Movie Review ~ Green Book


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A working-class Italian-American bouncer becomes the driver of an African-American classical pianist on a tour of venues through the 1960s American South.

Stars: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Don Stark, P.J. Byrne, Sebastian Maniscalco

Director: Peter Farrelly

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Sometimes when reviewing a movie it’s hard to wear two hats.  I know that one part of me needs to retain a critical eye and hold a film accountable for its strengths and weaknesses but then there’s also a personal side that speaks to me as that movie-goer who has just come to be entertained.  Green Book represents an odd mix of conflicts in both sectors; it’s not a movie without it’s missteps or passages that work like gangbusters but there’s a undercurrent in the way it guilelessly aims to entertain that, considering its subject matter, didn’t ultimately sit well with me.  It’s a movie I enjoyed but also has me questioning if I shouldn’t be holding it more accountable to be more than it was.

In 1962 New York City, Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen, A Dangerous Method) is about to start a layoff from his job at the Copacabana while the famed nightclub undergoes renovation.  Looking for a job to support his wife (Linda Cardellini, Daddy’s Home) and children as the holidays approach, he’s called in by Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) a famed black jazz pianist who needs a driver for his tour of the Deep South.  While Don could easily stay in the North and make a good living playing concerts far from the danger of the Jim Crow South, he chooses to take his trio (there’s two other white men traveling separately) to a place where segregation and racism runs rampant.

Essentially a road-trip movie, screenwriters Nick Vallelonga  (Tony’s son), Brian Hayes Currie , Peter Farrelly (who also directed), fill the film with vignettes that illustrate over and over the differences between how the North and South treated black people.  As expected in this type of formula, tough, street-wise Italian-American Tony and the refined, buttoned-up Don mix like oil and water at first with both men taking time and many miles to adjust to the others way of thinking.  Both contain certain prejudices about the other (not always presented in the way you’d expect) and over the next eight weeks through the Christmas holiday the men will have their eyes opened to seeing more of the world they are living in.

Let’s start with the bad news first, and that is that this 2018 film seems awfully like the kind of movie you’d have seen the ‘90s where racism, segregation, and overall prejudice is seemingly solved in two hours.  Many of the characters onscreen are stock character stereotypes of the people you’d expect to see in a film about the south in the ‘60s.  You have your obvious redneck racists the deeper south Tony and Don travel, you have your affluent members of society that harbor whispered racism behind closed doors, and you have the people like Tony and some members of his extended family who have just never taken the time to get to know any person of color but when they do find out that they aren’t so bad.  Then there’s Tony himself who is the epitome of every Italian goombah you’ve seen, never without a cigarette in his mouth or chowing down on some messy red sauce-d dish.  Everyone is drawn with such exaggerated, bold lines that it’s a credit to the actors who have taken the time to find different ways to shade their roles with characteristics that are more human and less cartoon…though wait until you see Tony fold an entire pizza in half and try to eat it.

The good news here is most of our time is spent with Mortensen and Ali and this absolutely makes the film worth your time.  Though Mortensen is constantly battling with the major constraints of his tough-guy (the accent and the potbelly physicality), he’s never mean-spirited and seems open-minded enough to be able to look within himself when challenged.  Whatever racism he may harbor feels like it was something he was brought up to never question because he hasn’t had exposure to another race and the more time he spends with Don gives him a different perspective.  While I still raise my eyebrows a bit at the speed of Tony’s reconsideration, recognizing that we’re looking at a Hollywood take on a true life story I appreciated that Mortensen at least shows us how he got there.

The most complex role is Ali’s as a pianist bravely venturing into the territory of his enemy as a way to experience something his life in NYC hasn’t afforded him.  Surrounding himself with mostly white culture up until that point, the trip down south is an eye opening experience for Don as well, mostly reconfirming his beliefs of the hatred and injustices that were present (and in some cases still are) in that part of America.  There is more to Don than meets the eye, giving Ali yet another layer of prejudice to play with and he does masterful work here.  There’s talk that Ali will net his second Oscar for the film and with a performance as strong as his, I can see why.  (Though, it must be said he’s absolutely a lead of the film with Mortensen and for him to campaign in Best Supporting Actor is total category fraud).

After spending his career in comedy and turning in work like Dumb and Dumber To and The Three Stooges, director Farrelly takes his first stab at drama and has made a more than serviceable movie.  While the script has some questionable areas to it, it’s a finely made film with all the period elements (costumes, sets, cars, props) all fitting well into the mix.  Though the film was an entertaining watch and I liked the performances of our two lead actors, I do wish it had something more to say about the overall tone of that era.  When the credits rolled it felt like the filmmakers were saying “and they lived happily ever after” and that just rang false to me.

Movie Review ~ Welcome to Marwen

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.

Stars: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Weaver

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: We’re often asked to provide our instant reactions to movies on our way out of advanced screenings.  This can be a good way to get some off the cuff remarks or quick takes to bring back to the studios as to what audiences felt the moment the lights come up and the credits start to roll.  I struggle in these moments to come up with two to three sentences that summarize two hours of thoughts, preferring to let the feeling marinate for a while until I can let it flow out here.  My overall opinion of the film rarely changes, it just solidifies as my mind works on detailing why I feel the way I feel.

With Welcome to Marwen, I knew leaving the theater it was one of the most troubling movies I’d seen all year but the way the movie nagged and gnawed at me in the days since I saw it was truly something to behold.  Hailing from a major studio with a well-liked star and Oscar-winning director, it’s a drastically misguided misfire that has no clue who it’s audience is or how to balance its technically impressive effects with a dramatically inert narrative.

Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (The Secret Garden) turn the doc into a narrative feature starring Steve Carrell (Beautiful Boy) as Matt Hoagancamp, an artist recovering from a brutal beating that has found a most unique coping outlet.  Creating a WWII-set world of his own in his backyard, he photographs dolls inhabiting his town of Marwen in various adventures featuring Cap’n Hogie, a stand in for Matt himself.  While Cap’n Hogie is the bomber jacket wearing tough guy in the group, he often needs to be saved by an assembly of leggy female figures that are modeled after various women in Matt’s own life.

This is where the movie starts to provide some extremely problematic issues it can just never recover from.  The real-life women in Matt’s world are his Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a war veteran we briefly see in flashbacks (Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures), a friendly worker at his local hobby shop (Merritt Weaver, Signs, by far the best performance in the film), his co-worker at a local diner (Eiza Gonzalez, Jem and the Holograms), and most disconcerting of all, a sexy French maid inspired by a nameless woman Matt sees in an adult film (played by Leslie Zemeckis, the directors real-life wife…yuck).  In reality, the women are portrayed as normal human beings but in Matt’s fantasy world their sexuality is heightened, their cleavage is on display, their skits are hiked up to crotch level, and they exist only to serve and protect Cap’n Hoagie’s wishes.  Basically, they are sex figurines.  Which would be fine if the movie ever acknowledged that this is odd and oddly disrespectful…which it never does.

When Nicol (‘I spell it with no “E” ’) moves in across the street, Matt becomes infatuated by the woman who seems to understand his quirks, especially as it relates to his penchant for wearing women’s high heels.  That Matt has a shoe fetish is but one of several of his eccentricities the film introduces only to never fully explore to any kind of satisfactory degree.  Though not gay, Matt finds that while wearing a woman’s shoe he can more easily get at the ‘essence’ of women (or, “dames” as he calls them) and, bless her heart, Nicol barely bats at eye when he delivers this corker of a revelation.  As played by Leslie Mann (This is 40) Nicol has a restrained charm that suggests she’s put up walls to guard her own emotional sensitivities.

Aside from it’s odious devaluation of nearly every female character that walks across the screen (Christie and Monáe are barely in the film in human form), the movie also has a rather large blind spot when it comes to talking about PTSD and the lasting effects of mental illness.  Clearly, Matt is suffering from major mental health problems brought on by his vicious attack and Zemeckis and Thompson don’t seem the slightest bit interested in presenting Matt with any kind of support outside of his made-up world of Marwen.  His interactions with people outside of Marwen are either comedic fodder or humiliating emotionally – it’s no wonder he’d rather spend time all alone with his dolls.  The one solution presented is in the form of a blue pill medication that no so subtly takes the form of another “doll” named Deja (Diane Kruger) who doesn’t seem to have a real-world counterpart but obviously has a huge hold over Matt’s psyche.

I have absolutely no idea who the audience would be for this movie.  It’s not a family film, it’s not a film an older adult audience will find much value in, and it’s certainly not a movie for the mid-range crowd who have a plethora of better choices this holiday season.  It literally has no target audience and I am mystified at whoever would have thought this would have made for a good feature film.  Carrell seems uncomfortable, and not just in the heels but as this is a Zemeckis film, it’s technical merits are first-rate.  Zemeckis is like a dog with a bone where motion-capture animation is concerned but here the technology works well in making Carrell, Mann, Monáe, and company all realistically doll-like when they are in Marwen.  It’s a good-looking movie, even if it’s rather ugly on in the inside.

Movie Review ~ Mortal Engines

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: In a post-apocalyptic world where cities ride on wheels and consume each other to survive, two people meet in London and try to stop a conspiracy.

Stars: Hugo Weaving, Hera Hilmar, Robert Sheehan, Frankie Adams, Colin Salmon, Stephen Lang

Director: Christian Rivers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  In my review of the recently released Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse I bemoaned the turgid same-ness that is starting to torpedo genre films.  With most superhero movies following the same mold, it takes an outside of the box approach to make the film truly memorable and one that will keep it in your memory long after you leave theater.  The same rule applies to adaptations of YA novels.  While the Harry Potter films kicked off the current generation of lucrative franchise pictures based on popular novels for young adults, the genre really took off with the success (and superiority) of movies that were made out of The Hunger Games series.  With many imitators along the way (Divergent, The Maze Runner, Mortal Instruments: City of Bones), nothing has met the success or longevity of the Harry Potter or Hunger Games films and sadly the latest entry Mortal Engines joins that list of non-starters.

After a devastating event that caused much of the world to become unstable and uninhabitable, mankind has taken to living in cities on wheels that routinely swallow up smaller communities and use their resources for fuel.  The opening of Mortal Engines plunges us right into such a hunt, when the mobile city of London goes after a tiny salt mining town that’s no match for the former UK’s massive (and massively impressive) super metropolis.  It’s a jarring start to the movie and, without much context, leaves audiences to find their own bearing in a sea of character names and made-up terms.  It actually feels like the opening of a second or third film in an already established series, which has the effect of keeping the viewer at an outsider’s arm’s length from the outset.

On the confiscated town is Hester Shaw (Hera Hilmar, Anna Karenina, an Icelandic actress playing American not totally succeeding in losing her Nordic accent), a scarred young woman that has hoped for exactly this outcome.  She wants to gain access to London because that’s where Thaddeus Valentine is.  Valentine (Hugo Weaving, The Dressmaker) and Hester’s mother had a complicated history and Hester has come to settle a longstanding score.  When ambitious Londoner and historian Tom (Robert Sheehan) intercepts her attempt to assassinate Valentine only to then find himself on the run with Hester, the two are soon at the center of a plot that threatens any city in Valentine’s path.  At the same time, a resurrected creature (voiced by Stephen Lang, Don’t Breathe) relentlessly pursues Hester with his own agenda that Valentine uses to his larger advantage.

Based on the first of four novels in author Phillip Reeve’s bleak version of the future, Mortal Engines has been adapted for the screen and produced by Peter Jackson (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies).  It’s interesting to note that while Jackson wrote the script, produced the film, and had his Oscar-winning special effects WETA workshop design the impressive visuals, he left the directing duties to first-timer Christian Rivers, his long-time story boarder and protégé.  Rivers is no Jackson, though, and while his work assembling a visually appealing movie is impressive there is little in the way of emotional heft to make the film more than just an excuse for special effects and rousing soundtrack cues.

The movie also has a strong sense of post-production tinkering.  Why else would characters that seem to be of greater importance vanish for long stretches of time only to return when necessary or not at all?  Valentine has a spunky daughter (Leila George) that feels like she’s getting her own B-storyline but aside from a few quick intercuts of her in London while Hester and Tom are dodging steampunk kidnappers (in a nicely bizarre nod to a New Zealand-y Mad Max: Fury Road) she’s largely absent from the proceedings.  Then there’s a band of outlaws led by Anna Fang (Jihae, delivering her lines with dramatically committed sincerity) set to protect Hester who are barely-there sketches of your standard rouge gallery of grunts.

Though it boasts an impressive team behind the scenes, Mortal Engines doesn’t have enough gas to make much of a fire.

Movie Review ~ Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

The Facts:

Synopsis: A grumpy Grinch plots to ruin Christmas for the village of Whoville.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Cameron Seely, Keenan Thompson, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury

Director: Yarrow Cheney, Scott Mosier

Rated: PG

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It’s probably wrong to admit it, but I went into the screening of The Grinch actively trying to dislike it.  I didn’t see the point of yet another retooling of the classic Dr. Seuss tale when there was already a perfectly wonderful book from 1957 and classic holiday special from 1966 that have stood the test of time.  Though Universal had already tried to bring The Grinch to life in 2000’s ghastly How the Grinch Stole Christmas featuring Jim Carrey as the green meanie, it didn’t weasel it’s way into the holiday canon and is widely regarded as a majorly misguided misfire.  18 years later they’ve teamed up with Illumination Entertainment (the animation group behind the Despicable Me and Minions movies) for a colorful retelling of the familiar tale and, as much as I wanted to dismiss it, I found myself succumbing to its charms.

It’s the week before Christmas and the tiny town of Whoville is getting ready for the big day. Houses are decorated, presents are bought, the holiday spirit radiates out of everyone.  Overlooking Whoville is Mount Crumpit, home to The Grinch (Benedict Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange) who can’t stand Christmas or the Whos.  As Christmas Day draws near, The Grinch comes up with a plan to steal Christmas from the Whos, hoping to prevent Christmas from coming.  Dressed up as Santa, The Grinch makes his way through Whoville on Christmas Eve robbing the sleeping Whos of every speck of yuletide garb and gifts, aiming to toss it off a cliff.  Unless you’ve been living under a rock and never allowed to watch television you know how it ends up, so it’s not a spoiler to say that eventually The Grinch welcomes not only Christmas into his heart but the Whos as well.

Screenwriters Michael LeSieur (Keeping Up with the Joneses) and Tommy Swerdlow have taken the original 69 page book by Dr. Seuss and expanded it to a 90 minute family friendly film that maintains the structure sourced from Seuss.  Most of the rhymes are still there in the narration from Pharrell Williams but the screenplay adds in extra material for The Grinch and especially Cindy Lou Who.  The 2000 script for the live action film was similarly overstuffed but it was in service to special effects and production design, not story.  Here it feels more organic and in line with giving the characters a more modern feel.  That may displease purists who appreciate the simple joys of the original Seuss tale and even though I’d count myself as one of them I didn’t really mind the updates.

More time is spent on carving out distinctive personalities for several of the Whos. Cindy Lou Who’s mom (Rashida Jones, Tag) is now an overworked single parent raising her daughter and twin boys and Bricklebaum (Keenan Thompson), the merriest Who of all, is all about having the best holiday decorations on display.  Angela Lansbury (Beauty and the Beast) is heard briefly as the mayor of Whoville ready to light their enormous tree and who tasks the Whos with making Christmas three times as big as last year.   Cindy Lou herself (Cameron Seely, The Greatest Showman, whose animated alter-ego looks strikingly like Amy Poehler) is a tom-boyish do-gooder that wants to forgo presents and ask Santa to help her mom out instead.  Her infamous meeting with The Grinch during his nighttime burglary is now orchestrated by her as a way to get some face time with the guy in the red suit.

As The Grinch, Cumberbatch has the unenviable task of following in the aural footsteps of Boris Karloff who voiced the green guy in 1966 and did the narration as well. His Grinch is more nasal and nerdish, less outright cruel but still just as unflinchingly mean.  It was wise for the writers to ease up a bit on his harsh-ness because sitting through even an hour of that would be something he could never bounce back from.  Time is spent exploring his history and explaining why he hates Christmas so much as well as providing moments of interplay with his faithful dog Max and a new character, a rotund reindeer named Fred.  I wish the filmmakers would have let Cumberbatch narrate the film as well in his deep accented voice, Pharrell’s reading just doesn’t land with any weight.

While the score from Danny Elfman (Dark Shadows) is a nice callback to the original tunes from 1966 there is a fairly awful reworking of ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch’ and a positively hideous closing number, both performed by Tyler, the Creator. Though the soundtrack is filled out with other holiday numbers, I was a bit taken a back that ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ and the phrase “Remember Christ our Savior” was featured prominently in one comedic sequence.  In a film aimed at international audiences across all religious beliefs, it was an interesting inclusion on the part of the studio.

As we near our own holiday season there will be a host of movies out there for families to choose from and I’m pleased that for a second week in a row we have a movie that I’d feel comfortable suggesting as an all-ages option. The Grinch is rated PG for brief rude humor and honestly, I don’t even remember what that was.  It’s refreshingly free of fart jokes and bathroom yucks and, like The Nutcracker and the Four Realms is a movie parents will likely be as entertained with as their kids.  Please promise you’ll watch the 1966 version first, though!

 

31 Days to Scare ~ Halloween (2018)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Stars: Jamie Lee Curtis, Judy Greer, Andi Matichak, Haluk Bilginer, Nick Castle, James Jude Courtney, Virginia Gardner, Miles Robbins, Toby Huss, Rhian Rees, Jefferson Hall, Dylan Arnold, Drew Scheid

Director: David Gordon Green

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Not only has masked killer Michael Myers lasted longer than a curious cat living next to a busy train track but he’s been revived just as often. Over the past 40 years the Halloween hellraiser from Haddonfield has been a brother to our heroine (Halloween II), an unwelcome uncle (Halloween 4 and Halloween 5), been used as a deadly tool by a cult (Halloween 6), and even missed out completely on one movie (Halloween III). He’s been resurrected (Halloween 8) and rebooted (Rob Zombie’s bizarre remakes) but the one thing that hasn’t truly happened to the Halloween franchise is the chance to revisit with any kind of integrity the characters that made such an impact on audiences four decades ago.

It’s not often a character gets to come back in two different timelines but Jamie Lee Curtis (Prom Night) has the unique distinction of rewriting her own character’s history for a second time. Though Curtis famously returned to the franchise in Halloween: Twenty Years Later (H20 for short…and giggles) the overall impact wasn’t what she hoped and the cleverness fully depleted in the follow-up to that movie. Now, at the urging of none other than Jake Gyllenhaal, Curtis has teamed up with director David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and comedian Danny McBride (This Is the End) for a new film which ignores every sequel to John Carpenter’s landmark 1978 film and serves as a fine horror film as well as a glimpse into the lasting effects of trauma.  With Carpenter’s blessing and also his updated score, the three unlikely collaborators set out to continue Laurie’s story with a few unexpected turns along the way.

As the 40th anniversary of The Babysitter Murders in Haddonfield draws near, there is renewed interest in the silent killer Michael Myers and Laurie Strode, the girl that got away. A pair of podcasters (Jefferson Hall and Rhian Rees) have come to Smith’s Grove Hospital to try to get Michael Myers to speak to them. His watchful doctor (Haluk Bilginer, Rosewater) has taken over for the late Dr. Loomis as Michael’s caretaker and doesn’t bat an eye when one of the interviewers hauls out that famous white mask and tries to use it to elict a reaction out of the aged murderer.  How the UK podcaster managed to get the mask out of the courthouse (sure, he says it was given to him but still) and not even in a plastic bag to preserve it is a detail no one seems to bat an eye at. Failing to get anything out of him, the two track down Strode (Curtis) in her protected compound on the outskirts of town.

Living in the woods like a survivalist with no apparent war to fight, Strode is damaged goods after two failed marriages and having her daughter taken away at a young age. Living with the trauma of what she endured has left her broken and bruised, unable to move on from a singular event in her life that still feels unresolved. Estranged from her daughter (Judy Greer, Jurassic World) but attempting to form a bond with her granddaughter (Andi Matichak), Strode is doing the best she can while self-medicating with booze and staying alert in case Myers breaks out and returns to finish the job. Of course, that’s what happens when the bus transporting Myers to a maximum security prison crashes and he escapes. Making a beeline to his hometown and leaving numerous bodies in his wake, Myers slices and dices his way through the town on October 31 while tracking down his main target. Unlucky for him, then, that Laurie has been preparing for this moment for 40 years and is not only ready for his return but willing to stick her neck out to be the one to take him down.

It isn’t a perfect film, there’s far too many extraneous characters that are introduced only to die without much care and there are narrative gaps and implausible leaps that feel outside of the grounded reality the filmmakers are going for. There’s one rather huge twist about ¾ of the way through that is so misguided I thought it was going to derail the entire film – thankfully (mercifully) the film gets back on track fairly quickly. It’s never explained how Myers was captured after the first film or why Strode didn’t just move overseas if she was that traumatized. Also…I still can’t get fathom why this was called simply Halloween and not given its own distinctive title. While it is a direct continuation to the original, it’s not a remake and should have had something to set it apart.  Also, I hate to be the one to break it to you but if you’ve seen the trailers for the film much of the surprises and scares have been spoiled for you.  It’s disappointing to see just how much of the movie has been shown already, way too many of the moments that could have held high suspense have been cheapened or outright ruined by advertisements that held nothing back.

Quibbles aside, Green and McBride (with fellow screenwriter Jeff Fradley) have crafted a supremely satisfying film, pleasing the fans of the original while injecting enough humor, scares, and gore for audiences of today who aren’t content with the slow burn terror Carpenter created in his original masterpiece. Nothing could ever match that and their Halloween doesn’t truly try to outdo its big brother, it just wants to get on the same playing field and it gets the job done. Curtis is wonderful in the role, unlike the character she returned to in H20, I very much believed this Laurie Strode is the same one we first met 40 years ago and she seems to be having a ball giving her most famous role a proper ending. I liked that the majority of the movie focused on the relationship between three generations of Strode women — Greer fits in nicely as Strode’s daughter harboring resentment at the seeming loss of her childhood and I quite liked Matichak who felt like a Laurie for a new generation. There’s already sequel talk and as much as I’d love to see what Green and McBride would cook up next (they originally wanted to film this movie and its sequel back to back) I almost hope they leave well enough alone and let these characters rest in peace.

Movie Review ~ Skyscraper


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A father goes to great lengths to save his family from a burning skyscraper.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Noah Taylor, Roland Moller, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In 1974 when The Towering Inferno was released, there were 3,164 drive-in movie theaters across the United States. By Die Hard’s release in 1988, that number had plummeted to 961. In 2018, if you want to see Skyscraper at a drive-in as part of a multi-feature summer night, data shows there are but 320 drive-ins for you to choose from. I mention these key dates and numbers because the silly but sturdy new film starring Dwayne Johnson is a big, if familiar, movie…big enough to warrant a mega presentation in a communal atmosphere. Watching the film unfold on a modest size screen in a perfectly decent theater I couldn’t help but wonder if it could have been more fun if viewed on a larger scale when the sheer size of it wouldn’t feel quite so overwhelming.

After an accident leaves FBI Agent Will Sawyer (Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) missing the lower part of his left leg, he starts a family and moves to the private sector to become a security specialist. Called to Hong Kong by an old army buddy (Pablo Schreiber), Sawyer brings his wife and twins to The Pearl, a 240 story building of the future designed by architect Zhao Long Ji (Chin Han, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) that needs Sawyer’s sign-off to open up a residential section. Several double-crosses later, Sawyer is trying to find a way back into The Pearl to save his wife (Neve Campbell) and children trapped 100 stories up when a disgruntled mercenary (Roland Møller, Land of MineAtomic Blonde) tries to burn the place down.

Writer/director Rawson Marshal Thurber (We’re the Millers, Central Intelligence) knows he’s wading neck deep into familiar genre territory with obvious nods to The Towering Inferno, Die Hard, and Cliffhanger. The result is a mid-summer hunk of mild cheddar cheese that demands little of audiences and offers two hours of mindless adventure. It’s not bound to gather the same ire Johnson’s earlier 2018 feature Rampage did and it’s far from a simple paycheck film for the appealing A-lister.  Still, it doesn’t advance the actor into any deeper leading man territory for his efforts. It’s clear Johnson works hard at what he does but if he keeps playing the same kind of roles he’s bound to move into unintentional parody of himself after a while.

I was surprised the film had less of the lightness Johnson is known to bring to his features. Aiming for a more dramatic/serious tone, Johnson’s Sawyer is a man haunted by his past while recognizing that without the incident that took his leg he wouldn’t have the family he does today (wife Sarah was his surgeon). Any deeper dive into PTSD is abandoned by Thurber in favor of Sawyer’s increasingly superhuman measures to save his family from the burning building. Witness him climbing a crane nearly 100 stories and leaping into the building during one of the film’s more hair-raising moments. I’m not normally afraid of heights but there were some sequences in Skyscraper that had my stomach doing backflips.

What I liked about the movie was it’s commitment to not making Sawyer a one-man savior, judiciously giving screen time to Campbell who is far from a helpless wife waiting to be rescued. Though previews have given away many (too many) of the film’s key action scenes, the few that aren’t spoiled in the trailer belong to Campbell’s plucky butt-kicking and ingenuity. She’s arguably the best performance in the movie but warms to Johnson nicely – if sequels are planned let’s hope Campbell doesn’t get Bonnie Bedelia-ed and written out after the first one.

Though fraught with too much CGI fire and containing numerous foes dispatched without much ceremony, I found Skyscraper to be a larger than normal blip on the summer movie season that hasn’t turned the dial much on excitement. Audiences seemed to like the movie at my screening and I definitely watched a bit of it through splayed fingers, but it fades from memory pretty quickly if I’m being honest. My advice…get on the interwebs and find a drive-in close to you showing this with a few other features and make it a double or triple header night.

The Silver Bullet ~ Halloween (2018)

Synopsis: Laurie Strode comes to her final confrontation with Michael Myers, the masked figure who has haunted her since she narrowly escaped his killing spree on Halloween night four decades ago.

Release Date: October 19, 2018

Thoughts: Michael Myers has sure been around the block. After the tremendous success of the 1978 original Halloween there were seven sequels of varying quality (#2, #4, and #7 are tops in my book) and then the icky remake and even ickier sequel from shock rocker Rob Zombie.  There were rumors another movie was going to materialize but no one expected the franchise to do an about face and effectively wipe the slate clean – which is exactly what’s happening with 2018’s all new Halloween. Treating the sequels as if they never happened, director David Gordon Green (Our Brand is Crisis) directs a script he co-wrote with Danny McBride (This is the End) starring Jamie Lee Curtis (Terror Train) and has the blessing of original director John Carpenter.  This first look is pretty creepy…but perhaps shows a tad too much for my taste – I’d have preferred it to show less so we expect more.  Knowing the fates of several characters already lessens some of the impact – but I’m counting on all involved to have a few tricks ‘n treats up their sleeves.

Movie Review ~ Breaking In


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A woman fights to protect her family during a home invasion.

Stars: Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke, Seth Carr, Ajiona Alexus, Richard Cabral, Levi Meaden, Christa Miller

Director: James McTeigue

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 88 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: There was a time in the early ‘90s when a movie like Breaking In would have gotten a pass as a mediocre mid-level film that might not be fully filling but was a harmless way to spend 88 minutes. Times have changed. Though it arrives with a striking marketing campaign promising “Payback is a Mother” and wants to position itself as a worthy alternative to blockbuster fare like Avengers: Infinity War, Breaking In is a bewildering exercise in all-around clueless filmmaking.

Things start rough as the filmmakers resort to one of the oldest gotcha moments in moviemaking for a brief prologue that introduces and dispatches of a character we never learn much about. Flash forward to Shaun (Gabrielle Union) and her two children Jazz (Ajiona Alexus) and Glover (Seth Carr) traveling to Shaun’s childhood estate to prepare it for sale. With the recent passing of her father, it’s hinted early on there were unresolved issues Shaun is attempting to put to bed once and for all. Arriving at a house equipped with a state of the art security system, the family isn’t there long before the kids are locked inside with a trio of burglars hunting for a money-stocked safe and Shaun has to, you guessed it, break in. What follows is an absurd game of cat-and-mouse that finds Shaun alternately trying to get into the house and then (spoiler alert) trying to get back out.

Working from a flimsy story idea from Jamie Primak Sullivan, screenwriter Ryan Engle (Rampage, The Commuter, Non-Stop) doesn’t have many creative places to go and the result is an exceedingly dull thriller. Though some rules about the security system are established early on, they seem to fly out the door as fast as the toy drone Glover brought along which figures into a few key jump scares. It’s also never clear what the thugs (including Richard Cabral and Levi Meaden, led by the charmless Billy Burke, Lights Out) are doing there in the first place or how much they were involved with the death of Shaun’s father. Attentive listeners might catch a hackneyed roundabout explanation that hints Shaun’s father was a criminal but without any more material to fill these gaps the whole plot stands on incredibly shaky ground.

Director James McTeigue (The Raven) first came to Hollywood with the stylish V for Vendetta but this is grab the money and run filmmaking at its worst. Dimly lit scenes, indistinguishable action sequences, and a general feeling of not knowing where anyone is speaks to the quality of the work with the whole thing feeling like a made-for-Netflix film that lucked out with a theatrical release. Clearly edited down to a PG-13 from an R (how many hardened criminals routinely use ‘frickin’ in their vocabulary?) even the dénouement of some characters are hard to decipher because the camera doesn’t provide any establishing shots or connectivity.

I was honestly looking forward to this mainly because I’m a fan of Union, very much finding her an underrated talent that has yet to latch on to a golden opportunity. While Union tries her best, she’s fighting against a movie that doesn’t have any stamina or guts – so her performance often comes off as out of tune with the rest of the actors and situations. Alexus has an uncanny resemblance to Union and a similar commitment to this dreck, their mother-daughter relationship was the only thing believable in the whole film.

Intentional or not, Cabral (Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and Meaden drew major laughs from the audience with their overly earnest performances as polar opposites on the threat scale. With his intense stare and crooked nose, Cabral is intimidating without even speaking while Meaden’s platinum blonde burnout has a doofus quality that humanized him more than Engle’s eye-rolling dialogue ever could. Burke never seems to decide on how to play his big baddie role – one moment he’s the epitome of calm cool sophistication and then next he’s a low-rent gun for hire.

Maybe the worst thing about the movie is how out of touch it feels in this era of #MeToo and similar social causes. There’s two seriously off-color homophobic jokes and a gross misogyny toward Union, Alexus, and poor Christa Miller who turns up halfway through the movie for a sorrowful (and totally unnecessary) cameo. Even more, Union’s character never truly feels like she’s granted the opportunity to take control of the situation. She’s easily caught whenever she tries to run away and always manages to take several hits to the face before escaping again. As a producer of the movie, I can’t help but wonder what Union was thinking letting some of these events play out like they did.

A poor answer to the call for more female empowerment in movies, Breaking In is one you’ll want to get out of as fast as possible.

Movie Review ~ Fifty Shades Freed


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Anastasia and Christian get married, but Jack Hyde continues to threaten their relationship.

Stars: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini, Callum Keith Rennie, Bruce Altman, Arielle Kebbel, Robinne Lee, Brant Daugherty, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden

Director: James Foley

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: For movies like Fifty Shades Freed, I find it best to take a Roger Ebert approach when developing a critique of the film. Ebert was great at, among other things, taking each movie he saw for the experience it was and offering a review that spoke to how that particular film and that particular encounter made him feel. That led to him liking some movies other critics hated and hating ones that are now considered classics.

While this one will never be measured a classic in any stretch of the imagination, the good news is that Fifty Shades Freed is probably the best of the trilogy. It’s also the shortest. Like the two previous films in the Fifty Shades franchise, Freed is cheerfully plotless, little more than an excuse for audiences to get some vanilla kink on. There’s something for everyone that plops down some cash for this, whether it be to drool over the lavish life led by the two main characters or delight in their frequent couplings.

If you’ve avoided the films until now, be warned that some spoilers are present for the rest of this review.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, A Bigger Splash) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) have survived some roadblocks in their relationship that began in Fifty Shades of Grey. There was Anastasia’s initial shock at Christian’s S&M leanings and her adjustment into his pleasure and pain lifestyle. Christian had to acclimate to the headstrong Anastasia who proved to be a worthy equal to him only to nearly lose her to her sexual predator boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Then there was that whole helicopter in a volcano business from Fifty Shades Darker but the less said about that the better. By the end of the second chapter, Christian has distanced himself from the mysterious Elena (Kim Basinger, who I swear I saw in promotional ads for this but doesn’t appear at all) and proposed marriage to Anastasia.

As Fifty Shades Freed opens, the wedding of Steele and Grey has commenced and the newlyweds are off on their honeymoon. She wants to sunbathe topless like the locals but he doesn’t like other men laying their eyes on his new bride. She doffs her top anyway, leading to a disciplinary bedroom session administered with handcuffs and a lot of heavy breathing. When their honeymoon is interrupted by a vandal at Christian’s company, the two return to Seattle and settle into married life.

And they lived happily ever after…well, not quite.

Adapting his wife’s third novel, Niall Leonard has a real knack for tin-earned dialogue. There’s enough dopey repartee between the actors that the film veers dangerously close to lampooning itself. Leonard has fashioned a hopelessly quaint series of events (especially in this day and age of #MeToo and #TimesUp) that play like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer film. There seems to be a need to speed through everything, rushing through major events like marriages, pregnancies, adultery, and home remodeling to get to one more of the awkwardly enthusiastic sex scenes. Director James Foley (Fear) doesn’t offer much in terms of style, just gentle teases and lots and lots and lots of shots of Johnson topless. The double standard of the series continues here…Johnson is naked often while Dornan can’t muster more than pulling his pants down halfway over his bum.

Speaking of our leads, what began as questionable chemistry has blossomed into a cozy kind of familiarity. Both actors give it their all in their steamy moments but then seem like they are embarrassed to be acting opposite each other when they have their clothes on. Johnson fares better than Dornan for most of the film but both succumb to looking board when the movie becomes a soapy romance thriller in its final act. There’s a lot of people from the other movies listed in the opening credits but don’t expect to see them much, most are just seen at the wedding and then disappear forever. Only Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden (Magic in the Moonlight) gets a second scene late in the film and she doesn’t have much to do in the way of acting.

Yet I’m giving the movie a semi high rating. That’s strange, right? I can’t disagree that this is overall pretty lousy but I must admit to enjoying myself more than I had for the first and second films. There’s something appealing in a movie you know is bad and wasn’t made to cater to your interests that frees one to not be stuffy and just go with it. There are a few honest laughs to be had but more than a few unintentional funny moments that unfortunately happen during scenes that are supposed to be seriously sexy. By the time Dornan hops behind a piano and attempts a hysterically soulful rendition of “Maybe I’m Amazed” while others look on in awe the wheels are definitely off the bus and you just have to enjoy what you’ve gotten yourself into.

They say all good things must come to an end and that’s also true for bad trilogies. The final chapter of the tale of Anastasia and Christian manages to entertain more than what’s come before but the bar has been set pretty low. If you’ve trekked out to see the first two you kinda owe it to yourself to finish what you started.

Movie Review ~ Insidious: The Last Key

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Parapsychologist Dr. Elise Rainier faces her most fearsome and personal haunting yet – in her own family home.

Stars: Lin Shaye, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell, Josh Stewart, Caitlin Gerard, Kirk Acevedo, Javier Botet, Bruce Davison, Spencer Locke, Tessa Ferrer, Ava Kolker, Marcus Henderson

Director: Adam Robitel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: By the time a franchise gets around to its third sequel, there’s a definite formula that’s been developed, a ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ vibe, if you will.  As derivative as it may seem artistically, unfortunately all movie studios care about is the bottom line and as long as audiences continue to come out in droves with their cash handy, they’ll keep making the same movie over and over again.  That’s what’s been so interesting about the Insidious films; they’ve all followed the same pattern and have similar beats to hit but they wind up being more entertaining than they have any right to be.  After two successfully entries the series ventured into prequel territory for it’s third outing and this new film is a sequel to that prequel.

While it doesn’t tread any new ground, Insidious: The Last Key proves worthy as connective tissue from Insidious: Chapter 3 to the original Insidious (let’s just leave Insidious: Chapter 2 far out of the conversation, shall we?) and it’s largely due to supporting player turned star Lin Shaye (A Nightmare on Elm Street) appearing once more as medium Elise Rainer.  The other three films have benefited from her presence but she’s truly the central figure of screenwriter and co-star Leigh Whannell’s latest episode.

Opening with a prologue set in the ‘50s, we meet Elise as a child living with her parents and brother in their creepy house next to a maximum-security prison.  Every time the lights flicker it’s a signal another death row inmate has met his maker via electric chair but that’s the least of the worries this family has.  Elise can see ghosts and while she’s encouraged to embrace it by her supportive mother, her alcoholic father (Josh Stewart, Interstellar) fears his child that can seemingly communicate with the dead and punishes her when her gifts emerge.  Charmed by an evil entity into freeing it from its basement confines, Elise unwittingly brings a malevolent force into her family which sets into motion events that will haunt her for the rest of her life.

Picking up in 2010, Elise is contacted by a man now living in her old house.  Strange events have started up again and she takes his invitation as an opportunity to exorcise (literally) her childhood traumas and reconnect with her brother (Bruce Davison, The Lords of Salem) who has a family of his own, including two daughters played by Magic Mike’s Caitlin Gerard and Spencer Locke.  As she explores her house (always, I should add in the dead of night armed with a small flashlight and never during the day) she comes face to face not only with secrets from her past but a freaky figure we come to know as KeyFace (Javier Botet, IT).

After the first two films were directed by James Wan (The Conjuring) and the previous entry directed by Whannell, I was encouraged to see a new face in the director chair this go around.  Director Adam Robitel wrote and directed the real horror gem The Taking of Deborah Logan a few years ago so I was interested to see what he brought to the franchise.  Turns out Robitel brings a more grounded approach to the film and while that doesn’t always work for a vehicle that’s supposed to be an all-out scare machine, his approach feels right at this late stage.  These are characters we’re all familiar with, so let’s take some time to get to know them between the scares.

That’s good news for Shaye who shines even when she’s navigating clunky dialogue and playing the straight man to her goofy sidekicks played by Whannell (Cooties) and Angus Sampson (Mad Max: Fury Road).  Both of these oddballs provided some interesting comic relief in the first film but have steadily gotten broader with each passing entry, much to the overall detriment of any kind of mood everyone is trying to create.  Davison looks like he’s thinking of what he’s going to buy with his paycheck while Gerard and Locke are passable as characters that might pick up the psychic torch from their aunt.

This feels like a good way to round off the rough edges of this series that started strong, dipped, and then leveled off.  It misses a few opportunities to go deeper and actually is missing creepy scenes shown in the trailer.  I found it interesting that while Elise’s haunted house is next to an imposing abandoned prison, we never get a look inside the derelict penitentiary. It’s worth seeing it with a large audience that’s there to have fun.  The screams at my screening were as entertaining as the film itself, especially the woman that yelled out ‘Gosh DARN it’ after a particularly nasty scare. There are a few interesting curveballs thrown in and it’s packed with enough jump scares to satisfy your post-holiday cravings.  Just remember: it’s not art, it’s the fourth entry in the Insidious series.