Movie Review ~ Peter Rabbit


The Facts
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Synopsis: Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.

Stars: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As I hunkered down on a chilly Saturday for an early morning screening of Peter Rabbit there were a few thoughts going through my head. The first was a silent prayer that Hollywood didn’t take Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters and turn them into grating kooky animations. The second musing I found myself pondering was what took so long for Potter’s creations to make their way to the screen in the first place? Plenty of small screen animation adaptions featuring Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, and more have popped up throughout the decades and a fond memory of my youth was going to see Beatrix Potter’s Christmas (think The Avengers, just with Potter’s most famous critters) over several years at MN’s Children’s Theater Company. Yet aside from a Potter biopic (the largely forgotten Mrs. Potter), there’s been little love for the woodland creatures themselves.

What a pleasure it was, then, to find that Peter Rabbit is a real delight, a rare family film that’s truly something the whole family can get something out of. For kids there’s plenty of slapstick comedy that doesn’t involve farts or other rude nonsense and for adults there are a bevy of laughs that will easily sail over the heads of tykes too young to get the humor.

In the English countryside, Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, Into the Woods) is fond of making his way into the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and filling up on his plump vegetables. Pulling his cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) in on his schemes and being cheered on by rabbit triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), days are just a series of adventures that usually end with Peter being chased by the annoyed farmer into the loving arms of his caretaker Bea (Rose Byrne, Insidious). One day, the antics go too far and Old Mr. McGregor has himself a heart attack leaving his garden and home to be overrun by animals.

In London, tightly-wound Thomas McGregor’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin) OCD ways have gotten him the heave-ho from his job at Harrod’s department store. Informed of his inheritance of a house from an uncle he’s never met and without much to keep him in the city, he treks out to see his new property in the country. Once he arrives and cleans up the place, he sets his sights on ridding himself of the vermin problem…but also starts to fall in love with Bea. The latter half of the film focuses on Thomas and Peter’s escalating war, fighting for their territory and over the lovely woman that cares for both of them.

Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck (Annie) has crafted a film that’s quite charming from the get-go. There’s sentiment for the origin of the stories (Bea is a painter that creates bizarre modern art but sketches her forest friends in intricate details, ala Beatrix Potter) but keeps enough pep in its step to not feel like a staid transfer of the books to the screen. The humor is broad and fast-paced but with a sly wink to always let the audience in on the joke. Sure, there’s a few questionable bits of mayhem (such as one moment where Peter briefly considers sticking a carrot into Old Mr. McGregor’s plumber butt crack) but the overall joy the film brings outweighs a few of these catering to the masses missteps.

Sprinkled with a soundtrack of familiar songs reimagined not to mention a few tunes Gluck penned himself and using Australia’s picturesque countryside as a stand-in for the English village of Windermere, this is a valuable film for parents to keep in their back pocket.  I found the 90 minute run time flew by and there are some nice touches from Gluck and company, such as having the live-action leads also provide voices for a few of the animals.  Along with Paddington 2, it represents a step above the usual family fare that blends live-action with animation (the result is dazzlingly seamless) and offers sure-fire matinee potential for the whole gang.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.

Movie Review ~ Spy (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A desk-bound CIA analyst volunteers to go undercover to infiltrate the world of a deadly arms dealer, and prevent diabolical global disaster.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Jason Statham, Jude Law, Miranda Hart, Peter Serafinowicz, Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I hated Tammy…like REALLY hated Tammy.  I considered what Melissa McCarthy did with that film to be akin to a criminal act and felt she deserved some sort of cinematic punishment…like being the only person in a Nancy Meyers flick denied the privilege of wearing a cream colored tunic over beige capris.  I wasn’t sure that the relationship McCarthy and I were forming after her dynamic, Oscar-nominated turn in Bridesmaids would survive a string of beneath-her stinkeroos like Identity Thief, The Heat, and some audience favorite but comically inert hosting gigs  on Saturday Night Life.  Then along came a dramedic (yep, I’m using it) role in St. Vincent where we saw beneath the yuk-yuk exterior and we were reminded that she’s a dang good actress.

That good will continues in Spy, McCarthy’s third go ‘round with director Paul Feig and it’s not only the funniest film I’ve seen in theaters in ages but it showcases the actress in her best role to date.  What McCarthy and Feig’s script finally embraces is that the jokes needn’t be at her expense, but rather she could be at the center of the hilarity and really drive a picture home.  McCarthy has had leading roles before but in Spy she breaks a kind of barrier down, a barrier that welcomes her to true A-List star status, signaling more than ever that she’s a bankable leading lady.

Though I was really looking forward to Spy, being a fan of the James Bond movies and high-tech, big laugh adventures I was worried that the proceedings would be overrun by McCarthy’s frantic take no prisoners improv that only was funny 1/10 of the time.  I was so battered and bruised from Tammy’s whopper of a lame knockout that I had some PTSD I wasn’t sure I’d be able to overcome.

It helps that the first laugh of Spy is a doozy, an unexpected moment that sets the tone for the rest of the picture.  As Susan Cooper, McCarthy is the desk bound eyes and ears of a dashing Bond-esque CIA operative (an alarmingly pink lipped Jude Law, Side Effects).  Pining for the spy who doesn’t love her, Cooper gets his dry cleaning and even attempts to fire his gardener…before ending up mowing the lawn herself because she’s too nice to let the man go.

When the hunt for a black market nuclear bomb calls for Cooper to jump into the field, it’s one strong comedic sequence after another as she becomes the globe-trotting operative she’s only seen from the comfort of secure life.  Whether having drinks with a co-worker (the hysterical Miranda Hart), battling fellow spies (a remarkably funny and very ready to play Jason Statham, Furious 7), or infiltrating a dangerous villainess’ inner circle, Cooper seems to be ready for anything that comes her way.

What’s so wonderful about Spy as opposed to other McCarthy projects is that the only thing standing in Cooper’s way is her own insecurities.  No one is holding her back, putting her down, or instilling a “less-than” mantra into her brain…any road less traveled is because she’s been afraid to make that first step.  That sets McCarthy (and us) up to cheer on Cooper though every tight situation she gets herself into…and she gets into a lot of them in the course of two hours.

As it typical of Feig films, he’s surrounded his star with a troupe of supporting players that are funny in their own right.  In addition to Law, Statham, and Frost we have Allison Janney (The Way Way Back) as Cooper’s short fused boss and Rose Byrne (This is Where I Leave You) as the bored bad girl that seems to feel that international espionage isn’t half as interesting as making it to the next level of Candy Crush.  Byrne and McCarthy have several good exchanges, even though they are so foul-mouthed that it became overkill at points.

Feig has taken a page from the Bond films and other secret agent parodies and smoothed out the edges.  Spy isn’t a spoof of famous spy films but a loving send up of them.  There’s a great opening credit sequence with a brassy belting chanteuse, a bevy of deadly gadgets for Cooper to use, each one more hilariously inappropriate than the last, and a plot of world domination that’s 2/3 Dr. Evil and 1/3 Goldfinger.  It’s all lovingly wrapped up in a package by Feig and company and presented at our feet.

The film’s pace could have been tightened up a bit and the profanity been taken down a notch (boy, I’m getting old!) but even with its R rating and several graphic genitalia shots this is a film the whole family could get some mileage out of.  I’m dying to see the gag reel that will surely accompany the Blu-Ray release because there’s a tiny hint in the end credits that this cast had a great time together.  Spy is an unexpected delight, chock-a-block full of fast laughs that, if you’re like me, will have you in tears and stitches of laughter.  Worth at least one trip to the theater…and I bet you’ll want to go again.

Movie Review ~ Annie (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in.

Stars:  Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale,Rose Byrne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think it’s part of the job of a movie critic to do their best to remove any personal bias before entering into any film, trying to take what they are seeing for face value and reporting back how that experience felt to them.  I have to admit that going into this re-imagined take on the Broadway musical Annie I carried with me some baggage I’ve been dragging around since the project was first announced several years ago.

So OK, perhaps the 1982 film version wasn’t the box office success studios had hoped.  At the time, it was critically drubbed, mostly due to the ghastly amount of money spent on it which, to be fair, helped give the film an old-school big Big BIG feel with more orphans than you could shake a shtick at, huge city scapes that brought audiences convincingly back to the Great Depression, and a massive mansion with a singing and dancing staff ready to step-ball-change with every downbeat.

Full disclosure, Annie was the first film I ever saw in the theater and even as a two year old I cast a critical side eye at the musical tale of a scrappy orphan that evades crooks, rescues a dog, and wins the heart of the richest man in America in 127 minutes.  I actually didn’t make it through the whole film, opting to high-tail it out when my movie treats had disappeared.  Subsequent viewings over the years has endeared the film to me, particularly with Carol Burnett’s dynamite turn as the boozy Miss Hannigan and Ann Reinking as the leggy secretary to Albert Finney’s Oliver Warbucks.

An early preview of the film made the reboot (produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) look positively frightful and subsequent clips gave me a bad taste in my mouth.  I waited with a mixture of glee and dread for the screening to arrive and was prepared to revel in my disdain for what modern spins were put on Annie and trounce those involved for their association with it all.

Consider it a minor Christmas miracle that I left the screening with very little venom for the retooling and a sizable lump in my throat.  Though it’s far from perfect and misses the mark more often than it should, this 2014 Annie is neither the embarrassment I had feared nor the train wreck I had secretly hoped for.

Let’s start with the bad and that would be Cameron Diaz.  Though Sandra Bullock was the first choice for Miss Hannigan (now fashioned as a foster mom…the words “orphan” and “orphanage” are tantamount to four letter expletives here) when she declined Diaz (Sex Tape, The Other Woman) signed on and the results are less than successful.  Admittedly, I got a nice chuckle out of this Hannigan being a faded star former member of C+C Music Factory but would have loved to see the part cast with someone that can sing without the extensive use of auto-tune.

Speaking of auto-tune, I’m shocked that the vocal sweetening tool wasn’t given its own production credit because it comes to the aid of everyone that sings a note here.  Some need it more than others (Diaz and Rose Byrne) but its use is so extensive it sounds like your iPhone’s Siri is singing one of the tunes from composers Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.  Some Strouse/Charnin songs remain intact but most have been modernized to varying degrees of success.  Three new tunes are all over the map, with only one solo for Annie having a modicum of overall value.

The film is so heavy on modern technology and product placement that it will be dated two hours after it’s released in much the same way we look back at early 90s films sporting technology that looks like it was created in the Dark Ages.  While the 1982 film was a period piece and could get away with having a timeless feel, this new millennium Annie will be out of date the moment the next Apple product is released.

On the good side, we have Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her breathtaking turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild) as our spunky heroine.  In recent appearances, Wallis has been low energy and in an Adderall daze for her lyp-synched performances but it’s nice to report that in the actual film her spirit is infectious and her singing more than admirable.  The aforementioned new song written for her is a delight, performed with sweet honesty.  Her chemistry with businessman turned mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) is a chief saving grace of the film and the reason why you may find yourself wishing you’d brought a tissue with you by the time the finale rolls around.  Wallis actually makes Foxx tolerable, no small feat for an actor that never met a role he couldn’t preen and preside over.  Though saddled with a loser of a song and a lame humble beginnings history, Foxx looks like he’s having fun here.

Even if Byrne (This is Where I Leave You) receives some help in the singing department, she’s a nicely modern Grace…although I did miss the flair Reinking brought to the role in the 1982 version.  Special mention must also be made to Stephanie Kurtzuba (The Wolf of Wall Street) who steals scenes (and then promptly disappears) as a rough around the edges pencil pusher more excited than Annie is when both tour the awesome penthouse belonging to Stacks.  Too bad the role couldn’t have been packaged with Miss Hannigan and given over to Kurtzuba…I’ve a feeling it could have been a true star-making turn.

Director Will Gluck comes dangerously close to making a Stomp! film that happens to feature Annie tunes thanks to an opening sequence heavy on percussive elements found in the city leading into two songs featuring lots of clapping, foot stomping, and bucket pounding.  Eventually Gluck calms down and lets the actors and the script from Aline Brosh McKenna (We Bought a Zoo) do most of the work.

At the end of the day, did we need yet another version of Annie?  Probably not.  Even so, the masses of children at the screening I attended didn’t seem to mind any technical shortcomings or vocally assisted performances because they understood the message of a can-do attitude and family at the heart of the story.  Turns out maybe I was the one that needed to get that message more than anyone.

Movie Review ~ This is Where I Leave You

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Kathryn Hahn, Abigail Spencer, Dax Shepard, Jane Fonda

Director: Shawn Levy

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I suppose I need to start my review of This Is Where I Leave you by coming clean and saying that I read Jonathan Tropper’s novel on which his screenplay is based and hated it. Filled with endless turns of cliché situations and characters that seemed discarded from NBC’s 2004 pilot season, the book never made a case for its popularity in my mind. Still, based on the cast director Shawn Levy (The Internship) assembled I hoped the film adaptation would be able smooth out some of the book’s trite developments and be that rare unicorn where the movie was better than the book.

Alas, while the film does ultimately fare better than its source material, it remains a painfully laborious affair with no family squabble left un-squawked and no amount of gooey angst left un-squeezed. While Tropper has streamlined his novel for the big screen, he winded up throwing out more than a few interesting elements that provided these characters with what little interest they were sketched with in the first place. Particularly disappointing is the full-scale lobotomy performed on eldest brother Corey Stoll’s (Non-Stop) backstory, robbing the actor and the audience of some meaty insight into why the man is so gruff and glowering.

Returning home to sit shiva (a Jewish mourning period of 7 days where the family receives guests and remembers the deceased) the Altman children come back to the family homestead with baggage both physical and emotional. Cuckolded brother Judd (Jason Bateman, Bad Words) is dealing with his marital woes, unhappy sister Wendy (Tina Fey, Muppets Most Wanted) juggles scampering children and a non-present husband, responsible brother Paul (Stoll) can’t seem to get his wife (Kathryn Hahn, We’re the Millers) pregnant, and free spirit Phillip (Adam Driver, What If) speeds into town with his older fiancé (Connie Britton, The To Do List) in tow.

Living under the same roof again with their famous child psychiatrist mother (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding) could have made for a much more interesting mix of comedy tinged with pathos but Tropper and Levy hardly let a moment go by without a joke involving Fonda’s silicon-ized breasts, even sacrificing a hugely emotional scene near the end of the film to get in one more boob joke.

It’s time for Bateman to hang up this exasperated character he’s been playing for several decades now. He’s interesting enough of an actor to take some stretch opportunities but he’s returned to this well one too many times. Though he creates some nice sparks with Rose Byrne (Insidious) as his high school sweetheart, the rest of his performance seems flat and workmanlike. Hahn is mysteriously underused here, like Stoll she suffers from Tropper’s slicing up of her story arc…though it must be said I’m glad he removed one particular turn of events that would have had audiences furious. Britton barely makes an impact and while Fonda gets some of the best scenes in the movie, she looks like she’s going through the five stages of Botox as the film progresses.

Driver may be the next big thing but I’m yet to be sold on his charm – still, in his own way he gives the role some needed charisma, however oddly he delivers it. Though it pains me to say it, Fey is the real mistake of the film. She probably should have swapped roles with Hahn because her attempts to dig deep find her in shallow waters that she just isn’t yet capable of navigating.

It doesn’t help that these characters are the kind of gross oversized family unit that only can be displayed on the big screen. My movie companion thought that I missed the point because, as an only child, I may not be as in tune with the family dynamics that exist within a large household. This could be true but my problems lie not with the device but with the execution. Worse, the film introduces these messy people and then dares to provide the tidiest of wrap-ups without earning it. Instead of feeling sympathy for the misery everyone is enduring (of which none is related to the death of the patriarch, by the way) I felt like everyone got what was coming to them in one way or another.

The large ensemble family dramadey has been done so much better before in films like Parenthood – leave this one alone and take another look at that film instead. Not much to see here.

The Silver Bullet ~ This is Where I Leave You

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Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve read Jonathan Tropper’s book that inspired this big screen adaptation and I can’t for the life of me see what would attract such appealing comedic names like Jason Bateman (Bad Words), Tina Fey (Muppets Most Wanted), Rose Byrne (Neighbors), and Kathryn Hahn (We’re The Millers). The novel, transparently written with a movie deal in mind, reminded me of a lackluster mid-season replacement pilot that NBC would have burned off in the dog days of summer. While occasionally funny in a depressing way, I couldn’t get past the workmanlike comedic set-ups and generic character sketches Tropper etched for readers. Here’s hoping director Shawn Levy (The Internship) and a cast that also includes Jane Fonda (Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding) and Adam Driver (What If) can make something of it all.

The Silver Bullet ~ Annie (2014)

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Synopsis
: Wealthy businessman Benjamin Stacks comes to the aid of a young girl living in an orphanage run by the tyrannical Miss Hannigan.

Release Date:  December 19, 2014

Thoughts:  I’m not totally opposed to remakes, reboots, reinventions, what have you…but I want them to have some sort of point of view.  I’ve been dreading seeing the first trailer for a modern day version of the Broadway musical that opened in 1977 and was already made into a film in 1982 and it turns out I wasn’t wrong to live in fear.  It looks absolutely dreadful, a wise-cracking and sassy version of a story that once had a lot of heart.  I never knew what was so bad about the original film which was raked over the coals by critics and considered a bit of a flop, so perhaps I’m holding that movie too close in my memory.  With new songs from Jay-Z, it was originally planned as a vehicle for Willow Smith (because, of course, her parents are producing it) with a script from Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks).  Thompson’s script looks to be a distant memory now that the new Annie is Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Oliver Warbucks, sorry, Benjamin Stacks (ugh) is none other than Jamie Foxx (White House Down) who chews scenery almost as bad as he chews food.  Though Rose Byrne (Insidious, The Place Beyond the Pines) seems like a nice choice for Grace, one look at Cameron Diaz (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) glammed up as the boozy Miss Hannigan and I knew it was all downhill from there.   I’m sure this will make a killing at the box office…but good golly…I hope it’s somewhat better than the trailer makes it look.

Movie Review ~ Insidious: Chapter 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The haunted Lambert family seeks to uncover the mysterious childhood secret that has left them dangerously connected to the spirit world.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Danielle Bisutti, Michael James Grise, Lindsay Seim, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:

I always considered 2010’s Insidious a re-purposing of sorts of 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films had parallel themes and characters and you didn’t have to dig very deep to see these similarities.  Unfortunately, this sequel also has a lot in common with Poltergeist II: The Other Side released in 1986…that is to say it’s not as scary, explains way more than it has to, and didn’t really need to be made in the first place.

I think what made Insidious so notable was how it approached its scares.  By letting the audience do most of the work and not throwing cats at the camera to supply jump scares, director James Wan and screenwriter Leigh Whannell used the low-budget trappings to their advantage.  Getting the most bang for their buck they eschewed fancy special effects for practical and effective frights that kept the hairs on the back of your neck standing on end long after the credits were done.

It’s disappointing then, that the three years between the two films was not really worth the wait.  Though it’s unquestionably a cut above the majority of horror films released this year (You’re Next and The Purge had their moments but fell short for this reviewer) it falls below the bar set by July’s The Conjuring…which is interesting because it was also directed by Wan.  I had hopes that since Wan and Whannell took three years to deliver the next chapter in the story that there would be something of greater substance and similar restraint like its predecessor.

Sadly, where the first movie kept its cards close to its chest, Chapter 2 is an open book.  Too much time is taken to explain simply everything that’s happening and you feel like shouting at the screen “We didn’t really need to know that!” at the various characters that suddenly feel the need to unload their hidden secrets.  My biggest let-down in mysteries/thrillers tends to be the ending where loose ends are tied up and motives are clarified and this movie is just a series of reveals and explanations.

I’d be telling a fib if I said that Wan doesn’t cook up some fairly spooky sequences that gave me a brief case of the willies.  Though the presence of the Lipstick-Face Man from #1 is sadly missed, Wan has provided a handful of creepy characters that continue to haunt Josh (Patrick Wilson, Prometheus) and Renai (Rose Byrne, The Internship) Lambert and their family.

Picking up seconds after the first one ended the movie follows the Lambert’s as they take up residence with Grandma (Barbara Hershey) in her foreboding wood varnished house.  It’s not long before the baby alarms are once again signaling a malevolent presence and apparitions start to play games with the Lambert’s.  It’s hard to reveal anything more without spoiling not only the ending to the first movie and also ruining some mediocre twists this one has waiting for you.

What I liked about the movie was that it made an effort to continue this story and explore the mythology behind the haunting with a snappy prologue focusing on Josh as a child.  Whannell also gets nice marks for finding a way to bring elements of the first film back in a most clever fashion.  The trouble with that, though, is that ultimately this movie will always be tied to the first film and probably wouldn’t work if judged on its own merits as a stand-alone film.  By continuing the story the way they did, Wan and Whannell have painted themselves into a corner and even a last ditch effort to make future installments a possibility doesn’t exactly ring true…or seem very interesting.

In the first film the Lambert’s struggle was focused almost solely in their house.  This film opens up the playing field and so we have too many scenes away from the action…or in places that don’t make sense if you are following closely.  Hershey for instance has a long-ish escapade with returning comedic relief Whannell and Angus Sampson as they do some recon work in several locations that they seem to have no trouble gaining access to.  I had to laugh when not only were they able to break into the abandoned hospital where Hershey used to work but that all of the hospital records were miraculously still there.

Wan has been quoted recently as saying that this film would be his swan song to the horror genre and maybe that’s a good thing.  Clearly talented, perhaps it was too much to hope that Wan would be able to deliver two superior horror films in the span of one year.  While this isn’t a total write-off and is worth seeing if you are a fan of the first film, it winds up being a let-down in part because for all the new ground this one tries to break it doesn’t get under the skin like the original did.

Down from the Shelf ~ Insidious

insidious

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Joseph Bishara, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: One of my all time favorite horror films is 1982’s Poltergeist.  Following a family experiencing strange goings on in their house, the film came from the mind of Steven Spielberg and was directed by Tobe Hooper who shocked audiences with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It remains a shining example in the horror genre as a perfect balance of supernatural horror and family drama.

So it’s no big shocker that I have a fondness for 2010’s Insidious which, if you really think about it, is practically a modern day retelling of Poltergeist.  It follows the Poltergeist formula quite faithfully, i.e. suburban family of five is terrorized by ghostly happenings, eventually calling on a medium to figure out what (or who) the heck is reaching out from the other side.  Frights and freak-outs abound until the final showdown when the living and the dead collide.

I’m still aghast that 2014 will see the release of a Poltergeist remake so why am I letting Insidious off the hook so easily?  Well, it’s because Insidious is still very much its own movie with its own twist on the well-worn ghost story.  Director James Wan (The Conjuring) and screenwriter/supporting star Leigh Whannell (Saw) cleverly work in more than a few spine-tingling turns and several honest-to-goodness terrifying moments.  There are certain sequences in the film that to this day I find hard to watch without feeling my heart start to race.

It helps that Wan has gathered a unique cast together that you may not normally associate with horror films.  Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) has come a long way from the guy I saw in the The Full Monty on Broadway and he is an interesting enough actor to not let himself get pigeon-holed in one character.  While Bridesmaids was still a year away for Rose Byrne (The Internship), she’d already made a minor splash on television with her twisty, layered role on Damages.  The first time I saw the movie I remember not caring much for Byrne’s performance but revisiting it recently I found her to be the true solid center of the troupe.

Colorful supporting performances abound including Barbara Hershey’s minor role as Wilson’s mother who has some key information about the origin of the strange events besieging her son and his family.  Though Hershey memorably starred in the otherwise unmemorable The Entity from 1982 (in which her nude body was famously molested by a ghost) she wasn’t known for her work in this genre.  Lin Shaye, Whannell, and burly Angus Sampson are part of a trio of paranormal researchers that help the family get to the root of the evil that gives way to a spooky as all get out finale.

Wan’s freaky final act of Insidious has the same effect as going through a haunted house – working with cinematographers David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti he puts the audience right there with the actors never letting the viewer see something that the others don’t.  It’s a nerve-wracking sequence heighted by Joseph Bishara’s nightmare-inducing score, not to mention Bishara’s performance as “Lipstick-Face Demon”.

Though a low-budget film, the movie has a nice shine to it and holds up on repeat viewings…which is saying something for a horror film dependent on the element of surprise.  It’s a tad too long and some viewers may find a few passages a little silly but it’s all part of the fun and (scary) games Wan and company have waiting for you.

The Silver Bullet ~ Neighbors (2014) – Red Band Trailer

Townies

Synopsis: A couple with a newborn baby face unexpected difficulties after they are forced to live next to a fraternity house.

Release Date: May 9, 2014

Thoughts: Ok…I admit it.  I laughed.  There…you got it out of me.  Even though this isn’t being released until May of 2014, the first trailer for Neighbors made its debut with more than enough laughs to make up for last year’s This is the End (sorry, I just didn’t like it).  Seth Rogen (The Guilt Trip) and Rose Byrne (Insidious: Chapter 2) find themselves living next door to a rowdy frat house lead by Zac Efron (The Lucky One) in all his shirtless glory.  It should be nice to see Efron take on a role that doesn’t require him to take himself quite so seriously as an actor and Rogen and Byrne could probably do these roles in their sleep.  After viewing this red-band (read, not safe for work) trailer and knowing this comes courtesy of director Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement) you can count on plenty of raunchy humor that’s hopefully backed up by some honestly funny bits.