Movie Review ~ Book Club


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four lifelong friends have their lives forever changed after reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their monthly book club.

Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley Jr.

Director: Bill Holderman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There are some that would say a comedy featuring four multi-award winning actresses of a certain age humorously discovering that “the next chapter is always the best” would be a no-brainer. Turns out they were spot on…Book Club has no brains to speak of. Here’s an aggressively dull, pandering movie that manages to do a disservice to its distinguished actors and an intended audience already woefully underserved. With its tin ear for realistic dialogue and a baffling cluelessness to how humans behave, no clichéd stone is left unturned.

Friends since college, Vivian (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Home Again), Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood), and Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes) meet for their monthly book club in one of their pristine dwellings. Starting with Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and recently coming off of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, vampy Vivian introduces the ladies to E.L. James’ famous smut tome Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s the first red flag that pops up in the script from Erin Simms (Pete’s Dragon) and director Bill Holderman (A Walk in the Woods). As poorly written as it was, James’ book was a phenomenon and you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of it or seen the movies adapted from her trilogy of novels. Aside from Vivian, none of the ladies seems to know much about it and are shocked to discover its titillating scenes of bondage and explicit couplings.

All four ladies are, naturally, having trouble in the romance department and find that the book not so much ignites a newfound lust for life as it influences their choices. Hotelier and notoriously single Vivian runs into a long-lost paramour (Don Johnson, Django Unchained) who might have been the one that got away while federal judge Sharon, still bruised from her divorce, signs up for a dating service and winds up attracting the attention of Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Wallace Shawn (Admission). Carol is finding it difficult to connect with her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in and out of the bedroom and widowed Diane ventures into a new relationship with a swarthy pilot (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) while her children pressure her to move closer to them.

What laughs there are to be had (and trust me, there aren’t many) come, surprisingly, from Bergen who I’ve always found to be a little aloof in films. Here she seems to be having a ball as a high-strung intellectual embarrassed she has to resort to finding a date online. Sadly, the film doesn’t give her a full arc so by the time we’ve gotten into her rhythm with Dreyfuss he’s disappeared, never to be heard from again. There’s even less time spent with Shawn who pops up in for a well-timed cameo but doesn’t get much chance to make an impression.

For my money, far too much time is spent with Fonda’s storyline, which is the most ham-fisted of the bunch. Wearing an awful wig and decked out in one gaudy outfit after another, it’s not hard to see where things are headed for the woman who likes to sleep with men but doesn’t like to “sleep” with them after. Always an underrated commodity in film and television, Steenburgen has nice moments here and there and while her thread is likely the most relatable, by the time the film has her tap dancing to a Meat Loaf song at a talent show you can literally see her working hard to keep up with things.

Then there’s Keaton who, to me, seems like the most natural fit for this type of froth. Sadly, Holderman and Simms make her character such a doormat and allow her children (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to take her for granted far too long. (It’s also a mystery to me why there are two daughters when the film only needed one) Keaton coasts through much of the movie on fumes and only comes alive when there’s some physical comedy to execute, if only Holderman and Simms had given her character dimension of any kind.

What kind of message is the movie ultimately sending? A detriment to the film’s credibility is its stupefying lack of diversity. Taking place in present-day Los Angeles (and made on the cheap with a ton of questionable green screen and downright lousy Photoshop), there’s nary a person of color to be seen aside from a few random service workers. Purporting the myth of the white woman fantasy so grossly admired in Nancy Meyers movies with its affluent rich white ladies, Book Club feels completely out of touch and out of step with our society. Even worse, when you get right down to it, every woman in the film needs to be defined by the men they are with.  There’s something uncomfortable about watching that unfold before you.

Book Club is for easy readers only.

Movie Review ~ A Quiet Place

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family lives an isolated existence in utter silence, for fear of an unknown threat that follows and attacks at any sound.

Stars: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds

Director: John Krasinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: It would be a smart movie for theaters to support concession-free screenings of A Quiet Place because nothing will ruin this movie more than a noisy candy-wrapper or your neighbor munching on a tray of nachos. It would also save the clean up afterwards from people absent-mindedly spilling their popcorn in fright. Director John Krasinki’s slick, tension filled freak-out of a horror film makes for a monumentally entertaining movie-going experience and one that will, I think, hold-up on repeat viewings.

Set several years in the future, the world has been invaded by blind creatures that hunt by sound. Vicious and apt to strike without warning, they’ve decimated populations and driven the few survivors into hiding.   When A Quiet Place opens, we meet Evelyn (Emily Blunt, Edge of Tomorrow), Lee (Krasinski, Aloha), and their children as they venture into town in search of medication. Speaking in sign language and walking barefoot to avoid any unwanted noise, the family clearly knows the rules to abide by in order to avoid drawing attention to themselves from three monsters that roam the area.

Back on their farm, Lee and Evelyn try to keep a sense of normalcy amidst the terror. Son Marcus (Noah Jupe, Suburbicon) and daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds, Wonderstruck) play Monopoly with cotton balls and felt cutouts and are silently homeschooled by Evelyn while Lee continues to try to contact the outside world. They build a nightly bonfire on top of their silo and watch for other sequestered families to do the same, desperately trying to remain connected with those in similar situations.

Originally conceived as a totally dialogue free film, screenwriters Bryan Woods and Scott Beck team with Krasinski on a screenplay that is still light on dialogue but one that winds up saying a lot. There’s no backstory provided, save for brief glimpses of newspaper clippings and a white board filled with information on the creatures. Audiences are left to fill in the blanks and much credit should go to Kransiski for handling these large chunks of exposition in a decidedly un-fussy fashion.

At 90 minutes including credits, the film makes the most of its short running time by maximizing on sustained bursts of tension. This is one where you can’t help but find yourself white-knuckling your armrest (or your companion’s arm) as scene after scene ratchets up the fear level until it’s almost unbearable to watch. You’ll cringe at every creak in the floor, wince when you can see an unwanted noise on the horizon, and fight the urge to yelp when Krasinki introduces several well-timed jump scares.

Beautifully photographed by Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Far from the Madding Crowd) and scored with restrained flair by the usually bombastic Marco Beltrami (World War Z), Krasinski has assembled a talented group on both sides of the camera. Spouses in real life, Blunt and Krasinki have an easy chemistry that feels unforced, as does their nurturing relationships with their children. With several high profile roles in 2017, Jupe continues to impress and works well opposite the striking Simmonds who is actually deaf. The film benefits from Simmonds mesmerizing presence in every way, often switching to her perspective by having the sound completely removed.

Along with the scares, the movie has a few unexpected twists along the way that I wouldn’t dare reveal here. One happens fairly early on and others emerge naturally as the film goes for broke in its relentless final act. Though the creatures are the product of solid special effects, Krasinski keeps them largely out of full view until the conclusion. There’s a lot of work done in close quarters, further heightening the immediacy of the danger facing this family.

A worthy spree of scares, A Quiet Place may face some criticism for being too simple of a set-up and execution but I was bowled over by Krasinski’s efforts. Add to that a quartet of dynamite performances and more jolts than you’d imagine and you have a film that’s easy to recommend. Just make sure you keep a firm grip on your popcorn.

 

Movie Review ~ Annihilation

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Movie Review ~ Downsizing


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.

Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie that doesn’t have ideas to share.  It’s becoming more and more common to describe big budget action films or insipid comedies as brainless and for me that would just be the worst if I were a filmmaker.  I’m impressed with films that clearly have a point of view and, even if the movie itself isn’t all that special, at least they can go down saying they gave it some semblance of a good shot.

Such is the case with Downsizing, the new film from talented director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) who has co-written an interesting satire that doesn’t have far to go but takes a long time getting there.  It’s not lacking in good performances, dedicated direction, or superior production design but what’s it’s really missing out on is a consistent playfulness that highlight its most memorable sequences.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, Promised Land) is an occupational therapist working for Omaha Steaks in the not too distant future.  Living with his wife (Kristin Wiig, The Martian) in their modest home they make ends meet but aren’t really going anywhere either of them have much vested interest in. They are, like so many of us, just coasting through life and waiting for the next shoe to drop.  Attending a reunion, they reconnect with Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis, We’re the Millers) and his wife who have undergone a drastic medical procedure introduced as a way to reduce the global overpopulation and pollution concerns.

Through a process known as Downsizing, humans are being shrunk to five inches and living in communities around the world that are tailor-made to their new sizes.  In places like Leisureland, your life savings that once wouldn’t have covered more than a nice trip to Europe can now buy you a mansion, allowing you to live the life of luxury while eliminating the continued build-up of environmental effluence.  This irreversible process has been slow to catch on globally but those that go through it speak of its life changing benefits.

Energized by the possibility of a better life “going small”, the Safranek’s commit to becoming shrinky dinks and that’s when two things happen.  The first thing that takes place is a shift in the Safranek’s relationship neither of them saw coming, the second is that the movie almost instantly becomes less interesting.  That’s troubling because at this stage in the film we’re only about 1/3 of the way through and so it begins a slow march to the finish line…a very slow march.

It’s not all bad news, though, because there are some bright spots that pop up here and there.  Though he has a penchant for playing the same role over and over again, here two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is having a ball not playing the villian.  As Dusan, a playboy neighbor that befriends Paul, he feels at home with Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s dialogue…proving he doesn’t need a Tarantino script or lip-smacking guile to turn in a memorable performance.

Even with heavy hitters Damon and Waltz present and accounted for, the film belongs to break-out star Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who was put in prison for her political activism and downsized against her will.  A Waltz’s house-cleaner, Tran is no-nonsense and to the point, something that captivates Paul.  Finding himself in her debt, a relationship forms between the two that is both surprising and surprisingly sincere.  This connection carries the movie through the final act when Paul, Dusan, and Tran travel to the original downsized colony in advance of an announcement that will change all their lives forever.

There’s good stuff in nearly every frame of the movie and while I enjoyed the film for the most part during my initial viewing, the more I sit and dissect what it’s saying the less enamored of it I become.  Up for debate is the political correctness present in Chau’s portrayal of Tran but while some have called foul I’ve heard the actress talk about her approach and she stands behind her work.  As far as I’m concerned, if she’s OK with it, the discussion is finished.  More of a pain point for me is that the movie just isn’t as interesting as it wants us to believe it is.

The middle sections sags and drags and it’s thanks to Chau’s spirited performance that the movie recovers at all.  Payne isn’t afraid to shine a light on behavior or situations he finds eccentric, I just wish he had found a few more noteworthy turns to take on the odd-ball road trip he sets into motion.  Clocking in well over two hours, Downsizing should have reduced its running time along with its main characters.

Down From the Shelf ~ Planes, Trains and Automobiles

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

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 ~ Suburbicon


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A home invasion rattles a quiet family town.

Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: You should thank your lucky stars that the trailer for Suburbicon was so terrible. When I first watched it and reviewed it, I was unsure if I’d even be interested in seeing what should have been a slam-dunk from a bunch of talented A-Listers in front of and behind the camera. Though I often turn my nose up at the thought of seeing a movie with a lousy trailer, there’s really no way I was going to miss one directed by George Clooney, co-written by the Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!), and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.

So…into the screening I went with low expectations and a general puzzlement as to what was in store. Thankfully, here’s a rare example of a good movie with a stinker trailer…as we all know it’s usually the other way around. While Suburbicon definitely has its drawbacks, this dark comedy is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent memory that feels like it has a brainwave and not just a faint pulse.

Opening with an ad for the community living offered by the Suburbicon development, audiences will be quick to spot something missing. There are ads boasting the quality of the house of the future, the robed choir, the supermarket, and the shopping mall. Pictures of families with gleaming white grins from all over the country that have flocked to the suburbs are on display. The one thing we don’t see? Minorities. This point is driven home in one of the first scenes that show the neighborhood aghast when a black family moves in and that’s when all kinds of heck breaks loose.

Well, actually that’s what is happening in one part of the neighborhood. The new family shares a backyard with the Lodges and they’re really the main focus of the movie. While the concerned citizens of Suburbicon rally themselves into a frenzy to try to oust the peaceful newcomers in increasingly violent protests, they aren’t privy to the deadly dealings developing in the Lodge house. Husband Gardner (Damon, Promised Land), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Moore, Wonderstruck), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and Rose’s twin sister Maggie (also Moore, Still Alice) are terrorized one night by two men Gardner seems to know. In true Coen fashion, there’s a dark secret beneath this evening meeting that sets into motion sundry dealings that will impact each member of the Lodge family. Saying more might reveal more of the tricky workings of Suburbicon’s third act so let’s just say when a curious insurance agent (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) starts poking around, it spells trouble for Gardner and company that can only be solved by copious bloodshed.

Where this movie feels so strong is in the fact that everyone involved with Suburbicon seems to understand what movie they’re in. Not only is this evident in the period setting (with its Formica tabletops, gingham aprons, and rolled dungarees) but in the way that deception and anger were allowed to boil just beneath the surface. Never belying the cheerful façade painstakingly put on by the men that went to work, the women that stayed home, and the kids that wanted to grow up to be just like their parents, Clooney (Tomorrowland) and his actors play it largely straight and let the material do the work for them.

That’s also where the movie shows a bit of weakness. Trusting the material this implicitly leads some actors astray and not everyone is successful in their time-warp back to Suburbicon. Damon feels like he’s coasting here, probably because he’s played this type of flawed family man a few times already. Moore definitely knows her way around a period costume and plastered on smile and manages to make both her characters distinct without drawing them too broadly different…they are twins after all. Jupe is a real find and often steals the movie right out from under his co-stars that have already been showered with awards for their previous work. If there’s one person that gets it note perfect it’s Isaac as a complex investigator who susses out something is up in the Lodge house. As usual, Clooney fills out the supporting players with a wacky variety of kooks of all shapes and sizes.

I went into Suburbicon thinking that it would drown in Clooney’s apathy toward this “simpler time” but he doesn’t treat anything with a wistful eye. The story being told here just happens to be set in the ‘50s but there’s nothing saying it couldn’t easily have taken place in present day and been able to suggest the same inequalities in society. Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov worked on the script with the Coens so it’s easy to see where one group started, and one group stopped. While the Coens love a good shot of cynicism, leave it to Clooney to inject some emotional honesty right alongside it.

31 Days to Scare ~ Night School

The Facts:

Synopsis: Who’s been decapitating the innocent girls at a local night school? The police are baffled.

Stars: Rachel Ward, Leonard Mann, Drew Snyder, Joseph R. Sicari, Nicholas Cairis, Karen MacDonald

Director: Kenneth Hughes

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  Some movies are forgotten for a reason.  I’d never seen Night School until recently and any hopes of discovering a new diamond in the rough were squelched early on. Though released in the first wave of slice and dice slasher films that appeared after the success of Halloween and Friday the 13th, Night School just doesn’t make the grade when compared to other flicks of that era.  Moreover, fans who have hailed it for being one of the first female-centric slasher films seem to be willing to ignore that the violence (and general attitude) towards its female characters is terribly lurid.

First-time (and thankfully last-time) screenwriter Ruth Avergon’s script revolves around a leather clad killer chopping the heads off women attending, you guessed it, night school in Boston’s inner-city.  While the stalk and kill scenes have a certain style to them, it’s the tripe that takes place between the kills that drags this movie down to the depths.  Avergon’s characters are one dimensional and attempts to flesh them out fail miserably in the hands of actors without the chops to get the job done.  In her first role, Rachel Ward (The Thorn Birds) walks and talks likes she’s a bit drunk while straight-laced detective Leonard Mann emotes as if his life depends on it.  As a bed-hopping professor, Drew Snyder revels in the fact he’s been cast as catnip to women when his performance is more like garlic to a vampire.  The identity of the killer is easy to spot pretty early on and the red herring finale is pretty flimsy.

88 minutes feels like an eternity when you have pacing problems and that blame falls to director Kenneth Hughes.  I guess it’s hard to expect the director of the spoof version of Casino Royale and the family film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to have much alacrity with the horror genre.  This was not only Hughes one foray into horror but his last film ever…maybe the large drubbing this film received upon its release in 1981 played a part in that?

Horror fans can see that Night School wants to emulate the Giallo style of filmmaking popularized in Europe in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  While it goes through a Giallo checklist in rote fashion, it misses the boat on pairing that style with atmosphere as well.  There’s no shock here, no sense of danger.  All it is is a deranged killer preying on female victims that don’t do much but throw up their hands in defense and cry when being attacked.  It’s an overall icky film and one you can easily avoid.  Released in 1981 along with lasting classics like The Howling, Wolfen, An American Werewolf in London, Halloween II, and Happy Birthday to Me, this one is bottom-feeding material.

31 Days to Scare ~ Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter

The Facts:

Synopsis: After being mortally wounded and taken to the morgue, murderer Jason Voorhees spontaneously revives and embarks on a killing spree as he makes his way back to his home at Camp Crystal Lake.

Stars: Corey Feldman, Crispin Glover, Lawrence Monoson, E. Erich Anderson,  Judi Aronson, Joan Freeman, Barbara Howard, Clyde Hayes, Camilla More, Carey More, Ted White, Lisa Freeman, Kimberly Beck, Peter Barton

Director: Joseph Zito

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: It’s laughable now to think that upon its release in April of 1984 this was actually intended to be the swan song for masked maniac Jason Voorhees. I mean, the old guy still had six sequels, a spin-off with Freddy Krueger, and a remake yet to go before hanging up his machete…for now, at least. Remember, this was an era when multiple sequels were all but unheard of so for the Friday the 13th series to survive up until the fourth chapter was a bit of a miracle. Remarkably, instead of immediately seeing years into the future and the possible profits to be made, the producers made the conscious decision to close up shop and give the audience the finale they were owed.

After Friday the 13th became such an unexpected hit and spawned a quickie sequel followed by an otherwise lame-o 3D threequel, there didn’t seem to be much more to do with the story of a deformed killer offing nubile teens that are unlucky enough to enter his woods. So to tie up the loose ends, Joseph Zito was brought in as a new director and original make-up maestro Tom Savini was enlisted to make the film’s kills and their aftermath extra ooey and gooey. Zito had already directed the similarly themed The Prowler (check that one out, it’s a cult favorite) so he knew his way around the stalk and slash genre. Often called the father of Jason, Savini brought his superlative A-game to the screen, making some realistic effects jump off the screen with bloody delight.

Picking up right after the events of Friday the 13th Part 3, The Final Chapter takes its time in setting its star loose. First he’s brought to the morgue where he doesn’t stay on the slab for long and then he cuts his way back to his beloved Crystal Lake. Standing in his way is a house full of partying teens (including a young Crispin Glover and former Double Mint twins Camilla and Carey More) and a mother with two children, once of which will play a part in several of the sequels. It’s never explained why he targets this group, there’s no reference to the Camp Crystal Lake Jason called home nor do any of the characters have any relation to previous installments.

At 91 minutes, there’s not much time for character development and what little there is revolves around which guy is hornier and which girl is easiest. It has a relatively reserved pacing in the first act that gives way to multiple vignettes where victims find themselves alone and horrifically killed by the hockey-masked hellion. Though the movie was significantly cut to avoid an X rating, Savini leaves little to the imagination, culminating in a finale that ups the ante for gross out gore. Fans of the series that had been waiting for Jason to get his due must have gotten a total thrill out of seeing him hacked and whacked.

Previous entries of the franchise came off as retreads of the original or copies of other famous horror films but The Final Chapter felt like it strove to be better than the rest. With its effort to, ahem, flesh out its characters and take its time getting to the good stuff, there’s a reason why this one is held in high regard by fans. The success of this one at the box office meant there was an much reviled fifth installment greenlit and released barely a year after The Final Chapter but the series would get back into a fun groove with Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI before careening downward fast again. Anytime I’m doing a Friday the 13th marathon I’ll watch the first four and, depending on my mood, throw on the sixth one for fun. Also a positive thing about The Final Chapter is that if you’ve never seen any previous film you could watch this without being too lost.

31 Days to Scare ~ Annihilation (Teaser Trailer)

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Release Date:  February 23, 2018

Thoughts:  Here’s another interesting project to look forward to in 2018.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman  (Jackie) stars in this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, the first in a trilogy.  Portman has had some high highs and low lows in the years since she won her Oscar for Black Swan but add director Alex Garlad (Ex Machina) in the mix and I’m officially intrigued to see how this one plays out.  Paramount seems to have thrown a bunch of money at Garland, though in the past he’s been known to do a whole lot with very little.  This first look at Annihilation is a nice teaser trailer that hints at some of the horrors that await Portman and her crew sent to investigate an abandoned zone disconnected from civilization known as Area X.  Co-starring Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tessa Thompson (Creed), and Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon), all eyes will be on this one to see if VanderMeer’s two other novels will get a similar Hollywood shine.

Movie Review ~ mother!


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Harris, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: R

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I truly wanted to like mother!…I did.  In the weeks leading up to the screening I literally counted the days until it arrived, and if I’m honest it was more for the chance to see Michelle Pfeiffer up on the big screen again.  Still…maybe I set a bar so high that no final product that Darren Aronofsky (Noah) could have delivered would have made the grade.  Then again, the movie winds up being so vile, so grossly arrogant, and with its head so far up its own backside that it’s hard to believe anyone could leave a showing of mother! better off than when they arrived.

No sooner do the lights go down than the image of a woman bathed in flames appears.  A single tear rolls down her cheek and by the end we’ll want to cry too as Aronofsky lays everything on thick for Act 1 of this nightmare.  Not much can be revealed about mother! without leaking several key twists but if you’ve seen the trailer for the movie you’ll get a pretty good taste for what the first half of the movie has to offer.

A young woman (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy) is fixing up her older husband’s childhood home years after it was gutted by a fire.  Without asking her, the husband (Javier Bardem, Skyfall), a famous poet with writers block, welcomes a stranger (Ed Harris, The Abyss) and his wife (Pfeiffer, Dark Shadows) into their house and that opens the door for a bevy of visitors with their own inexplicable agendas.  Even before Harris arrives, the relationship between Lawrence and Bardem is so awkward you’re already curious what kind of power he has over her.  She allows him to make all the decisions, rarely challenges him, and barely raises an eyebrow when he doesn’t seem to notice that the visitors are odd with a capital O.

For a while, mother! hums along with a decent amount of atmosphere and head scratching developments that Aronofsky somehow manages to stay one step ahead of.  Lawrence plays the role with such wide-eyed growing dread that I half wonder if she was fed her scenes one at a time and didn’t know where it was all heading.  Bardem sure seems to know, though, and he starts to gnaw on the scenery in no time flat which puts him in a plum position as the film reaches its zenith about 75 minutes in.  From there it quickly descends into a delirious mess and while it gets advanced brownie points for its boldness it loses them in the same breath for going to such an abysmally rank place in its finale.  I was a bit appalled to tell you the truth, not so much for one seriously gory stomach churning curveball but for extended scenes of violence toward Lawrence that just felt so wrong.

Aronofksy and Lawrence are a well-publicized power couple in Hollywood and if this is the kind of movie Aronofsky writes and directs for someone he loves, I can’t even imagine what he’d do for someone he can’t stand.  A snuff film, maybe?  His previous works are just as divisive as mother! is sure to be but, save for Requiem for a Dream which even he couldn’t top for sheer Grand Guignol chutzpah, at the end of the day the final message he’s delivering doesn’t seem wholly original or meaningful.  In past movies, he’s tackled drug abuse, man’s inhumanity to man, and paralyzing ambition…here he’s trying to speak to everyone on the planet and the reach is too much.

Like Natalie Portman in Aronofksy’s brilliant Black Swan, Lawrence is in nearly every frame of the movie and she’s well cast in a terrible role.  Why she doesn’t just pack her bag and head out the door each time her husband does something looney tunes is maybe the biggest mystery of the entire film.  When she does decide to head for the hills, she’s pregnant and her house is being invaded by hordes of people (including Kristin Wiig, The Martian, who pops up in the briefest and strangest of cameos billed as ‘the herald’) who are there for her husband.

You’ll be surprised to find out just how little Harris and Pfeiffer are in the movie…and more’s the pity because what the final half of the movie needed is the spark Pfeiffer brings to each of her scenes that are front-loaded into the first hour of the film.  Always a favorite of mine, Pfeiffer is gleefully loosey-goosey as a gin-soaked annoyance who pushes Lawrence’s buttons with delight.  She’s rarely been this relaxed in the last decade of her career and while it isn’t the Oscar-winning performance the studio is gunning for, she’s the best thing about the movie by a longshot.

With dizzying camerawork by Iron Man’s Matthew Libatique (seriously, bring a barf bag) and a purposefully irritating sound design, the technical elements are sharp as a tack in true Aronofsky style.  The sound is so specific by making sure you hear each floorboard creak and droplet of water falling in a copper sink that there are times when I swear you can hear the actors blink.  A little of that goes a long way and by the finale when all hell is breaking loose (literally) it becomes an overwhelming cacophony of visuals and sound that you’ll be desperate to break free of.

While I just can’t bring myself in good faith to endorse this one, if anything, mother! will be a fun movie to dissect over drinks after…but take my advice and steer clear of food before, during, and after.  While there was potential for something interesting to take shape with the strong elements Aronofsky has assembled, at the end of it all I just wanted my mother…to give the director a good whack upside the head.