31 Days to Scare ~ Memories of Murder

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a small Korean province in 1986, two detectives struggle with the case of multiple young women being found raped and murdered by an unknown culprit.

Stars: Kang-ho Song, Sang-kyung Kim, Roe-ha Kim

Director: Bong Joon Ho

Rated: NR

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  With the landmark, well-deserved victory for South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite at the Academy Awards last year (can you remember that far back?), not to mention the director himself taking home an additional two statues for Best Original Screenplay and Best Director, it seemed only natural that his previous films would come up in conversation.  He’d already been riding a nice wave of admiration with Okja for Netflix in 2017 and 2013’s Snowpiercer which is where he truly broke through to a US audience.  I first came to know his work with the monster movie The Host in 2006 but also was familiar with him from 2009’s Mother (don’t get it confused with the grody mother! from 2017) – so I felt I’d already had a good primer for his work.

One film had eluded me, though, and it happened to be the one that many cite as his best of all so it was just my luck that indie movie studio Neon (which released Parasite and has been crushing it with honing in on the next big thing lately) is re-releasing it in a special version.  Remastered and showing for two special nights before becoming more widely available, 2003’s Memories of Murder is director Bong’s epic crime saga that follows a police investigation of a serial murder/rapist on the hunt in a remote Korean town.  The hype was high for this before I pressed play and I was expecting the same skill on display in Parasite…which makes the feelings I had by the end that much more disappointing.

I struggled for a while to find exactly what turned me off so much about Memories of Murder but perhaps it’s a cultural thing that I never warmed to.  There’s a deeply misogynistic and repressive feeling to the film, with gruff men exuding force to get their way and ignoring all others who might argue otherwise.  This is true for both the good and the bad individuals in the world director Bong has created and by the end of the very long running length you feel like you haven’t come up for air all day.  The overarching message that appears to be relayed is that strong men take what they want and the weak, infirm, handicapped, minority, gay, female, will subjugate to them at all costs.  It’s likely the intent to illustrate some point that’s never made completely clear but it makes the movie a tough, ugly sit and therefore it isn’t one I’d ever want to return to for a second viewing.

It’s very much your standard serial murder story with women being brutally tortured, killed, and then defiled after the fact.  (As is director Bong’s fascination, a fuzzy fruit plays a twisted part of the killer’s calling card.)  The police investigation into the crimes is hackneyed with little technology available in the mid-1980s setting and hardly any attention really paid to the slayings at first.  The methods of extricating confessions from potential suspects is problematic to say the least and a number of detainees are cornered and subjected to heinous treatment based solely on hunches.  If it all led to something of substance, you might be able to rationalize out the means to an end but it spills out into a void of nothingness that stretches on for infinity.

If I’m being honest, I’m a little surprised Memories of Murder is the film that’s singled out as representative of the kind of filmmaker director Bong wanted to be.  Every film after this seems to have gotten more sophisticated and more attune to the governance of human decency toward others.  I haven’t loved each of his films (I thought The Host was terribly overrated, so you can do with that what you will) but have found them to carry some sort of balance to them.  Not here.  This is a grim, grimy experience and while it may have its share of chilling imagery and a plot that mirrors a number of similar serial killer films found in the US, it’s insistence of wallowing and then pressing our face in it didn’t work for me at all.

31 Days to Scare ~ Possessor Uncut

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An elite, corporate assassin uses brain-implant technology takes control of other people’s bodies to execute high profile targets.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Rossif Sutherland, Sean Bean

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Rated: NR

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Anytime someone decides to call themselves a fan of something, it often comes with some kind unspoken limit to how far they are willing to go to show their appreciation.  I mean, it’s natural for a music lover to say they love The Rolling Stones, but would you camp out for two days in the rain for only the chance to buy tickets to a sold-out concert of theirs?  Or do you want that new iPhone that goes on sale at 3:30am so badly that you’ll set your alarm for 3:25 so you’re up and ready to purchase?  For horror films and the viewers that can’t get enough frights, there’s a similar line in the sand that many won’t cross, a personal run for the hills boundary it’s just too nightmarish to pass.

For me, the “body horror” genre is one that makes me squirm like no other and for the uninitiated it is defined as the intentional showcase of graphic or psychologically disturbing violations of the human body.  It’s sometimes referred to more crudely as “torture porn” when applied to the less sophisticated entries that have been produced within the last decade; think grotesque films like The Human Centipede or the disturbingly misogynistic Hostel series.  That’s a huge step down from its origins in Canadian cinema and director David Cronenberg.  It was his landmark films Rabid, Shivers, and even his 80s remake of The Fly that gave the body horror genre a gross but good reputation.

In the new film Possessor Uncut, a torch has been passed in this icky subgenre and in a sort of Shakespearean twist, the mantle has gone from father to son.  Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, the Canadian production has the same look, feel, energy, and shock of the work of his father and while you can spot the influences of his famous lineage throughout the intense film you also see a filmmaker with his own vocabulary coming forth.  I’d heard the buzz about this film long before it ever crossed my screening doorstep and it truly worried me.  The gore and extreme nature sounded like a true test of will and though these type of early reactions often prove to be exaggerations of overly excitable first-lookers, for once they weren’t too far off the mark.  This is a horrifying experience that infiltrates your nervous system for days after…but it’s also a real thrill; the kind of elegant top shelf genre picture that gives you exactly what it promises and says “You asked for it”.

In the not too distant future, a cutting edge tech company has found a unique method of assassination they sell to the highest bidder, or whatever conglomeration they might be able to use later to their advantage.  There is now a way for trained killers to plug into the brains of host subjects that have intimate access to those targeted for death and use them to carry out the evil deed.  The host is often self-terminated, the real killers final act before unplugging in their sleek lab offices miles away,  leaving no way to trace the vicious act back to anyone – the perfect set-up.  It’s a relatively simple one, too, and Cronenberg doesn’t spend a huge amount of time trying to explain the science behind it, preferring to let the audience piece the process together for themselves based off of what we learn from Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight) as she debriefs star assassin Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) after the film’s shocking opening.

It’s obvious from the start that while the method to this madness seems smooth on paper, the mental and physical toll it takes to come back from each job blurs the lines of reality more and more with each task completed.  Tasya is estranged from her husband (Rossif Sutherland, A Call to Spy) and child and her visit to them early on is one of strained awkwardness, you almost get the sense that at this point she’s more comfortable in someone else’s skin than her own.  She’s also been straying from her normal routine when working as her host, becoming more interested in her victims and taking liberties with her directives on the best way to quickly eliminate her target. 

Ignoring the warning signs that she may be maxxed out and despite the protestations of a concerned Girder, Tasya jumps into another job, this time taking over the body of a man (Christopher Abbott, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) who is set to marry the daughter (Tuppence Middleton, Fisherman’s Friends) of a wealthy CEO (Sean Bean, The Martian).  With three days to carry out her mission, the job seems to be going as planned…until she’s unable to maintain the balance between her host personality and her own, both of which are strong-willed and fighting for survival.  This leads to a sinewy split between the two and devastating consequences for anyone that gets close to either.

In a number of violent films, you look back in retrospect and see that they aren’t as violent or gore-filled as you remember, it’s just the suggestion of it all that led your mind to fill in the blanks for you.  In Possessor Uncut (a curious name change from its original plain ‘ole Possessor, likely as it’s being released without a rating to avoid that dreaded NC-17), there’s no punches pulled and you not only see every brutal stab, slice, crack, and rip…you feel it.  The camera lingers on these moments, almost daring you to turn away and while it’s an endurance test to be sure (those with a fear of seeing teeth knocked out…you’ve been warned) it’s strangely not as horrific as it might be made out to be.  Remember, this is coming from the critic that normally recoils from this type of stuff.  I had to look away a few times, no question, but I think I had built it up to be far worse than it ends up being.

I’m hoping others give it that same chance too because there are some deeply good performances on top of Cronenberg’s inventive work as a director on display.  Riseborough continues to be an actress that pushes herself with each role, unafraid to go to ugly places or change her appearance with each new part,  She’s actually absent for a good chunk of the film when she’s inhabiting Abbott but her presence seems to always haunt the scenes she isn’t there for.  In many ways, she reminds me of Leigh’s work throughout the years (no shocker that Leigh has worked with David Cronenberg before in the semi-similar but not as intense, eXistenZ, from 1999) and Leigh seems to have found a kindred spirit with Riseborough.  Their scenes together are low-key but pulsating with energy.  Abbott has to do a lot of bold things here a number of actors in his generation wouldn’t get near, he carries it off well, understanding the difference between his body being possessed (which it isn’t) and controlled (which it is) and that helps the audience along with buying into the far-out concept.

I don’t often encourage people to watch the trailer for a film because they are so spoiler-y but the first trailer for Possessor Uncut is pretty good about giving you a decent idea of what you’re in for. If you think you can handle it…go for it. I can’t imagine seeing this on the big screen, honestly, the visuals would be just too overwhelming but for a late night viewing at home where you have the freedom to hide under the blanket, Possessor Uncut will work like a charm.  Even though it’s drenched it blood and body parts, it’s a classy affair with the son of a renowned horror director ably stepping forward into the spotlight in a major way.

Movie Review ~ She Dies Tomorrow


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman’s conviction that she will die tomorrow spreads like a contagion through a town.

Stars: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Kentucker Audley, Katie Aselton, Chris Messina, Tunde Adebimpe, Jennifer Kim, Olivia Taylor Dudley, Michelle Rodriguez, Josh Lucas, Adam Wingard

Director: Amy Seimetz

Rated: R

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  In theater, there are a number of urban legends about productions or performances that were so bad the audience began to turn on the actors onstage.  There is the long-held rumor (that I don’t quite believe) of the matinee crowd attempting to sing above Sheena Easton in a Broadway production of Man of La Mancha to overcome her off key warbling.  The granddaddy of them all, though, is the tale meant to send a shiver down the spine of every theater nerd that dared overact and provide hearty laughter to everyone else.  Yes, it’s the one revolving around a troupe’s noble effort in a staging of The Diary of Anne Frank that had such poor acting it had one fed-up patron proclaim loudly “They’re in the attic!!!”

I couldn’t help but think of that particular anecdote shortly after She Dies Tomorrow began…because it’s around that time I blurted out “Is it tomorrow yet?” and then spent the next 75 minutes waiting for that moment to arrive.  Though it boasts a nifty poster and an appealing premise that appears tailor-made to the self-contained uncertainty we find ourselves living in, this incessantly grating bit of delirium shouldn’t have waited to put anyone (least of all us , the viewers) out of its misery.  Thus, it ends up being exactly the kind of messy dreck that gives indie films good street cred by those that seek out obscure titles to fawn over but is a complete dud for anyone else.

Though she’s recently moved into a new apartment and appears to have a semblance of a decent life, Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil, You’re Next) thinks she’s going to die tomorrow.  That’s it…that’s basically the entire premise of the movie that gets repeated over and over again within actress turned writer/director Amy Seimetz’s (2019’s Pet Sematary) languid script.  Actually, there’s a supposed bit of intrigue as to how Amy’s belief of her impending doom infects everyone she comes in contact with and how they in turn spread that paranoia onward.  Her friend (Jane Adams, Poltergeist, a kooky bright spot at times) passes it to her brother (Chris Messina, Cake), his wife (Kate Aselton, Bombshell), and their friends (Tunde Adebimpe, Marriage Story and Jennifer Kim, Spider-Man: Homecoming) before handing it over to a few other familiar faces that must have owed Seimetz a favor.  How this extended circle deals copes with their purported demise runs the gamut from the cruel to the criminal — not the kind of material that’s exciting to watch or that gives the usually talented performers much to work with.

It all comes back to Amy, though, and while Seimetz attempts to give an origin story to the fear that drives Amy to panic it’s covered in so much heavy-handed missteps in eye-crossing cinematography drowned out by an often ear-plugging score that you can barely pay attention.  So whatever larger message Seimetz is trying to convey gets lost amidst a clamor of her own making.  The same goes for the performances which range from the zombified (Sheil) to the whacked-out (Michelle Rodriguez, Widows) and in the end it’s Adams who likely comes out the best because the entire utterly bizarre film plays right into her wheelhouse of strange characters moving through this earthly plane.  Reportedly Seimetz used her salary from Pet Sematary to fund this picture and you wonder if the money wouldn’t have been better spent on an actual cemetery for pets instead of this eye-rolling folderol.

I can already see this being heralded a triumph by those bored on the straight-forward offerings available these past few months, but I saw no real artistry on display, unfortunately.  I felt like I should have responded differently but whatever takeaway I was meant to be left with vanishes among the punishing noise.  Even looking at the movie as metaphor for anxiety or grappling with the inner monologue of one’s own mortality lets the film off a hook it deserves to be hitched to.  So it’s not as if the intent wasn’t clear…it’s the execution that left me completely at odds with nearly everything else the film brought to the table, rendering it unwatchable in my book.  Its impenetrable notions of gloom and doom may send you scrambling toward your cure-all for the blues but it makes you wonder…when life is already so tenuous, why add more inexplicable horror to your plate if you don’t have to?  She Dies Tomorrow but pick something else today.

Movie Review ~ Palm Springs


The Facts
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Synopsis: When carefree Nyles and reluctant maid of honor Sarah have a chance encounter at a Palm Springs wedding, things get complicated as they are unable to escape the venue, themselves, or each other.

Stars: Andy Samberg, Cristin Milioti, Dale Dickey, Tyler Hoechlin, J.K. Simmons, Camila Mendes

Director: Max Barbakow

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Most movies are written, produced, and edited months and months before their intended release date so it would be impossible for any film to truly predict where the world would be when the project is revealed for public consumption.  Occasionally there are times when a movie is released at an opportune time that just happens to coincide with a major event and it seems like the creators had a kind of crystal ball in predicting the future.  An example off the top of my head is when The China Syndrome was released in March of 1979, a mere twelve days before the nuclear incident at Twelve Mile Island which bore a striking resemblance to the events depicted in the movie.

So you have to imagine that aside from general feelings of concern for their family, friends, and loved ones the creators of the Sundance hit Palm Springs were just a little happy to see their movie expressed tracked from its original theatrical release by distributors Hulu and Neon and sent right to Hulu’s streaming platform in time for the fourth of July weekend.  After all, by this time countless potential viewers had been cooped up indoors since early March and had been living what felt like the same day over and over again.  What better way to reward them than by offering up relatable laughs in a smart, funny comedy about a guy and girl stuck in a similar situation?

Waking up on the morning of a friend’s wedding he doesn’t want to attend with a girlfriend he doesn’t like, Nyles (Andy Samberg, Hotel Transylvania 2) is already over it.  He goes through the motions of the day and barely makes an effort to stay present at the wedding or the reception after.  His interactions with the guests seems strident at times, gregarious at others…like that fun guy at the party who can turn on a dime if he has one drink over his limit.  He does wind up having too many and saves maid of honor Sarah (Cristin Milioti, The Wolf of Wall Street) from making a speech she clearly doesn’t want to give.  Finding a kindred soul also having a terrible time, Sarah is intrigued by Nyles and follows him for the rest of the evening…eventually leading her to a cave in the desert with a special power.  She enters and then wakes up the next morning…which is the same morning as the one before.

Turns out the cave holds a portal in the time space continuum and Sarah has joined Nyles in a never-ending time loop where they have to relive the same day over and over again.  It doesn’t matter how far they drive or where they are when the day has ended, they’ll always wake up in exactly the same place they woke up the day they went into the cave.  Nyles has lost track of how many days he’s been the loop but Sarah is determined to find a way out, mostly because she’s harboring a secret of why this particular day is one she’s not eager to relieve for eternity.

Obviously, the easy comparison to make here is Groundhog Day and there are flashes of that classic Bill Murray film in some of the concepts found in Andy Siara’s screenplay.  There’s also a little Happy Death Day 2U with a brief diversion into death not being a way out of the loop.  Yet Palm Springs is very much its own individual film and that’s due in no small part to Siara balancing the humor with a few reality checks along the way.  That’s especially surprising giving the people involved behind the scenes who aren’t usually known for living with two feet on the ground.

As an actor, I’ve found Samberg to be mostly obnoxious in a number of his roles but was pleasantly surprised to witness his grounded and wry take on a man resigned to relive a crappy day forever.  We meet him long after he’s accepted his fate so he’s laid-back and carefree…and Samberg wisely avoids making the character such a one-note bonehead that we can’t imagine spending 24 hours with him, let alone infinity.  He’s more than well matched with Milioti, finding that rare thing called chemistry.  She’s got the harder role to navigate because everything is new to her and she’s the one reacting to the situation for the first time.  How she responds dictates how the audience will respond to her and thankfully the role feels fleshed out and is performed with a sharpness not always found in high-concept comedies like this.

In addition to capturing commendable performances from the stars, director Max Barbakow fills the supporting roster with a nice array of character actors that slip in from time to time.  As another looper with a grudge against Samberg, J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man: Far from Home) is used in a utilitarian fashion but the simplicity of the role makes a scene late in the movie land with more impact.  Dale Dickey (The Guilt Trip), Tyler Hoechlin (Everybody Wants Some!), June Squibb (Nebraska), and Peter Gallagher (A Bad Moms Christmas) also show up for little moments here and there, not reserving all the good stuff for Samberg and Milioti.  When a script has extra jokes for small supporting performers and is willing to share, you know it’s the sign of something above average.

The only downside to Palm Springs is I’m not sure it’s a film I’d put on my list to watch again.  It’s entertaining as all get-out and Siara’s script is so strong and on the mark it could easily get some awards recognition at the end of the year.  All the same…I just don’t know if it will hold up on repeat viewings.  That first time through was such a fun discovery, I feel like revisiting these characters wouldn’t capture the same magic.

Movie Review ~ I, Tonya


The Facts
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Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Mckenna Grace, Bojana Novakovic, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale, Paul Walter Hauser

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  As I triple-axel my way ever closer to middle age, I’ve started to notice something all-together irritating.  Recently I’ve begun to see that movies based on real events have become less of an educational opportunity for me but more of a memory-jogging excursion into my teenage years.  Yes, I’m getting so old that I can actually remember where I was when Princess Diana died, when O.J. Simpson took that famous joyride in the white Bronco, and I definitely, 100% remember where I was during the 1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics. Like most of America, I was glued to the tube watching not just the stunning athleticism on display but wondering how the drama of the previous months was going to play out.  We’ll get back to that because while ardent fans will remember who skated their way to the gold, silver, and bronze this is, after all, a spoiler-free blog and the events leading up to these Olympic games are the climax of I, Tonya.

I’ll admit going into I, Tonya with a little prejudice not just toward its subject but also it’s star.  Over the years the name Tonya Harding was equated with the horrible attack on her colleague and competitor Nancy Kerrigan.  While the tabloids were busy painting Harding as an evil conspirator, the makers of I, Tonya (including star and executive producer Margot Robbie) are more interested in showing the genesis of the famed figure skater, her struggle to the top, and her mighty (and maybe ultimately unjustified) fall from grace.

Framed by a series of interviews inspired by the words of the actual people involved, I, Tonya takes a while to stand on its own.  At first the narrative device gives the film a cheapness that isn’t helped by stars Robbie (as Harding) and Sebastian Stan (as her ex-husband Jeff Gilloly) laboring under some troublesome make-up, wigs, and facial hair to age them into their early ‘40s.  It’s when writer Steven Rogers (Love the Coopers) and director Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours) do away with the tell vs. show method and cease with the random breaking of the fourth wall that the movie scores major points and takes on a life of its own.

Skating through Harding’s early years as a child phenom pushed by her chain-smoking foul-mouthed domineering monster mother LaVona (Allison Janney, The Way Way Back) into her adolescence and early marriage to the abusive Gilloly, all of the standard biopic bases are covered.  Harding comes from less than ideal circumstances and soon learns that handmade costumes and skating programs set to rock music aren’t going to win her a place in the hearts of the judges.  Looking for a more wholesome specimen to represent the world at the Olympics, the judges score Harding lower than her peers even though it’s well known she could skate rings around them.  There’s two great scenes where Harding confronts the judges, one ends with Harding hurling a gem of vulgarity and the other that makes you feel even more sorry for the young woman that just wants to be recognized for her ability, not her perceived personality shortcomings.

Harding was surrounded by people that wanted her to succeed not for her benefit but for theirs above all else.  LaVona looks to her daughter to be the bread-winner and save her from her life as a waitress, Gilloly obsessively loved his wife but couldn’t handle her need for independence after being brow-beaten by her mother and abandoned by her father.  Then there’s Gilloly’s friend and Harding’s bodyguard Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) who hatches a jokey plan for psychological warfare on Harding’s foes that ultimately became the plot to injure Kerrigan.

I’ve struggled mightily with Robbie ever since she broke onto the scene in The Wolf of Wall Street and there’s always a feeling of potential that’s never fully embraced.  While she received much attention for her role as Harley Quinn in the odious Suicide Squad and biffed it earlier in 2017 with Goodbye Christopher Robin, here she made me a believer in the accolades she’s garnered for playing Harding.  Early scenes feel awkward as the Australian Robbie adopts a trailer trash slack drawl but she eventually finds her groove, leading to a supremely satisfying turn in the final ¼ of the movie.  There’s a short scene with her attempting to put on her game face (literally) in a mirror that alone should get her an Oscar nomination.

Robbie’s ably supported by Stan (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and Janney, the latter of which goes all out as a nightmare of a woman that doesn’t have a motherly instinct in her body.  Her justification of why she behaves the way she does toward her daughter is hysterical, enlightening, and very very sad.  Playing her first coach and one of her only true allies, Julianne Nicholson (August: Osage County) is also a strong presence in the film.  Though Robbie and Janney are getting the awards attention, for my money Hauser’s dimwit bodyguard is the one that needs a bigger spotlight for his deliriously droll performance.  It may look easy to do but his excellent timing and perfectly pitched physicality is more memorable for me than anything else.

It’s not all rosy for I, Tonya though.  Relying on some wince-inducing soundtrack choices that are far too on the nose, Gillespie throttles into his audience with too many asides to cameras and leaps back and forth in time.  While Robbie can skate, the scenes where she’s recreating Harding’s famously difficult performances are done using a double with Robbie’s face unconvincingly digitally inserted over the stand-in.  This never, ever, looks good and too often produces laughs as it seems Robbie’s face and the skater’s body are playing two different emotions.

Yet for all its wobbly construction issues I was left reeling by the committed performances and that’s what pushes this one ahead into something worth seeking out.  I’m almost positive this is the best we’ll see Robbie for a while so I’d advise to strike while the iron’s hot and see what all the fuss is about.  While Janney is wonderfully acerbic, I’d favor Laurie Metcalf’s equally troubling mother in Lady Bird over this performance if I was forced to choose in an Oscar pool.  This one might not get a perfect score, but in uncovering more about Harding than most people have seen, it gets top marks.