Movie Review ~ What Men Want


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.

31 Days to Scare ~ Overlord (Trailer)

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.

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Thoughts: There’s a nice air of mystery surrounding Overlord and it’s 100% intentional.  Produced by J.J. Abrams (Star Trek), many people are thinking this is another surprise entry into the Cloverfield franchise but Abrams and Paramount Pictures are in full denial mode.  Still, they’ve played this game on us before when releasing 10 Cloverfield Lane and dropping The Cloverfield Paradox onto Neftlix without much fanfare.  Whatever it ends up being about, this looks like a bonkers period horror film involving Nazis and zombies and I’m all for it.  With a script from Oscar nominee Billy Ray (Captain Phillips) and Mark L. Smith (The Revenant) there’s some prestige already…will this be a slash above the usual zombie warfare?

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

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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.