The Silver Bullet ~ Suburbicon

Synopsis: This is a tale of very flawed people making very bad choices. This is Suburbicon.

Release Date:  October 27, 2017

Thoughts: Oh goodness, what to say about this weird little trailer?  Though it boasts an appealing array of stars in front of and behind the camera, I’m just not sold on moving to Suburbicon at first glance.  As is the case with most previews lately, too much is given away in the trailer, apparently leaving very little to entice audiences to want to know more.  Director George Clooney (Tomorrowland) and writers Joel and Ethan Coen (Hail, Caesar!) are going to have to bank on more than just fans of Matt Damon (Promised Land), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), and Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) to get the word out about this tough sell.  To me, it looks too much like it will feature the worst of the Cohen’s back of tricks and Clooney’s strange directorial missteps.  While I’m always intrigued about films set in this era, it already feels like it’s going to be a chore to sit through this one.

Movie Review ~ Office Christmas Party

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The Facts
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Synopsis: When his uptight CEO sister threatens to shut down his branch, the branch manager throws an epic Christmas party in order to land a big client and save the day, but the party gets way out of hand…

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Vanessa Bayer, Jillian Bell, Jamie Chung, Rob Corddry, Abbey Lee, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller, Olivia Munn, Karan Soni, Courtney B. Vance, Matt Walsh, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Director: Josh Gordon, Will Speck

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In the new comedy Office Christmas Party, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) plays Mary, a Human Resources manager at a mid-range tech company that’s business in front and no party in the back.  When branch manager Clay (T.J. Miller, Daredevil) and CTO Josh (Jason Bateman, This Is Where I Leave You) want to throw a bad-ass Christmas party to impress a much-needed new client (Courtney B. Vance, Terminator Genisys), Mary’s HR violation antennae pop up and she tries her hardest to derail the frivolity before giving in and just having fun with it all.  Plenty of critics venturing out of their hovels to catch OCP will be Mary’s and implore you to stay home but ‘tis the season to be jolly and this critic thinks this Party is worth an HR write-up.

Look, Office Christmas Party isn’t the be-all, end-all of raucous, growth-stunted juvenile comedies but it has its fair share of laughs and rambles along for most of its 105-minute running time with an inordinate amount of goodwill.  Maybe because I saw it on a Monday with a busy week at my own 9-5 job staring me down, but I (usually so averse to ribald druggy humor) found myself entertained by Miller, Bateman, and co who have set out not to redefine the raunchy comedy but to give audiences who can’t stomach the sight of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa 2 an alternative option.  Then again, stomaching Thornton in anything is a feat in and of itself.

When Clay’s CEO sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston, We’re the Millers, yet again reveling in a role with a mean streak) announces plans to reduce the workforce at her brother’s failing branch right before the holidays, Clay and Josh make a play to nab a high-profile client (Vance) by showing him how well their company rewards its employees.  Trouble is, most of their workforce is already disgruntled and apathetic in their antiseptic office so whatever Clay and Josh do it has to be big…really big.  Along with the head of technology (Olivia Munn, X-Men: Apocalypse), they pull out all the stops in a few hours to put on a boffo holiday gathering that quickly devolves into a Sodom and Gomorrah style bash complete with co-worker make-outs, drug- fueled stunts of stupidity, and a bevy of genitals photocopied on the office machine.  Sounds kinda nasty, right?  I have a real nose for the overly lewd and while I got a few good whiffs I never thought this tipped the scales into plain bad taste.

It’s a minor affair to be sure, written and directed without much originality…but it’s the performances that help to elevate this one slightly higher than its peers.  I’ve found that a little Miller goes a long way but even in his more ADD moments the actor never lets us forget his character it good natured and the kind of people pleasing boss we’d all like to buddy up to.  Bateman is at his most Jason Bateman-y here, again playing the straight man at the center of some very zany periphery performances.  Bateman’s dirty scene with an ice sculpture and egg nog lets the actor venture slightly out of his comfort zone and for that alone I appreciated it.  McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer (Despicable Me 2), Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street), Rob Corddry (Warm Bodies), Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon), and Karan Soni (Safety Not Guaranteed) are but a few of the party goers that make an impression.  Only Munn disappoints…I continue to be stumped at what makes Munn in any way appealing aside from the fact that she always seems to be happy with being just one of the guys.

While it isn’t the kind of movie you could see as a holiday outing sponsored by your work, Office Christmas Party is a decent choice for adults looking for an R-rated holiday romp.  Like most parties, it might end up being one you want to leave early but being the last one out the door won’t kill you either.

The Silver Bullet ~ Baywatch

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Synopsis: Two unlikely prospective lifeguards vie for jobs alongside the buff bodies who patrol a beach in California.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Winter is definitely coming and if you need a way to stay warm until the summer months I can’t think of a better way to do it than to keep the new trailer for Baywatch on repeat.  What started as a more serious show on network TV turned into an 11-season soapy sun and sand action show that featured a rotating roster of buff guys and beautiful women either before or after their Playboy debuts.  Now comes a big screen take starring Dwayne Johnson (San Andreas) and Zac Efron (That Awkward Moment) and it looks like a whole lot of fun.  I can already tell it’s been carefully made to gently lampoon its source material while giving its stars the maximum shirtless screentime.  Fine by me and as the song goes…”I’ll be ready”.  I doubt this one will need saving when it arrives in May.

The Silver Bullet ~ Silence (2016)

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Synopsis: In the 17th century two Jesuit priests face violence and persecution when they travel to Japan to locate their mentor and to spread the gospel of Christianity.

Release Date: December 23, 2016

Thoughts: Much like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, Silence is a late breaking entry into the serious awards season discussion.  Buzzed about for months (years if you count its overall development time) but as yet unseen, you never can really tell where a Scorsese flick will land in the eyes of critics but Silence looks compelling from the outset. Tackling the not super blockbuster themes of Christian oppression in a foreign land, it certainly has the visual hallmarks of a Scorsese film…including a lengthy run time.  Stars Andrew Garfield (The Amazing Spider-Man) and Adam Driver (Midnight Special) are stars continuing to rise and if you believe early odds, Liam Neeson (Non-Stop) could net a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work.  We’ve got a few more weeks until Silence roars into view but count on this one to factor heavily in Oscar talk as the year concludes.  

31 Days to Scare ~ Jennifer 8

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A big city cop from LA moves to a small town police force and immediately finds himself investigating a murder.

Stars: Andy Garcia, Uma Thurman, Lance Henriksen, John Malkovich, Graham Beckel, Kathy Baker, Kevin Conway

Director: Bruce Robinson

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Jennifer 8 is a mystery/thriller that won’t work for many people but it’s been a reliable favorite of mine over the years.  In all honesty, the more I watch it the more I see the gaps in writer/director Bruce Robinson’s screenplay but it just doesn’t seem to change the way I feel about the movie as a whole.  Rich in atmosphere and at times decently creepy, it has fine performances and a true “what the hell” ending that I find to be a lot of fun.

After his marriage ends in divorce, L.A. policeman John Berlin (Andy Garcia, Ghostbusters) takes an old colleague (Lane Henriksen, Color of Night) up on an offer to join his police force in a remote northern California town.  The sleepy hamlet might be the right place for Berlin to heal and recover from the wounds of his failed union.  Shortly after he arrives a severed hand is discovered in a local dump and when the appendage is identified as belonging to a girl from a local institute for the blind, Berlin becomes embroiled in the case of a serial killer and a blind woman (Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction) who could be the next victim.

There’s a lot that goes on in Jennifer 8 that isn’t fully explained…starting with the title.  A vague reference is made to a string of supposed victims of the killer under the code name Jennifer but the victims don’t add up to 8.  Then there’s a coincidental entry in a notebook from a murdered acquaintance that seems to inadvertently point to Berlin as a potential suspect, necessitating the appearance of John Malkovich (Zoolander 2) as an FBI interrogator out to prove Berlin made up the serial killer to cover his own tracks.  And Robinson adds in so many red herrings that when the solution is revealed you may be tempted to hit rewind to view it again and then pause it to draw the connections together in your head.

What does work for the film are the performances from Garcia, Thurman, and especially Kathy Baker (Saving Mr. Banks) as Henriksen’s wife.  Thurman blank stares with the best of them and Garcia’s frustration boils over so violently that his Cuban accent pops in frequently.  Christopher Young’s (Sinister) piano/string score is beautifully haunting and cinematography from three time Oscar winner Conrad Hall makes excellent use of shadows, the deserted corridors of the institute where a killer hunts, and the rain/snow soaked landscapes of the town.

The resulting film may be a bit overstuffed for audiences and I know there will be those that scoff at the finale Robinson cooks up…but I like it all.  It seems to be made with a classier touch than it probably deserved and though it was box office and critical disappointment I would call this one vastly underrated.  Decide for yourself, though.

31 Days to Scare ~ Let’s Scare Jessica to Death

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A recently institutionalized woman has bizarre experiences after moving into a supposedly haunted country farmhouse and fears she may be losing her sanity once again.

Stars: Zohra Lampert, Barton Heyman, Kevin O’Connor, Gretchen Corbett, Alan Manson, Mariclare Costello

Director: John Hancock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

Where to Watch: DVD/Vudu/Amazon

Review: When I was a kid, the box cover for Let’s Scare Jessica to Death really freaked me out…and intrigued me at the same time.  It was years before I finally saw it and by that time I had taken in all types of less than subtle horror gore-fests so its lackadaisical pacing and open for interpretation finale left me less than impressed.  Viewing the film now with a more forgiving eye and taking into account the time period it was made, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death emerges as an atmospheric and creepy excursion.

Released in 1971 when the horror genre was lying dormant in between its ‘50s heyday and ‘80s renaissance, this is a low budget endeavor with a tiny cast and extras culled from the Connecticut hamlet where it was filmed.  Opening at the end (or what we think is the end), Jessica (Zohra Lampert) recounts how she came to be sitting in a boat bathed in golden sunlight.  Jumping back several days, we see Jessica, her husband (Barton Heyman), and their friend (Kevin O’Connor) traveling to an idyllic farmhouse where Jessica can continue her recuperation after suffering a nervous breakdown.  Before they even arrive, Jessica catches sight of a girl (Gretchen Corbett) in an old cemetery…or did she?  Writer/director John Hancock (who was famously hired and subsequently fired from directing Jaws 2 in 1978) effectively scripts in Jessica’s inner-thoughts and the various ways she tries to convince herself she’s not falling apart and seeing things again.

As they approach the farmhouse (did I mention they are traveling in a hearse?) they encounter several locals who don’t seem very happy about the arrival of outsiders or where the trio has chosen to stay.  Before they can even unpack they catch Emily (Mariclare Costello), a pretty squatter who saw the empty house and claimed it as her own.  Since it is the time of peace, love, and understanding, they let her stay.  All three begin to fall under her charms…but only Jessica starts to see a figure in a white dress under the surface of the lake and wandering around her house.  A figure that looks an awful lot like the woman from an old picture in their dusty attic thought drowned on her wedding day but whose body was never found. An apparition that resembles…Emily.

At 88 minutes, the film feels closer to 120 thanks to its slow development but it’s punctuated by several spine-tingling moments when Jessica begins to unravel and question everything around her. Is her husband trying to drive mad and carrying on an affair with Emily? Why do all the townspeople have scars on their necks and bandages on their arms? Are the voices in her head real or imaginary?  What about the other girl from the cemetery that seems to be leading Jessica to bodies and clues to the local mystery?

Aside from Costello, this is a very ordinary looking (read non-Hollywood) cast which helps instill a bit of realism.  Heyman and O’Connor’s characters aren’t fleshed out that much so it falls to Costello and Lampert to carry the film.  Costello is nicely mysterious, never telegraphing what’s happening next but clearly showing something isn’t right from the get-go.  It almost feels like Lampert was fed the plot in pieces because her actions and reactions seem genuine.  She can’t trust herself so she deeply wants to trust others; when that security disintegrates, Jessica becomes increasingly erratic and unstable.

While it has several gaping plot holes that can’t be totally forgiven, Let’s Scare Jessica to Death is an interesting find as an early horror entry of a new decade. Unlike it’s genre siblings that followed, it’s low on gore and nudity and likely will be too slow for most to take in and appreciate.  I’ve long since gotten over my fears of the poster art, but the film leaves a cool shiver in its wake.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fences

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Synopsis: An African American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: Fences, August Wilson’s modern classic, comes to the big screen courtesy of director/star Denzel Washington with a screenplay by Wilson and boy, does it look like a whopper. Repeating their Tony award winning performances, Washington (The Magnificent Seven) and Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) stake their claim as front-runners for awards season glory in this first teaser trailer.  Davis, in particular, is long overdue to take home the prize and if you don’t get some kind of goosebumpy tingle from her final moments here, you need to take your Spidey senses in for a tune-up.  Adapting Wilson for the big screen can be a tricky task as his plays are so intimate and personal…but if anyone can make it work it’s going to be the players assembled here.

The Silver Bullet ~ Rings

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Synopsis: A young woman becomes worried about her boyfriend when he explores a dark subculture surrounding a mysterious videotape said to kill the watcher seven days after he has viewed it.

Release Date:  October 28, 2016

Thoughts: When Dreamworks decided to remake the 1998 Japanese film Ringu in 2002, the age of the American remake was just starting to come into its major fertility.  Starring Naomi Watts, The Ring was a spooky scare-fest, well-made with hair-raising shocks that made it a major box office success. Three years later its sequel didn’t come close to its predecessor, even though it was directed by Hideo Nakata who created the original film in Japan.  11 years on and here’s your first look at Rings which seeks to establish a new jumping off point for the series. We all know that any trailer can be cut to look exactly how the studio wants to market it and Paramount has done a good job in crafting their preview…but let’s just wait until October to see if Rings is a band of gold or not.

The Silver Bullet ~ Arrival

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Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Thoughts: At first glance, Arrival looks like any other of the hundreds of like-themed films detailing alien invasion and a race against time to figure out how to communicate with them.  Dating back to the campy films of the 1950s all the way up to modern turns like Contact in 1997, this theme seems so played out…so why do I get the feeling that Arrival is going to be different?  Maybe because it’s helmed by Denis Villeneuve who, in movie after movie like Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, impresses?  Or maybe because it’s headlined by a strong cast including Amy Adams (American Hustle), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), and Forrest Whitaker (Southpaw).  This one has apparently crept up under the radar for it’s fall, um, arrival, and now that we have our first look it’s ascending high on my anticipated list for this autumn.

Movie Review ~ Florence Foster Jenkins

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Florence Foster Jenkins, a New York heiress who dreamed of becoming an opera singer, despite having a terrible singing voice.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, Simon Helberg, Rebecca Ferguson, Nina Arianda

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s a play based on the life of Florence Foster Jenkins I saw several years back called Souvenir.  A two-person drama set in a supper club where Jenkins performed with her pianist Cosmé McMoon, you knew in advance that she was regarded as a terrible singer and that’s what attracted me to it.  The lights go down and I spent the next twenty minutes waiting for the actress playing Jenkins to open her mouth and warble out an opera aria.  She did. I laughed.  Then I spent the next two hours waiting for it to be over, the frivolity having running its course by the time the third song began.

That’s what seeing the new film Florence Foster Jenkins feels like…waiting for the joke and then checking your watch to see when it will end.  Buoyed by strong performances but misguided by some plot distractions that laboriously pad the running length instead of graciously filling it, it’s not a bad film in the slightest, just a one-joke movie that has its moment in the sun before entering some rainy weather territory which seriously drags down the latter half of the picture.

Jenkins (Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady) was a spirited eccentric that actually believed she could sing and was surrounded by friends (some say hangers-on) that wouldn’t be honest with her.  Her common-law husband (nicely played by Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas) pays reporters for good write-ups and has a girlfriend on the side (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) while her new pianist (Simon Helberg) is aghast that someone so bad could be lauded so much.

Focused on the last year or so that Jenkins was alive, director Stephen Frears (Philomena) and writer Nicholas Martin have crafted a splendid looking period piece set in New York (but filmed in London) that hits most of the right notes even as their leading character runs afoul of her own musical keys.  Still, there’s a paint-by-the-numbers feeling to it which keeps it awkwardly grounded and merely content with going through the emotional moments.

Yet from the rapturous reception the film received at my screening, it’s clear this is an audience-pleasing picture.  I almost feel like I need to see it again since so many lines were lost to audiences roaring over a previous phrase (which I feel is actually a problem with overall editing…didn’t anyone involved screen this with a crowd first?).  Released at the tail end of summer when more discerning crowds have come in from the summer sun, it’s likely to be a well-timed alternative to the CGI heavy box office fodder that’s hogged many screens at your multiplex.

Streep is, as always, beyond reproach and you can pretty much count on her making another trip to the Kodak theater with another Oscar (and SAG and Golden Globe) nomination under belt.  There’s already a ton of press showing Streep singing well (like in Into the Woods) and praising her bravura bad singing here and it’s nice to find out she did the majority of the singing live.  It can’t have been easy for a trained singer to learn to sing so poorly…but Streep doesn’t merely sing off-key, she’s studied Jenkins and found out WHY she doesn’t sing well and used that to get the sound right.  Her Queen of the Night aria is alone worth the price of admission.

Supporting Streep is a dandy Grant who I hope will also get some Oscar recognition for his work.  A difficult role seeing that he’s a bit of a cad, Grant digs deep and shows that above all else the man he’s portraying truly loved Jenkins even though they couldn’t have the kind of life together that either planned.  Under some old age make-up, Grant remains charming in that aloof sort of way but over the years he’s grown as an actor to temper that aloofness with authenticity.

Aside from Streep and Grant, the other supporting players are a mixed bag.  Helberg’s performance is all overbite…literally.  Though Martin takes some time to flesh out Jenkins long-time pianist, Helberg plays him so slight and twee that I half expected him to fly away at any given moment.  He’s got good chemistry with Streep, though, and that’s all that really matters.  I’ve liked Ferguson and Nina Arianda in other movies but not much here…both play grating women in roles that easily could have been excised, especially Ferguson as Grant’s long-time mistress.

What makes Florence Foster Jenkins something I’d cautiously recommend is the stately way Frears, Martin, and Streep have presented this delusional socialite who performed her final concert to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall.  Knowing the difference between a characterization that’s eccentric instead of goofy, Streep gives her the requisite dignity without letting her totally off the hook.  Like the overall film and the peculiar woman at its center, it’s an admirable close but no cigar.