Review: Similar to feeling aghast when a designer on Bravo’s Project Runway sends a model down the catwalk not entirely dressed for success, there’s little I like less than seeing a film with good actors stuck in flimsy material. You understand the desire to branch out and try for work that’s off the beaten path, different from the norm, but in that same vein it stands to reason the effort should also have point and purpose that make it worth your while. It’s especially strenuous when the actors involved are so good that they usurp the material and almost make something of it and sadly that’s where we have to put a film like the new movie arriving on Amazon Prime, Encounter.
Starring Oscar nominee Riz Ahmed and Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, this is one of those movies harboring a twist that you sit through the whole movie wondering why it’s even being kept under wraps as long as it is. In the spirit of the nature of this site and also out of respect for the filmmakers, I’m not going to spoil it but if you can’t spot where Encounter is headed almost from the moment Ahmed’s PTSD-suffering ex-marine starts spraying himself with a can of bug repellant to ward off the insects that burrow into your skin and change you into mindless drones…you need to get out more.
There’s an impressive opening to Encounter and for at least those opening moments I was interested to see what director Michael Pearce, who got a big jump to his burgeoning career with the wildly wonderful chiller Beast in 2017, had in store for us. Watching a mosquito infect a human bloodstream with a creepy crawly organism absolutely made me start feeling itchy all over and so Pearce gets the audience into the appropriate mood but fails to keep us there for much longer, mostly because that’s the extent of the impressive ideas.
Once that concept is established that’s pretty much all there is to Encounter and so we’re just following Malik Khan (Ahmed, Sound of Metal) as he “saves” his two young sons Jay (Lucian-River Chauhan) and Bobby (Aditya Geddada) from his ex-wife and her new husband who he believes have been infected by the organism. Of course, his ex and the authorities don’t see it so much as saving as child abduction. With the help of Hattie (Octavia Spencer, Thunder Force), Malik’s understanding parole officer and the one person he has reached out to, a determined lawman (Rory Cochrane, Antlers) sets out to find the three Khans before it’s too late.
The performances in Encounter are enough to recommend the movie, I think I can safely say that. Even though the film stretches on to nearly two hours, I do feel as if the work that’s being done by Ahmed and especially the two young actors playing his boys is well-formed enough to be worthy of keeping your attention. It’s just the flimsy, also-ran plot that might make you doze off at various points. If you’ve seen a movie like 2016’s Midnight Special, you might be aware of what you’re in for…just on a less ambitious narrative level.
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
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.
Synopsis: In 1967 an orphaned boy and his grandmother find themselves in an unexpected battle against a coven of glamorous witches.
Stars: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock, Kristin Chenoweth, Josette Simon, Codie-Lei Eastick, Charles Edwards, Morgana Robinson
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Oh, but do I love the 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s 1983 fantasy book The Witches. How much do I love it? At our local discount movie theater I managed to see it a whopping ten times when it played for several weeks on account of its good business in the later months of 1990. Though it failed to catch major fire at the main box office, it’s gone on to become one of those movies you can mention to kids who grew up in that generation and they’ll light up recalling their memories of their first or forty-first time seeing it. The practical effects by Jim Henson (it was the last film the creative puppeteer/designer personally oversaw), the wickedly wonderful performance from Anjelica Huston as the Grand High Witch, and a lovely overall production shaped by director Nicolas Roeg made The Witches a nicely askew family film. A rare treat in those tricky times.
Full disclosure, I was fairly incredulous when I heard the news director Robert Zemeckis was undertaking a remake of The Witches for Warner Brothers and it’s not just because I was feeling a little protective of a childhood favorite. Zemeckis had a decidedly spotty track record over the past decade with Welcome to Marwen (awful), Allied (good but forgotten), The Walk (more technical than personable), and Flight (compelling but also not entirely memorable) unable to create the same excitement as the Oscar-winning director’s phenomenal run in the ‘80s and ‘90s. With Academy Award-winners Anne Hathaway (The Hustle) and Octavia Spencer (Ma) joining the cast and word of the script being a collaboration between Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) and Kenya Barris (Girls Trip)…my initial reaction began to soften.
Around the same time, I heard del Toro and Barris had shifted the setting from England to the South in the 1960’s and suddenly…I was totally sold on it. It was a brilliant idea to make this change and taking the opportunity to utilize the time period of the ‘60s and oceanside location was a great way to update Dahl’s original upper crust seaside resort. It also helped provide an easy solution to the lack of diversity in the previous version – now the film has the look and feel of Alabama in the waning days of 1967 when a young boy from Chicago (Jahzir Bruno) loses his parents and comes to live with his grandmother (Spencer) in the fictional southern city of Demopolis. Other than these geographic changes and a few adjustments along the way, little more had to be done to get The Witches on its broomstick and off on some high flying fun.
When a snowy car crash claims his parents, a big city youngster is taken in by his small town grandmother. At first, the boy lacks any will to do much of anything, despite his grandmother’s best efforts to break him out of his funk. Eventually, a pet mouse encourages him out of his shell…just in time for a local witch to make her presence known. Alerting his grandmother to the strange woman with a raspy voice, gloved hands, and odd lines on the side of her mouth, she tells him the truth about witches inlcuding how to spot one, and how they despise children more than anything. Dabbling in a bit of magic herself, the grandmother senses danger is close and whisks the boy away to a luxe resort presided over by a stuffy hotel manager (Stanley Tucci, Beauty & the Beast) where they’ll be safe…if it wasn’t for the convention of witches that have arrived on the very same day. Now, they’ll have to outsmart the Grand High Witch (Hathaway) who has devised a sinister plot to rid the world of all children with a mere drop of a special potion.
Sticking closer to Dahl’s original story (ending and all) than the 1990 film, Zemeckis has returned to the kind of full-out fantasy storytelling he was so good at in the Back to the Future series and the dynamic blending of special effects with live-action performances he pioneered in 1992’s Death Becomes Her. The production design throughout is pristine, as are the colorful costumes (and wigs) worn by the witches and especially Hathaway’s killer garb. I appreciated the focus first on character building before getting to the witch-y business and Zemeckis takes his time getting to the convention, by that time we’ve grown attached to the boy and his grandmother so we are completely invested in their surviving this battle royale with demon do-baddies. Though it eventually gives way to a series of sequences dependent on believable effects, the film isn’t entirely beholden to its computer generated imagery as has been the case for a number of Zemeckis films.
In my original review of Roeg’s The Witches, I mentioned how I thought that film was too scary for young children, but this outdoes that one by a mile. These witches have large mouths that open like wolves, noses that expand, and appendages that give the special effects folks space to let their imaginations run wild. All of the CGI looks stellar and is convincing in the context of the world Zemeckis has established, but it does ratchet up the intensity as the ferocious faces and claws almost appear to push out into the screen…and if you know Zemeckis you know he loves a close-up of his work. This is absolutely, positively, not for young children. For adults, however, it’s tremendous fun that also has moments of riotous humor sprinkled throughout.
Like Huston before her, Hathaway is practically drooling with delight throughout the film and you get the impression she may have offered to pay the producers back some of her salary because she had such a good time. She’s sets the tone for the rest of the witches who factor in less than the original, so much so that they are almost a non-entity – I would have liked to have a few of them step out more and had their own development but by and large it’s a one-witch-show with Hathaway dominating their scenes. She’s paralleled nicely by Spencer as the warm-hearted but tough-love dispensing heroine who has already dealt with a witch before once and lived to tell the tale and doesn’t intend to let her grandson fall victim on her watch. The children, Bruno and Codie-Lei Eastick (Holmes & Watson), do most of their work in voice-over and still manage to create commendable characters from just their voices. Speaking of voices, Chris Rock (What To Expect When You’re Expecting) narrates the story with a gruff sparkle that kicks things off with a jolt of energy.
It must be the destiny of The Witches to fall flat at the ending and while this follows the book’s finale closer than before the ending that’s included here feels rather perfunctory and tacked on. It’s almost as if del Toro, Barris, and Zemeckis weren’t quite ready to end things so they just stopped filming one day and never came back. The rest of the film is so satisfyingly entertaining that these final moments are a strange deflation after so much puffing up. Originally intended for release in theaters until the pandemic derailed the plans, it’s a real shame The Witches isn’t getting a debut on the big screen because it would have looked fantastic projected on a large scale to enjoy the world the creators have brought to life. Available to stream on HBOMax in time for Halloween is a good substitute, though, and this is by far one of the best offerings I’ve seen so far this season to consider for your October 31st selection. A truly wonderful remake.
Synopsis: Two teenage elf brothers embark on an extraordinary quest in order to spend one last day with their father, who died when they were too young to remember him.
Stars: Tom Holland, Chris Pratt, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Octavia Spencer, Ali Wong, John Ratzenberger, Lena Waithe, Mel Rodgriguez
Director: Dan Scanlon
Running Length: 103 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: By this point, I’ve gotten pretty good about preparing to see a Pixar film. I always make sure I bring Kleenex from home because when I inevitably cry, wiping my eyes/nose with the rough napkins from the movie theater always leaves them a bit red and raw. Also, it’s best to make sure you know where the exit is so you can make a quick dash out of the place if the theater is cruel and turns the lights on immediately when the movie is over, exposing all the tear-stained faces to the rest of the crowd. The best place to sit is near the entrance, on an aisle and definitely not near a family with small children because you don’t want to step on any kids as you try to avoid people seeing the after effects of your ugly cry.
I say this now looking back at my experience of watching Onward and recognizing that my mind was in a completely different place that day and I totally forgot all my pre-planning rules. Here I was, a guy that just celebrated a milestone birthday and about to mark the 12 year anniversary of the loss of my father and I had no tissues, was seated in the middle of a row with families all around me seeing a movie about sons using magic to spend one last day with their deceased father. Was I completely crazy?
The town of New Mushroomton isn’t quite the magical mecca it used to be as we see when the prologue for Onward begins. All sorts of magical creatures coexisted and used their gifts to get by, whether it was creating fire for light/heat or flying over vast oceans. Then, with the evolution of science the world began to find ways to accomplish magical tasks without magic (lightbulbs, airplanes) and the need for wizards, magic staffs, and important quests dissipated. On the eve of his 16th birthday, Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) is just wanting to feel a little more at home in his own skin. His mom (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Enough Said) encourages him to be more outgoing at school and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) thinks that life should be lived like its one big role-playing game. More than anything, though, Ian wishes he had met his dad who died before he was born. Barley barely remembers him but at least he has something…Ian doesn’t have anything. So when their mom presents a gift their dad had asked her to reveal when both were over 16, it sets them off on a journey to complete a spell that will bring him back for 24 hours.
The first attempt at the spell only brings back the bottom half of their dad so communication comes through the feet, and it will take finding another rare stone to complete the magic that will restore him fully. Forcing the vastly different brothers to work together, the search for the gem puts them into contact with a mythical Manticore (Octavia Spencer, Ma) who was once fearsome but is now toothless and through challenges straight out of an Indiana Jones adventure. As is typical with any Pixar film, there’s a host of wild supporting characters throughout with some appearing briefly (two words: feral unicorns) and others getting a bit more screen time (Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe is Pixar’s first confirmed lesbian character) but the main focus is on the brothers and how they come to appreciate one another through their time together.
The long and short of it is this: yes, I did cry in Pixar’s latest tear-factory fantasy movie but it was not the severe ugly cry I was afraid it would be. Instead, I was taken with how the studio has once again managed to take a sensitive subject and made it palatable for children and a good jumping off discussion point for adults to have with their kids if any questions come up after the movie. Death is always a hard topic to discuss but in several of their movies, Pixar has found a way into that conversation that isn’t as scary as it might have been years ago when there weren’t animated characters that are saying some of the same things children are also feeling. Writer/director Dan Scanlon also has a nice way of bringing a lot of plot points together into one theme as the film moves toward its conclusion – I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it but it gets there in a lovely way.
It’s always risky now in this Must Be Proven Franchise Material cinema world we live in to create original story but Onward is a striking bit of computer generated fun with pathos on top of it all. The animation is beautiful…so is the message.
Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.
Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon. Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward? I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge. That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.
By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously. Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal. Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.
If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters. A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019. Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic. Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.
Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect. It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.
With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals. It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals. He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce). Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.
Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court. It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure. After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree. Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.
For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time. There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct. Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle. The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper. They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create. Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie. The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.
Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels. Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place. What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious. He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.
Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point. Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given. At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within. I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…
Synopsis: A married couple is forced to reckon with their idealized image of their son, adopted from war-torn Eritrea, after an alarming discovery by a devoted high school teacher threatens his status as an all-star student.
Stars: Naomi Watts, Octavia Spencer, Tim Roth, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Norbert Leo Butz, Astro, Marsha Stephanie Blake
Director: Julius Onah
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (8.5/10)
Review: If there’s one thing that’s been plaguing many recent theatrical releases, it’s an infestation of predictability. Used to be that curse was relegated to the big budget franchise blockbusters that operated on formula as part of their plan on delivering exactly what an audience expects but I’ve noticed a lack of creativity creeping into the smaller films arriving as well. Blame it on an industry more averse to risk than ever before, hardly willing to gamble on not quite a sure thing. Yet it’s these roll of the dice titles that do make their way into theaters that remind you how fun it can be to not know what’s going to happen next, to not arrive at the conclusion a half hour before the characters do. Films like Booksmart, The Farewell, The Kid Who Would Be King, and, yes, Crawl are all part of the 2019 unpredictable list. All from different genres, but all are going after something off the beaten path. You can go ahead and add Luce to that roster now.
Based on JC Lee’s play that had been well received in its 2013 NYC premiere at Lincoln Center, it’s been adapted for the screen by Lee and director Julius Onah (The Cloverfield Paradox). I was unfamiliar with the play and had managed to screen the film without seeing the preview and I’d encourage you to do so as well. Besides, there’s something pleasant about going into a movie with no expectation because you’re letting the film set its own bar it has to jump over. It’s clear from the start that Lee and Onah know they’ve set their stakes high and are confident enough to traverse the increasingly barbed terrain introduced over the next two hours. What they have is a tense, at times terrifying, look into the dark recesses behind privilege and the expectation of excellence.
When Amy and Peter Edgar adopted their son Luce as a young boy from Eritrea, one of Africa’s poorest countries, they wanted to give him a better life and over the last ten years they think they’ve done a good job. Luce is a star athlete and an honors student, a polite and sensitive young man with a bright future and, after years of therapy to help resolve the trauma he suffered before he was adopted, reasonably well adjusted. As the film begins, Luce (Kelvin Harrison Jr., The Birth of a Nation) is giving a speech at a school function after which his parents are introduced to Harriet Wilson (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water), Luce’s world cultures teacher. The tension is evident and when pressed by Peter (Tim Roth, The Hateful Eight) later about Miss Wilson, Luce dismisses her to his parents as a “bitch”, much to the dismay of Amy (Naomi Watts, Allegiant) who knows her son has more respect than that.
This is the first crack in the relationship not only between mother and son but between husband and wife. While Peter initially sides with Luce over his caustic relationship with an overly difficult teacher, when Miss Wilson makes a further claim about a concern she has observed and Luce’s behavior toward her, the loyalties switch and suddenly Amy is the one defending her son while Peter takes the opposing view. Turns out the minor concern Miss Wilson has is only the tip of an iceberg of secrets involving the school that provide some surprising twists and turns for all involved. At the center of all of it is Luce, and though his past positions him to be someone we want to root for and believe in, could he harbor the dark side Miss Wilson observes or is he the golden child being misunderstood by a teacher holding him to a different standard? Or perhaps he’s neither and no one, not even his involved parents, knows the real Luce.
These questions are posed with skill by Lee and Onah, creating shifting allegiances not just with the characters on screen but with audiences trying to decipher it for themselves. One moment you think you’ve figured things out and the next Lee has thrown a curve ball and perhaps you’ve jumped to a conclusion that’s too easy and also…why was it so easy for you to jump to that conclusion in the first place? Questions of nature vs. nurture are explored as well as racism not just between blacks and whites but within the same rice. Films adapted from a play can often have the feel of being too talky and stage-y and Luce does have its fair share of scenes that I’m sure were lifted verbatim from the original text but it never feels stage bound. Lee and Onah have opened up this world to include all.
The performances across the board are outstanding and it reinforces the already strong material with an extra layer of steel. It’s a long standing joke that Watts often gets the roles that her best friend Nicole Kidman passes on because they look so similar and Watts can seem like Kidman-lite but I can’t imagine anyone tackling this role and displaying the nuanced layers brought forth as well as Watts does. I’m often very on the fence with Roth but he’s paired believably with Watts and handles a late breaking personal revelation with the appropriate amount of inward turmoil. As Luce, Harrison has a tricky line to walk because he can’t ever show his cards too much or else the audience will finalize their conclusion about him. By keeping us off-balance with his charm one minute and his Bad Seed-iness the next, we know not to get too close to Luce…but also not to take our eyes off of him.
Octavia Spencer was working long before she won her Oscar for The Help and has continued to show up in an impressive amount of movies every year. They aren’t all winners but she has a way of rising to the top of any project she’s working on…even serving as producer of last years’s Best Picture Oscar Winner Green Book. Sometimes her performances get a little campy but, if marketed and promoted right, her role in Luce could get her another Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I’d argue Lee has made Miss Wilson the most multifaceted of all his characters in the film because not only do we see her dealing with the Luce situation, we observe her trying to take in her mentally disabled sister (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who has her own set of devastating challenges. That Spencer gets the absolute best moments in the movie doesn’t hurt her chances of staying in the Oscar conversation. No actress working right now can convey so much with just a shift in her eyes.
The summer days are dwindling down and the “big” movies are largely behind us. While the kids go back to school and we all have a little more free time on our hands and breathing room in the theaters, here’s hoping theaters find space to include Luce and you seek it out. It’s well worth your time and provides edge of your seat entertainment that even the best of the 2019 supposed summer thrill machines couldn’t muster.
Synopsis: A lonely woman befriends a group of teenagers and decides to let them party at her house. Just when the kids think their luck couldn’t get any better, things start happening that make them question the intention of their host.
Review: Since it was founded in 2000, Blumhouse Productions has made a name for themselves in producing low-budget films that make a killing at the box office. Often making double, triple, or quadruple their budgets back in opening weekend monies alone, these movies don’t need to survive on word of mouth to turn a profit and are seemingly content to burn fast and bright before slipping into your streaming queue. Firmly arriving in 2009 with Paranormal Activity and following that success with its numerous sequels, it was 2012’s Sinister and 2013’s The Purge that truly made other studios sit up and take note. Knowing Hollywood, it was likely due to the millions shelled out by movie-goers for these horror flicks but having an established star such as Ethan Hawke as the lead in both must have also piqued their curiosity.
The latest get rich quick flick released to theaters is Ma. Made for around $5 million dollars (and grossing four times that opening weekend), it’s one of the more prestigious projects to emerge from Blumhouse and not just because it boats three actress Oscar has recognized (two with wins, one with a nomination) but because it’s not exactly the movie it’s purports to be. Since the advertising has already shamefully spoiled several key scenes for you, you likely know what a visit to Ma’s house will be like…but the journey to get there has some unexpected turns in the road.
Maggie (Diana Silvers, Booksmart) is adjusting to living in a small town and trying to blend in at her school after being uprooted from her city life by her mother (Juliette Lewis, Cape Fear) who needed a change. Returning to her hometown, Erica hopes to start fresh and a job slinging drinks at a local casino isn’t going to change the world but it’s a place to start. While she figures her life out, Maggie is befriended by The Breakfast Clu, or more accurately, a quartet of stock high school characters screenwriter Scotty Landes has vaguely sketched out. As most teens do, they spend their free time driving around looking for ways to get into adult mischief and that brings them face to face with the seemingly harmless Sue Ann (Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water) when they ask her to buy them alcohol.
Befriending the teens and becoming their regular supplier, Sue Ann eventually not only makes time for them in her day but makes a space for them in the basement of her remote homestead. Turning it into underage party central, Sue Ann serves as pseduo den mother to the town kids looking to drink and do drugs without getting caught…but her focus always comes back to the original five who first caught her eye. Eventually (and far too late for everyone else in the audience) Sue Ann starts to give the gang the creeps and they ghost her, bringing to the surface old wounds from her own high school experience she’s been hiding. Speaking of hiding…what secrets is Sue Ann keeping in the upstairs area no one is allowed in?
Director Tate Taylor (The Help, The Girl and the Train) manages to make use of the first hour or so of Ma to create a rather compelling portrait of a fractured woman who manipulates others as a justified defensive mechanism. She strikes first before they can injure her and that’s what makes her so unpredictable – you never know what will set her off. The more we learn about Sue Ann’s backstory and why she becomes so invested in the lives of these high schoolers the more we can form the slightest sliver of sympathy. It’s nothing new and not anything that hasn’t been done before and better in revenge tales but credit is due to Spencer for taking what could have been a cookie-cutter psycho killer and giving her some modicum of realized rationale.
The problem comes when Ma has to eventually get down to its horror business and converts from a psychological thriller to a gory horror film. The change is startling and workmanlike, performed with little heart or conviction. Formerly reasonably intelligent people turn into idiots and nothing lines up with the groundwork that had been laid for the last sixty minutes. I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me the entire cast and crew had been replaced with pod people – the shift is that noticeable. The bloodletting isn’t creative and aside from Spencer’s brief flirtation with castration (prosthetic genitals in hand and all) there’s little suspense to be had in the outcome.
Spencer, frustrated she wasn’t getting leading roles, signed on to Ma without reading the script because her long-time friend Taylor told her it might be a good project for them to reteam on. Although she helped craft the backstory which turns out to be one of the more successful elements of the movie, my guess is she’ll do her homework next time and read the material because she’s too good for the movie this turns into. Same goes for Lewis who has aged nicely into the mom role after playing the rebellious teen for so many years. Eternally underrated (like Spencer), Lewis is completely convincing as a cool mom with limits – if only the script had been more about her and Spencer. Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) and Missi Pyle (Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) are two more adults that unwisely enter Ma’s orbit, along with another recent Oscar winner who appears unbilled in a fun cameo…so I’ll keep their name a secret here too. As for the kids, only Silvers makes much of an impression…much like she did in the recently released Booksmart.
I went into Ma thinking I knew how it would all turn out based on the previews and one poster that literally gives away one of the final scenes of the film. So I was surprised to find the first 2/3 of the film a fairly well-structured schlocky psychological thriller but ultimately disappointed that it devolved into what I expected it to be all along. My advice is to visit Ma’s…but leave early.
Review: First impressions are everything and the underwater opening shot of The Shape of Water got in good with me. Over the credits, director Guillermo del Toro navigates us through hallways submerged in water as if hazily coming out of a dream before revealing that’s exactly what’s happening. It’s a beautifully artsy way to introduce his adult fairy tale and it sets a tone that’s well-maintained throughout. This is an artisan that knows his way around strong visuals but sometimes struggles with a narrative to match those impressive sights. Over-indulging with Pacific Rim but bouncing back nicely with the criminally underrated Crimson Peak, del Toro reaches new heights (or depths?) with The Shape of Water.
Living above a movie theater and working nights as a janitor at a government laboratory in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa (Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine) has been mute since an injury as an infant left her unable to speak. It’s a quiet life ruled by routine, whether it be her standard breakfast or her “personal” time she makes sure to take every day. Her job is mundane but she has a friendly co-worker in Zelda (Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station) and Giles, a kindly closeted neighbor to keep her company.
The lives of all three are altered significantly by the arrival of a secret experiment into the research facility. A living, breathing sea-monster has been captured in South America and has been brought to the test center to be studied, observed, dissected. Under the watchful eye of the evil Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon, Midnight Special) and the scholarly interest of Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg, Trumbo), the creature is kept chained in a tank and routinely tortured by his captor.
While cleaning the laboratory one night, Elisa connects with the creature and sees kindness in him where others see fear. Over the next days they find a common language that leads to deeper understanding and maybe…love. Set during the height of the Cold War with the threat of Russian spies everywhere, Strickland takes no chances in protecting his find at all costs, so when Elisa hatches an escape plan for the creature and brings Zelda and Giles (Richard Jenkins, White House Down) along as her co-conspirators, they face an obsessive hunter out for blood.
As is typical of a del Toro picture, the period details are precise down to the backsplash tiles in Elisa’s apartment. An ardent fan of monster movies from Universal Studios, del Toro has intelligently put together this picture as a loving homage to his youth while relaying a very present message of acceptance at the same time. The script, co-written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (Hope Springs), is filled with main characters that would be considered outsiders, or “other”, yet their position in the plot isn’t there to exploit what makes them different. There’s even a sweet scene where fantasy and reality collide when Elisa imagines herself in a big budget Hollywood musical, featuring the creature as her dance partner. It’s these bits of whimsy that parallel nicely with the darker turns the film takes in its final half hour.
Hawkins has next to no dialogue but conveys so much in her expressive face. It’s difficult stuff to invite an audience so far inward but Hawkins has the goods to captivate us throughout. While Spencer has played (and will continue to play) this type of whip-smart tough cookie roles before, there’s an added layer of angst in her personal life that ups the ante for her. Jenkins continues to be a value add to any project he’s involved with, his gay illustrator longs for any kind of connection and his personal and professional rejections are heartbreaking to watch. If all goes to plan, Stuhlbarg will be in three movies nominated for Best Picture this year (Call Me by Your Name and The Post being the others) and as a man harboring dangerous secrets he’s resplendent as always. No one plays a nasty villain quite like Michael Shannon and while I’d long for a chance to see him play a Giles-like role someday, he’s a nice nemesis for Hawkins and company.
There’s going to be those that find the romantic relationship that develops between Elisa and the creature (marvelously played by Doug Jones, Hocus Pocus) to be troubling. On the way out of the screening I heard one audience member remark they weren’t aware the movie was about bestiality and honestly, to reduce the movie to that is missing the mark entirely, especially when you take into account the open-for-further discussion ending. I found the relationships between all of the characters incredibly moving and authentic, especially the dandy scene with Elisa pleading with Giles to help her save the creature. If they know what’s happening is wrong and do nothing to help him, what makes them any better that Strickland and others who want to destroy something that is different? It’s a lesson our country needs to hear right now and del Toro knows it.
Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.
Release Date: December 8, 2017
Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention. I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair. That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it. As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light. So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this? I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today. Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.
Synopsis: A team of African-American women provide NASA with important mathematical data needed to launch the program’s first successful space missions.
Release Date: December 25, 2016
Thoughts: Who’s ready for a history lesson? I certainly am after catching the trailer for Hidden Figures, a period drama which looks equal parts comedy and drama and represents a strong showcase for its trio of appealing leads. Oscar-nominee Taraji P. Henson (Top Five) stars as a NASA employee during the space race fighting to combat the inherent racism and sexism she and her colleagues (Oscar winner Octavia Spencer, Zootopia, and Grammy winner Janelle Monáe) face. Joined by Kevin Costner (Draft Day), Glen Powell (Everybody Wants Some!!), and Kirsten Dunst (Midnight Special), this one is sneaking it right at the end of the year before the Oscar deadline. Could 20th Century Fox be counting on this becoming the sleeper hit it has the potential to be?