Movie Review ~ The Gray Man (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: When the CIA’s most skilled operative—whose true identity is known to none—accidentally uncovers dark agency secrets, a psychopathic former colleague puts a bounty on his head, setting off a global manhunt by international assassins.
Stars: Ryan Gosling, Chris Evans, Ana de Armas, Regé-Jean Page, Billy Bob Thornton, Jessica Henwick, Dhanush, Wagner Moura, Alfre Woodard
Director: Anthony and Joe Russo
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 122 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review:  When directors Anthony and Joe Russo wrapped up their boundary-busting run in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with the epic final two films in The Infinity Saga (2018’s Avengers: Infinity War and 2019’s Avengers: Endgame), no one could blame them for wanting to shift gears. Not only did they pump the brakes on their action-heavy output, but they also changed direction altogether, delivering 2021’s sour Cherry on Apple TV+ to viewers and critics who thought it was the pits. Though the public could wholly attribute the blame for the failure to their lack of conscious oversight, that misguided biopic did precious little to help out star Tom Holland’s career post-Spider-Man. Still, it seemed to be a minor bump in the Brothers Russo Road of directing.

On paper, The Gray Man reads like it should be an enterprise worth undertaking for the directors known for their large-scale action sequences and creative camerawork, and it doesn’t hurt they’ve roped in three appealing stars as headliners. Like last November’s Red Notice, the trio and the material rarely mesh, resulting in a directionless film that is often voraciously senseless, frequently misogynistic, and unusually dull. That it took two directors to make a film so mediocre is almost incredibly commendable in a way, but that is little consolation when you’re an hour into the endless movie, and barely anything has happened.

Commuting the sentence of a young man convicted of murder and recruiting him to a fledgling covert ops agency of skilled killers, Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) knows there is potential in the man that can be developed over time. Flash forward eighteen years, and Six (Ryan Gosling, Blade Runner 2049) is indeed the cool as a cucumber assassin his mentor knew he’d be. We know this because he’s wearing a slick suit, barely talks above a whisper, and looks up at his contact, Agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas, Deep Water), from under heavy-lidded eyes. Six is on a mission ordered by agency head Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page, Sylvie’s Love) to take out a target when the plan goes awry, and he’s left with a piece of information that holds the answers to corruption from inside the organization. Of course, this puts a target on his back, and he’s soon on a globe-trotting run for his life while trying to expose the cover-up.

Unwilling to let this data leak, Carmichael calls in an outside clean-up crew led by Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans, Lightyear), a former recruit alongside Six that was kicked out for his unscrupulous methods. We get a good idea of those methods early on (it involves a car battery) and later when a set of fingernails gets threatened by a pair of pliers wielded by Lloyd. Lloyd is determined to take Six out, partly because he wants the bragging rights, which is why he’s willing to play dirty. Pulling all the stops out and ready to incite a worldwide news event to take out one man, Lloyd makes a final play for engaging Six…, and that’s when he goes too far.

If you haven’t gleaned it yet, The Gray Man comes down to Six and Lloyd proving who is the best bad guy, and it doesn’t matter how much collateral damage there is. Seeming to forget that both men are supposed to be experts in espionage and stealth, the Russo’s never provide an opportunity for them (or anyone) to be sneaky about anything. I don’t think they’d be able to film Evans creeping up behind Gosling competently; there must be some grand gesture to accompany it. It’s an example of brutish toxicity that feels disingenuous to both characters. Neither had to take on these tired tropes to be exciting, and the fact that they’re reduced to men that have to prove their might rather than finish the job and go home is more for the movies than anything honest and character related. 

Gosling is far dourer in his role than Evans, who seems to be having a lot of fun in his ultra-tight retro-designer polo shirts and, according to Six, “trash stash.” As much as Gosling is having fun with the action sequences, he seems to get the dramatic scenes to be hokey pokey. A side plot involving Julia Butters (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) as Fitzroy’s kidnapped niece is so shoehorned to achieve one story contrivance it’s almost laughable. I almost wish we discovered de Armas played the same role from No Time to Die…or even Knives Out. At least we’d understand why she’s putting forth so little effort to set herself apart from the background extras. 

The Russo’s make a critical error in casting Page and Jessica Henwick (On the Rocks) as two of Langley’s agents with dirty hands, but how bad either of them is remains to be seen. The undisputed star story out of Bridgerton, I think Page played his cards too early and jumped from that Netflix show to the next level before he was ready. There’s not much going on with him, both in personality or performance. While I appreciated another female character, Henwick spends most of the movie watching a monitor and giving an out loud recap of what we saw, lamenting how “bad this looks” for her. If only we cared enough to feel for any of these people. Don’t even get me started with the raw deal dealt to the esteemed Alfre Woodard (Clemency) or the utter ridiculousness of the performance of Wagner Moura (Elysium) playing a contact Gosling reaches out to.

If you watch for someone, you’ll be rewarded briefly when the mononymous Dhanush appears as a Tamil killer who gives Gosling and de Armas a good stomping. These action sequences land with a swift punch and makes you wish Dhanush had a more significant part to sustain the movie’s back end when there are no twists to divert The Gray Man off its standard path. Whenever I thought the filmmakers would introduce an unexpected wrinkle, the Russo’s opted for the easiest out and never looked back. Yes, they try to whip out their bag of camera tricks, but it looks like the fast-roaming lens-work Sam Raimi used decades ago in his Evil Dead films and even recently in Michael Bay’s Ambulance.

While the action sequences are big and loud, they mostly come off incredibly phony due to an overabundance of CGI, green screen, and composite filmmaking. Again, as I mentioned in my review of Thor: Love and Thunder, I’m shocked that in 2022 we’re still willing to accept effects that look so terrible or large-scale blistering shootouts that are impossible to follow. In the centerpiece scene of The Gray Man, Gosling is in the middle of a park chained to a bench and is descended upon by 15 men with gigantic guns trying to take him out. They wind up shooting at everyone BUT Gosling. Where’s the logic (or fun) in that? You stew on that because I’ve already thought about The Gray Man more than anyone involved has.

Movie Review ~ Persuasion (2022)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Living with her snobby family on the brink of bankruptcy, Anne Elliot is an unconforming woman with modern sensibilities. When Frederick Wentworth—the dashing one she let get away—crashes back into her life, Anne must choose between putting the past behind her or listening to her heart regarding second chances.
Stars: Dakota Johnson, Henry Golding, Cosmo Jarvis, Richard E. Grant, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ben Bailey Smith, Izuka Hoyle, Mia McKenna-Bruce, Nia Towle
Director: Carrie Cracknell
Rated: PG
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Over the past fifty years, many a Masterpiece Theater and BBC television event has thrived using the works of Jane Austen. There’s barely a page from Austen’s bibliography that hasn’t been unturned, often more than once, and you’ll find heated debates over those favoring one Mansfield Park adaptation over another. Then you have the feature film versions and their occasional attempts at clever modern updates, mainly of the Austen Big Three: “Pride and Prejudice,” “Sense & Sensibility,” and “Emma.”  How these three films have influenced the plots and characters of countless other movies, plays, and TV shows only proves how lasting (and sound) a literary structure Austen created. 

The one novel that seems to fly under the radar, at least until recently, has been “Persuasion.” While it has passed through the requisite mediums over time (a spirited 1995 telling was directed by the late Roger Michell), it’s debuting on Netflix as a period-set, but winkingly contemporary, take on Austen’s romantic tale. Given a new sheen by actress/writer Alice Victoria Winslow and Oscar-winning screenwriter Ron Bass, Persuasion quickly gets its hooks into its audiences and keeps them there for the duration. Building off of solid performances and amplifying (read: tweaking) Austen’s witty dialogue for present-day crowds, it might not be the novel as Jane wrote it, but it’s novel fun all the same.

Led by Dakota Johnson, a casting announcement that drew the same amount of warbling as her role in Fifty Shades of Grey, our first look at the actress is in the arms of Cosmo Jarvis (The Shadow of Violence) on a windswept field. She’s sad, he’s sad (the single tear that falls from his eye will have anyone with a pulse feel it quicken), and we learn through her narration that she’s been forced to give him up due to his lack of rank and prospects. The middle child of a prosperous widower (a hysterically vain Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?), she’s by far the most sensible but least attended to of her siblings. The eldest (Yolanda Kettle) is the father’s close confidant, can’t land a husband, and places the blame on everything she looks down her nose at, while the youngest (Mia McKenna-Bruce) is a self-absorbed mother of three who sees her children as the ultimate burden that ails her. 

Without a husband or the company of her father, Anne (Johnson) is often left to do family obligations the others prefer to shirk. That’s how Anne winds up visiting her younger sister when her sibling takes ill at the same time her father and other sister are moving out of their plush estate after losing most of their fortune. Though occasionally cheered by Lady Russell (Nikki Amuka-Bird, The Outfit), who also provides the latest gossip, Anne’s greatest company is a bottle of red wine and her pet bunny. Much of that changes once Wentworth (Jarvis) returns to the picture. Now a high-ranking officer in the fleet, rich, and about to see further improvements in both departments, Wentworth is back by chance as if fate brought them back together. Has he not married after all this time because he still loves Anne? Or does he have eyes for another? And what about Mr. Elliot (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians), a cousin and heir to Anne’s family fortune? Would he be an ideal match for Anne, or is he just protecting his investment? 

As with every Austen plot, each character introduced is given a clear backstory with little fuss or fanfare. Minor characters occasionally appear as Anne travels from the city to the country and other towns. However, they come off with a significant presence because they’ve been creatively presented or remarked upon before meeting them. That’s the difference between this and the Austen-imitators like Mr. Malcolm’s List. Respectable efforts but missing those Austen touches that genuinely bring characters to life. Then you have the talented character actors like Grant hamming it up with glee and making it that much more fun. Yes, much of the comedy from McKenna-Bruce is there on the page, but it wouldn’t be half as riotously amusing if she’d played it even a hair differently. 

It’s coming into a clear focus that Johnson is an actress that’s a force to be reckoned with. While she’s not tackling characters on the polar ends of spectrums as she moves from film to film, she’s laser-ing in on different variations of strong-minded women who aren’t afraid to stand out in the crowd. (See Cha-Cha Real Smooth for another recent example.) She’s perfect for the roster of Austen heroines and has the kind of chemistry with Jarvis that you want to see (and feel) in your swoony romances. Jarvis isn’t what you’d think of when you hear leading man, but neither was Colin Firth, and look where his performance in that lengthy television Pride & Prejudice got him. He approaches the role with a charming gait and manner of speaking; it’s unusual but nonetheless memorable. And, as I said, the tear.

Director Carrie Cracknell knows her way around a costume drama, having come from the world of British theater. For her first feature film, she’s assembled a great team. Cinematographer Joe Anderson (The Old Man & The Gun) is known for smaller, more personal endeavors but can also capture incredibly gorgeous vistas by the sea. Costume designer Marianne Agertoft’s wonderfully designed attire is on the nose but just so. The score and editing help shape Persuasion into an easy and entertaining sit, landing on a beautiful ending in true Austen style.

Movie Review ~ The Sea Beast

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A legendary sea monster hunter has an epiphany when a stowaway girl befriends the most dangerous monster of all.
Stars: Karl Urban, Zaris-Angel Hator, Jared Harris, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Dan Stevens, Kathy Burke, George O’Hara
Director: Chris Williams
Rated: PG
Running Length: 115 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: These past few weeks, there’s been a bit of a neck and neck battle for the family audience in theaters, a sharp directional shift from where things were just a few scant stretches prior. It was in these early months of 2022 when studios began testing the waters of debuting movies at in-person venues rather than stick with the streaming model that had been the norm (and going easy on wallets) since the pandemic changed the way we watched movies. So right now, a family has an excellent array of options in theaters, from the respectable Toy Story prequel Lightyear to the zany comic mayhem of Minions: The Rise of Gru. (I’m still tuning out the parents who brought their children to see The Black Phone…about a child killer.)

One studio/streaming service has kept true to its model, and Netflix has remained a solid performer in the family animation category because of it. Their latest in-house produced film is The Sea Beast, and while it’s been in a few select theaters across the country for several weeks, it’s making an official debut on demand this coming Friday, July 8. While the animation branch strangely hasn’t broken into the major players league despite some terrific projects (and numerous award recognitions), the rollicking fun and beautiful animation of the ocean-set The Sea Beast should increase their cache among other ‘toon titans.

Growing up, orphan Maisie Brumble (Zaris-Angel Hator) dreamed of joining the crew of the infamous ship the Inevitable and its brave commander, Captain Crow (Jared Harris, Pompeii). Employed by the snobby monarchy to rid the coastal waters of various undersea monsters, Crow’s crew is the best in bringing home the trophies displayed around the glittering palace. One beastly beastie, The Red Bluster, remains just out of reach for Crow, second in command Sarah Sharpe (Marianne Jean-Baptiste, The Cell), and the brawny brave heir-apparent Jacob Holland (Karl Urban, Riddick). While the Inevitable is docked near her orphanage, Maisie stows away on the ship, plunging herself and Jacob into a quest to follow The Red Bluster and chart her own course toward a voyage for the history books.

Right out of the gate, The Sea Beast reveals a buoyancy and fresh approach to an age-old story of a child with no apparent family running away with the sea circus. Maisie’s wish fulfillment of hopping on board the ship with a crew she’s studied in a well-worn book is easy to go along with, aided by Hator’s energetic voice performance. Believe me when I say that zest comes in handy when trying to distinguish between the voices of Urban and Harris while tracking their own issues in a pseudo father/son dynamic over the ship’s future. There’s a fast-paced zip to the first 45 minutes, which aptly holds the attention until the middle section when The Sea Beast begins to tread water for another 45 minutes before bringing it home in its last half hour.

Two hours is a long request for an animated endeavor, and while I’m not entirely sure it needs to be as long as it is, I’m glad The Sea Beast didn’t sink completely when it sagged. It’s more of your typical mid-movie developments when waves threaten to rock the boat of what had up until that point been a smooth ride for our confident characters. Without songs or an abundance of comic relief side characters (actually a blessing), the film has to rely on old-fashioned storytelling – and at least it doesn’t try to wiggle out of its responsibilities in that department.

Directed by Oscar-winner Chris Williams (Big Hero 6) from a screenplay co-written by Williams and Nell Benjamin (lyricist and book writer for the Broadway musical adaptations of Mean Girls and Legally Blonde), The Sea Beast is a fully formed, epic-sized whale of a tale that should more than hold the attention of the older youngsters in your household. The creative undersea creatures might be a bit intense for the too tiny, but if you’re looking for one of those “bridge” movies that can take your kids from their G-rated days to the stronger themes of a nearly two-hour PG adventure, I will wager The Sea Beast to be a worthy option.

Movie Review ~ The Adam Project

The Facts:

Synopsis: A time-traveling pilot teams up with his younger self and his late father to come to terms with his past while saving the future.
Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Walker Scobell, Jennifer Garner, Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldaña, Catherine Keener, Alex Mallari Jr.
Director: Shawn Levy
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: We’ll lay it out on the table right away.  The last Netflix movie we saw Ryan Reynolds in was Red Notice in November 2021, and it was a bona fide stinker.  Reynolds, Gal Gadot, and Dwayne Johnson showed up and collected enormous paydays for a tired script about a trio of double-crossing criminals.  They looked bored…but not as bored as most audiences.  So seeing Reynolds with a new movie, The Adam Project, so quickly in 2022, you can see why I was understandably a little wary of getting too excited about its prospects.  Reteamed with his Free Guy director Shawn Levy, Reynolds stars alongside Jennifer Garner and Marc Ruffalo, another pair reunited almost two decades since they appeared in 13 Going on 30.

In the film, Reynolds (Deadpool) is Adam Reed, who travels from 2050 back to 2018 to try and stop his father from figuring out the key to time travel, a concept that has dire consequences for the future.  Problems arise when Adam instead lands in 2022 and meets his younger self when his life as a friendless high schooler is also in serious tumult.  There’s also the small matter of his mother (Garner, Love, Simon) being recently widowed after his father (Ruffalo, Thanks for Sharing) was killed in a car crash.  Still unable to talk about their grief, mother and son haven’t dealt entirely with this loss, and the wedge between them is growing.  When 2050 Adam meets 2022 Adam (newcomer Walker Scobell), the convincing is easy but stopping him from asking questions is another thing. 

When 2050 Adam is followed from the future by Maya Sorian (Catherine Keener Captain Phillips), his father’s former partner, the two Adams must stick together to make sure the other is protected.  With help from a mysterious ally (Zoe Saldaña, Out of the Furnace) and over additional time jumps, each will learn valuable lessons from the other about remembering the past and valuing the present. 

I’m going to take a big swing at a guess and say that when reviews from critics and audiences alike for The Adam Project come out, many are going to compare it to the kind of mid-summer entertainment we anticipated in the early ‘90s.  A glance at the space-age gadgets, time-travel plot devices, family emotional elements, conniving but relatively benign villains, smart-aleck dialogue, and fast-paced action sequences are the chief reasons why. After all, they were present for 98% of all movies released during those blistering dog days of the year.  In that way, The Adam Project will slip right into a sweet spot for adults of a certain age watching with their kids or want to screen it again for them after. 

The more I think about The Adam Project, all that flash can’t hold a candle to the scenes screenwriters Jonathan Tropper (This Is Where I Leave You), T.S. Nowlin (The Maze Runner), & Jennifer Flackett (Wimbledon) include that strip away all of those safety blankets and let the actors feel their feelings.  The best special effect is watching Reynolds let down his phony-baloney goofball veneer and be a real person.  We hardly ever get that anymore, and that’s disappointing, not that you can blame him because when he did try for more dramatic endeavors, many detractors told him to stick to comedy.  Those same detractors now think he plays it safe resting on his funny bones.  It’s a good mixture of both the wry and dry, with Reynolds leaving enough space for Scobell to shine as his younger counterpart.    

Levy (The Internship) has had enough practice with these major movies to juggle a lot all at once, and while at times this can make the film feel just a tad workmanlike and hollow, it’s a polished piece of machinery that flies by in an instant.  I could easily have believed The Adam Project was orchestrated for release on an IMAX screen, and it would likely have been just as impressive a presentation.  Anything that deals with the loss of a parent, especially a dad, will go right for my jugular, and as expected, the right chords were plucked/manipulated, and I shed some happy-sad tears.  There’s no enduring legacy this film will leave behind, but for the solid two-hour entertainment it provides, complete with several needle drop music cues, you can hardly miss this project.

Movie Review ~ The Weekend Away

The Facts:

Synopsis: A weekend getaway to Croatia goes awry when a woman is accused of killing her best friend.
Stars: Leighton Meester, Christina Wolfe, Luke Norris, Ziad Bakri, Amar Bukvic, Iva Mihalic
Director: Kim Farrant
Rated: NR
Running Length: 89 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  I’m not sure where you’re reading this from or when you might find this review, but I’m writing it on the edge of the darker winter months in the upper Midwest, where the ground is covered with snow, and the air is frigid.  Right about now, the prospect of warm weather being nearer than further is the carrot that will get you to push through a few more months of work.  It’s when many of us look at planning get out of town, last-ditch cabin fever trips to sunny ports of call where summer may be a year-round feeling, and the beaches aren’t as crowded as they’ll be once families start their travel plans after school lets out.  If nothing else, finding a sunny space in your home with a beach read that can sweep you away might be the tantalizing bite to satiate you for the time being, and it will cost a lot less than roundtrip airfare to Belize.

That appeal has a lot to do with the popularity of author Sarah Alderson’s thrillers. These efficient blockbusters are easy to digest while still offering the reader a fully formed story structure to support her often twisty plotlines.  Agatha Christie, they’re not, but they aren’t dime store throwaways either, and it’s easy to see why Alderson has been able to divide her time between writing published work as well as television.  The ability to keep things tight and together makes the stories easy to imagine as pieces that could translate easily to movies, something of which I’m sure the author is aware. That’s a strong reason Alderson has adapted her 2020 novel The Weekend Away for Netflix.  While not out to shatter expectations of what the genre or anyone involved is ultimately capable of, it’s an unpredictable 89-minute trip halfway around the world.

Since their days at university, Beth (Leighton Meester, The Judge) and Kate (Christina Wolfe) have traveled different paths after graduation.  Beth has settled down for domestic life with Rob (Luke Norris) and is mother to a still-nursing infant, while Kate has gone the opposite direction, opting for days where the party never ends.  Divorcing her wealthy husband, Kate has invited Beth to a seaside Croatian town to reconnect and allow the new mother time away to recharge.  Greeted at the airport by kindly taxi driver Zain (Ziad Bakri), who offers to show her around if she ever needs him, Beth has barely arrived at the deluxe accommodations Kate has arranged before her friend wants to take her out for a night in the otherwise innocuous town.

Waking up the next day to find Kate gone and a few oddities both in their rental and her fuzzy memories she can’t piece together, Beth waits the entire day for Kate to show up, and when she doesn’t return later that night, she makes a call to the police for assistance.  Feeling stonewalled, Beth calls up her taxi driver friend to see if he might be able to help her remember what happened the night before, thinking it will lead her to what might have happened to Kate.  Instead, she winds up implicated in a murder that has several suspects who may have had a hand in it…including herself.

Even if Netflix has expressly forbidden us to pump the brakes right about now and let you discover the rest of what happens in The Weekend Away for yourself, I would have had to stop my recap there.  It’s right around that point in the movie when Alderson starts to cast significant doubt on our perception of the facts by presenting no different explanations of the solution, just alternate angles to the crime committed that night.  It did catch me off guard several times and whatever theory I was working in my mind at what happened had to be scrapped almost in its entirety.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves and heap too much praise on The Weekend Away as a highly detail-oriented mystery.  Filmed on location in beautiful Croatia, director Kim Farrant is more efficient in keeping the action moving quicker than spending extra time on the actors/characters molding the plot contrivances into less convenient coincidences.  Farrant loves a red herring, and for a while, I wondered if there would be any men in the film introduced as not an immediate suspect for the person(s) that may know where Kate is.  Thankfully, there are people on Beth’s side, but she has to find them first, wading through a coastline filled with creepy voyeurs and members of the police who aren’t taking her protestations of innocence seriously.

Keeping the movie heartily afloat is Meester, an underrated actress mostly known for her television work but tends to make a strong showing in film projects.  I bought that she was a stay-at-home mom that may have not quite wanted this life when she was growing up and perhaps harbors some jealousy with Kate because of her ‘freedom.”  Was the jealously strong enough to kill for?  Meester does a solid job with playing it almost entirely one way but allowing a few strands of the opposite to bleed through – that makes you wonder what Farrant and her screenwriter have up their sleeve for the final act.  I liked the chemistry between Meester and Wolfe, too.  The friendship, warm one minute but icy the next, felt natural and understandably standoffish when lines get blurred.  Of the other supporting players, I enjoyed Iva Mihalic as a police officer who first suspects Beth but grows to doubt her guilt. 

Like the recent Netflix film Brazen, The Weekend Away is a female-led effort and a rather good one.  There’s a comfortable feel to this one, and it doesn’t skimp on the elements that go into a good “accused and on the run” thriller that sets your pulse racing just enough to make the time fly by.  It’s nothing you’ll remember five days after you see it, but while everyone is out seeing The Batman over the next month, you can fire up The Weekend Away with confidence that you’ll get a little something out of the trip for the effort.

Movie Review ~ Texas Chainsaw Massacre

The Facts:

Synopsis: After nearly 50 years of hiding, Leatherface returns to terrorize a group of idealistic young friends who accidentally disrupt his carefully shielded world in a remote Texas town.
Stars: Sarah Yarkin, Elsie Fisher, Mark Burnham, Moe Dunford, Nell Hudson, Jessica Allain, Olwen Fouéré, Jacob Latimore
Director: David Blue Garcia
Rated: R
Running Length: 81 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Of all the horror movies I’ve watched over time, 1974’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre tends to stick out. It’s not the goriest, and it’s not the best made, the budget was small, and the production shows it. Acting seems secondary to many of those appearing in the film, giving it that realistic tinge director Tobe Hooper and his co-writer Kim Henkel were after. The reactions happening on the screen for the audience to view come off as authentic, making the grisly gristle of the Lonestar State-set terror sizzle. The film has a way of sticking around, haunting you long after final girl Sally Hardesty (the late Marilyn Burns) rides off into the sunset with that terrified, wild-eyed look and scream-laughing relief that her ordeal is over.

It’s been nearly fifty years since Hooper’s drive-in feature spooked audiences enough to inspire countless rip-offs and a total of eight sequels/prequels/remakes/etc., with the newest arriving on Netflix after a strained production. Having cycled through every variation of the title imaginable, writer Chris Thomas Devlin and six primary producers, including Fede Álvarez (Don’t Breathe), just hack off a The and call it a day. Following a surprisingly well-liked Texas Chainsaw 3D in 2013 and the barely seen (but rather fun) origin story Leatherface in 2017, Texas Chainsaw Massacre has some ground to make up. It all started with the early bad buzz around its original directors being replaced and their entire footage being reshot, not to mention being sold to Netflix by its production company after preview audiences hated it. A trailer released in late January seemed to seal the deal that revisiting Texas after all these years wasn’t advisable.

How nice it is to report, then, that Texas Chainsaw Massacre arrives on Netflix as an efficient and often terrifically effective direct follow-up to the original film. Following the recent trend of the “requel,” Deviln goes the 2018 Halloween route, ignoring everything that came after the 1974 film and positioning his screenplay as if the next half-century had gone by with nary a peep from Leatherface or his family. A familiar voice (for hardcore TCM fans) provides the opening narration with the briefest of backstory to the events of that fateful day. All this leads us directly into the present, and to sisters Melody (Sarah Yarkin, Happy Death Day 2U) and Lila (Elsie Fisher, The Addams Family) traveling with Melody’s business partner Dante (Jacob Latimore, Like a Boss) and his fiancé Ruth (Nell Hudson) to a ghost town they plan to redevelop into a new utopia seven hours outside of Austin that’s free from the hustle, bustle, and violence of big city life.

Encountering the requisite misogynist redneck that might also be a racist and cops that might be a little bit of both but will come in handy when a body is needed down the road, they arrive in the abandoned town of Harlow to find it almost as empty as they’d expect. One house, the orphanage, is still occupied, and its proprietress (Alice Krige, She Will, chapped-lipped and excellent) is pretty sure she has the deed around there somewhere. Before she can produce it and prove she and her hulk of a final charge can stay, she suffers a medical emergency brought on by the stress of the millennials pressuring her.

This event serves as a trigger for the massive and loyal protector (Mark Burnham) that doesn’t take this slight against his mother figure lying down or without a decent-sized chainsaw in his grubby hands. As more obnoxious youths arrive in town to purchase property and party, the man returns under the cloak of a rainstorm and begins to ensure this is the last investment any of them will make. Watching this all is Lila, the survivor of a school shooting often paralyzed with fear at being put in a position of fighting to stay alive. At the same time, Melody is also trapped by the humungous madman that seemingly can’t be stopped. Also thrown into the mix is a familiar name from franchise history, the Laurie Strode of the TCM mythology: Sally Hardesty herself. Like Strode, Hardesty (now played by Olwen Fouéré, Sea Fever) has been preparing for this day for years, and tonight she gets her chance to face her fears in physical form.

For all the overzealous fans that were sharpening their knives for this one, you can put them away. Aside from the tacky schlock of a gore-gy on a bus which gives Leatherface his most kills to date, Texas Chainsaw Massacre is mainly working on a level of horror that’s more entertaining than one might expect. Performances are generally solid, with Yarkin and especially Fisher making for an unusual dynamic duo and character actress Fouéré stepping in nicely for Burns. I seem always to have a little trouble with actresses taking on “tough women” roles who are filmed looking solid and robust only to be knocked around in their first face-to-face meeting with their opponent. There’s some of that here, but Fouéré doesn’t forget to keep the acting at a higher level with fewer words to support it. As ever, Krige shows she can play nearly anything, and even in a brief cameo, you spend most of the movie wondering if she’ll return. Always tasked with a bit of a thankless role, Burnham plays Leatherface with the brute force required and manages to convey some of the emotions tacked on.

Clocking in at a little over 75 minutes, Texas Chainsaw Massacre comes across as the right length, and there’s enough exposition for every character, so no one (of importance) feels cut off at the knees for nuance in what is otherwise a mostly standard arc for a horror film. There’s a blueprint to how to make a movie about a group of kids going into a supposedly abandoned location, finding they aren’t alone, and then working to survive. Texas Chainsaw Massacre falls on the victorious side of the argument that simple is better. Outside of the bus nonsense, it’s still gruesome and filled with broken bones and gushing veins, but on a more restrained level. No one is getting shortchanged here.

I take that back. Continuity is getting shortchanged because if Devlin wanted this to be an air-tight continuation of the original, we’d have to worry about more than just Leatherface. Fans will remember that Leatherface was always the figurehead for a highly dysfunctional family of freaks. Where did they all go? How did Leatherface wind up at the orphanage? Like Sally, he’s aged fifty years, so what’s happened all this time for him to remain dormant? That question may be answered if the power is in the chainsaw, but some of these informational gaps feel held back for future installments. You didn’t think Leatherface had been sent on his merry way, did you? Even if Texas Chainsaw Massacre feels like a contained film that wouldn’t need a sequel, anything is possible in this bizarre world that appears to thrive after all these years.

Movie Review ~ Brazen

The Facts:

Synopsis: A prominent mystery writer and crime expert hurries back to her family home when her sister is killed and her double life as a webcam performer is revealed, ignoring the warnings of cool-headed detective and getting involved in the case.

Stars: Alyssa Milano, Sam Page, Malachi Weir, Emilie Ullerup, Matthew Finlan, Colleen Wheeler, Lossen Chambers

Director: Monika Mitchell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: We’re ever so slightly into January but I can’t quite shake the cozy comfort of one of my favorite seasons of the year…and it’s not Christmas.  No, it’s the cycle of holiday movies produced en masse for television by a growing number of networks and streaming services, aiming to pummel their target audiences with enough easy to digest 90-minute treats to fill a Santa-size stocking.  Like a greedy kid in a small-town candy store about to go under but saved at the last minute by a hard-working single gal from the big city, I always go a little overboard in gathering my selections each year, finding that my time is more limited than I would like to get through them all.  So, it’s around now when I start to gradually remove myself from these holiday affairs and get back to the reality of films where icicles can be used as weapons, not decorations.

Luckily, every now and then a movie like Brazen comes along and it’s a nice blending of both worlds that helps me ease my way back into the swing of things.  There’s a feeling of familiar efficiency to suggest this adaptation of a popular Nora Roberts mystery novel from 1988 was produced quickly, with experienced director Monika Mitchell (The Knight Before Christmas) casting dependable actors well-versed in the one take turnaround to guarantee deadlines are met.  It also hits the right notes in being just scandalous enough to make a younger viewer wish it went further but keep watching to see if it does and an older viewer to think it goes as far as necessary but secretly wanting just a small flash of flesh. 

Celebrated mystery writer Grace Miller is riding high on the success of her latest novel when her estranged sister (Emilie Ullerup) calls, asking that she visit.  Dropping everything and expecting to find her sister in serious trouble, she instead finds her younger sibling holding down a job as a schoolteacher at a prominent school and attempting to get her son back from her well-connected and wealthy ex.  Within days, however, her sister is found slain and her double life as a webcam model is exposed, sending Grace into a tailspin as she works with the detective living next door (Sam Page) to find the killer…a killer that continues to strike.

I was surprised to find that the novel Brazen is based off of was nearly 34 years old because it’s made it to the screen without much alteration if I’m reading the synopsis correctly.  Yes, it often comes off as a lengthier and better produced episode of a crime drama you’d see on network TV, but at the same time that’s selling short the work that Milano and Page are doing with the material.  It’s standard-fare mystery-solving, with a number of red herrings and the typical fingers pointed at the most obvious (read: slovenly or repulsively creepy) characters, but the two leads believe in the material enough that you can’t help but take them as seriously as they are taking it.  How Grace manages to make her way into the investigation is a stretch by any tinkering of plot mechanics, but the way Milano pitches it, I might have been convinced to let her take over the case as well.

For a film that largely has to do with webcam modeling, it’s quite chaste…like so many movies that take place at strip clubs where all the dancers are wearing bras and underwear.  It’s just another way the film simply wants to remain neutral.  Not aiming to upset anyone (save for the more conservative Roberts fans that bristled at the casting of the dependably outspoken Milano in a leading role), Brazen is a harmless 96-minute weeknight watch that leaves the door open for a sequel.  While I can’t find any info that Roberts herself continued this character in future novels, I’d imagine the team of writers who brought Brazen to Netflix could come up with another case to solve that would check the same boxes.  There’s a real lack of this kind of entertainment on the streaming site and if they were all made with such awareness of who they are all showing up for, why not throw some money at them and make a few more?

Movie Review ~ The Lost Daughter

The Facts:

Synopsis: A professor’s seaside vacation takes a dark turn when her obsession with a young mother forces her to confront secrets from her past.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, Ed Harris, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Mescal, Dagmara Domińczyk, Jack Farthing, Oliver Jackson-Cohen

Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: There’s something to be said for investing in a two-hour movie with a central character that’s hard to like.  We’ve had to root for anti-heroes in a number of films in theaters and television over the years and it takes a certain type of character (and actor) to be able to pull of that fine tight-rope act of leaning into the unlikability of a persona but not overstep so far that you lose the audience.  It’s the ultimate trust-fall test to bet the house that viewers will turn up to be attentive to (and even eventually root for) an individual that we might otherwise recoil from.  Oscar-winner Olivia Colman has played brittle before and her success as Queen Elizabeth on The Crown has largely come from her ability to “staunch” like the best of them…so we already know she can win us over.  What do you do when the movie as a whole is hard to like, though?

While I haven’t read the source novel on which The Lost Daughter was adapted from, it’s not very hard to see the literary bones and stumbling blocks in the structure of Maggie Gyllenhaal’s version.  The actress, making her feature film directing debut as well as logging her first screenplay, takes Elena Ferrante’s 2008 novel (which was translated from its original 2006 Italian version) and brings the psychological drama off the page with a fine cast of actors who struggle through a serpentine plot that gets more turned around on itself the longer it plays.  Each time you feel momentum is gaining on plot or performance, a new element is introduced to distract and take you out of the energy the film was building.  It creates a strong discord over time, eventually alienating the viewer almost entirely, giving a full pardon to us to let our minds wander.  It’s a pity too, because the movie is chock full of dynamic actors dutifully delivering in their assigned roles.

Gyllenhaal (Batman Begins) opens The Lost Daughter with one of my least favorite plot devices: the flash forward/backward. (Ugh!) We see a brief glimpse of a time other than when most of the action takes place.  Maybe it’s before, maybe it’s after but we’re soon with Leda (Colman, The Mitchells vs. The Machines) as she arrives at a Greek seaside village for a quiet holiday on her own.  Single and with two adult children, she’s free to do as she pleases and at first it looks like that will be keeping her own schedule on the tranquil beach and flirting (badly) with the sea-salty landlord (Ed Harris, The Abyss) she meets on her first night.

The serenity doesn’t last long.  Another family joins her at the beach, a large group that boisterously descends, or rather invades, the space and overtakes the area.  Determined to keep her holiday on her terms and able to tune them out for the most part, it’s only when she refuses to relinquish her space to them that their orbits truly collide.  It’s also when she notices Nina (Dakota Johnson, Our Friend), a young mother of a toddler that never gives her a moment of peace.  Seeing this woman struggle to find some second to gather her thoughts acts as a trigger for Leda, drudging up memories of her own past when she was young (played by Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) and hoping to balance motherhood and her own dreams of status in the educated world.

It’s here that Gyllenhaal creates a fork in the road for viewers as well as a gap that continues to widen for the rest of the film.  On the left is the older Leda who is there when Nina’s young daughter disappears briefly only to discover something else has been taken when she returns.  A greater mystery is then uncovered, creating a creeping sense of dread that Leda’s safety is at risk from Nina, her shady husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen, The Haunting of Bly Manor), and their extended family…or is it the other way around and does Leda harbor a dark side that’s ready to swallow all of them up? 

The second and, sadly, far less interesting fork is the one we’re continually pulled back to…that of the younger Leda’s life with her children who need their mother but are so clingy they begin to drive her away.  Her need for attention turns into desire for validation and, not finding that at home, she looks to a more mature colleague (Peter Sarsgaard, The Guilty) who provides that outlet for her.  This section is meant to show why the older Leda acts the way she does but never fleshes out the history enough for us to have that full picture etched for us, or even halfway shaded in.  Brief conversations in both timelines hint at Leda’s mother playing a part in her feeling unwanted and that transference easily passing through her to her children. Gyllenhaal never explores that, and it feels like a missed opportunity…for us and for the actresses who are more than capable of taking on those tricky corners of the heart.

While a beautiful name, those with knowledge of Greek mythology will pick up on the scholarly burden that comes with the name Leda who was the wife of a King when a most famous God took a liking to her.  An unwilling bedmate (i.e. by force) to Zeus who masqueraded as a swan, the story goes that she wound up laying two eggs that hatched into children.  It’s a thinly veiled metaphor for what the older Leda goes through, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find she gave herself that name – she often acts like such a martyr it would feel in line with the character. 

Of course, it’s not Colman’s doing that she’s tasked with a most difficult through line to play and if anything works best about the movie, it’s her.  Displaying her usual bravado in making risky choices that pay off, she isn’t afraid to go to awkward places in her acting or let uncomfortable silences linger longer than they have to.  The scenes with Colman and Johnson are first rate, as is one scene early on between Colman and Dagmara Domińczyk (The Assistant), Nina’s cousin who has the initial run-in with Leda and attempts to make peace. 

There’s a lot of buzz around Gyllenhaal’s screenplay and it’s a bit of a puzzlement for me.  Any juggling of timelines is always looked on with favor but aside from a few admittedly knock-out scenes that appear to be building to something but amount to little more than a puff of smoke, there isn’t anything remarkable about the assemblage of The Lost Daughter.  It’s the performances that stand out far more than the script or the direction, both of which are serviceable.  This includes everything right up to the ending which could have been punctuated better to close out Gyllenhaal’s debut by finally finding its footing.  Instead, it literally trips and falls without much fanfare. 

Movie Review ~ Don’t Look Up 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Two low-level astronomers must go on a giant media tour to warn mankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth. 

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Rob Morgan, Jonah Hill, Mark Rylance, Tyler Perry, Timothée Chalamet, Ron Perlman, Ariana Grande, Kid Cudi, Melanie Lynskey, Himesh Patel 

Director: Adam McKay 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 145 minutes 

TMMM Score: (4/10) 

Review:  Maybe Don’t Look Up is a movie that is meant to be seen by an audience full of people primed to enjoy this type of salty satirical look at climate change and current state of affairs, because it was like an echo chamber at my press screening.  Not that all of us weren’t getting the jokes or comedy being tossed (more like direct line thrown) at us by writer/director Adam McKay (The Big Short, Vice) from a story by David Sirota.  We did.  We very much did.  I just don’t think that I personally found much to giggle about in this achingly overlong comedy that overstays its welcome because it can and doesn’t subject itself to its own brand of scrutiny when it should.  I had to see this one in theaters, but you can see it at home…maybe that’s the way to do it so you can break it up into chapters and consume it in smaller, more digestible bites.

McKay’s comet comedy Don’t Look Up hits the political satire button harder than it must, resulting in a sporadically humorous watch that features a few surprisingly funny turns from a larger-than-life cast.  Yet for all those random moments of spontaneous glee, it honestly doesn’t have that much to say outside of its central message about the danger of misinformation and wide-spread issues related to misuse of social media to educate the world in a global crisis.  Almost as if he determined that the concept was “good enough”, McKay falls into obvious dialogue traps and paints himself into a corner by the end so that even a decidedly conversation-starting finale feels like a laborious task because of what we’ve gone through to get there.

At first, finding an unidentified comet careening through the solar system is an exciting discovery for astronomy student Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy) and her professor Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Wolf of Wall Street).  However, once Randall charts the journey of the comet, he determines that it’s on a course straight for Earth and that in six months’ time it will achieve impact and kill everyone on the planet.  Of course, the two feel like sharing the news will result in decisive action but they encounter a series of roadblocks and red tape not just in reporting the information to the President (Meryl Streep, Still of the Night) and her son and chief of staff (Jonah Hill, Sausage Party) but in being able to talk about it at all.

With the months ticking down and their claim being refuted first by scientists with higher stature, then politicians more interested in reelection, and finally by a tech magnate (Mark Rylance, The BFG) who sees the mineral rich comet as a way to harvest more materials for his business, the two are tested personally and professionally as to how much outside pressure they can withstand and who they can trust.  Eventually, popular news outlets and television personalities (including Cate Blanchett, Nightmare Alley, as a capped-tooth talk show host) prove tempting distractions from the time-sensitive solve-for no one seems to be worried about.  Can everyone put their differences aside and agree about the problem at hand before the Earth is destroyed?

McKay has been gifted with a dynamite cast, a saving grace that will without a doubt sell this movie to multiple interest groups who will show up for their favorite celebrity.  Most of them wind up doing a good job too, like Ariana Grande delivering a fantastically foul (and truly epic) put-down to DiCaprio. Speaking of DiCaprio, I can’t decide if he was giving a middling Leo performance or a great Philip Seymour Hoffman one. Watching him bluster around as a hypochondriac, easily addled middle-aged father of grown children is kind of surreal and, I dunno, satisfying? In the Battle of Capped Teeth, Blanchett out flosses Rylance by not letting the teeth do the work. Rylance isn’t just resting on laurels; he’s reclining in a performance we’ve seen before.  He’s giving by far the weakest performance here and as much as I’ve liked him before, I feel like his time doing these types of sotto-voce cardigan roles are over.  Blanchett really goes for it, unafraid to get her hands dirty and Lawrence too bites down hard on her character’s anger, letting it boil over to great effect.

It’s inescapable that Don’t Look Up is way too long and could be ever so much shorter if McKay had trimmed out some of the less interesting pieces, many of which involve DiCaprio’s character falling from personal grace and secondary characters being revisited when we didn’t care about them in the first place.  It’s overstuffed and Thanksgiving was weeks ago by now.  The credits at least can be shortened.  I made the mistake of leaving early because they were eternally long and of course there was an extended post-credit scene that was quite important…so don’t make my mistake and be sure to watch that ending.

Movie Review ~ The Unforgivable 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Released from prison into a society that won’t forgive her past, a woman seeks redemption by searching for the sister she left behind. 

Stars: Sandra Bullock, Viola Davis, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jon Bernthal, Richard Thomas, Linda Emond, Aisling Franciosi, Tom Guiry, Rob Morgan, W. Earl Brown 

Director: Nora Fingscheidt 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 112 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review: Once you find out that Sandra Bullock’s newest film for Netflix is based on Unforgiven, a 2009 three-episode limited series originally shown on British airwaves, it starts to make sense why this feature film feels like it’s missing something that would make it feel complete.  It’s not that Bullock’s presence back on screen, her first since 2018’s massive hit Bird Box, isn’t welcome because it most definitely is, but it’s that The Unforgivable doesn’t seem up to the standard we have for the Oscar winner.  The meatiness that must have been present in the lengthier version explored in the miniseries would have made this feel less of your standard presentation of redemption and given all the actors, not just Bullock, additional layers to uncover. 

Released from prison for good behavior after serving part of her time after being convicted for the shooting death of a small-town cop twenty years earlier, Ruth (Bullock, Gravity) is assigned to a parole officer (Rob Morgan, Don’t Look Up) who isn’t about to go easy on her.  Not that she’s a barrel of laughs, either.  The weight of the years in prison have clearly taken their toll on the parolee and her solid stance, rough edges, and clipped response to questions speak to a woman that didn’t just make it through prison, she survived.  Unsurprisingly, cop killers have a difficult time behind bars and while it’s not discussed you wonder how much abuse Ruth suffered from those in power while she was locked away.  Through flashbacks, we see the circumstances by which the crime occurred and there’s little doubt of her involvement in the officer’s slaying, having acted in the spur of the moment to avoid eviction for her and a much younger sister from her family farm.

Unable on her own to contact her now young adult sister (Aisling Franciosi) who lives with adoptive parents (Richard Thomas and Linda Emond, Gemini Man) that have shielded from her true identity for decades, Ruth engages a lawyer (Vincent D’Onofrio, The Magnificent Seven) that she happens across when she visits her old home…he lives there now with his wife (Viola Davis, Widows) and sons.  Shielding them from her truth but not totally hiding it either, she finds a sympathetic ally in the legal nature of the husband but not the moral core of the wife.  While she is befriended by a co-worker (Jon Bernthal, The Accountant) at the fish factory job her parole office finds for her, she also secures her own employment putting her carpentry skill to use building a shelter for the homeless.  The past hasn’t forgotten about her or the people in her life though, and the sons of the slain cop have kept an eye on the woman they feel has gotten off too easy. 

The multiple storylines and character arcs scream miniseries, and you can imagine how each episode would have dealt with juggling all of these in a much tidier way.  As it is, screenwriters Peter Craig, Hillary Seitz, and Courtenay Miles never successfully bring anything to the forefront and so nothing has the desired impact necessary for us to grab onto.  Not that they haven’t given us one or two characters we wish we had more time with.  Why cast the dynamic Davis in a role that is largely dormant for the run time and further, why would she take this low impact part?  Davis and Bullock work so well together in their short amount of screen time you wish the movie were more about them.  I’d have taken less of the revenge storyline featuring Tom Guiry (Wonder Wheel) and Will Pullen (Goat) as two sons so enraged at the injustice of someone leaving jail early that they’re willing to commit a crime that would send them to jail in return.  These types of plot developments make little sense even to a casual observer, how does it not make sense to two people?  I also liked the relationship formed between Bullock and Bernthal, a highly underrated actor that gets a nice chance to shine with a character that’s not big on words but grand on making efforts to connect.

The time has long since passed when Bullock has had to prove herself a strong dramatic actress, so the range shown her is no big surprise.  The performance is perhaps oversold just a teeny bit but there’s little care for artifice in her acting and she works nicely with director Nora Fingscheidt to not turn every intense passage into an Oscar-clip ready moment.  Overly strong production values and an ever-present Hans Zimmer & David Fleming (Dune) score add to the sophistication of The Unforgivable, so even if it’s lacking in a feeling that it’s the whole package because it’s been trimmed for the overseas remake, there is still a sense of an above average narrative that’s worth a look.