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

REVIEW: “Godzilla: King of the Monsters”

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In 2014 director Gareth Edwards brought Godzilla back to the big screen. His monster reboot was the 30th film in the near 70-year-old Godzilla franchise and the first film in Warner Brothers’ interconnected MonsterVerse. I loved the movie and its slow-burning, old-school, creature-feature vibe.

Relatively new director Michael Dougherty (“Krampus”) takes the reins of the sequel “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” and delivers a movie quite different from its predecessor. The slow-burn is gone and the large-scaled Kaiju action is front and center. And where the Edwards’ film could also be sold as a stand-alone movie, this one feels very much a part of something bigger and broader.

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I wouldn’t call this a spoiler but the last film ended with Godzilla sinking back into the ocean after leveling San Francisco in a fight with an earth-threatening monster. Jump ahead five years. Paleobiologists Mark Russell (Kyle Chandler) and his wife Emma (Vera Farmiga) lost their young son during the destruction of San Francisco. They have since divorced under the stress of loss leaving their 12-year-old daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown) caught in the middle.

While Mark has been off the radar Emma has been working with the super-secret shadow organization called Monarch. They’ve been monitoring not just the movements of Godzilla but the locations of numerous other monsters (called Titans) scattered across the globe in various forms of hibernation. Even more, Emma has constructed a device called ORCA that emits a sonar pulse which can either calm or rile the Titans. This catches the attention of a devious eco-terrorist group, Mark is drawn into the chaos, and a lot of big monsters rise up.

The human dynamic is interesting in a variety of ways. The Russell family drama is easily the most intimate, but it’s the broader human story that’s most compelling. As Dougherty himself describes it to Entertainment Weekly, “The world is reacting to Godzilla in the same way we would react to any other terrifying incident, in that we are overreacting.” We see mankind responding to the monsters impulsively – out of fear and uncertainty. And the question becomes how far can humanity’s intelligence and ingenuity take them in the face of such mighty threats?

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All of this is explored through a fine ensemble – Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Charles Dance, Thomas Middleditch, Bradley Whitford, David Strathairn, Zhang Ziyi, among others. They all fall in nicely with a script that hearkens back (in a measured way) to the classic Toho Studio films. We get countless reaction shots, stunned utterances, and quick quips. Some may not like what they’re going for, but I got a kick out of it. And I appreciate how the film steers clear of drawn out exposition and loads of scientific mumbo-jumbo.

A handful of characters do get pushed to the side but that’s okay because they do exactly what they need to do – service the story and keep it moving towards what we really are there to see – the monsters! And the Titans really are the showcases. In addition to Godzilla we get classic Toho creations Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah. The creature designs are stunning and their epic-scaled clashes are breathtaking spectacles. The special effects, Lawrence Sher’s crafty cinematography, and top-notch sound design makes for some truly satisfying and immersive Kaiju mayhem.

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I can already hear the pushback from those wanting more human drama in a movie about massive earth-moving monsters. I actually like the way they unpack the human story amid a breathless array of action. And I appreciate how they add layers of intriguing mythology without drowning us in babble. And I can also hear those wanting more of Godzilla on the screen. There are indeed huge segments where we don’t see him. But I was fine with it because his presence never leaves our mind. While things were playing out in front of me, I kept thinking “but Godzilla”.

So it makes sense to me that many have dismissed “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” the way they have. But at the same time it saddens me. Michael Dougherty has delivered a Godzilla movie that is unquestionably action-heavy, probably too much for those with no affection for the classic creature-features. But while the film is tipping its hat to its roots, it’s also subtly holding a mirror to modern society. I feel many have missed that element which is unfortunate. But when that human detail is combined with some of the best big monster action ever put on screen, all I can say is ‘Long Live the King’.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4-5-stars

REVIEW: “Green Room”

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Jeremy Saulnier’s mesmerizing 2013 film “Blue Ruin” was (as MTV.com’s Kevin Sullivan astutely put it) a prime example of “what Kickstarter is really capable of when it comes to movies”. Saulnier’s crowdfunded American thriller not only managed to get made, but it was one of the best film’s of that year.

His follow-up came with 2015’s “Green Room” which features a bigger budget (though still modest by today’s standards) and a broader cast of talent. The film is listed as a horror movie yet it plays out like an insanely intense survivalist thriller. It employs a familiar framework found in many horror movies yet it is very much its own crazy unique thing.

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In one of his final roles Anton Yelchin stars as a bass player for a punk band who gets by playing hole-in-the-wall clubs around the Pacific Northwest. Flat broke, they agree to take a gig at a neo-Nazi pub deep in the forest near Portland. The setting alone is uncomfortable and a bit frightening. But things really go south after the band witnesses a violent backroom crime. Along with another witness (Imogen Poots), the band find themselves holed up inside the bar while outside the subtly sinister club owner (a brilliant Patrick Stewart) gathers his army of hatemongers to clean up the messy situation.

From there Saulnier throttles up the survival element and a sizzling white-knuckled tension drives every scene for the rest of the way. And you’ll quickly notice (especially if you haven’t seen “Blue Ruin”) that Saulnier can really build and sustain suspense.

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Also prepare to be shocked. The movie’s second half is savagely brutal and the violence often hits with a bloody primal jolt. But Saulnier manages to walk an important line and doesn’t allow the violence to become gratuitous despite being incredibly graphic. It feels right – jarring in the best way and in tune with the ugliness of the situation and setting. It won’t be for the squeamish but it’s very effective.

For many “Green Room” seemingly came out of nowhere. But for fans of his previous film it only solidifies Jeremy Saulnier’s status as a formidable filmmaker worth following. It features fine performances throughout (sadly one of the final ones from Yelchin) and a superb turn from Stewart. As a whole the story is pretty simple, even a bit familiar. But once you dig in you realize this thing has a pulse all its own and once you’re in its grip it doesn’t let go.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4-stars