Movie Review ~ Annabelle Comes Home


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Determined to keep Annabelle from wreaking more havoc, demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren bring the possessed doll to the locked artifacts room in their home, placing her “safely” behind sacred glass and enlisting a priest’s holy blessing. But an unholy night of horror awaits as Annabelle awakens the evil spirits in the room, who all set their sights on a new target-the Warrens’ ten-year-old daughter, Judy, and her friends.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Madison Iseman, McKenna Grace, Katie Sarife, Michael Cimino

Director: Gary Dauberman

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When I first heard the filmmakers behind The Conjuring were interested in creating a universe of their own which would do for horror what Marvel did for superhero comic book movies, I was pretty dubious as to how it would all pan out. I mean, The Conjuring was such a perfect scare machine that its unexpected success with audiences, critics, and the box office of course meant a sequel would be produced but were there enough good ideas to truly expand it into something bigger? Moreover, would the real life case files of paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren continue to be used or would new poltergeists haunting houses be unearthed?

The first attempt out of the gate was 2014’s lackluster Annabelle, a direct spin-off from The Conjuring centering on the scary doll. The film had a creepy vibe but failed deliver anything more than surface shockwaves. While The Conjuring 2 in 2016 had its moments of excellence it came down with a case of sequel-it is and overstayed its welcome. Then, a minor miracle occurred in 2017 with the release of Annabelle: Creation, which managed to improve upon its predecessor by some truly terrifying leaps and bounds. Consider how well put together that film was and how nicely it managed to fold in elements from all the films that came before, it felt like the filmmakers took in the criticism received from the previous films and made the changes necessary to keep this universe expanding.

Now, something very strange and special is happening within The Conjuring Universe as it continues to grow as a rapid pace. While 2018’s The Nun and The Curse of La Llorna from this past April stumbled a bit (but still did good numbers at the box office), things are back on the terror track with the release of Annabelle Comes Home, another strong entry that bodes well for the future of this franchise. Employing a healthy dose of atmosphere long before the real scares begin, it rewards longtime fans of the series and invites newcomers in with a wicked grin.  While it largely benefits from the jump scare, there are an equal amount of frights that come when you least expect them and plenty of misdirects to goose your bumps nicely.

So far, each Annabelle tale has found an interesting way into the timeline of the events in the history of the Warrens and this one is no different. The prologue for Annabelle Comes Home begins right after the prologue from The Conjuring when we were first introduced to the doll that had spooked a couple of college co-eds. Ed (Patrick Wilson, Aquaman) and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) are taking the troublesome toy back home to their room of once (and still?) possessed artifacts for safekeeping, but Annabelle doesn’t make the journey an easy one.  The trip back presents car trouble for the Warrens and, wouldn’t you know it, they break down right outside a cemetery inhabited with spirits drawn to the doll.

Once locked away safely, things stay relatively quiet where Annabelle is concerned until Ed and Lorraine leave their daughter Judy (McKenna Grace, I, Tonya) under the care of Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman, Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween) while they go to an overnight conference. While Mary Ellen is a responsible caregiver, she’s friends with Daniela (Katie Sarife) who is more interested in the Warrens profession and poking around in their artifact room than baking a cake and entertaining Judy for the night. She’s not just looking for a cheap tabloid thrill either, there’s a reason why Daniela wants to know if the supernatural afterlife is real. Left alone in the house while Judy and Mary Ellen try out a new pair of roller skates (this is the ‘70s, remember?), Daniela snoops her way into trouble when she accidentally lets Annabelle out. Once the doll is free, she brings an assortment of crazed curios from the Warrens unholy collection out to play as well.

In the past, the more sequels a movie gets the less time these installments seem to take on set-up and exposition before launching into what audiences are craving for. That’s not true with the films in The Conjuring Universe. At 106 minutes, the movie isn’t in any rush to get to the unleashing we all know is bound to happen and that allows director Gary Dauberman the opportunity to let us get to know these characters a bit more. Peppered with creepy moments for the first hour as we see the Warrens leave the girls for the night and Daniela taking her need for emotional closure in the spirit world one-step too far, when the movie does reach its apex it takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up.

Popping up over these last several years in small roles proving herself as a dependable young actor, Grace is an ideal lead as the Warrens only child. Maybe possessing some of the same gifts as her mother, Grace paints Judy as struggling to fit in but not unware that maybe she’s one keeping people at a distance. Her sisterly friendship with Mary Ellen is believable and Iseman too turns in a winning performance as the smart, responsible babysitter that doesn’t let a pining boy (charming Michael Cimino) in because she’s already committed to spending time with Judy. Though at first glance Sarife’s role looks like the bad girl there to cause all the trouble and pay a huge price, the script by Dauberman (who also did good work with IT) and James Wan (Insidious) has bigger (and surprisingly emotional) plans for her in the long run.

While Annabelle Comes Home doesn’t ultimately land with the same electric punch as Annabelle: Creation, it’s still a resoundingly worthy entry in this growing universe. If the scripts continue to be creative and the casting remains strong, I can see these doing good business if the interest is still there. Looking ahead we have The Conjuring 3 in 2020 and then nothing firm yet for the next slate of films and I think that’s a good thing. Let’s see how these movies land and then figure out where to go from there.  Something tells me Annabelle has more untold stories waiting to get a big screen scream treatment.

Movie Review ~ Shazam!

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.

Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.

Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.

Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.

When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.

He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.

If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.

Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.

While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.

Movie Review ~ The Mule


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran is caught transporting $3 million worth of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel.

Stars: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Taissa Farmiga

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s time to put Clint Eastwood in the same bucket as Cher and Tina Turner, artists who said they were retiring from one stage of their career only to launch a comeback years later.  Now, I’m not sure if the grizzled Oscar-winning star of spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry films would necessarily mind being in the company of the leggy Turner and the ageless songstress but he’s definitely said on two previous occasions that he was done acting in front of the camera (in 2008’s Gran Torino and 2012’s Trouble with the Curve) and yet here we are in 2018 talking about Eastwood’s latest acting turn in The Mule.

The arrival of The Mule came as a bit of a surprise to many, with the movie picking up late breaking steam in an already packed Oscar season.  This had Hollywood talking because the last time an Eastwood picture arrived on the scene late it was back in 2004 with Million Dollar Baby and we all know how that turned out: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor.  Many Oscar pundits suddenly were keeping a fifth slot in all categories open for The Mule on the off-chance Eastwood had another dark horse on his hands.

Well, The Mule has trotted into theaters and even if it’s not going to pose any threat to the already established Oscar contenders this year, it’s still a nice achievement for the 88 year old director who has managed to stay quite prolific over the years.  Though his early 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris was a significant critical and box office flop and his record is starting to become overly spotty (hello the horror of Jersey Boys) Eastwood knows how to construct a hit as the huge earnings of Sully and American Sniper indicate.  The evening showing of The Mule I attended was sold out and its crowd seemed comprised of Eastwood’s target audience, white late fifties Midwesterners who like their movies straightforward and not too challenging.

Written by Nick Schenk (The Judge) and inspired by Sam Dolnick’s New York Times Magazine Article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule”, The Mule follows Earl Stone a former champion horticulturist facing foreclosure that starts to run drugs between Texas and Illinois as a way to earn money.  Well, actually Earl just drives the truck and doesn’t ask questions as to what his cargo is…he’s just happy to be making enough money to pay for his grandaughter’s wedding expenses, buy back his home, update his local VFW, and improve the lives of his family and friends in other ways.  For so many years Earl focused solely on his own needs, pushing his family aside and he begins to see in his advanced age how important making amends is.  What does he care how he makes the money as long as no one gets hurt?  As the runs get more frequent and the cargo gets bigger, the danger increases and Earl is watched not only by paranoid figures within the cartel but DEA agents tasked with bringing down the ring of drug smugglers.

While Eastwood keeps the film moving along at a good pace, there are multiple storylines he’s balancing and not all of them feel like they totally work.  The best moments are actually when Eastwood is flying solo, talking to himself on the road or singing along to oldies as he makes the trip from TX to IL.  There’s a ease the actor/director has with the camera that feels familiar and right, he’s the strongest when he’s by himself.  Awkward moments showing Earl’s inherent bigotry are played for laughs but is it really all that hilarious to laugh at or excuse away hard-wired racism in 2018?  Everyone seems willing to just brush it off as “Oh, he’s just old”…but where is the person that stands up and says “No, we don’t talk like that anymore.”  That character isn’t in this movie and it should be consider a missed opportunity that they aren’t.

Eastwood obviously called in a few favors when pulling together his supporting case.  There’s Dianne Wiest (Parenthood) acting up a storm in her cat-eye glasses as Earl’s bitter ex-wife who gradually softens the more he shows he’s not the absent husband/father he was when they were married.  Wiest and Eastwood have a good rapport, though I never in a million years believe they were ever hitched.  Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) fares poorly as Earl’s granddaughter – sure, she’s saddled with some creaky dialogue but the performance is just so weak when you compare it to who else she’s on screen with.  Laurence Fishburne (Last Flag Flying) is a DEA Special Agent obsessed with getting “busts” and tasks agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) in making sure he makes good on his promise to track down the mule.  It’s well known Eastwood is Cooper’s mentor and you can feel Cooper absorbing every screen trick Eastwood employs throughout the film.  I also liked Andy Garcia (Book Club) in his brief supporting turn as the flamboyant head of the Mexican drug cartel.

Even though I’d love for him to make an appearance in a movie directed by his protégé Cooper, it seems like this was the movie that Eastwood truly will call his final acting on screen – I mean why else would he include not one but two scenes of him bedding two ladies at once?  Feeling like your grandfather’s version of what a drug movie would be like (with an inordinate amount of shots of women’s butts in thongs), The Mule is a watchable film that has a surprisingly poignant climax but one that won’t go down as one of Eastwood’s most memorable.

Movie Review ~ Rampage (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A primatologist shares an unshakable bond with a silverback gorilla who has been in his care since birth. But a rogue genetic experiment gone awry mutates this gentle ape into a raging creature of enormous size.

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Malin Akerman, Jake Lacy, Joe Manganiello, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, P.J. Byrne, Marley Shelton, Breanne Hill, Jack Quaid, Matt Gerald, Jason Liles, Demetrius Grosse, Will Yun Lee

Director: Brad Peyton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: We’re at an interesting point in 2018. After emerging from the stuffy cloud of more serious minded Oscar-y fare, we had a January and early February that stirred little interest. Then Black Panther hit and became the kind of audience-uniting game changer we often have to wait far into the year for. With studio hits like Ready Player One and A Quiet Place making bank as well good business being drummed up for indie films such as Isle of Dogs and Chappaquiddick, there was a little something to please everyone if you chose to buy a ticket.

Now along comes Rampage and it seems like we’re all going to have to pick a side again. You’re either going to go along for its silly but entertaining ride or you’ll spend an unusually brisk 107 minutes counting the seconds until your escape. I’m of the mind that you don’t necessarily need to lower your expectations to like what Rampage has to offer, you just have to go in with the right frame of mind. If you do, there’s a good popcorn movie waiting for you.

Honestly, it’s been so long since I’ve played the popular video game that inspired this film that I had forgotten nearly everything about it. What I did remember is spending quite a few quarters to keep the game going, even when it was clearly a futile attempt by an average arcade gamer like myself. It doesn’t really matter how familiar you are with the game, though, because aside from a few key characters and several winking nods to its source material it’s largely a modernized take on the game. Still, fans of the classic monsters should get a kick out of how they are incorporated into the action.

Opening in space with an action sequence that could have been the finale of a previous film, a scientist (Marley Shelton, Decoding Annie Parker) is frantically trying to return to earth with an experimental gene-splicing gas while being hunted by a genetically modified lab rat exposed to the pathogen. Without giving too much away, three of the canisters fall to earth and infect a wolf in Wyoming, an alligator from the Everglades, and an albino gorilla named George living in a California wildlife sanctuary. Lucky for us that the gorilla’s handler is the buff and brainy Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) and he’s pretty protective of his ape pal.

While Davis works with geneticist Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris, Skyfall) and twangy government agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), a brother and sister (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers and Malin Ackerman, Rock of Ages) in charge of a Chicago-based bio-engineering initiative (known as Project Rampage) activate a beacon meant to lure the creatures to the heart of the city. A cross-country race ensues as Davis and his crew tries to beat the beasts to their destination while seeking a cure to restore the otherwise kind hearted George to his former self.

If you can’t tell already, the movie is incredibly bonkers but credit should be given to director Brad Peyton (reteaming with Johnson for a third time after San Andreas and Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) for getting the right team assembled for this Rampage. Working with four (!!) screenwriters, there’s a bit more meat to the plot bones and I was grateful that the eye-rolling dialogue is kept to a bare minimum. Sure, there are some big plot holes and your brain should be stowed under your seat for the duration of the flight but I found myself more than a little entertained at the various thrills on display.

Few actors today have the “It” factor that made so many stars in the heyday of Hollywood but with each new film released Johnson is proving himself to possess the power of “It”. His good-natured demeanor translates nicely into action superstar when needed and an early career tendency to oversell a line of dialogue has all but vanished. He’s a true A-Lister and I’ve a feeling most people will be lining up for Rampage based solely on his presence alone…and those people will definitely get their money’s worth.

Harris received an Oscar nomination last year for her understated work in Moonlight but she gleefully jumps feet first into this lighter material. While Morgan is the most cartoony of the bunch as a secret agent initially set-up as an antagonist to Johnson, he wisely stops chewing the scenery long enough to let the monsters take center stage. As a smug villainess, cool as ice Ackerman is part of a great visual comeuppance while Lacy is terribly miscast as a nervous sidekick to his more take-charge sister.

Unlike the dull sameness of the monsters in Pacific Rim: Uprising, Rampage has a smaller but more engaging stable of fiends to threaten our main characters. The main beasts are fantastically rendered, from the more realistic George to the zonked out wackiness of the wolf and alligator, both morphing into nightmarish creatures that plow through crowds and buildings in the final act.

There’s quite a few nice action sequences leading up to the battle royale that takes up the last ¼ of the film but I just wish the preview hadn’t revealed quite so much. I won’t get into specifics but there are several great scenes that don’t play as strongly if you’ve seen the trailer more than once. It’s not often a disaster film destroys a less internationally recognizable city like Chicago but having just visited several days before I saw Rampage, it was fun to see some familiar landmarks topple.

Movies adapted from video games often get bad raps, often with just cause (see the recent Tomb Raider for proof) but Rampage has more than a few secret weapons. With Johnson as committed as ever, a plucky ensemble cast of humans and digital monsters, above average CGI effects, and more jump scares and thrills than you might expect going in, you’re not likely to be in a rage when Rampage is over. Just go in with the right attitude, I beg of you.

Movie Review ~ Paddington 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Paddington, now happily settled with the Brown family and a popular member of the local community, picks up a series of odd jobs to buy the perfect present for his Aunt Lucy’s 100th birthday, only for the gift to be stolen.

Stars: Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins, Brendan Gleeson, Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent, Peter Capaldi, Hugh Grant, Ben Whishaw

Director: Paul King

Rated: PG

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Two short years ago Paddington, Michael Bond’s famous bear in the blue coat and red hat, finally got his first big screen adventure and it was a lovely bit of whimsy that snuck up on me in the best way possible. With its message of kindness filtered through quirky characters and a colorful kaleidoscope of production design, Paddington strangely wasn’t the huge sleeper hit in the US it should have been. Still, enough critics took note of its quality, coupling that with its snazzy UK box office a sequel was greenlit, and boy, are we lucky to have another one of these charming films!

The lovable bear (voiced by Ben Whishaw, Skyfall) has settled into life with the Brown family at their comfortable home in London. Mr. Brown (Hugh Bonneville, Breathe) is going through a mid-life crisis, dying his hair and exploring new yoga poses while Mrs. Brown’s (Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water) attention is focused on swimming to France. Their children, Judy and Jonathan, are both preoccupied with their own teenage interests while their housekeeper Mrs. Bird (Julie Walters, Brave) keeps the house running and everyone fed.

A popular fixture on their winding street that has a way of bringing sunshine to all he encounters (save for stodgy Mr. Curry of the neighborhood patrol), Paddington is living his best life, even if he occasionally gets into a spot of trouble.  In this outing, Paddington’s Aunt Lucy (voiced by Imelda Staunton, Maleficent) is still back in darkest Peru and he wants to get something special for her in celebration of her 100th birthday. Though at one time she planned to visit London with her late husband, they never made the trip but her adopted nephew finds the perfect gift in an expensive hand-made pop-up book of the sights of city in the curiosity shop owned by Mr. Gruber (Jim Broadbent, The Legend of Tarzan).

While visiting the opening night of a dazzling ‘steam circus’ with the Browns, Paddington mentions the book to Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant, Cloud Atlas), a washed up actor that happens to be the descendant of a magician who was desperate to acquire the same pop-up tome. Evidently, contained on its pages are clues to finding a wealth of jewels hidden away by the proprietor of the circus. When the book is stolen and Paddington is jailed for the crime, he has to find a way to clear his name before Phoenix can acquire the bounty.

Returning director Paul King doesn’t yield to the episodic nature of Bond’s original creations.  This is a bear and family that have adventures and Paddington 2 hits the ground running, barely leaving any time to catch your breath.  Bounding joyously through scenes that find Paddington bungling a job at a barber shop to his revolutionizing the lives of his fellow inmates by educating the gruff cook (Brendan Gleeson, In the Heart of the Sea) on the tastiness of orange marmalade, the movie will leave you smiling.  It’s so focused on celebrating the innate goodness in people and kindly revealing how unfortunate it is to be someone who can’t find the fun in life, I can’t pick out anything that felt like a misstep.  It’s also a legitimately funny and ultimately moving (bring a tissue or two) bit of family entertainment, something of a rarity these days.

While both films earn a strong recommendation, I’d give the edge to this sequel, if only for the fact that the first one dealt with a bit more intense villain (Nicole Kidman’s sinewy meanie wanted to stuff Paddington!) and Grant’s character is just a sad song and dance man that wants money to finance a West End revue.  On that note, make sure to stay through the credits for an incredibly pleasing musical production number featuring Grant tap-dancing to Stephen Sondheim.  Nominated for three BAFTA awards (take that, The Post!) the good news is that there’s already a Paddington 3 in the works, let’s hope nothing gets in the way of its release within the next two years.  While we’re at it, this would make a great series for Netflix…just a thought.

Movie Review ~ Justice League

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Earth’s greatest heroes are assembled to form the Justice League, to combat a threat beyond each member’s capabilities.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the rousing success of Wonder Woman this summer, you had high(er) hopes for Justice League too, didn’t you?  After the gloominess of Man of Steel, the critical drubbing lobbed at Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the just plain awful debut of the Suicide Squad, the first solo outing of the Amazon princess made a huge splash with a snazzy film that signaled the floundering DC Universe might be getting back on track.   Alas, it was not meant to be because five short months later Justice League arrives with a huge thud, halting any momentum Wonder Woman had kicked off.

The problems are evident from the beginning.  It should be noted that original director Zack Snyder had to be replaced shortly after filming ended while the movie was in post-production due to a family crisis. Joss Whedon (The Avengers) was brought it to touch up the script, and handle reshoots.  Huge mistake.  Whedon did good work with his involvement in the Marvel Universe but his humor doesn’t translate to the DC world that’s far darker and leaves itself less open for flights of fancy.  His attempts to inject jokey humor crash and burn, especially seeing that they are awkwardly inserted into sequences already filmed by Snyder.

Another elephant in the room to discuss is Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), or, more to the point, Cavill’s mustache.  After wrapping his scenes for Justice League, Cavill had grown a mustache to film a role in the next Mission: Impossible film and when he was called back for reshoots Paramount wouldn’t allow him to shave it.  So he filmed his new scenes with facial hair that was then digitally removed…badly.  Cavill comes off looking like a creepy puppet, with the bottom half of his face strangely not in communion with the upper.  He’s in the first shot of the movie and it’s a jarring image that sets the tone for the rest of this schizo outing.

The first half of the film is occupied by a bewildering series of episodic vignettes where we meet characters that the movie treats us as if we already know but in reality have never seen before.  We’re plopped right into the stories of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) without much in the way of introduction or origin, almost like these were clips from a previous entry that was never released.  We’re supposed to know and care about these characters instantly, but their arrivals are treated with such little fanfare it’s hard to warm up to any of them.  Miller winds up being the most intriguing; his loner character is secretly desperate for friends and is brought into the fold by Batman (Ben Affleck, Gone Girl, checking out so much I can see why he’s trying to get excused from The Batman, a planned solo shot for the Caped Crusader) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Keeping Up with the Joneses).

What I always enjoyed about the previous incarnations of Batman and Superman was how they were up against villains that seemed somewhat plausible…at least for a comic-book foe.  From the Penguin to Lex Luthor, the heroes were battling adversaries that sought awesome power, not ones that already had other-worldly talents.  The villain in Justice League is Steppenwolf, a poorly rendered CGI baddie voiced by Ciarán Hinds (Frozen) that’s as generic as they come.  This is a bad guy that might have worked better as a Marvel rival but definitely not one the Justice League should be working to thwart.  Steppenwolf is on the hunt for three Mother Boxes that form a trinity that can, snooze, give him power over all earth.  Yawn, boring, wake me when it’s over.

Poor Wonder Woman.  That’s what I kept thinking throughout Justice League.  Gadot looks miserable having to carry this film, it’s clear the plot was tweaked at some point to give her character more to do and capitalize on the success of Wonder Woman.  Her ascension to co-lead comes at the sacrifice of a bunch of familiar faces that get sidelined.  Diane Lane (Inside Out) and Connie Nielsen  pop up in brief cameos as the mothers of Superman and Wonder Woman, J.K. Simmons (The Snowman) doesn’t even have to glue down his toupee, and Amy Adams (Her) wears multiple bad wigs but does get the most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the film: “I’m no longer Lois Lane, dedicated reporter”.

The effects of the hand-off between Snyder and Whedon really sink the film in its last ¼, when the Justice League works together to stave off Steppenwolf before he can unite the Mother Boxes.  There are a few decent action sequences but they’re so darkly lit it all becomes a blur, especially when you add in Steppenwolf’s drone warriors that fly around in a head-spinning frenzy like wasps.  It’s a blessing the movie is as short as it is, but it still feels pretty long when the content is as forgettable as this.  You keep wanting to find something, anything to root for but no one seems interested in being memorable in any way shape or form.  It’s like everyone was forced into making this and are waiting for their final scene to be shot.

There’s a post-credit scene that does nothing to get you excited for the future, it feels like it was shot last week with the actors involved under duress.  Based on his performance here, I shudder to think about Momoa’s Aquaman film coming in 2018, wish that Wonder Woman 2 wasn’t two years away, and am intrigued at a chance to get more info on The Flash in 2020’s Flashpoint.   At this point, whatever the creative team behind these DC films are doing, it’s not working.  Not only do audiences deserve better, but so do the actors locked into contracts for future films.

Movie Review ~ IT (2017)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of bullied kids band together when a monster, taking the appearance of a clown, begins hunting children.

Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Wyatt Oleff, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Jack Dylan Grazer, Chosen Jacobs, Nicholas Hamilton, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: IT, Stephen King’s 1986 novel was a popular book in my junior high library. At 1,138 pages and with only one copy though, the waitlist was long and I believe it took nearly the entire school year to obtain. I remember when I finally got my hands on it and marveling at its creepy cover, fretting over the length, and reading it by flashlight late into the night. Trouble was, by the time it was due back I was only halfway through and though as an adult I’ve carried (lugged would be a better word) a paperback version with me for the past six months, absorption by osmosis did not occur and to this day I’ve regretted never finishing it properly.

Most people, though, will have experienced IT for the first time via the 1990 made-for-TV movie that scared several generations of people over the two nights it aired. At the time I remember thinking the film quite entertaining but watching it again a year or so ago I found myself wincing more than cowering. The trappings of an era with more rigid television standards robbed it of being too scary or slick. While some of what goes on in King’s novel could (and should) never be depicted on film, today it feels toothless though it does find prime moments to gnaw your nerves. Then there’s the clown.

Mention IT to a crowd and you’re going to get a response. They either hate it or they love it and the reason why is almost always the same…that damn clown. It’s impossible to think of IT and not conjure up the vision of Tim Curry as Pennywise the Dancing Clown. While the movie itself may have lost some bite over the years, Curry’s menacing monster in clown’s clothing has perhaps become more terrifying. So while many were welcoming of a new adaptation of IT on the big screen, one of the biggest question marks was how well Bill Skarsgård (Atomic Blonde) would fill Curry’s admired shoes. Patience, dear reader, patience.

IT arrives at the end of a disappointing summer at the box office and before the wave of award seeking films are released. The timing couldn’t be better. Kids are back in school and the weather here in the Midwest has taken a cold turn. Walking into the packed theater and taking my seat for the screening there was a palpable excitement for the lights to go down, a buzz of anticipation I hadn’t felt for a while. 135 minutes later the lights came up on an audience that had screamed, laughed, and applauded. In short, IT’s a winner.

In the late ‘80s, something bad is happening in Derry, Maine. Kids are disappearing without a trace and no one knows why. Is it related the town’s history of bad luck or is something more sinister taking place? One thing’s for sure, a frightening clown has been haunting and hunting and his appetite is insatiable. A team of young outcasts band together to uncover the secrets of their town while battling their own phobias brought to life by the monster on the loose.

Though it had a bumpy road to the silver screen thanks to budget cuts and the departure of its original director, the wait was worth it. Director Andy Muschietti (Mama) has delivered a quality film that not only provides delirious scares but has an ambitious emotional resonance extending far beyond its genre.  I admit I got a little misty eyed as the film was wrapping up…when was the last time you went into a film expecting terror but found a tear or two eeking out?  Equal parts Stand By Me, Stranger Things, and The Goonies, it’s retro-feel is unobtrusive and navigating prolonged sequences of horror while maintaining energy is no easy task but Muschietti makes it look simple.  Scaredy-cats will have their limits mightily tested while fright fans are going to be nicely satisfied with the pulse-raising shocks doled out by Muschietti and company.

None of the good directorial decisions or the solid script would amount to a hill of beans if the actors didn’t measure up but Muschietti has cast the film splendidly.  Though Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special) has top billing, this is an ensemble piece and the kids are definitely all right.  I especially liked Jeremy Ray Taylor’s roly poly new kid on the block and Sophia Lillis as the only girl holding her own in the boys club.  Not all the acting is consistently convincing but it’s a small-ish nitpick in the grand scheme of things.

In a cast made up primarily of unknowns, it’s an interesting decision for Muschietti to further conceal some of the adult actors under prosthetics and fat suits.  A few times the adults gave me the same type of goosebumps brought on by Pennywise, further isolating the children as they realize they are the only townsfolk they can truly trust.  Some of the more extreme side plots of King’s original novel have been softened or excised and more’s the better for it.  There’s enough peril for the youngsters to deal with whenever that clown makes an appearance.

Ah yes…the clown. While Curry may be seen as the definitive Pennywise, Skarsgård makes the role entirely his own, bringing a sharp physicality to his clown that amps up the danger of his visits. Though he has precious few lines this is a performance based almost entirely on presence and Skarsgård is pretty electric in the film. Balancing childlike clown mannerisms with a serial killer’s alacrity, when he opens his bloodthirsty maw to consume or frighten it will shake you to your core.

While the studio had originally intended to film the novel as one long movie, budget fears were such that IT covers roughly half of the book. The movie is so good and the early buzz so strong I can’t imagine we won’t get a sequel in short order…but it makes you wonder why they didn’t just stick to the original game plan to begin with. In any event, IT is awesome which should please fans of the novel (even those that only finished half of it) as well as devotees of the TV movie. Scare you it does and scare you it shall.

The Silver Bullet ~ Live By Night

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Synopsis: Set in the roaring 1920s, when Prohibition hasn’t stopped the flow of booze in an underground network of gangster-run speakeasies, the opportunity to gain power and money is there for any man with enough ambition and nerve.

Release Date: January 13, 2017

Thoughts: Fall is here and the Oscar hopefuls are awakening from their summer slumber. Now that the big blockbusters of the year have beat their bombastic drums at the box office, the “prestige pictures” are gearing up for their glitzy season.  It’s still up in the air whether Ben Affleck’s fourth film will get a qualifying release to be considered for the 2016 Oscar race…but judging by the first trailer released for Live By Night Warner Brothers would be crazy not to put all their chips in on this one.  Affleck has proved three times already he knows how to deliver a strong film and his Oscar nomination snub for directing Argo in 2013 still stings. Adapted by Affleck (Gone Girl) from the novel by Dennis Lehane and co-starring Scott Eastwood (Texas Chainsaw 3D), Elle Fanning (The Neon Demon), Sienna Miller (American Sniper), Zoe Saldana (Out of the Furnace), and Brendan Gleeson (Song of the Sea), this looks marvelous and right up Affleck’s alley.

Movie Review ~ The Legend of Tarzan

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tarzan, having acclimated to life in London, is called back to his former home in the jungle to investigate the activities at a mining encampment.

Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Margot Robbie, Samuel L. Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Two full months into the summer season and we finally have a blockbuster worth talking about. Don’t get me wrong, strong entries have been made with Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, and X-Men: Apocalypse but The Legend of Tarzan represents everything a popcorn film should be. It’s an exciting, action-packed thrill ride that’s been given grand treatment not only from its director and cinematographer but from it’s surprisingly nimble cast. I went into the film being mildly interested in another retelling of the classic Tarzan tale and left with the kind of energized good-will that made me feel like swinging from vine to vine singing its praises.

Thankfully, The Legend of Tarzan isn’t merely an origin story of how young John Clayton lost his parents to the wilds of Africa and was raised by a caring ape before joining society after falling in love with Jane. This story is there but it’s interspersed throughout the first half of the picture as well-timed glimpses into a past Clayton both longs for and recognizes he needs to move forward from. Married to his love and living in his Greystoke estate, Clayton is asked back to Africa under false pretenses and becomes the victim of a villainous power-hungry jewel smuggler.

What sets The Legend of Tarzan apart from similarly styled blockbusters is that it has an actual plot at its core.  Screenwriters Craig Brewer (Hustle and Flow) and Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) ping off of the stories laid out by Edgar Rice Burroughs as they craft a story around Tarzan returning to his roots and saving the people and land he loves from mercenaries, slave traders, and land developers. It’s not heavy-handed stuff but it feels like it means something, much more than a superhero going after a stone with special powers.

As Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgård (The East) is the true vison of what his creator must have had in mind. In impeccable shape but still bearing the signs of a life in the wild, Skarsgård Tarzan is soft-spoken and curious, only jumping into action when he or his family is threatened. He’s matched nicely with Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) as Jane, still plucky and headstrong but perhaps a tad bit on the underdeveloped side. While she’s given some swell heroine moments, I still felt like she was given less important hurdles to navigate than her male counterparts.

At first I was scratching my head at the presence of Samuel L. Jackson’s (The Hateful Eight) supporting turn as a Civil War veteran sent by the US President to England in hopes of exposing slave trade in the Congo. Jackson’s cooler-than-you swagger is kept at bay here, with the actor getting mighty physical as he tries to keep pace with Tarzan. Even if he uses a few too many modern turns of phrase (was “screwed” a popular term in the late 1800s?), he easily gets the most positive audience reaction and seems game for whatever Yates and company throws his way.

I’ve about had it with Christoph Waltz (Big Eyes, Django Unchained) playing a soft-spoken smarmy villain outfitted in pristine attire. The two-time Oscar winner feels like he’s coasting on his initial popularity but is managing only to lull us into slumber. Feeling like a half-hearted extension of his Spectre bad guy, Waltz never grooves with the other actors and feels miscast. It’s always nice to see Djimon Hounsou (Furious 7) in anything and he’s utilized well as the chief of a tribe with a personal vendetta against Tarzan.

On the production side, the score from Rupert Gregson-Williams (Winter’s Tale) is tone appropriate whether it be a full-throttle action scene or a more somber moment between Tarzan and his ape brethren. Cinematographer Henry Braham’s stunning vistas are a seamless blend of live-action and CGI that make quite the impact when seen in 3D (note that the 3D adds appropriate depth for items that appear to extend past the screen).

No matter how well The Legend of Tarzan does, director David Yates is bound to have a great 2016 overall. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them arriving November, Yates is at the helm of two potential franchise starters after lovingly guiding the last four Harry Potter films to their conclusion. Even if you aren’t swayed by the actors or the story, Yates has brought forth a sharp looking film that looks like an old-fashioned epic.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sully

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Synopsis: The story of Chesley Sullenberger, who became a hero after gliding his plane along the water in the Hudson River, saving all of his 155 passengers.

Release Date: September 9, 2016

Thoughts: Though he doesn’t wear a cape, Tom Hanks is the unquestionable superhero of moving movies. The amazing story that came to be known as The Miracle on the Hudson made its captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, a media darling and Sullenberger’s recounting of his courage under fire made for good reading.  Judging from this first look at Sully, there’s more to the story than most of the public would ever know as it shows the rippling backlash after Sully’s moment in the spotlight. While I feel it looks awfully similar to the 2012 fictionalized Flight and that J.K. Simmons would have been a more ideal Sully, Hanks (Cloud Atlas) and director Clint Eastwood (American Sniper) make this one something that might fly high this fall.