REVIEW: “Freaky” (2020)

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Writer-director Christopher Landon grabbed a lot of attention with his surprisingly fun horror-comedy “Happy Death Day” and its not-as-good but still entertaining sequel. Of course those weren’t Landon’s first forays into genre. He wrote the crafty 2007 thriller “Disturbia” and several sequels in the “Paranormal Activity” franchise. But “Happy Death Day” showed his knack for blending horror, humor and a healthy helping of nostalgia.

Landon’s latest film “Freaky” attempts to strike that same chord but with mixed results. Produced by Blumhouse (isn’t everything these days?), “Freaky” borrows from countless slasher movies and its basic concept is inspired by Mary Rodgers’ popular children’s novel “Freaky Friday”. But this is certainly no kids movie. On one hand it pours on the blood and gore often to a hilariously gruesome degree. On the other hand it can be needlessly crude with dialogue that’s nothing short of cringe-worthy.

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

The film is set in the not-so-appropriately-named town of Blissfield. It opens with the brutal murder of four insufferable teens who could have been plucked from any number of 80’s slasher flicks. One by one they are slaughtered in absurdly graphic fashion by a deranged serial killer known as the Blissfield Butcher (Vince Vaughn). The sequence is intentionally packed with every trick, every trope, and every stupid character decision from the genre’s history. It’s a pretty fun tone-setter with several cool nods to horror fans.

From there the movie introduces us to Millie Kessler (Kathryn Newton), a shy and unassuming high school senior still hurting from the recent death of her father. At home her clingy mother Paula (Katie Finneran) uses booze to cope with the loss while her older sister Charlotte (Dana Drori), a police officer, has shut herself off emotionally. It’s not much better at Blissfield Valley High where Millie is constantly bullied by an endless parade of unlikable dimwits and snotty preppies.

Like Halloween in Haddonfield, high school homecoming means death in Blissfield. After the big game Millie finds herself stranded at the football field with no ride home. Fresh off killing the teen fodder in the film’s opening, the Butcher spots Millie, chases her onto the field and stabs her with a mystical knife he stole from an earlier scene that somehow causes them to swap bodies. Yes, it’s utterly ridiculous and the film never even attempts to explain it. But I’m kinda glad. The movie knows it’s silly so why waste time trying to make sense of it?

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Photo Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Instead the movie leans into its two biggest strengths – Vaughn and Newton. Vaughn is especially funny channeling the personality and sensibilities of a terrified teenage girl. Newton actually gets the tougher assignment and pulls it off remarkably well. Unfortunately the two are surrounded by a slew of supporting characters ranging from bland and shallow to woefully obnoxious. Of course many are intentionally written as specific character types, but that doesn’t make them or their sometimes dreadful dialogue any easier to digest.

Eventually the film’s premise begins to run out of gas, only making it to the finish on the backs of Vaughn and Newton. As a whole the horror elements work pretty well from the hysterically over-the-top kills to the rare moments when the film quiets down and builds tension. The humor is far more uneven. It’s at its best when it’s spoofing the horror genre. Unfortunately it insists on going down the path of other uninspired teen comedies which undermines its potential. So I was left in the frustrating position of admiring certain parts of “Freaky” and wishing I could toss out the rest. “Freaky” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Fatman” (2020)

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‘Tis the season for Christmas movies galore and I guarantee you won’t find one quite like “Fatman”. Think about it, Mel Gibson playing a down-on-his-luck, liquor-swilling Santa who has to resort to taking military contracts in the off-season just to keep his workshop open. Obviously that’s just a sliver of the movie’s plot, but you have to admit there hasn’t been a Christmas movie in the same wacky vein as this one.

“Fatman” comes from the writing-directing duo of Eshom and Ian Nelms. The two brothers have crafted a movie that’s part dark comedy, part action flick and with an ever so slight Western vibe tossed in for good measure. It even finds time to fire a couple of shots at out-of-control consumerism and commercialism. But social commentary isn’t the main thing on its mind. “Fatman” is more of a fun and playful genre-mashup with some enjoyable performances and a goofy enough story that’s both funny and entertaining.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

A well-cast Gibson has a ball playing a grizzled Chris Cringle. Times are hard for the not-so-jolly old elf who feels tossed aside by the cold and selfish world. “I’ve lost my influence,” he laments to his devoted wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). She’s an encourager by nature but also level-headed and not afraid to speak the truth when he needs to hear it. I couldn’t help but love the simple yet sweet chemistry between Gibson and Jean-Baptiste. They make for a convincing couple.

On the business side of things, kids are naughtier than ever which means fewer toy deliveries. This displeases the US Government who sees Chris as an economic asset. “We want your holiday spirit. It generates holiday spending.” With their yearly subsidy set to be well below his current budget, Chris agrees to take on a military contract to make ends meet. The sheer absurdity of it had me laughing out loud – subsidies, bottom lines, the elves in Santa’s workshop manufacturing jet fighter parts for the military. It’s funny stuff made even funnier by the film’s straight-faced approach.

But soon Santa has more to worry about than finances. After a rich and insufferable little snot named Billy (Chance Hurstfield) gets a lump of coal for Christmas, he secretly uses his family’s wealth to hire a hitman (Walter Goggins) to kill Santa Claus. Goggins hams it up playing a cold-blooded sociopath with his own bone to pick with Chris over a Christmas present he never received as a kid. Perfectly reasonable reaction, right? But hunting down the Fatman won’t be easy. It’s not like Santa’s workshop is marked on a map or can be found on a GPS.

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Photo Courtesy of Saban Films

So Chris tries to find his lost Christmas spirit while keeping his elves employed and his business afloat. Meanwhile there’s a contract on his head and an eager assassin is ready to cash in. It leads to the inevitable bullet-riddled final act that is far more satisfying than it has any right to be. The Nelms brothers show off a knack for shooting action but don’t expect a lot of it. Most is contained in the final 15 minutes or so.

About a month ago “Fatman” introduced itself with an unexpectedly diverting trailer. The finished product is equally surprising and just as fun as I had hoped. There is a stretch where not much happens; where the movie is content with simply goofing around within its wacky premise. But I admit, I even got a kick out of that. More importantly the whole thing works as waggish escapist entertainment which is exactly what the filmmakers were shooting for. “Fatman” opens November 13th in select theaters and November 24th on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Fisherman’s Friends” (2020)

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You almost always know what you’re going to get with movies like “Fisherman’s Friends”. They’re pretty reliable when it comes to sticking to formula and rarely will you find a surprise moment or unexpected twist. Most of the time they either sink or swim based on their heart, charm, and ability to make you care about their characters. Director Chris Foggin’s tale of shanty-singing sea dogs turned Top 40 music sensations has those necessary ingredients plus some.

Based on a true story but incorporating a lot of fiction, “Fisherman’s Friends” is a small-town drama, romantic comedy, musical biography, and underdog story all neatly wrapped into one movie. The writing trio of Nick Moorcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth take the bare basics of the true account and build their own story around them. Their by-the-book plotting squash any chance of originality, but the colorful characters, the rich personality of its setting, and the film’s warm-hearted center more than makes up for it.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Set in 2010 Daniel Mays plays Danny, a hotshot London music executive on a weekend getaway with his three obnoxious buddies. While passing through the small village of Port Isaac they overhear a group of ten Cornish fisherman singing shanties for the locals. One thing leads to another and soon Danny is trying to convince the Fisherman’s Friends (as the seamen affectionately call themselves) to let him be their manager and negotiate a record deal.

In order to get the group onboard Danny will have to convince their spokesman Jim (James Purefoy). He’s a fisherman who also owns the town Bed and Breakfast with his daughter Alwyn (a terrific Tuppence Middleton). Despite leaving a rotten first impression, Danny soon finds himself more interested in winning over Alwyn than her father. So the big city guy becomes the proverbial ‘fish out of water’, soon finding himself lured in by the small town’s charm (and by one particularly lovely single mother). And he grows even more committed to seeing the shanty crooners strike it big.

From that brief snippet alone you can probably guess how things play out. And the Hallmarkian predictability really kicks in during a final act which you’ve seen a million times before – the guy gets in good with the girl, royally screws things up, realizes he can’t live without the girl, and then sets out to make things right. Plotwise you literally see everything coming a mile away.

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Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Yet there is an endearing warmth that Foggin captures, both from the characters and the village itself (it was filmed on location in Port Isaac). The fun and delightful cast are essential to the film’s tight-knit communal feel. Middleton avoids numerous trappings and gives us a woman with real mettle. Purefoy brings emotional depth and is more than just an overly protective father or surly sailor. And you can’t help but love veteran Scottish actor David Hayman playing the gravelly-voiced but tender-hearted Jago.

With its irresistible mix of feel-good vibes, infectious musical numbers, great rapport and playful humor, “Fisherman’s Friends” makes the formulaic storytelling pretty easy to overlook. It ends up being a smile-inducing pleasure built around a genuinely remarkable true story. And I’m still giggling at “Reservoir Sea Dogs“. I’ll let you watch the movie and discover that nugget for yourself. “Fisherman’s Friends” premieres this Friday on VOD.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “First Cow” (2020)

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Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” opened in a handful of cities earlier this year around the start of the Coronavirus outbreak. Within days it’s run was over, cut short by the wave of theater closings across the country. Surprisingly distributor A24 decided against making the movie available on VOD saying they were going to relaunch the film “once the marketplace has rebounded“.

A few months have passed and the market has yet to rebound, but “First Cow” is finally making its way to home television screens. This is a Kelly Reichardt film through and through which is sure to thrill critics who frequently praise her unique brand of filmmaking. At the same time her minimalist style, slow-moving stories, and ambiguous endings have often stymied general moviegoers.

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Photo Courtesy of A24

I understand both sentiments. I like Reichardt’s working-class focus, contemplative rhythms, and deep affection for her characters. But I’ve long wrestled with ambiguous endings and the fine line between challenging the audience and shortchanging a story. The idea of getting us to write the finish is fine when the movie leaves behind enough for us to do so. But when it doesn’t the results can be frustrating. Take a movie like Reichardt’s “Meek’s Cutoff”. It clearly worked for many, yet by the end I was far more conscious of the intentional ambiguity than challenged to ponder the fate of the pioneers.

“First Cow” is indeed slow-moving, it has a simple focus, and it leaves you with questions. But the difference here is in the film’s ability to both encourage thought and tell a fulfilling story. As you would expect, the movie informs us without holding our hands. Instead much is gleaned through its rich character development and the immersive frontier setting. Both sufficiently give us all we need to connect with the story and add our own interpretations. This may be Reichardt’s best film.

From the very first scene Reichardt let’s us know she is working towards something. A series of shots show a young woman discovering two human skeletons near a riverbank. Too shallow for a grave, these bones have laid there undiscovered for years and there’s no doubting that they have a story to tell. Normally a discovery of two skeletons in the opening minutes would loom over the film like an ominous dark cloud. But as we’re transported back to 1820’s Oregon, Reichardt does such a good job pulling us into the period that we almost forget the cryptic opening.

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Photo Courtesy of A24

We’re first introduced to the gentle, kind, and soft-spoken Cookie (John Magaro) as he picks mushrooms in a lush patch of forest. Turns out he’s a cook traveling with a group of surly, burly fur trappers. In a subtly comical first meeting, Cookie discovers a naked Chinese man named King Lu (Orion Lee) hiding in the bushes. He’s cold, hungry, and on the run from some really bad Russians. Cookie gives him some water, a blanket, and a place to sleep for the night.

They go their separate ways but meet again later in a small settlement. King Lu remembers Cookie’s act of kindness and invites him out to a shack he has turned into a home. The two develop a friendship that form the backbone for the entire film. Through their seemingly natural rapport we learn all we need to know about the pair, their character, their ambitions. Cookie is every bit the big-hearted tender soul while the chatty King Lu is a dreamer with an entrepreneurial spirit. It’s also glaringly obvious that they’re misfits in a harsh and unforgiving land.

Then a conversation about biscuits sparks an idea. The two begin sneaking onto the property of a wealthy Englishman (Toby Jones) in the dead of night to extract milk from the territory’s first and only cow. It’s used to make Cookie’s delicious “oily cakes” which they take into town and sell to the homesick frontiersmen for a tidy sum. In the burgeoning spirit of capitalism Cookie and King Lu keep building their business which means swiping more milk in order to make more cakes (‘Supply and Demand’ and all that jazz). They keep going despite clear indicators that they should take their profits and skedaddle.

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Photo Courtesy of A24

History isn’t here yet, but it’s coming,” Lu prophesies. “Maybe this time we’ll be ready for it.” Of course they aren’t and that’s the sad part of this otherwise warm and slyly funny frontier drama. Reichardt and her co-writer Jonathan Raymond deeply root their script in the human experience. Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt’s Academy box ratio draws our eyes inward and concentrates our focus on the characters. Plus the film is bathed in an array of colorful faces including a special little nugget, a terrific cameo marking the final appearance of the late René Auberjonois. In other words, “First Cow” isn’t worried about beautiful vistas or untapped lands. It’s the people within each frame that we’re urged to explore.

Before a single image hits our screen Reichardt greets us with a fitting William Blake quote: “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” It simply means friendships (like the one Cookie and King Lu share) are natural, complex, and essential parts of our being. But the film reminds us that even the tightest and most earnest bond can be seduced by the sinister allure of “just a little more”. “First Cow” is now available in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT- 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Downhill” (2020)

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I wasn’t too sure about an English language remake of the superb 2014 Swedish domestic drama “Force Majeure”. I was even less convinced after seeing the trailer for “Downhill”, an Americanized version starring Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. I loved the original (from director/co-writer Ruben Östlund) for its subtle dark wit and dramatic gut punch. It’s careful balance of those two key elements made it the movie that it was.

Helmsmen Nat Faxon and Jim Rash co-direct and co-write (with Jesse Armstrong) “Downhill”, a follow-up to their terrific 2013 gem “The Way, Way Back”. Prior to that, the pair penned the Oscar-winning script for Alexander Payne’s “The Descendants”. Here their mix of comedy and drama is far more jagged. It’s in the dramatic moments that we see shades of what made “Force Majeure” effective. It’s the scenes of not-so-subtle comedy that knock the story off-track.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

The movie follows Billie (Louis-Dreyfus) and her husband Pete (Ferrell) vacationing with their two sons at a ski resort high in the Austrian Alps. On their second day, as they sit on a deck for lunch, a controlled avalanche sends a cloud of powder barreling down the mountain and towards the restaurant. As it approaches many patrons scramble including Pete who grabs his phone and runs inside, leaving his wife and kids behind to get showered by snow.

As the cloud settles Pete returns to find his family unharmed but terribly shaken by the experience. He promptly orders lunch as if nothing happened, but his actions open a wound that slowly festers for the duration of the movie. Eventually pent-up frustrations boil to the surface and true selves are exposed, but not before potentially irreparable damage has been done to their relationships.

Östlund’s movie was essentially a existential tragedy about a seemingly sturdy marriage built on an emotional fault line. “Downhill” latches onto that idea but seems completely unsure of how far to go with it. Does it embrace the understated psychological bite of the original film or go with the more palatable studio approach? Faxon and Rash try to have it both ways and the results are frustratingly uneven. There are scenes where the tension between characters (either spoken or unspoken) is palpable and the emotions are raw and authentic. But then we’ll get a weird attempt at humor that lands with a tonal thud. This is epitomized in Miranda Otto’s bizarrely out of place free-loving concierge. The character seems plucked right out of a National Lampoon movie.

Much of it has to do with the casting. Louis-Dreyfus carries the movie and frankly we don’t get enough of her on the big screen. Her performance is always at the right temperature and she drives each the film’s most potent scenes. Most importantly she shrewdly manages the aforementioned balance between drama and humor. The script lets her down occasionally, but she’s easily the film’s biggest asset.

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Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures

A badly miscast Will Ferrell doesn’t fare as well and his years of playing halfwits actually hurts his character. Ferrell is hardly subtle when it comes to comedy, a truth that was etched in my subconscious from the start. So even when he’s playing it serious I found myself waiting for a visual or verbal punchline. He’s just not that convincing. Even worse, he makes it hard to buy into Billie and Pete as an actually couple.

I can see people going into “Downhill” expecting a straight comedy strictly because of the two leads. These viewers are sure to leave disappointed. The movie’s most striking scenes are its most serious and they are driven by a fantastic Julia Louis-Dreyfus (please do more movies). She literally keeps the picture afloat. But even she can’t make the jarring attempts at comedy work or help the movie nail down any true sense of identity.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

REVIEW: “Fantasy Island” (2020)

FANTposterThe original “Fantasy Island” spawned from two TV movies before becoming a full-fledged television series that ran on ABC from 1978 to 1984. It featured Ricardo Montalbán as an enigmatic fulfiller of fantasies for paying guests on a remote Pacific island. I never watched it much, but I distinctly remember how each show began. With Montalbán’s peppy sidekick Tattoo in a bell tower heralding the arrival of “The Plane, The Plane“. My parents then promptly sent me to bed.

The new big screen version (further proof that they will remake just about anything these days) is a much different affair. As the Blumhouse tag denotes, “Fantasy Island” 2020 guarantees some embrace of the horror genre. But much like it’s inspiration, the film version bounces all over the genre map. One minute we’re in a restaurant during a romantic dinner. The next we’re with a special forces unit carrying out a covert military operation near the Venezuelan border. One second it resembles a hedonistic party movie. Later I was waiting to hear “Previously on LOST“.

None of this is an especially bad idea on the surface and Blumhouse has a history of turning out successful horror movies from minuscule budgets (I’ve read this one was around $7 million). But “Fantasy Island” is a weird concoction. It is unquestionably ambitious and its director/co-writer Jeff Wadlow has some intriguing ideas. But the overall silliness and messy execution (especially in the final act) derails any chance at something remotely memorable.

Ricardo Montalbán is replaced by the less interesting, less charismatic Michael Peña (no fault of his, just an odd bit of casting). He plays Mr. Roarke, the overseer of the beautiful yet mysterious Fantasy Island. He is informed by his assistant (Parisa Fitz-Henley) that a plane of new guests has arrived. As special contest winners, each guest is flown to the island paradise with the promise that their most intimate fantasy will be granted. Do yourself a favor, don’t try to dig any deeper than that. Just a little thought and the whole thing comes unglued from the start.

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Photo: Sony Pictures

So out of the plane comes the stock of lucky/unlucky participants. Melanie (Lucy Hale) fantasizes about paying back a bully. JD (Ryan Hanson) and Brax (Jimmy O. Yang) are douchey stepbros in search of the ultimate party. Gwen (Maggie Q) wants a second chance at marital bliss. Patrick (Austin Stowell) wants to be soldier like his late father.

It doesn’t help that all four fantasies are so tonally at odds. It’s even worse that they all play out like episodes from a cheap television serial, spotty performances and patches of woefully bad dialogue included. Again, you can see the gears turning in what could have been a potentially fun assemblage of intersecting fantasies, character revelations and other well-worn nonsense. But none of it (including its ten false endings) come together in a cohesive or satisfying way.

I can see this weird genre mashup gaining a minor following and actually making money (It’s projected to clear nearly double its production budget over its opening weekend). And perhaps it can work as a guilty pleasure or throwaway entertainment. But that’s about as far as you can stretch it. “Fantasy Island” does nothing to justify its existence. It’s just a blob of fairly interesting ideas pasted together and thrown out for consumption. And you can bet Blumhouse is already eyeing a sequel.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

2-stars