Friday, June 16, 2017

Movie Review: “The Book of Henry”


The Book of Henry

*** 1/2
105 minutes
Rated PG-13 for thematic elements and brief strong language
Focus Features

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

After having been handed over the keys to the park with Jurassic World, everyone wondered what director Colin Trevorrow would do next. Considering his only other film was the hilariously heartfelt indie Safety Not Guaranteed, it came as no surprise that he was called up to direct Episode IX for the Star Wars series. As if Steven Spielberg’s shoes weren’t big enough to fill, now he’s traveling to a galaxy far far away. It makes sense for Trevorrow to stop and do what he does best along the way with The Book of Henry — a family drama filled with quirky and loveable characters and a whole lot of story.

Eleven-year-old Henry (Jaeden Lieberher, soon to be “Stuttering” Bill in It) is not your average youngster. He’s a genius, spending his time keeping his fellow students grounded during class, concocting contraptions, all while keeping his single mom Susan’s (Naomi Watts) affairs in order. After his dad left, it’s been just Henry, Susan, and little Peter (Jacob Tremblay) surviving the perils of growing up — with Susan having plenty of her own to do as well. At night, Henry catches on that something isn’t right next door and suspects Glenn (Dean Norris) of abusing his step-daughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler). He starts hatching a plan to rescue Christina, with his most outlandish scheme yet. But, life gets in the way and Henry winds up having to pass along his little red notebook full of plans in Susan’s hands, to save Christina from an unspeakable truth.

I’m not sure why other critics are bashing The Book of Henry as hard as they are. The performances may not be everyone’s best — Watts is as good as ever and Sarah Silverman, as Susan’s brash coworker continues to prove she’s more than a foul-mouthed comedienne. Some have complained that Gregg Hurwitz’s screenplay has dreams of grandeur and tries to pull off too many things in too short of time. Everything fell right into place for me. While there is only one surprise right smack dab in the middle, sometimes it’s OK for a film to play things a little safe. Sometimes we like to know where the road is leading and are perfectly fine with it, so long as that path works. For some it won’t.

The film is never cloying — it certainly helps that Trevorrow brought along his John Williams-in-training/JW composer Michael Giacchino. Any other composer would have wound up making the film feel way more heavy handed. Even if a suggested romance between Susan and Henry’s doc, Dr. David Daniels (Lee Pace), comes off as forced. Thankfully, The Book of Henry never feels like a Lifetime movie, another trapping it could have easily fallen into. For anyone already looking for a breather from the summer fare, The Book of Henry may not be life changing, but at least it’s entertaining. And that right there has been few and far between this year so we better grasp onto something like The Book of Henry while we can, especially as we slide ever deeper into summer.

Movie Review: “47 Meters Down”

47 Meters Down

**** out of 5
89 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense peril, bloody images, and brief strong language 
Entertainment Studios Motion Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

When it comes to shark movies, we all know nothing will ever beat Jaws. It’s not just a fantastic film, it’s a rare example of a perfect film. With that in mind, expectations must be kept in check when diving into a film such as 47 Meters Down. Let’s face it, a film starring Mandy Moore and Claire Holt as sisters trapped at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by sharks was never going to be Oscar bait. Thankfully, co-writer/director Johannes Roberts knows this and keeps it from becoming being just another bucket of chum.

Lisa (Moore) and Kate (Holt) are on vacation in Mexico with Lisa trying to recoup from a breakup while Kate has come to party. After Lisa confesses to Kate about the breakup, Kate takes her out for a night on the town. While clubbing, they meet Louis (Yani Gellman) and Benjamin (Santiago Segura) who offer to take them out cage diving with great whites. What better way for Lisa to get payback at her boyfriend than sending him pics of a death defying stunt, right? Unfortunately for them, Captain Taylor’s (Matthew Modine) cage line breaks and now Lisa and Kate are stuck 47 meters down, surrounded by sharks, and only have an hour of air left!

Leave it to critics to try to keep audiences away from 47 Meters Down. It plays to the audience everything they could possibly want in an 89-minute shark survival flick. People in peril, blood in the water, and plenty of sequences to make you squirm in your seat. Is Holt the best actress? Not even close? Were the actresses miscast in their roles? You betcha! While it would have called for some rewrites had the roles been reversed, it’s a little odd to see Moore in such a damsel in distress role. But she’s come such a long way from her teen pop star days that she gets the job done and never comes off as annoying as other actresses could have.

Johannes and co-writer Ernest Riera have concocted a film that’s way better than direct-to-video — it’s originally-scheduled format. While some are trying to rake it over the coals, it probably would have been completely embraced under the other format. With more realistic than usual sharks, a tight runtime, and a breakneck pace, just about the only thing that goes awry is the ending. The film should end a few minutes before it actually does. It would have a far better ending for the tone Johannes was going for. Instead of a twisted Tales From the Crypt/Twilight Zone type of ending, we get a standard Hollywood-test-screened-to-death-ending.

But fear not, it’s never enough to ruin the fun. 47 Meters Down is the type of film that screams my name and I ate up every minute of it. Those going in with the right attitude will have a whole lot of fun. Everyone else can settle for what passes as “sharkainment” these days with the Sharknado series. While that may be dumb and fun, it’s stupid and basic. For the rest of us, 47 Meters Down gives us enough to chew on while we wait for Shark Week to start and reminds us why some are still scared to go in the water.

Movie Review: “Cars 3”


Cars 3

** out of 5
109 minutes
Rated G
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com


To say I hold Pixar Animation Studios to a higher standard than other studio is an understatement. I have a dog named Pixar Animation after all. So it always comes with great sadness when I find the studio phoning it in. And when it comes to the Cars franchise, it’s more palpable than ever. Studio head John Lasseter unleashed the flailing series way back in 2006 — yes, it’s now been more than 10 years since the original! — and even it sputtered right out of the gate. While it was able to make a chunk of change at the box office, it never sparked with critics. But it has gone on to a never-ending win with merchandising. This is truly Pixar’s cash cow, but with Cars 3, the teat has finally been milked bone dry.

Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is still a leading champion in the world of car racing. But with his glory days starting to fall behind him, he’s starting to become overshadowed by the newer, flashier, speedier cars. Yes, the noobs have taken over the pit stops and McQueen is feeling growing pains more than ever. Jackson Storm (voiced by Armie Hammer) is paving the way for a new age of high-tech automobiles and needs to find a way to stay ahead. Soon enough, McQueen winds up in a wreck and back in Radiator Springs where he has to learn that he’s still got some life left in him yet. Then he’s off to the Rust-eze Racing Center where he’ll train with the newest cars in the game, under the tutelage of Cruz Ramirez (voiced by Cristela Alonzo).

McQueen’s catchphrase “Ka-chow” can officially be replaced with “Ka-ching!” The Cars world exists solely for Disney and Pixar to make money. And while yes, that is the point of all franchises, it’s just disheartening that no one — most of all new director Brian Fee — has put any thought into the screenplay. Endless scenes of vehicles sitting/standing talking to each other is not entertaining. At least not when it took three writers — Kiel Murray, Mike Rich, and Pixar stalwart Bob Peterson — to come up with a story barely good enough for home video. And then proceed to pad it out with a barrage of montages, training sequences, and flashbacks. There’s maybe an hour of worthy material stretched to the smallest youngster’s patience breaking point.

Considering there’s somehow been two Planes spinoffs is nothing short of a miracle. It just goes to show that when it comes to Disney, if they release it, audiences will come. Unfortunately, this may not be the last we see of Lightning McQueen and his Radiator Springs pals — or the always grating Mater (voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) who continues to be the Jar Jar Binks of Pixar. The Pixar completist in me knows this will one day wind up sitting on a shelf alongside the rest of their movies. All I can do is hope that their next — the already gorgeous-looking Coco — can prove that Cars 3 is just another blip on the radar until their next.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Movie Review: “The Mummy”


The Mummy

**** 1/2
110 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

It’s always interesting to find yourself going against the grain. On one hand, there’s this weekend’s It Comes at Night sitting at 86 percent on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing. Then, there’s the first installment of Universal Pictures’ “Dark Universe” franchise starter The Mummy, currently at a dismal 17 percent. Considering Stephen Sommers’s reboot came out 17 years ago, it’s fine for Universal to try to launch their own Marvel-style universe. And if Alex Kurtzman’s Mummy is how things are going to kick off — Dracula Untold is no longer canon — then I can’t wait to see where they take their classic monsters from here.

In ancient Egypt, Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) is angry over losing her place in line to the throne after the birth of her brother. She quickly dispatches her entire family and attempts to unleash a curse upon herself, only to be mummified and buried alive before being able to complete the spell. In present day London, a tomb of knights has been discovered and taken control of by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe). Meanwhile, back in Iraq, soldier-of-fortune Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) call in an airstrike to save their hide, only to discover Ahmanet’s ancient tomb. In swoops Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) who uses Nick to get Ahmanet on her way back to London. Along the way, Chris is turned into a zombie, the cargo plane crashes, and Nick becomes cursed. Now, everyone must band together to stop an ancient evil from rising to power, turning herself and Nick into immortal Gods, unleashing hell upon earth.

Considering how subjective films can be, I hate to say that I honestly had way more fun with The Mummy than I thought I would. While heavily relying on CGI, I love my Universal monster movies way too much for it to get in the way. Gleeful is one word to use as I watched the new Dark Universe begin to unfold. Oh sure, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde barely resonates — the fight between him and Nick ends exactly as you’d expect considering this is all franchise building — but there’s plenty of time for us to get to him better. Possibly even see how some of his trinkets wound up in his possession at Prodigium.

Every studio is looking to cash in on the Marvel Cinematic Universe approach, and so far, no one has been able to play catch up. If anyone could make it smoother than DC has, it’s Universal. With the Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), and Frankenstein’s Monster (Javier Bardem) already cast — and some hairy rumors swirling around Dwayne Johnson as the Wolfman — it’ll be refreshing for horror fans to get new makeups of their favorite classics. While some may balk at this new version of The Mummy, there’s plenty to enjoy. This is summer popcorn entertainment at its finest. While the zombies could have been a little more enjoyable without being completely CGI, there’s just something extra fun about this Mummy surrounding herself with an army of the undead.

The best thing to do is to sit back and let the excess wash over you. There’s no shame is having a blast at the movies and that’s exactly what The Mummy sets out to do. In this day and age, it would be harder to try to do classic versions of these characters, so why not try to make them more modern? There’s always room for flashbacks, right? With The Mummy being the first step Universal needed after Dracula’s demise, I can’t wait to see what’s next!

Movie Review: “It Comes at Night”


It Comes at Night

** 1/2 out of 5
91 mins
Rated R for violence, disturbing images, and language
A24

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com


When it comes to horror, what you don’t see is usually scarier than what you do. But what if what you don’t see never existed in the first place? If that sounds off putting, make sure you steer clear of It Comes at Night. Following in the footsteps of overrated horror offerings like It Follows, It Comes at Night writer/director Trey Edward Shults puts on a smoke and mirrors act. Relying on horror tropes, Shults merely tries to pull the wool over your eyes in the finale with a lame gimmick he mistakes for metaphor and then cuts to credits.

Deep in the woods, a family of three — Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) — hiding from the dystopian, disease-infested world around them. Something is outside trying to get in, or at least that’s what Paul wants everyone to believe. And one day, something finally does in the form of Will (Christopher Abbott) who claims to have broken in looking for provisions for his own family. Paul needs to know if Will is telling the truth so Paul and Will bring his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and their child Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner) to the home in the woods. Now, they’re about to all learn that sometimes it’s not what’s outside that you should be afraid of.

Anyone paying attention to the aspect ratio will be sorely disappointed by the time the film ends. Shults thinks his movie is smarter than it is while falling prey to the worst case of misadvertising ever. Without diving into huge spoilers, the title is incredibly misleading. So too is the marketing campaign. I’m sure you can guess what that means.

I have to give Shults credit for trying. For 80 minutes the film puts audiences through the wringer. It’s just too bad the Hollywood machine has gotten so bad with endings lately. The cast is solid, with Edgerton leading the way through a frenzied nightmare scenario. But nothing makes up for the sour taste the climax leaves in your mouth. The studio should have just released the first 80 minutes as a stand alone movie or encouraged Shults to keep going. Unfortunately, It Comes at Night never lives up to the hype.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Movie Review: “Wonder Woman”


Wonder Woman

**** out of  5
141 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and some suggestive content 
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

To say the deck has been stacked against Wonder Woman is an understatement. Never being treated to her own big screen adventure, Gal Gadot stole the show when she was introduced as the beloved Diana in last year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Almost the best part of the movie — Ben Affleck’s Bruce Wayne/Batman was equally impressive — her solo outing garnered major attention after Warner Bros. and DC brought in director Patty Jenkins.

So, not only is Wonder Woman getting her first Hollywood blockbuster, but a woman was getting the chance to direct a huge franchise film as well. Now that the dust has settled and the film has finally been seen, the hype was even bigger. Does it live up to the monumental expectations of comicbook fans? Wonder Woman delivers. If not without a few caveats.

Beginning in the established DC Cinematic Universe, Diana is delivered a package from Wayne Enterprises. Inside is a copy of the original photo Wayne discovers in BvS of Diana during World War I. Bruce has included a note stating that he hopes to one day hear her story, which, of course, means the movie can begin! Diana lives peacefully on her invisible home island Themyscira, where she longs to learn how to fight alongside her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright). Much to the chagrin of her mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen).

Diana chooses to spend her child/teen years under Antiope’s tutelage, until one day, fate comes calling in the form of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). As a spy, Steve has stolen the notebook of Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya), aka Dr. Poison, aka Germany’s number one baddie, working on a powerful gas alongside the nefarious Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Together, they plan to unleash hell upon their enemies. But not if Diana, Steve, Steve’s secretary Etta (Lucy Davis), and Sir Patrick (David Thewlis) can stop them first. It wouldn’t be an adventure without a colorfully rowdy set of helping hands including Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui), Charlie (Ewen Bremner), and The Chief (Eugene Brave Rock).

Make no mistake, Wonder Woman is by far the best DC Comics film outside the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight Trilogy. However, don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s perfect. It may manage to hit all the right buttons along the way, but director Jenkins, and screenwriter Allan Heinberg, clearly had no idea how to live up to the first two hours. Full of fantastic camaraderie, the cast play off each other whether on the mythical island or in dingy old England. But then along comes the finale and Zack Snyder’s — producer/story credit — fingerprints shine brighter than ever.

Thankfully, the overuse of CGI in the last 20 minutes isn’t quite enough to kill the buzz, but it sure does make you wish they’d spent just a tiny bit longer working out the screenplay. Sneaking in a last minute plot twist definitely doesn’t help either. However, Wonder Woman strikes the perfect balance of fun, wit, brains, and brawn to help carry it to the finish line. It also helps that Gadot is spectacular and proves the drought of female led superhero movies is all too real. Wonder Woman may have its share of imperfections, but there’s no lasso of truth necessary to say that it’s the real deal. The first really really good summer film has finally arrived. Now let’s see how Warner Bros. and DC follow up with the rest of their Justice League films. They’re finally on the right track, let’s just hope they can follow through on what they promise here.