Movie Review ~ Body Cam


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When a routine traffic stop results in the unexplained, grisly death of her colleague, a cop realizes footage of the incident will play for her eyes only. As the attacks mount, she races to understand the supernatural force behind them

Stars: Mary J. Blige, Nat Wolff, David Zayas, David Warshofsky, Demetrius Grosse, Anika Noni Rose

Director: Malik Vitthal

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Before this whole pandemic, when you heard a moving was “skipping a theatrical release” that was often industry code for a turkey being served up to audiences as a TV dinner instead of as a restaurant meal.  The film likely had a rough gestation and the studio wasn’t confident it would be able to see a marginal return on its investment during the opening weekend, even if some sliver of good word of mouth could propel it forward.  All the big studios would have one or two of these movies a year and no big name star or project was totally immune from it.

If there’s one good thing to come out of this recent pandemic, it’s that this swift shift to streaming isn’t looked on as a death knell as easily as it was before.  This could be the studio simply wanting to keep pushing content out in a slim market to eager consumers tiring of the binge watch instead of just the usual content dump.  With a severe lack of new movies coming out week to week we’re already seeing movies that otherwise would have been overlooked do quite well thanks mostly to their availability, to say nothing of their overall quality.

That’s one way to look at the recent quieter than usual release of the supernatural cop thriller Body Cam, a movie I just heard about a few weeks ago when Paramount released a not entirely gripping trailer.  Starring music icon and two-time Oscar nominee Mary J. Blige, it was originally meant for a summer release but was made available mid-May with VOD to follow in June.  Now, a movie that would surely have been dismissed quickly had it played in your local multiplex has an opportunity to be evaluated within a different set of qualifiers.  Despite being tiresomely formulaic at it’s core, it isn’t half bad.

Back on the active duty after an altercation with a civilian earned her an eight-week suspension, Officer Renee Lomito-Smith (Blige, Rock of Ages) is paired with rookie Danny (Nat Wolff, Semper Fi) for her first night back.  The two are first on the scene where a fellow cop was murdered by a supernatural force we got a brief glimpse of in the film’s opening sequence.  Renee sees it too in the dashcam footage that mysteriously is erased when her superiors try to view it later.  After more murders take place that involve members of the force, Renee launches her own private investigation and brings Danny along with her, eventually leading to a missing healthcare worker (Anika Noni Rose, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who has suffered a terrible loss.  As Renee gets closer to discovering how the worker is tied to her fellow cops, her own troubled past which she’s tried to shut away comes back to haunt her…in increasingly terrifying ways.

You get the feeling watching Body Cam that it’s a mash-up of two scripts that were missing key elements.  The original writer, Richmond Riedel, is known more as an editor and while the producers brought in Nicholas McCarthy (The Prodigy) to rewrite the material, it never quite succeeds as either a cop thriller or supernatural horror film.  Though McCarthy has a firm foothold in the horror genre based on his resume, you’d think he would have been able to tip the scales toward creating a better terror mythology to liven up an otherwise realistic movie.  I kept expecting a twist regarding Renee that never came, and I think viewers savvy to this type of movie will know what I mean…though maybe with The Woman in the Window coming out shortly that angle was a bit passé.

Thankfully, director Malik Vitthal delivers in several key spooky sequences, knowing just when to reveal frights and not going for cheap scares.  As is the case with so many of these movies, people go where they shouldn’t go and for the love of God why do they insist on heading into a basement without turning all the lights on just because they hear a floorboard creak?  The violence is surprisingly gory, with one especially graphic make-up effect being particularly chilling – the image stuck with me long after the movie ended.  Brief attempts at social commentary regarding relations between the police and minorities feel shoehorned in and the movie would be far more interesting (especially considering where it winds up) if more attention was paid to this very pertinent topic.

A titan in the music industry who has long earned her title as the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Blige still isn’t as strong an actress as she is as singer.  That tentativeness works at times with this character who is riding the edge of emotional trauma; it was a strange dichotomy of a performance. I completely bought her as this cop on a mission but for the most part her line readings come off as strangely stilted.  This isn’t meant as a dig but Blige is best when she wasn’t saying anything at all.  Her reactions to what was going on and when she is in pursuit were the most intriguing part.  The oddball relationship with her and Wolff was interesting to see develop and I wish we got to see more of Rose throughout the film.  Actually, in a perfect world Rose and Blige would have swapped roles because Rose is silent for the majority.  It goes back to the script being half-baked and not fully developing Blige’s emotionally bruised cop/mother as much as they could – there’s little resolution to either side of her persona by the conclusion.

At 96 minutes, the pacing in Body Cam could be tightened up a bit, especially in the final act with a totally unnecessary epilogue but the take away is that this comes across as an easy-going weekend watch.  Joining other recent above average on demand thrillers like 1BR, The Wretched, and We Summon the Darkness, it has the requisite thrills to make you consider turning the lights on and enough of a plot that you won’t completely put it all together before our leading lady does.  It may turn out to be rather routine but up until a certain point, it has its moments.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Quiet Place Part II

Synopsis:  Forced to venture into the unknown, the Abbott family realize the creatures that hunt by sound are not the only threats that lurk beyond the sand path.

Release Date:  March 20, 2020

Thoughts: When A Quiet Place debuted in 2018, it became a sleeper hit and earned co-writer/director/star John Krasinski major kudos in Hollywood for delivering an old-fashioned thriller that capitalized on restraint.  One strong point about it is that is Krasinksi and his team wrapped things up so well it felt like a sequel wasn’t necessary…but you know how a movie studio desperate for a non-franchise hit reacts when a minor budgeted film strikes gold.  Yep…another chapter of A Quiet Place is completed and waiting for its March release and here is the first full trailer.

Sneaking a small teaser into theaters several weeks ago, I sort of thought that might be a nice place to end the marketing and preserve some mystery.  After all, we knew who was coming back (Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns who nearly earned an Oscar nomination for the first film), Noah Jupe (Ford v. Ferrari) and Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) so aside from that we didn’t totally need the lengthy preview that Paramount just released.  If you haven’t seen the first film or want to keep Part II spoiler-free, I suggest you refrain from watching this…as nicely put together as it is, I’m not sure I wanted to know certain things before seeing the finished movie.

Happy Thanksgiving ~ Planes, Trains and Automobiles


Note: This review originally ran November 23, 2017

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion.

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein, Edie McClurg

Director: John Hughes

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Original Release Date: November 25, 1987

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Here’s a movie I’m really, truly thankful for.  30 years (!!!) after its original release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a gift that has kept on giving to countless people throughout the year but especially at Thanksgiving.  Writing this review in 2017 as I’m about to hit the road to celebrate the holiday with family, I knew I had to get my annual viewing of this one in a day before the big Turkey Day. Revisiting this one is like meeting up with an old friend who tells the same jokes but still delivers them with a master’s precision.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving and marketing exec Neal Page (Steven Martin, Parenthood) is rushing to catch an early flight home to Chicago to be with his family for the holiday.  If only he could make it to the airport.  In mid-day NYC rush hour traffic, he races for a cab with another big shot (Kevin Bacon in a cameo done as a favor to John Hughes right before they made She’s Having a Baby together), gets his cab stolen out from under him by an unseen man toting a large trunk with him, and arrives at the terminal to find his flight delayed.  That’s where he meets Del Griffith (John Candy, Splash), a portly shower ring salesman that turns out to be the cab thief.  When their plane is diverted to Kansas on account of the weather, Neal and Del become unlikely travel mates as they work together to get back to their families.

Hughes was on a real roll at this point, having just come off of directing back to back to back to back hits that have become seminal favorites (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) not to mention writing National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful.  This was his first movie to deal with real adults and it’s a marvelous pairing of a perfectly assembled cast with Hughes’ hilarious (if episodic) script.  There’s not a single boring moment in the movie, pretty remarkable considering how hard it is to sustain comedy for any length of time, let alone 92 minutes.

The movie is filled with classic scenes.  Martin and Candy waking up in their small hotel bed in an awkward embrace, Martin’s hysterically foul-mouthed run-in with a car rental agent (Edie McClurg, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Candy driving cross-country and accidentally getting both of his arms stuck behind him while Martin sleeps, the list goes on.  Hughes is smart enough to have Del be the catalyst for a joke but not make him the ultimate target, to do that would be too cruel to be funny and that’s not what he’s interested in.

Martin is great as the tightly wound Neal who alternates between hating the schlubby Del and hating himself for the way he treats him.  It’s not hard to see why Neal gets so frustrated, either, because Del does himself no favors.  He’s a slob, he takes all the air out of any room he’s in, he doesn’t recognize normal social signals, and he has an uncanny way of destroying anything he touches.  Still, in Candy’s brilliant hands he’s a lovable dude and by the time the movie reaches its surprisingly emotional zenith, you’ll probably be like me and wiping tears away.  Oh yeah, I cry every time I watch the movie…I know I will and have accepted it at this point.

On a personal note, I can’t watch this movie without remembering my late father’s howling laugh when I first saw it.  I can still hear him roaring at Candy’s cluelessness and Martin’s slow-burn reactions.  This was a family favorite of ours and while my dad isn’t here to watch it with me, I think of him constantly when I put it on.  I watch a lot of movies and don’t always take the time to go back and rewatch many films…but there are exceptions and Planes, Trains and Automobiles is certainly one of them.

Movie Review ~ Gemini Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An over-the-hill hitman faces off against a younger clone of himself.

Stars: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge

Director: Ang Lee

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It isn’t uncommon for some movies to take a long time to get made.  Like, a loooong time.  Commonly referred to as development hell, a script can pass from studio to studio and be revised along the way as it is handed between directors and is attached to different stars.  Quite a few Hollywood blockbusters and even more infamous bombs have toiled along this tortured route and the stories around their creation are either the hard-won tales of success or the blueprint of abject failure.  Last year, we saw a success story with the third remake of A Star is Born which defied all odds and was a sensational retelling after gestating for nearly two decades. This year, another project that’s been in the works for twenty years is finally getting released…and strangely enough the lead (Will Smith) is the guy originally meant for A Star is Born when it was first developed.

You can do a quick Google search or look up the Wikipedia entry for Gemini Man and see all of the A-List stars and directors who have been mentioned as being involved with the film over the years.  To give you an idea of how far back we’re talking, Sean Connery was one of the box-office draws considered for the role at one time or another.  When the rights for the film were finally acquired by Tom Cruise’s production company in 2016 it was naturally assumed it would be for the white-hot actor to star in but instead he handed it over to Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), an exciting choice but a less-than-obvious one.  When Will Smith signed on, Gemini Man actually started coming together and, coupled with Lee’s glee in utilizing advanced filmmaking technology, we have a visually arresting but dramatically stilted action film.  It will definitely spike your adrenaline in the appropriate moments, just be prepared for some less than engaging dramatic shifts.

You’re advised to buckle up when the coming attractions are over because once the Paramount studios logo has faded and Gemini Man begins, there’s a lot of information thrown at you in short order.  Government assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith, Aladdin) has decided to retire after 72 kills.  His aim isn’t quite on pointe anymore and the emotional toll is starting to wear him down.  Plus, he just wants a little R & R at his peaceful homestead nestled in Buttermilk Sound, GA. Side note: has there ever been a more enticing name of a location to want to retire to?   After meeting with an old friend with inside knowledge (Douglas Hodge, Joker), Brogan begins to suspect his last kill was a set-up and now he’s another loose end someone needs to trim. His dreams of serene sunsets as a retiree are dashed quickly as his suspicions are confirmed and he’s targeted by his former agency…and not just because they don’t want to pay extended benefits.

They’re dealing with a pro, though, and to take him down they’re going to need someone who can match him in every way.  Lucky for the agency there’s been a covert project underway for years outsourced to a black ops unit run by Clay Varis (Clive Owen, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) operating under the codename Gemini and they’ve got a secret weapon ready for a test run.  This all leads to Brogan globe hopping with a plucky agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and an gregarious ally (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange) while trying to remain one step ahead of an unrelenting soldier that bears a striking resemblance to Brogan and seems to be able to anticipate his next move.  What’s the secret behind the Gemini program and how far into the organization has the conspiracy infiltrated?

It’s already been revealed that the soldier pursuing Brogan is his clone and what a bummer that is to have had that spoiled in advance.  I know that’s pretty much the entire idea the movie is marketed around but still, consider how much more interesting the film would have been if the identity of this unknown force was kept hidden just a little longer.  The filmmakers sure try to pretend we all hadn’t seen the trailer a hundred times already, attempting to build up suspense for a reveal that doesn’t quite pan out like they planned.  With Smith playing both roles and being de-aged to play his younger self, it works some of the time but more often than not looks creepy.  It’s as if Smith is entirely a CGI creation and not just his face.  The lips don’t always match what his mouth is saying and during some action sequences I swear there are times when Smith’s head is in one place and his face is in another.

Speaking of action sequences, this is the real reason to catch the movie on the biggest screen possible.  Three key bonkers scenes are the total highlight of the film.  A motorcycle chase through Cartagena is a caffeinated delight, culminating in one Will Smith literally beating up another one with a motorcycle.  An impressive fight is staged throughout the catacombs of Budapest and the finale is just the right length without pummeling us with too much gunfire.  It’s too bad this wasn’t screened for critics the way Lee had intended; the film was shot digitally at an extra-high frame rate of 120 fps, modified for 3D and I could see where the impact of some of scenes would have been raised if I’d seen it projected like the director wanted.  I’m probably not going to see this again in theaters so it was the one opportunity to impress me and seeing it projected flat on a 2D display wasn’t cutting it.

Sadly, there’s a lot of movie left over in between all the action and while it’s all beautifully shot by Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns), it’s suffers from a too-serious dramatic performance from Smith.  Smith has long since proven he’s an actor that can headline a summer blockbuster as well as an awards contender but along the way he lost his ear for good dialogue and characters that didn’t aggravate.  He’s more easy-going here than he’s been in a long time but there’s still a desperate need to make what’s mostly a generic action flick more than what it is.  Everyone else seems to understand what level of movie they’re in but it’s like Smith thinks that with Lee directing him he has a shot at an Oscar if he emotes extra hard.  His action scenes are spectacular, his dramatic ones are tough to get through.

Twenty years is a long time for a movie to move through a production cycle and the results of Gemini Man are good but not great.  I was surely entertained for two hours and it’s nice to see Lee continue to surprise by showing there’s not a genre he can’t tackle with some measure of success.  I still wish a bit more of the twists had been held back early on but at least there was one genuine surprise that wasn’t hinted at in early previews.  If you’re going to see this in theaters, and you likely should, go see it the way the filmmaker intended and spring for the extra charge to see it in 3D HFR.  I have a feeling Lee will make it worth your while.

The Silver Bullet ~ Top Gun: Maverick

Synopsis: A follow-up to the 1986 hit brings back Naval Aviator Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and will deal with the rise of unmanned drones and pilots becoming a thing of the past.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: Has it really been 33 years since Tom Cruise cemented his rising superstar status with the blockbuster release of Top Gun?  Inspiring countless imitators (including Cruise himself) and launching a million slow dances to the Oscar-winning theme song, the movie is firmly in our cultural lexicon and holds up quite nicely.  So you could hear some groans across the U.S. of A. when it was announced Cruise would be returning in the long rumored sequel.  For someone with as good as track record as Cruise has with starring in successful non-franchise fare, why occupy his time between Mission: Impossible sequels with another sequel to a previous role?  Teaming with his Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski and looping in an excellent roster of supporting players, from the looks of this first trailer for Top Gun: Maverick Cruise clearly knew what he was doing and I’m sorry I doubted him in the first place.  This sneak peak at the high-flying action film releasing almost 12 months from now stirs the kind of nostalgic summer excitement within me that doesn’t get a jolt that often.  Fingers crossed it’s more than just a retread of the original.

Movie Review ~ Crawl


The Facts
:

Synopsis: While attempting to save her father during a hurricane, a young woman finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Stars: Kaya Scodelario, Barry Pepper, Ross Anderson, Anson Boon, Morfydd Clark

Director: Alexandre Aja

Rated: R

Running Length: 87 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing that will give me the honest-to-goodness willies, it’s an alligator. I don’t care if they are on TV pestering golfers just trying to play through, lounging on the side of the highway on the Florida interstate, or six feet away behind glass in a zoo. I do not like them. I can vividly remember my father making the mistake of renting the VHS of the 1980 classic creature feature Alligator (where oh where is the remastered BluRay of that gem?) which kept me out of swimming pools for months. While other creepy monsters of the deep have had their fair share of D-grade movies, somehow the alligator and its fellow archosaur, the crocodile, have had a better run of decent films than most. Aside from Alligator, there’s Rogue, Lake Placid, Black Water, and Primeval. Heck, even the Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Eraser has a memorable crocodile encounter.

So you can understand my excitement and a little bit of fear when I heard that Crawl was making its way into theaters. The logline alone, girl is trapped inside flooding house with alligators during a hurricane, was enough to entice even the most exasperated horror junkie, burned too often by SyFy originals and direct to Redbox gunk featuring killer piranhas and beastly barracudas. I kept tabs on the movie during its production and while a trailer seemed to give away key moments, I held out hope it was a return to the kind of fun monster movie we used to get served up regularly by movie studios.

It’s usually never a good sign when a major movie studio like Paramount decides not to screen their film for critics in advance and that’s what happened with Crawl. While it often can hold off negative press for a stinker (like the recent garbage remake of Child’s Play) it can also stymie a film that might be better than its genre suggests. Opening the film the week after Spider-Man: Far From Home and before The Lion King roars into theaters, there was a small gap in July when there was no competition and that’s where Paramount opted to release the film without much fanfare.

What a huge mistake.

Paramount, who often screens gigantic duds without a care in the world, kept the downright tasty Crawl under wraps and away from the eyes of critics for no good reason and that’s only to their detriment. A very fine creature feature produced on a low budget that feels like a high-end affair, it’s short and scary and delivers in every way a movie like this should. All the beats are hit, all the bites are taken. This is the movie jolt this sleepy summer has needed and it’s come from the least expected place.

Hurricane Wendy is coming on strong along the Florida coast and college co-ed Haley (Kaya Scodelario, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) can’t reach her father Dave (Barry Pepper, Monster Trucks) who lives near the eye of the storm. Against the advice of her sister (Morfydd Clark, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and local law enforcement, Haley makes her way through rough weather to the beach house to make sure her father is OK. Finding the house abandoned, upon further investigation she finds her father in the muddy subbasement with a nasty injury. However, before she’s able to get him out and avoid being stranded in the storm her exit is cut-off by a gigantic alligator that has found its way into the basement through an overflow pipe…and it’s not about to let its dinner just walk away.

So begins a fight for survival as Haley and Dave fend off the rising waters in their flooding house while evading an ever-growing number of alligators that begin to swarm around their neighborhood. Screenwriters Michael and Shawn Rasmussen devise some fairly ingenious ways of keeping the father and daughter believably stranded in the basement while also credibly showing their attempts at escape. In so many of these movies the characters suddenly lose all brain cells (if they had any to begin with) once they are put into a predicament but here both call upon their own convenient strengths to get them out of this ‘gator jam.

In the past, director Alexandre Aja hasn’t been the most subtle of horror directors. Beginning with the stomach-churning Haute Tension in 2003 and following it up with gross-outs like Mirrors and remakes of The Hills Have Eyes, Maniac, and the blood frenzy of Piranha 3D, he doesn’t exactly do soft horror so I was worried Crawl would be an unnecessary gore fest. Surprisingly, Aja is the most restrained he’s been ever, nicely dialing back the carnage and reserving it for when its most effective. Keeping it contained like that makes the moments when the alligators do strike have a far greater impact. The attacks, on poor souls that find themselves in close proximity to Haley and her father, are vicious and not unnecessarily prolonged.

I’d love to see some a behind the scenes making of documentary on Crawl to see how they utilized their sets and incorporated those with green screen because it’s a nearly seamless blend. Filmed in Serbia (yeah, Serbia), the movie largely takes place on that one labyrinthine basement set but does frequently switch to the rising waters outside where the alligators lurk and can swim freely. The gators themselves are an impressive mix of CGI and animatronic creations, far better than they should be considering the budget. Put it this way, I was in a movie seat that reclined and 98% of the time the alligators looked real enough to make me raise my legs up even higher.

Shortly after seeing Crawl I was speaking to someone about how much the movie frightened me and they asked me why this scared me so much when I routinely watch movies like The Conjuring, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, Alien, Annabelle Comes Home, etc. Well, there’s a huge difference between those and Crawl. Crawl is a movie, like Jaws, that feels like it could maybe possible sometime somehow happen. And it’s why I’ll never live in Florida. Or by a beach. Or go into a basement. You, however, should make your way to your local theater and catch this one…if only to support these kinds of films and encourage studios like Paramount to make more of the same quality.

Movie Review ~ Rocketman

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Elton John’s life, from his years as a prodigy at the Royal Academy of Music through his influential and enduring musical partnership with Bernie Taupin.

Stars: Taron Egerton, Jamie Bell, Richard Madden, Bryce Dallas Howard

Director: Dexter Fletcher

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Fair is fair and I have to say right off the bat I was really rooting for Rocketman leading up to its release date. It’s not just because I’m a fan of Elton John or star Taron Egerton or that I was craving something with a different kind of movie magic than we’ve had so far in a strong 2019. Deep down, I wanted it to be better than Bohemian Rhapsody. There. I said it. I wanted it to best the 2018 biopic that was kinda about Freddie Mercury and kinda about Queen but ultimately not really about either because it couldn’t be fully honest about anything. That it went on to make so much money wasn’t a huge surprise considering the lasting impacting of Queen but it’s staying power in the cultural conversation was truly something to stand in awe of. I still haven’t fully come to terms that Rami Malek walked away with a Best Actor Oscar for his hammy, bug-eyed portrayal of Mercury. It’s a performance that almost instantly aged poorly and after seeing how right Egerton gets it as Elton John I think you’ll agree.

So yes…this was one I wanted to like but was more than ready to pounce on if it went down the same rose-colored glasses wearing path tread by Malek and company last year. Thankfully, every tear that wasn’t shed and thrill I didn’t feel in Bohemian Rhapsody were felt doubly in Rocketman. Here’s the right approach to find your way to the heart of a biopic: take a life story and tailor the film to the colorful character at its center. A film biography of Elton John would never have fit within your standard “and then he became a star” formulaic movie and screenwriter Lee Hall wisely knows that. Working with director Dexter Fletcher (who, in an weird twist of fate, took over directing duties for the last three weeks of Bohemian Rhapsody), Hall tells of John’s genesis in a sometimes surreal, often fantastical, always musical fashion and it’s a yellow brick winner.

Growing up in affluent Middlesex, Reginald Kenneth Dwight showed a knack for playing the piano just by ear at an early age. Though clearly a prodigy, he found little support from a selfish mother (Bryce Dallas Howard, Pete’s Dragon) and emotionally cold father (Steven Mackintosh, Kick-Ass 2) until his grandmother (Gemma Jones, Bridget Jones’s Baby) offered to take him to lessons with the Royal Academy of Music. An awkward adolescence led to his early adulthood as a pianist for visiting soul and R&B acts. Answering an ad for songwriters, the newly renamed Elton John came to Liberty Records, a fortuitous job inquiry as this is where he’d be paired with Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) who would become his collaborator for the next fifty years (and counting!).

With hit songs garnering acclaim in the UK and sending them on a tour to America and the famed Troubadour nightclub, Elton and Bernie experienced celebrity at a time of extreme excess. Any kind of fantasy you want is yours. Any drug you desire is within your reach. No dream is too small if you have the money to pay for it. The more cash they bring in and the higher Elton’s star rises, the greater the divide between the close friends becomes…driven further apart by John’s substance abuse and his tortured relationship with his business (and romantic) partner John Reid (Richard Madden, Cinderella).

This true story of the meteoric rise of Elton’s early career, troubled mid-life, and eventual redemption is told using the soundtrack of the music he created with Taupin. It’s not wall-to-wall music and at 121 minutes it’s perhaps ten minutes shorter than it had to be but Fletcher takes that trim running length to keep things moving at high velocity like it’s central character. The songs are used creatively and not always in the order they were written and it’s nice to hear nearly all the main actors get the chance to use their voices at some point.  While it’s not a comprehensive documentation of the Elton/Bernie catalog, the film finds clever ways of getting brief bits of songs in at various points throughout.  Keep your ears open…especially for instrumental tracks.

The bulk of the singing and almost the entirety of the movie, rests on Egerton’s capable shoulders and he more than stands up to the challenge. Looking back at the wild looks Elton has worn onstage over the years gives you one part of the puzzle that is the singer and it’s up to Egerton to show us the side we haven’t had the opportunity to see yet. Thankfully, Elton appears to have given the filmmakers carte blanche to include what they wanted.  While the film doesn’t shy away from his dependence on drugs, alcohol, and other vices it doesn’t portray him as an unwilling participant either. This is no pity party for a man who took a very active role in his drug abuse.

Egerton commits 150% to the role and anything less would have been phoning it in.  He takes every costume piece and accessory to the max and he dances and sings like a dream.  By the actor finding his groove with such verve, it allows us to buy what Egerton is selling…like when Elton describes himself as fat.  Though they try to bulk him up by putting him in any number of wide corduroy jackets and neckerchiefs, there’s no way Egerton has extra poundage to emulate the roly poly musician when he was a youth.  He does better in Elton’s later years when he’s losing his hair and the ravages of drugs and alcohol are beginning to take their toll.

Supporting Egerton nicely are Bell as talented lyricist Taupin.  It’s always strange (or, a little bit funny?)  to see Bell so grown-up all these years after Billy Elliot and I’m surprised we didn’t see him dancing at some point in the movie.  Madden and Egerton take on ‘Honkey Cat’ for a laugh and while Madden won’t be recording a CD anytime soon he acquits himself nicely.  Howard and Mackintosh have difficult roles as the enduring villains of the film but they don’t cut their characters any slack, making the final moments of the film that much more impactful.  For a full on camp performance, look no further than Tate Donovan (Argo) as outlandish Troubadour owner Doug Weston…I like Donovan but boy did I wince every time he nearly flew away onscreen.  I also thought a brief appearance by Dutch stage star Celinde Schoenmaker as Elton’s wife (!) was interesting and wanted more time with Kiki Dee (Rachel Muldoon, Mary Poppins Returns)…but who doesn’t?

Fletcher has a nice eye for keeping things visually interesting and not just in the costume department. Small scenes give way to large choreographed numbers that burst with energy and a few of these key moments create goosebump shivers up your spine. A transition from young Elton to Egerton’s Elton in the middle of ‘Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting’ comes at the same moment when highly physical dancing is kicked up a notch. Then there’s the quiet scene on an ordinary day when Bernie gives Elton the lyrics to ‘Your Song’ and the entire house stops what they’re doing to listen to Elton find his way through the notes to the melody that is so instantly familiar – it’s truly a magic moment.

What Hall and Fletcher miss on are opportunities to go a little deeper with the material or finish their thoughts in scenes that are building to an emotional climax. On more than one occasion I felt a scene was heading toward a resolution only to have it interrupted by a musical number. I know you can only get so much of a life into a two hour movie and you’re never going to get the whole story but key characters get touched on so little you wonder why they were included at all. Elton’s brief marriage of convenience is one example. I know why it’s there but it’s not given any true emotional weight, nor is there some finality with a few of the characters that deserve some rounding of the rough edges we’re left with.

Yet even with these examples of the movie skimming the surface instead of taking a deep dive, it has great emotional resonance. Elton’s sexuality is spoken about with casual frankness…as are opinions of those who don’t accept him for who is. I applaud everyone involved (including the studio) for keeping in the moments that show two men together and don’t treat it as lascivious or wrong or something for anyone to be ashamed of. Even if it makes the film overall more of a tough sell to some audiences, it’s dealing in honesty first and that’s commendable.  I wasn’t expecting the movie to choke me up as much as it did but on several occasions I was greatly moved by what was happening onscreen.

I was lucky enough to see Elton John in concert earlier this year on his final tour and it dovetailed nicely into seeing this biopic. Though his range is smaller than it used to be and he rarely came out from behind his piano, he held a sold out crowd completely captive for two and a half hours based almost solely on the strength of his music. That is the true sign of an artist. I’d have loved to see Rocketman arrive in theaters a year earlier because then Bohemian Rhapsody would have arrived in its shadow and been held under some scrutiny for the facts it fudges and it’s almost pathological need to please instead of tell the truth. This music-filled life-story of Elton John isn’t afraid to be a warts-and-all look into his world and still have the audience on his side when the credits roll.

The Silver Bullet ~ Crawl



Synopsis
: A young woman, while attempting to save her father during a Category 5 hurricane, finds herself trapped in a flooding house and must fight for her life against alligators.

Release Date: July 12, 2019

Thoughts: It’s not hard for me to figure out where my love of creature features began. Ever since I saw Jaws as a kid I’ve been enthralled by monsters on land, under the sea, and in space.  From nature run amok atrocities to alien lifeforms, I’m pretty lenient on films that pit men and women against some beast with really sharp teeth.  We’ve been pretty starved for these mid-budgeted movies (at least in theaters) with tastes shifting to blockbuster entertainment for the masses but this July sees the release of Crawl and it looks schlocky and fun.  While, as usual, the trailer gives away more than I’d like, there’s more than enough here to get me interested in what other scares director Alexandre Aja (Horns) has in store.  Also…while I’m not freaked out by spiders, snakes, or sharks, I am legit frightened by alligators and crocodiles so this is going to be sweaty palm experience for me.

Movie Review ~ Pet Sematary (2019)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. Louis Creed and his wife, Rachel, relocate from Boston to rural Maine with their two young children. The couple soon discover a mysterious burial ground hidden deep in the woods near their new home.

Stars: Jason Clarke, John Lithgow, Amy Seimetz, Jeté Laurence, Obssa Ahmed

Directors: Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Normally, I’m not a fan of remakes of originals that were just fine to begin with. Stephen King’s 1989 adaption of his own novel Pet Sematary was a solid horror film that has held up quite well over the past thirty years. Sure, it’s low tech and some of the performances delve into out-of-place hysterics at times but it was largely a successful effort and often spoken of highly as one of the better King adaptations that have made it to the big screen.

Yet I wasn’t that mad at the fact that the source material was going to get another treatment…and I actually thought it was long overdue. After a lackluster sequel that failed to move the series forward in any compelling way, the property just sort of sat there on the shelf for the ensuing years. I’ve always considered the book and its concept to be one that would lend itself well to multiple sequels and creative approaches yet no one had bothered to take another crack at it. As the original film approached it’s 30th anniversary, Paramount decided to dig up their former horror hit and handed it over to three guys that have been making a name for themselves in the scare business.

The new film has a screenplay written by Jeff Buhler who already had The Prodigy in 2019 and will pen upcoming remakes of Jacob’s Ladder and The Grudge, and was directed by Kevin Kölsch & Dennis Widmyer who gave us the underrated horror gem Starry Eyes. Having these three give King’s tale of a city family that moves to the country and experiences the dangerous power of a nearby burial ground seemed like an on the money choice and with stars like Jason Clarke (The Aftermath) and John Lithgow (Pitch Perfect 3) on board this remake was elevated up a few notches from being just a shameless cash-in.

The Creed family has uprooted their life and moved to a small town in Maine so Louis (Clarke) can be a big fish in a small pond as the doctor at a local university. Like the first film, his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz, You’re Next) doesn’t seem to have much of a life of her own outside of taking care of their two young children so while Louis goes to work Rachel begins the process of setting her family up in their new house. Friendly neighbor Jud (Lithgow) catches young Ellie (Jeté Laurence) exploring in the woods and shows her the pet sematary on their property where children come to bury their pets. When tragedy strikes the Creed family, Louis is driven to make an unholy choice involving the pet sematary that has deadly repercussions for everyone.

While the film largely falls into the remake category, with names and situations that echo what we’ve read/seen before, certain elements of the plot have been reimagined and not all of them work as well as they should. If you’ve seen the previews you’re likely aware of the one big change from the book/original film and that choice is, in hindsight, a smart one considering what it allows the filmmakers to do with the final 1/3 of the movie. What I didn’t care for, actually, was that last act when it became less of a slow-burn horror movie and more of a cheap scare machine which undercut some of the strong structure that was built up early on.

Another strange thing about this film is that Buhler’s script is overly talky. In most cases, having some extra character development in a movie designed to provide maximum scare time would be welcome but there seemed to be an endless series of scenes with Louis and Rachel talking in their bedroom. Feeling like low-grade Cassavetes, their marital squabbles and differences of opinion in how much they share with their children about death starts to feel intrusive to the frights. After a while, you begin to wish the bad thing that is coming will just happen so they’ll have something else to talk about.

Clarke, as usual, makes for a reliable leading man and the conflict Louis experiences sits well with him. No one plays tragically at odds with oneself quite like Clarke can. Like the movie, he starts to veer off course near the end but he holds on longer than the film does. I’ve not seen Seimetz in a lot of things but she brought a nice layer to Rachel that wasn’t present in the previous film. The subplot concerning her guilt over an incident from her childhood involving her dying sister isn’t as scary as the 1989 version because its less subtle but she navigates some jarring pseudo-scares quite well. The Jud character was always the most memorable in these films and while Lithgow is no Fred Gwynne, his wind-beaten face and growly voice convinced me right off the bat he was the right guy for the role. The trickiest part in the film is taken on by Laurence as the Creed’s daughter who has to play a whole range of emotions – for a young performer tasked with the film’s most important material she is a strong presence.

As they demonstrated in Starry Eyes, Kölsch & Widmyer know how to slowly turn up the heat on their movie pot and allow it to boil over at just the right time. Here, though, the pot stays on the fire just a hair too long, that is the difference between a remake that sticks its landing, and one that bites off more than it can chew. (I’m trying to jam pack this with metaphors today, clearly). The ending of the film doesn’t measure up and just gets too bizarre to the point where the audience laughs in all the right places but more than a few unintentional passages as well.

I feel like we’re going to be seeing more of these remakes of popular films over the next few years and if they turn out like Pet Sematary I won’t be totally disappointed. There’s some thought that went into this one and more than few examples of creativity on display that are worth noting from directors that are continuing to hone their craft. Showing a bit more appreciation for narrative follow-through and arriving at an ending that satisfies is what was missing.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary Two

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenage boy and his father move to his recently deceased mother’s hometown, where they encounter the ancient Native American cemetery with the power to raise the dead.

Stars: Edward Furlong, Anthony Edwards, Clancy Brown, Jason McGuire, Sarah Trigger, Jared Rushton, Darlanne Fluegel

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If you were to be browsing the roster of movies that have been made from the novels/novella/short stories of Stephen King, you’d notice the strange absence of a popular Hollywood occurrence: sequels. Something about King’s work has never leant itself well to a continuation of the story, mostly because the tales are largely self-contained within the singular telling. When the effort has been made to squeeze a little more money out of a popular title, you wind up with an icky franchise like the Children of the Corn saga, which has produced numerous sequels. (I stopped watching after the third one and stopped counting after the sixth). Then you have interesting misses like The Rage: Carrie 2 and this sequel to 1989’s Pet Sematary.

I could actually see where Pet Sematary would be a valid property to revisit seeing that the ending of the first film was so open-ended and ambiguous. The evil at its center, an ancient Indian burial ground where dead things come back to life, was still open for business so what was stopping another unsuspecting family from moving into the neighborhood? With the slate wiped clean there was an opportunity for screenwriter Richard Outten (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) and returning director Mary Lambert to expand on King’s original idea and go deeper into the origins of the cemetery.

Unfortunately, this was 1992, when the goal of studios was to make their horror films as straightforward as possible. There’s little care for those pesky detailed complexities of backstory that would take time away from gore and bloodshed. So instead of a creative furthering of the material, Outten opts for a vague rehash of the original where someone learns the hard way that you shouldn’t re-bury dead things.

After watching his B-movie star mother get electrocuted in a freak accident on the set of her latest flick, Jeff (Edward Furlong, A Home of Our Own) returns with his father Chase (Anthony Edwards, Top Gun) to her hometown of Ludlow, Maine to bury her and start a new life. Chase sets up shop as the town veterinarian while Jeff quickly runs afoul of the school bully (Jared Rushton) and befriends a lonely outcast (Jason McGuire) with a tyrannical stepfather (Clancy Brown, Thor: Ragnarok). When the stepfather accidentally kills his friends dog, Jeff is introduced to the local pet sematary and the dark magic it holds.  Everyone in town knows what happened to the Creed family just three years earlier…and now Jeff is standing in the same location where the dead can walk.

Like the wiley cat in the first film, the once docile dog returns as an aggressive pup and causes all sorts of trouble that lead Jeff and Justin down a morally dangerous path. As they try to undo their dirty deed and as Chase learns more about what his son has been up to, the movie feels like it shows its hand far too early on. The big reveal on the ultimate power of the burial ground in the original movie was kept for the last twenty minutes or so but here you have someone resurrected about 45 minutes in and that person becomes almost an almost comedic figure, intentional or not.  Though they are supposed to be menacing, one-liners and a strangely goofy stare are clearly meant to put this character in the Freddy Krueger territory as someone who might kill you but also might just as well make you sit down and listen to their comedy routine first too.

Lambert actually succeeds well in the first half of the movie, starting with the creepy opening on the movie within a movie. She’s not working with A-list actors here and this is another opportunity to wonder why the screechy Furlong was ever considered a commodity in Hollywood. As the movie devolves into its expected violent end it never brings any scares along with it – and that starts to get mighty frustrating because you want something more to be happening. I appreciated Lambert opted to include scenes with some sincerity in them, such as when McGuire is mourning the loss of his dog but then they are overshadowed with lame pseudo-terror sequences that feel imposed upon her by the studio. The ending is especially problematic and bombastic, feeling like it was made by another filmmaker entirely.

Not surprisingly, Pet Sematary Two failed to dig up the same kind of business its predecessor did and it’s largely because no one bothered to come up with something interesting for audiences. Instead of giving us just another story of death, burial, resurrection, and violence why not go back and show us a little more about its origin? I’m sure everyone made a nice buck off of their time spent on the project…but it effectively killed any chance of a third film or more. And this is one that could have, in my opinion, had a few more sequels up its rotting sleeve.