‘The Grudge’ Just Won’t End, and That’s Fitfully Fascinating

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CREDIT: Allen Fraser/Sony/Screen Gems

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, William Sadler

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Dismemberment, Fire, Drowning, Stabbing, and Gunshot Wounds

Release Date: January 3, 2020

In the spirit of experimentation, I have decided that my first movie review of 2020 will be in the form of an acrostic. The letters I will be using will be those in the title (not including the “the”), that title being The Grudge, the remake of a remake (or perhaps the latest remake of the first version) about the ghostly curse that lingers in a house where an anger-filled murder has occurred. This time, it takes the form of a multi-murder mystery in which those investigating the deaths at 44 Reyburn Drive run the risk of becoming infected by the grudge themselves.

Great cast! I mean, just look at that list. That’s at least half a dozen folks that could carry a horror movie (or any movie) on their own, and here they are together. Do they elevate the material that’s on the page? Yes, and it could use some elevating.

Repeating the formula is the name of the game here, but not the Grudge formula (or not just the Grudge formula). If you’re hankering for a return to J-horror remake glory, chances are you’ve got The Ring on your mind, and so does, it would seem, The Grudge 2020, as Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) is most concerned about protecting her son from the effects of the curse that she is experiencing.

Upside-down is how you’ll be looking during one particularly grisly moment involving Lin Shaye. It’s also how you’ll be feeling when things turn metaphysical and conversations discuss how supernatural curses go hand-in-hand with time distortion.

Digits (i.e., fingers) get hacked off. In general, writer/director Nicolas Pesce is not shy about bodies becoming pummeled, ripped apart, and decayed. It’s this movie’s most effectively visceral technique.

Generosity, and a fair bit at that, is probably required to give this umpteenth entry in a long-running, occasionally ponderous franchise a chance. An effective atmosphere is met, and frankly, that is a must that must be met in this sort of challenge.

Ending… it looked like it was going to be conclusive, which wouldn’t have been a good fit for the endless hopelessness inherent in this premise. But then there’s a fakeout, and instead of a punch in the gut, you leave with more of a whoosh.

The Grudge is Recommended If You Like: Diving into the infinite reboot loop while allowing some room for hope

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Hands Popping Out of Hair

Mini-Movie Review: ‘Poms’ is Stranger Than It Probably Means to Be, and That’s a Good Thing

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CREDIT: STX Films

Starring: Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, Rhea Perlman, Pam Grier, Celia Weston, Alisha Boe, Charlie Tahan, Phyllis Sommerville, Bruce McGill

Director: Zara Hayes

Running Time: 90 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Mild Senior Sauciness and a Surprising Amount of Casual Misogyny

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Even though I’ve known that Poms is about senior citizen cheerleaders ever since I first heard about it, its title has mostly made me think about POM Wonderful, which of course had me wondering: would this movie be as wonderful as its juicy almost-namesake? (I also thought about French actress Pom Klementieff, but I knew that punniness wouldn’t lead me quite as far.) While I would hardly go so far as to praise Poms as “wonderful,” the POM connection still feels appropriate, as it is the sort of drink I would have on a relaxing Friday evening at my parents’ house, the perfect setting setting for watching something like Poms that we didn’t feel the need to rush out to the theater for. The journey of Diane Keaton, Jacki Weaver, and the rest of their retirement community squad never makes much of a lick of sense, which is not necessarily a problem because this isn’t the sort of premise I demand too much logic out of. But even beyond the fact of women in their sixties, seventies, and eighties pulling off whatever acrobatics they can, Poms strains credulity with its sneakily bizarre dialogue. Thus, there is a whiff of (probably accidental) surrealism that pairs well with girl-power-at-any-age gumption and helps to patch over the straight-down-the-middle production values.

Poms is Recommended If You Like: Legendary actresses getting work into their seventies

Grade: 3 out of 5 Shimmies

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Widows’ is the Best Cinematic Crime Saga in Quite Some Time

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CREDIT: Twentieth Century Fox

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Jacki Weaver, Carrie Coon, Robert Duvall, Lukas Haas, Garret Dillahunt, Molly Kunz, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo

Director: Steve McQueen

Running Time: 129 Minutes

Rating: R for Professional Criminals at Their Scariest

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Sometimes I am at a loss of what to say about a film because of how powerfully it has affected me. Widows is one of those films. Its immediate effect was similar to that of The Dark Knight, in which I sat stunned, not quite sure what had happened, but certain that I had seen something special. Steve McQueen’s massively sprawling saga about Chicago crime and politics is populated by a ridiculously sterling cast, with at least ten, or maybe fifteen, of them receiving the gift of really juicy material to bite into.

Chief among them, in all fairness, are the titular widows, who are left to clean up the very expensive mess left behind by their recently deceased criminal husbands. Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) are forced to form an uneasy alliance or run the risk of the rest of their livelihoods dissolving away. While each actress is compelling, their characters are not necessarily likable. Do they bear some guilt for benefitting from their husbands’ activity despite not knowing what they were tup to? On the other hand, they are in many ways trapped in a situation with no good options for escape. Their predicament demonstrates the limits of feminism and standing up for a yourself in a world ruled by violence.

Thus far in this review, I have barely touched upon even 10% of this film. It runs just a little over two hours, but it is so stuffed with goodness that I am amazed it is under three hours, yet it is simultaneously so sleek that it feels like it is running for just an hour and a half. There are about six (maybe more) stories running alongside each other and somehow they run seamlessly together. There’s Bryan Tyree Henry as a crime boss trying to break good by running for alderman in a gentrifying neighborhood and Daniel Kaluuya as his brother and terrifying enforcer. His opponent is Colin Farrell, who is struggling with maximal agita as he finds his place as a successor in a long line of Chicago politicians. And we cannot forget Cynthia Erivo as a babysitter/beautician/hustler who also plays a big part in all this. Plus there is plenty more to know about the shadowy machinations of ringleader Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson), Veronica’s husband. And how is there also room for Matt Walsh to show up for one key scene?! McQueen is dynamite with his clear, effective craftsmanship. If you see Widows, you will likely understand everything that happens plot-wise, and you might also just feel compelled to take part in the exhaustive analysis of every frame that is sure to follow in the years to come.

Widows is Recommended If You Like: Heat, The Town, The Dark Knight, “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves” by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Aldermen

 

This Is a Movie Review: ‘The Disaster Artist’ is James Franco is Tommy Wiseau is the Star Inside Us All

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CREDIT: Justina Mintz/A24

This review was originally posted on News Cult in November 2017.

Starring: Dave Franco, James Franco, Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Josh Hutcherson, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Megan Mullally, Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Buress, Nathan Fielder, June Diane Raphael, Andrew Santino, Charlyne Yi, Melanie Griffith, Sharon Stone, Bob Odenkirk, Judd Apatow

Director: James Franco

Running Time: 105 Minutes

Rating: R for an Auteur Asshole

Release Date: December 1, 2017 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide December 8, 2017

When I watched Shane Carruth’s 2013 film Upstream Color – about a man and a woman who ingest a larva with the power to drastically affect the human mind – I was excited by the conscious-altering possibilities. But I was ultimately disappointed by the impenetrable narrative. Upstream does have its fans, but I thought an opportunity was missed by presenting an abstract subject with just-as-abstract storytelling. But now we have a film that is more along the lines of what I thought Upstream Color was going to be, and that film is The Disaster Artist, which imposes a typical biopic structure onto one of the strangest individuals of all time. There is the classic rise-fall-rise and a soundtrack that raises the roof with beats that were first hits about a decade before the events of the film, but all this normality only illuminates the unfathomability that is Tommy Wiseau.

Wiseau has achieved a very unique sort of fame as the writer-director-producer-star of the 2003 independent melodrama The Room. It has been called by some the worst movie of all time, but that descriptor is way off-base. A better take that others have offered is “the greatest bad movie of all time,” but that is still not quite right. “A surreal masterpiece” is the moniker that I prefer. For The Disaster Artist to be successful, it does not need to be as surreal as The Room, as The Room already exists. Although perhaps a perfectly valid option would have been to simply remake The Room shot-for-shot with a new cast, which The Disaster Artist does in part in a delightful post-credits segment featuring recreations of classic scenes from The Room presented side-by-side along the originals, displaying how the new versions are accurate to every inch and millisecond.

James Franco directs and stars as Wiseau, and this proves to be the perfect outlet for his incorrigible proclivities. Wiseau is infamously dodgy about his personal background, but based on his accent, it is clear enough that he is from Eastern Europe, though he claims to be from New Orleans. But it is perhaps most accurate to think of him as a vampire caveman alien, as his odd syntax, singular worldview, and inexplicable behavior go beyond simply being lost in translation. Nobody but Tommy could be Tommy, but Franco comes as close as possible. And this is not the sort of lark that much of his career has come off as. Instead, it is in service of a strangely uplifting story about never giving up on your dreams.

Alongside Wiseau is his Room co-star/friend-despite-all-obstacles Greg Sestero (who co-wrote the book of the same name that The Disaster Artist is based on), played by James’ younger brother Dave. The younger Franco is a little more boyish than the deeper-voiced Sestero, but they both have an all-American squeaky-clean handsomeness befitting the moniker “Babyface,” Tommy’s nickname for Greg. The Franco brothers have significantly different faces than Sestero and Wiseau, though their looks are well approximated by solid hair and makeup jobs. This is not an exact encapsulation of the original Wiseau-Sestero dynamic (how could it be?), but there is some weird magic in the Franco pairing that works as an avatar to this weird creative pairing.

I read The Disaster Artist when it was first published in 2013. I have not re-read it since, so my memory of it is not perfectly fresh, but I remember enough to know that there is some streamlining at play here. But the liberties that were taken serve to bolster the film’s thesis that has been borne out by the directions that Wiseau and Sestero’s lives have taken since The Room has become a cult classic. In one scene, Tommy approaches a producer (Judd Apatow) at a restaurant, who assures Tommy that he will never find success in Hollywood in a million years. “But after that?” Tommy earnestly asks. It has not literally taken him that long to achieve his stardom, but “more than one million years later” might be the best figurative way to explain how long it took him to realize his dreams, and that boundlessness beyond normal temporality is the engine that The Disaster Artist runs on.

The obvious antecedent to this film is Ed Wood, but that earlier biopic was released more than a decade after the death of its titular maker of the worst films of all time. Tommy’s story is not over, and now it is inextricably tied up with the most fervent fans of The Room, many of whom populate the cast of The Disaster Artist. There are several moments in this making-of in which classic lines from The Room are uttered in Tommy’s personal life that could come off as fan service but avoid that pitfall because of how nakedly autobiographical The Room is. James Franco and his crew of shockingly eager collaborators have invited us all to take place in this autobiography, and the result is intoxicating.

The Disaster Artist is Recommended If You Like: The Room of course, Ed Wood, James and Dave Franco’s old Funny or Die videos, How Did This Get Made?

Grade: 4.5 out of 5 Doggies