Movie Review ~ Awake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a sudden global event wipes out all electronics and takes away humankind’s ability to sleep, chaos quickly begins to consume the world. Only Jill, an ex-soldier with a troubled past, may hold the key to a cure in the form of her own daughter.

Stars: Gina Rodriguez, Ariana Greenblatt, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Frances Fisher, Barry Pepper, Gil Bellows, Shamier Anderson

Director: Mark Raso

Rated: NR

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Blame Sandra Bullock and that darn Bird Box but ever since the 2018 film premiered on Netflix and created a massive amount of publicity for the streaming service, a number of imitators centered on a massive world event have tried to capture that film’s same energy.  It’s not that the original movie was all that special, but it hit at just the precise moment when audiences needed that particular kind of escapist entertainment and didn’t mind some of its sillier plot mechanics.  The point was, it was led by an A-list, Oscar-winning actress who may have brought people in initially, but who eventually stuck around for the effective scares.  Any attempt to duplicate that would be a bit pointless…but oh did people try.

At first glance, you may look at the new Netflix film Awake and chalk it up to another Bird Box wannabe, but any doubt of its intentions wears off within the first few minutes and you realize this is no mere imitation but a different kind of beast with its own plan of attack.  Like Bird Box, it can’t quite figure out how to untangle itself from third act problems and takes a bit of a nosedive just when it should be accelerating to the finish line. Up until that point, it’s a breathless thriller that succeeds on the merit of the performances and the skill of the filmmaking.

Recovering veteran and single mom Jill (Gina Rodriguez, Kajillionaire, an excellent actress that always seems to be one role shy of truly breaking through) is putting her life back together working as a security guard for a government run psychiatric unit while repairing the fractured relationship with her two children.  While she occasionally lifts unused pills from her job so she can sell them in order to make ends meet, she’s largely on the level, which is beginning to earn back trust from her former mother-in-law (Frances Fisher, Titanic) and daughter Matilda (Ariana Greenblat, A Bad Moms Christmas), though her son Noah (Lucius Hoyos, What If) remains wary that his mom has truly turned over a new leaf.

After a solar flare creates an enormous electromagnetic pulse, wiping out all electronic devices and means of transportation, at first the family believes they need to just wait out this incredible inconvenience.  However, soon it becomes apparent that the unexplained phenomena triggered something else within the human race, rendering them unable to sleep.  Returning to her workplace, Jill finds the unit in chaos and her boss (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) scrambling to relocate their operation to The Hub, a secret facility where they can study what has happened and, using a mysterious woman who has been able to fall asleep, figure out a way to fix it. 

What Jill fails to tell them is that Matilda can also sleep, something her mother-in-law has already figured out and told their local pastor (Barry Pepper, Crawl) who, in turn, has told his congregation.  Already whipped into a frenzy due to their lack of sleep, the prospect of having one in their midst that might hold the key to getting back their slumber becomes too much for them and violence erupts.  That’s about where Awake reaches the first of its numerous points of no return and as an audience member you’re going to have to either love it or leave it as Jill and her family go on the run from all kinds of sundry sorts over the next 90 minutes. Encountering car thieves (two different sets of them!), a highway full of nude cultists, and, in one of the film’s eeriest looking moments, a small town with streets full of wandering prison inmates in orange jumpsuits, there’s danger down every highway for this household. 

It’s a lot to handle, but Canadian director Mark Raso (who wrote the film along with his brother Joseph) keeps the pieces moving in a rather orderly fashion the majority of the time.  Raso isn’t above putting young Matilda in as much danger as possible but managing to do it in a way that has a sort of cinematic thrill to it.  That sounds weird. Let me explain. There’s a scene where Jill, Matilda, Noah, and a passenger who I won’t reveal are all in a car and attacked from the outside. In one camera move (or meant to look like one) we are inside the car, front and center, for the attack and it feels real and raw.  All this intensity works up unto a point near the end and that’s when Awake veers off course into territory that’s more messy than structured.  The final act may be a letdown after such a promising start, but it doesn’t completely overshadow the skill in which Raso constructs the setup.

Rumors abound that a Bird Box 2 is happening sometime in the future but until then we are going to have to be satisfied with films that run a similar route to that earlier movie.  Awake is one of the better Netflix films to arrive and wholly worth keeping your eyes open for. I don’t believe the Rasos intended to create a film to outpace the popular Netflix film Bird Box, but they’ve wound up with one that could easily be mentioned in the same breath and draw some favorable comparisons. 

Movie Review ~ Blue Miracle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: To save their cash-strapped orphanage, a guardian and his kids partner with a washed-up boat captain for a chance to win a lucrative fishing competition.

Stars: Jimmy Gonzales, Dennis Quaid, Anthony Gonzalez, Bruce McGill, Raymond Cruz, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Fernanda Urrejola, Nathan Arenas, Chris Doubek

Director: Julio Quintana

Rated: NR

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Let’s get something out of the way at the start of this review, shall we?  The poster for Blue Miracle, the new inspirational true life tale Netflix is premiering on May 27, stinks.  It’s just awful. What looks to be a hasty photoshop project done by a junior intern doesn’t tell you what this movie is about in the slightest (no tagline?), nor would it catch your eye amongst the throng of enticing options Netflix pushes out week after week.  This is too bad, because while ultimately it’s no game changer of a watch, Blue Miracle is blessedly low on the sugar you might expect to be puckering on and heavy on the good-natured charm that goes down much easier, reeling you in for a surprisingly brisk viewing.

The bones of this whale of a tale feel pretty familiar.  Sunny Cabo San Lucas, Mexico is a haven for tourists who soak up the sun and sand, but venture further into the city and you’ll find Casa Hogar, a orphanage run by Omar Venegas (Jimmy Gonzales, Happy Death Day) and his wife.  Dubbed Papá Omar by the children he has helped to get off the streets and provide the kind of safe environment to grow up in that he wasn’t afforded, Omar is finding it harder to make ends meet.  Facing bankruptcy but unwilling to give up on the kids he has made a commitment to, he attemps a last-ditch effort to win the money in a yearly fishing tournament that’s never been open to locals before.

There are one or two problems with this plan, naturally, the first being that Omar doesn’t know how to swim, the result of a childhood trauma he keeps reliving throughout the film.  Secondly, neither he nor a select group of older boys from Casa Hogar knows the first thing about fishing.  Wanting to help his cash-poor friend out, tournament director Wayne Bisbee (Bruce McGill, Lincoln) pairs Omar with grizzled boat captain Wade Malloy (Dennis Quaid, Midway), a former two-time winner who had previously come to Bisbee wanting to enter the contest solo.  Though neither man is happy about the prospect of splitting any winnings, both agree that something is better than nothing and it’s out to sea for a weekend that will change their hearts and minds…and possibly their futures.

Looking over screenwriter Chris Dowling’s listing on IMDb shows titles that reflect similar themes found in Blue Miracle.  Different world views colliding and eventually learning from one another, choosing between wrong and right, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes…all hearty stock that goes into Chicken Soup for the Netflix Film.  Yet Dowling and director Julio Quintana never let the movie get weighed down in its tripe, recycled though it may be.  Aside from a few spotlight performances, as I watched the film, I kept thinking how predictable the beats were while at the same time finding a true investment with these day trippers and honestly rooting for them. It’s a strange fence to find myself sitting on, admittedly, but expect to be perched there right along with me. If we’re nitpicking, and we must, I question why a movie set in Cabo featuring characters that were born and raised there would be speaking English to each other when they are alone but, hey, I guess that’s just the way these features have to be made.  Still, wouldn’t it have been nice to have it authentic, forcing audiences to either read the subtitles or admit defeat and watch it dubbed in their language of choice?

For a while there, I was beginning to think we’d lost Quaid as a dependable actor.  Turning up in roles that didn’t suit him or, worse, straining to make the broad circles of comedy fit into his square wheelhouse, gone was the fun Quaid that just had a looser screen presence.  In Blue Miracle, Quaid is clearly finding his way back to a comfortable place and he’s in fine (read: rare) form as the salty many of the sea that starts the film as a grump but, wouldn’t you know it, burns a little brighter once those boys from Casa Hogar spend a little time on his boat.  The boys all turn in pleasant, if unremarkable, performances of stock characters that every orphanage apparently needs to have (nerd, bully, loudmouth, clown, etc) but there’s no question Blue Miracle belongs to Gonzales.  Known for his TV work and small film roles, this is his chance to shine, and he does an admirable job with what he’s given.  The role is inherently written as good beyond measure, so he’s pretty much accompanied by a halo.  A lesser actor might go strong on the parts of the film where Omar battles his own inner demons while a bigger name might draw attention away from his costars in their scenes together.  Gonzales walks that fine line well, turning in his own solid performance while making room for Quaid and the boys, too.

In a strange bit of timing, Netflix’s Blue Miracle was the second new film I screened in less than a week based on a true story that featured a group of orphan boys seen as underdogs overcoming inexperience on their path to success.  That other film is 12 Mighty Orphans and it’s not coming out until July but both movies share that common thread of underestimating determination.  I won’t say yet which film is more successful at tugging at the heartstrings, but both are winners when it comes to having the audience completely in their cheering section by the time the final moments draw near. As for those you considering casting a line toward Blue Miracle, I say go for it. It’s better to be see what you catch instead of having it be the one that got away.   

Movie Review ~ Army of the Dead

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Following a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas, a group of mercenaries take the ultimate gamble, venturing into the quarantine zone to pull off the greatest heist ever attempted.

Stars: Dave Bautista, Ella Purnell, Ana de la Reguera, Omari Hardwick, Matthias Schweighöfer, Raúl Castillo, Samantha Win, Nora Arnezeder, Tig Notaro, Richard Centrone, Athena Perample, Theo Rossi, Huma S. Qureshi, Hiroyuki Sanada, Garret Dillahunt

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: R

Running Length: 148 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Movie trends go up and down with the tide and I’m a little surprised that the love for zombies in film and television has gone on for as long as it has.  It’s far past its expiration date in my book, getting to the point where I have to resist entirely skipping over a title if I see the ‘z’ word or ‘undead’ anywhere in a plot description.  There just has to be more life, or the afterlife, than munching on brains and finding new ways for those running in terror to be ripped apart or, if fighting back, stop their foe with a sharp object to the head.  After some respectable “of the Dead” sequels churned out by original Night of the Living Dead creator George A. Romero before his passing in 2017, a new generation of films were created to further that legacy and it became difficult to discern what had Romero’s blessing and which were but cheap imitators in name only.

If we were still embracing the term “winning” (and I’m here to tell you, we are not), one could easily say that director Zack Snyder is the de facto champion filmmaker of 2021 so far.  Not only did his long overdue and much anticipated director’s cut of the greatly maligned Justice League debut on HBOMax to spectacular reviews, but he’s following it up two months later with a gonzo zombie film that is the itch you never knew you needed to scratch.  Now, while Snyder has a significant and loyal fanbase that always has his back (for better or for worse), who can say if Army of the Dead would have gotten as much of a buzzed about release if Justice League hadn’t been received so well.  While not related to Romero’s work, I’d imagine that horror icon finding a lot to like about Snyder’s film, which takes it’s time (148 minutes to be exact) to lay out a detailed plot featuring characters that have depth…and it’s not just the living ones.

That’s not to say I was totally in the Snyder camp right away.  An enticing prologue featuring soldiers transporting a mysterious government asset that crashes in the Nevada desert led into a credit sequence that is basically an entire prequel film in and of itself.  What the government was protecting is a quick moving and strong alpha undead that makes quick work of the soldiers, turning them into his hungry minions.  Descending upon Vegas, they soon proliferate a zombie infestation that we see brave men and women trying to control the spread.  By the time we see Snyder’s ‘Directed by’ credit, a wall has been fashioned around Vegas keeping the plague contained…but for how long?

While Snyder has the right idea in his introduction and stages it with typically excellent skill, it’s the credits that feel like he handed duties over to an assistant that didn’t quite have his style down.  Gaudy, gory, and meant to be funny but not getting halfway there, it’s enough to make you think twice about sticking with the movie for the next two and a half hours.  Stick with it.  It’s but a mere bump in the road because once Army of the Dead really gets moving, it becomes a thrill a minute blast following a ragtag group gathered by Bly Tanaka (Hiroyuki Sanada, Mortal Kombat) to take back millions of dollars in cash just sitting in his zombie inhabited casino. 

Led by Scott Ward (Dave Bautista, My Spy), the group includes mercenary turned mechanic Maria Cruz (Ana de la Reguera, Nacho Libre), brawny Vanderohe (Omari Hardwick, Spell) who carries around a buzzsaw as his weapon of choice, expert safecracker Dieter (Matthias Schweighöfer), and helicopter pilot Marianne Peters (Tig Notaro, Together Together) who is responsible for getting a chopper on top of the hotel working in time to get the crew out of Vegas before a nuclear bomb decimates the undead once and for all.  Guiding them will be Tanaka’s security agent Martin (Garret Dillahunt, Looper) and Lilly (Nora Arnezeder) who routinely smuggles people through the wall and into casinos so they can steal the remaining money in the slot machines.  To up the personal stakes, Scott’s daughter Kate (Ella Purnell, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children) is a last-minute addition to the squad, hoping to find a friend that Lilly brought in and hasn’t returned.

If I told you that all of this happens within the first hour and you had 90 minutes to go, would you still be on board?  Hope so because the next hour and a half takes you over the wall and into a decrepit Vegas that has been overrun by zombies.  Adapting to their environment, the stronger have survived and formed a kind of community while others just wait around for the next scrap of unlucky flesh to pass by their vicinity…and then they pounce.  Experienced in the ways of negotiating passage through without becoming lunch, Lilly helps the team into the city and for a while things are going fine…until suspicion amongst the group gets the better of them.  As factions break off and they separate, Snyder easily juggles several action-packed storylines at once and doesn’t short shrift any of his actors getting their moment to shine.  Thankfully, that also means we don’t stick around too long with some of the characters that could grate on us, like Dillahunt’s Martin who is little more than your stock shady inside man sent in to protect his boss’s investment. 

What keeps the film so engaging is it’s unpredictability, you just never know who is going to make it to the end credits and who might be a tasty snack in the first scene.  No one is safe and while Snyder and co-screenwriters Shay Hatten and Joby Harold give the characters an appropriate amount of time to mourn, at the same time they aren’t above taking out a team member you would have bet the house had a long life ahead of them.  Going hand in hand with keeping you on your toes is that there are times when Army of the Dead is genuinely frightening. Let’s not forget while zombies are often shown as lumbering slow movers they can also be sprinting fiends out for flesh.  The leader of the legion of undead and his wicked mate have exceptional make-up effects and costume designs – perfect nightmare fodder.

It might be easy to debate the film is overlong and while a trim here and there might have gotten Army of the Dead down to a slightly shorter sit, as presented it doesn’t feel like an excess of overindulgence.  It’s simply a big movie with a big goal and when you go to Vegas, you gamble it all if you want to win.  I think Snyder and company are successful in what they set out to achieve (confirming Bautista is a bona-fide action star, if anything) and you can count on Army of the Dead to play well on any size screen you choose to view it on.   

Movie Review ~ The Woman in the Window (2021)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: An agoraphobic woman living alone in New York begins spying on her new neighbors only to witness a disturbing act of violence.

Stars: Amy Adams, Gary Oldman, Julianne Moore, Anthony Mackie, Brian Tyree Henry, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Fred Hechinger, Wyatt Russell

Director: Joe Wright

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Once upon a time, the big screen adaptation of a best-selling suspense novel would have been cause for some semblance of celebration.  Bringing to life characters readers had only imagined and finding the right way to recreate the puzzle the author had designed might be a challenge but when everything lined up perfectly the result was a surefire blockbuster that left fans of the novel happy and movie studios flush with cash.  Saturation of the market over the past decade has led to novels being written like adaptations of movie scripts…almost like the writers were already imagining the hefty checks they’d receive for selling the rights to the film versions.  So, while we’d get the rare winner like David Fincher’s sleek take on Gillian Flynn’s unstoppable hit Gone Girl and, to a lesser extent, an effectively serviceable read on Paula Hawkins The Girl on the Train two years later, the number of page to screen adaptations was on the decline.

While it wasn’t ever going to change the dial significantly on this downward trend, 20th Century Fox’s release of A.J. Finn’s megahit novel The Woman in the Window at least represented a rarefied bit of sophistication in a genre that wasn’t always known for its refinement.  Helmed by Joe Wright, a director with a fine track record for telling visually appealing films that had a deeply rooted emotional core and adapted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy Letts (who also appears in the film), no stranger himself to adapting work for other mediums, the film seemed like it had prestige in its very building blocks.  Add in a coveted cast with a combined total of 14 Oscar nominations between them and you can see why initial buzz had this, like Gone Girl, on many an early shortlist as potential awards candy upon its release. 

Then the problems began.

First, and this was going on even before the film got off the ground, author A.J. Finn was revealed to be a pseudonym for Dan Mallory, an executive editor at publisher William Morrow and Company who published the novel.  Mallory’s shady past came to light in a earth scorching article published in the New Yorker which detailed how he very likely lied, cheated, and schemed his way through his educational upbringing and career to date.  That this was reignited during the film’s production did no favors for it’s promotional promises.  Then early test screenings received poor scores leading to reshoots and rewrites, which isn’t uncommon, but the poisonous word spread fast that the movie was in trouble. 

Caught in the crosshairs of the Fox/Disney merger, the finished film languished in limbo until Disney sold it off to Netflix who adios-ed a theatrical release because of the pandemic and is now releasing it a full year after its originally announced date.  Adding unspoken insult to injury, the cast and production team are doing no press for the film…making it look like no one has any confidence in it.   Really, who can blame them?  The past year the film has been made a mockery of by gossip hungry columnists, bloggers, and podcasters and the punchline of many jokes at its expense.  The movie and its actors have been set-up to fail, and I’d say that many of those reviewing the film are going in prepared to dislike it and ravage it just because it’s an easy target. 

I’m happy to spoil their fun and report that The Woman in the Window isn’t anywhere as bad as we’ve been led to believe nor is it even a minor misstep compared to some of the dreck major studios still put out and screen a number of times before opening wide.  A film lost in the shuffle of studios in flux and the victim of negative press because of its author, the tumble it has taken shouldn’t be a signifier of the quality of the effort of those involved.  It may take a while for the cord to be pulled tight for viewers, but once Wright (Anna Karenina) and Letts (Lady Bird) stop trying to find a way to emulate Finn’s inner monologue narrative of the leading lady and start bringing their own strengths to their responsibilities, the movie truly takes off with a bang.

Agoraphobic child psychologist Anna Fox (Amy Adams, American Hustle) doesn’t have much to do but wander around her spacious NY brownstone in between getting blackout drunk on glasses of wine and watching film noir.  Separated from her husband and her child because of a trauma that slowly comes into focus, her fear of leaving the house has gotten so bad she can’t even take one step out of her front door without passing out from anxiety.  One of her comforts is keeping track of the goings-on in the neighborhood and its her luck the house across the street has a new family that will soon become a major part of her life. 

She first meets Ethan Russell (Fred Hechinger, News of the World) when he comes to drop off a housewarming gift and shortly thereafter meets his mother (Julianne Moore, Still Alice).  When Alastair Russell (Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour) pays her a visit, his greeting is chillier which might explain why Anna sees the family fighting later and then a scream in the night followed by what looks like Ethan’s mother covered in blood.  Calling the police (Brian Tyree Henry, If Beale Street Could Talk) to investigate turns up nothing suspicious in the house but a different woman (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Single White Female) claiming to be Alastair’s wife.  Convinced of what she saw and determined to prove the Russell’s are hiding something, Anna does what she can from the confines of her house to find out what happened to the woman she met days earlier.  However, with her new neighbors on to her snooping, a basement tenant (Wyatt Russell, Overlord) with a violent past, and secrets of her own that may implicate more than we’re aware of initially, is there any one person we can honestly trust?

Fans of the book will be pleased with the way Letts brought Finn’s book to life, tightening up some of the crinkly edges of his storytelling and removing complexities that made an already hard to swallow situation that much more far-fetched.  It’s still achingly reminiscent of third-rate Hitchcock (take a shot every time you think of Vertigo or Rear Window…and for that matter drink a whole whiskey highball for the film’s outright duplication of 1995’s excellent CopyCat) but considering how chintzy it could have been in less assured hands, this comes off as far classier than it has any right to be. 

Speaking of (W)right, credit goes to the director for elevating the film with his eye for detail and willingness to take chances on some striking visuals that leave an impression.  No spoilers but at one point Anna sees something inside the brownstone that shouldn’t be there, and it’s so beautifully shot that you forget for a moment you’re watching a thriller.  In the same breath, I’ll say there’s also an icky bit of cheek-y gruesomeness that was so shocking I gasped…and not one of those quick whisps of air kind of gasps but the type you hear when you’ve been underwater for three minutes and just reached the surface.

Did anyone come out of Hillbilly Elegy looking as bad as Adams?  Say what you will about the source material, some of director Ron Howard’s choices, and a few of the supporting performances, but for an established actress like Adams to turn in such a tacky routine was incredibly disappointing.  In all honesty, The Woman in the Window doesn’t start out great for her either and I began to wonder if Adams hadn’t lost a little of that luster that made her so appealing when she burst onto the scene.  I don’t know if it was because later in the film is where the reshoots happened or what, but the latter half of the movie is when Adams appears to not be taking the role to the mat like it’s her Oscar bid for the year.  This is not an awards type of film and by the time they got to reshoots I think she knew it…so she’s much more game to lean into the Olivia de Havilland/Barbara Stanwyck type of character this is modeled after.  Having the most fun of everyone is Moore, kicking up her heels and really enjoying the free spirit of her character – it’s the most relaxed the actress has been in a long while and it was fun to watch.  Not having any fun?  Oldman, white-haired, crazy-eyed, and wild-voiced, his performance looks cobbled together from all of his bad takes.

Is The Woman in the Window in the same league as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, two other novels turned films with leading characters that are unreliable in their narration and unlikable at times?  For my money, I’d put this on the level of The Girl on the Train as an adaptation that has come to the screen with promise that is mostly fulfilled.  It’s a better adaptation than The Girl on the Train was, that’s for sure, and to equate the movie with the failings of its author is wrongheaded.  The mystery at its core is kept decently secure until the finale and while you won’t be biting your nails with suspense throughout, it builds to a proper climax that proved satisfying.  Released as part of Netflix’s summer movie season, it’s a solid selection for a weekend viewing – especially considering many would have paid more than the price of a monthly subscription to the service to see it in theaters anyway.

Movie Review ~ Oxygen

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman wakes in a cryogenic chamber with no recollection of how she got there, and must find a way out before running out of air.

Stars: Mélanie Laurent, Mathieu Amalric, Malik Zidi, Marc Saez

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: NR

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  They say with age comes maturity and that goes double for the film industry.  When French director Alexandre Aja started out in the early part of the new millennium, he hit the ground running with intense fare like 2003’s cult favorite High Tension.  Testing the resolve of his audiences (at least in the U.S.) by refusing to shy away from blood, gore, guts, and other things that make us wimpy Americans cringe, Aja became the go-to guy if you needed your film to push the limits of the R-rating and, at times, good taste.  His remake of The Hills Have Eyes gave some polish to Wes Craven’s grubby bare-bones original and how can we forget some of the visuals brought forth in 2008’s Mirrors (another remake, this time of a Korean film) and 2010’s 3D everything but the kitchen sink update of Piranha?

The old Aja was on display in 2019’s downright terrifying alligator flick Crawl, but something felt different in his approach to what could have been a chomp ‘em and leave ‘em box office gobbler.  Even though he was working with a film shot almost entirely on a soundstage that relied heavily on CGI effects to create its big nasty reptiles, there was a much clearer focus on atmosphere and thrills instead of the pure bloodlust that had fueled Aja’s productions for nearly two decades.  With the pandemic holding up plans for Aja’s big screen handling of the popular manga Space Adventure Cobra, there was an interesting opportunity for the director to step in on a project that had been drifting around for some time.

Originally set-up around Tinsel Town back in 2017 as O2 and set to star Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway, the actress never got around to making Oxygen and was replaced by Noomi Rapace (The Secrets We Keep) and a director who Aja had served as a producer for in past projects.  With its small set-up making it easy to film amidst restrictions implemented during the COVID lockdown, Aja took over as director and brought in Mélanie Laurent as a substitute for Rapace who remained as an Executive Producer.  Filming in July 2020 as Oxygen (or, Oxygène, s’il vous plaît)  the movie was snapped up by Netflix and became one of the streaming services initial offerings in its summer series of weekly film releases.

As the film opens, a woman (Laurent, Enemy) struggles to free herself from a strange cocoon in a darkened chamber.  She’s flat on her back and hooked up to a number of devices within this chamber with only a sentient operating system named M.I.L.O (Medical Interface Liaison Operator) to provide stilted answers to her questions.  It’s not that he’s being evasive (or is he?) but she’s just not asking the correct questions to discover not just where she is but who she is.  With no memory of her name or how long she’s been in what she learns is a cryogenic pod designed for hyper sleep (one that was decommissioned years earlier) she has to get M.I.L.O. to give her information that will help reconstruct the path to her imprisonment.  She can call out to law enforcement but without a name or location they are unable to come to investigate, let alone believe her in the first place. 

Representing another significant step forward for Aja, Oxygen might not ultimately score high on points in the originality department, but it does accomplish some respectable milestones along the way by keeping audiences engaged in the plight of our leading lady as she desperately tries to uncover her identity and how she came to be in her current situation.  I wasn’t sure at first the concept would be able to cover the full run time without cheating in some way and breaking free at some point to explore outside the pod.  I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say the entirety of Aja’s film takes place within the cryogenic pod; instead of that feeling oppressive it winds up adding a degree of energy to the action and Laurent’s performance as her O2 levels decrease and she realizes time is running out.

A mid-point twist is the boost of energy that winds up carrying Christie LeBlanc’s script through to the end and it’s a nice little rug pull that shouldn’t be all that surprising if you were paying close attention from the beginning.  I wasn’t keeping as close of an eye as I usually do so I missed some obvious signs.  Twist or not, there are ample opportunities for Aja to show how much he’s grown-up since those High Tension days of gruesome ugliness.  Now, Aja seems entirely comfortable withholding some of the more squirm-inducing elements for when viewers are already a bit on the run, getting great mileage out of several sharp objects seen as benign medical tools making precise contact with skin.

There’s likely not a lot of replay value to be found in Oxygen once you’ve breathed it in but Laurent’s performance is so good, as is Mathieu Amalric (Quantum of Solace) as the HAL 2000-ish voice of  M.I.L.O., that it’s entirely worth catching at least once.  The bonus is that you’ll see a director genre fans have long admired continuing to find sophistication in his work without losing the pointy edge that made him such a household name in the community to begin with.

Movie Review ~ Things Heard & Seen

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The Facts:  

Synopsis: An artist relocates to the Hudson Valley and begins to suspect that her marriage has a sinister darkness, one that rivals her new home’s history. 

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, James Norton, Natalia Dyer, Karen Allen, Rhea Seehorn, Alex Neustaedter, F. Murray Abraham 

Directors: Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini 

Rated: NR 

Running Length: 119 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7.5/10) 

Review:  You may want to check your calendar a few minutes into the new Netflix thriller Things Heard & Seen because it has the air of an autumn thriller we usually don’t get in the late spring with summer on the horizon.  Not that I’m complaining.  In the least.  Representing the type of paranoid domestic suspense film that used to be perfect popcorn fare for moviegoers, it will likely remind viewers of a certain age of a number of movies from the early 2000’s when tension started to mix with the supernatural.  Fun films to spend a rainy afternoon with, they were the early subgenre to fall victim when studios focused more on franchise starters and titles with name recognition.

Thankfully, streaming services have found good success with these modestly budgeted thrillers and have been able to attract a wealth of interesting talent.  Some (like May’s The Woman in the Window) have been acquired from their original studio after an intended theatrical release was derailed by the pandemic while others have been produced in-house, and that’s the case for this Netflix film likely to please those searching for an elevated ghost story. In fact, it will remind genre fans of a similar sophisticated blockbuster suspense film, and the comparisons are striking at times and often in the most favorable way possible.  To give away the title could be considered a spoiler (only slightly) so I’ll make you work for it.  It came out in 2000. It’s directed by an Oscar winner that remade a Roald Dahl film in 2020 and stars two bona fide A-Listers, one who is soon to reprise a famous role for the fifth time and the other who made a splashy film debut 40 years ago in the sequel to the then-biggest movie musical of all time.

In Things Heard & Seen, Catherine Claire (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) has her dream job in NYC restoring art while her husband George (James Norton, Little Women) works on his dissertation.  She leaves all that behind when George completes his thesis and lands a job at a small college in upstate New York where they soon move with their young daughter.  The quaint farmhouse George has found for them to live has potential and with its proximity to his work it appears to be perfect.  Ah, but we all know that nothing is ever ideal for long and soon ghostly apparitions are appearing to Catherine who doesn’t recognize what they signal at first but eventually realizes they are pointing her toward an evil that exists in her new home and possibly to one that has been with her all along.

The film hits the expected beats with a satisfying timbre.  There’s the shadowy figure standing in a doorway as someone walks by.  A sudden movement of a piece of furniture is helped to an additional jolt by the cinematographer jerking the camera suddenly toward the action.  More than that, though, is the uneasiness we feel from the real-life insidiousness Catherine uncovers in her own world.  Struggling with an eating disorder (we aren’t five minutes into the film before we see her bulimia in action) gives Catherine her own demons to deal with, but they are nothing when held up against the history of the farmhouse or the truth about the families that have lived there before.

Adapted with some liberty by writer/directors Shari Springer Berman & Robert Pulcini (Girl Most Likely) from Elizabeth Brundage’s moody and complex 2016 novel, All Things Cease to Appear, the re-titled Things Heard & Seen makes some wise choices in structure for a new medium. Tightening up the plot by liberally holding back information from the viewer (a choice that may frustrate some the more that is revealed), Springer Berman and Pulcini convincingly keep the suspense building to a frenzy and that’s when it gets a little harder to talk about.  It’s not that the final act doesn’t live up to a rather energizing 90 minutes or so, it’s that the last half hour feels less constructed with care than what has come before.  The movie doesn’t leave off where the book does so perhaps this was a compromise on the part of the directors, but it will definitely prove to be divisive.  

What keeps the movie from idling in low gear is Seyfried’s invested performance as the frustrated wife and mother trying to keep herself together when largely left to her own devices.  She’s been relocated to the middle of nowhere with no friends and no job and on top of that has to contend with hidden secrets that emerge out of the woodwork.  Seyfried takes all of this in stride and never lets the histrionics of the role get the better of her.  I mean, with Norton playing George as this pompous, self-important knob of a man I wondered why Catherine didn’t just knock his block off but it clearly means both actors are doing the work convincingly.  Speaking of Norton, his role is every bit as difficult to wend through as Seyfried’s – the film sets him up from the start for audiences to think of him one way and he leans into that, gradually at first and then full throttle by the end.  It was a pleasure seeing Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham (Lady and the Tramp) show up as the chair of the department at George’s college and his belief in the teachings of a scholar who wrote on heaven and hell will play a key piece in connecting with the Claire family.  I also really enjoyed Rhea Seehorn’s feisty role as a busybody teacher acquaintance of George that pals up with Catherine, only to find herself snooping up the wrong tree.  

While Springer Berman and Pulcini are good with a number of details throughout the film that find payoffs running the the gamut from just decent to incredibly satisfying, there are unfortunately some threads that never get picked up or explored to their full extent.  I can’t help but wonder if the movie wasn’t trimmed a bit for time and pace because while it never drags there are spaces where it feels as if passages were excised.  Slowing things down isn’t necessarily a bad thing if you have the strong material to keep audiences on the edge of their seat. The swerve of the change is fairly swift and jarring, out of synch with the relative ease the rest of the production employed. Several characters get left on the wayside, only to appear after an hour or more’s absence with barely an explanation not just to why we haven’t seen them in so long but how it is they haven’t even been mentioned.

Having already spent some time in a haunted house last year with You Should Have Never Left, Seyfried’s second stay is far superior entertainment with a more cohesive narrative and characters you want to invest additional time with. Things Heard & Seen is handsomely made and with its nice attention to period detail has that era down but not done to death.  Ratcheting up twists and turns exponentially as it sails toward its conclusion, that ending is going to be a telling factor in the reactions people have so my advice would be to skip what you may hear about the end and judge the film on its own merits and not it’s ever-so-slightly amorphous final fifteen minutes.

Movie Review ~ Thunder Force

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world where supervillains are commonplace, two estranged childhood best friends reunite after one devises a treatment that gives them powers to protect their city.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Octavia Spencer, Bobby Cannavale, Jason Bateman, Pom Klementieff, Taylor Mosby, Melissa Leo, Marcella Lowery, Kevin Dunn, Melissa Ponzio, James H. Keating, Braxton Bjerken, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Sarah Baker

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  When the promos for the new Netflix comedy Thunder Force directed by Ben Falcone and co-starring his wife Melissa McCarthy started running, I had to go back and check some dates.  Wasn’t it just in late November that Superintelligence, their last collaboration arrived on the airwaves of streaming competitor HBOMax, having skipped a theatrical release due to the pandemic surge?  Turns out audiences have been without a new Falcone/McCarthy comedy for a little less than five months, so the biggest question I had going into Thunder Force didn’t have much to do with how well the duo could pull off a comedic twist on the superhero flick but if there was an appetite for another round quite so soon.  After all, though Superintelligence felt lighter than their other features (Tammy, The Boss, Life of the Party), it was still plagued with their brand of specifically tuned laughs and tendency toward lengthy bits that leaned into their own amusement rather than one for a broader audience.

What’s good to report about Thunder Force is that like many superheroes, this film has a secret weapon and it happens to be the Oscar-winning actress who beat McCarthy for the top prize at the Academy Awards the year both were nominated for Supporting Actress.  Lifelong friend of the Falcone/McCarthy family Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water) helps give the movie some balance when it sorely needs it, grounding it less in the normalcy of reality but more in plausibility filtered through the lens of wild flights of fancy.  That’s due to the way Spencer conveys such inherent trust; you easily buy what she’s selling and it plays as a perfect ying to McCarthy’s bull in a china shop yang. 

Beginning in 1983 and leaping through the kind of complex origin story Marvel or DC would have taken 12 movies and four television series to tell in full, Thunder Force brings us up to speed quickly on how cosmic rays struck Earth and genetically transformed a select few into superhuman villains.  Turns out these were people were always bad but the interstellar blast brought out their most evil side and gave them powers to keep on being wicked.  Known as Miscreants, they terrorized the city while the world watched and world leaders subsequently tried to find a way to combat their seemingly unstoppable super powers.

It was a Miscreant attack that leaves studious Emily (who grows up to be Spencer) an orphan and attending an inner-city school where she quickly becomes the target for bullies.  She finds a protector and best-friend in Lydia (played by McCarthy’s own daughter as a youngster before handing the reins to mom) until a silly fight separates them for the next two decades. (Side Note: I always find it amusing in these films that childhood best friends, while still actively in high school, just stopped talking to each other entirely and never made up ever. Doesn’t that say something about the friendship to begin with?)  Years later, Lydia is a blue-collar worker in Chicago while Emily has finally found the answer to defeating the Miscreants after years of study, which is why she has to miss her 25-year high school reunion.  Intending to finally make-up with her estranged friend at the reunion, Lydia decides to force the make-up to happen no matter what and finds Emily in her lab…only to press the wrong button and receive an injection meant for her ex bestie with a formula for super strength.  However…that’s only half of the solution and under the watchful eye of an all-business former CIA operative (Melissa Leo, Prisoners) and Emily’s daughter (Taylor Mosby, Breakthrough), Emily also undergoes a transformation of her own (find out what it is for yourself!), eventually joining Lydia in training to become the city’s only hope in overcoming a horde of rogue criminals.

In the press notes for Thunder Force, I read that writer/director Falcone came up with the basic plot of the film on a walk to work and that the script was one of the fastest things he’d ever written.  At times, this shows, because while there are plenty of inspired moments throughout the film (a dinner at Emily’s grandmother’s house is quite fun as is a musical fantasy sequence that pops up out of nowhere) a number of ideas and characters are introduced for effect only to be tossed aside and never heard from again.  The film is filled with loose ends and unanswered questions and not all of them can be saved for a sequel.  That leaves a viewer feeling like they get something with flavor in the moment but nothing that truly lasts.  While Superintelligence seemed like it had more focus than previous Falcone/McCarthy outings, Thunder Force veers off course early on and it’s most often when McCarthy is left to her own devices, something I’m realizing isn’t always the wisest choice.

There’s no denying the best scenes in the film are when it’s just McCarthy and Spencer and not even when there’s comedy involved.  We already know what Spencer can deliver but it says something that we have to continue to be reminded that McCarthy has depth as well.  The two actresses are so good at what they do that as entertaining as they are together in Thunder Force, at the same time they are absolutely resting on their laurels and not exhibiting much stretch either.  If Falcone, McCarthy, or Spencer had really wanted to shake things up, they would have had the women switch roles and see what could happen when Spencer was permitted to really (no, really) let her hair down and if McCarthy would step aside and be the straight person for once.

Falcone also has a strange penchant for featuring himself or friends in supporting roles that steal precious time from the characters we want to see more of.  Countless henchmen pop up for one liners that are just this side of not funny, not to mention a number of everyday workers are gifted one or two lines which always left me wondering who they were related to on the crew.  The villains of the piece are a little on the “eh” side and feature Bobby Cannavalle (Lovelace) as a crooked mayoral candidate out to suppress more than just votes, Jason Bateman (Bad Words) as The Crab, sporting crab claws for arms after a wince-inducing radioactive accident, and Pom Klementieff (Guardians of the Galaxy) as the psychotic Laser who loves to dryly announce her plans for her prey before carrying them out. 

While it starts strong and begins to lose major steam as we cross the halfway mark, Thunder Force takes a weird downturn of energy the longer it goes on, ending oddly with a disappointing coda.  It’s still worth watching to see McCarthy and Spencer work up some sparks and sing a few tunes en route to kickin’ bad guy butt; if only we had more of these moments and less of the schtick that has proven time and time again to not dependably hit the target for Falcone and McCarthy.  They’ve got a series and a Christmas movie in the works for Netflix so let’s hope they keep on taking two steps forward and resist the urge to go one step back.