Movie Review ~ Annabelle Comes Home


The Facts
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Synopsis: Determined to keep Annabelle from wreaking more havoc, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren bring the possessed doll to the locked artifacts room in their home, placing her “safely” behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. But an unholy night of horror awaits as Annabelle awakens the evil spirits in the room, who all set their sights on a new target-the Warrens’ ten-year-old daughter, Judy, and her friends.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Iseman, McKenna Grace, Katie Sarife, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When I first heard the filmmakers behind The Conjuring were interested in creating a universe of their own which would do for horror what Marvel did for superhero comic book movies, I was pretty dubious as to how it would all pan out. I mean, The Conjuring was such a perfect scare machine that its unexpected success with audiences, critics, and the box office of course meant a sequel would be produced but were there enough good ideas to truly expand it into something bigger? Moreover, would the real life case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren continue to be used or would new poltergeists haunting houses be unearthed?

The first attempt out of the gate was 2014’s lackluster Annabelle, a direct spin-off from The Conjuring centering on the scary doll. The film had a creepy vibe but failed deliver anything more than surface shockwaves. While The Conjuring 2 in 2016 had its moments of excellence it came down with a case of sequel-it is and overstayed its welcome. Then, a minor miracle occurred in 2017 with the release of Annabelle: Creation, which managed to improve upon its predecessor by some truly terrifying leaps and bounds. Consider how well put together that film was and how nicely it managed to fold in elements from all the films that came before, it felt like the filmmakers took in the criticism received from the previous films and made the changes necessary to keep this universe expanding.

Now, something very strange and special is happening within The Conjuring Universe as it continues to grow as a rapid pace. While 2018’s The Nun and The Curse of La Llorna from this past April stumbled a bit (but still did good numbers at the box office), things are back on the terror track with the release of Annabelle Comes Home, another strong entry that bodes well for the future of this franchise. Employing a healthy dose of atmosphere long before the real scares begin, it rewards longtime fans of the series and invites newcomers in with a wicked grin.  While it largely benefits from the jump scare, there are an equal amount of frights that come when you least expect them and plenty of misdirects to goose your bumps nicely.

So far, each Annabelle tale has found an interesting way into the timeline of the events in the history of the Warrens and this one is no different. The prologue for Annabelle Comes Home begins right after the prologue from The Conjuring when we were first introduced to the doll that had spooked a couple of college co-eds. Ed (Patrick Wilson, Aquaman) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) are taking the troublesome toy back home to their room of once (and still?) possessed artifacts for safekeeping, but Annabelle doesn’t make the journey an easy one.  The trip back presents car trouble for the Warrens and, wouldn’t you know it, they break down right outside a cemetery inhabited with spirits drawn to the doll.

Once locked away safely, things stay relatively quiet where Annabelle is concerned until Ed and Lorraine leave their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, I, Tonya) under the care of Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) while they go to an overnight conference. While Mary Ellen is a responsible caregiver, she’s friends with Daniela (Katie Sarife) who is more interested in the Warrens profession and poking around in their artifact room than baking a cake and entertaining Judy for the night. She’s not just looking for a cheap tabloid thrill either, there’s a reason why Daniela wants to know if the supernatural afterlife is real. Left alone in the house while Judy and Mary Ellen try out a new pair of roller skates (this is the ‘70s, remember?), Daniela snoops her way into trouble when she accidentally lets Annabelle out. Once the doll is free, she brings an assortment of crazed curios from the Warrens unholy collection out to play as well.

In the past, the more sequels a movie gets the less time these installments seem to take on set-up and exposition before launching into what audiences are craving for. That’s not true with the films in The Conjuring Universe. At 106 minutes, the movie isn’t in any rush to get to the unleashing we all know is bound to happen and that allows director Gary Dauberman the opportunity to let us get to know these characters a bit more. Peppered with creepy moments for the first hour as we see the Warrens leave the girls for the night and Daniela taking her need for emotional closure in the spirit world one-step too far, when the movie does reach its apex it takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up.

Popping up over these last several years in small roles proving herself as a dependable young actor, Grace is an ideal lead as the Warrens only child. Maybe possessing some of the same gifts as her mother, Grace paints Judy as struggling to fit in but not unware that maybe she’s one keeping people at a distance. Her sisterly friendship with Mary Ellen is believable and Iseman too turns in a winning performance as the smart, responsible babysitter that doesn’t let a pining boy (charming Michael Cimino) in because she’s already committed to spending time with Judy. Though at first glance Sarife’s role looks like the bad girl there to cause all the trouble and pay a huge price, the script by Dauberman (who also did good work with IT) and James Wan (Insidious) has bigger (and surprisingly emotional) plans for her in the long run.

While Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t ultimately land with the same electric punch as Annabelle: Creation, it’s still a resoundingly worthy entry in this growing universe. If the scripts continue to be creative and the casting remains strong, I can see these doing good business if the interest is still there. Looking ahead we have The Conjuring 3 in 2020 and then nothing firm yet for the next slate of films and I think that’s a good thing. Let’s see how these movies land and then figure out where to go from there.  Something tells me Annabelle has more untold stories waiting to get a big screen scream treatment.

Movie Review ~ Shaft (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: John Shaft Jr., a cyber security expert with a degree from MIT, enlists his family’s help to uncover the truth behind his best friend’s untimely death.

Stars: Samuel L. Jackson, Jessie T. Usher, Alexandra Shipp, Regina Hall, Method Man, Richard Roundtree

Director: Tim Story

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I usually keep a good ear to the ground for movies that are in the pipeline but I was surprised to see a preview and poster for another Shaft film pop up earlier this year.  What started in 1971 as a blaxploitation classic gave way to two sequels, a handful of television movies, and a modern-day follow-up twenty seven years later.  Now, 19 years after the last Shaft film played to middling reviews and a decent box-office, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are trying to reignite the franchise by taking a different approach to the material.  While the first films had a darker edge to them (the 2000 version was an all-out thriller) this one would combine those crime elements with comedy in the hopes of attracting a new audience.

After narrowly avoiding the bullets of a drive-by shooting, Maya (Regina Hall, Vacation) walks out on her private eye husband John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight) and takes their baby boy with him.  Aside from the occasional birthday and Christmas present, J.J. (Jessie T. Usher, Independence Day: Resurgence) grows up not knowing his father and doesn’t care to seek him out.  Graduating from MIT and joining the FBI as a data analyst, J.J. has managed to stay out of the same trouble his dad got into but finds himself plunged into a crime he can’t solve when his war veteran friend turns up dead.  Blocked by his work in investigating the death, he asks his dad for help in finding out what happened to his best friend, finding that the crime may be tied to a figure from his father’s past.

Working through numerous Avengers films over the last decade, I haven’t felt like we’ve gotten a real true “Samuel L. Jackson” performance in quite a while.  I finally saw some of that energy he originally brought to his roles spark back to life with his uncensored performance.  He’s foul-mouthed, un-PC (points off for the script’s strange fixation on gay jokes), quick to action, and stubborn and that all works in the films favor.  Whenever Jackson is left to his own devices, he positively commandeers the movie.  He’s got some competition from Hall as his no-nonsense ex-wife who isn’t afraid to call her husband on his crap and keep her son on the straight and narrow.  Usher is a mixed bag as the third generation Shaft.  Not quite nerdy but not quite leading man, he feels like an authentic MIT grad but isn’t always convincing when he has to slip into action mode.  As J.J.’s love interest, Alexandra Shipp (Dark Phoenix) begins the film as a strong female only to disappointingly turn into the damsel in distress standing in awe of the men in action later on.

Those unfamiliar with the Shaft films don’t have to worry about catching up before seeing this because director Tim Story (Ride Along) works in scenes from the 2000 film into the credits, yet strangely totally ignoring the earliest films that gave this franchise its genesis.  At least we get original John Shaft Richard Roundtree (What Men Want) showing up as J.J.’s grandfather, finally clearing up a strange twist introduced in the previous movie.  If only he had more to do and a more interesting storyline to be involved with.  When the three generations team up and go after a drug king-pin, the movie should be hitting its apex but by that time it has plateaued.

The set-up of the new Shaft is nothing you can’t piece together from any mid-range run-of-the mill crime thriller and most of the time that’s exactly how the film plays.  Writers Kenya Barris (Girls Trip) and Alex Barnow have largely written for television and their hammy dialogue that is pure exposition just barely gets us from one scene to the next.  While the film is arguably entertaining and even fitfully funny at times, it’s a disappointing and flawed finished product.  The 2019 Shaft feels like a good try by all involved, and a sign that the producers might be headed in the right direction.  If there’s another Shaft to be had, a tighter script and stronger performances are a must.  Just let Samuel L. Jackson do his thing, though.

Movie Review ~ Isn’t it Romantic


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young woman disenchanted with love mysteriously finds herself trapped inside a romantic comedy.

Stars: Rebel Wilson, Adam DeVine, Liam Hemsworth, Priyanka Chopra, Betty Gilpin, Jacqueline Honulik

Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A fun thing happened in 2018, audiences finally got a genuine romantic comedy that broke new ground and did killer box office. That movie was Crazy Rich Asians and it restored some faith I had that Hollywood knew how to craft an old-fashioned yet modern romance and layered it with a decent amount of comedy. For a movie that was admittedly formulaic and strategically designed to press every button in the crowd-pleasing cortex of a movie-goers brain, it was remarkably well done and overwhelmingly entertaining.

For Valentine’s Day 2019, Warner Brothers (the studio behind Crazy Rich Asians) has taken a gamble in gently spoofing its own good fortune with the release of Isn’t it Romantic. This light-as-a feather send-up of romantic comedies shouldn’t work as well as it does but it gets extra mileage from its leading lady and in an array of clichés the filmmakers turn from been-there-done-that rehashes into something that feels fresh. Mostly, it’s a movie that sets up a joke and then beats itself to the punch by lampooning it’s corniness before the audience has a chance to.

Growing up, Natalie (Rebel Wilson, Pain & Gain) was always told the types of romance found in the movies are the stuff of fairy tales and would only happen to girls that are prettier and size zeros. Now living in a modest NYC apartment and holding down a job as an architect specializing in parking lots, she scoffs at her assistant’s (Betty Gilpin) passion for cheesy love stories while missing the obvious affection harbored by one of her coworkers (Adam DeVine, The Intern). To Natalie, true love doesn’t come with a pop soundtrack, a perfect wardrobe, and a loft dwelling no true New York 9-to-5er could ever afford.

When she bonks her head after an attempted mugging, she wakes up in an alternate reality where all of those things become real. Everywhere she goes she hears a Vanessa Carlton song, when she leaves the hospital she returns home to a gigantic apartment and designer wardrobe, and her stoner next door neighbor (Brandon Scott Jones, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) has now become her gay best friend armed with sass and flare. At work things have changed as well. While the love from her coworker remains unrequited, her assistant has transformed into a severe alpha female that’s become her competition instead of her support system.

Director Todd-Strauss-Schulson and the three credited female screenwriters have front-loaded the film with all the plot points that will come into play over the next brisk hour and a half. You can count on any sappy rom-com trope Natalie rolls her eyes at pre-head injury to come true when she’s living her new life, down to her hunky client (Liam Hemsworth, The Dressmaker) falling for her while she starts to have feelings for her office mate. It may be too late, though, as the friend-zoned guy has caught the eye of a beautiful yoga ambassador (Priyanka Chopra) who is fast-tracking their relationship.

With several engaging musical sequences interspersed and a cast that has come to play, it’s more than sporadically funny but undeniably a bit hollow when all is said and done. I appreciated that Wilson is honing in on what makes her comedy so appealing and is distancing herself from the bumbling mess she normally leans into. The role gives her opportunities to play physical comedy and capitalize on her charm, she’s a leading lady it’s easy to root for. There’s also nice work from Jones as a dreadfully stereotypical character that puts all that on hold for a heart-to-heart with Wilson in a sweet scene. DeVine is less offensively stupid than usual and Hemsworth and Chopra bite down hard on their roles as prime examples of perfect specimens.

Isn’t it Romantic plays it fairly loose much of the time, picking up threads and dropping them at will. There are plot gaps big enough to drive a flower truck of roses through but I’m guessing it’s not going to be that much of an issue for audiences that have come to have fun. The critic in me that loves follow-through would have liked to see more of Gilpin’s wicked side but I have a feeling much of her role was left on the cutting room floor in favor of keeping the film moving into another sprightly sequence of mirth. I also think there were some missed opportunities to directly send-up some notorious rom-coms that would have made the film feel a bit more meta.  Still, this is engineered as a perfect date film or a movie the gals can all see together and taken on those merits it succeeds in its mission.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Curse of La Llorona (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Ignoring the eerie warning of a troubled mother suspected of child endangerment, a social worker and her own small kids are soon drawn into a frightening supernatural realm.

Release Date: April 19, 2019

Thoughts: It appears that director James Wan is creating his own cottage industry (not to mention an expanding horror universe) in horror films like The Curse of La Llorona. Wan was behind The Conjuring and all it’s various off shoots (most recently represented with the box office smash The Nun) which have been gigantically profitable even though they were made for very little. After going outside his neighborhood for Lights Out he returns with this spooky tale based on a story from Mexican folklore. This first teaser has some spiffy moments in it while not giving away so much (take a page from the Warner Brothers marketing team, Halloween) that further scares will be spoiled.

31 Days to Scare ~ Blink (1993)

The Facts:

Synopsis: Emma, a blind violinist who had recently undergone a revolutionary surgery, joins with a police detective to track a serial killer after she was an inadvertent witness to his latest crime.

Stars: Madeleine Stowe, Aidan Quinn, James Remar, Peter Friedman, Bruce A. Young, Laurie Metcalf

Director: Michael Apted

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: My review of 1993’s Blink has to begin with another sad lament that mid-range thrillers like these are no longer made. Throughout the ‘90s movies like this would be released every few weeks and while none of them were going for awards or even enormous box office, many became small gems that are perfect for revisiting even two decades later. I remember looking forward to this one for some time and making sure my dad (who also had a fondness for thrillers) had this on his radar as well. Even at the ripe age of 25, Blink holds up considerably well as a suspense yarn and boasts quite a few good performances and one terrific one.

A blind violinist (Madeline Stowe, Playing by Heart) has been without sight since a childhood accident plunged her into darkness. Independent and more than a little flawed herself, Emma undergoes an experimental surgery that restores her vision but has several side effects. The most troubling to overcome is a visual delay that causes her to see things long after they occurred – so blurry people that visited her in the hospital one day won’t register as clear faces until the next. It may sound like a condition created for the movie but it’s a very real thing.  When Emma’s neighbor is found dead, she realizes she may have “seen” the murderer and tries to convince the detective assigned to the case (Aidan Quinn, In Dreams). He has a hard time believing her when she proves to not be the most reliable of witnesses, eventually pitting her newfound and still shaky sight against a killer’s aim to eliminate the only witness to his crime. There are several twists to the story as it chugs along, including a love affair between the detective and the woman he’s supposed to protect and the true motives of the killer which gradually come to light.

Directed with skill by Michael Apted (The World is Not Enough) and bolstered innumerably by Stowe’s believably rough around the edges performance, Blink is a nifty little thriller with some strong suspenseful sequences. The screenplay by Dana Stevens doesn’t make Emma a perfect heroine, she’s a drinker who was emotionally and physically scarred by her mother and isn’t necessarily the victim people make her out to be. There’s some deep wounds here and Stowe navigates these tricky character nuances well. She’s nicely matched by Quinn and the two create more than believable chemistry (helps they already played a couple, albeit a troublesome one in 1987’s Stakeout). I also liked Peter Friedman (Single White Female) and Stowe’s doctor and even though I feel her part was majorly trimmed in the editing suite, Laurie Metcalf (Pacific Heights) is always a welcome presence.

Worth keeping your eyes open for, Blink is a strong reminder why we need these modestly budgeted thrillers to make a comeback. They are great for a rainy day or a stormy night!

The Silver Bullet ~ The Nun

Synopsis: A priest is sent to Romania to investigate the mysterious death of a nun.

Release Date: September 7, 2019

Thoughts: Man, the suits at Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema are really going for this Conjuring Universe, aren’t they? After The Conjuring, there was the lackluster spin-off Annabelle which was followed by the enormously entertaining sequel, Annabelle: Creation.   Now comes The Nun which focuses on that terrifying bride of Christ who kept popping up to scare Vera Farmiga (and this critic) in The Conjuring 2.  There’s nothing particularly special about this early teaser trailer but it does give the summer movie audiences a jolt of a reminder that there’s another scary film coming up this autumn to look forward to…after Halloween, of course.

Movie Review ~ Life of the Party

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After her husband abruptly asks for a divorce, a middle-aged mother returns to college in order to complete her degree.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen, Matt Walsh, Molly Gordon, Stephen Root, Jacki Weaver, Adria Arjona, Debby Ryan, Luke Benward, Jessie Ennis, Heidi Gardner

Director: Ben Falcone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: I’ve got good news and bad news for you if you’re considering making a trip to the movies to see Life of the Party this Mother’s Day weekend. The bad news is that most of the jokes have been spoiled for you in the previews, the good news is that the two best jokes haven’t. A semi-refreshing twist on the old fish-out-of-water/parent-going-back-to-school storyline, this isn’t a movie out to reinvent the comedic wheel but it does manage to capably overcome initial tone problems. What results is a sweet, if completely predictable, comedy that has its heart and brain in the right place.

The third collaboration between star Melissa McCarthy and husband Ben Falcone (What to Expect When You’re Expecting), Life of the Party represents the best of their work together so far. Their first outing was 2014’s Tammy, a movie so godawful I don’t permit its name to be uttered in my presence. They bounced back in 2016 with The Boss, which found more humor, less aggravation, and an overall better script. Writing together allows the couple to play off McCarthy’s strengths but continues to show Falcone’s weakness as a director – I’d love to see what another director would do with one of their screenplays.

Frumpy housewife Deanna (McCarthy, Spy) and her husband Dan (Matt Walsh, Into the Storm) have just dropped their daughter Maddie (Molly Gordon, Love the Coopers) off for her last year of college when Dan announces he wants a divorce. He’s fallen in love with a realtor (Julie Bowen) and is selling their house, leaving Deanna without a home or an income. In a surge of confidence, Deanna decides to reenroll at the same college she dropped out of in her senior year 20 years earlier…the college her daughter now attends.

Going back to school to finish her archeology degree, Deanna finds that while the times have changed the people getting the college experience haven’t. There’s still the mean girl (Debby Ryan) who tears down anything she doesn’t deem cool, the parties are drunken ragers, the sorority sisters have the same doubt about their futures, and Deanna’s fear of public speaking hasn’t dissipated over the last two decades. That proves especially hard during the film’s funniest sequence by far, when Deanna has to give an oral presentation that quickly devolves into a sweaty, knee-buckling, nightmare.

Still, a few things in her homecoming to co-ed life catch her off-guard. Unexpected bonding with her daughter tops the list as well as a realization she can reclaim some of the years she feels were spent in a troubled marriage by returning to finish what she started. Then there’s the romance with Jack (Luke Benward), a younger frat boy which takes some surprisingly genuine turns as the movie progresses. Eventually, even with one nice twist involving Jack, the movie works toward its predictable conclusion yet even though you know where it’s all heading it’s not hard in the least to sit back and be entertained.

That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have moments that call for a markdown on the final grade. As is usually the case with these McCarthy/Falcone features, there’s an overabundance of periphery characters that serve no purpose to any of the characters or the story. Usually friends (or family!) of the director and star, these annoying additions pad the running time and bring down some of the solid funny framework that has been created. Even the usually dependable Maya Rudolph (The Way Way Back) is given far too long a leash as Deanna’s friend – I almost wonder what things would have looked like had Rudolph and the tightly wound and miscast Bowen had swapped roles. There’s also at least one too many sorority sisters for my money. And Deanna’s parents (Jacki Weaver, Stoker, and Stephen Root, Trumbo) could have been removed all together and no one would have been the wiser.

You also have to ding the couple for not editing their films better or providing information to fill in large gaps that go unexplained. It’s never clear until far too late how Deanna is paying for college or what hoops she had to jump through to get back to her studies in less than several weeks. Timelines are also fuzzy, with events either happening too close together or too spaced out and, as with most college movies, everyone seems to only go to one class or not attend at all.

Yet the film is getting high marks from me because even with all these nitpicks, there’s a certain whiff of clean air and good intentions that keep this one afloat. McCarthy again carries an entire film on her shoulders and while that might get exhausting after a while she’s got the boundless energy to pull out all the stops when called upon to do so. While she’s never one to shy away from physical stunts, this is another pleasant example of McCarthy’s continued maturing as a performer with her comedy coming from situational happenstance instead of corporeal humor. Whether she’s dancing in ‘80s-inspired couture, trashing a wedding reception, or performing alongside a pop star’s amusing cameo, there’s always a human being underneath it all.

Movie Review ~ Rampage (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A primatologist shares an unshakable bond with a silverback gorilla who has been in his care since birth. But a rogue genetic experiment gone awry mutates this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, P.J. Byrne, Marley Shelton, Breanne Hill, Jack Quaid, Matt Gerald, Jason Liles, Demetrius Grosse, Will Yun Lee

Director: Brad Peyton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: We’re at an interesting point in 2018. After emerging from the stuffy cloud of more serious minded Oscar-y fare, we had a January and early February that stirred little interest. Then Black Panther hit and became the kind of audience-uniting game changer we often have to wait far into the year for. With studio hits like Ready Player One and A Quiet Place making bank as well good business being drummed up for indie films such as Isle of Dogs and Chappaquiddick, there was a little something to please everyone if you chose to buy a ticket.

Now along comes Rampage and it seems like we’re all going to have to pick a side again. You’re either going to go along for its silly but entertaining ride or you’ll spend an unusually brisk 107 minutes counting the seconds until your escape. I’m of the mind that you don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations to like what Rampage has to offer, you just have to go in with the right frame of mind. If you do, there’s a good popcorn movie waiting for you.

Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve played the popular video game that inspired this film that I had forgotten nearly everything about it. What I did remember is spending quite a few quarters to keep the game going, even when it was clearly a futile attempt by an average arcade gamer like myself. It doesn’t really matter how familiar you are with the game, though, because aside from a few key characters and several winking nods to its source material it’s largely a modernized take on the game. Still, fans of the classic monsters should get a kick out of how they are incorporated into the action.

Opening in space with an action sequence that could have been the finale of a previous film, a scientist (Marley Shelton, Decoding Annie Parker) is frantically trying to return to earth with an experimental gene-splicing gas while being hunted by a genetically modified lab rat exposed to the pathogen. Without giving too much away, three of the canisters fall to earth and infect a wolf in Wyoming, an alligator from the Everglades, and an albino gorilla named George living in a California wildlife sanctuary. Lucky for us that the gorilla’s handler is the buff and brainy Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and he’s pretty protective of his ape pal.

While Davis works with geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) and twangy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), a brother and sister (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers and Malin Ackerman, Rock of Ages) in charge of a Chicago-based bio-engineering initiative (known as Project Rampage) activate a beacon meant to lure the creatures to the heart of the city. A cross-country race ensues as Davis and his crew tries to beat the beasts to their destination while seeking a cure to restore the otherwise kind hearted George to his former self.

If you can’t tell already, the movie is incredibly bonkers but credit should be given to director Brad Peyton (reteaming with Johnson for a third time after San Andreas and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) for getting the right team assembled for this Rampage. Working with four (!!) screenwriters, there’s a bit more meat to the plot bones and I was grateful that the eye-rolling dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. Sure, there are some big plot holes and your brain should be stowed under your seat for the duration of the flight but I found myself more than a little entertained at the various thrills on display.

Few actors today have the “It” factor that made so many stars in the heyday of Hollywood but with each new film released Johnson is proving himself to possess the power of “It”. His good-natured demeanor translates nicely into action superstar when needed and an early career tendency to oversell a line of dialogue has all but vanished. He’s a true A-Lister and I’ve a feeling most people will be lining up for Rampage based solely on his presence alone…and those people will definitely get their money’s worth.

Harris received an Oscar nomination last year for her understated work in Moonlight but she gleefully jumps feet first into this lighter material. While Morgan is the most cartoony of the bunch as a secret agent initially set-up as an antagonist to Johnson, he wisely stops chewing the scenery long enough to let the monsters take center stage. As a smug villainess, cool as ice Ackerman is part of a great visual comeuppance while Lacy is terribly miscast as a nervous sidekick to his more take-charge sister.

Unlike the dull sameness of the monsters in Pacific Rim: Uprising, Rampage has a smaller but more engaging stable of fiends to threaten our main characters. The main beasts are fantastically rendered, from the more realistic George to the zonked out wackiness of the wolf and alligator, both morphing into nightmarish creatures that plow through crowds and buildings in the final act.

There’s quite a few nice action sequences leading up to the battle royale that takes up the last ¼ of the film but I just wish the preview hadn’t revealed quite so much. I won’t get into specifics but there are several great scenes that don’t play as strongly if you’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s not often a disaster film destroys a less internationally recognizable city like Chicago but having just visited several days before I saw Rampage, it was fun to see some familiar landmarks topple.

Movies adapted from video games often get bad raps, often with just cause (see the recent Tomb Raider for proof) but Rampage has more than a few secret weapons. With Johnson as committed as ever, a plucky ensemble cast of humans and digital monsters, above average CGI effects, and more jump scares and thrills than you might expect going in, you’re not likely to be in a rage when Rampage is over. Just go in with the right attitude, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ Game Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.

Movie Review ~ IT (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of bullied kids band together when a monster, taking the appearance of a clown, begins hunting children.

Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: IT, Stephen King’s 1986 novel was a popular book in my junior high library. At 1,138 pages and with only one copy though, the waitlist was long and I believe it took nearly the entire school year to obtain. I remember when I finally got my hands on it and marveling at its creepy cover, fretting over the length, and reading it by flashlight late into the night. Trouble was, by the time it was due back I was only halfway through and though as an adult I’ve carried (lugged would be a better word) a paperback version with me for the past six months, absorption by osmosis did not occur and to this day I’ve regretted never finishing it properly.

Most people, though, will have experienced IT for the first time via the 1990 made-for-TV movie that scared several generations of people over the two nights it aired. At the time I remember thinking the film quite entertaining but watching it again a year or so ago I found myself wincing more than cowering. The trappings of an era with more rigid television standards robbed it of being too scary or slick. While some of what goes on in King’s novel could (and should) never be depicted on film, today it feels toothless though it does find prime moments to gnaw your nerves. Then there’s the clown.

Mention IT to a crowd and you’re going to get a response. They either hate it or they love it and the reason why is almost always the same…that damn clown. It’s impossible to think of IT and not conjure up the vision of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. While the movie itself may have lost some bite over the years, Curry’s menacing monster in clown’s clothing has perhaps become more terrifying. So while many were welcoming of a new adaptation of IT on the big screen, one of the biggest question marks was how well Bill Skarsgård (Atomic Blonde) would fill Curry’s admired shoes. Patience, dear reader, patience.

IT arrives at the end of a disappointing summer at the box office and before the wave of award seeking films are released. The timing couldn’t be better. Kids are back in school and the weather here in the Midwest has taken a cold turn. Walking into the packed theater and taking my seat for the screening there was a palpable excitement for the lights to go down, a buzz of anticipation I hadn’t felt for a while. 135 minutes later the lights came up on an audience that had screamed, laughed, and applauded. In short, IT’s a winner.

In the late ‘80s, something bad is happening in Derry, Maine. Kids are disappearing without a trace and no one knows why. Is it related the town’s history of bad luck or is something more sinister taking place? One thing’s for sure, a frightening clown has been haunting and hunting and his appetite is insatiable. A team of young outcasts band together to uncover the secrets of their town while battling their own phobias brought to life by the monster on the loose.

Though it had a bumpy road to the silver screen thanks to budget cuts and the departure of its original director, the wait was worth it. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) has delivered a quality film that not only provides delirious scares but has an ambitious emotional resonance extending far beyond its genre.  I admit I got a little misty eyed as the film was wrapping up…when was the last time you went into a film expecting terror but found a tear or two eeking out?  Equal parts Stand By Me, Stranger Things, and The Goonies, it’s retro-feel is unobtrusive and navigating prolonged sequences of horror while maintaining energy is no easy task but Muschietti makes it look simple.  Scaredy-cats will have their limits mightily tested while fright fans are going to be nicely satisfied with the pulse-raising shocks doled out by Muschietti and company.

None of the good directorial decisions or the solid script would amount to a hill of beans if the actors didn’t measure up but Muschietti has cast the film splendidly.  Though Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special) has top billing, this is an ensemble piece and the kids are definitely all right.  I especially liked Jeremy Ray Taylor’s roly poly new kid on the block and Sophia Lillis as the only girl holding her own in the boys club.  Not all the acting is consistently convincing but it’s a small-ish nitpick in the grand scheme of things.

In a cast made up primarily of unknowns, it’s an interesting decision for Muschietti to further conceal some of the adult actors under prosthetics and fat suits.  A few times the adults gave me the same type of goosebumps brought on by Pennywise, further isolating the children as they realize they are the only townsfolk they can truly trust.  Some of the more extreme side plots of King’s original novel have been softened or excised and more’s the better for it.  There’s enough peril for the youngsters to deal with whenever that clown makes an appearance.

Ah yes…the clown. While Curry may be seen as the definitive Pennywise, Skarsgård makes the role entirely his own, bringing a sharp physicality to his clown that amps up the danger of his visits. Though he has precious few lines this is a performance based almost entirely on presence and Skarsgård is pretty electric in the film. Balancing childlike clown mannerisms with a serial killer’s alacrity, when he opens his bloodthirsty maw to consume or frighten it will shake you to your core.

While the studio had originally intended to film the novel as one long movie, budget fears were such that IT covers roughly half of the book. The movie is so good and the early buzz so strong I can’t imagine we won’t get a sequel in short order…but it makes you wonder why they didn’t just stick to the original game plan to begin with. In any event, IT is awesome which should please fans of the novel (even those that only finished half of it) as well as devotees of the TV movie. Scare you it does and scare you it shall.