31 Days to Scare ~ The Frighteners (1996)

The Facts:

Synopsis: After a tragic car accident kills his wife, a man discovers he can communicate with the dead to con people. However, when a demonic spirit appears, he may be the only one who can stop it from killing the living and the dead.

Stars: Michael J. Fox, Trini Alvarado, Peter Dobson, John Astin, Jeffrey Combs, Dee Wallace, Jake Busey, Chi McBride, Jim Fyfe

Director: Peter Jackson

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes (Director’s Cut)

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: What I love so much about movies is that over time bad ones can become good and good movies can become bad. We’ve all had experiences where we have this certain vision of a movie in our head (positive or negative) and then, upon revisiting said movie, our opinions can change. Then there are the movies that you liked but didn’t quite catch on with others which eventually gained a cult following in the ensuing years. The Frighteners is one of those movies that I remember really liking when I first saw it but a prime example of a one that didn’t get the audience is richly deserved. With the rise in popularity of its director over the last two decades, more and more people are “discovering” this horror-comedy and claiming it as a spooky favorite. Better late than never, in my book.

In 1996 director Peter Jackson hadn’t yet become ‘Oscar winning director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit trilogy Peter Jackson’. He had found underground success with Meet the Feebles and Dead Alive, his first two movies that were truly out there in their oddity (both cult classics unto themselves). It was his 1994 film Heavenly Creatures (introducing most of us to Kate Winslet for the first time) that really put him on the map and caught the eye of big shot Hollywood director Robert Zemeckis (Flight). Originally bringing Jackson on to create another film in his Tales from the Crypt series, Zemeckis read the script from Jackson and Fran Walsh and decided it was good enough to be a standalone film. Using their homeland New Zealand as a stand-in for a seaside California town, Jackson and Walsh gathered their friends at WETA studios, the fledgling effects company that would explode with the LOTR films five years later, and set about to make a different kind of ghost story.

Frank Bannister (Michael J. Fox, Back to the Future) is an opportunistic ghost hunter looking to con unsuspecting people out of their money in exchange for ridding their houses of poltergeists. The catch is that he can actually see these ghosts and has conspired with them to swindle the townspeople of Fairwater. When otherwise healthy townsfolk starting dying at an alarming rate, Frank realizes a malevolent spectre is at work…one that he may just have a personal history with. And what of the meek woman (Dee Wallace Stone, The Lords of Salem) being terrorized by an unseen force in the home she shares with her mother on the outskirts of an abandoned mental hospital? Is the same ghost responsible for all of the shenanigans going on?  With the help of a local doctor (Trini Alverado) and his ghostly friends (John Astin, Chi McBride, and Jim Fyfe) Bannister avoids a creepy detective (Jeffrey Combs, Re-Animator) and goes further into the unknown as he seeks answers to who has gone-a-haunting (and a-hunting) within the town.

Jackson and Walsh have imbued their script with a truckload of dark humor and it’s easy to see why it may have been off-putting for audiences looking for a more straight-forward tale of terror in the summer of 1996. The movie takes a while to get hopping and when it does it blasts off like a locomotive with little reprieve. It’s an effects-heavy film and one that famously held one of the longest shooting schedules ever approved by Universal Studios. The extra time was worth it, though, as even twenty years later the movie holds up to CGI scrutiny with the best of them.  I recently watched the Director’s Cut for the first time and it’s about 10 minutes longer than the version released in theaters.  The added scenes flesh out the characters (pun mostly intended) and provide a little gasp of air while the movie is moving at lighting speed. Jackson is good with setting up extended scenes of delirium but he’s not simply out to give you the willies. He’s more concerned with the overall film experience and that speaks highly of the kind of filmmaker he was growing into.   Much like he immersed us in Middle Earth with his unimpeachable LOTR trilogy, he gives the audience checking out The Frighteners what they came for and much more.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

Synopsis: The film will go back and forth in time to show how relationships forged in the past resonate in the present.

Release Date:  July 20, 2018

Thoughts: It has been a decade since the boffo stage hit Mamma Mia! danced its way to the big screen and made millions but it was a bit of a puzzlement when this sequel was announced.  Where did the film have to go and how many more ABBA tunes could be culled from their catalog for the characters to sing?  This first look at Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (ugh, that title!) has arrived and, I warn you, it’s fairly alarming.  The sun drenched Greek setting is back as are most of the buoyant cast members…but someone is noticeably absent from most of the merriment.  Meryl Streep…or to be more specific, Streep’s character.  Sure, Streep (Hope Springs) is present in flashes but she’s not front and center like the original film and that’s inspired people to ask if the filmmakers killed her character off.  Not sure how I feel about that and even more unsure if it’s wise to make this a prequel when the back story was such a flimsy throwaway in the first place.  Director Ol Parker (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) has brought on Lily James (Darkest Hour) to play Streep in her twenties and landed Cher (Mermaids) to play her mother (!!!).  No question I’ll be lining up to see this but if it’s going in the direction I think, I’m already blue since the day I first saw this trailer.

Movie Review ~ Girls Trip


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When four lifelong friends travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, sisterhoods are rekindled, wild sides are rediscovered, and there’s enough dancing, drinking, brawling, and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.

Stars: Regina Hall, Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Tiffany Haddish, Larenz Tate

Director: Malcolm D. Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: The latest in a long line of Women Can Be Raunchy Too comedies (like Bad Moms and Rough Night), Girls Trip is better than you or I thought it would be.  Maybe it was wrong to doubt it in the first place, though, because it stars four actresses who could each easily headline their own film and is the kind of free-for-all extravaganza of ribald humor rarely seen anywhere in film lately.  Better still, it winds up touting a message of acceptance of oneself from within instead of opting for an easier and more expected takeaway.

The members of the Flossy Possy are four friends that grew up together, went to college together, lived together, but then forged their own paths in varied directions.  Sasha (Queen Latifah, Joyful Noise) is a gossip blogger nearly bankrupt, divorced mom Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith, Magic Mix XXL) hasn’t had a fun night out in years, man-loving Dina (Tiffany Haddish) just got fired from another job, while Ryan (Regina Hall, Vacation) is reaching the pinnacle of her career as an Oprah-esque self-help guru that seems to have it all.

When Ryan is asked to be the keynote speaker at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, she decides to make it a (ta-da!) Girls Trip and invites her three best friends that she hasn’t seen in years.  Over the next several days the women party, play, fight, dance, take absinthe, and a whole host of other NSFW activities that can only be appreciated when experienced with friends.

The four women elevate the material to something better than it ever was intended to be.  I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Latifah was originally approached to play Hall’s part and vice-versa.  Both actresses have done those types of characters before and it’s nice to see them take on something different, especially Latifah who’s taken some pretty bland roles lately.  Pinkett Smith seems at home in the mother hen role but let’s loose when she’s good and ready.

Truly, though, the star of the show is Haddish as a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed broad that owns her sexuality and honesty like a badge of honor.  Impossible to embarrass, Dina will say anything and do anything to get a reaction out of her friends and Haddish goes to the same lengths to set herself apart from her costars who all have more experience on the big screen.  What Haddish does with a banana and a grapefruit at one point should earn her some sort of special medal for bravery.

Sure, the movie feels cheaply made with an abundance of “group” shots that look like they were filmed at different times and badly photoshopped at that.  Then there’s the supporting cast that seemed to be comprised of actors that would work for scale just to keep their health insurance going.  I’m not saying that Kate Walsh (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) is in it just for the money but she does subject herself to some pretty embarrassing “I’m so WHITE!” dialogue and one whopper of a sight gag when she drunkenly grabs the wrong cocktail glass.

This is one that would be best to see with a large audience and if they are anything like the people I screened this with, it will only add to the ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’ feeling.  There’s a bit of graphic nudity early on in the film that elicited screams of laughter from the audience, screams that remained going strong for a solid minute.  Then there was the projectile urination scene…but I’ll let you see for yourself what that’s all about.  While it frustratingly bottoms out several times, it sticks its ending with a fresh message of be your best self that feels genuine in its delivery.

The script from Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver and direction from Malcolm D. Lee are, to be honest, nothing special.  Most of the jokes are telegraphed in advance and even some of the tackier vulgarity feels also-ran.  The movie heads in exactly the direction you think it will and rarely strays off course.  Allowing his movie to go on too long by a good 15 minutes, Lee seems beholden to give each actress the exact same amount of screen time, whether we like it or not.  This creates a Girls Trip that overstays its welcome at times but ends with a bang.

Movie Review ~ The Mummy (2017)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An ancient princess is awakened from her crypt beneath the desert, bringing with her malevolence grown over millennia, and terrors that defy human comprehension.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Russell Crowe

Director: Alex Kurtzman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

Review: You’re going to hear from a lot of people that The Mummy, Universal’s first entry in their new Dark Universe franchise, is a baffling bomb.  Those people aren’t totally wrong but they’re not completely off the mark either.  The worst thing a movie can be is neither good nor bad but just mediocre and too much of this new take on The Mummy straddles that fence, stubbornly refusing to slump into schlock or get its ass into a higher-quality gear.  It’s not a total wash but the potential was there to take a fun step forward and the studio is too, uh, wrapped up in their quest for a new charter film series that they’ve lost sight of the here and the now.

As most of these creature-features often do, The Mummy opens with a little history lesson concerning an ambitious Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella, Kingsman: The Secret Service) seduced by evil forces that promise her eternal life.  Clearing her way to the throne in a bloody rampage, she’s eventually captured and buried alive in a deluxe sarcophagus within an ultra-complex underground prison.  Remaining hidden for thousands of years, she’s unearthed by two unscrupulous soldiers (Tom Cruise, Oblivion and Jake Johnson, Safety Not Guaranteed) looking for antiquities to sell on the black market in modern day Iraq.  Once released from her prison, she wastes little time in bringing down a plane transporting her to London and proceeding to suck the life out of anyone that gets in her way, turning them into the walking dead for good measure.  It’s up to Cruise and a pretty prehistorian (Annabelle Wallis, Annabelle) to end the madness, a task made more difficult when our Mummy Princess sets her sights on making Cruise her eternal mate.

The framework of plot supplied by a screenplay written by David Koepp (Jurassic Park), Christopher McQuarrie (Edge of Tomorrow), and Dylan Kussman (Flight) has potential to it but director Alex Kurtzman (People Like Us) never fully trusts the material, opting instead to let Cruise take up too much space and pushing others to the sidelines.  Let’s not forget that in addition to the above brief outline, Cruise is introduced to the Prodigium, a secret group dedicated to hunting supernatural baddies and beasties.  Led by Dr. Henry Jekyll (yep, the one and only), look closely during a visit to Prodigium’s lab for a few familiar creatures that may pop up in future Dark Universe entries.

I get the feeling that when the script for The Mummy was sent to Cruise, it was with the intent he consider taking on Dr. Jekyll (played here by a twinkle-eyed Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner) but Cruise missed the memo and just assumed he’d be the lead.  Clearly written for a younger actor, everyone in the film at one time or another looks at Cruise (who’s still in fine shape and loves a good stunt sequence) and clearly is thinking, “You’re too old for this role!”  His chemistry with both of his leading ladies is strained and it becomes the Cruise show the moment he arrives onscreen with the titular character taking a frustrating back-seat to the A-list star.

Crowe seems keen on having some fun and while his storyline could be excised from the film entirely, he at least has the right idea of what his contributions are.  Knowing that Universal plans to craft a new franchise from their Stable of Scary, I wonder if the whole Prodigium business was folded in late in the game to tee up the Dark Universe.  Poor Wallis has a role that is entirely exposition, I don’t think she’s given one line that isn’t specifically meant to explain or clarify so the performance feels like the appendix it was written to be.  The true star here is Boutella and whenever she’s onscreen the film starts to crackle and pop only to be muffled by Cruise’s overbearing presence.  I like Cruise quite a lot but even I must admit he’s been given too much room to play.

Amidst a bunch of hokum happenings and a screenplay that’s pretty pokey, there are a handful of slick moments of fun that hint at what the movie could have been had it found a better focus.  A mid-air disaster is staged with edge-of-your-seat excitement and an underwater chase managed to make me hold my breath as Cruise and Wallis try to outswim a horde of the undead.  Being released in 2D and 3D formats, I caught it in 3D and since so much of the film is set at night or in dark underground lairs I’d advise going for a 2D screening which might produce clearer visuals.

There’s nothing I look forward to more than a good old-fashioned monster movie.  I don’t need flashy special effects or 3D gimmickry to get on board, just give me a good creature, a decent plot, and invested performances and I’m happy.  While Universal’s reboot of The Mummy doesn’t consistently hit any of the above specifications, it grazes them long enough to produce a somewhat enjoyable but ultimately misguided first step into a new franchise involving their classic catalog of monsters.

Movie Review ~ Split

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After three girls are kidnapped by a man with 24 distinct personalities they must find some of the different personalities that can help them while running away and staying alive from the others.

Stars: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I hate to say it, but M. Night Shyamalan brought it all on himself.  With a succession of movies, the writer/director (producer, cameo, etc.) introduced sophisticated ideas wrapped in a mystery to less and less fanfare.  Known more for his twist endings than the sum total of his accomplishments, the director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs began to lose himself in the inner-workings of his storytelling. Sacrificing plot, good dialogue, and characterization for that one moment, “the twist”, that would entice an audience into sticking with the film despite the absurdity of it all, it wasn’t long before Shyamalan’s name stopped being the selling point and instead became an Achilles Heel.

Laying low for a few years and producing the occasional movie or TV show, Shyamalan emerged from the shadows with 2015’s The Visit, a tight little scare fest made for a small fee which wound up doing surprisingly good business.  Showing he wasn’t entirely beholden to his twist endings (though that film did have one), good will led Shyamalan back into the conversation and it felt as if his second act in Hollywood had begun.

The first thing I’ll tell you about Shyamalan’s Split, and to keep spoilers squashed I won’t tell you much, is to do your best to go in without thinking of this as the horror film its being falsely marketed as.  True, the film boasts a few nerve jangling moments and an overall sense of dread usually reserved for films with a high body count, but I made the mistake of expecting a thrill ride when in reality Split is more like an uncomfortable Sunday drive.

A trio of girls celebrating a birthday at a local mall are abducted in the parking lot and held captive in an underground compound by a man (James McAvoy, Trance) with dissociative identity disorder (DID).  While two of the girls (Jessica Sula & Haley Lu Richardson, both largely forgettable) plot a way of escape, the third (Anya Taylor Joy, Morgan & The Witch) takes a different approach, recognizing their captor could be manipulated depending on which of his 23 personalities they are talking to.  Time is running out, though, for several of the identities talk of a 24th personality, The Beast, that’s “on the move.”  Meanwhile, the man’s psychiatrist (Betty Buckley, Carrie), disturbed by a concerning change in demeanor for her patient, attempts to lure out the new personality that’s been causing trouble.

To me there are two short films going on here with overlapping ideas that Shyamalan couldn’t quite stretch to feature length.  The first is the kidnapping plot with its increasingly desperate attempts at escape from the teenagers and the second is a film centered on the psychiatrist exploring the inner workings of DID.  Both have some value and are staged nicely by Shyamalan with tight close-ups that give the film a claustrophobic feeling but to really take on discussions of mental illness Split needed to choose which story to tell and it never can decide.

Taylor Joy’s saucer-eyes look great in a Shyamalan close-up and the actress keeps a sense of mystery along the way that’s as interesting as it is slightly creepy.  Through flashbacks we see her as a child spending time with her father and uncle; there’s something off about these memories and as the film progresses, we begin to see why.  Shyamalan throws a lot of unspoken feelings at Taylor Joy and asks her to fill in the blanks which she winds up conveying quite convincingly.

Surprisingly, it’s Buckley that nearly steals the show…though considering her storied history on stage and screen it’s not that surprising at all.  Her therapy sessions with McAvoy’s character(s) give the film it’s most crackling edge and I kept wondering if these intimately crafted scenes hadn’t originally been written for the stage.  Buckley doesn’t appear on screen as often as she should but her performance here makes you wish she would.

At the end of the day, though, this is McAvoy’s picture and he walks away with the whole kit and caboodle.  There’s such a very fine line between honest and camp when it comes to playing a character with multiple personalities but McAvoy approaches each with a level of dignity and respect.  True, there are some moments McAvoy got too actor-y for my taste but overall it’s a dynamic, full-bodied performance that goes far beyond simply changing his voice or how he holds himself.  With each new personality introduced, McAvoy seems to change appearance entirely which makes the impending arrival of the feared 24th identity even  more ominous.

Audiences familiar with Shyamalan have been well trained to prepare for a twist but my advice would be not to look too hard.  There are a few late-breaking turns that won’t come as a total surprise and one big shocker at the end you’re either going to love or hate (the audience at mine was an audible mixture of both) but Split is less concerned with fooling its audience and more interested in bringing them into the mind of trauma victims coping with their past in the present.  It’s not an entirely successful film (and at nearly two hours, a too long one at that) but it’s stuck with me just like Shyamalan’s earlier work did.

31 Days to Scare ~ Nightmare (1964)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Janet is a young student at a private school; her nights are troubled by horrible dreams in which she sees her mother haunting her. Expelled because of her persistent nightmares, Janet is sent home where the nightmares continue.

Stars: David Knight, Moira Redmond, Jennie Linden, Brenda Bruce, George A. Cooper, Clytie Jessop

Director: Freddie Francis

Rated: NR

Running Length: 82 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: As a life-long fan of scary films and all things that go bump in the night, I frequented the horror sections of local video stores in search of something to give me the shivers.  No matter what I saw from hungry piranhas to red-coated killer dwarves, my favorites were always the vampire movies.  That dates back to the first movie I ever rented (back when you rented the movie AND the VHS player at the same time!) which was Hammer Studios production, Horror of Dracula.  An ever-so slight re-working of the classic Bram Stoker story, this Dracula re-telling had Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in roles they would return to in the ensuing years.

I give that context because aside from Horror of Dracula and several of its sequels, I’m not as familiar with the Hammer Stuidos catalog as I should be.  Not just focused on vampires, mummies, creatures, or monsters, the studio also produced a range of thrillers where psychotic men and women were the ones to be feared.  I recently picked up an 8-film collection with an assortment of offerings from Hammer Studios and Nightmare was the first film I gave some attention to.

Directed by Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis (who would film Cape Fear for Martin Scorsese late in his career) in glorious black and white, Nightmare has some twists that could be considered cliché by today’s standards but still manage to work well thanks to the overall strength of the production. Janet (Jennie Linden) is sent home from her boarding school when her night terrors become too disruptive.  Accompanied by a kindly teacher (Brenda Bruce), Janet arrives back at her stately country manse and is welcomed by her loyal chauffeur (George A. Cooper) and housekeeper (Irene Richmond).  There’s also a new nurse (Moria Redmond) sent by the family lawyer (David Knight) to keep an eye on the unstable Janet who fears she is insane just like her mother was.

A change of scenery doesn’t help things and it isn’t long before Janet begins to see a strange woman in white walking the hallways and beckoning her to follow.  When the woman turns up with a knife in her chest only to disappear again before anyone else can bear witness, the line between nightmares and reality begin to blur as Janet comes to realize she can’t trust herself or her actions.  But is she really losing her mind…or is someone helping her descend into madness?

As is typical of any Hammer production, the production design and costumes are gorgeous and the music loud and dramatic.  While there aren’t any true ‘scares’ in the picture, it’s nicely ominous with above average performances from every single actor – overall, quite enjoyable.  Those that have been around the block with these movies will be able to spot the clues that lead you to solve the mystery long before the characters do, but the ride is brisk and entertaining.

31 Days to Scare ~ Psycho II

psycho_ii

The Facts:

Synopsis: After twenty-two years of psychiatric care, Norman Bates attempts to return to a life of solitude, but the specters of his crimes – and his mother – continue to haunt him

Stars: Anthony Perkins, Vera Miles, Meg Tilly, Robert Loggia, Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, Claudia Bryar

Director: Richard Franklin

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 slow-burn thriller Psycho remains one of the most famous and famously recognizable movies.  With its iconic ‘shower scene’ and last minute twist, the movie was already interred in the Hollywood history books by the time 1982 rolled around.  That was the year that Robert Bloch, author of the novel Psycho was based on, had published a sequel that found escaped madman Norman Bates turning up on the Tinsel Town set of a movie based on his life and eventually getting back to his own tricks.  While this was a surprisingly meta take (and one the Scream sequels would steal) executives over at Universal Studios who owned the sequel rights weren’t thrilled about their town getting skewered and satirized.

Hiring screenwriter Todd Holland and director Richard Franklin, both having had recent successes with horror films of their own, Universal decided to beat Bloch to the punch and draft their own take on the further adventures of Norman Bates.  The resulting film was far removed from the original, more in the slasher vein which was enjoying peak popularity at the time.  That’s not to say it exists without merit because Psycho II is very much its own film, strong enough to withstand ornery critics who grumbled that it sullied Hitchcock’s memory.

Released from a mental hospital when he’s deemed to be harmless, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins, wisely changing his mind and reprising his role before Christopher Walken could be seriously considered) has only one place to go.  Home.  The house he lived in still stands, as does the motel where guests checked in but didn’t check out…well, at least the ones that showered.  22 years after being apprehended dressed like his dead mother and speaking in her voice, the house brings back bad memories…and maybe his killer instincts.  Not long after he arrives people go missing, dispatched in a variety of gruesome ways.  Is it Norman brandishing the knife or is it someone else with their own motives?

Surprisingly, Psycho II is filled with decent twists and winds up to be quite entertaining.  I somehow get amnesia between viewings and always forget how the pieces fit together.   Aided by Jerry Goldsmith’s (Poltergeist) score that thankfully doesn’t even attempt to top Bernard Hermann’s string heavy orchestrations from Psycho, this has more than its share of spooky moments from toilets overflowing with blood all the way through it’s surprising finale.  Franklin doesn’t try to mimic Hitchcock’s style but cinematographer Dean Cundey (Halloween) does liberally lift familiar camera angles right from the previous film (not to mention Franklin taking a huge risk by recapping the first film in clips before the opening credits).  He even manages to work in a nice tip of the hat to Hitch – try to see if you can spot a recognizable shadow when looking around the room that used to belong to Norman’s mother.

Along with Perkins, Vera Miles (The Initiation) is a returning player from the original as the sister of Janet Leigh’s doomed character leading a one-woman crusade to keep Bates behind bars. Robert Loggia (Jagged Edge) is nicely sanguine as Norman’s psychiatrist and Meg Tilly’s (The Big Chill) waifish waitress cautiously befriends Norman and eventually takes up residence with him in the main house.  Character actors Dennis Franz, Lee Garlington, and Claudia Bryar are all standouts in the well-cast ensemble.

It wouldn’t have been possible to top Psycho but it could have been easy to drag its good name through the mud.  Thankfully Psycho II is elevated from cheap cash-in sequel to respectable continuation thanks to a cast and crew who obviously held the original film in high regard.  Now Psycho III and Psycho IV: The Beginning…those are the sequels you should be worried about.

The Silver Bullet ~ Get Out

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sRfnevzM9kQ 

Synopsis: When a young African-American man visits his white girlfriend’s family estate, he becomes ensnared in a more sinister real reason for the invitation.

Release Date: February 24, 2017

Thoughts: If you were asked to draw a line between Jordan Peele and a selection of movie genres, I doubt that horror would be the first (or second, or third) one you’d select. So I’m fascinated that popular comedian Peele (Wanderlust) wrote and directed Get Out, which sorta plopped in out of nowhere for me.  While this trailer (as so many are nowadays) is way, way too long and curiously spoiler-heavy, it does offer some creepy moments and is more than enough for me to want to keep tabs on it until it’s released in February of 2017.  I’m also excited for this cast: Catherine Keener (Enough Said), Bradley Whitford (Saving Mr. Banks), Daniel Kaluuya (Sicario), Betty Gabriel (The Purge: Election Year), and Allison Williams.

Movie Review ~ My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Portokalos family secret brings the beloved characters back together for an even bigger and Greeker wedding.

Stars: Nia Vardalos, John Corbett, Michael Constantine, Lainie Kazan, Andrea Martin, Joey Fatone, John Stamos, Rita Wilson, Louis Mandylor, Gia Carides, Elena Kampouris

Director: Kirk Jones

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I actually did something I don’t normally do when preparing for seeing My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2…I didn’t go back and watch the first one until after I had seen the sequel.  It had been well over a decade since I’d seen the out-of-nowhere-blockbuster original (and yes, I saw it twice in the theaters) and since there was such a huge gap between the two films I wanted to see what going into this one a little foggy on details would be like.

It’s been fourteen years since My Big Fat Greek Wedding became the little indie that could, produced for $6 million dollars it wound up grossing around $368 million after the international box office returns were factored in. The film set all sorts of box office records, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and inspired a host of similar titles to get the greenlight…as well as an ill-advised sitcom adaptation starring most of the stars of the movie that didn’t make it past a half dozen episodes.  While writer/star Nia Vardalos would show up here and there in awfully familiar romantic comedies over the years, she never tapped into the same kind of fame.

Though it picks up fourteen years after the first film, somehow Toula (Vardalos) and Ian (John Corbett, The Boy Next Door) are the parents of a high school senior, Paris (Elena Kampouris, Labor Day).  Paris is at the age when everything her family does embarrasses her…which would be understandable with a normal family but in the Portokalos family where one goes, dozens follow.  As Paris weighs college choices that could either keep her close or let her roam free, Toula and Ian confront certain realities about how the spark they once had seems to have dimmed at bit.

Next door (the Portokalos family seems to occupy the houses on a complete city block), Gus (Michael Constantine) and Maria (Lainie Kazan, Pixels) are shocked to discover that their marriage license was never officially signed by the priest…so they’ve been living in sin for the past half-decade.  Maria sees this as an opportunity to get Gus to give her the wedding she never had before they came to America so another big fat Greek wedding is orchestrated.

Look, good art this ain’t nor does it try to be.  It’s very much in the same spirit as the original and it doesn’t reek of a desperate cash grab had this arrived two years after the first film.  It has the feeling that producer Rita Wilson and Vardalos were out to lunch reminiscing about the old days and Vardalos jokingly pitched another film that seemed to make sense after a few mimosas.  Sure the story is thin and formulaic, hitting the same beats as the original and Vardalos has made an unwise choice in straying from the central family focus to other marginal familial side-stories (including rather lamely outing one of the relatives as gay) that just weigh down the running time.

I was surprised at how many cast members, down to the smallest part, returned from the original.  People who were little more than background extras in the first one pop up in more visible roles in the sequel and that creates a certain pleasant continuity that you don’t really see that often.  Vardalos and Corbett are able to recapture that same charm that made them appealing while the tough looking Constantine easily wins you over with his tender heart.  Kazan has unfortunately had a great deal of plastic surgery over the years and looks like a jack-o-lantern and Andrea Martin steals the movie whenever she’s onscreen.  Producer Rita Wilson pops up with John Stamos for two of the most awkwardly shoe-horned-in cameos in recent memory.

The film doesn’t put up much of a fight and nor should you.  It’s harmless entertainment, much less obnoxious than I thought it would be.  It’s actually kind sweet when you get right down to it and it’s not short on showing some genuine heart and soul.  There are far worse films you could spend your money and time on…including several that Vardalos starred in after My Big Fat Greek Wedding.  If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll find the same sort of enjoyment in this one.

Movie Review ~ Sisters

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two sisters decide to throw one last house party before their parents sell their family home.

Stars: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Ike Barinholtz, John Leguizamo, Dianne Wiest, John Cena, James Brolin

Director: Jason Moore

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  We all love Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, right?  I mean, through their celebrated time at Saturday Night Live to their post-late night days with 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, both have shown themselves to be fun-loving ladies that work well with others.  There’s nothing like it when Fey and Poehler team up, though, so Sisters should have been a slam dunk, right?

If the end result is less of a slam dunk and more of a two-pointer, it’s at least better than their last pairing, the tepid Baby Mama from 2008.  That film was highly anticipated but came off feeling like we were watching an extended SNL sketch with Fey playing her usual nerd-ish but noble lady and Poehler going big as a white trash pseudo-surrogate.  In the ensuing years, Poehler and Fey have been reunited on several small screen occasions leading up to successfully hosting the Golden Globes three times, ruling over the festivities with their sly observances.

And now we have another attempt at striking it rich on the big screen and while Sisters is markedly better than Baby Mama, it still winds up falling short of the packaged potential of its stars.  This time, there seemed to be some real thought put into the piece, with Fey and Poehler wisely playing against type in bringing friend (and former SNL writer) Paula Pell’s sorta biographical screenplay to life.

When Maura and Kate’s parents (Dianne Wiest, Parenthood and James Brolin, The 33) decide to sell the Florida home of their youth and move into a retirement complex, the sisters are tasked with cleaning out their room before the new family moves in.  Maura (Poehler, Inside Out) is the responsible one, the sister that never got into trouble and was an eternal sober cab for her hard partying sister Kate (Fey, Admission).  Upset with their parents for listing the lot without telling them, they decide to host one big party for their friends before they have to pack it in and move on with their lives.  Kate promises to abstain from booze so Maura can let loose but as the night goes on the sisters find themselves plunked back into old habits, not always of their own free will.

The film takes a while to get going and it mostly coasts along nicely.  There’s a charming romantic subplot with Maura romancing a hunky neighbor (Ike Barinholtz, heretofore not hunky) and it gives Poehler some nice moments, comedic and otherwise.  Barinholtz should get some props here for dealing with a fairly nasty gross-out gag, one of several that occur during the night of increasing debauchery.

Director Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) knows when to let his stars do their thing but manages to keep control of the wild party that takes up the latter half of the film.  Balancing a host of comedic players (like Horatio Sanz as that guy we all hate at parties and Maya Rudolph as a bitchy rival) with some third act emotional resonance is no easy task but Sisters earns its stripes thanks to its game cast and willingness to “go there” for laughs.

Boldly opening the same weekend as Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Sisters is marketing itself as that other movie you can see after your Star Wars fix is complete.  It’s clever #YouCanSeeBoth campaign works in its good-natured favor and audiences should see both films during their theatrical run.