REVIEW: “Greener Grass” (2019)

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The opening scene of Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s “Greener Grass” gives you a good indication of what you’re in for. Suburban frenemies Jill (DeBoer) and Lisa (Luebbe) sit in the bleachers watching their kids play soccer. Jill holds her newborn daughter as Lisa gushes over how cute she is. “You can have her! She’s great.” Jill cheeps as if offering her a stick of gum. After all, it’s the polite thing to do, right? Just as jolting, Lisa actually accepts but with a slight hesitation. “I’ve been her mom since birth,” Jill assures her. “She just has to get used to you.”

That’s a good taste test for the kind of surrealist nuttiness “Greener Grass” throws at you. It’s an utterly batty satire of suburban life and soccer mom culture. At the same time it takes some sharp pokes at competitive parenting and some hilarious jabs at postmodernist absurdity. But most surprising is its bite which doesn’t really come into focus until the final 15 minutes or so.

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DeBoer and Luebbe are not only co-stars, but co-writers and co-directors. In their unhinged suburbia everything (and I do mean everything) is about appearances. For these characters living itself is a performance art and the entire neighborhood is vying for the better performance. It’s a place where everyone drives golf carts instead of cars, have braces on already perfect teeth, and where underwear can pass as a neck scarf. Even wackier, a kid can turn into a Golden Retriever and a mother can give birth to a soccer ball no questions asked.

Amid the steady haze of disingenuous smiles, passive-aggressive politeness and pastel fashion is an almost relentless barrage of gags and scenes that resemble comedy sketches. It also has its share of confounding plot twists, but you just go with them mainly because of the crazy foundation that has already be laid. From the very start the movie makes clear that ‘anything goes’ so we’re pretty much prepped for whatever DeBoer and Luebbe throws at us.

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Topping it off are some game comic performances from a cast firmly committed to the goofy premise. DeBoer and Luebbe have a hysterical chemistry, playing off each other with deadpan precision. Beck Bennett and Neil Casey are hoots playing their husbands – submissive, spacey and firmly rooted in the movie’s absurdism.

“Greener Grass” runs the risk of being too over-the-top for some. And if you aren’t into its unique and persistent sense of humor, this is a movie that will probably test your patience. There’s not much in terms of plot, but it moves at a snappy pace and features much of what I look for in good satire. I laughed a lot following these shallow, dim-witted rivals amid a sea of suburban superficiality. And after hearing of a movie-loving friend’s experience, now I want to show it to other people just to see how weirded out they get.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars

REVIEW: “Gretel & Hansel” (2020)

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January is notoriously a dumping ground for movies that studios generally have no confidence in. Out of those we are all but guaranteed a handful of low budget horror films that are as forgettable as they are superfluous. Dropped into this year’s veritable dead zone is the surprisingly inspired “Gretel & Hansel”. It’s a high concept fantasy horror dive that exceeded my expectations at nearly every turn.

“Gretel & Hansel” comes from director Osgood Perkins, son the late Anthony Perkins. It’s from a script Perkins co-wrote with Rob Hayes and is based on the classic German folktale from the Brothers Grimm. Here the bigger focus is on creating atmosphere and building tension visually more so than narratively. It’s something the movie leans heavily on and for the most part nails.

You’ll quickly notice that Gretel is the film’s centerpiece hence the name switcheroo in the title. In the fairy tale the two kids are around the same age. Here Gretel (played by Sophia Lillis) is both narrator and older sister taking care of her precocious younger brother (Sam Leakey) after the two are cast into the dark woods by their destitute and unstable mother. They travel across the hellish, famine-stricken land, helped by a mysterious hunter (Charles Babalola), haunted by eerie apparitions appearing in the distance, and growing hungrier with every passing day.

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Photo: Orion Pictures

The story settles in when starving Gretel and Hansel come across a remote A-frame house deep in the forest. A peep through a window reveals a table full of fruits, meats, breads, and sweets. Hansel sneaks inside but is snagged by the owner, a creepy old crone named Holda. She’s played by a terrifically menacing Alice Krige who exudes dread from her eerie glances to her fingertips black with rot. Thanks to the source material we know she’s actually a witch and her motivations going forward are unquestionably sinister.

She invites Gretel inside to join her brother at the table where the two stuff their empty stomachs. The witch convinces the children to stay and soon is teaching Gretel small spells and female empowerment while steadily pushing second helpings in front of Hansel. As the witch inspires Gretel’s desire for agency and independence she soon begins to manipulate it. The question becomes will Gretel see through the witch’s radicalization and become her own woman? If not the consequences could be horrific.

When all is said and done the story itself (though interesting) is pretty light. Perkins and Hayes stretch their tale about as far as they can just to fill the small 88 minute runtime. At first it was something that set the movie back for me, but since then I’ve seen it as less of an issue because I’m convinced there are more thematic layers than I gave it credit for. It’s a case where I’m anxious to give the movie a second look hopefully with a more attentive eye.

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Photo: Orion Pictures

But I have to get back to the visuals and the way they develop and maintain mood and atmosphere. There are countless haunting images, meticulously framed and resembling something plucked out of a Robert Eggers picture. In fact there is a genuine arthouse quality to the presentation and I could imagine seeing an A24 stamp in front of the title. Much of the credit goes to cinematographer Galo Olivares who was a  collaborator on Alfonso Cuarón’s exquisite Oscar winner “Roma”. His use of lighting, shadows, camera angles, and simple still shots to brilliantly capture Perkins’ vision and verve.

Better yet, the movie truly believes in its visuals which convey the bulk of the horror. It’s refreshing to see a reliance on something other than cheap, overused jump scares. And there is rarely a shot where something doesn’t catch your eye. It’s all done with a minuscule $5 million budget. Further proof that you don’t need tons of money and big digital effects to make a movie look incredible.

So you could say “Gretel & Hansel” is a macabre coming-of-age story about individuality and burgeoning womanhood. You could embrace it as a grim slice of medieval period horror. There are several things you could call it including an ‘unexpected surprise’. Unfortunately I can see it struggling to find an audience. It’s leisurely paced and requires audiences to do a little more work than in traditional horror pictures. But I found it to be visually arresting, light on story but big on ideas, and a welcomed break from what January usually has to offer.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “The Grudge” (2020)

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I originally had no intention of watching “The Grudge”. I wasn’t really interested in a reboot of the 2004 Sarah Michelle Gellar remake of the 2002 original Japanese horror film from Takashi Shimizu. Still with me? But then I saw it was produced by Sam Raimi and its cast included John Cho, Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, and Jackie Weaver. Those were enough names to sell me on giving it a shot.

This darker, grittier vision of the franchise comes from writer-director Nicolas Pesce who blends the obvious supernatural horror with a surprisingly engaging police procedural. It’s an endlessly bleak movie that takes an unexpected dive into grief and human suffering, not from ambivalent spirits (although we certainly get some of that) but from life itself.

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© 2019 Sony Pictures All Rights Reserved

Everyone we meet in the film is bearing some kind of painful, emotional burden. A widow is faced with raising her young son alone after her husband dies of cancer. A loving elderly couple struggles as one of them faces late-stage dementia. A young couple gets devastating news about their unborn child. A police detective is still haunted by an unsolved case that caused him to lose his partner. Each of these troubles are well realized by the script and through some rock-solid performances. The problem is I’m still not sure what the movie is trying to say about any of it.

As far as story, Detective Muldoon (Riseborough) and her young son arrive in Cross River, Pennsylvania hoping to make a new start. She joins the local police force and is partnered with the chain-smoking Detective Goodman (Bichir). The two are called to a patch of forest where a decomposed body is discovered in a car. Goodman believes it may be linked to a series of unsolved deaths at 44 Reyburn Drive and wants no part of the investigation. The feds take over but an inquisitive Muldoon begins digging deeper into the history of the house on Reyburn where the deaths took place.

On one hand, I quite liked the investigative aspect of the movie. Through nonlinear storytelling and numerous timeline skips we learn the stories of the people connected to 44 Reyburn Drive. It’s all framed as a part of Muldoon’s fact-finding efforts. But of course we already know the real cause of gruesome horrors. In the prologue an American businesswoman encounters a terrifying entity in Japan which she unknowingly brings back to the States. You can probably guess her home address.

I would be lying if I said I fully understood the rules behind the whole Grudge concept. Supposedly a curse is born in the place where someone is murdered out of extreme rage. Okay, many murders are committed out of rage, right? So shouldn’t these curses be in almost every city on the planet? I’m sure it’s not that simple and I’m probably missing some obvious detail, but it’s a question this movie certainly isn’t all that interested in. But I digress…

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© 2019 Sony Pictures All Rights Reserved

The film features some pretty freaky imagery and Pesce certainly knows how to create and manage atmosphere. But as a whole the horror element falls short thanks to a reliance on a few too many jump scares – “BOO” moments that you see coming from a mile away. Also, time is wasted on what I can only call franchise obligations. The bathtub stuff, the creepy wet-haired girl, the clacking death rattle. In nearly every instance these things feel like they are servicing the franchise instead of servicing the story.

In the end this wasn’t a wasted trip to the theater. I enjoyed the unsettling atmosphere and had fun with much of the storytelling. But here’s the thing, much of what I like about “The Grudge” is not what most people are going to that movie hoping to see. And its handful of strengths can’t quite cover its variety of flaws. It ends up being an aggressively middle of the road movie and the kind we’ve come to expect in early January.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

Great Images from Great Movies #14 – “Gladiator”

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Truly great movies can leave indelible marks. It may be through an emotional connection to the story. It may be through a remarkable performance or a signature scene. But it can also be through the brilliant imagery a film can carve into your mind. That’s what this feature is all about – highlighting great images from great movies. Today we look at a brilliant Ridley Scott historical epic.

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So what are your thoughts on “Gladiator”? Which of these great images sticks with you the most? Let me know in the comments section below.

REVIEW: “Gemini Man”

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While Will Smith’s star may not shine as bright as it once did, the usually bankable actor is still showing up in plenty of projects. But over the last several years it’s safe to say he has had more misses than hits. Movies like “Suicide Squad”, “Collateral Beauty”, “Focus”, and “Bright” were each ambitiously different yet they all missed their mark.

Unfortunately “Gemini Man” doesn’t exactly upend that trend. Smith’s latest isn’t a bad movie. It’s just aggressively average. It can be quite stunning especially during a couple of Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s dazzling action sequences. But Lee’s reputation as a visionary filmmaker can only take the movie so far, and it can’t save “Gemini Man” from scattered bouts with blandness.

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The story is held up by several familiar pillars. Smith plays a former special-ops soldier turned government assassin named Henry Brogan. As you might expect he’s the best in the world at what he does. But at 51-years-old his reflexes are slower, his body is tiring, and the ghosts of those he has killed are catching up to him. Needless to say, it’s time for retirement.

But you know these shady government types. They can’t let one of their greatest assets live happily ever after, especially when (unbeknownst to Henry) it turns out he is the genetic blueprint for the Super Soldier Progr….errr, Gemini Project. Clive Owen plays the ruthless director of the rogue program who sends his prized experiment, a younger and faster clone of Henry, to take out and replace his older self.

With the help of some often great but too often obvious CGI, Smith plays both his character’s older and younger versions. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is given an initially interesting but eventually thankless role as intelligence officer Danny Zakarweski. She is tasked with secretly keeping tabs on Henry until her cover is blown and she’s deemed to be a “loose end” by the government. She ends up partnering with Henry, helping him in his globetrotting search for answers and unavoidable face-off with his younger self.

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There’s a strangely casual pacing to “Gemini Man”, not lethargic but not peppy either. There are a couple of exceptions, namely an exhilarating motorcycle chase in Columbia and a particularly good fight scene in some Budapest catacombs. Otherwise Lee pretty much strolls towards his inevitable action-packed finale. It’s also a very restrained action picture with Lee often pulling his camera away from the violence in strict PG-13 fashion. I’m not saying it needed grittier action, just maybe a few less obvious cuts.

“Gemini Man” ends up being a serviceable action thriller but not an especially fresh one. It does a lot of things simply okay and leaves you wishing for more in other areas (a snappier pace, some emotional heft from elder Henry, more for Winstead to do past the first act). By the time its nice and tidy ending hits you’re left with a fairly fun but unremarkable experience. I’m glad I saw it, but will I remember it next week? Probably not.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

2-5-stars

Denzel Day #1 : “Glory” (1989)

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Over a span of three months each Wednesday will be Denzel Day at Keith & the Movies. This silly little bit of ceremony offers me a chance to celebrate the movies of a truly great modern day actor – Denzel Washington.

The story of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment is a powerful and inspirational piece of Civil War history. Authorized by Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 54th Massachusetts was the second African-American regiment to fight for the Union Army. Despite facing hardships from both the North and South, the 54th persevered and played significant roles in several key battles.

“Glory” chronicles the formation, training, and service of the 54th Massachusetts under the leadership of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The son of prominent abolitionist parents, Shaw (played here by Matthew Broderick) agreed to take command of the all-black 54th and prepare them for battle. The South gets wind of the Union’s recruitment of black soldiers and issues an order declaring they be taken back into slavery and the white officers who lead them killed.

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And it’s not like the 54th has it easy on the Union side. The troops find themselves looked down on by white soldiers and officers, denied shoes and uniforms, paid less because of the color of their skin, even exploited to work as laborers rather than soldiers. Inspired by their passion and driven by their resilience, Shaw fights the prejudiced military traditions and an even more biased chain of command to give his soldiers the opportunity to fight and for what they believe in.

From the very start the casting of Matthew Broderick feels off. It isn’t an inherently bad performance on his part nor does the writing let him down. He just doesn’t feel right for the role and his portrayal of Shaw doesn’t give us a firm idea of who his character is. Is he weak? Is he strong? Does he know what he’s doing? Is he in over his head? You’re never quite sure where to land on him and Broderick doesn’t seem to have the personality or gravitas to help us figure it out.

It’s a much different story when we are with the soldiers of the 54th. That’s when the performances absolutely shine. Tops on list is Denzel Washington who gives a star-making turn as Private Silas Trip, a straight-shooting realist who ran away from his Tennessee slave owners at the age 12. Washington won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the role and commands every scene he’s in. I would have given him the award for one scene alone where he is being disciplined for breaking a military rule. It’s powerful stuff and charged with raw, unflinching emotion.

We also get the sturdy and always dependable Morgan Freeman. He plays former gravedigger John Rawlins who is well respected among the troops. Andre Braugher is excellent as the booksmart Thomas Searles. He’s a Northern free man and childhood friend of Shaw who has the will but may not be physically equipped for battle. And Jihmi Kennedy is really good playing a big-hearted but naïve young enlistee.

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The film is directed by Edward Zwick in what was only his second film. It was written by Kevin Jarre whose previous film (“Rambo: First Blood Part II”) couldn’t have been more different. Yet the two combine to craft an illuminating picture that is both surprising intimate and strikingly cinematic. Add in Freddie Francis’ glorious Oscar-winning cinematography and the (mostly) superb score from the late and great James Horner.

By the time “Glory” gets to its gripping Charleston Harbor finale I was thoroughly invested in these men who make up the heart of this remarkable story. The final 15 minutes pack a visceral and emotional punch that only works because of the great character work that preceded it. There are moments where the sentimentality gets a little heavy and it would have been nice if Zwick and Jarre would have explored multiple perspectives. But those things don’t strip “Glory” of its value. It’s still a moving piece of historical drama and an evocative human story of men whose fight wasn’t strictly reserved for the battlefield.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars