Movie Review ~ Jurassic World Dominion

The Facts:

Synopsis: Dinosaurs now live—and hunt—alongside humans all over the world. This fragile balance will reshape the future and determine, once and for all, whether human beings are to remain the apex predators on a planet they now share with history’s most fearsome creatures.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, DeWanda Wise, Isabella Sermon,  Mamoudou Athie, Campbell Scott, BD Wong, Omar Sy, Justice Smith, Daniella Pineda, Scott Haze, Dichen Lachman
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 146 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review:  Recently, I was asked to list a handful of my most memorable summer movie experiences. Seeing Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel Jurassic Park in June of 1993 easily came in at #1. There was something so special about that time, a pre-internet era where all you had to go on before a movie was released were clips shown on entertainment news programs or movie magazines tailored to your interests. For this movie in particular, so much was kept under wraps beforehand that audiences truly had no little idea about what was in store for them. I miss having those unspoiled viewing pleasures, and in the decades since Jurassic Park opened its doors, the odds of walking blindly into a film have decreased every time society introduced a new social media platform.

When Universal Studios revitalized the Jurassic franchise in 2015 with the super-blockbuster Jurassic World, many of those same early feelings of excitement came back to me. New director Colin Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed), personally selected by Spielberg, took the reins with that same sense of fun and adventure. Even if nothing would match the spirit of the original visit to the park (including The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997 and Jurassic Park III in 2001), I was thrilled with what the creative team had worked up. Trevorrow wasn’t on hand for 2018’s Jurassic World Fallen Kingdom, which suffered as previous sequels did with being set in a climate that didn’t feel contained enough to create appropriate tension. I liked it better than my colleagues, but it didn’t move the dial like it should (or could) have. 

For the supposed final film (at least in this trilogy), Trevorrow has returned and brought back the trio of original co-stars from Spielberg’s first outing. That alone is worth booking passage to Jurassic World Dominion, but audiences will have to wade through a fair share of thorny underbrush in this 146-minute finale ultimo. Boasting surprisingly less than cutting edge special effects, some downright silly contrivances, and performances from dinosaurs that often best the humans they are acting alongside, you’ll want to see it with a packed audience to get your maximum enjoyment. They’ll help smooth out the rocky ride between the star attractions if they’re anything like my enthusiastic crowd.

In the four years following the events of Fallen Kingdom, when the dinosaurs escaped their island and integrated into the ecosystem around the world, most of the population has grown accustomed to seeing these bio-engineered creatures roaming the globe. Exploited to varying degrees for their exotic appeal, they’ve gone beyond park attractions to curiosities you can own as a status symbol or wield as a tool against an enemy. That’s what a growing horde of pre-historic locusts is doing, decimating crops not planted with a synthetic seed from seemingly benign company Biosyn Genetics led by a character that will be familiar to trivia buffs of the first film. While Campbell Scott (The Amazing Spider-Man) didn’t play this part back then, it’s a wise choice to have an actor of his stature (and oddity) take over.

Researching the raging locusts is Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern, Little Women), who has been tipped off by old friend Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum, The Grand Budapest Hotel) that Biosyn is behind the revived insects and gets her access to their private labs in the Dolomite Mountains. She needs an experienced witness to vouch for her findings and turns to former flame Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill, Dead Calm) to fly with her and provide a second set of trained eyes. Little do they know it, but Biosyn is also a sanctuary for many of the dinosaurs that have been rounded up from around the world, and they’re about to welcome another set of visitors to the facility under very different circumstances.

After escaping with the first human clone, Maisie (Isabella Sermon), Clare (Bryce Dallas Howard, Rocketman), and Owen (Chris Pratt, The Tomorrow War) are trying to keep her hidden in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Not only did she release the dinos into the wild to begin with, but her very existence is valuable to scientists seeking to do good and evil. Staying close by is Velociraptor Blue, still ornery but keeping an eye on a new baby raptor Maisie nicknamed Beta. When both Maisie and Blue are captured by Biosyn cronies, Clare and Owen team up with a non-nonsense former Air Force Pilot (DeWanda Wise, The Harder They Fall) to break into Biosyn and retrieve both precious assets.

Much of Jurassic World Dominion is spent with the two stories working separately from one another, and only one holds much interest. That would be the thread that follows Dern and Neill (and sometimes Goldblum) as they travel to Biosyn and get a lay of the mysterious lab/land. Meeting up with Scott and his team (including franchise stalwart B.D. Wong, The Space Between Us, still causing nefarious trouble and then feeling guilty after), one can’t help but be reminded of their trip to Jurassic Park…and Treverrow doesn’t let you forget it thanks to several Easter Egg callbacks to the original. These are fun, audience-pleasing moments that land with welcome warmth. 

On the other side, Howard and Pratt are heading up the more action-heavy side of things, globe-trotting from the Sierra Nevadas to Malta before heading to Biosyn.  All of this added movement does little to stir up much in the way of tension, despite some decent attempts from Howard to get into the action and shockingly little effort from Pratt to do anything more than the minimum required to move from one scene to the next. It’s like Pratt forgot what he liked about being in movies in the first place. He’s never been close to a movie star, but now he’s not even working to prove it anymore. His process is starting to show, never changing up his look or approach, and it’s never more evident here. Wise can get a few good moments out of him, but even her material is so weak that you can sometimes feel her wanting to roll her eyes and the tired dialogue she has to say. 

Frustratingly non-committal in certain areas (count how many people get snacked on in comparison to how many dinosaurs get finished off) and tossing whatever light science was present early on right out the door (T-Rex suddenly loses all sense of smell here), Jurassic World Dominion has a handful of thrill-park esque sequences that are effective but double the number of slogs that could have been so much more. It feels like two partial movies that never got finished smashed into one…I wish more time were spent fleshing out the revisit with our old friends rather than trying to make time for the newbies. Then you’d have a movie worth waiting in line all day for.

The Silver Bullet ~ Jurassic World: Dominion


Synopsis: The epic conclusion of the Jurassic era.
Release Date:  June 10, 2022
Thoughts:  I have friendly neighbors who never would have called the police on me today when I screamed watching this new trailer for Jurassic World: Dominion.  If the police had arrived, I would have invited them in and brought them to the part of the first full look at the sixth film in the long-running franchise when original stars Laura Dern, Sam Neill, and Jeff Goldblum appeared.  Actually, more like when Dern shows up and reunites with Neill in a setting that feels familiar to those that remember how the first movie began. 

This lightning bolt of nostalgia is just one of many thrills to be had in this maxed-out ride through the adventure awaiting audiences in the final chapter of a trilogy that began with 2015’s Jurassic World.  Though 2018’s sequel Fallen Kingdom didn’t meet the expectations of many, I appreciated its gentle attempt at pivoting.  Under the guidance of the first chapter’s director Colin Trevorrow and backed by a humungous production, the series has clearly course-corrected in a significant way.  Did I tear up a bit during this trailer?  Unashamedly I nod my head yes.  Already high on my list of anticipated films of 2022, Jurassic World: Dominion is now in the #1 slot.

Movie Review ~ Marry Me

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Music superstars Kat Valdez and Bastian are getting married before a global audience of fans. When Kat learns that Bastian has been unfaithful, seconds before her vows, she decides to marry Charlie, a stranger in the crowd, instead.
Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson, Maluma, Chloe Coleman, Sarah Silverman
Director: Kat Corio
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 112 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  After more than twenty-five years in the movie industry, I think it’s fair to say that multi-hyphenate performer Jennifer Lopez knows what works for her and what doesn’t. Choosing her film roles selectively and with an eye on not just the exposure for her as an actress but as a musician and entertainer, Lopez is a global icon instantly recognizable wherever she goes. Early in her career, she entered the hallowed halls of romantic comedy queendom, scoring a hat trick with 2001’s The Wedding Planner, 2002’s Maid in Manhattan, and 2005’s Monster-in-Law.  Though she’s appeared in other popular films and earned good notices before, during, and after these releases, that trio of dependable winners is the most mentioned when speaking of JLo’s film endeavors.

It’s been a while since Lopez had that level of monster genre hit and despite barely missing out on an Oscar nomination for the career-best work in 2019’s Hustlers, other projects (even 2018’s Second Act, which is quite good) haven’t caught major fire. That tide could change with the release of Marry Me, the kind of return to form rom-com fueled by gargantuan charisma and star power that’s been missing in movies for eons. Lopez and co-star Owen Wilson (The Internship) are a refreshing, funny movie couple with effortlessly delightful chemistry. With its Notting Hill-ish flourishes (more on that later), Lopez easily moves from the A list to the A+ list, giving a performance that I was not expecting to be as deep as it turned out to be. 

Loosely based on a 2007 graphic novel (!) by Bobby Crosby, Marry Me finds beautiful superstar singer Kat Valdez (Lopez, The Boy Next Door) swept up in the whirlwind of preparations to wed hot heartthrob Bastian (Maluma, Encanto) during a joint concert in front of a worldwide audience and sing their rising pop single, “Marry Me.” Already married and divorced several times, the subject of much public scrutiny, Valdez is convinced (or has she just worked hard to convince herself?) Bastian is the one for her and puts aside her reservations about getting hitched in such a public forum. In the audience are a mild-mannered math teacher and divorced dad, Charlie Gilbert (Wilson), along with his daughter (Chloe Coleman, My Spy) and his colleague Parker (Sarah Silverman, A Million Ways to Die in the West). 

When Kat finds out from her manager (John Bradley, Moonfall) right as the vows are to take place that Bastian has betrayed her, she notices the unassuming man in the audience holding a sign emblazoned with the name of the song she’s about to sing. A split-second decision leads to a moment of clarity for the star and a life-changing agreement for the schoolteacher who still owns a flip phone. Married in front of a shocked crowd, Kat and Charlie must get to know one another, and both realize something they never thought possible; there’s a lot left to life and love they can learn from the other. All they have to do is get over their hang-ups. Easier said than done for a pop star with everything and an educator content with the simple life.

It’s impossible not to watch the movie and see the striking parallels to 1999’s Notting Hill, which is, to me, a perfect film. Even in the way the action develops, the narrative beats have a similar feel. While I wouldn’t say Marry Me is overtly copying that earlier film’s success story, it does use that as a blueprint to make the unlikely (and, let’s face it, unbelievable) fairy tale seem that much more plausible. Director Kat Corio and screenwriters Harper Dill, John Rogers, and Tami Sagher pepper the film with enough roadblocks and, strangely, supporting characters working against the best interest of their friends to believably keep the stars ever so slightly in a romantic danger zone. The inevitable third act “break-up,” comes from an internal place, not an external force, something I appreciated seeing because it was in keeping with the movie’s focus on the couple. It sets the stage for a comic cross-country down-to-the-buzzer race to express their feelings. 

Filmed in 2019 when Lopez was 50, it’s a grand showcase (but not a “showy” one) for the actress, with full-out singing and dancing to go along with the sharp comic timing she hasn’t fully embraced since her early Wedding Planner days. Also…I’m convinced Marry Me is being released simultaneously on Peacock TV as well as theaters for people who will certainly do what I did and pause it to scream each time Lopez reveals a new outfit. By the time we got to the red sequin number, I was entirely unconscious under the coffee table. Timed right for a Valentine’s Day release, say yes to Marry Me this weekend or any time of year. It’s undoubtedly going to be a new favorite of mine.

Movie Review ~ Dear Evan Hansen

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Evan Hansen, a high schooler with social anxiety, unintentionally gets caught up in a lie after the family of a classmate who committed suicide mistakes one of Hansen’s letters for their son’s suicide note.

Stars: Ben Platt, Amy Adams, Kaitlyn Dever, Julianne Moore, Amandla Stenberg, Nik Dodani, Colton Ryan, Danny Pino

Director: Stephen Chbosky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I suppose there was a certain inevitability to the failure of Dear Evan Hansen’s screen adaptation the moment Ben Platt was cast to reprise his Tony Award winning stage performance.  Platt’s work in the Broadway version (a piece he’d been with since its inception all the way back to 2014) was heralded to high heaven and there was even a glossy New York Times piece in 2017 that walked us through his daily rituals, showing us just how emotionally taxing it was to play Evan Hansen eight times a week.  This was a performer that put his all into the role, physically and emotionally.  He won all the accolades for it and has gone on to become a popular presence among fans in his age group.

So, when the time came to make the movie of Dear Evan Hansen, unlike other film adaptations where the award-winning star of the Broadway show was overlooked, the producers chose instead to go back to Platt who was more than happy to resurrect his Evan Hansen that he had since given over to a series of respectable replacements.  Now, I’m not saying with Platt’s dad (uber-producer Marc Platt) ranking high in the film’s producer list that the younger Platt had an advantage but…let’s not fool ourselves.  Platt himself has even acknowledged the film likely wouldn’t have been made without his involvement (really?) so how about we just go with Platt being the only person in consideration for the role. 

I’m not going to get into a debate about the age thing that has haunted so many a chat board ever since the first trailer was released.  There are enough hysterical memes and terrific GIFs that have been made of an aged Platt standing amongst the younger classmates but in reality, once you see the film you realize that it’s not the age difference that makes a difference.  Despite a truly tragic hair style which calls into question the creative decisions of the hair and make-up designers more than anything, Platt actually doesn’t look all that older than Kaitlyn Dever (Booksmart), Nik Dodani (Escape Room), Amandla Stenberg (The Hunger Games), and Colton Ryan (Uncle Frank), who are all supposed to be his classmates.  He may look a tad ganglier than the rest but certainly not the creepy adult-looking man-child early hot takes would have had you think.

The real trouble for Platt and the film version of Dear Evan Hansen is Platt’s inability to stop performing and start acting, really acting.  The actor is so tied into his stage performance and what made that work that he forgets that he’s working for the camera on a small scale and needs to dial everything back about twenty clicks.  What might have worked onstage simply doesn’t work for film and even after making a number of movies and TV series, it’s surprising Platt regresses so dramatically here.  That he’s cast alongside experienced pros only calls this out on a grander scale. 

Evan Hansen (Platt, Broken Diamonds), laced with anxiety and pent-up emotion, has been given a task by his therapist.  He’s been asked to write letters to himself as a way of encouragement to fend off the negative thoughts and feelings he has about starting another school year with no friends except for “family friend” Jared (Dodani).  Pining for Zoe Murphy (Dever) from afar, he can barely work up the courage to speak with her and after a particularly rough day he writes a letter to himself in the school library that is read by Zoe’s brother Connor (Ryan) who thinks Evan has written it to make fun of him.  Terrified Connor will use the letter against him, Evan spends the next several days in fear of retaliation until he’s called into the principal’s office to meet with Connor’s parents.  That’s where he learns Connor had taken his own life and Evan’s letter has been (incorrectly) assumed to be his suicide note.  His parents want to know if, as his only friend, Evan had any insight to offer about Connor.

Right here is where the story of Dear Evan Hansen takes a turn that loses a number of viewers because of its horrible deception, me included.  Instead of correcting them, Evan goes along with that wrong assumption that Connor and he were friends and becomes a false sense of comfort to the Murphy’s…mostly to get closer to Zoe.  He says the right things to make Cynthia (Amy Adams, The Woman in the Window) feel as if she didn’t let her son down quite so much and tells stepfather Larry (Danny Pino) how Connor appreciated their time together.  He goes one lie bigger with Zoe, creating fictious conversations between him and Connor about her that suggests whatever fracture was present in their relationship was something he wanted to fix.  Basically, he tells them what they want to hear so they feel better, and they keep him around.  It’s an advantageous situation for everyone…but it’s a lie.  As the lie gets bigger and goes inexplicably global and with the more people get involved with memorializing Connor (Stenberg’s role as a fellow student, while the best acted and sung out of all bar-none, feels as tacked on here as it does in the show), the harder it is for Evan to keep reality and fiction separate.

Interspersed throughout is the Tony Award winning score from Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, tunes that are hummable but not as memorable as the ones they created for The Greatest Showman (sorry, not sorry).    A new song they wrote with Stenberg for her character goes over nicely but they’ve also cut several songs and that’s an unfortunate loss because it leaves the film feeling only half like the musical it very much is.  You almost wonder if the movie would have been more successful without music all together because the entire story seems like a film we’d see released in the fall as an awards hopeful.  Something about it all doesn’t gel and you can’t blame it all on Platt or even the ho-hum direction by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

When a film is just getting by on fumes to begin with, you hope that the performances will save it.  We’ve already discussed Platt’s inability to get out of his own way, resulting in some seriously unimpressive (and often embarrassing) scenes of him over singing that you think he’s going to hurl from the force of it all.  Compare that to the work that Adams, Dever, and Pino do in the haunting “Requiem” sequence – which is just as emotional as Platt’s most harrowing songs but is restrained enough to convey just the right tone without going overboard.  Adams has had a rough go these past few years and I was sad to see one of her songs cut, but it’s a duet with Evan’s mom played by Julianne Moore (The Glorias) who, from what I gather, is a bit of a non-singer.  While Moore does have a grand 11 o’clock number that she sells up and down, left and right…I wish for Adams’s sake they could have kept the earlier song to give Adams vocally more to do.

Problematic with or without its hokey star, Dear Evan Hansen always faced an uphill battle on its way to the big screen and it’s unfortunate it was dealt so many tough blows on its way to release.  The early buzz based on images alone was negative, the first reviews from screenings wasn’t promising, and even the reaction by Platt and his team was disappointing in its “So what”-ness.  And you know what, the film isn’t even all that bad.  You can see a decently made film in there somewhere but without a central figure to truly root for and then sans an actor in that role you believe in, where’s the fun in going to the theater and finding a reason to applaud?

Movie Review ~ Nobody 

1


The Facts:

Synopsis: Hutch Mansell, a suburban dad, overlooked husband, nothing neighbor — a “nobody.” When two thieves break into his home one night, Hutch’s unknown long-simmering rage is ignited and propels him on a brutal path that will uncover dark secrets he fought to leave behind.

Stars: Bob Odenkirk, Connie Nielsen, Aleksey Serebryakov, Christopher Lloyd, RZA, Michael Ironside, Colin Salmon, RZA, Billy MacLellan, Araya Mengesha, Gage Munroe

Director: Ilya Naishuller

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: It’s coming.  The time for theaters to re-open and welcome movie-goers back in larger numbers is getting close and even now you can see there are more films premiering only in cinemas and not available via streaming or On Demand.  On the one hand, I get it.  Studios want to stay in the good graces of theater chains while also preserving the overall experience for their audiences.  On the other, even though the country continues to be vaccinated at a good rate there is still a long way to go before people (including myself) would feel comfortable sitting for an extended period in an enclosed space with others we aren’t acquainted with.  Until then, I’ll feel lucky that I can see a theatrical-only release like Nobody (from Universal Pictures) in the comfort of my own home so I’m able to let you know if it’s worth the risk to venture out to your local multiplex.

Though I’m still always going to advocate that you avoid unnecessary social interaction outside of your own home and hold out until a movie you want to see is available to rent or buy via streaming, I suppose if you were looking for a comfort-food casserole sort of action movie to sate your thirst for mindless fun, Nobody would be a full flavor meal to dine out on.  It has a bruised-knee charm that makes it a decent watch and a leading performance from an unexpected star which keeps it always surprising and surpassing your expectations.  It’s pulpy and loud but isn’t insignificant in the way it wins you over on sheer chutzpah.  Plain and simple — it’s worth putting some real pants on for.

The most notable thing about middle-aged Hutch Mansell (Bob Odenkirk, Nebraska) is that he keeps to his routine. His suburban life with his pretty wife (Connie Nielsen, Wonder Woman 1984, Sea Fever) and two children isn’t boring, it’s just standard.  He’s not complaining he’s just…settled.  Working a number pushing job at a factory seems to get him through the day and although he aspires to one day own the factory, his mild-mannered attitude might be drowned out by a more emphatic employee who the boss (Michael Ironside, Scanners) takes more notice of.  It’s a beige life for a beige guy.  At least that’s what it looks like on the surface.  A late-night home break-in is the catalyst that begins to pull back the curtain on Hutch’s life before the wife, kids, and 9-5 job entered the picture.  It awakens a side of him that few have seen…and lived to talk about.

Over the next several days, Hutch will run afoul of a karaoke-singing Russian crime boss (Aleksey Serebryakov, in a performance of golden gusto) who quickly sets his sights on eliminating this unexpected thorn in his side.  They’ll also be car chases, knockdown brawls leading to broken bones and worse, and a booby-trapped finale that will remind you of a certain Christmas classic.  It’s all eager to please and screenwriter Derek Kolstad (The Falcon and the Winter Soldier) doesn’t miss an opportunity to find a clever way to clean house.  It’s also up to director Ilya Naishuller to not let us get too far ahead in Kolstad’s script – though Hutch’s shadowy past might seem obvious at first, the full truth is more fun.

Even though it’s ultimately just a less flashy version of the John Wick films (no shocker, Kolstad wrote all three) set to a soundtrack filled with so many on the nose up-tempo tunes I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a wedding DJ watching that uses it exclusively at their next gig, Nobody whizzes through 92 minutes without pausing much to let us catch our breath or think through how silly it all is.  A lot of that has to do with Naishuller’s breakneck pace and caffeine-hyped editing but don’t forget to give Odenkirk much of the credit for making Hutch such a standout character.  Sure, he’s playing a seemingly dull guy that’s just harboring a lot of well-kept talents, but there’s more to him than his bag of tricks.  I’ve yet to truly take much notice of the actor until now but he’s an astonishingly credible action star, an everyman that takes a licking and keeps on ticking, absorbing the blows but finding creative ways to dole out punishment as revenge.  It’s all Odenkirk’s film so even strong supporting work from Nielsen (sadly underused considering the butt kicking we’ve seen her do recently in Zack Snyder’s Justice League and more) and a neat appearance from Back to the Future‘s Christopher Lloyd as Hutch’s irascible father.

With its short length, Nobody would be a good option if you are thinking of dipping your toe back into the theater-going experience because it’s a breeze to sit through.  If anything, make time for it when you do see it pop into your at home options in several weeks because this side of Odenkirk was exciting to see.  With his popularity at a peak nowadays with TV’s Better Call Saul continuing to earn him strong notices, Nobody is something to behold indeed.

31 Days to Scare ~ Drag Me to Hell

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A loan officer who evicts an old woman from her home finds herself the recipient of a supernatural curse.

Stars: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, David Paymer, Adriana Barraza, Chelcie Ross, Reggie Lee, Molly Cheek, Bojana Novakovic

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: So here we are, the final day of the annual 31 Days to Scare and we’ve covered everything from maniacs to vampires, monsters to animated mystery-solving dogs.  We’ve looked at series that took us inside Bly Manor and eight strange tales from Monsterland and caught up with a TV movie from the early ‘70s.  They haven’t all been winners, but some have been pleasant surprises.  In the end, I wanted to sidestep an older feature and go with a title that I think will stand the test of time and be one that viewers several generations from now will dust off and enjoy.  I also wanted to pick something that wasn’t so extreme and too off limits for everyone but would still give fans of the genre a good rattle to keep them happy.

Narrowing down the list for my final title, I kept finding my thoughts drifting to Drag Me to Hell.  The 2009 Sam Raimi-directed feature checked off all the requirements to keep it rising to the top of the pile and that’s how I knew it was sort of the perfect movie to wrap up my month-long film fright fest.  Seeing it for the first time in theaters was one of those deliriously fun experiences I’ll never forget.  I had somehow missed it’s opening weekend and several subsequent weeks after but heard so much good buzz about it from friends and even co-workers that I knew I had to get to the theater post-haste to see if all the good notices were true.  Not only did the film live up to its reputation, it became something of a litmus test I used for my own friends…showing it to others  over the years has been a real treat and almost as good as seeing it for the first time all over again.

Mild-mannered Christine (Alison Lohman) is tired of not getting ahead at her job as a loan officer at a no-name bank in Los Angeles.  Though she has an understanding boyfriend (Justin Long, Tusk) and a supportive boss (David Paymer, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) that tries to coach her, she just can’t be the cutthroat shark that he needs in an upper level employee.  That all changes when she musters up the courage to deny a loan to a kindly old lady (Lorna Raver) requesting an extension on her mortgage.  Though the older woman begs her to reconsider in an act of desperation, Christine remains firm, impressing her boss.  It does not, however, impress the woman who is shamed by this rebuke and returns later that evening to place a gypsy curse on poor Christine.  Now, Christine has a demon after her wanting to, you guessed it, drag her to hell within three days’ time, but if she can pass the curse on to someone else, she can be saved.  Consulting a mystic (Dileep Rao) who eventually brings her to a psychic (Adriana Barraza, The 33) that has dealt with this evil force before, Christine is put through a number of tests and trials on her way to uncover more information about the origin of the curse, the whereabouts of the old lady, and who might be a good candidate to pawn her fast approaching demon off to before it’s too late.

Director Raimi (Indian Summer) had been working on this film long before he ever got caught up in the web of his Spider-Man trilogy but put it aside to focus on those films.  First making a name for himself with his landmark film The Evil Dead (itself a perennial horror classic), Raimi put his name on a number of interesting projects of the same variety before really going the major studio route in the mid ‘90s (like Darkman…remember that?) and onward.  While Drag Me to Hell is a slickly produced film released from a big studio (Universal) it doesn’t have blockbuster expectations tacked onto it, it definitely feels more in line with Raimi’s earlier indie work and that’s a very good thing.

From the opening prologue that gives you information and characters from the past that won’t make sense until a good deal later, Raimi’s film (co-written with his brother, Ivan) is in constant motion with plot developments clipping along at a good pace.  Crafting each truly terrifying scene like an action set-piece from one of his superhero movies, he has a way of building upon each shriek so that at some point you have to give over to amazed laughter that it’s still going on.  Raimi just isn’t content with one scare…I mean, why get a single scream from the audience when you could potentially get half a dozen with six well-timed jolts?  It shouldn’t work as well as it does but expect your nerves to be fried when this one is over.

Originally set to star Ellen Page, I think it’s almost better that Lohman stepped in because she’s such a bland actress.  Now hold up for a second.  Before you get on my case about that statement, let me clarify.  Lohman has always held a certain blankness for me and it gets the desired effect for some films but doesn’t work for others.  Here, it’s great, because Christine is so awkward and unsure at the beginning that Lohman fits into her soft-spoken essence easily, building her confidence slowly as the movie progresses and Christine has a litany of horrors befall her.  There’s also a disgustingly hysterical running gag of her mouth getting filled, mid-scream, with whatever slop, goo, slime, or secretion is being vomited up by the demon or other nasty creature she encounters.

This is just pure fun from beginning to end.  It’s funny, it’s clever, it winks so hard at the audience you can almost hear it batting its eyelashes at you, and Raimi isn’t afraid to let viewers bask in some very strange moments along the way.  Like the goat.  That’s all I’ll say.  The goat.  Raimi clearly knows his audience and while it isn’t strictly for The Evil Dead gang, it could be something they could watch with their teenage children instead of showing them that more intense film.  Drag Me to Hell is strongly recommended not just as a superior horror film but as entertainment at a high level in general.  Fire it up on Halloween for your guests…you’ll have a blast.

 

31 Days to Scare ~ The Birds

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A San Francisco socialite pursues a man to a small Northern California town that takes a turn for the bizarre when birds of all kinds suddenly begin to attack people.

Stars: Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, Suzanne Pleshette, Jessica Tandy, Veronica Cartwright, Ethel Griffies, Charles McGraw, Joe Mantell, Elizabeth Wilson, Doodles Weaver, Richard Deacon

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  I’m not one of those people that can watch films by the great director Alfred Hitchcock over and over, endlessly analyzing the way he constructed shots and drove narratives in exciting new ways.  I prefer to take long-ish stretches between viewings because not only does it help me appreciate the movie when I return to it, I also come back just a little hazy on all the plot mechanics.  This helps achieve somewhat of a “fresh take” on repeat viewings.  I should also probably confess that I’ve yet to make it through the entire Hithcock catalog, though I’m slowly ticking them off as the years go by.  Shamefully, it took a pandemic to help me watch North by Northwest for the first time!

Anyway, this all goes to say that I can’t even remember the last time I’ve watched 1963’s The Birds from start to finish.  I’ve caught bits and pieces here and there, sure, but taking the whole thing in has been likely decades in the making.  What I do remember is that the first time I saw it as a teenager I found it incredibly slow and talky, not the thrilling horror as promised.  I mean, of course I did!  At that point, all I wanted was to get to the bird-killing action and seeing people running away from beaks and clawed feet.  What’s all this banter between the striking blonde (Tippi Hedren) and stone-jawed hunky leading man (Rod Taylor) got to do with flesh-craving birds?

Viewing it as an adult who has a more rounded view of cinema and of the oeuvre of the director, I understand the structure of the screenplay of The Birds and how Hitchcock uses the first hour or so to establish time, place, and character.  Without these factors being cemented, the last half of the film wouldn’t work nearly as well because we’d have no idea of the isolation felt by the people fending off flocks of seagulls.  It makes perfect sense to stroll through a curiously event-free 25 minutes before the first angry bird makes its presence known, that way we’ve gotten to know flirty Melanie (Hedren) who has tracked twinkle-eyed Mitch (Taylor) to his weekend retreat in Bodega Bay, California.

Melanie’s arrival appears to coincide with a strange convergence of birds who seem to escalate their assaults rather quickly on the unprepared seaside town.  This allows Hitchcock to stage some masterfully suspenseful scenes, rendered with a mix of live and animatronic birds as well as more that were added in later using a state-of-the-art special effect.  No one is safe in this story, not even the town’s children who become the first targets of a terrifying mob of razor beaked crows.  As the birds continue to destroy Bodega Bay and its residents without any explanation as to why, Melanie winds up with Mitch, his mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy, Still of the Night), and his younger sister Cathy (Veronica Cartwright, Alien) in their remote home far from the town and any true safety.

I still find the film overly talky at points, not so much in the opening when it makes sense but in that final stretch when the momentum should buoyed a bit more.  Hitchcock lets the dramatics of Evan Hunter’s screenplay (Hunter was the pseudonym for popular crime author Ed McBain) be prioritized over sustained suspense which is disappointing considering how truly scary the movie is at times.  Perhaps it was done to give the audience of the time a way to catch their breath but viewed now it comes off like a train that starts to slide back down a hill just as it makes it to the end of a wild ride of twists and turns.  While it did diverge quite significantly from author Daphne du Maurier’s original short story, I think everyone made the right call to tweak it the way they did.  It does have a number of unforgettable images, like a wooden door gradually being pecked away and Hedren’s wild eyes as she is set upon by a swarm of flying evil.

The performances are impressive too, with Hedren one of the more fun “Hitchcock Blondes”; she really earns her paycheck late in the film for a bird attack scene that took a week to film and sent her to the hospital for exhaustion afterward.  Brawny Stewart was never a huge A-lister but he’s a good match of Hedren and the film, though his heavily bronzed face makes him look as old as his mother at times.  Tandy is most remembered for her late in life roles when she played a spry elder so it’s wonderful to watch her forty years before she would win her Best Actress Oscar.  Cartwright and Pleshette have their nice moments but you can’t mention The Birds and not call out the delightfully droll Ethel Griffies as Mrs. Bundy, the natty townslady who just so happens to be an expert on birds.  Her small scene reveals a great deal about the habits of the winged creatures…which is directly contradicted by the unexplained behavior we then witness for the next 60 minutes.

You can see why this is often called the most straight-forward scary film Alfred Hitchcock made because it often pulls no punches when it comes to vicious bird attacks. I’m sure PETA would have a field day with it now but the live birds look positively horrific flapping about the actors and dive bombing for their fingers and faces.  Though not in 3D, it gives off the effect of it by a constant swirl of movement which is disorienting but not hard to follow.  The director earned the title The Master of Suspense for a reason and The Birds is the movie you can point directly to if anyone questions it.  All they have to do is watch the scene where a murder of crows slowly gathers on a jungle gym behind an unsuspecting Hedren – you can literally feel your heart beating faster.  This is a great option if you’re in the mood for a horror film elevated to the highest level of sophistication.

Movie Review ~ You Should Have Left


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Strange events plague a couple and their young daughter when they rent a secluded countryside house that has a dark past.

Stars: Kevin Bacon, Amanda Seyfried, Avery Tiiu Essex

Director: David Koepp

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Ever since movie theaters shut down in early April, there has been much discussion over the big summer blockbusters that have seen their release dates shuffled around or delayed indefinitely.  Buzzed about franchise pictures set to make studios millions (billions, potentially) are now waiting in the wings, dependent on a vaccine for the virus that kept audiences in lockdown to emerge.  Because, let’s be honest, no one really feels completely confident about heading into a enclosed space with a bunch of unknown factors still in play.  I sure don’t, that’s for sure.

So instead of heading to the theaters this summer film fans have been doing their movie-going with their remotes and that’s been a boon to smaller films that might not have received the recognition had they had to compete with movies that had a bigger advertising budget.  That’s why for a few weekends a month ago the smaller horror film The Wretched was the number one movie according to the limited figures available…it also helped that the indie fright flick was fairly decent.  The other difference between a movie like The Wretched and the new thriller You Should Have Left is that The Wretched was likely always going to be a direct to streaming film while You Should Have Left had loftier plans from the start.  The Blumhouse production shifted its release from theaters to On Demand and that plan will most certainly help overall, not just because far more people will see it due to a lack of other similar available content but I think it won’t be judged as harshly as it would have been as a theatrical offering.

Adapted by director David Koepp (Premium Rush) from a 2017 novella by German writer Daniel Kehlmann, You Should Have Left follows Theo Conroy (Kevin Bacon, Patriots Day), his actress wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried, Scoob!) and their daughter Ella (Avery Essex) as they take a few weeks away from her busy filming schedule for a family retreat in Wales.  Theo’s visit to Susanna’s set early on gives us an indication not only of his jealous side but also hints that he’s famous in his own right…and not for anything particularly pleasant.  The house the family rents is nicely secluded and a wonder of modern design, with clean lines and confusing hallways that are easy to get turned around in.  Right away, Theo can sense there’s something off but can’t quite figure out what’s amiss…and a strange visit into town with its peculiar townspeople doesn’t settle his paranoid nerves any.

As is often the case lately, the first hour of the movie contains some genuine interest and sincere head-scratching moments as Theo starts to unravel the longer he spends within the house.  Is it related to his troubled past and has the dwelling awakened a sinister spirit out to reclaim something from him?  Or is his long gestating lack of confidence in the sincerity of his much-younger wife bubbling to the surface at a most inopportune time?  Basically…is he imagining the house is designed to confuse or has he managed to find a rental property built on top of the devil’s doorway?

If only Koepp could have kept up with the suspense, You Should Have Left might have been a nifty little film that truly delivered.  As it stands, it winds up falling apart in short order and disappointingly so.  Koepp has explored similar themes of isolation/seclusion like this in his previous films Secret Window from 2004 and 1996’s The Trigger Effect so this should be familiar territory to navigate for him.  Maybe the problem is Koepp’s adaptation, which as far as I can tell added in cumbersome elements that seems to have taken Kehlmann’s original simplicity in storytelling and weighed it down with more emotional baggage.  Adding that in complicates things and makes the movie accountable for explaining too much…about Theo, about Susanna, about the house and its origins.  Though it’s handsomely made, it’s in that final half hour where precious little makes sense and Koepp loses control of what up until then had been a precise thriller.

It’s good, then, that we have Bacon on hand to sell what at times is a little hard to swallow.  Bacon is such a dependable presence in even the smallest of roles, it’s nice to see him back in a leading role and re-teamed with Koepp after their superior effort, Stir of Echoes, in 1999.  Even if the film starts to go off the rails, Bacon stays on track and resists the urge to overdo things.  (It’s interesting to note, if the IMDb trivia page is to be believed, Nicolas Cage was originally attached to star – I can only imagine how he would have handled some of the twists of the final act.)  I’m glad the script makes a pointed issue of the age discrepancy between Bacon and Seyfried, their 27-year age gap is very much a piece of the puzzle…though it is still awkward to imagine them as a couple.

For a weekend option, I can imagine that You Should Have Left would be a decent choice for those that have exhausted their Netflix and Amazon Prime queues and need a jolt of newer release.  It’s better than a number of Blumhouse productions that have found their way to theaters and while it doesn’t stand up in competition to their slick update on The Invisible Man earlier this year, it’s watchable more often than not.

The Silver Bullet ~ Candyman (2020)

Synopsis: Candyman, a murderous soul with a hook for a hand, is accidentally summoned to reality by a skeptic grad student researching the monster’s myth.

Release Date:  June 12, 2020

Thoughts: As I recalled in my 31 Days to Scare review, 1992’s Candyman remains one of the rare movies that still manages to frighten me to this day.  It scared me terribly when I first saw it and I get a little rush of sweat in my brow when I know I’m going to be seeing it again.  It’s just that well-crafted of a horror film.  So I was more than a little curious when a remake was announced, thinking it was just another in the long-line of ill-conceived reboots that no one asked for.  It’s when Oscar-winning screenwriter and surging director Jordan Peele (Us) came on board to co-write the script and director Nia DaCosta signed on to direct that I really got interested and if this first trailer is any indication, this 2020 Candyman is going to pack that same scary sting as the original.  With an enviable cast including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (Chi-Raq), Colman Domingo (If Beale Street Could Talk) and even original cast member Vanessa Williams (no, not that one) returning as what looks to be the same character this one is something to look forward to.  Looking over the cast on IMDb reveals Peele is either making a sequel ala the recent Halloween or remaking the original with a twist…either way I’m in for some sweet screams.

Movie Review ~ Dolittle

2


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Dr. John Dolittle lives in solitude behind the high walls of his lush manor in 19th-century England. His only companionship comes from an array of exotic animals that he speaks to on a daily basis. But when young Queen Victoria becomes gravely ill, the eccentric doctor and his furry friends embark on an epic adventure to a mythical island to find the cure.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Antonio Banderas, Michael Sheen, Emma Thompson, Tom Holland, Ralph Fiennes, Selena Gomez, Rami Malek, Octavia Spencer, Kumail Nanjiani, John Cena, Marion Cotillard, Craig Robinson, Frances de la Tour, Jessie Buckley, Harry Collett

Director: Stephen Gaghan

Rated: PG

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: When someone is so closely associated with a role or a franchise, it’s always interesting to see what they will do when they venture out of that safe paycheck cocoon.  Will it be something radically different or could it be another project similar in tone, which suggests the star enjoyed being in that comfortable space of little challenge but big reward?  I mention this because as the release date of Dolittle (finally) approaches, I’m reminded that this is the first non-Iron Man role Robert Downey Jr. has played since 2014’s The Judge.  That’s five movies in a row where he’s been the same superhero, albeit one that he’s had the chance to add some dimension to as the role progressed.

By the time we got to Avengers: Endgame, Downey Jr. had turned Tony Stark/Iron Man into more than just another world savior stock character, giving him the same character development (and, I’d say more) than other roles he played previously.  Heck, there was even a concerted effort to get him an Oscar nomination for his efforts until he poo-poo-ed the idea, wishing to just let his involvement end on the high note and not have to make award season schmoozing part of the package deal.  Besides, he knew he had Dolittle on the horizon and perhaps he wanted to ensure he had as little time in front of the press as possible.

If you pay attention at all to Hollywood buzz, you’ve likely heard about the tumultuous journey this film has had making it to theaters.  A new adaptation of Hugh Lofting’s quirky character first created in the early 20th century (said to have been written in the trenches of The Great War), it finished filming in June of 2018 and after a poor test screening went through an unheard of 20+ days of reshoots in April of 2019.  Languishing without a release date for some time, Universal eventually gave it the troubling roll out of January 2020…a notorious month known as a dumping ground for movies that are problematic.  Suddenly, this 175 million movie directed by an Oscar winner with a blockbuster star in the leading role and a host of big names providing voices to CGI animals looked like it was confirmed to be the turkey everyone had thought it was.

Yet after seeing the film early on a Saturday morning with a theater full of children I’m sure had been up far longer than I had, I found Dolittle to be not as bad as I would have guessed and not as much of a write-off as many will expect.  It’s far from a great film and certainly not the franchise starter I’m positive Universal wanted it to be (hence why it’s been unloaded hastily) but as a 101 minutes of family friendly entertainment, it more than fits the bill.

With narration provided by parrot Polly (Emma Thompson, Late Night), we are introduced to the world of Dr. John Dolittle through an animated prologue showing how he first learned how he could talk to animals.  It’s here we also learn why he is so depressed at the beginning of the film, having long since shut himself away from the outside world, content to spend his days with just the company of his animals.  He plays chess with gorilla Chee-Chee (Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody) with mice as the pieces and is tended to by wise dog Jip (Tom Holland, Spider-Man: Homecoming) and resourceful duck Dap-Dap (Octavia Spencer, Luce).  Years of solitude has left him looking like a wholly mammoth, his hermit-like attitude overtaking every facet of living.

Urged on by his mischievous friends and his own curiosity, local lad Tommy Stubbins (Harry Collett, Dunkirk) sneaks into the walled off grounds of the Dolittle estate on the very day Dolittle is called on by a representative from Queen Victoria’s court.  It seems the young Queen (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) who took such a liking to Dolittle in his prime has been felled by a strange illness and needs his special expertise to find a cure.  After catching Tommy on his property but finding a kindred spirit of sorts within the boy, Dolittle (after a good tidying up, including a haircut courtesy of the beaks and teeth of his animals…ew) brings him to the Queen’s palace where they soon embark on a dangerous mission into unknown territory in hunt of rare fruit from a fabled tree.  Their travels will lead them to far off places where Dolittle will need to call on not just his talents but the special skills of his animal friends if they are to save the young royal from a sinister saboteur.

For a movie that has been delayed nearly nine months from its original release date, Dolittle feels like it has arrived at a relatively fortuitous time.  There’s not a lot of other solid family options out there presently and perhaps the extra time and reshoots helped give the movie the structure, however lopsided, it manages to construct.  Director and co-screenwriter Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for writing 2000’s Traffic and directed George Clooney to a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in 2005’s Syriana but I doubt there will be the same success for the writing or acting in Dolittle.  The bad guys, Jim Broadbent (Paddington 2), Michael Sheen (Passengers), Antonio Banderas (Pain & Glory), are all etched in crayon that’s been pressed hard on the paper.  They leave an impression but it’s never quite clear what they set out to create.  Thankfully, Collett isn’t one of those effervescently precocious child stars that Hollywood produces by the sackful so he’s a good sidekick but the movie outright wastes Buckley, relegating her to bedrest for much of the movie.  The voice talent don’t always feel like they match up well with their animal counterparts, like Selena Gomez (The Dead Don’t Die) lending voice to a lanky giraffe, though I did get a nice laugh out of Ralph Fiennes (Official Secrets) as a short-fused tiger harboring a love-hate relationship with the good doctor.

Credit to Downey Jr. (In Dreams) for not simply sailing through the film on his laurels.  Yes, most of the movie he’s definitely flying on cruise control but it never requires more of him in the first place.  What he does bring to the event is that ease of emotional access when the laughs stop and its time to get serious.  He also never gives off the impression he’s above the material…I mean, at one point he’s shoulder deep in the business end of a stopped-up fire-breathing dragon so there’s little opportunity to maintain a sense of dignity in those situations.

Stick around for a few minutes into the credits, not just to see some colorful paintings of the cast set to a new song from singer/songwriter Sia but for a bit of closure the movie holds back until that point.  Aside from that, I’m not sure what else could be done with this new Dolittle beyond what Gaghan has given.  At one point my mind drifted to thinking if a sequel to this was possible and while it could definitely be created I’d question if it would benefit any of the characters (or sanity of the actors) to revisit the Dolittle estate and the animals within.  I guess I should ask the animals what they’d think of it all…