Movie Review ~ Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Miles Morales becomes the Spider-Man of his reality and crosses paths with his counterparts from other dimensions to stop a threat to all reality.

Stars: Shameik Moore, Liev Schreiber, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld

Director: Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey & Rodney Rothman

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: With a seemingly never-ending supply of super-hero movies either in theaters or being hyped for release, a sense of same-ness has set in.  Even if the movie is entertaining when it arrives, audiences are getting hip to the fact that most of these big budget action adventures featuring various iterations of comic book heroes and heroines brought to life are just basic retreads of the same formula at their core.  Every once in a while, though, a film comes along with a new vision that raises the bar for its genre, pushing against the boundaries of the typical and setting its sights on the extraordinary.  In 2018, that film is surely Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

In this Spider-Man tale, Peter Parker (Chris Pine, Star Trek) takes a back seat to newcomer Miles Morales (Shameik Moore, Joyful Noise), a teen just starting in a new boarding school that finds his life changing in a major way when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider.  At the same time, he becomes embroiled in a conspiracy plot by Wilson Fisk aka Kingpin (Live Schreiber, Spotlight) that fractures his reality and brings together other characters with similar spidey-senses from different dimensions.  Now working with Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage, Valley Girl), Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson, The Mummy), Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld, Pitch Perfect 3), Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) and even Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), Miles will have to stop Kingpin’s nefarious plot and get his fellow Spider Men, Women, and Pigs back to their own individual universe.

Working with a script from a team that included Phil Lord (The LEGO Movie) and is filled with deep Easter eggs for hardcore devotees, directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman bring an animation style to the screen that’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.  The first few times I saw the preview for this movie I thought I must have been missing 3D glasses because the backgrounds tended to be so blurred while the action at the forefront was so clearly defined.  Turns out that’s the intended look and while it took me a bit to adjust to this bit of visual ingenuity, when my eyes settled in they were open wide so I could take in all the splendor of the action on screen.

Much like 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, Sony has done a brilliant job at resetting our expectations when it comes to our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.  A dazzling animated accomplishment, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is the movie that will sway you if you’ve all but written off finding anything new under the superhero sun.  It’s wildly creative, savvy without limiting itself by being too specifically timely, and moves like a locomotive that’s doubled down on its coal intake.  In short, it’s the best animated film I’ve seen all year and will likely find itself staying in the conversation when people speak of the cream of the comic book crop.

Movie Review ~ Venom (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Eddie Brock acquires the powers of a symbiote, he will have to release his alter-ego “Venom” to save his life.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Riz Ahmed, Michelle Williams, Jenny Slate, Reid Scott, Scott Haze, Ron Cephas Jones

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: If there’s one thing really good about the recent revival and rethinking of the comic book movie, it’s that it’s giving me some new visibility to characters that aren’t necessarily who you would think about when you hear the word “superhero”. From Guardians of the Galaxy to Ant-Man to Doctor Strange, this comic-book novice is getting a taste of multiple crime fighters and super villains that don’t have familiar names like Superman or Batman. The latest deeper dive character to get his own movie is Venom, the alien symbiote that is the alter-ego of journalist Eddie Brock.   Though Venom was introduced back in 2007 for Spider-Man 3, this is a resetting of the character and yet another origin story for audiences to trudge through. Origin stories done right are worth their weight in gold (hello, Black Panther) but if there isn’t any artistry to the endeavor why even tell the story to begin with?

That’s the main problem facing Venom in its release this fall season – there’s almost no creative energy in the re-launching of the anti-hero to a new generation of theater-goers. Not from the writers, not from director Ruben Fleischer (30 Minutes or Less), and surprisingly not from a stable of interesting supporting actors Fleischer has assembled. Good thing, then, that Venom/Eddie Brock is played by Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), a game actor willing to go the distance in his transformation.  It’s Hardy’s bizarre but bizarrely perfect performance that gives the film it’s best bet to hold up on repeat viewings.

As the film begins, Eddie Brock is an investigative journalist given an assignment to interview Carlton Drake (Rix Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), CEO of Life Foundation, a bioengineering corporation that has been experimenting with gene technology, often with deadly results. Though Brock doesn’t know it at the time, Drake has been exploring space in search of other worlds for habitation and located symbiotic lifeforms that he plans to transport back to earth. When the vessel carrying these organisms crashes and one escapes, Drake attempts to cover up the breach at all costs. Thanks to information about test subjects dying during clinical trials within Life Foundation he steals from the laptop of his lawyer girlfriend (Michelle Williams, All the Money in the World) Brock gets too close to the truth and finds himself dumped and fired on the same day.

The film cuts to half a year later when Brock is scrounging for any kind of work and is sought out by Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate, Zootopia), a colleague of Drake’s that has serious concerns over how her boss is conducting business. Skirth sneaks Brock into Life Foundation’s labs where he is infected by one of the alien lifeforms that Drake brought back from space. Thus, Venom is created and uses Brock’s body to roam Earth unnoticed, picking off anyone that interferes along the way. Venom is often just a voice in Brock’s head but makes the rare appearance as an extension of Brock’s appendages or as a full on CGI overlay on Hardy’s body.  Reaching out to his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend (Reid Scott), Brock seeks their assistance in discovering what’s inside him and how to get rid of it before it eats him from within.

There’s a strange disconnect between the first and last hour of the film, with the early material playing like a boring retread of any number of failed early ‘90s comic back creations. It’s only when Venom takes over Brock’s body that the film begins to loosen up and inject some dark humor into the action. Working best when it’s just Hardy on screen talking to himself or tossing himself around the room during his internal struggles with Venom, the movie gets considerably less interesting almost every time another character is brought into the mix. That’s bad news for Ahmed who is regulated to the bland megalomaniac villain role and especially poison for Williams who never fully establishes herself as strong enough female presence…at least not until the film almost subconsciously remembers they have an Oscar-nominated actress that has shown herself willing to cross genres in search of a challenge. Too often Williams just stares wide eyed at what’s happening around her and chirps out her lines with less that full enthusiasm. I wish the writers had given her a better arc and kept her interesting.

With the success of films like Logan, Deadpool, and Deadpool 2, audiences have shown they’ll turn out for a R-rated comic-book film. While Deadpool and it’s sequel were a bit on the extreme side of the restricted rating, I feel like Venom could easily have eschewed it’s PG-13 bloodless existence for a more adult oriented adventure like Logan was bold enough to do. It feels like the film was severely cut to get the more family friendly (?) rating and it suffers from comings off like a watered down version of something with higher ambitions. I fully expect to hear interviews with Hardy, Fleischer, and others involved down the road bemoaning the confines of operating in a PG-13 world.

With two post credit stingers (both worth it and one surprisingly lengthy), Venom is 112 minutes from start to finish and, aside from it’s slow first hour, is a mostly entertaining re-introduction to an darker character I wanted to learn more about. As is often the case with the first outings, it fees like we’re obligated to wait until the sequel to get more of that character development…but will audiences create the type of box-office that will cement this supposed continuation?

Movie Review ~ Alpha


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After a hunting expedition during the Upper Paleolithic period goes awry, a young man struggles against the elements to find his way home, all the while developing a friendship with a gray wolf. This forges the tentative first bond between man and canine.

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Leonor Varela, Natassia Malthe, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Priya Rajaratnam, Mercedes de la Zerda, Jens Hultén

Director: Albert Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Release dates are tricky things when it comes to movies. Studios look at a calendar and date films for release hoping that no other similar flicks lock in the same/near date to avoid major competition.  Place your movie on the wrong date and what was supposed to be a financial hit turns into a movie that appears at your local Redbox that much faster. Alpha has been through several release dates, pushing the film back almost an entire year from its originally intended 2017 debut.

Usually, a fluctuating release date spells trouble for the film, as the studio doesn’t know how to market it or has little faith in it but in the case of Alpha I can see why timing was everything for it to see the light of day. It’s not really a summer blockbuster or an end of the year awards contender, and its price tag would suggest that it wasn’t one that could just be dumped into theaters with little fanfare. So Sony has decided to set Alpha free at the tail end of the summer when most of the big dogs have come and gone and hope for some scraps from audience members. A late-breaking controversy in the past few weeks from PETA regarding some questionable animal handling hasn’t helped the film and that’s a shame because Alpha is a surprisingly moving bit of filmmaking with breathtaking scenery and its heart squarely in the right place.

The first thing you should know, and which trailers have played incredibly coy about, is the entirety of the dialogue in Alpha is spoken in an ancient language and subtitled in English, translating the words spoken by a primitive tribe in Europe over 20,000 years ago. It would have been much easier for director Albert Hughes and screenwriter Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt to nudge this into familiar territory and have everyone speak in English with a vague British accent but everyone goes full out here and the result gives the film its first dose of authenticity. It also could alienate families bringing in young children on the premise this is going to be a routine boy and his dog tale…it’s anything but.

Alpha is first and foremost a tale of survival against the elements, an intense journey of self-discovery for a boy just becoming a man. The son of a chief, Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee, X-Men: Apocalypse) is a sensitive soul that struggles with taking the steps toward adulthood that are expected of him. His father (Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Atomic Blonde) wants to protect his only son but e recognizes he must educate him as well. Taking his son on their seasonal bison hunt hundreds of miles away from their home, he hopes to teach him the ways of his ancestors and give him greater strength. When an accident separates Keda from his tribe, he is forced to grow up fast as he fights the elemtents (both natural and animal) to make his way home. Along the way he befriends a gray wolf and develops a bond that will set the stage for future generations.

There’s nothing monumentally deep to the story that Alpha seeks to tell and the film reminded on more than one occasion of the type of adventure film Disney might have released in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Attempts to somehow tie the tale to the “origin of man’s best friend” aren’t as successful because the movie isn’t solely about that connection. It’s Keda’s story through and through and though Alpha (the name he gives the dog) becomes an important piece of that tale it’s ultimately about an internal maturity that develops within the boy as he treks across land and rapidly changing seasons to reunite with his family.

What pushes the film into recommended territory is the filmmaking and performances. Hughes and cinematographer Martin Gschlacht (Goodnight Mommy) go for an epic scale and the achievements are breathtaking. I saw the film in IMAX 3D and Alpha makes one of the strongest cases in recent memory to shell out the extra money for this premium experience. The vistas are rendered through a mix of CGI and natural scenery from locations in British Columbia and the unobtrusive 3D provides a wonderful depth that actually enhances the visuals ten-fold.

Smit-McPhee has had numerous successes on screen in his ten year career but this is a definite high point. Tasked with carrying much of the movie along with his canine co-star (also a mix of CGI and real dog), Smit-McPhee doesn’t say much throughout the film but conveys much emotion with his physicality. As the film progresses and the expedition gets more difficult, the young actor helps to relate the desperation and doubt his character begins to feel as more and more roadblocks emerge to prevent his safe arrival. As Keda’s father, Jóhannesson gives great emotional weight to a role that could just as easily have been a staid macho Neanderthal.

Chances are Alpha is going to get lost in the hustle and bustle of these waning summer weeks. If it’s showing in your neck of the woods in IMAX, in 3D, or better yet in IMAX 3D I’d strongly encourage you making the effort to see it. My advice would be to leave young kids at home but anyone older than 11 would be a good companion for this one – it’s worth your time.

Movie Review ~ Peter Rabbit


The Facts
:

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

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

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ All the Money in the World

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of the kidnapping of 16-year-old John Paul Getty III and the desperate attempt by his devoted mother to convince his billionaire grandfather Jean Paul Getty to pay the ransom.

Stars: Michelle Williams, Kevin Spacey, Christopher Plummer, Mark Wahlberg, Romain Duris, Charlie Plummer, Timothy Hutton

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: The first thing we should do with All the Money in the World is applaud director Ridley Scott for having it ready to release in the first place.  Originally the film featured now disgraced Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey (Working Girl) under heavy make-up to play J. Paul Getty but after his headline-making nosedive in the midst of scandal Scott made the almost unheard-of decision in late November to replace Spacey with another Oscar-winner (Christopher Plummer) and still have the movie ready to go by its Christmas Day release date.  Well, applause is definitely warranted for the 80-year-old director because the movie is finished and it looks great…but is it any good?

The answer to that question lies in your willingness to see the story of the prolonged kidnapping and ransom of Getty’s grandson for the stylish period thriller Scott wants it to be and not the par-baked soapy drama it winds up resembling.  Sure, Scott knows his way around these throwback tales with their washed-out colors and extraordinary eye for detail, but there’s so little heart and soul to the proceedings that it’s hard to find anyone to sympathize with or, in my case, stay awake for.

Yes, it’s true. I feel asleep for a good ten or fifteen minutes in the first half of the movie and while I’d like to attribute my heavy lids to seeing it the day after Christmas, the honest truth was that the glacial pacing in that first hour is enough to lull even the most Red Bull-ized audience member into dreamland.  I just wasn’t interested in the initial investigation into the disappearance of John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer, no relation to the other present Plummer) or the strange bonding that happens between the victim and his kidnapper (Romain Duris).  Informed by my movie mate that I didn’t miss much, even taking a few winks it wasn’t hard to pick up where I left off.

The film starts to be something to worth remembering when all hope seems to be lost and Getty’s mother, Gail Harris (Michelle Willaims, The Greatest Showman) begins to be a more active player in getting her son back.  Working with a hired gun (Mark Wahlberg, Ted) originally employed by her former father-in-law, Gail gets in on the action by negotiating not only with the kidnappers that have her son but with her imposing in-law that quid pro quos her every step of the way.  Williams is in a strange mode here, doing her darndest to maintain an Eastern accent and playing deep despair without ever looking like she really is invested in what’s happening around her.  Wahlberg is coasting too, his entire role is so low-impact I’m wondering why they needed him at all.

It’s hard to look at the film now and even consider Spacey playing J. Paul Getty.  Sure, early trailers invoked some curiosity into how the 50-something actor would play the octogenarian, but Plummer is such an impressive force in the role I’d bet top dollar studio executives didn’t bat an eye when Scott proposed his reshoot plan.  Plummer’s aces in every one of his scenes and Williams and Wahlberg (both wearing wigs that don’t quite match scenes directly before and after) graciously give him the floor and recreate their emotions as if this was the plan all along.

Scott (The Martian, Prometheus) has never been dormant for long but he’s enjoying a nice little renaissance at this late stage in his career.  Earlier in 2017 his misguided Alien: Covenant was a big bummer for me but this one feels more in his wheelhouse and he’s breezily operating within his comfort zone.  The script from David Scarpa adapted from John Pearson’s book doesn’t have anything remarkable to say so the movie is left to create interest based on the characters and the impeccable production design.  On those merits, it’s a success, but performances and set-dressings can’t be the main source of recommendation for a movie so All the Money on the World winds up with a buyer beware notice.

Movie Review ~ Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Four teenagers discover an old video game console and are literally drawn into the game’s jungle setting becoming the adult avatars they chose. What they discover is that you don’t just play Jumanji – Jumanji plays you. They’ll have to go on the most dangerous adventure of their lives, or they’ll be stuck in the game forever

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, Jack Black, Nick Jonas, Bobby Cannavale, Rhys Darby, Morgan Turner, Ser’Darius Blain, Madison Iseman, Alex Wolff

Director: Jake Kasdan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In doing some prep work for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle the first thing I thought was wow…the original Jumanji came out in 1995?  Man, do I feel old.  22 years is a whole Disney star lifetime ago and though it had a semi-kinda-sorta sequel a decade later in 2005’s Zathura, it took all this time for a true sequel to that big-time blockbuster to materialize.  While the wait was mostly worth it in the same breath I feel compelled to mention that the first movie isn’t all that great to begin with (go ahead, watch it again and tell me it hasn’t aged well in plot, word, and deed) so there wasn’t exactly a high bar the filmmakers had to navigate. The result is a pleasant but largely forgettable holiday family film that is a viable option for those wanting to avoid Jedi’s and Greatest Showmen.

While it has a few connective tissues to its predecessor, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is largely a self-contained story that finds the mischievous board game adapting for the times.  Magically transforming itself into a video game cartridge, a 1996-set prologue sets up a thin backstory involving a teen that disappears after playing the game.  Skip ahead twenty years and four more teens of various stock character origins (nerd, jock, pretty girl, loner girl) find themselves in detention and coming into contact with the game.

Whisked away into Jumanji’s jungle setting, the teens become the grown-up characters they selected on the game screen.  That’s where some true fun emerges, though if you’ve seen the trailer the film’s already spoiled a few laughs for you.  The nerd enters the game and becomes buff explorer Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson, San Andreas), the towering jock is tiny zoologist Moose Finbar (Kevin Hart, The Wedding Ringer), meek loner girl appears as commando Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan, Oculus), and the superficial pretty girl winds up as chubby (and male!) scientist Professor Sheldon “Shelly” Oberon (Jack Black, Goosebumps).

Watching the four adjust to their new bodies is amusing but aside from Oberon thrilling at being able to pee standing up, it’s not a theme that director Jake Kasdan (Sex Tape) or the four (!) screenwriters linger on for any stretch of time. Instead, the movie kicks into high gear as the four are plunged into a quest to restore a stolen jewel to its rightful place in one of Jumanji’s vine covered monuments.  Stolen by a power-hungry villain (Bobby Cannavale, Blue Jasmine), the jewel gives the owner dominance over Jumanji’s creatures and landscape so it’s up to our heroes to battle the elements and themselves to save the land and get back to the real world.

Kasdan has cast the film with a pleasant group of game players more than, uh, game to play into their types.  I know Johnson has perfected this big softie character before (just last year in Central Intelligence, in fact) but there’s something so winning about the way he leaves himself vulnerable, not just relying on his gigantic muscles to do the literal and figurative heavy lifting.  Hart is a scream as a big man in a small body while Gillan gets laughs as an awkward girl inhabiting the visage of a lithe action star.  It’s really Black’s show, though, and he milks every ‘girl stuck in a man’s body’ joke for all its worth.  Normally a little of Black goes a long way but he’s the clear audience favorite from the start.

The construction of the movie is made of solid stuff but there’s too much jungle and not enough Jumanji type game-playing for my tastes.  For all the problems I had with the original, at least it established some rules and forced the players to continue to roll the dice in order to finish the game.  Here, the characters enter the game and find out they have three lives but aside from a few small twists here and there there’s little in the way of boundaries.  I have major problems with the ending resolution but as I vow not to provide spoilers I gotta leave that one for you to find out on your own.

Before I go, let me get something trivial off my chest that’s been bugging me since they first released the marketing materials for Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  I hate the title.  Hate it.  Like the movie itself, it’s too long and fussy.  Something short and sweet like, oh, Jumanji: Jungle would have would have left the door open for future sequels set in a host of different locales. To top it all off, take one guess what song plays over the closing credits?

Movie Review ~ Life (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A team of scientists aboard the International Space Station whose mission of discovery turns to one of primal fear when they find a rapidly evolving life form that caused extinction on Mars, and now threatens the crew and all life on Earth.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya

Director: Daniel Espinosa

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: On the drive home after the screening of Life, I ran afoul of my partner after repeatedly referring to it as an ‘odd, little movie’.  At first thinking I was just lazily falling back on a casual turn of phrase, I began to agree with myself that for all its A-List star power, occasional scares, and well-executed special effects the film was a strange, small endeavor for all involved.  Not tiny enough to be a direct-to-video tax write-off and not big enough to be a major player in the summer months (though it was intended for a May 2017 release until Alien: Covenant moved its release date in close proximity), Life fits decently into the grey area between Oscar season and the mid-year blockbuster event films.

In an unusually long pre-title sequence, we meet the crew occupying the International Space Station as they intercept a satellite returning from Mars containing a specimen from the red planet.  As the camera glides from person to person, it feels less like an introduction and more like a location tour to help orient the audience for the action to come.  Macho Rory (Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool) is the wise-cracking dude of the team, Army vet David (Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners) is about to break the world record for most consecutive days in space which worries quarantine officer Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation).  They join commanding officer Kat (Olga Dihovichnaya), scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare, Jupiter Ascending), and pilot Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada, 47 Ronin) in marveling at the extraterrestrial life discovered when the Mars sample is thawed out.

Fascination turns to horror as the specimen, dubbed “Calvin”, begins to grow rapidly in mind and body, eventually escaping the confines of the lab and hunting down the crew one by one.  It’s Alien-like premise aside, there are a few surprises to be had in Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese’s script for Life as it takes some turns you may not be expecting.  Director Daniel Espinosa (Child 44) is no Ridley Scott, however, and the workmanlike way Life is compiled and its odd pacing gives it the feeling of a movie that desperately wants to be better than it is.

When Reynolds, Ferguson, and Gyllenhaal signed on, I’m betting they were counting on this being a summer release but truth be told the way the film is structured and performed it feels more like an art-house alternative to a sci-fi horror tent-pole picture.  Reynolds is on cruise control as his usual cool as a cucumber self while Gyllenhaal surprisingly rests a bit on his laurels and goes only halfway in crafting the haunted character he’s perfected in films like Enemy and Nightcrawler.  Only Ferguson seems to lock into her role, never over-doing the “company man” attitude or under-selling her rising terror that this creature may somehow find its way back to earth.

Had the movie only had three characters, it may have felt a bit less cramped…and been a bit easier to understand.  Dihovichnaya & Sanada’s thick accents make it difficult to understand them at times, which becomes a problem anytime they’re tasked with delivering key bits of information.  There’s an attempt to give Bakare an interesting back story in a briefly mentioned tangent as to how the wheelchair bound man is living out his dream of mobility in the anti-gravity playground above earth.  Alas, any deeper development is jettisoned in favor of more scenes of peril inflicted by the bloodthirsty fast evolving being that’s taken over the ISS.

While there are some solid special effects sequences that take place outside of the station, anything that happens inside had me alternately rolling my eyes and raising my eyebrows.  Calvin flirts between an animated starfish-like object and a questionably created CGI monster that looks like an evil cousin to the benign alien creatures from The Abyss.  Espinosa films so much of the movie in tight close-up or without any establishing shots that it’s often hard to tell where anyone is in relation to each other and voiceovers are used as a cheap gimmick to tell what they can’t show.  I definitely got a couple of guffaws from the way the astronauts kept bobbing up and down (some more violently than others) as a way to show the zero-gravity atmosphere.

So yeah…it’s an odd little (big-ish) movie and while it may carve out some decent box office numbers by being released in a movie climate that’s been largely earthbound, Life isn’t going to be on the calling card for anyone involved.  It’s bound to be forgotten entirely by the time Alien: Covenant is released in two short months.  Perhaps this will find greater value on Netflix which, come to think of it, would have been an ideal release platform instead.

Movie Review ~ Passengers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Morton Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but just a few short months ago there were whispers in Hollywood that Passengers, this sci-fi romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, might be a late-breaking entry up for award consideration.  Now it’s clear that those “insiders” were people stumping for Sony because while it isn’t quite the train wreck most people will tell you it is, it’s certainly a disappointment when you consider the people behind it.

This is one of those “looked good on paper” sort of affairs.  Two of the hottest stars (literally and box-office-y) working in Hollywood right now team up with an Oscar nominated director for a big-budget two-hander set aboard a spaceship traveling to a new world.  While I can admit the concept driving the action is fairly intriguing, it’s a bit of a puzzlement as to why many big names have been orbiting around the pedestrian script from Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) for some time.  Revolutionary material this is not and in many ways it’s a big step backward for at least one of its stars.

According to Passengers, in the future it will be possible to survive on different planets and Earth will see a sizable number of its inhabitants emigrate to a new solar system.  Sure, it will take over a hundred years, you’ll never see your loved ones again, and if you can’t afford the ticket you’ll be little more than an indentured servant for the span of your life…but what an adventure! As the movie opens, a meteor shower damages the massive ship and causes one of the transport pods to trigger an early wake-up call for Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World).

Noticing he’s the only one up and about, Jim learns of the pod malfunction and that he’s still 90 years from his destination with no way to get back to sleep.  He spends his days exploring the ship, practicing his free-throw, mastering a Dance Dance Revolution-style video game, and commiserating with an android bartender (Michael Sheen, Admission).  After a year, though, Jim is lonely and that’s when he catches sight of Aurora (Lawrence, Joy), a sleeping passenger he gets to know through her introductory videos prepared pre-flight.

Keeping spoilers at bay, I’ll just say that Aurora is roused as well and bonds with Jim in and out of the bedroom.  For a while, things are in breezy rom-com territory before reality sets in when Jim has to come clean about a Big Secret that threatens his relationship with Aurora and the other passengers as well.  Maybe another passenger wakes up and maybe there’s a recognizable star that shows up for literally 12 seconds near the very end but that’s for me to know and you to find out…if you want.

Passengers plays well, fueled by the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence.  The only problem is the chemistry is more brother-sister than boyfriend-girlfriend and that’s just the tip of the creepy iceberg when all is said and done.  Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) tries to sidestep some fundamental moral dilemmas of the characters by distracting audiences with plenty of skin from his leads (Pratt’s two rump shots elicited quite the murmur of approval from the guests at my screening) and forcing us to see what a perfect match the two are.

Things really go awry in the last 1/3 when Passengers morphs into an effects heavy action film.  Lawrence is reduced to a damsel in distress, a far cry from the take charge women of steel she’s been playing (and receiving Oscar nominations for) recently.  Pratt fares better, only because the blue-collar guy he’s playing isn’t too far outside of his wheelhouse.  I kept wanting Sheen to play a bigger role in the action and come out from behind the bar or do something (anything) that would keep the film from being so earthbound and ordinary.

While its nowhere near the level of sophistication it should be, Passengers isn’t a complete turkey.  Aside from the appeal of Pratt/Lawrence, there’s some fine effects work but one too many slow camera pans of the ship inside and out.  When the characters stare into the vast blackness of space tethered by a single rope as they float, I got a little spooked/excited at what could happen if they broke free from their safety net.  Same goes for the movie – it never breaks free from its constraints.

The Silver Bullet ~ Passengers

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Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Release Date:  December 21, 2016

Thoughts: It’s okay if you watch this first trailer for Passengers and feel like you’ve been to this space rodeo before.  Peppered with hints of Gravity and The Martian with a little old (Sunday) school Adam and Eve business, our initial look at the late December release feels promising.  I mean, two hotter than Hades A-list stars with their choice of scripts wouldn’t sign up for this without it having some thrust, right?  I’m counting on blind faith that Chris Pratt (Jurassic World) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) have chosen wisely.  Under the direction of Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) from a Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) script that’s been orbiting Hollywood stars since 2007, Passengers could pure rocket fuel at the box office if these heavy hitters bring their A game.  As for me…it’s set in space so…I’m in.

Movie Review ~ Don’t Breathe

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of friends break into the house of a wealthy blind man, thinking they’ll get away with the perfect heist. They’re wrong.

Stars: Jane Levy, Dylan Minnette, Daniel Zovatto, Stephen Lang

Director: Fede Alvarez

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I’m getting old.  I mean, that’s really the only explanation because I think if I’d have seen Don’t Breathe a decade ago I would have given it practically a perfect score.  But…I’m older and, I think, wiser and my better judgement tells me that while this home invasion thriller hits many of the right notes (and, for a good stretch of time creates a near-symphony) there’s something overly slick about it that keeps it from being the true horror masterpiece the poster quotes would have you believe. Still, in a summer with box office duds that are horrors unto themselves (I’m looking at you, Suicide Squad), Don’t Breathe arrives in the last gasp of August with some refreshingly fresh air.

I simply hate movies that start out with a flash forward to the end of the film only to fold back on themselves and take you back to how it all began.  While I don’t often read other reviews in full before catching a screening, my #1 trusted reviewer Brian Orndof mentioned in his review that it would be a good idea to arrive a few minutes late so you miss what might be considered too much of a spoiler.  I’d go further and say you should arrive a full fifteen minutes after it starts because the opening stretch of Don’t Breathe is pretty terrible.  Bad acting, bad exposition, and bad dialogue had me wondering if we’d all been pranked into thinking this was horror on a higher level.

Three teens spend their aimless days breaking into houses in the Detroit area, committing petty burglary not so much for the monetary benefits but seeking some kind of thrill to break up their dead end lives.  Rocky (Jane Levy, Fun Size) and Money (Daniel Zovatto, It Follows) would likely think of themselves as a modern day Bonnie & Clyde…if I believed they had any clue who the doomed burglars were.  Tagging along is Alex (Dylan Minnette, Goosebumps) who not only holds an obvious torch for Rocky but the keys to the security systems his dad oversees.

When Money gets a tip on a score big enough to get them out of town, the trio decide to stage one last heist before retiring to a sunny life in L.A.  Located in an abandoned neighborhood, the house they set their sights on belongs to a blind veteran (Stephen Lang, The Nut Job) who, aside from owning a cranky Rottweiler, appears harmless.  Breaking into the house is easy…but getting out is another story.

It’s best to keep the details slim about what happens over the next 75 minutes but rest assured that right about the time you think you know what’s coming next, the tables get flipped and then flipped again and then broken apart and then the pieces thrown at you. Much like their Evil Dead remake in 2013, high points go to writers Fede Alvarez (who also directs and reteams with his Evil Dead star Levy) and Rodo Sayagues for keeping things unpredictable until the very end.  This isn’t nearly as gory or bloody as Evil Dead was, but it has head-spinning, armrest clenching, and eye-covering shocks all its own.

As original as the film is, it has a few flaws mostly involving pacing and performance.  Even at a trim 88 minutes it feels slightly slack in the opening half, saving the major adrenaline thrills for right around the mid-point before sputtering through multiple endings.  While Levy and Lang make for prime prey and predator, Minette is bland and Zovatto’s thug comes across like a parody done better on SNL.  Lang’s blind veteran eventually takes shape as an unstoppable force ala Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers, and though I applaud Alvarez for letting the actors appear bruised and bloodied the “takes a licking and keeps on ticking” trope feels worn out by the final credits (which, by the way, are impressive).

For horror aficionados, Don’t Breathe may be the summer movie they were most excited to see and for that, it doesn’t disappoint.  It may have some cracks and creaks to it but the house that Alvarez and company build mostly holds up to the storm.