song selections and you have a brawler bit of entertainment.

The Silver Bullet ~ Valley Girl (2020)

Synopsis: Set to a new wave ’80s soundtrack, a pair of young lovers from different backgrounds defy their parents and friends to stay together. A musical adaptation of the 1983 film.

Release Date:  May 8, 2020

Thoughts:  In Hollywood, the phrase ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ doesn’t really apply…it’s more like ‘If it’s ain’t broke, remake it’ and that could explain why we’re finally getting a look at this trailer for the long in development new edition of 1983’s Valley Girl.  Now, at first, I was, like, totally horrified at the thought of a true time capsule of cinema getting re-done because, like, why? Gag me with a spoon.  Then I heard it wasn’t just a simple remake but would add some gnarly tuneage from the era to become a full blown musical so I was, like, open to the idea.  I’m pretty sure I’ll be all ‘Whatever’ about the end product but after, like, six weeks of stay at home quarantine I have to admit the fun frolicking in Day-Glo neon on display looks like totally tubular fun right about now.  Starring Jessica Rothe (Happy Death Day and Happy Death Day 2 U) with a little cameo from Alicia Silverstone (The Lodge), I’ll probably swing by this party….but only if the apps are tasty. 

The Silver Bullet ~ No Time to Die

1

Synopsis: Bond has left active service. His peace is short-lived when his old friend Felix Leiter from the CIA turns up asking for help, leading Bond onto the trail of a mysterious villain armed with dangerous new technology.

Release Date:  April 8, 2020

Thoughts: Fans of James Bond have had to wait a little longer than usual for the 25th adventure of the international spy…but at this point we should be counting our blessings No Time to Die is arriving at all.  Star Daniel Craig (Skyfall) famously had become a bit grumpy with playing the role and it took some convincing for him to return to finish off his contract and it’s now been confirmed this will be his last outing as Bond.  When Craig finally signed on, the film went through several directors, which further pushed back its release date.  Script problems, onset injuries, and other maladies surrounding the production continued to delay Bond’s return.

Thankfully, this first look at No Time to Die appears to find Bond back in fighting form with the five-year gap between Spectre and this film hopefully worth the wait.  Plot details are thin but we know recent Oscar-winner Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody) is the villain and Lashana Lynch (Captain Marvel) and Ana de Armas (Knives Out) have been added to the cast as strong females Bond has to contend with.  Directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga who was behind season 1 of HBO’s True Detective and with a script punched up by Emmy winner Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Solo: A Star Wars Story), my excitement for this one was already brewing but now the heat is definitely starting to rise.

Now…who is singing the theme song??

Movie Review ~ Child’s Play (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A mother gives her son a toy doll for his birthday, unaware of its more sinister nature.

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Brian Tyree Henry, Gabriel Bateman, Mark Hamill, Ty Consiglio, Nicole Anthony, Carlease Burke

Director: Lars Klevberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: I’ve heard a lot of talk lately from podcasters and film pundits about how 2019 has been a disappointing year for theatrically released films and up until I saw the remake of Child’s Play I didn’t agree. Having now seen the low-budget and low-brain cell reimagining of the 1988 surprise shocker that launched an unexpectedly lucrative franchise, I can easily point to it as the type of film that is sinking the box office and eradicating audience expectations of quality. This is a bottom-feeding exercise in how to take a valued property and dumb it down to the lowest common denominator in filmmaking and leave nothing but crude remnants of an idea that have been hastily assembled.

In the original film, the soul of a murderer was transferred into a popular children’s doll that started wreaking small-scale havoc in the life of a boy and his mother. When young Andy told his mother that the strange things that have been happening were because “Chucky did it”, it was spooky and ominous. Spawning six sequels and a television series currently in development, the Child’s Play series morphed from outright horror into a mix of comedic meta commentary in-between some gruesome bits of gore…but they were always interesting thanks to the effects team that brought Chucky to life. Add in Brad Dourif’s instantly recognizable voice of the demonic doll and you have a one-name film villain that stands up next to the likes of Jason, Freddy, and Michael.

On paper, I can see why Child’s Play might seem like a good property to get an upgrade. It’s been over thirty years since the first film was released and technology has changed in the three decades since Chucky was first introduced. Why not re-imagine Chucky as Buddi, an Alexa-ish techdoll that not only would be a best friend to your kid but could also control all of your branded devices designed by the same manufacturer? And how about removing the supernatural element, while you’re at it. No more evil soul inhabiting the doll, just have him programmed without restrictions by a vengeful worker. Now his loyalty would know no bounds…he’d kill to be your friend to the end.

Having just moved to a new apartment, Andy (Gabriel Batman, Annabelle) and his single mom Karen (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed) are still adjusting to their new environment. Karen works at a knock-off department store that is getting ready for the launch of the Buddi 2, the next generation of best-selling toys that every kid in America wants. When a first generation Buddi is returned, Karen convinces her manager to let her keep it and gives it as a gift to her son as an early birthday present. At first, the doll is fun in a kitschy weird way for Andy and it’s unfiltered vocabulary attracts the attention of several kids in the apartment building. As Andy makes more friends and loses interest in his weird-looking toy, the doll starts to get jealous of anyone that comes between him and his best friend and takes deadly measures to make sure he’s always #1.

The problem is in the, ahem, execution of Tyler Burton Smith’s hokey pokey screenplay. It just isn’t sophisticated enough to go beyond a simple logline concept that bears the fruit of a fully realized motion picture. There’s nothing in the movie that is of any value or permanence, be it character, motivation, or logic. We’re supposed to believe Karen and Andy are new to the area yet Karen seems to have a long-term boyfriend and appears quite settled in her dead-end job. Worse, the movie introduces Andy as having a hearing impairment that is barely discussed or factored into the plot unless it is the punchline for an off-color joke. One moment a detective (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk, slumming it here in more ways than one) is troubled by grisly deaths that seem to be linked the apartment complex his mom lives in and the next he’s laughing it up over dinner with a boy (Andy) he just met and invited in. I’m positive the movie was edited down from a longer cut (thank God!) but no one bothered to make sure the continuity was there from one scene to the next. A major character dies and aside from a scene showing Karen swigging a glass of wine they are barely mourned.

Then there’s Chucky himself. I don’t know how it’s possible in 2019 to have such an ugly, fake looking doll but the producers of Child’s Play have managed to make the 1988 doll look positively futuristic in comparison. The mouth crudely moves up and down, making a big O and a squished O, all while Mark Hamill’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) goofy, nasally voice of Chucky is coming forth. It’s like an awful roadside animatronic you’d find in some backwater Kentucky town. You never see the doll move independently and the few times he does move his hands in quick action the animation is decidedly questionable. The only performance worse than the doll is Plaza, who is atrocious and atrociously miscast.

Director Lars Klevberg has had some small success with his Norwegian horror entries but his big shot at a Hollywood film is a major bust. The creativity is nil and even the cinematography is frustratingly pedestrian. There’s also a major question on taste level here. Eviscerating animals, ripping off faces, spraying little girls with blood, and viciously knifing old ladies isn’t exactly the type of horror film we should be clamoring for right now. It’s like the movie got a greenlight and then no one knew what to do…though I’m not convinced any studio head actually read the screenplay for this nonsense. Usually I roll my eyes at devotees of a film that whine about a modern remake but in the case of Child’s Play I can say the fans were right to be worried. This is an abysmal effort, unworthy to carry the Child’s Play moniker.

Movie Review ~ The Hustle

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two female scam artists, one low rent and the other high class, team up to take down the dirty rotten men who have wronged them.

Stars: Rebel Wilson, Anne Hathaway, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Oliver

Director: Chris Addison

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Just a few short months ago I was praising actress Rebel Wilson for her starring role in the February rom-com Isn’t it Romantic, remarking that I was glad she seemed to be less reliant on her usual fallback shtick to get laughs. The respite from this broad comedy was brief, though, because The Hustle has arrived on the scene as a stealth counter-programming move to the unstoppable blockbuster Avengers: Endgame and it finds Wilson back in well-worn territory that doesn’t do anything to convince her naysayers she’s capable of surprising viewers.

That’s too bad, too, because there was real potential for The Hustle to be more than it winds up being. A more faithful remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which itself was a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story) than I originally thought it was going to be, it gives Wilson her best co-star to date in Oscar winner Anne Hathaway but doesn’t seem to really know what to do with either lady. Therefore, it winds up being a modestly entertaining time waster providing some gentle chuckles (and one riotously funny sequence) but it’s mostly content to sneak away with your summer money…much like the two female thieves at its center.

After a frothy animated title scene (side note: boy, do I miss a nice credit sequence in movies) we meet up with Penny (Wilson, Pitch Perfect 3) as she’s sidling up to catfish a man (Timothy Simons, The Boss) in a bar. Penny wants people to like her for who she is on the inside not the outside…but she’s going about it in all the wrong ways. Luring the man to the bar using a picture of a different girl, she waits until he proves himself to only care about looks before justifying swindling him out of cash.  This scene is totally unnecessary to the overall plot of the film and seems to only be in there for a visual gag that’s already been selfishly spoiled (as many, many, many of the jokes have) in the trailer.

The movie starts to show some life when Penny meets Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises) on a train to Beaumont-Sur-Mer on the French Riviera. Amused after observing Penny’s efforts in conning an easy mark, Josephine comes to realize Penny might be more competition than she original thought and decides to take her under her wing. After some brief training passages involving physical comedy at the expense of Wilson’s nether-regions and a nice reimagining of a memorable scene from the 1988 film, Penny has graduated and is ready for the big time cons.  Together, the two women grift rich unsuspecting men until one guy (Alex Sharp, How to Talk to Girls at Parties) comes between them and the stakes are raised even higher when love comes into the mix.

By far, the funniest sequence in the film has Wilson posing as a blind innocent hoping to get money for an experimental therapy…only to have Hathaway show up as the German therapist Wilson created as part of her scheme. Watching Hathaway “test” the extent of Wilson’s blindness and try to cure her had me absolutely crying with laughter. Perhaps it was just the mood I was in or the fact that the rest of the film was so weary in its doling out of genuinely funny moments, but this section of the movie alone is enough for me to give it a recommendation.

With Oceans 8 and now this, Hathaway seems to be trying to politely shed the twee persona that became so aggravating around her Les Misérables days, anxiously sinking her teeth into another unapologetic man-eater role. She takes on a befuddling basso profundo Brit accent as Josephine and I couldn’t quite tell if she was actively trying to be bad or if director Chris Addison didn’t have the heart to tell her it stunk.  Thankfully, she gets into her groove right around the time she takes on the German therapist persona and rides that nicely for the rest of the feature. As I mentioned before, she’s matched nicely with Wilson and they seem to get along swimmingly – you get the impression the scenes were cut off right before the actresses burst into laughter.

When the film sticks to the skeleton of its predecessor it really hums and that’s a testament to how well Dale Launer’s script has held up over the last three decades. There’s a few amusing references to the earlier film that fans will likely catch and I liked that there were times I couldn’t tell if this was a remake or a sequel – I half expected original stars Steven Martin or Michael Caine to make an appearance at some point. Yet with too much reliance on Wilson’s same-old comedic foibles and despite the best attempt by Hathaway to drag her co-star away from the obvious jokes, it can’t make an assertive enough play to be remembered as a lesser-than remake of a more joyous film. Still – I’d be totally lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself more than I thought I would for the majority of the 90 or so odd minutes the film occupied my consciousness.

Oh…and stay until the very end of the film. There’s a post-credit scene that’s decently long with one very good joke in it.

31 Days to Scare ~ He Knows You’re Alone (1980)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young bride-to-be is being stalked by a serial killer.

Stars: Don Scardino, Caitlin O’Heaney, Patsy Pease, Elizabeth Kemp, Tom Rolfing, James Rebhorn, Dana Barron, Tom Hanks

Director: Armand Mastroianni

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  For years all I had heard about He Knows You’re Alone was the tiny trivia factoid that it was the screen debut of Tom Hanks.  Over the years it’s become a footnote to his resume and not much else, falling into the forgotten pit of early slasher films.  Usually, these movies earned their place on the bottom of the heap so when I finally caught this one I was pleasantly surprised to find He Knows You’re Alone to be a competent, if not outright totally entertaining, bit of ‘80s nostalgia.

It’s almost impossible to watch the movie now and try to bear in mind just how early it arrived on the scene.  Released in August of 1980, it came out three months after Friday the 13th and two years after Halloween.  Sequels to both these lasting franchises hadn’t been released and the clones and copycats hadn’t reared their low-budget heads yet so He Knows You’re Alone was still a newcomer to audiences looking for some scares.  Also, the focus on guts and gore hadn’t become de rigueur yet which is why the film is curiously absent of grotesque make-up and buckets of blood.

Leading with a strong opening that’s meta before it became a cliché, we quickly get down to business as a killer dispatches of a young lass at a movie theater.  This killer (creepily played by Tom Rolfing) doesn’t wear a mask so we always know who’s behind it all, but screenwriter Scott Parker has fleshed out the maniac and through flashbacks shows him to be a jilted lover triggered by any female ready to walk down the aisle.  While heading out of town, the killer happens upon a woman (Caitlin O’Heaney) saying goodbye to her fiancé as he departs for his bachelor weekend.  She’ll be spending time with her bridal party so they’re all vulnerable to the killer stalking them over the next few days.

While it draws comparisons in hindsight to Friday the 13th (even though it was filming at the same time) the movie obviously follows the rough outline set out by Halloween, the granddaddy of all slasher films.  The three women each have their own agenda for the weekend; one is going to get some (the delightfully slutty Patsy Pease romping around with her married professor lover played by the late, great James Rebhorn, I Love Trouble) one wants to get some (Elizabeth Kemp, looking to hook-up with a jogger played by Hanks, Saving Mr. Banks), and our bride still isn’t sure her fiancé is the man for her and entertains leaving him for a former flame (Don Scardino).

Director Armand Mastroianni plays it relatively cool for the first hour or so, peppering the film with the occasional suspense sequence but focusing a large amount of time on character development. They might be one-dimensional creations but they sure do get time to talk!  With a lack of blood and gore the film can feel a bit “soft” for the genre but I for one appreciated not seeing every last person disemboweled or sliced up.  I’m sure budget had everything to do with it but the restraint shown here is admirable.

Performances are strong and O’Heaney is a steely lead.  With her beady eyes and pointed features she comes off as an ordinary woman caught in an extraordinary circumstance.  I appreciated that when she starts running from the killer she doesn’t stick around the house to be picked off but instead runs as fast as she can into town and, admittedly, into the protective arms of her ex.  Kicking into high gear for a finale set inside a cavernous mortuary that stretches ever so slightly longer than it should, there is a nice wrap-up that allows our final girl to get up close and personal with her stalker.  For what it’s worth, Hanks is nice enough to have around even though he doesn’t play much of a part in the grand scheme of things.  Not making an appearance until the film is more than half over, rumor has it his character was supposed to be killed off but producers felt like the audience would find him too likable to be killed so he just kind of disappears near the end.

This is one that’s too good to be totally forgotten.  Though other movies would come around that would be scarier and gorier, there’s some fun stuff going on.  It may be too slow for audiences weaned on numerous jump scares and too tame for those with a bloodlust but I feel the film holds up nicely even when you do compare it to other films in the genre.  It may sit alone on a shelf during this time of year as more intense films are dusted off, but give this one a go if you have the chance.