Movie Review ~ Rocketman


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.

Down From the Shelf ~ Pet Sematary (1989)

The Facts:

Synopsis: For most families, moving is a new beginning. But for the Creeds, it could be the beginning of the end.

Stars: Dale Midkiff, Denise Crosby, Fred Gwynne, Miko Hughes, Blaze Berdahl, Brad Greenquist

Director: Mary Lambert

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Pet Sematary was released to theaters in April of 1989, Hollywood had already worked its way through many of Stephen King’s earliest works. Carrie, Cujo, Christine, The Shining…these and more had found their way to the big screen and the attention was now turning to his more obscure works as well as the new novels he was continuing to publish. Largely, the results weren’t that impressive, resulting in some clunkers and a few passable entries in the anthology horror genre before a welcome detour into nostalgic drama with the now-classic Stand by Me.

So going into opening weekend Pet Sematary wasn’t exactly a license to print money like some King adaptations would be several years after this one made nearly sixty million dollars at the box office. Yet the reason why Pet Sematary stands above many of the films that came before it and after (with a few notable exceptions) can be attributed to several factors. Unlike other novels that got the silver screen treatment, the source material was strong, the script from King himself was much more focused than anything the author had turned in before, and the direction from Mary Lambert was skilled at turning even the most benign situations into the stuff of nightmares.

Moving from the big city of Chicago to the small town life in Ludlow, Maine, the Creed family is ready for a change. Louis (Dale Midkiff) is the new doctor at a local college while his wife Rachel (Denise Crosby, Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary) sets up home with their two young children (Blake Berdahl and Miko Hughes, Kindergarten Cop). Aside from being directly next to a busy road that sees semis frequently speeding past, it’s a welcome change of pace. They even have a friendly neighbor named Jud (Fred Gwynne) who has lived in the same house long enough to fill them in on all the town gossip…including what’s at the end of the path behind the Creed’s house.

That’s where the pet sematary is…where the children of the town bury their dearly departed animals that either died of old age or met an untimely end thanks to the dangerous road right outside the Creed’s front door. Filled with headstones and gravemarkers that date back almost a century, there’s plenty to see here…but there’s also a place beyond the standard burial ground that holds a darker secret and it’s where Louis Creed will innocently cross a line that will lead to deadly consequences for his family.

King has gone on record saying his 1983 book is the only one that truly scared him when he was writing it and there’s something to the simplicity of the set-up that makes you understand why. What King is detailing in the events of the movie are all of our wishes to bring our loved ones (human and animal) back but not understanding that often, dead is better. King also turns the tables on those that feel a sense of relief when the sickly do die…showing that they are haunted by memories long after the other person has been buried.

Director Lambert has a rock and roll vibe to her movies but also perfectly captures the small town feel the movie requires. Largely taking place inside and around the Creed house, it’s a contained picture with only a few players and keeping it small makes the shocks more effective. It also shows some of the limitations to the actors with people like Crosby and especially Berdahl coming off as weak counterpoints to Midkiff and Hughes (who, at 3 gives a remarkable performance). Still, it’s Gwynne who walks away with the film with his Maine accent delivered in his basso profoundo voice. I also liked Brad Greenquist (Annabelle: Creation) as a mostly benign (if ghastly) ghost trying to guide the Creed family away from the evil they can’t seem to avoid.

With a remake of Pet Sematary on the horizon, it’s nice to look back and remember how solid this first pass at King’s tale of terror is. Admittedly, it starts to get a bit histrionic in the last half hour with the dial being turned up on everything from Elliot Goldenthal’s music to Midkiff’s performance but when it plays it cool it’s highly effective.

For an in-depth look at the making of Pet Sematary, check out Unearthed & Untold: The Path to Pet Sematary.  It’s available on Amazon Prime!

The Silver Bullet ~ Rocketman

Synopsis: A musical fantasy about the uncensored human story of Elton John’s breakthrough years.

Release Date: May 31, 2019

Thoughts: If the phenomenal (and, in my mind, baffling) success of 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody taught us anything, it’s that audiences still have a soft spot for music biopics…even if Oscar voters didn’t feel similar to the far better achievements of the musical fable of A Star is Born.  Anyway, that sore spot aside, the first trailer for Elton John’s lifestory Rocketman is out and it already looks like the type of glitzy glam spectacle Bohemian Rhapsody failed to deliver fully on.  I’m hearing the film is a more fantastical take on the material like Across the Universe and you can see hints of that in the preview.  Plus it benefits from star Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service) actually singing in the lead role (take that, Rami Malek!) and evidently impressing Elton himself who has come out in praise of the rising star.  Directed by Dexter Fletcher who, strangely, was brought in to finish Bohemian Rhapsody when its original director was fired, I’m hoping audiences will give John the same kind of love they gave Queen.

Movie Review ~ What Men Want

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman is boxed out by the male sports agents in her profession, but gains an unexpected edge over them when she develops the ability to hear men’s thoughts.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Josh Brener, Aldis Hodge, Tamala Jones, Tracy Morgan, Shane Paul McGhie, Erykah Badu, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Max Greenfield

Director: Adam Shankman

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Now that Hollywood seems to be ushering in a full reboot/remake renaissance, they’ve taken it a step further and tried their hand at gender-bending these properties. We’ve already seen the disappointing results of the flips of 2016’s Ghostbusters and 2018’s Overboard but then again Ocean’s Eight last year was a cool treat in early summer. With gender swapped remakes of Splash, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, and even The Rocketeer (!!) either in production or in development, it’s nice to see filmmakers thinking outside of the box and beyond gender because when it works it can be fun. So while What Men Want isn’t the most wholly original or even the most well-constructed comedy you’ll see this year, it’s still an unusually entertaining piece that finds the funny in some unique places.

Updating the 2000 rom-com What Women Want from a male-led piece about a chauvinist that sees the error of his ways when he starts to hear the thoughts of women actually makes a lot of sense. There’s ample room for comedy in making the lead a female sports agent who can hear what men are thinking and using it to her advantage as she subverts a boys club that continues to keep her from a promotion she deserves. The three credited screenwriters jettisoned the majority of the material from the original film, keeping only the basic concept of one person being privy to the inner thoughts of the opposite sex.

Hotshot agent Ali (Taraji P. Henson, Ralph Breaks the Internet) is at the top of her game in the all-male sports agency she works for. Though she has signed a stable of highly decorated athletes, she hasn’t yet broken into the big leagues and, according to her boss, that’s what’s kept her from being promoted to partner. When she’s passed over yet again for the recognition she deserves, she puts everyone on notice that she’ll be the one to sign the firm’s most desired client: the hottest basketball star (Shane Paul McGhie) who comes with a difficult-to-please father (Tracy Morgan, The Boxtrolls).  Attending a bachelorette party that same night, she gets her tarot cards read by a psychic (Erykah Badu) who recognizes that she needs some help at work. Drinking a suspicious tea prepared by the psychic before going out for a night of partying, Ali gets too much into the spirit of the dance and hits her head, only to awake with a new gift/curse of being able to hear what men are thinking. As expected, much of the private thoughts reveal men to be disgusting pigs but they also show them to be just as self-deprecating, vulnerable, and sensitive as their female counterparts. At first, Ali wants to rid herself of this newfound power but after visiting the psychic again she realizes she can parlay this gift into getting the upper hand on the men in her life that have held her back.

At nearly two hours, What Men Want wants a better editor as the film is a good 20 minutes too long. Director Adam Shankman (Rock of Ages) can’t seem to shore up the action to give the film a satisfactory rhythm so the movie becomes funny only in first and spurts. The time in between the laughs can be rough going, rarely fully redeemed by the comedy no matter how strong it may be.   It seems to me there’s large gaps in the movie from scenes that either were removed or never written because there are threads that are left dangling or huge leaps of faith audience members need to take without much explanation.

It’s lucky, then, that the film has Henson in the driver’s seat at she’s a genuinely strong comedian that balances good comic timing with believably dramatic sincerity. She’s appropriately freaked out when the voices start to come on loud and strong and manages to sell a shoddy sequence near the end where she spills some very private secrets in a very public setting. There’s a side plot featuring a romance between her and a widowed dad (Aldis Hodge, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back) that doesn’t quite work, mostly because it doesn’t generate any laughs and we are, after all, in a comedy.  I also appreciated that there’s a bit more holding Ali back than her gender or her race, the suggestion is that she doesn’t relate well to men and that seems to be confirmed by everyone in her life at one point during the film.  While the movie ultimately misses out on the opportunity to explore this opportunity for personal growth to the fullest, it’s an interesting piece to introduce, if not fully explore.

The movie has a secret weapon, though, and it’s Badu’s downright spectacular work as the kooky psychic. She’s a ninja in the art of scene stealing and don’t be surprised if you find yourself wondering where her character is when the movie starts to slow down as it approaches the 90 minute mark. Thankfully, she pops up again in the credits so make sure to stay and catch her act. As Ali’s long-suffering assistant, Josh Brener (The Internship) is fine in a stereotypical role the screenwriters try to be creative with but I wish he had better chemistry with Henson because they never seem to truly enjoy one another. Though Morgan is bewilderingly billed above the title with Henson and shares equal position on the poster, he’s barely in the movie.

What Women Want was already remade in 2011 in China but this is the first true re-imagining of the movie and, for the most part, it works. Would the film have been better if a little more attention had been paid to the script to fill in some plot holes and excised a bit more of the romance subplot? Sure. Would I have liked to see more of dependable character actress Wendi McLendon-Covey (Blended)? Of course. Does the film work in spite of all its ungainly faults as a rainy day harm-free matinee? Absolutely.

Movie Review ~ Bumblebee

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junkyard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns this is no ordinary, yellow VW bug.

Stars: Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Pamela Adlon, Kenneth Choi, John Ortiz, Angela Bassett,

Director: Travis Knight

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: By the time director Michael Bay spewed forth Transformers: Age of Extinction in 2014 I wasn’t even paying attention anymore.  At that point the series had long since blended together into one long headache of an action sequence, barely indistinguishable from one movie to the next.  I do remember, however, falling asleep during Transformers: The Last Knight in 2017 for an extended period of time and waking up having no clue where I was or what was happening…occupational hazard.  After five (FIVE!) increasingly bombastic films that made a lot of money but never received great reviews, this spin-off was announced and I’d honestly been dreading it ever since.  Though Bay (Pain & Gain) wouldn’t be in the director’s chair he’d still be producing the prequel and I just figured it would be more of the same sturm und drang nonsense.

Turns out, a fresh perspective is just what the doctor ordered to zap some heart and soul into an emotionally defunct franchise. The lovably retro Bumblebee is not just a solidly pleasing action film that succeeds on its stand-alone own merits but it’s the best Transformers movie released to date.  By relegating Bay and his tendency to overstuff to the sidelines, there’s more air for everyone else to breathe and the result is a thrill ride that knows when to lay off the gas and when to floor it.

While escaping from the evil Decepticons that have overtaken the planet Cybertron, young Autobot B-127 is sent by his leader Optimus Prime to Earth to get things ready for the other Autobots to follow.  B-127 crash lands in 1987 southern California, right in the middle of a routine training operation led by Jack Burns (John Cena, Sisters) who heads a secret government organization.  Quickly targeted by Burns and his crew as a threat to Earth’s safety, he escapes but is severely wounded in the process.  Using the last of his dwindling power supply, B-127 transforms into the last thing he sees…a yellow Volkswagen beetle.

This opening sequence is fairly breathless in pace and it’s at this point that director Travis Knight (ParaNorman) allows the audience a chance to take it easy while he introduces us to Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), a typical teen working a summer job at a local amusement park.  Her mom (Pamela Adlon, Grease 2) doesn’t understand her, the boy she maybe likes doesn’t know she’s alive, and all the time not spent at work is dedicated to finishing up repairing a car she was working on with her late father.  Exploring the local junk yard she comes across a few of the parts she needs as well as a strange yellow Volkswagen beetle that seems to be a perfect fit for her.  When the bug becomes hers and its secrets revealed, it will put Charlie and her family in danger as B-127 (renamed Bumblebee) unknowingly sends out a signal that attracts the attention of two evil Decepticons that have been hot on his trail.

Screenwriter Christina Hodson doesn’t set out to reinvent the wheel with the film, it’s still very much in the Transformers universe and to me all the talk about Decepticons, Autobots, Optimus Prime, and a host of other robot adjacent vernacular went in one ear and out the other.  It was the personal moments between the tech talk that struck me as something more interesting, more special than anything previously seen in these movies.  More time is spent on character development without ever skimping on action or flawless CGI, proving that you can have your AllSpark cake and savor eating it too.

The weakest parts are actually anytime it starts to take itself too seriously, namely whenever Cena’s wooden Burns is leading the charge to take Bumblebee down.  Unwittingly helping the two rogue Decepticons Shatter (given a sinewy evil voice by Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and Dropkick (voiced by Justin Theroux, Wanderlust), Burns is one of those middling villains that’s neither good nor bad but serves his purpose to bring the two main foes together and then just sort of fades into the background.  It doesn’t help that Cena’s early promise of charm as an actor is fading fast, showing that he’s more Andre the Giant than The Rock.

Helping the film immeasurably is Steinfeld as our leading lady.  As she’s done in nearly everything she’s been involved with, Steinfeld elevates the material to another level and imbibes the character with a little something extra that makes her relatable to almost any audience member.  You didn’t have to be an angsty teenage girl growing up without a dad in the ‘80s to root for her character completely.  I also appreciated that while a potential love interest (Jorge Lendeborg Jr., Love Simon) was introduced and could definitely have been explored further, Hodson decided that wasn’t the focus of the story being told here and saved that for another time and place.

Thankfully, there aren’t endless winks and nods to the other sequels, allowing Bumblebee to very much stand on its own. Most of these types of prequels feel like they only exist to capitalize on the name recognition of an already established popular franchise and there’s little doubt that’s what Bumblebee is counting on to at least get people in the door.  It’s when those audience members get a look at the clever way the filmmakers have drawn a line between this film and the Transformers movies that have already come before that they’ll really be impressed.

 

Movie Review ~ Overlord

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: On the eve of D-Day, a group of American paratroopers are dropped behind enemy lines to carry out a mission crucial to the invasion’s success. But as they approach their target, they begin to realize there is more going on in this Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation.

Stars: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Jacob Anderson, Dominic Applewhite, Pilou Asbaek, Iain De Caestecker, John Magaro, Mathilde Ollivier, Bokeem Woodbine

Director: Julius Avery

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I’m old.  Or, at least, I felt old at the 10pm screening I attended near a local college campus for Overlord.  The audience was largely college students in their pajamas (or whatever constitutes proper sleeping attire nowadays) and the conversations were about everything from the mid-term election the next day to what their actual mid-terms were going to be about.  Driving across town from another screening I was exhausted and not sure why I was subjecting myself to such a late night showing.  Mostly I was just praying I wouldn’t fall asleep and have the screening rep catch me with eyes closed.

I shouldn’t have been worried because Overlord comes out so guns a-blazing that it would be next to impossible to snooze through this highly effective hybrid of war movie and B-horror flick.  Deliberately disorienting when it intends to be and purposefully focused when it needs our attention, the movie is a neat surprise.  With all the mystery surrounding the production of the film I wasn’t sure quite what to expect going in, yet it kept me engaged and on the edge of my seat throughout.

It’s 1944 and a regiment of soldiers are being deployed into a hornet’s nest in Nazi-occupied France.  Among the gang are the mild-mannered Boyce (Jovan Adepo, mother!), the hot-headed Tibbet (John Magaro, The Big Short), photographer Chase (Iain De Caestecker, Lost River) and the newly transferred Ford (Wyatt Russell, Everybody Wants Some!).  No sooner do they parachute behind enemy lines on a mission to take out a radio tower on top of a church then they come across Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who brings them into her village crawling with Nazis.  This is no ordinary village, though, and the soldiers will soon find out why the population keeps dwindling.

To say more about what happens over the course of one nightmarish evening for Boyce and his fellow brothers in arms would be to spoil the fun screenwriters Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) have cooked up.  I will say it involves disturbing Nazi experiments and the creation of a serum with a powerful impact on anyone injected with it…living or dead.  Especially the dead.  As the night wanes on and the men try to complete their mission that will help the entire armed forces, they must also outwit a Nazi madman (Pilou Asbaek, Lucy) and not wind up the next specimen for the bizarre trials being conducted in the cavernous underground basement of the church.

Director Julius Avery starts things off with a bang, in a sequence that made me recall fondly Steven Speilberg’s opening to Saving Private Ryan.  Now I wouldn’t dare to compare the two as equals but there are a lot of parallels on how both films open in absolute chaos before settling in and settling down.  The sound level in my theater was cranked up and at times I thought the roof was going to blow off the joint.  Avery deftly movies between these action sequences and smaller character driven moments between Boyce and Chloe.  Taking the time to give us these insights helps us relate to them more…we get invested pretty quickly in each person we meet which winds up raising the stakes in our rooting for their survival.

Leading the cast is Adepo in a strong performance as a solider that has his eyes opened to the horrors of war.  Starting off as (literally) not being able to kill a mouse, he gets his sea legs quickly when faced with the nastiness that he finds in the village.  I also quite liked Russell as his commanding officer who has already seen enough atrocities to last a lifetime and isn’t as easily spooked as his direct report.  He’s gruff and tough but not without common sense.  Ollivier is more than a token female and gets her share of time to stand up for herself and younger brother.  It’s a strikingly well cast movie, from minor roles that are briefly onscreen all the way up to Asbaek’s increasingly unhinged main villain.

In this time of tentpole films and franchise starters, I also liked that Overlord felt like a self-contained movie.  It’s not out to create a series (though it easily could) and doesn’t need to cheapen a fine wrap up by ending with a “that’s not all folks” stinger.  There’s no post-credit scene so what you sign up for is what you get – anything more than that can all be worked out later.  I get the feeling this is a one and done endeavor and that’s totally fine with me.  It’s a strong film with a few good scares that hits all the right notes and would easily be something I’d watch again with friends.

31 Days to Scare ~ Thinner (1996) 

The Facts:

Synopsis: An obese attorney is cursed by a gypsy to rapidly and uncontrollably lose weight.

Stars: Robert John Burke, Joe Mantegna, Lucinda Jenney, Michael Constantine, Kari Wuhrer, Stephen King, Walter Bobbie

Director: Tom Holland

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Starting with the release and huge success of Carrie in 1976, author Stephen King has enjoyed seeing the profits for numerous adaptations of his work come his way.  Studios began scrambling to buy the rights to his work and bring his tales of terror to life which is how we’ve come to have solid titles like The Shining, Christine, Cujo, Firestarter, The Dead Zone, and Misery in our libraries.  To talk about the good adaptions, you must also talk about the bad and King’s work has produced far more duds than hits…such is the case with Thinner from 1996.

Originally published under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman, Thinner hit bookshelves in 1984 and when it was discovered the King was Bachman isn’t wasn’t long before a studio attached themselves to the grim morality tale.  Condensing the 300+ page novel to 90 minute movie, director and co-screenwriter Tom Holland (who also wrote Psycho II and directed Fright Night) removed the, uh, fat from King’s tome and produced a slick but slack horror thriller that is passable entertainment but feels like everything about it was second-hand.

When overweight attorney Billy Halleck (Robert John Burke) accidentally runs over and kills an old gypsy woman and then gets off scott free, he incurs the wrath of a gypsy king (Michael Constantine, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2) who puts a curse and him and others that covered up the crime.  Each person cursed has their own personal hell to endure and Billy’s is that no matter how much he eat,s he continues to lose weight at a rapid pace.  At first, that’s good news for the man that has tried for years to shed pounds and his beleaguered wife (Lucinda Jenney, Matinee) who has kept him on a strict diet.  When the weight loss begins to accelerate, and his friends start dying in horrible ways, Billy must track down the gypsy clan to get the curse reversed.

Arguably, there’s a nice concept at the heart of Thinner and had this been given a bit more money and prestige I’d imagine it could have been a sleeper hit.  The problem is that Holland never quite figures out is how to make his characters (any of them) the least bit sympathetic so we have someone to be invested in.  There’re literally no “good” people to be found, everyone has an ulterior motive to their actions or spits their lines out with such overstimulated venom you have a hard time feeling sorry when they are killed off.

It also doesn’t help the leading man is such a bore.  Burke had infamously taken over for Peter Weller in RoboCop 3 and even under that heavy costume with his face obscured he managed to overact.  He does the same thing here, saddled with a fat suit and unconvincing make-up at the beginning and eventually turning skeletal as he continues to lose fat and muscle.  I’m not sure if the make-up did this to him but Burke has this smile/grimace on his face when he’s heavier that is truly unnerving…and not in the way Holland intended.

If I’ve forgotten to mention Joe Mantegna (House of Games) up until this point he should count himself lucky.  As a tricky mobster client of Billy’s, Mantegna plays up the wise guy role to the point of parody and acts as a silly means to an end in helping Billy connect the dots to the origin of the gypsy curse.  If there’s one actor I didn’t mind, it’s the always reliable Jenney who seems to know she’s in a turkey so opts for such a small performance that it has the effect of letting her scene partners look like they’re overacting.

Not surprisingly, this was a huge box office bomb but it didn’t stop the King adaptations from coming.  It would be three years before The Green Mile would be released and in 2017 there was the one two punch of the remake of IT and the dandy Gerald’s Game for Netflix.  It’s clear the best was behind the King work at that time and while Thinner wasn’t bad enough to make studios think twice about taking a dip in the King swamp it’s prospects of being much better are keenly felt two decades later.