31 Days to Scare ~ The Cell

The Facts:

Synopsis: An F.B.I. Agent persuades a social worker adept with a new experimental technology to enter the mind of a comatose serial killer in order to learn where he has hidden his latest kidnap victim.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Vince Vaughn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Colton James, Dylan Baker, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Jake Weber, Tara Subkoff

Director: Tarsem Singh

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Aside from a few bright spots here and there, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t remember many of the movies that came out during the summer of 2000.  Between May and August, the only notable releases that may be part of your library were Mission: Impossible 2, Gladiator, The Patriot, The Perfect Storm, Scary Movie, What Lies Beneath, Hollow Man, and the first X-Men.  At the tail end of it all came The Cell and it sure wasn’t like the rest of them.  Featuring two stars on the rise and with a focus more on breathtaking (and sometimes horrifying) visuals than, oh, consistent logic, it’s a beautiful film to look at but not one you should think too hard about.

Serial killer Stargher  (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) has been abducting young women and using them to fulfill his fantasies involving pain and purification.  Keeping them locked in a glass cell until he is ready to dispose of them by drowning them slowly and videotaping it, the women all have a limited amount of time before they run of breathing space.  Stargher has been getting sloppy, though, and that’s how Agent Novak (Vaughn, The Internship) tracks him down only to find Stargher has lapsed into a coma brought on by a schizophrenic illness.  Desperate to find the latest victim Stargher has kidnapped, Novak is referred to a clinic where Catherine Deane (Lopez, Second Act) has been pioneering a new method of reaching patients suffering from the same condition.

Through some scientific sleight of hand, Catherine is able to enter the mind of her patient and can help unlock them from their perpetual dream state.  Once she’s inside, though, she’s susceptible to any kind of deceit or harm the patient might inflict which is why up until now the experiments have always been with children.  Novak needs Catherine to go into Stargher’s mind to see if she can find where he’s hidden his most recent prey (Tara Subkoff) before it’s too late.  As evil and torturous as Stargher is on the outside, what goes on in his brain is even worse.  The deeper Catherine goes into Stargher’s mind, the more challenging it is to separate reality from fantasy and soon she’s stuck in a hellscape with no end in sight.

While recently re-watching The Cell for the first time in well over a decade, my mind began to play tricks on me.  For some reason I got it into my head this surreal thriller was an early entry in the resumes of stars Jennifer Lopez and Vince Vaughn when actually both actors had already made quite a splash on the big screen.  After a strong debut in Selena, Lopez was just coming off the rousing success of 1998’s brilliant Out of Sight, which firmly established the former Fly Girl as an actor that could hold her own against A-listers like George Clooney.  Vaughn had managed to survive a dino attack in The Lost World: Jurassic Park and come out unscathed from Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho.  So…both were sitting pretty.

It must have been a curious experience for fans of the stars to see them in this strange mix of fantasy and horror, taking themselves very seriously in situations that come off more than a wee bit goofy nineteen years later.  Director Tarsem Singh (Mirror Mirror) makes his feature film directing debut and the movie is a dream to look at…literally.  Even viewed all these years later when we have the benefit of advanced CGI and drone cameras that could capture the same shots, what he’s done with cinematographer Paul Laufer (who has never made another movie, strangely) is nothing sort of brilliant.  Ditto to Eiko Ishioka’s (Bram Stoker’s Dracula) and April Napier’s (Lady Bird) stunning costumes, which somehow managed to not get nominated for an Oscar…though the impressive make-up work did get a nod.

Where the movie starts to lean into silly territory is when Mark Protosevich’s script has Lopez and Vaughn giving the material more weight than it probably deserves.  This is, after all, a serial killer thriller with a sci-fi edge so to have theoretical discussions of good and evil acts only as padding instead of character development.  There are large chunks of Lopez/Vaughn scenes that could be excised without us losing anything from either – both are strong enough actors to convey exactly what we need with less.  Vaughn, in particular, is weighed down by one histrionic monologue that’s almost laughable in its attempt to be the next dramatic piece favorited by future Julliard applicants.

Even sitting at almost two decades old, The Cell holds up rather well and it was pleasing to see this so soon after watching Lopez turn in some of her best work in years in Hustlers.  Though she’s made some frothy fun ones over the years, it’s when she takes a shot at being serious and different when she shows just how good of a performer she really is.  It may not goose you in the fear department as it could have when it first premiered but it gets an A for effort — the images Singh whips up have a certain grotesque beauty to them.

Movie Review ~ IT: Chapter Two


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Will Beinbrink, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Two years after IT: Chapter One took the late summer/early box office by screaming storm, we find ourselves in a similar situation upon the arrival of its sequel.  Like its predecessor, IT: Chapter Two is being released at the very tail end of a mostly bummer summer of sputtering sequels and non-starter indies.  At this point in the year, the hunger for something high quality that isn’t seeking Oscar gold (or is it?) but just wants to entertain is, I must admit, quite appealing.  Re-watching Chapter One in anticipation of Chapter Two, I was struck by how well that earlier film scooped up the audience into its spell and had high hopes the second chapter would continue with that same magic.

In my review of the first film I wondered why the studio didn’t have a little more faith in the property and shoot the entire novel back-to-back instead of disrupting its non-linear plot in favor of more straight-forward storytelling. Instead, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, still wary after a troubled start to the project when the original writer/director left, decided to test the waters by filming only the first of a planned two-part movie.  The film was a gigantic hit (rightfully so), made a few stars out of the kids, and almost immediately had fans compiling their dream cast for the follow-up that quickly got the greenlight.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club bested Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and most have moved away from the tiny town of Derry, Maine.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, The Three Stooges) is the only one that has stuck around, living above the library and keeping watch for any strange occurrences that might be tied to the evil he faced with his friends when they were tweens.  Receiving a fairly targeted message at the scene of a horrific crime that confirms his worst suspicions, Mike tracks down his long-lost pals who have all strangely forgotten the summer of the clown and they oath they made to return.

Overcoming his stutter and becoming a successful novelist and screenwriter, Bill (James McAvoy, Split) is more than happy to vacate the set of his latest movie where he’s having trouble getting the ending right.  Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) escapes her violent husband/business partner in order to keep her promise, while foul-mouthed stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins) leaves his tour and heads for Maine.  Eddie (James Ransone, Sinister) and Ben (Jay Ryan) have no problems getting out of their stuffy corporate jobs and away from the drone of their daily lives.  Only Stanley (Andy Bean, Allegiant) finds it harder to return for reasons I won’t spoil here.

When the gang has gathered back in their hometown and Mike levels with them about the evil that has reemerged, the memories come flooding back and it’s here the movie starts to fray. Up until that point, writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) and returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) have been pulling the rope tighter and tauter around the group, giving them all warning signs that danger awaits them all.  Once they all arrive, however, there’s a fracturing isolation that occurs which gives each person an individual mini sub-storyline to follow and the movie curiously goes slack.  Seems that Mike has found out a way to destroy the entity that has been feeding off of Derry residents for hundreds of years and he needs his friends to split up and gather a personal “artifact” from that summer that was important to them.

This gives each actor their own stretch of time to be the star of the film and not everyone uses their time wisely. Surprisingly, it’s the biggest stars that fare the worst with McAvoy whipping himself into an absolute frenzy at inopportune times, coming off as bug-eyed and hysterical instead of terrified.  Chastain is right behind him feasting on the scenery and she and Hader fight over which high emotional moment to gnaw on next.  (There is a serious campaign to get Hader an Oscar nomination for his work here and, while I’m a fan, that’s totally bonkers.  This isn’t even an Oscar-adjacent performance.) All three become, frankly, grating as the movie extends which makes the restrained and nuanced work Ransone, Ryan, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mustafa, seem even more welcome.  These character “adventures” feel like the chapters they are in the book, personal moments that have slight ties to the greater action but are largely drop-in and drop-out scenes.  The same scenario is repeated later in the movie when the adults get thrown into their own personal horrors.  What started in 2017 as a scary riff on Stand by Me turns into a tricky re-working of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

What’s really missed are the child actors from Chapter One and, though they have been brought back for this second installment they aren’t…quite the same.  Over the past two years the kids have done what kids do at that age: they grow.  Via digital scrubbing and voice modulating, the performances have been youth-ized and the results are often creepier than Pennywise.  You know the voice matches the actor but the face doesn’t look right so it’s all strangely out of whack.  Only Sophia Lillis seems to have escaped the airbrush and thus her performance feels the most grounded and real.  When the action switches back to the adults, you can see the work the older actors have done to match their younger counterparts and, for what it’s worth, the casting is spot-on.  I just kept wondering what would have happened if they waited 27 years to let these younger actors grow into their older selves.

As is the case with most sequels to horror films, the scares have to be bigger and more frequent and IT: Chapter Two definitely falls in line with expectations  The trouble with that is there is no build up to a scare almost anywhere in the movie.  Sure, there is some disturbing imagery and a few jolts but none come close to the satisfying and expertly orchestrated thrills elicited from Chapter One.  It’s like in Jaws.  Once you’ve seen the shark, you’ve seen the shark and it’s all about the attack from then on.  Now that we are familiar with Pennywise and have seen so much of him, there’s less menace to be had, even though he does bare that hideous maw with rows upon rows of razor teeth multiple times in the film.

There’s a fairly large amount of iffy CGI on display, as well. Though the protracted finale of the film features the most well-rounded effects of all, there are numerous nightmare creatures conjured up by Dauberman and Muschietti that are simply goofy to look at.  An abundance of grotesque creepies emerge from the darkness throughout the movie and few have the same impact of the simple image of Pennywise staring out of the dark at an unsuspecting child.  An effective (if extremely hard to stomach) opening sequence at a country fair and a later scene underneath the town bleachers are good reminders of how Muschietti can extend tension to its most enjoyable breaking point.

At 169 minutes, the movie either needed to be 40 minutes shorter or 60 minutes longer. Were it shorter, Muschietti could have trimmed up some redundant character bits in the third act that feel like extra padding.  Had it been longer, we could have spent some more time with the Losers Club and their lives outside of Derry.  There’s too little of their current lives shown to give us a proper introduction so we have to almost base our knowledge soley on what we remember from the original film.  What I do appreciate is Muschietti’s attention to small details from the book and within his vision of the film.  I’ll  have to give the movie a second watch, but there’s usually something not quite right going on in the background of scenes that most viewers won’t catch on the first viewing.  It’s also a nice touch to have Eddie’s nagging wife played by the same actress who was his mother in Chapter One.  There are also two very funny cameos, one in particular that had our audience cheering.

There’s rumors of a supercut that might happen that would combine both movies into one and I’d be fascinated to see how that would come together. I’d definitely recommend this movie, sequel flaws and long running time aside, because of the way it nicely concludes what was started back in 2017.  If only everything was done at the same time and the filmmakers didn’t have that extra year to get too zealous with their plans for IT: Chapter Two.

Movie Review ~ Blinded by the Light

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In 1987 during the austere days of Thatcher’s Britain, a teenager learns to live life, understand his family and find his own voice through the music of Bruce Springsteen.

Stars: Viveik Kalra, Kulvinder Ghir, Meera Ganatra, Nell Williams, Aaron Phagura, Hayley Atwell, Dean-Charles Chapman

Director: Gurinder Chadha

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I suppose it’s nice to know that in this climate of constant disagreement, there is something we can find common ground on.  Though we may not be able to see eye to eye on politics or the environment it seems that we all can agree that Bruce Springsteen is, in fact, The Boss.  The New Jersey singer/songwriter that experienced his, ahem, glory days in the mid ‘70s through the late ‘80s and has enjoyed a steady career since has a way of unifying even the most contrarian among us.  A 2016 biography of his rough upbringing was a national bestseller and a subsequent solo show on Broadway was the hottest ticket in town.

Ever since Bohemian Rhapsody became an unlikely hit (like, totally unlikely given how bad it really is) there’s hope that even the smallest bit of rock and roll nostalgia will equate to big box office.  May’s Rocketman, a musical biography of Elton John, was an absolute delight and danced circles around Bohemian Rhapsody but it didn’t have the same staying power and though Yesterday marketed itself as a light-hearted romantic fantasy set to a Beatles score, in actuality it was a total misfire that was sent back to Abbey Road without any fanfare. I haven’t checked lately, but I’m sure other long gestating projects inspired by the songbooks of classic musicians gained some traction thanks to the Freddie Mercury/Queen film.

All that being said, it’s easy to see why Blinded by the Light is hoping to draw those Springsteen fans in based solely on name recognition alone.  Yet, like Yesterday, filmgoers are getting the old switcheroo and are in for a movie that feels different than what was advertised.  Far from the breezy and fun promise put forth in the trailer, this film that was inspired by a true story goes in hard on tired tropes and an astounding amount of cliché.  I arrived at the screening knowing nothing about the movie so had no preconceived notions of what to expect and was still left feeling let down.

It’s 1987 and Javed (Viveik Kalra) is coming of age in a small town in England.  This is during the time of Margaret Thatcher when the economic situation for the middle class was turning dire and the racial tension against non-British was heating up.  Living with his traditional Pakistani parents who work tirelessly to make ends meet, Javed hides a secret wish to become a writer.  Composing poetry in the privacy of his room and away from the watchful eye of his strict father (Kulvinder Ghir), Javed’s world is changed when a classmate gives him a Bruce Springsteen cassette.  By this point, Springsteen was already a worldwide sensation with numerous number one hits…and he’s also seen by the teens of the time as old news.  So when Javed starts to dress like Bruce and quote his lyrics like scripture, it doesn’t get him a free pass to sit at the cool kids table.

Director Gurinder Chadha (Bend it Like Beckham) can’t seem to find an element of the movie to hone directly in on so everything plays a bit like an episodic chapter book.  Secondary characters like Hayley Atwell (Avengers: Endgame) waltz in and out of the action at will and it creates a disjointed feel that interrupts any rhythm the director is going for.  That’s partly on Chadha the director but mostly on Chadha the screenwriter and her co-writers Paul Mayeda Berges and Sarfraz Manzoor.  There isn’t a stereotypical stone unturned in Javed’s rebellion against his father and no development that isn’t telegraphed well in advance.  While this isn’t a spoiler review site, if I told you the climax of the movie hinges on a Big Speech Javed gives that suddenly, somehow, opens the eyes, ears, and hearts of those that previously didn’t understand him…would you be at all surprised?

That’s all fine because, you know what, there’s space for these kind of formulaic films as well but it’s all in the execution and Kalra simply isn’t a compelling enough lead for us to care if he gets to go to Springsteen concert or not.  It’s strange, as an audience member I never seemed to be on his side when the movie truly wanted us to be.  The lucky thing for Kalra is that Chada has cast the engaging Ghir as his withering father and the memorable Meera Ganatra as his strong-willed mother.  Ganatra’s quiet pain when her husband loses his job and she has to sell off her wedding ring to help pay the bills is heartbreaking…I kept wanting to know what kind of music SHE was listening to.

The oddest thing about Chadha’s film is that it so desperately wants to be a musical that it almost can’t help itself.  One musical interlude with Javed, his friend, and a punk girl he develops feelings for, is modestly entertaining but clumsily performed.  I kept feeling like if Chadha had gone all the way with incorporating more of Springsteen’s music into the movie as fantasy sequences or with more creativity (and not just having his animated lyrics flying around the screen) the film would have garnered more interest.  At nearly two hours, it was frankly a bit of a bore to sit through.

A biographical film of Bruce Springsteen will most certainly get made but who knows when that will be.  Until then, it’s unfortunate that Blinded by the Light is the only movie out there representing The Boss’s work because it lacks the same forthrightness that have made his songs enduring classics.  While it’s endearing to see how the blue collar musician’s music stretched over the pond and had an impact on the life of another and empowered him to aspire higher, the workmanlike delivery by the filmmakers keeps it frustratingly grounded.

Movie Review ~ Annabelle Comes Home


The Facts
:

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

1


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.