31 Days to Scare ~ Anaconda




The Facts
:

Synopsis: A film crew traveling on the Amazon River is taken hostage by an insane hunter, who forces them along on his quest to capture the world’s largest – and deadliest – snake.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ice Cube, Jon Voight, Eric Stoltz, Jonathan Hyde, Owen Wilson, Kari Wuhrer

Director: Luis Llosa

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: If there’s one thing you should have gathered by now if you follow this blog on any kind of regular basis, it’s that The MN Movie Man loves a good creature feature.  Though they often fail to meet their potential, I’m notoriously a sucker and pretty forgiving for any movie that has a slimy monster, razor toothed alien, or, best of all, some underwater beast.  Big studios have become averse to toss their money toward these movies because they’re often heavy on CGI or animatronic effects, which increases the costs significantly, making the possibility to turn a profit more difficult for a genre that gets the most bang on opening weekend. However, don’t forget that in the late ’90s the teen slasher film was back on the rise so young audiences looking for thrills were being catered to more than ever. So while Sony was getting I Know What You Did Last Summer into production and ready for release, they already had a stealthy sleeper hit ready to slither into theaters in early 1997.

Keep in mind that when Anaconda was released in April of 1997, it carried with it a $45 million dollar price tag and a cast not known for raking in audiences.  Oscar-winner Jon Voight (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) wasn’t exactly a cover story anymore and Ice Cube (21 Jump Street) the actor wasn’t nearly as popular as Ice Cube the rapper.  Eric Stoltz (Kicking and Screaming) was more recognized for his brief turn in Pulp Fiction than he was for his dynamite roles in 1987’s Some Kind of Wonderful or 1985’s Mask and Owen Wilson (Zoolander 2) was just perfecting  his California surfer boy cool vibe that would land him a number of roles for the next two decades.  Then there was female lead Jennifer Lopez (Second Act) who we now always remember as being a star but back then hadn’t yet fully capitalized on her sensational breakthrough in Selena — that would happen in 1998’s Out of Sight.

So there was nothing to suggest Anaconda would be anything more than a silly B-movie of with a decent mechanical snake that would be substituted for a semi-convincing computer generated one for the fast moving shots.  And you know what?  That’s exactly what it is…and it’s great.  Sometimes it’s nice to just kick off your shoes and relax into a horror film that’s going to give you a little zing but isn’t going to to send you leaping out of your seat every six seconds.  There’s a particular level of fun to be had with a film like Anaconda because it gives you exactly what it promises (and a little extra) and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It’s campy but in all the right ways and takes itself only as seriously as the material will allow — to spoof it or make it joke-y would spell disaster so the cast (and even the snake) seem to have a tiny twinkle in their eye.

Not that it really matters, but the plot finds a film crew led by Stolz and Lopez floating down the Amazon that picks up a stranded man (Voight) who turns out to be a psycho snake hunter.  He’s obsessed with capturing a large anaconda said to lurk in the waters far off the beaten path and takes control of the expedition so that he may use their boat to get where he’s going.  Looping crew member Wilson into his plot, Voight (sporting an accent questionable for its authenticity and political correctness) may prove to be more dangerous than the snake as the rest of the cast fights to survive being offed by him before the snake can give them a good squeeze.  Director Luis Llosa keeps the action brisk and and, considering the deadly subject matter, surprisingly jovial.

When the snake does appear, the results are mostly good but can be mixed at times thanks to mediocre CGI that can make its actual size confusing.  The practical snake is finely detailed and quite effective but the computer generated one looks an awful lot like a cartoon in some shots.  Then again, the editing is so fast and quick that you don’t get much time to see it in full and Llosa goes the Spielberg route and keeps it out of sight as much as possible for as long as he can.

Ultimately, it’s a solid effort and for the time period the movie was made you can see where the money went…although you look at a movie like Jaws and wonder how they made such a realistic shark in 1975 with absolutely no computer effects yet twenty two years later they can’t make an anaconda go from point A to point B and appear mostly convincing?  Say what you will about Voight nowadays but he’s never less than fully committed to the role and the loopy performance…and his famous “wink” scene is well worth the wait.  You don’t get a huge sense of the star Lopez would become but there’s definitely something there that makes you want to see more.  Audiences clearly were charmed by this big snake film because Anacadona wound up rattling the box office with a final take of nearly $137 million dollars.  It’s no wonder it was followed with several sequels of gradually decreasing quality, many of which bypassed theaters entirely.  There’s nothing quite as entertaining as the original and it holds up well even now.

Movie Review ~ The Grudge (2020)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a young mother murders her family in her own house, a single mother and detective tries to investigate and solve the case. She discovers the house is cursed by a vengeful ghost that dooms those who enter it with a violent death.

Stars: Andrea Riseborough, Lin Shaye, Demián Bichir, Betty Gilpin, John Cho, William Sadler, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I’ve always liked to look at the start of a new year as a way to wipe the slate clean and start fresh.  What a perfect time to forget about old annoyances, unmet goals, and the resolutions from the previous year that you didn’t stick to.  For this critic embarking on his ninth year of being a one-man reviewing band on this site, it’s also a fine time to hope that the next year of movie-going will be a smooth ride, where every film is a winner and each expectation I have going in is met.  Though 2019 shaped up to be a rather strong year for film in those final few months there were some bumps along the way…with some real rough patches especially in the horror genre remake/reboot realm.  If you read my end of the year review you’ll know I put the trash update of Child’s Play as my #1 worst movie in 2019 and unfortunately we are only two days into the new year and I already have a likely candidate to be (dis)honorably mentioned 12 months from now.

Always wanting to support my beloved horror films I was silly enough to take myself to see Sony’s restage of The Grudge thinking that it would be the scary new vision of 2002’s Ju-On: The Grudge it made itself out to be.  Instead, writer/director Nicolas Pesce squanders a talented cast and decent production values in a film that is schizophrenic at best, incoherent at worst.  The films in this series have always suffered from issues with structure and there is barely a framework in place before Pesce starts to tear it all apart. Coming off of two well received movies, 2018’s Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother from 2016, Pesce was an intriguing choice to take on this reboot but brings none of the style he showed in those smaller movies with his first foray into franchise territory.  This is Horror Movie 101, with lame-o jump scares favored over any kind of build up of suspense or furthering of the narrative action.

After the death of her husband, Detective Muldoon (no first name given ever) packs up and moves with their son to Cross Creek, PA, where they have a chance at finding a new normal.  Her first day on the job she’s partnered with Detective Goodman (another character not given the benefit of a first name) and they are sent to the woods where a decomposed body has been found in a locked car.  Tracing the body back to a house with a bloody past, Goodman wants to turn the investigation over to the federal authorities and forget about it but Muldoon can’t resist doing some work on her own.  Once Muldoon enters the infamous house she starts to experience strange events that can all be tied back to a family that had been murdered two years prior…and whatever caused all that trouble before is now after her.

If you’ve never seen it, the original Japanese film Ju-On: The Grudge is quite an effective entry in J-Horror.  I remember catching it at a small theater in my town when it received a limited release and receiving good chills for my effort.  When I heard the original director was coming to the US to remake the film in partnership with Sam Raimi (Oz: The Great and Powerful), I was curious to see how Hollywood would handle it.  The 2004 version of The Grudge followed it’s foreign predecessor pretty closely and was a decent if completely unnecessary effort; setting much of it Japan with a largely American cast had its own problems, though and it’s non-linear format didn’t flow as easily overseas.  A quick sequel was pushed into production and the 2006 result was a steep nosedive in quality and logic.  I never got around to seeing the third film, released in 2009, but skimming reviews for it online it appears I didn’t miss much.  Stepping back from the 2020 version a bit and squinting, you can see where a new twist on The Grudge may have sounded appealing to the studio heads at Sony.

I have to believe that something happened between Pesce’s pitch and the film being released that changed what was originally intended.  Made for a small-ish $10 million dollars, there was a real opportunity to make a suspenseful film that took the haunting elements from the original movies and placed them in a new story.  Instead, the movie is stuck in the same old narrative rut that proved so problematic in the past.  Set between the years 2004 and 2006 (why?), Pesce has really made four mini-episodes showing how the cursed house has taken deadly action over the years and then thrown it all into a wood-chipper before piecing it back together.  It never allows the action to find a rhythm because there’s no impetus to when or how the storylines diverge from one another.

One moment you’re in 2006 where Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough, Oblivion) and Goodman (Demián Bichir, A Better Life) are investigating the body in the car, the next you’re back in the past watching married real estate agents (John Cho, Searching and Betty Gilpin, Isn’t it Romantic?) dealing with their own tragedy who make the mistake of taking on the spooky dwelling.  Aside from the original family who meet a gruesome fate, the other noteworthy arc involves a man (Frankie Faison, The Silence of the Lambs) who has called upon a euthanasia supporter (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) to help his ailing wife (Lin Shaye, Insidious: The Last Key) transition.  Of all the plots Pesce juggles this is the one that I wanted to know more about, thanks to the performances of all three actors…especially Weaver.  The way Weaver reacts to the horror she sees made me wish she had better material to work with…but she gives it her all anyway.

Actually, all the actors deserve some pat on the back for imbibing what sensibility was possible into their roles.  Riseborough is such a fascinating actress but struggles with a character that becomes more hyperbolic as the film goes on.  Pesce makes a concerted effort to pause the action while Riseborough works through her emotions but since we have no real sense of who she is these slow sections become annoying, making the film feel longer (much much much longer) than its 94 minutes.  I’m not sure if Bichir ever spoke above a throaty whisper but I’m definitely sure Cho and Gilpin didn’t know they were in a horror movie until after the movie was finished.  Both look bewildered instead of scared.  You can always count on Shaye to bring us back on track and her few scenes as a woman that has become unhinged due to the house consistently find the right tone.  I also found William Sadler’s (Freeheld) brief appearance to be approaching the right ballpark of where Pesce should have taken things.

A clumsy film to kick off 2020, hopefully audiences won’t take the bait with this new version of The Grudge and allow this series to just disappear.  The only thing good about seeing this is that everything else you watch this year is bound to be better…but maybe that’s me being too hopeful again.

Movie Review ~ Little Women (2019)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s been 151 years since Louisa May Alcott wrote her classic novel Little Women and it seems over that time there have been as many adaptations of it on stage and screens big and small.  There’s just something timeless about Alcott’s tale of sisters moving through stages of their lives that has spoken to countless generations.  Whether you come from a big household or were an only child (like me), there’s something relatable and warmly familiar about the March family, allowing readers to latch on to a particular character and know them well enough to say “I’m a Jo” or “She’s more of a Meg”.  No matter how many times we’re exposed to the material, we still laugh at their comedic moments and cry when the reality of life steps in.

Having read the book on more than one occasion and keeping a certain fondness for anything it inspired (stage play, musical, miniseries, film), I could easily call myself a fan and am always willing to give any new interpretation the benefit of the doubt.  Heck, over the holiday break I even watched the made-for-television movie The March Sisters at Christmas, a modernized version of the story that took some giant liberties with the source material.  (For the record, it wasn’t half bad.)  What makes it difficult for me is that I think the much-loved 1994 version is the epitome of success in translation to the screen.  Though it had been seen in theaters before in 1933 and again in 1949, something about the ‘90s version just hit all the right notes for me, making it indelible and hard to measure up to.  Even so, when I heard Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) was taking on the duties of writer/director for a 2019 take on Little Women, I was interested to see what she would do with it and where it would land on the scale of successful retellings.

For those not familiar with the source material, the bones of Alcott’s story remain the same.  The Civil War is going strong and Father (Bob Odenkirk, Long Shot) is on the front lines, leaving his wife Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story) and their four daughters to keep the household going for the duration.  Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson, The Bling Ring) strives to lead by example, eagerly anticipating a domestic life with a husband and children.  That’s quite the opposite of headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan, The Host) the de facto leader of the siblings who makes great plans to roam beyond the confines of their Concord, Mass homestead.  Shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects) is the calming presence, taking solace in her piano playing while the youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar) longs for a romanticized life rubbing shoulders with the elite.

Drifting into the March orbit at various times are a sour Aunt (Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins) anxious to see her family lineage continue on well-funded and neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy) whose curiosity and friendship with the sisters quickly turns into something deeper and more heartbreaking.  Also playing a part in the episodic developments as the years go by are Laurie’s grandfather (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), tutor John Brooke (James Norton, Mr. Turner), and Mr. Bhaer (Louis Garrel, The Dreamers), a professor staying in the same boarding house as Jo when she moves to New York City.  As the girls turn to women, they experience love and loss while striving to find their place not just in the outside world but in the small haven they’ve created within the walls of their childhood home.

Thankfully, there are a lot of things to recommend in this adaptation and I largely enjoyed it, even if there are some interesting choices made that don’t always feel effective.  It should please fans of the novel, although I’m not sure how easy it would be for newcomers to the story to get into the hearts and minds of our favorite characters. Though set in the appropriate period, Gerwig’s modern voice is front and center and while it doesn’t change the overall impact of Alcott’s novel the emotional beats are delivered in a different way than ever before.

Following up her semi-autobiographical breakout hit Lady Bird, Gerwig has made the intriguing choice to take a non-linear approach to Little Women.  Instead of a straight narrative that follows along the years with the family, events are chopped up and rearranged to function as memories or recollections.  What this accomplishes is giving the characters the opportunity to look back from the other side of conflict which eventually starts to wreak havoc on the way audiences are involved and invited into the story.  I found the first hour a bit of a struggle to stick with and, though well performed by Gerwig’s cast, difficult to keep up with because it bounces around so much.  The second hour is more of a challenge to talk about without giving away a crucial bit of plot but suffice it to say turns that in the past had me reaching for the Kleenex barely registered a sniffle in this telling.  That’s unfortunate because there’s such rich opportunity to explore the complexities of the heart but how can you take any time for emotion when the next scene may take place years prior, undoing whatever loss we’ve just seen?

The casting announcements for this were exciting at the time because Gerwig has assembled a dynamite team of actors that aren’t necessarily known for being overly earnest with their material.  What’s needed is honesty, not an overselling of what is essentially a near perfect piece of American literature.  In that respect, the cast is successful; however there are a few elements that I just couldn’t quite get over.  For one thing, it’s never clear the ages of the sisters.  Pugh looks the oldest of all and she’s playing the youngest while Watson feels like she’d be a more adept Beth than a Meg.  Ronan is a wonderful Jo, skillfully presenting her stubbornness without being obnoxious, eventually exposing the raw vulnerability beneath a lifetime of building up a hard-ish surface.  Amy is often seen as the flightiest of the March sisters but Gerwig and Pugh have confidently grounded her, showing the character is more worldly-wise than she’s ever been previously given credit for.  I quite like Scanlen’s take on Beth, even though she (like her character) gets overshadowed by the other women she shares the screen with.

Not surprisingly, Streep is a wry gas as a fussy relative who is “not always right.  But never wrong” and Cooper’s sensitive take on the kindly neighbor is fairly lovely.  The two main suitors Gerwig has cast are likely the most problematic for me.  As Jo’s elder boarding house friend, Garrel doesn’t create much in the way of sparks with Ronan.  It’s a distinctly flat performance and you wonder why Jo would ever have her head turned even a fraction the way Garrel handles the material.  I know Gerwig thinks Chalamet can do no wrong but he’s not well-suited for the role of the pining boy next door.  Certain finalities of his character don’t ring true, which is perhaps what Gerwig was going for, but it weakens Laurie’s relationship with two key March sisters.  Chalamet has the acting chops to give it a go but isn’t the right choice for the role.

In the car on the ride home, I became one of those purist people that wanted this new Little Women to be the way I imagined it to be.  I rattled off a list of things that didn’t sit right to my partner, citing the 1994 version as my ideal way to tell the story.  That’s not fair to Gerwig or her team, nor is it doing right to the movie as a whole.  Just as each generation has discovered Alcott’s everlasting story, so too should a new audience be exposed to the Little Women through their own version on screen.  I hold the 1994 effort in high regard and, clearly, this one trails that in my book, yet it shouldn’t ultimately define how it stacks up historically.  The tagline for the movie is “Own your own story.” and it can serve as a reminder that the version we have in our head will always supersede anything we can see from another perspective.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: The Next Level


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A team of friends return to Jumanji to rescue one of their own but discover that nothing is as they expect. The players need to brave parts unknown, from arid deserts to snowy mountains, in order to escape the world’s most dangerous game.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Danny DeVito, Danny Glover

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Seeing movies at advanced screenings is a huge benefit to doing what I do but it often presents a false impression of how a real audience will react to a movie.  Many times, the crowds that gather for these early showings have waited in line for hours and are experienced at snagging seats for every movie no matter the content or genre.  As long as it’s free, it’s worth seeing and that isn’t always the case for families that have to consider the cost to entertainment benefits of packing the kids into the car and taking them to the movies where prices are high and concessions are tempting.  What I could easily write off as trivial piddle because I’m seeing it for free and have another movie to get to tomorrow could be the one film outing of the holiday season for a household.  So trust me when I say I take this seriously.

Though I had my finicky issues with 2017’s Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, I still was able to recognize the enormous appeal of its stars and setting, a feeling that obviously was shared by the movie-going public who came out to support it en masse.  Opening strong but then showing surprising longevity over the ensuing weeks, the semi-sequel to the 1996 Robin Williams film was a bona fide hit that didn’t rely solely on the cast or an existing franchise to sell it.  It was an entertaining adventure that was a safe choice for the holidays and managed to outlast a Star Wars sequel (The Last Jedi) and a big movie musical (The Greatest Showman).  Two years later, a third movie has arrived a week before the release of another Star Wars film (The Rise of Skywalker) and a highly anticipated adaptation of a Broadway show (CATS)…is lighting going to strike again for Jumanji: The Next Level and its key players?

It’s been a year since four high schoolers serving detention entered a video game version of Jumanji that saw them take on different role playing avatars to humorous results.  Saving the day and exiting the playing ground as friends, they’ve gone their separate ways but have decided to reunite during the holidays.  Staying with his mom for the week and sharing a bedroom with his grandfather Eddie (Danny DeVito, Dumbo) recuperating from hip surgery, Spencer (Alex Wolff, Semper Fi)  can’t seem to find the same confidence he felt when he was in Jumanji as Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, Rampage) and takes a late-night opportunity to go back into the game.

Looking for Spencer when he doesn’t show up for their scheduled reunion, the three other friends (Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, and Madison Iseman) figure out where he has likely gone but before they can make a plan to save him they are sucked back into the game, along with Eddie and Eddie’s former business partner Milo (Danny Glover, The Dead Don’t Die).  All is not well when they return though because while the familiar avatars have stayed the same, the game has changed and, as the title indicates, there is another level to play if they want to make it out alive.  Teaming up with fresh characters, re-discovering old alliances, traveling to new worlds, and battling stronger enemies, the group will have to work together in order to retrieve a precious jewel that holds the key to sustaining the life of Jumanji.

The previous film was working with a script from at least four screenwriters and felt bogged down in a mass of ideas and input.  You could tell it had gone through the franchise factory to ensure it was perfected in order to leave room for future installments and, as I predicted at the end of my review of the original this new film allows our adventurers to explore different worlds outside of the jungle setting.  This keeps the movie from becoming too familiar, even if the entire endeavor is a basic rehash of the original, albeit with bigger effects and a few more characters within the game thrown in.  Is it a better movie?  I don’t know.  It feels about on par with what’s come before and it doesn’t stray too much from what everyone loved from the preceding film.  It brings back nearly everyone, including Nick Jonas (Midway) and that helps it achieve some consistency.

Director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) gathers the gang together again and largely lets them loose to do their shtick with little restraint.  This works for the most part in the physical scenes but for the passages that rely on comedic timing, some red flags popped up for me.  I’m not so sure how much I loved hearing Johnson (being “played” by DeVito) yammering through a stereotypical Brooklyn vernacular and I definitely didn’t care for Jack Black (The House with a Clock in Its Walls) affecting a problematic ethnic dialect when he was supposedly being played by a black teenager.  Black was already skating on some tepid ice with his wispy valley girl tra-la-la-ing and furthering some dated speech patterns made me squirm a bit.

If Johnson was the winning star of the first film, the bulk of the heavy lifting here is shifted to Kevin Hart (The Upside) and Karen Gillan (Oculus) who get some nice moments in as the zoologist and butt-kicker in the group.  The wealth is evenly distributed among the four but I felt Hart and Gillan were afforded some of the movies best sequences.  Strangely, the previews and marketing materials have failed to mention the presence of a new character played by a star on the rise and if the studio is being cagey about it, I’ll keep their identity a secret as well.  All I’ll say is this actor is making the awards rounds this season and perhaps they want to downplay their participation in a silly movie for fear their more serious work would be seen in a different light – which makes sense because what they’re doing is painting with some fairly broad strokes. Another secret I’ll keep is the name of an actor making an appearance somewhere in the movie that I recognized from the 1996 film.  At first, I wondered why this person would be cast who already had an association with this property, only to find out later they have the same character name in both movies.  A coincidence?  Time will tell.

Clocking in at 129 minutes, this felt longer than it had to be.  I was getting fairly shifty in my seat before this was even half over and I’m not sure if small children would feel the same way.  I would have liked to see a bit more adventure included in this adventure story and not just impressive CGI created worlds and effects.  There’s a nifty (and scary) high-wire pursuit by a horde of mandrills and a sequence near the end featuring a player eluding poison darts was more in line with what I wanted but there isn’t much room for that when so many other stars are mugging for time.  With a foundation already laid for a third installment, even if this doesn’t exactly represent a level up in overall quality at least there’s been some thought put into the design of this new playing field.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters: Afterlife

Synopsis: The story follows a family moving to a small town, where they learn more about who they are and the secrets of the town itself.

Release Date:  July 10, 2020

Thoughts: In 2016, Paul Feig tried to do something different in continuing/rebooting the Ghostbusters franchise.  Reducing that effort to just being the ‘female Ghostbusters’ seems entirely reductive so I’ll tread carefully and say that the movie didn’t work and not because of any gender switching that happened.  It failed to capture the tone of the original films and, more than that, didn’t capitalize on the talents of it’s skilled stars – instead choosing to forcefully make them work in roles they weren’t suited for.  Unfortunately, it fed the hungry bellies of the haters already poised to take it down.

Unwilling to give up on a reboot of their precious franchise so easily, Sony pivoted in a rather clever way by enlisting Jason Reitman (Labor Day), the son of original co-writer/director Ivan Reitman (Kindergarten Cop), to write and direct a true sequel to the original films and our first look at the highly anticipated summer 2020 film has arrived.  Let me say, there’s a point in this two and a half minute trailer where a little tingle started deep in my spine and quickly rose through the top of my head like an exaggerated thermometer in one of those Bugs Bunny cartoons.  I get the feeling Reitman, having grown up around this world, is the right person to take the reins on this series and with the rumored return of many of the original stars (who showed up in the 2016 movie but mostly as different characters) I’m truly happy to this resurrected again.

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.