The Silver Bullet ~ Little Women (2019)



Synopsis
: Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.

Release Date: December 25, 2019

Thoughts: It’s a curious thing, watching this first trailer for the much-anticipated holiday release of Little Women.  I mean, it’s not exactly like we’ve been starved for adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel.  There was a modern remake last year, a well-regarded BBC mini-series in 2017, and the 1994 version starring Winona Ryder still ranks high on my list.  Let’s not forget the Katherine Hepburn entry from 1933 or the one in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor among the dozens of other takes on the source novel.  All this to say I was surprised director Greta Gerwig chose this project as her follow-up to her breakout hit Lady Bird.  To me, the way the preview is cut feels too indie twee for me, but Gerwig has assembled a heck of a wonderful cast with Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now), Timothée Chalamet (Beautiful Boy), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Laura Dern (Smooth Talk), and Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) getting into the period costumes to once again bring Alcott’s characters to the screen.

Movie Review ~ Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Mike Moh, Austin Butler, Margaret Qualley, Bruce Dern, Zoë Bell

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Plenty of directors have shown an affinity for their medium throughout the course of their careers…you kind of have to when you’re in an industry that loves a good pat on the back almost as much as they love a great opening weekend.  I’m not sure if I know of a filmmaker, however, that truly loves movies as much as Quentin Tarantino does.  Though the writer/director is notorious for his outspoken ways and has come under fire recently when some questionable actions on the set of the Kill Bill movies resurfaced, he’s never shied away from wearing his movie nerdishness loud and proud.  A fanboy for movies that range from popular classic to underground cult, Tarantino has an eclectic taste which has helped him to cull numerous reference points for his films throughout the years.

So it’s fitting that he’s finally gotten around to making a film about Hollywood, creating a story about a waning star and his stunt double crossing paths with faces both factual and fictional. Far from being an expose on the dark side of the Hollywood lifestyle, Tarantino is more interested in recreating the feel of living in this mecca that lured so many dreamers and, more specifically, how one man comes to terms with his fading career.   As with many Tarantino films, the object from the first frame is total immersion in the time and place and though it has recognizable actors from 2019 you could easily believe it was made 50 years ago.  You’ve likely heard it also has something to do with Charles Manson, Sharon Tate, and the infamous tragedy that occurred on August 8, 1969 but…more on that later.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, back onscreen after a four-year absence and reteaming with his Django Unchained director) is a former star of a mildly popular western television show looking for his next project.  Unable to rest on the laurels of his previous role much longer, he seeks the advice of a blunt talent agent (Al Pacino, Stand-Up Guys, nicely dialing down his tired Pacino-y mannerisms) who urges him to consider leaving Hollywood to star in a series of spaghetti westerns filming in Italy.  The majority of the film tracks Rick over the next two days as he prepares to film a guest spot on a television series while mulling this new international opportunity.

At the same time, Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, World War Z) acts as chauffeur, handyman, gopher, and overall sidekick to the man he takes onscreen falls for.  Earning a bad reputation in the industry for a mystery surrounding his wife, Cliff can’t get much work outside of his employ with Rick so he sticks around hoping his boss will land another role that will call for his talents.  The two men have a clear kinship that extends beyond any lines of stardom and there’s an unspoken respect and loyalty flowing both ways, which is established so well Tarantino doesn’t need to fill in any gaps for the audience into how the two were paired in the first place.

What Tarantino does do, though, is take numerous opportunities to cut away to previous jobs Rick and Cliff worked on with varying degrees of success.  It’s fun to see DiCaprio loosen up dancing and singing (terribly) on Hullaballoo and an extended sequence where Cliff has it out with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet has absolutely no bearing on the rest of the movie but is quite entertaining on its own merits.  Where it gets tricky is when Tarantino indulges himself too much, taking us on long drives through Los Angeles (we get it, it’s a bigger town than we think) and burns valuable time with clips from Rick Dalton’s previous appearances.  Still, those drives through Los Angeles give production designer Barbara Ling (The Lucky One) an excuse to recreate some fantastic locales in exquisite detail.  All theaters would need to do is pump in some smog and you are right there in the heart of L.A.

The first hour of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ambles nicely into interesting territory as we get our bearings (courtesy, again, of those long car rides) but it’s Cliff’s chance meeting of a hippie waif (Margaret Qualley, Novitiate) and offering her a ride home when the movie starts to get intriguing.  When they arrive at Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth, CA and Cliff meets the girl’s “family” his alarm bells go off and the hairs on the back of your neck will start to stand up.  Tarantino makes this not just the turning point of the movie but it’s centerpiece as well, as Cliff slowly realizes things aren’t what they appear to be and the property, which he is familiar with from his career with Rick, wouldn’t just be turned over to these creepy hippies.

Here’s where I have to give the slightest caveat of a spoiler alert coming up. While I won’t give any key plot details away I’ll need to make a few points known.  It’s not something you won’t already know.

Though many of us know about Charles Manson and his Manson Family, I was fuzzier on some of the finer details and didn’t realize until later when it was that Tarantino shifted into a slightly alternate timeline to the events as they originally occurred. The actual involvement of Manson and his followers in Tarantino’s movie is, honestly, minimal but it is a key piece of the overall story Tarantino has worked out regarding Rick and Cliff.

That means Manson victim Sharon Tate becomes a character in the film as well, showing up as Rick’s next door neighbor and giving Tarantino another real life individual with a timeline he may or may not feel the need to play around with. Though brought to life with vibrancy by a nearly silent Margot Robbie (Mary, Queen of Scots), Tate is a minor player that Tarantino prefers to keep at a distance when things take a dark turn.  Clearly, he only wants to remember Tate when she was young and beautiful, even going so far as to have Robbie going to see herself as Tate in a movie but watching the actual footage of Tate in the film.  For other celebrity sightings, keep your eyes open for appearances by Steve McQueen, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, Effie Gray, in a chilling cameo), Mama Cass, and Connie Stevens.

It’s not spoiling anything to say the night of August 8, 1969 is the final destination of the movie.  The ending of the film is still a bit of a puzzlement to me and I think I’ll need to see it again to firm up my thoughts on how successful it is. I’d be interested in hearing what the families of the victims think about the way Tarantino handled the events of that night and if the choices he made moved any immovable dials in their heart.  Like most Tarantino films (and quite like 2015’s The Hateful Eight) the director pulls all the stops out for the final reel – audience members at my screening seemed to go along with it but my reaction was more muted.

The real story here are the performances of DiCaprio and Pitt, arguably two of the honest-to-goodness biggest stars Hollywood has right now.  Both have toplined countless films and brought them to box office glory but combining their talents was a real win for Tarantino and a boon for the film as a whole.  As with many of his performances, I found DiCaprio good to a point, but the actor always gets to a certain level where you clearly see the effort being made and then it falls apart for me.  A scene of Rick chastising himself after a lackluster performance in a scene goes on far too long and, because we’ve already seen Rick’s vulnerability, is redundant.  It’s a good thing DiCaprio has Pitt next to him for so much of the movie because this is Pitt’s most radiant time to shine.  Wearing the barely visible faded scars of a stuntman long in the business, Pitt’s best moments are when he’s not saying anything at all but just reacting to what’s happening around him.  It’s one of his all-time great roles and, coupled with the much anticipated Ad Astra, could mean 2019 winds up being a very good year for him.

At nearly three hours, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood could arguably be trimmed by a good twenty minutes, though I think it would be at the expense of some tone setting and establishment of characters.  No question, there’s a less laborious way to get through the movie but I didn’t find myself bored, easily making it through this one more than I have numerous films half its length.  It’s a must-see in theaters and try to catch it in 35MM should it be playing in that format nearest you.  Then go read up about the people and places you see and untangle the fact and fiction braid Tarantino has weaved.

Movie Review ~ Men in Black: International

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Men in Black have always protected the Earth from the scum of the universe. In this new adventure, they tackle their biggest threat to date: a mole in the Men in Black organization.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson, Liam Neeson, Kumail Nanjiani, Rafe Spall, Emma Thompson, Rebecca Ferguson

Director: F. Gary Gray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: There are some movies you can’t wait to review. Once they are over you run home to your computer or laptop and hit the keys.  If the movie is good, the copy practically writes itself because you’ve been thinking about the specific points to make and how you want to let your readers know this is a film to keep your eye out for.  For bad movies, it’s often easier to pull your thoughts together on what to say but harder to pen a review that’s more than just a tear down of the production.  Then there are movies like Men in Black: International which is so instantly forgettable I had to prioritize its review for fear I would forget the movie entirely.

Arriving seven years after Men in Black III seemingly wrapped up the big screen adventures of the special agents tasked with protecting Earth from alien threats, Men in Black: International was originally intended to be a crossover with the gang from 21 Jump Street.  When that plan failed to materialize, the film went ahead as its own entity, spun-off from the original trilogy and, though retaining a few characters/creatures, largely telling its own story.  The result is a tedious time-waster by even the most generous of summer standards, with no one stepping up to make the case this was a franchise that needed to be rebooted.

Ever since she was a child,  Molly (Tessa Thompson, Avengers: Endgame) has been trying to identify the secret government agency that visited her house as a child and used a neuralyzer on her parents, wiping their memory clean regarding an alien encounter but forgetting to clear her as well.  She knows she saw a small furry blue creature and, though everyone tells her she’s crazy in the years that follow, is intent on finding out where the agency is located and joining their ranks.  By lucky happenstance (this is a 105 minute movie, after all), Molly is in the right place at the right time and finds what she’s looking for, eventually convincing Agent O (Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks) to take her on as a probationary agent.  The film races past any potential interest we have in how the agency trains its field agents, opting instead to just show Molly (now Agent M) suited up and ready to go, her boot camp days long behind her.

For her first mission, she’s dispatched to the London branch of the Men in Black, led by High T (Liam Neeson, The Grey) and her plucky curiosity gets her paired with Agent H (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation) on a routine protection detail that turns into a fight to save the Earth from an evil force known as The Hive.  To make matters worse, aside from a nosey co-worker (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) with a grudge against Agent H, there’s a mole in the London branch so H and M have to stay one step ahead of a traitor on the inside who is following their every move.  The set-up gives way to a plodding second act where the agents sorta make good on the “international” promise of the title but largely go up against CGI villans that are rarely menacing, let along convincingly real.

Though paired together well in Thor: Ragnarok, Hemsworth and Thompson have awkward onscreen chemistry that goes above and beyond the characters initial dislike/distrust of each other.  Hemsworth in particular looks like he’s coasting on fumes for much of the picture and all that positive support he built up in his Avengers run evaporates with his listless performance.  The usually interesting Tessa Thompson also strikes out too, but she’s mostly undone by a script that doesn’t provide any depth to her character.  It’s like she never existed prior to the opening of the film and while that makes for a great MIB agent, it makes for a fairly hollow character we’re supposedly going to be rooting for.  You get the feeling Emma Thompson and Neeson recognized how sloppy this whole thing was and slowly started to back away from the movie because they dissolve into the background whenever possible.  Normally I’m all for a Rebecca Ferguson (The Greatest Showman) appearance but her cameo as a zebra-wigged arms dealer that’s all arms is absolutely the time those with small bladders can get up and go to the bathroom.

Director F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) along with Iron Man screenwriters Matt Holloway and Art Marcum either never saw the original Men in Black films or did and just didn’t care about maintaining the quirky charm of the preceding films.  Especially in the debut film, there was a B-movie feel to the proceedings that helped make it’s shlockier alien creature elements a little easier to swallow.  The new film is straight-forward filmmaking 101 with little creative pride taken in anything from action sequences to creature design to 11th hour plot twists.  They say some movies are taken for the paycheck and this is one where everyone must have needed a new pool in their backyard.

Movie Review ~ Brightburn


The Facts
:

Synopsis: What if a child from another world crash-landed on Earth, but instead of becoming a hero to mankind, he proved to be something far more sinister?

Stars: Elizabeth Banks, David Denman, Jackson A. Dunn, Meredith Hagner, Matt Jones, Becky Wahlstrom, Gregory Alan Williams

Director: David Yarovesky

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: If you ask even the most hardcore comic book or superhero fan, they’ll tell you the most difficult movie to get through is the origin story. The necessary evil in the introduction of any known entity, it’s the one entry that often gets marked down for its inevitable sameness.  It’s made all the more frustrating when a studio goes back to the drawing board and wants to begin their big franchise from the ground up again…because it means another take on how our hero or heroine came to be so very super.  While some films have found new angles into the telling of these tales, most find themselves fumbling through rote storytelling arcs as a means to a predictable end.

Living in an age where remakes and reboots are all the rage, I can see the appeal of Brightburn to a studio hungry for an interesting property that poses quite the question to viewers:  What if a childless couple found a baby in a demolished spacecraft and raised him as their own, but rather than growing up to be a hero he becomes malevolent?

On an ordinary night in 2006, the town of Brightburn, Kansas saw its population grow by one when Tori and Kyle Breyer’s prayers are answered and a baby boy literally falls from the sky. Over the next 12 years the Breyer’s don’t speak of that night, telling the boy only that he was adopted and living a peaceful life on their remote farm.  They notice, though, that he’s never sick, never bleeds, never gets a bruise.  On the eve of his twelfth birthday, a strange beacon coming from the barn awakens Brandon (Jackson A. Dunn, Avengers: Endgame) and it flips some kind of switch inside him, unleashing a host of powers he never knew he had. Over the next several days these powers will grow, as will his desire to take over the world…starting with Brightburn.

Turning the Superman origin story on its ear, Brightburn most definitely has the kernel of a unique concept but it’s unfortunately not been developed too far past that logline.  What’s arrived in theaters is a half-baked movie born from a half-baked idea.  The script from Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn feels like a second or third draft that needs more work because the dialogue is weak (we’re talking Saturday Night Live spoof sketch level bad) and the second half of the movie are just repetitive scenes of Brandon enacting grotesque violence on people that run afoul of him.

Admittedly, there’s some art to a few of these gore displays but they are peppered amongst uncomfortable scenes that are incredibly awkward to sit through. Did we really need to have the moment where Kyle (David Denman, jOBS) has “the talk” with Bradon and tells him about masturbation? Or several squirm-inducing passages where Brandon makes unwanted advances on a preteen girl in his class…going so far as to show up in her bedroom to terrify her?  It’s one thing to stage horror sequences where adults have gory maladies befall them but the objectification of the children was a skeevy step director David Yarovesky should have avoided.  There’s a pervy undertone to the movie that can’t be ignored.

The biggest misstep by the filmmakers is that they abandon their revisionist idea almost as soon as they introduce it, reducing Brandon to just being a creep instead of someone evil to his core.  That his parents ignore his behavior for so long starts to be a reflection on their bad parenting more than his devolving to a darker side.  By the time everyone realizes what’s going on, it’s too late and we’re already in the final act.  Even though it’s blessedly short at 91 minutes (85 not including credits) the movie struggles to maintain focus, mostly due to poor plotting and inconsistent pacing.  The last 20 minutes are a mish-mash of bad CGI and headache-inducing light flashes.

There’s most likely several factors Brightburn made it to theaters at all and didn’t go straight to Netflix where I think it would have found greater success.  With James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) producing a script written by his brother and cousin, he brought on old friend Banks (Pitch Perfect 2) as its only notable star and while she’s not A-List enough to open a movie she’s liked by quite a view movie-goers.  Also, considering its vague superhero ties it must have seemed like a good bit of counterprogramming to release it during the Memorial Day weekend in the hopes that audiences would give it a go without reading reviews first. The studio not screening the movie for critics was a clever move…but only fanned the whiff of a turkey my way.  When will they learn?

The Silver Bullet ~ Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Synopsis: A faded TV actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.

Release Date: July 26, 2019

Thoughts: To be honest, this first look at the 9th film from Quentin Tarantino is not what I expected.  Though this movie apparently has some connection to the infamous Manson murders that occurred a half century ago, you’d never know it by watching this teaser trailer which mostly focuses on A-listers Leonardo DiCaprio (The Great Gatsby) and Brad Pitt (World War Z) as a has-been star and his wise-cracking stunt double making one last go in La La Land.  You barely see Margot Robbie (I, Tonya) as Sharon Tate and the Manson family members pass by quickly if you aren’t paying attention.  What is there smacks of a lot of “acting” going on, especially from DiCaprio (yikes, that last shot!) and a little of that can go an awfully long way.  It’s clearly a teaser trailer for something more to come but usually Tarantino (The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained) offers up something a tad more enticing as an appetizer.  Still, from the looks of it he’s recreated 1969 California as only a truly fanatic film nerd could so I’m absolutely interested in the main course.

Movie Review ~ Holmes & Watson


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A humorous take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic mysteries featuring Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Stars: Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, Ralph Fiennes, Rebecca Hall, Kelly Macdonald, Hugh Laurie, Pam Ferris, Lauren Lapkus, Rob Brydon

Director: Etan Cohen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s been a month since Thanksgiving but there’s a fresh turkey to be found at your local cinema.  Sadly, there’s no wishbone to be had in this bird but if there had been, you’d likely use up your wish and go back in time to select another movie, any other movie, to see instead.  Haven’t we had enough Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson yet?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic literary creations have already come to life in multiple well-made movies over the past eight decades and one highly regarded television series, not to mention we’ve already had one marginally liked comedic take with 1988’s Without a Clue.  Yet the famed duo still provide fodder for further films and when they don’t have an ounce of brains in the planning you get a movie like Holmes & Watson.

A film sure to make Conan Doyle roll over in his grave, Holmes & Watson is a dum-dum comedy featuring Will Ferrell (The Campaign) and John C. Reilly (Carnage) hoping to recreate some of the magic they found in 2008 hit Step Brothers.  While that movie was no brilliant fete of moviemaking, it looks like Lawrence of Arabia compared to this stinker.  It seems like no one bothered to think through anything above and beyond the simple character constructs everyone already knows and then unfortunately let Ferrell and Reilly fill in the blanks.  Left to their own devices, the duo entertain only themselves for a turgid 90 minutes.  Adding in unnecessary modern references and a few Trump jokes for good measure not to mention an amazing amount of bad dubbing and numerous continuity errors and you have a movie that feels cobbled together from rejected remnants of better scripts.

Opening with the meeting and eventual friendship of a young Sherlock Holmes and John Watson when Holmes is dropped off and bullied at an elite boarding school, we jump forward to an established Holmes and Watson testifying at the trial of the recently captured Moriarty (Ralph Fiennes, The Grand Budapest Hotel, looking pained in every one of his brief appearances onscreen).  When Moriarty goes free and a threat with his evil touch is then made on the Queen (Pam Ferris, The Raven), Holmes and Watson jump into action with the assistance of an American doctor (Rebecca Hall, The BFG) who catches Watson’s eye.  Also providing assistance is Kelly Macdonald (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as the housekeeper at Baker Street, Rob Brydon (Early Man) as Inspector Lestrade, and Hugh Laurie (Tomorrowland) as Holmes’ older brother.

Admittedly, I saw Holmes & Watson at the tail end of a long holiday weekend and sort of half dozed off around the 40-minute mark but was told by my movie-going companion all I missed was an appearance by Steve Coogan (Philomena) as a one-armed tattoo artist operating at a wrestling studio (because…of course).  My sleepiness is also likely the reason I saw the movie was written and directed by Etan Cohen and for a brief moment was filled with fear that the Oscar winning director of No Country For Old Men had played a part in this…only to realize that was Ethan Cohen.  The man captaining this sinking ship was Etan (no ‘h’) Cohen and he gave us the gems Men in Black III and Get Hard…more in line with what’s on screen.

With a cast this stacked you almost feel sorry they are ending 2018 with such a scarlet letter on their IMDb page but if there’s one good thing to come out of Holmes & Watson is that hopefully studios will think twice before giving Ferrell such a long leash in future movies.  He’s a large reason the movie fails so spectacularly, halfheartedly hamming it up for the camera like he’s sleepwalking through the second to last sketch on a March episode of Saturday Night Live.  He’s merely collecting a paycheck and dragging down a lot of better actors with him.  Looking over his movies, he hasn’t made a legitimately good one in almost a decade, box office numbers aside.  It’s time for the actor to take a step back and have a good talk with himself about what kind of actor he wants to be because he’s consistently turning up in trash.

At this very moment audiences find themselves with a plethora of solid movie choices available to them and to even consider plunking down your money for Holmes & Watson over far better fare like Roma, Mary Poppins Returns, If Beale Street Could Talk, or Ben is Back would be a real waste.  Worse, you’d be rewarding the filmmakers and stars for their bad choices.

Movie Review ~ The Girl in the Spider’s Web

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

Stars: Claire Foy, Sverrir Gudnason, Lakeith Stanfield, Sylvia Hoeks, Cameron Britton, Stephen Merchant, Claes Bang, Christopher Convery, Synnøve Macody Lund, Vicky Krieps

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: When 2011’s U.S. remake of the 2009 Swedish phenomenon The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo failed to bring in the kind of audience Columbia Pictures and MGM was hoping for, the two planned sequels were put on an indefinite hold.  What a pity.  Though the remake had its share of detractors, it was a compelling mystery and expertly made film that took its time to explore the characters and wasn’t afraid to wallow in some dark material.  Director David Fincher is a master at what he does and the look and feel of the movie, not to mention the fantastic performances from Rooney Mara (who received an Oscar nom for her work) and Daniel Craig, has helped to keep the film a singular experience.

Deciding to skip the two direct sequels and start over with a new novel released in 2015 brought a challenge. With Fincher, Craig, and Mara all released from their contracts and on to different projects, when the time came to bring the franchise back to life for The Girl in the Spider’s Web the studio had to go back to the drawing board and find a new director and star.  Bringing on rising director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) and hiring Claire Foy (Breathe) as the titular character were impressive gambles that don’t completely pay off.  The resulting film works fine as a standard thriller if you didn’t have any previous knowledge of the characters but as a continuation of what Fincher started back in 2011 (and what really began with the original film trilogy in 2009) it misses the mark by a longshot.

It’s been three years since the events of The Girl in the Dragon Tattoo and computer hacker Lisbeth Salander has become a not-so-secret vigilante of sorts in Stockholm, coming to the aid of women wronged by men.  The opening of the film (spoiled, like much of the movie, by trailers that have given away far too many key plot points) finds Salander giving a wife beater a bit of sweet vengeance.  Foy plays the exchange like she’s buying carpet for her rec room at IKEA, it’s fine to be emotionally removed from these abusers but her monotone delivery suggests boredom rather than detachment.

Salander’s ally Mikael Blomkvist (Sverrir Gudnason) hasn’t seen her since her wrote an exposé centered on her family.  Though his editor and sometime lover Erika (a sadly underused Vicky Krieps, Phantom Thread) urges him to move on, he can’t forget the troubled girl. Much like Fincher’s film, Alvarez keeps Lisbeth and Mikael apart for a good half of the film but unlike the previous entry when they do share screen time there’s next to no spark between the two.  That’s partly because the dynamic in this movie feels like it’s shifted and Mikael is now more of a second banana to Lisbeth’s main character.

When Lisbeth is asked to retrieve a computer program that becomes a threat to the national security of America and Sweden, she’s thrown into a conspiracy that will bring her back to painful memories (and people) of her childhood.  If you’ve read the book The Girl in the Spider’s Web is based off of, be prepared for major changes.  For fun, after the screening I read the plot synopsis of the novel and was amazed at the liberties screenwriters Alvarez, Jay Basu, and Steven Knight took with David Lagercrantz’s original text, rendering it almost wholly new.  For what it’s worth, the novel sounded far more muddled and complicated, something that wouldn’t have translated easily to the screen.

That leaves Alvarez to cut his own course with the material, leaving out the connective tissue that helped make The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo such an intriguing mystery.  There’s no real thought process from anyone in the movie, they either just “know” the answer to a perplexing puzzle or whatever methods they use to figure things out happen offscreen.  One example is a character in the U.S. who is trying to locate a hacker by tracing their location.  The location is narrowed down to Stockholm, at which time the character grabs his coat and runs directly to the airport…because Stockholm is so specific. Part of what makes these kind of films fun is playing detective alongside our lead characters but here we are so far removed that it’s like someone is reading us a story instead of inviting us to follow along.

The screenwriters also make a giant leap in turning Lisbeth into more of a superhero than a heroine.  She takes a licking and keeps on ticking, bouncing back from explosions and beatings needing little to no recovery time.  One moment Lisbeth has been drugged and the next she’s snorted some crushed opioids and is driving a car in pursuit of cybercriminals.  She also has a curious knack for knowing the right way out of dead end.

I’ve enjoyed Foy in her films so far in 2018.  She was great in the paranoid thriller Unsane and good in October’s First Man.  Here she’s merely OK and it’s mostly due to her being miscast as an edgy character lacking bite.  Mara and her Swedish counterpart Noomi Rapace played Lisbeth as damaged goods, alternately withdrawn and feral which led to her being unpredictable.  Foy isn’t afforded much in the way of surprise so we’re just tagging along for what is largely an unremarkable ride for the actress.

As a jumpy NSA agent on Salander’s trail, Lakeith Stanfield is even more of an enigma.  There’s no backstory to his character by way of an introduction nor do we get any blanks filled in along the way.  We get a sense he’s good at his job but how spectacular can he be if he’s constantly bested by Salander and the thugs on her trail?  By the time he’s somehow called on to be an expert marksman in an admittedly nicely constructed action scene, I sort of stopped asking questions.

The best performance in the whole film is Sylvia Hoeks as a ice blonde specter from Lisbeth’s past.  Dressed head to toe in red and never speaking above a child-like purr, she’s intimidating without even raising a finger.  It does veer toward campy Bond villainess at times (the whole film feels like a gender-bending Bond romp, actually) but Hoeks knows exactly what film she’s in and sinks her teeth into every bit of scenery she can get her hands on.  Much like she did with her unsettling character in Blade Runner 2049, she becomes the focal point of any scene she’s in.

Alvarez shows off some style in his eye for imaginative camera angles with the help of cinematographer Pedro Luque (Don’t Breathe) and slightly macabre visuals but he is far more restrained than he was in previous films.  Aside from one rather ghastly sight of a man missing a key piece of his face it’s relatively tame.  I appreciated that he included a brief title sequence, nicely echoing the unforgettable pulse-pounding nightmare credit sequence of the first film.  The music by Roque Baños (In the Heart of the Sea) helps to set the mood, even if that mood too often requires Baños to veer into action movie histrionics.

I’m not sure what the impetus was for the studios to revive this franchise again in 2018 (were they about to lose the rights?) but they’ve given us another chapter in the Dragon Tattoo collection that doesn’t even feel like it’s in the same universe as what’s come before.  The characters deserve better, the actors deserve better, we deserve better.

31 Days to Scare ~ Escape Room (2019) – Trailer

Synopsis: Six strangers find themselves in circumstances beyond their control, and must use their wits to survive.

Release Date: January 4, 2019

Thoughts: Even if Escape Room has a concept that feels like a less extreme version of what was first cooked up in the Saw films, I have to say this teaser trailer definitely has me intrigued.  Over the past few years escape rooms have popped up all over the country to growing popularity so it seems natural that sooner or later someone would play off of the confusion and frustration of these diabolical rooms.  I’ve been in several and if there was a horror movie made of my experience it would just be 60 minutes of me growing frustrated while trying to unlock a safe that has nothing in it.  I have confidence in director Adam Robitel who gave us the freaky gift The Taking of Deborah Logan and helmed Insidious: The Last Key, and Escape Room feels like it could be the jumping off point for a clever new franchise.

Movie Review ~ Sicario: Day of the Soldado


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The drug war on the U.S.-Mexico border has escalated as the cartels have begun trafficking terrorists across the US border. To fight the war, federal agent Matt Graver re-teams with the mercurial Alejandro.

Stars: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine

Director: Stefano Sollima

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I must say that the thought of a sequel to 2015’s rock solid Sicario turned my stomach a bit. Why sully the original thrill of that film with a follow-up that moved forward without a few key players? Gone are the star (Emily Blunt), the director (Denis Villeneuve), the cinematographer (Roger Deakins) and the composer (the late Jóhann Jóhannsson) which just left the writer (Taylor Sheridan) along with co-stars Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. Originally announced as Soldado before changing to Sicario 2: Soldado and ultimately landing on Sicario: Day of the Soldado…it was getting increasingly worrisome that my initial fears would be realized.

Turns out Sony Pictures and Sheridan knew what they were doing all along. Not only is Sicario: Day of the Soldado a worthy follow-up to the original, it signals the start of something I never would have expected…a franchise.

sicario m ([s̪iˈkäːr̺io]): hitman (hired killer)

soldado m, f (solˈdado): soldier (member of an army, person who fights for a cause)

Picking up several years after the events of the first film, Sheridan (Hell or High Water, Wind River) wastes no time in jolting audiences with an opening act that rockets all over the country. Those looking to turn their brains off best look elsewhere because Sheridan needs your attention from the word go. No time is wasted in his economical screenplay that shifts the focus from the efforts of operative Matt (Brolin, Avengers: Infinity War, Deadpool 2) to combat the trafficking of drugs along the Mexican border to a covert operation authorized by the CIA designed to pit rival Mexican drug carters against eachother.

To start this fire, Matt calls up his old friend Alejandro (Benicio del Toro, Inherent Vice) and the two men work in tandem on a kidnapping plot involving the daughter of a Mexican druglord. The plan goes awry, however, and soon Alejandro is tasked with protecting this valuable asset while keeping one step ahead of corrupt police and a whole host of ruthless killers out to recover the young girl or bury her in the desert.

Incoming director Stefano Sollima picks up the reins from Villeneuve with a little less style but no less intensity. This is a fairly straight-forward film that flexes its considerable muscle when it has to but also takes time for quieter moments, such as Alejandro’s conversation with a deaf farmer that reveals more about the family Alejandro lost and is still seeking some kind of vengeance for.

Composer Hildur Guðnadóttir (Prisoners) continues the work of Jóhannsson with his ominous, omnipresent score that grinds at the nerves but doesn’t overwhelm the proceedings. Running just a minute longer than Sicario, the sequel again shows Sheridan’s uncanny knack for producing a script that doesn’t feel like it has an excess material to it. There’s none of the trite padding some lesser action/military films feel the need to employ and while it has a host of characters passing through including the droll Catherine Keener, Incredibles 2, as a gruff CIA leader and Matthew Modine, 47 Meters Down, as a government official, it’s not hard to follow who is being gunned down or who is doing the shooting.

Filled with a few surprising twists and universally strong performances (including Peruvian actress Isabela Moner, impressive as the hostage) Sicario: Day of the Soldado easily justifies it existence and creates interest in seeing these characters go deeper into the dark. Here’s hoping Sheridan has a doozy of a third entry planned…but how about bringing back Blunt? Please?

The Silver Bullet ~ The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Synopsis: Young computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist find themselves caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials.

Release Date: November 9, 2018

Thoughts: Though 2011’s American remake of the Swedish sensation The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was well received by critics (earning an Oscar nomination for star Rooney Mara in the process), it didn’t do the kind of box office numbers that inspired Sony Pictures to keep the franchise going.  When a continuation of the original trilogy of novels was released, the interest in resurrecting the computer hacker heroine grew which is why we’re now getting an all-new take on Lisbeth Salander in The Girl in the Spider’s Web.  With Claire Foy (Breathe) taking over for Mara and Fede Alvaraz (Don’t Breathe) assuming directing duties from David Fincher, this first look suggests the same dark vibe as the previous entry.  Foy looks to have morphed nicely into the rough and tumble Salander and I’m excited for Blade Runner 2049 breakout Sylvia Hoeks to be featured briefly in this teaser.