Saturday, September 22, 2018

Movie Review: “The House with a Clock in Its Walls”


The House with a Clock in Its Walls

** 1/2 out of 5
104 minutes
Rated PG for thematic elements including sorcery, some action, scary images, rude humor and language
Universal Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

Amblin and doomsday clocks and warlocks, oh my. The House with a Clock in Its Walls sounds like a perfect fit for Amblin Entertainment on paper. After reading through the Wikipedia synopsis of John Bellairs’s 1973 children’s book, you can’t fault screenwriter Eric Kripke. It seems to follow the first book in the Lewis Barnavelt series to a T.  While all the boxes are ticked, there’s something that doesn’t quite tock.

It’s 1955 in New Zebedee, Michigan. Ten year old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vacarro) has been orphaned and sent to live with his estranged warlock uncle, Jonathan (Jack Black). Quickly, Lewis senses there’s something off within Jonathan’s house. Turns out, the original owner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan) and his wife Selena (Renee Elise Goldsberry) died in the house. But not before Isaac hid a doomsday clock within its walls and now, only Lewis, Jonathan, and their eccentric witch neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) must beat the clock with Isaac hot on their tails after Lewis brings him back from the dead using a spell to impress his friend Tarby Corrigan (Sunny Suljic).

Roth keeps touting that his one piece of advice from Steven Spielberg was to make it scary, but it never is. He’s clearly working way outside his comfort zone. This is the man who created the Hostel franchise after all. It’s also never as funny as it thinks it is either. Black does what he can, but he’s always just playing himself, something that’s been wearing thin for years. Vaccaro tries to be the next Jacob Tremblay, but has a long way to go. One minute he’s charming, the next he’s whiney. And he could really use some coaching on his cry face.

The best part of the movie — which should be the house itself — is Blanchett. She commands the screen and keeps Black on his toes as a pair of bickering neighbors whose platonic friendship revels in verbal sparring.  Unfortunately, for a movie filled with magic, that’s what it’s missing the most. Roth tries to keep the film chugging along, but it never awakens your inner child. Considering I still watch old school Amblin films on a regular basis, there’s a lot to live up to when your Universal logo is out of the ’80s followed by Elliot and E.T. flying onscreen, and it rarely does.

The House with a Clock in Its Walls does what it can and ticks along to the finish line — thankfully, MacLachlan makes for a decent enough villain. But it never manages to find its footing and go full steam ahead. Kids will get a bigger kick out of it than their parents — which is the whole point of course — but that’s what makes all the difference. There are kids films, and there are family films. The House with a Clock in Its Walls is the former. Kids may enjoy it, but the adults will be left saying, “well at least it didn’t suck.”

Friday, September 14, 2018

Movie Review: “A Simple Favor”


A Simple Favor

***** out of 5
117 minutes
Rated R for sexual content and language throughout, some graphic nude images, drug use and violence
Lionsgate

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com
Spoiler ahead.

Try as they might, I wasn’t buying Lionsgate’s marketing for A Simple Favor. Advertised as “from the dark side of Paul Feig,” something just didn’t add up. From the way it’s filmed — combined with being from the director of Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy, and Ghostbusters — I wasn’t buying it as a straight thriller. And it absolutely is not.

Feig — and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer — give Darcey Bell’s novel the Spy treatment and all for the better. While masquerading as a thriller, it’s a comedy through-and-through. After the box office/Academy Award-nominated success of Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train killed the subgenre a swift death. But Feig has dug it up and hilariously turned it on its bloated, cold-hearted head.

Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) is a widowed mommy vlogger who has just become BFFs with the most mysterious mom at her son Miles’s (Joshua Satine) school: Emily (Blake Lively). Stephanie quickly learns there may be more to Emily than it seems. Stephanie always gets stuck watching Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho) and working late in spite of Emily’s steamy marriage to Sean (Henry Golding).

It isn’t long before Emily winds up dead, Stephanie and Sean become the prime suspects, and Nicky starts seeing his mom around the playground. Is Stephanie going crazy? Did Sean kill Emily over a $4 million life insurance policy? How do you make the perfect martini? All this and more are answered as love, loyalty, and revenge are put to the ultimate test.

When you look at Feig’s last four films, this is his most polished yet. Feig knows funny better than anyone, but he also knows when to slow down and take some time to get serious — something most comedies fail to remember. For the mystery, twists, and laughs to work, you have to be rooting for someone. Stephanie is a pitch perfect Nancy Drew.

The best way to describe the humor is to think of how Feig made Spy as a pretty straight spy movie with a slathering of jokes. And A Simple Favor is no different. I’ve heard it’s pretty different from Bell’s novel, and all for the better. The heightened sense of reality plays like the funniest big budget Lifetime version of Gone Girl you could hope for. Lively has come a long way from her Gossip Girl days and it’s clear she’s learned a thing or two from her hubby (Ryan Reynolds) when it comes to spewing hilariously filthy one-liners.

Marketing aside, do yourself a favor and make A Simple Favor your only plans this weekend.

Movie Review: “The Predator”


The Predator

*** out of 5
107 minutes
Rated R for strong bloody violence, language throughout, and crude sexual references
20th Century Fox

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

If there’s any reason I was excited for The Predator, it’s co-writer/director Shane Black. The man has been making a resurgence since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang put him back on the map. After the triple play of KKBB, Iron Man 3, and The Nice Guys, there should have been no way for Black to fail at continuing on with a franchise he starred in 31 years ago. Rumor had it that he also provided uncredited rewrites to the Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, but The Predator winds up as an oddball mix of big dumb fun and just plain super dumb.

In the present day, a Predator has crash landed on Earth. After making bloody first contact with sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), McKenna quickly mails off some alien hardware back to his house. There, his son Rory (Jacob Tremblay) manages to turn it on and a new Predator comes hunting. Meanwhile, McKenna is thrown on a bus with a gang of prison misfits — Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Baxley (Thomas Jane), Lynch (Alfie Allen), and Nettles (Augusto Aguilera). With a new Predator hot on Rory’s heels, McKenna joins forces with his newfound frenemies — and an evolutionary biology professor (Olivia Munn) — to keep the Predator, and agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), away from his son and figure out exactly why the Predators are back.

With Black at the helm, The Predator should have been a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am action extravaganza. Instead Black — along with co-writer Fred Dekker — merely cobble together a coherent enough story to barely push the Predator series into new territory. This is the fourth official entry aside from two excursions battling Xenomorphs. So at least they tried taking it in a new direction?

Black and Dekker have provided us action/horror/sci-fi classics such as House, Night of the Creeps, Lethal Weapon, The Monster Squad, Last Action Hero, and some of the better episodes of Tales from the Crypt. Unfortunately, The Predator is the kind of film that veers from wow, that was really cool, to okay that was super dumb in the same scene. At least it is peppered with some classic Black moments of hilarity and bloodshed. And the camaraderie amongst the cast is infectious. Even if Brown seems hellbent on chewing every inch of scenery he can.

The Predator never lives up to the original while never trying to stand on its own either. At least there are some over-the-top action scenes and plenty of blood for interested viewers. It’s never horrible, but never truly awesome either. In a summer filled with Mission: Impossible – Fallout’s jaw-dropping stunts and the “snapture” of Thanos, The Predator barely registers. It may not be a complete bust, but it should have been way better than this considering everyone in front of and behind the camera.

Friday, August 24, 2018

Movie Review: “The Happytime Murders”


Happytime Murders

**** out of 5
91 minutes
Rated R for strong crude and sexual content and language throughout, and some drug material
STX Entertainment

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com
 
Those shocked Brian Henson, son of Jim Henson, directed The Happytime Murders seem to forget the Muppets have always had an adult edge. Growing up in the ’80s I always preferred the Muppets — or Looney Tunes — to anything on the Disney channel. But here we are with a hard R rating and enough language to make a sailor blush. While it may rely heavily on shock and awe, it’s exactly the kind of film I am happy to watch. After 10 years in development, Happytime is finally here! Just keep your expectations in check.

In a world where puppets coexist with humans, Phil Phillips (puppeteered and voiced by Bill Barretta) is a disgraced ex-cop working as a gumshoe in Los Angeles. His newest client, Sandra (puppeteered and voiced by Dorien Davies), has come calling asking for Phil to find out who is trying to blackmail her. Meanwhile, cast members of an ’80s television show, The Happytime Gang, are being picked off one-by-one and Phil must join forces with his ex-partner, Detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to solve the case.

The best way to know if you’re going to enjoy The Happytime Murders is to watch the red band trailer. Full of gross-out humor, hilarious one-liners, and did-I-just-see-that sight gags, Henson never pulls his punches. He also treats his puppet characters as just that, characters. He gives them the same respect his father always did. You believe you’re watching actual characters and not just a bunch of felt sewn together with a hand up its rear. Just about the only thing that could have helped might have been some consulting from Jason Segel. The man does have two Muppets films under his belt and I’m still waiting for him to make a fill film-adaptation of his Forgetting Sarah Marshall Dracula musical.

The Happytime Murders is obviously not for everyone. And it’s absolutely not for kids! There were even times where it felt like I was the only one laughing —  I tlove all things Muppets. Except The Dark Crystal, but I’m willing to try! As for The Happytime Murders, just expect a gloriously filthy combination of Muppets, Raymond Chandler, and The Naked Gun and you’ll have plenty of fun.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Movie Review: “The Meg”


The Meg

**** 1/2 out of 5
113 minutes
Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language
Warner Bros. Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com


In the annals of shark films, no one will ever dethrone Jaws. And director Jon Turteltaub knows it. Based on the Steve Alten novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror (yes, there are books — six in fact), The Meg film has been through development hell since Disney purchased the rights clear back in 1997. At one point even Eli Roth was attached to direct.

Finally reverting back to Alten himself, Warner Bros. delivers! Turteltaub may be more serviceable than a perfect match for the material, but The Meg finds itself a swimmingly fun crowd-pleaser just in time to clear out the summer waters.

It’s been five years since an executive decision left two of Jonas Taylor’s (Jason Statham) crew dead at the bottom of the ocean. Convinced they were attacked by a prehistoric Megalodon, he’s living in Thailand in seclusion. Fate comes knocking when his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is attacked by what could be another meg. But an even bigger threat is faced when the meg makes it way back to the surface.

With the lives of the Mana One at stake — including father/daughter/granddaughter Zhang, Suyin (Bingbing Li), and Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), Taylor’s ol’ chum Mac (Cliff Curtis), DJ (Page Kennedy), Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), Jaxx (Ruby Rose), and Morris (Rainn Wilson) — Jonas must face his past and save everyone from a threat no one believed was real.

With a film such as The Meg, you can count on plenty of Jaws references. I ticked off at least seven, with asides also made to The Shallows and Finding Nemo/Dory. While most have come to see the latest big summer shark film, others of us are longtime fans of Alten’s Meg novels. I remember when the Disney announcement was made and the film would have been a perfect addition to the Disney ’90s action films made under their Touchstone/Hollywood Pictures logos. But at least WB backed Turteltaub with plenty of money to make as good of film as he could.

Turteltaub may not be known for groundbreaking action films — 3 Ninjas, Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping, Phenomenon, both National Treasures, and the underrated Sorcerer’s Apprentice — but he does know how to make crowd pleasers.

Turteltaub has mentioned the film was originally going to be very gory — and Statham has gone on record that this is not the film he signed on to make — at least writers Dean Georgaris and Jon & Eric Hoeber didn’t try to Dark Tower the film. The spirit and essence and basic layout of Alten’s original novel remains intact and they may or may not have set up the film for a sequel. The final gets a little confusing and I’m still not sure exactly what I saw. Alten couldn’t (or can’t) confirm what I think happened. Those who have read the book will feel the same way. It’s a vague case of did-they-or-didn’t-they and unless the box office receipts pile up for a sequel we may never know. There’s definitely room to play and maybe we fellow Megheads can rally the troops Pacific Rim style to keep a franchise afloat. But if they’re going to, they need to go even bigger.

The Meg throws its budget up on the screen to make the shark as realistic as possible — ditching the book’s white glow is forgiven, it would have looked hilarious on-screen — even if there’s not as much carnage candy as you’d hope. This is a fun ride from beginning to end, and being a fan of all things shark — and particularly Meg — I can only hope there’s further adventures with Statham on board because he’s a perfect version of Jonas. The Meg may not try to be the best shark film ever made, but at least it set out to be the best Meg film it could under the circumstances.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Movie Review: “Christopher Robin”


Christopher Robin

** 1/2 out of 5
104 minutes
Rated PG for some action
Walt Disney Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

A.A. Milne and Ernest Shepard’s Winnie-the-Pooh is almost 100 years old — he’s 92 — and has been a beloved Disney character for 52 years. Just giving a little perspective to show they’ve had plenty of time to develop a worthy live-action version of our favorite Hundred Acre Wood characters. Christopher Robin is not it. And to think it took five people to mess it up. Two (Greg Brooker and Mark Steven Johnson) to come up with a story and three screenwriters (Alex Ross Perry, Tom McCarthy, and Allison Schroeder) to write the cliched screenplay. If it weren’t for Ewan McGregor as the titular character, and our favorite Pooh characters in supporting roles, the film would be a complete wash.

Young Christopher Robin (Orton O’Brien) is off to boarding school and saying farewell to his childhood friends. Winnie the Pooh (voiced by Jim Cummings), Eeyore (voiced Brad Garrett), Kanga (voiced by Sophie Okonedo), Roo (voiced by Sara Sheen), Rabbit (voiced by Peter Capaldi), Piglet (voiced by Nick Mohammed), Owl (voiced by Toby Jones), and Tigger (Cummings) are all in attendance. A quick montage shows him dealing with the passing of his father, serving his country in WWII, a crumbling marriage to Evelyn (Hayley Atwell), a job he hates, and becoming estranged from his daughter Madeline (Bronte Carmichael). But soon enough, the Hundred Acre Wood comes calling and he’s forced to realize that he needs to get his priorities in check.

The biggest issue with Christopher Robin is that we know exactly how it’s going to end right from the start. The least the screenwriters, or director Marc Forster could have done was come up with some ways to tug at our heartstrings. The marketing department sure has, but the film is completely mismarketed. The trailer and TV spots are trying to convince audiences they’re in for a bouncing good time, but in reality, Christopher Robin is your standard midlife crisis drama that happens to have Milne’s beloved characters in it. They take the backseat to McGregor stuck in A Wonderful Life story where he has to decide what’s more important: Working all weekend or putting his family first. Yeah, we’ve seen this before.

Don’t get me wrong, Christopher Robin is never terrible, just don’t go in expecting it to be another Disney adventure. Even kids will become bored fast — especially in a summer crowded with far better family fare with way more energy. Unfortunately, Christopher Robin is just another misstep in a long line of live-action attempts. (See Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, Maleficent, Cinderella, and Beauty and the Beast.) They can’t all be The Jungle Book, but that won’t stop Disney from pumping them out ad nauseam.

Christopher Robin won’t last long in theaters and will get swept under the rug. If you need to take your kids on an adventure with Pooh, you’re better off staying home and catching up on the original Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh or the underrated/underseen Winnie the Pooh from 2011.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Movie Review: “Mission: Impossible - Fallout”


Mission: Impossible - Fallout

***** out of 5
147 minutes
Rated PG-13 for violence and intense sequences of action, and for brief strong language
Paramount Pictures

Article first published at TheReelPlace.com

No franchise has progressively improved as much as Mission: Impossible. While off to a rocky start — let’s face it, J. J. Abrams’s M:I3 was basically a reboot — continuity has held the series together. Each installment may be a sequel, but it’s one continuous story arch now. With writer/director Christopher McQuarrie returning — the first to do so — Mission: Impossible – Fallout is definitely the best film in the series, beating his own Rogue Nation and leaving Brad Bird’s Ghost Protocol in the dust. Hyperbole, you ask? Just you wait!

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) has just accepted his mission while in Belfast. The Syndicate is in a panic after the arrest of Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) and a group labeled “The Apostles” are looking for a man named “John Lark.” Lark has joined forces with the missing Debruuk (Kristoffer Joner) who are going to use three plutonium cores to wreak havoc across the globe.

Now, Ethan — along with Luther (Ving Rhames), Benji (Simon Pegg) — must find the cores before the Apostles do. This takes them to France where they meet The White Widow (Vanessa Kirby) who plans to sell the cores to Lark. Meanwhile, August Walker (Henry Cavill) — a CIA assassin — is trying to prove his suspicions to Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett). That Hunt has gone rogue and is really Lark, while Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson) is on the hunt for Lane.

Hunt is also the best spy character in the business. From HALO jumping to flying his own helicopter, there’s clearly nothing Cruise won’t do. A funny conversation at my wife’s work puts his abilities in perfect perspective. Someone mentioned the word “diabeetus” and long story short, the realization was made that Cruise is five years older here than Wilford Brimley was when he made Cocoon. Let that sink in.

It helps that Cruise has found the perfect director in McQuarrie. The man can direct an action scene as well, if not better, than most. And while McQuarrie’s screenplay may be a tad convoluted, and labyrinthine as you’d expect, it always makes sense and is infused with plenty of fun. The film also manages to pay homage/respect to each of the first five movies. I’m sure it features its fair share of green screen, but there’s so much stunt work on display it boggles the mind. Jaw-dropping.

Fallout is the Dark Knight of the Mission: Impossibles. And I’m not just saying that because of Lorne Balfe’s epic score or because one character gets half his face disfigured. Fallout lives up the hype and then some. It demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible to get the most out of the IMAX footage, but it works phenomenally on a regular screen too. Just when we think we’ve seen it all, Cruise and company accomplish the impossible and prove we ain’t seen nothin’ yet!