Movie Review ~ Infinite Storm

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a climber gets caught in a blizzard on Mount Washington, she encounters a stranded stranger and must get them both down the mountain before nightfall.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Billy Howle, Denis O’Hare, Parker Sawyers
Director: Malgorzata Szumowska, Michal Englert
Rated: R
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Over time, I’ve found certain actresses that I gravitate toward because they have a quality, a spirit, that you can’t help wanting to get behind. Australian actress Naomi Watts is on that shortlist for me. Perhaps it’s because she’s a dedicated veteran that’s given it her all in films that haven’t allowed her to be painted into a corner. Most of the time, it’s yielded successful results, but it hasn’t brought her a golden trophy named Oscar she can rest on her mantle. It’s a goal I feel Watts tries to aim for, often blatantly, and the newest effort is the survival drama Infinite Storm. Whereas her traumatic performance in the pulverizing tsunami film 2012’s The Impossible last brought her to The Academy Awards, Infinite Storm will leave her (and audiences) out in the cold.

Not that Watts doesn’t, as usual, go for broke playing an experienced climber who works as a volunteer search and rescue operator that finds herself caught in an unexpected storm. Polish directors Malgorzata Szumowska & Michal Englert take their time getting Watts to her mountain, taking audiences through her morning routine, and chit-chat with a shop owner (Denis O’Hare, Dallas Buyers Club) before she zips up and heads out. It’s an otherwise ordinary journey up Mount Washington until the weather suddenly turns, and her instincts send her down to safety. She’s not faster than the storm, though, and she gets caught up in it, along with another mystery man (Billy Howle, Dunkirk) she runs into on her way down. Without the proper equipment, she has to do the work for both of them if either is to survive.

Without giving too much away, I’ll say that there’s more to the film than what you see in the trailers, but I wish I could hint that it’s worth checking out. Even the first half, which should see pulses race as Watts kicks into survival mode, fail to quicken much, and it’s primarily due to a curious lack of connection between the actors with each other or the viewer. There’s not much to grab onto, so you’re left to flail around aimlessly. That makes for a tiring experience, made more exhausting by the screenplay from Josh Rollins that consists primarily of Watts saying her companion’s name ad infinitum. She says his name (John) so much that you almost start to hope one doesn’t make it down alive…almost.

Based on a true story drawn from Ty Gagne’s article, “High Places: Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue”, I wanted Infinite Storm to operate on a scale as impressive as some of Englert’s gorgeous cinematography. Too much is lost to a blizzard of histrionics that again keep Watts from finding a prime role of which she’s been deserving. Scale this mountain at your own risk.

INFINITE STORM will be available on demand starting April 12th

Rent or buy on all major platforms including Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play & Vudu.

Movie Review ~ Boss Level

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A retired special forces officer is trapped in a never-ending time loop on the day of his death.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rob Gronkowski

Director: Joe Carnahan

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Quick!  Tell me the last time you were able to watch a Mel Gibson movie (any Mel Gibson movie) and not think about all the crazy way his career took a bizarre twist around 2006.  Clearly under the influence, Gibson was caught on tape ranting about all sorts of unfortunate things, not the least of which were anti-Semitic comments that cast the once sure-fire hit actor as an unhinged looney toon-a-tic.  For a while, it looked as if Gibson’s career was going to be another one undone by an actor’s inability to reconcile with their own internal demons.  Relegated to low-profile cameos in films by his friends or throwing himself into passion projects, Gibson’s been largely out of the public eye for almost fifteen years and only lately has started to turn up in higher profile endeavors where he’s not bearing the weight of the entire production on his shoulders.

That’s good news for Frank Grillo, star of the new Hulu action film Boss Level because had this film been made at the height of Gibson’s stardom, not only would Gibson’s villain role been moved to more of a central figure but it’s likely Gibson himself might have taken on Grillo’s leading man role himself.  It’s especially good news for us because both actors are perfectly cast where they are in a movie that looks like it would be just a hyperactive, bloodier version of the streaming service’s own small wonder hit Palm Springs but is actually just as creative and breathlessly fun and funny as that late summer romp.  More than anything, it’s exciting to see Grillo, who has paid his dues for years in Hollywood as a second or third banana in major studio fare or as the heavy in indie productions that aren’t at his level, finally get a significant chance to move up a pay grade.

Roy Pulver (Grillo, Homefront) has been having a bad morning for a few hundred days by the time we meet him.  Rudely woken up by a machete-wielding assassin, Roy has only moments to dispatch of him, dress and get out of the way of the helicopter hovering outside his windows with a gunman hanging off ready to take aim.  The first killers of the day seem like small potatoes compared to the deadly female sharpshooters, backwoods bumpkin with a crossbow, little person with a big bomb, self-name-checking swordswoman, and doppelgänger slayer (among others) that have been sent to off Roy in a variety of ways before he can make it to lunchtime.  Yet each time he gets shot, run over, blown up, decapitated, sliced and diced, or eviscerated he wakes up to the same machete-wielding assassin and has to go through it all again.

Why is this happening to Roy, a former special forces guy that can take a beating and keep on going in the best of circumstances but is getting tired of dying day in and day out?  Does it have anything to do with the visit he paid yesterday to his former flame Jemma (Naomi Watts, Luce) who has been working on a top-secret project for a mysterious industrial company run by Colonel Clive Ventor (Gibson, Mad Max).  Various clues in a prolonged flashback sequence point to yes but screenwriters Chris Borey, Eddie Borey, & Joe Carnahan (who also directed) don’t let all the secrets out too early on and that’s wise because Boss Level wouldn’t work as well as it does in keeping us engaged if we saw where things were headed.

Instead, Carnahan (The Grey) keeps giving us information the same time Roy gets it and that acts as definite amplifiers of energy right about the time the movie seems to be losing some steam.  The first jolt happens right about when Ken Jeong (Scoob!) appears and threatens to derail the zip of the opening with his staler than stale comedy but then Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians) enters as a champion sword fighter and suddenly we’re back on track.  The bursts of energy continue from there and you may even think the movie is coming to a close and ending on a somber note, but check your watch because there’s more than enough time for Carnahan, Grillo, and co. to stage a satisfying finale.  With ample amounts of wink-wink comedy and a willingness to go a little broad (Selina Lo’s deadly Guan Yin never misses a chance to drop her catchphrase as a magically appearing wind blows through her hair), Boss Level parallels Palm Springs not just in the time loop set-up but in the sneaky way that it burrows into our good graces.

Grillo’s been working his way through the film industry for some time and always manages to acquit himself in even the dreariest of releases (see the droopy Body Brokers, released just a few weeks ago for proof) so it’s nice Boss Level has come his way.  He deserves a flashy movie like this that I think will be well received with good replay value.  If we’re being honest, Gibson’s role feels like a favor from Carnahan because he’s not required to do much, and I’d wager the actor completed his work in no more than three or four days.  A star’s a star though and Gibson, for all his troubles, can play both the hero and the villain.  It’s nice to see Watts in her second role in as many months where she’s not taking herself so seriously.  While Penguin Bloom for Netflix was a real-life drama about a woman learning to live as a paraplegic and befriending a magpie, it was a rare opportunity for Watts to be a little looser in her acting and a fresher performance emerged because of it.  Same goes for her work in Boss Level.  She’s tasked with some inane scientific dialogue around time travel that might sound totally implausible with another actress, but she’s got just enough gravitas to make it not sound totally beyond reason.  If there’s one person I would have urged Carnahan to rethink (aside from Jeong who really is long past his sell-by date), it’s not any of the diverse group of assassins but Will Sasso (Irresistible) as Gibson’s right-hand goon.  Either the writers completely lost interest in this character early in the writing process or Sasso didn’t sell it right but it’s such a bland role that could have been a lot more energized with some sort of gimmick that made it memorable.

The film is far too digitized to be called handsomely rendered yet the action sequences do have a gentle thrill to them.  I would have taken less of the showier large scale set pieces that were completely computer generated in favor of more one on one interactions.  It’s these scenes between Roy/Grillo and the other assassins/actors that are arguably more entertaining to watch, even from a visual standpoint.  Boss Level moves so fast and furious, though, that you hardly have time to catch your breath before you’re shot like a cannon into the next foe (or starting again from the beginning) so things are in constant motion.  I keep saying I’m over these time loop movies but if they keep getting done as well as Palm Springs and Boss Level, why stop now?

Movie Review ~ Penguin Bloom

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: When an unlikely ally enters the Bloom family’s world in the form of an injured baby magpie they name Penguin, the bird’s arrival makes a profound difference in the struggling family’s life.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Andrew Lincoln, Jacki Weaver, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Rachel House, Felix Cameron, Abe Clifford-Barr, Gia Carides, Leeanna Walsman, Lisa Hensley, Randolph Fields

Director: Glendyn Ivin

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  What I loved most about one of my all-time favorite critics Roger Ebert is that he could review a movie that was a top awards contender or the ninth sequel in a once popular franchise film and give them both equal considerations based on their individual merits.  He didn’t compare the two to each other, he didn’t contrast the ninth sequel with the fourth sequel or ponder what could have been done in the sixth one to make the eighth lay better groundwork for the film he was watching then.  He reported back to you how he felt about that movie on that day and often would revisit a film later and talk about how his experience changed over time on a second or third watch.  I know I’ve looked over reviews I’ve done in the past for this site and couldn’t believe the high (or low) scores I’ve given a film.  However, that’s where I was at the time and I have to trust my opinion I formed back then.

Maybe that’s my preamble apology (or is it excuse?) for what I’m going to say in the next few hundred or so words about Penguin Bloom, premiering on Netflix January 27th.  Here’s a movie, based on a real-life family in New Zealand, that couldn’t be more predictable and made up of your standard formulaic elements that go into films surrounding overcoming adversity.  It’s a kitchen sink flick that tries to fit as many issues in as possible and I’m half-amazed they couldn’t find a way to stick in a pair of bumbling thieves for a late in the game attempted bird-napping but, alas, screenwriters Harry Cripps & Shaun Grant (True History of the Kelly Gang) stick closely to the adaptation of the book from Cameron Bloom & Bradley Trevor Greive.  Yet the fact remains that I wrapped up the film with a genuine warmth I didn’t have before I started it and it’s largely due to its admirable unwillingness to hide from its own mawkishness.

On a 2013 family vacation in Thailand, active mom and nurse Sam Bloom leaned back on a balcony railing and her life changed forever.  Falling nearly 20 feet to the concrete pavement below, she was paralyzed from the waist down…but she was alive.  With three young boys and a photographer husband she would now have to rely on, the once unstoppable force of nature had the wind knocked out of her sails and fell into a deep depression when faced with her new normal.  Rarely venturing out of the house and refusing the extra care offered by family and friends, life is going on for Sam and the rest of the Blooms but nothing is flourishing.  That’s the point where director Glendyn Ivin opens the film and while we get glimpses of life before the accident and small snippets of the horrific event itself, the action primarily is focused on the Bloom house and Sam’s life within.

Noah Bloom (Griffin Murray-Johnston) narrates the film, watching as his mother (Naomi Watts, Luce) exerts great energy to even pull herself up into a sitting position.  Frustrating easily, she hasn’t quite mastered her way around their oceanside home yet and her wheelchair makes it difficult/impractical for her to accompany her outdoors-y sons to the beach or through their various daily adventures.  Husband Cameron (Andrew Lincoln, Love, Actually) helps as much as he can, but backs off when his wife feels lorded over.  Her busybody mother (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) pays frequent visits, never missing an opportunity to point out something her once go-getter daughter could be doing differently and showing that even in the face of permanent paralysis, some mothers think there’s no excuse for having a dirty house.  Mostly, Sam sits alone, looking at a wall of pictures of their life of abundant activity before Thailand.

While exploring the beach, the boys find an injured magpie that fell from its nest and bring it home in hopes of nursing it back to health.  You can take one guess who is the most against the bird (named Penguin) at first and then I’ll let you go double or nothing to predict who will form the greatest bond with Penguin over time.  The discovery of the injured bird the boys can nurse back to health and the way the bird seems to intuit family behavior is the tip of an iceberg of metaphors the screenwriters have placed along the way. The movie is just chock-a-block with parallels to how, among other bits, the healing of Penguin starts the healing process in Sam that you start to chart the course of where the journey for both human and bird will wind up.  Unable to perform a miracle and restore their mother/wife back whole, there’s an unspoken knowledge among the Bloom men that their attention for this bird represents all that they wish they could be doing to help their family member.

To the great credit of the film, this isn’t a Mr. Popper’s Penguins sort of situation where it becomes more about magpie antics than serious minded drama but there is a general light tone to the movie, even in its darker passages.  A particularly upsetting sequence near the end is tough to watch, but only because the movie has lined you up perfectly to be targeted for that emotional reaction.  (No, that’s not a spoiler, by the way.)  It was refreshing to be diverted away from some of the oft-traveled roads in these types of films or at least have the scenery not be exactly what you think.  More often than not, even when the most predictable of moments arrive they aren’t dwelled upon long enough for viewers to squirm within the familiarity.  It’s also not a movie with Watts chatting with a magpie and working out her emotions as if in a one-woman tour de force, it’s hard to describe but both are good scene partners in some strange way.

Speaking of performances, there’s solid work going on throughout the picture from the always underrated Watts turning in gold star work on a silver star picture.  I don’t always love her choices in roles or films – she’s flirted with the Oscars a few times and has never been the right choice to win.  She has the chops to get one, but it can’t be for roles like this…not that it comes across like she’s trying for it here with her relaxed showing.  Not a fan of The Walking Dead here so I’ll have to trust you that Lincoln is dependable in the long run; he’s serviceable, if not all together memorable as your typical supportive husband and the same goes for Weaver in a role that feels too constricting for the quality of work she’s capable of.  The boys are all fresh-faced and naturalistic, with Murray-Johnston handling himself nicely but coming up just a tad short in a pivotal scene.  By far, the best performance in the film is Rachel House (Soul) as a kayak instructor that enters the Bloom’s life at the right time.  House brings a special kind of light to the picture in her few short scenes and, don’t tell anyone, but there were times when I wondered what was going on at her character’s house because she was able to create something unique in her character that generated interest to know more.

At a short 95 minutes, the film develops a nice zeal with threads of harmony in the final act and found some moving scenes for Watts to shine. While it can be a hair on the heavy-handed side as it makes that final climb up to its conclusion, it doesn’t overburden you by staying in that weighty area for too long and instead chooses to keep its head up as it focuses on the bigger picture. Ultimately, Penguin Bloom is a pleasantly pleasant sort of film from Down Under and one that feels like it was the best one that could have been made from the story it wanted to tell.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Ring (2002)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A journalist must investigate a mysterious videotape that seems to cause the death of anyone one week to the day after they view it.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Martin Henderson, David Dorfman, Brian Cox, Jane Alexander, Lindsay Frost

Director: Gore Verbinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There’s nothing like seeing a movie in a packed theater.  Nothing.  I don’t care if it’s a high octane action adventure, a period drama, or a raucous comedy, the energy that comes from being shoulder to shoulder with a group of people all having the same shared experience is not something that can be duplicated at home.  That’s especially true with horror movies because often it’s hearing the shrieks of others that add to the engagement of the crowd – maybe you chuckle at the screamer for jumping at such an obvious moment or perhaps you nervously laugh because it could have been you that let out that great big yelp.

I vividly remember being jam-packed into a theater for an early screening of The Ring in October of 2002 and feeling a palpable tension before the movie even began.  The trailer for the movie was pretty freaky and while the general plot of the movie was known, not much more had been revealed so unless you were familiar with the original Japanese novel by Kôji Suzuki or 1998 movie you likely were going into the film without any idea of what you were in for.  Being a remake of a Japanese film, this isn’t simply an outright horror gore fest but a mystery with terror elements coming into play as the protagonist gets closer to the truth.  Even rewatching it recently, I was pleasantly surprised how well it held up after all these years…especially the scares.

An investigative reporter (Naomi Watts, Luce) looks into the death of her niece and uncovers a supernatural evil that follows her home.  A videotape exists that, once watched, will start a cycle of death and madness that must be stopped before seven days have passed.  When her son (David Dorfman) is exposed to the tape she works with her ex-boyfriend (Martin Henderson, Everest) to find the origin of the VHS, eventually tracing it to a family haunted by secrets living on a remote island.  As the days tick away and an evil presence grows closer, the journalist must figure out how to break the curse before it comes for her.

It’s nice to remember that of all the remakes of Japanese horror films, The Ring was the first out of the gate and is the most successful of the lot.  Director Gore Verbinski (The Lone Ranger) and screenwriter Ehren Kruger (Dumbo) have taken the original 1998 film Ringu from Hideo Nakata and nicely transplanted it to Washington state in addition to other easy adjustments for US audiences.  It’s lacking in some of the subtleties that helped make Ringu so frightening but it achieves its own share of scares that are often as memorable.  Verbinski’s film looks great and I’d only wish the performances were a bit more even-keeled throughout.  Watts makes for a strong and competent lead but she’s prone to jump into wild-eyed mode at the drop of a hat.  Less successful are Henderson and Dorfman as the two men in her life…both are kinda duds and feel like they get in the way of Watts when she’s trying to keep the picture chugging along.

Inspiring an uninspired sequel (that brought back director Hideo Nakata) and an even worse third film that barely got released, I’m dreading the day when I hear this is going to be remade in a similar fashion to The Grudge.  Another US remake may improve The Grudge which was never that strong to begin with but The Ring got it right out of the gate so there’s nothing to be gained from restarting from the ground up.  I enjoy this movie for its craftsmanship and high scare factor – no improvement needed.

Movie Review ~ Luce

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake

Director: Julius Onah

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability.  Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well.  Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing.  Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do.  Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list.  All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path.  You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.

Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox).  I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well.  Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over.  It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours.  What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.

When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job.  Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted.  As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher.  The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.

This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view.  Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved.  At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard?  Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.

These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves.  One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place?  Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice.  Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound.  Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.

The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel.  It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does.  I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil.  As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him.  By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.

Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year.  They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book.  Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.  I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges.  That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation.  No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.

The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us.  While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out.  It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.

Movie Review ~ The Divergent Series: Allegiant

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divergent_series_allegiant_ver4
The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the earth-shattering revelations of Insurgent, Tris must escape with Four beyond the wall that encircles Chicago to finally discover the shocking truth of what lies behind it.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Jeff Daniels, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Keiynan Lonsdale, Jonny Weston, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim, Nadia Hilker, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Robert Schwentke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When Divergent was released in 2014, the hope was that it would be Summit Entertainment’s answer to The Hunger Games gauntlet thrown down by Lionsgate, a rival studio.  It wasn’t.  Actually, Divergent was so airless that when its sequel (Insurgent) rolled out a year later I didn’t even bother to see it.  What’s the point of continuing on with a series if the audience doesn’t really care about characters played by actors that don’t seem to care themselves about anything more than their paychecks and the perks of an international press tour.

In preparing for Allegiant, I went back and re-watched Divergent to see if my original feelings held up.  Boy, did they ever.  I still find Divergent to be a major bore, peppered with blank performances, spotty special effects, and a plot so convolutedly serpentine that it winds up feeling like it’s being made up on the fly and not adapted from the first in a series of bestsellers by Veronica Roth.  I continue to have a major problem with the violence towards women, grimacing each time the film finds our heroine getting beaten about the head and face by a male peer.

Since I’m never one to skimp on my homework, I gave Insurgent an overdue spin and to my surprise found it more than marginally better than its predecessor.  It’s still hopelessly devoid of point and general interest but with a new director (Robert Schwentke) and better special effects, the overall feeling of the series as a whole was that it was finding its footing (though I don’t feel like a series should ever need to take an entire first chapter to work out the kinks).

So going into Allegiant I was ready to see it improve upon the previous entry.  With the same director returning along with its cast made up of representatives of young Hollywood supported by several Oscar nominated/winning veterans there was surely hope to be had.

Wrong.  So very wrong.

First off is that Allegiant continues the unfortunate trend of studios with dollar-signs in their eyes and opting to split the final installment into two movies.  It worked for Harry Potter, it kinda worked for Twilight, and it definitely worked for The Hunger Games…but Allegiant is not destined to be put into any marginally successfully category because it’s actually the worst entry yet.  Instead of besting Insurgent, it falls far behind Divergent thanks to uninspired performances, downright lousy special effects, and the cold hard truth that the whole series is not about anything.

If you haven’t seen Insurgent yet, you best stop reading now because it’s impossible to discuss this one without letting a few spoilers slide by.

Jeanine is dead.  And Kate Winslet must have been so happy she wasn’t contractually obligated (like Ashley Judd seems to be) to appear in installments after her character was shot down by Evelyn (Naomi Watts, The Impossible, acting like her life depended on it in a brunette wig).  The message received at the end of Insurgent suggests that outside the wall that surrounds Chicago is a population waiting for the divergents to appear.  With the faction system breaking down and naysayers unlawfully executed, it’s more important than ever to scale the massive wall and hope that what’s outside is better than what’s inside.

When her brother (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) is lined up to be next on the chopping block, Tris (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) and Four (Theo James) escape with him and their friends (Zoe Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, and Maggie Q), literally walking up the wall through an electrified fence.  Before going over the wall, the screenwriters trim the escapees by one in a most unceremonious fashion…losing one of the more interesting characters is a bummer for us but good for them because they’re spared from what happens next.

Outside the wall is a wasteland, a fleshy red landscape irrigated by a red rain.  Why?  The film never says…probably because it just looks good and goes with the costume design. Salvation comes when the group is rescued and brought to what used to be Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, though it’s been redesigned to look like the first pass of architectural model by a grade school student with no eye for functionality.  Ruled by David (Jeff Daniels, The Martian, with sad eyes that tells us he can see his career fading) who’s focused on separating the “pure” from the “damaged”, a divide arises between Tris and her friends that will call into question their, um, allegiance.

To say more would be giving the wafer thin plot more time than it deserves.  It’s just a bridge between Insurgent and 2017’s Ascendant so really what’s the point of catching this one in the theaters?  It’s a waste of time and everyone onboard seems to know it.  Schwentke is coasting in his director’s chair…so much so that he decided to jump ship and not come back to finish the series.  The special effects look like they were from a computer game you’d play between commercial breaks of a new episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the acting is absolutely dreadful.

Woodley has been someone I’ve kept an eye on for a while now but instead of getting more acclimated to her heroine role, she seems more uncomfortable than ever.  A solid dramatic actress she may be but an action star she’s not and never will be.  With her huge saucer eyes and dirty blond bob, she doesn’t even look the part.  James fares better as her love interest and brawn of the group, but the two have precious chemistry to suggest that we should care whether they wind up together or not.  Watts, Daniels, and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) feign attentiveness while Teller hams it up with one-liners that rarely drew much of a reaction from the nearly 500 audience members I saw this with.  And I can’t even go there with the dreadful extras that have been assembled.  All of them look like they’ve been recruited from a pep rally in a juvenile detention center.

As I was leaving the theater I was walking behind a major fan of the series that was shaking her head and exclaiming that the filmmakers totally ruined the series with this one…so you don’t just have to take my non-fan word for it that Allegiant is a lousy waste of space.

The Silver Bullet ~ Demolition

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Synopsis: A successful investment banker struggles after losing his wife in a tragic car crash.

Release Date: April 8, 2016

Review:  With his last two movies bringing two Oscar wins (Dallas Buyers Club) and two nominations (Wild), it’s no wonder that many A-List movie stars and studios are making director Jean-Marc Vallée a much sought-after commodity in Hollywood.  While he readies a starry television adaptation of popular novel Big Little Lies for HBO, his latest film is flying uncomfortably under the radar.  Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners) and Naomi Watts (The Impossible), the little buzz being generated from Demolition isn’t a great sign.  And it’s too bad because Gyllenhaal makes for a fascinating anti-hero and he’s one of the best at approaching the haunted “come undone” character.  Releasing in April, the film could have positioned itself for the Oscar season but opted for an early release…another ominous sign.  No matter, the stars and the director are enough to get me inside the theater, we’ll wait and see if it’s built on less than solid ground.

The Silver Bullet ~ St. Vincent

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Synopsis: A young boy whose parents just divorced finds an unlikely friend and mentor in the misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic, war veteran who lives next door.

Release Date: October 24, 2014

Thoughts: When are they going to stop trying to remake As Good as It Gets? Did they learn nothing from, oh, the title of that movie? Earlier this year we were subjected to the heinous And So It Goes and now comes St. Vincent which looks an awful lot like it’s going down the same road. Admittedly, the grumpy old man shtick of Bill Murray (The Monuments Men, Hyde Park on Hudson) has worn thin on me so I’m not maybe not the most unbiased at first glance…but if his performance is a good as I’ve heard it is I’m willing to let him get one more in before busting him on it forever more. I’m also pretty gun-shy where Melissa McCarthy is concerned after being burned by The Heat and set ablaze by the agony that was Tammy. First time director Theodore Melfi brings his own script to the screen and it must be pretty darn good for Murray to have taken part in it. Final verdict is always reserved for later…but my devil horns are already on for St. Vincent.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Diana

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Synopsis: The last two years of Princess Diana’s life: her campaign against land mines and her relationship with surgeon Dr Hasnat Khan.

Release Date:  TBA 2013

Thoughts: The world’s fascination with all things Royal continues with a look at the life of the people’s princess in a biography that feels several years too late to the game.  Releasing in time for prime award season, Diana will be up against another film about a princess who died before her time when Nicole Kidman (who happens to be Watts’ best friend and fellow Australian) takes on Grace of Monaco.  Although admittedly hard to tell from this teaser trailer, Watts just doesn’t say “Diana” to me and it’s not just because Watts only resembles the late Princess of Wales if you squint.  There was such a mysterious air to the real life royal that I’m not sure could ever really be captured.  Final judgment of course must be reserved when more footage is released but so far…I’m not convinced.

Movie Review ~ The Impossible

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An account of a family caught, with tens of thousands of strangers, in the mayhem of one of the worst natural catastrophes of our time.

Stars: Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin, Oaklee Pendergast

Director: J.A. Bayona

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:   It took me a while, but about an hour into The Impossible I finally figured out what was bugging me so much about it.  Going in I had read various critics call out the film for telling the story of an affluent white family that are impacted 2004 tsunami in Thailand that had a final death toll close to 300,000.  Though the story is true, it is curious that the filmmakers focused on tourists staying at a deluxe coastal resort who seemingly only have to worry about if they will continue to live in Japan or go back to England after their Christmas holiday. 

I was prepared to have that gnaw at me and it did…a bit.  What frustrated me more than that was a conspicuous lack of any real minority presence that wasn’t reduced to a patronizing savior role introduced to help the in-need family be reunited and on the first plane back to Singapore.  In truth, the film appears so white-washed, I would have thought it was a Nancy Meyers directed film.  Seriously, go back and watch The Holiday, It’s Complicated, and Something’s Gotta Give and let me know if you see any minority character with a substantial speaking role.

These two drawbacks are unfortunate because The Impossible is not a bad film, per se.  It’s well made, buoyed by a gripping pace and committed performances that aide in creating some respectable moments.  Director Bayona was at the helm for the classy and creepy Spanish film The Orphanage and he brings the same emotional undercurrent to The ImpossibleThe Orphanage was billed as a horror thriller but what is really was was a suspense drama delivered with a firm grip.  Bayona doesn’t let The Impossible get away from him either, skillfully navigating a Reader’s Digest Drama in Real Life situation to a moving tale of survival against the odds.

Watts and McGregor may not have enough screen time together to create the kind of chemistry that would have given their struggles a little extra oomph, but luckily they share the screen with some talented kids that go through the wringer with them.  While Watts received an Oscar nomination for her work, it’s McGregor who should have received the praise.  Watts is solid, no doubt, but she’s absent for long stretches of the film…so much so that I forgot about her storyline several times.  Holland is their oldest boy and though the other two tots are uncommonly strong actors it’s Holland that steals the show out from under them all.  Geraldine Chaplin also shows up for a brief but powerful cameo that showcases screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez’s way with words.

I find it hard to outright recommend The Impossible based on some of the hang-ups I had with it outlined above.  There are at least 300,000 ways the story could have been told and I’m sure sometime in the future maybe a film will be crafted that focuses on the people that called this place home and were left to pick up the pieces after the tsunami raged through.  As for the family at the center of The Impossible…I wonder if they ever did decide on England or Japan.