Film Review: Murder Mystery (dir by Kyle Newacheck)


There are actually two Adam Sandlers.

First, there’s the Adam Sandler that everyone knows.  This Adam Sandler is the comedian who has won multiple Razzie awards and who has produced and starred in some of the most critically derided comedies of all time.  This is the Adam Sandler who often seems to make movies specifically so he can either take a vacation or give some work to the less successful members of his entourage.  This is the Adam Sandler whose movies were cited as a tool of patriarchal oppression in the “cool girl” speech during Gone Girl.

And then there’s another Adam Sandler.  This Adam Sandler is a sad-eyed character actor who is probably one of modern cinema’s best portrayers of existential malaise.  This is the Adam Sandler who starred in movies like Punch-Drunk Love, Reign Over Me, Funny People, Spanglish, The Cobbler, Men, Women, and Children, and The Meyerowitz Stories.  Some of those films were very good and some of them, admittedly, were very bad but what they all had in common was that they featured Adam Sandler giving a surprisingly good dramatic performance.  In fact, if someone only saw Adam Sandler’s dramatic work (and not his work in films like Jack and Jill or Grown-Ups, to cite just two examples), they would be justified in assuming that Sandler was one of the most acclaimed actors around.  (One reason why we get so much more annoyed with Sandler’s bad comedies — as opposed to all the other equally bad comedies out there — is because we actually have evidence that Sandler’s capable of doing so much better.)

Unfortunately, almost all of Sandler’s dramatic films were box office disappointments.  Punch-Drunk Love is now widely viewed as being a classic but, when it was first released, it failed to even recoup its production budget at the box office.  Audiences consistently indicated they preferred silly Adam Sandler to dramatic Adam Sandler and so, Sandler continued to make silly theatrical films until even those started to bring in less money than they had before.

As of now, Sandler does most of his work for Netflix and the results have been mixed.  His performance in The Meyerowitz Stories was rightfully acclaimed while his comedies have been considerably less celebrated.  And then you have the just-released Murder Mystery, which seems to straddle the line between the two Sandlers.

On the one hand, Murder Mystery is just as silly and implausible as a typical Adam Sandler comedy.  Sandler plays a New York police officer named Nick Spitz.  Nick has failed his detective’s exam three times but that still hasn’t stopped him from telling his wife, Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), that he’s been promoted.  Nick’s living a lie and he deals with his guilt by taking Audrey on a long-promised trip to Europe.  On the flight over, Audrey meets the charming and wealthy Charles Cavendish (Luke Evans) who invites Audrey and Nick to a party on his family’s yacht.  The yacht is owned by billionaire Malcolm Quince (Terrence Stamp) and, when Malcolm’s murdered during the party, it’s up to fake Detective Nick to figure out who is responsible!

Was it the glamorous actress, Grace (Gemma Arterton)?  Or the handsome race car driver, Juan Carlos (Luis Gerardo Mendez)?  Or how about the genocidal warlord, Colonel Ulenga (John Kani)?  Of course, the local Interpol detective (Dany Boon) thinks that it was Nick and Audrey and he even threatens to reveal that Nick’s been lying about his job!  Can Nick and Audrey solve the murder and rekindle the romance of their stalled marriage?

As I said, it’s all pretty silly.  Most of the film’s humor comes from just how out-of-place Nck and Audrey are in the world of high society.  Audrey is excited because the murder mystery is just like the plot of one of the paperback novels that she likes to read.  Nick spends most of the movie trying to keep his wife from discovering the truth about his job.  While everyone else is scheming and plotting and trying to kill one another, Nick and Audrey are literally searching Wikipedia for information on all the suspects.  It’s dumb and occasionally amusing and it’s also rather innocent.  If your grandmother ever wants to watch a comedy with you, Murder Mystery would probably be the one to go with.  There’s nothing to offend grandma but, at the same time, the shots of Monaco and Italy are nice to look at and the film is occasionally amusing enough to hold your attention.

Interestingly, even though the film’s a silly comedy, Sandler gives one of his more grounded performances.  There’s no silly voices or sudden yelling or any of the typical Sandler shtick.  Instead, he’s rather subdued and it works for the film.  He and Jennifer Aniston (another performer who often seems to settle for material that’s beneath what she’s capable of) make for a likable and believable couple and they both play off each other well.

Murder Mystery is a likable, lightweight comedy.  It’s not necessarily something that you’re going to remember much about after you watch it, of course.  It’s not that type of film.  Instead, it’s a perfect Netflix film.  It’s entertaining but you can do other stuff while you’re watching it without having to worry about accidentally missing a brilliant moment of cinematic history.

As for Adam Sandler, he’s following this up with Uncut Gems, a crime drama from the Safdie Brothers.  The Safdie Brothers worked wonders with Robert Pattinson in 2017’s Good Time.  So, who knows?  This time next year, Adam Sandler could be the new Superman….

Music Video of the Day: Eve of Destruction by the Chemical Brothers, featuring AURORA and Nene (2019, dir by Marcus Lyall and Adam Smith)


Oh hell yeah!

From The Chemical Brothers, here’s the video for the lead track off of No Geography, Eve of Destruction!

Judging from what AURORA and Nene have to say on this track, it would appear that the world is on the verge of ending.  Humans minds are simplified.  Sacrifice is justified.  We can’t afford the water.  But maybe — just maybe — you can find a friend to dance with for the weekend.

And really, that’s the whole meaning of life, isn’t it?  Things are frequently terrible but at least you can still dance.  So, what are you going to do?  Sit around and whine on twitter or are you going to get out there and dance and at least enjoy the eve of your destruction?  Because seriously, if the whole world’s going to end anyway, you might as well have a good time before your turned into ash and wiped off of the face of history.

Fortunately, judging from this video, it does appear that we do have a plan in place in case the world gets attacked by vaguely goofy kaiju.  So, there’s at least one reason to be optimistic.

Anyway, I love the Chemical Brothers, I love this track especially, and I am totally in love with this video.  AURORA and the Chemical Brothers are exactly what the world needs right now!

Enjoy!

Film Review: Happy Death Day 2U (dir by Christopher B. Landon)


I have to admit that, when I first heard that Blumhouse was going to be producing a sequel to 2017’s Happy Death Day, I wasn’t surprised.  After all, every successful horror film gets a sequel.  That’s just the way the business work.  However, I will admit to being very skeptical.

I mean, the first film was a genuinely clever and witty mix of Groundhog Day and Scream.  It was often laugh-out-loud funny and, in a perfect world, Jessica Rothe’s lead performance as Tree Geldman would have been nominated for, at the very least, a Golden Globe.  It was also a surprisingly effective horror film.  The Baby Face Killer was as frightening as she was ludicrous.  Still, at the end of the film, it was hard not to feel that Tree’s story was finished.  When I heard there was a sequel, I was like, “What?  Is she going to start reliving a second day with a new killer over and over again?”

Well, it turns out that I was partially correct about the plot but I was pretty much wrong in my skepticism.  This is a sequel that works surprisingly well.

In Happy Death Day 2U, Tree once again finds herself having to live September 18th over and over again.  However, this time, it’s not just so Tree can become a better human being and discover who is targeting her.  This time, we actually find out why Tree ended up stuck in that time loop in the first place.  It turns out that Carter’s (Israel Broussard, returning from the first film) roommate, Ryan (Phil Vu), has built some sort of experimental quantum reactor and, whenever it’s turned on, it can create time loops and send people to alternate realities.  It’s all very science-y and director Christopher B. Landon is smart enough not to spend too much time lingering over all the details.  Everyone in the film agrees that quantum reactor does what they say that it does and that’s really all we need to know.

Anyway, Tree is once again reliving her birthday but now, she’s reliving it in an alternate reality.  That means that there’s a bunch of little difference to deal with.  For one thing, even though someone is still determined to kill her, it’s no longer her roommate, Lori (Ruby Modine).  For another thing, Carter is now dating the wonderfully shallow Danielle (Rachel Matthews).  Perhaps the biggest change of all is that Tree’s mother (played by Missy Yager) is still alive in this alternate reality.

Not wanting to lose her mother for a second time, Tree decides that she wants to stay in this new reality.  But, to do this, the time loop that was opened by the big science thing needs to be closed.  Otherwise, Tree is going to be doomed to keep reliving the same day over and over again….

And it get even more complicated from there.  Happy Death Day 2U is an extremely busy film, mixing Back To The Future-style science fiction with the Groundhog Day/slasher film plot of the first film.  And yet, surprisingly, the sequel actually works really well.  If the first film was a horror film with elements of comedy, this sequel is a straight-out comedy that cheerfully satirizes both the horror and the science fiction genres.

Jessica Rothe gives another wonderful performance in the lead role.  Her fury upon discovering that she’s going to have to relive September 18th all over again is both funny and relatable.  The film’s emotional heart is found in Tree’s relationship with her mother and the scene where Tree discovers that she now has pictures that document years of new memories with her mom is wonderfully played Rothe and is one of the best in the film.  That scene brought tears to my mismatched eyes.  I lost my mom a little over ten years ago so, in that moment, it didn’t matter that there was a Babyface Killer out there or that there was some sort of quantum reactor doing something.  At that moment, I knew exactly what Tree was feeling and the movie’s emotions became very real.

Happy Death Day 2U took me by surprise.  While it may not have the freshness of the first film (and really, that’s to be expected when it comes to sequels), it’s still a heartfelt and entertaining mix of comedy, horror, and science fiction.  Unfortunately, it did not duplicate the first film’s box office success so it may be the final Death Day film.

Then again, Tree’s earned a few days off….

Film Review: The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part (dir by Mike Mitchell)


Sometimes, it’s hard not to feel that the Lego movies are their own worst enemy.

I mean, they’re just so cute and fun and likable and cheerfully dorky that it’s easy to overlook just clever they often are.  Everything is Awesome may have been a cute song but it was also a pitch perfect parody of mindless conformity.  And yes, The Lego Batman Movie got a lot of laughs out of Will Arnett’s guttural growl but it was also the best Batman film since The Dark Knight and it also had a lot to say about how lonely it can be when you’re an extremely paranoid super hero.  As for The Lego Ninjago Movie …. well, give me a minute and I’ll think of something.  Uhmmmm …. it had that cute kitty!  Woo hoo!

Beyond all that, all of the Lego movies — from the best to the less-than-the-best — celebrate imagination.  They celebrate being an individual and the joy of creating your own world as opposed to just conforming to someone else’s rules.  As much as I loved Chris Pratt as Emmett and Elizabeth Banks as Wyldstyle, the heart of the first Lego Movie is to be found in the scene where Will Ferrell essentially realizes that he’s being a jerk when he won’t let his son build what he wants to build.

That said, the main appeal of the Lego movies is that they’re incredibly cute.  Just take The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part for instance.  Especially when compared to the first Lego Movie and The Lego Batman Movie, this sequel has its flaws.  Admittedly, some of those flaws are unavoidable.  Just the fact that we start the movie knowing that everyone is in Will Ferrell’s house means that the sequel can’t take us as much by surprise as the first Lego Movie did.  Though the film’s original directors, Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, wrote the script and contribute some genuinely witty dialogue, the sequel’s pacing occasionally seems a little bit off.  There’s a few slow spots, the majority of which are really only noticeable when you compare the sequel to the flawlessly paced first film.  And yet, in the end, it’s such a cute movie that it’s easy to overlook those flaws.

The sequel begins immediately where the first ended, with Will Ferrell decreeing that both his son and his daughter are now allowed to play with his Lego collection.  Jump forward five years and this has basically led to chaos.  The Lego Universe is now a Mad Max-style wasteland.  Not surprisingly, both Wylstyle and Batman have really gotten into their new dystopian lifestyle.  Meanwhile, Emmett remains just as blindly cheerful and optimistic as ever.  He still feels that everything is awesome.

Or, at least Emmet feels that way until all of his friends are kidnapped to the Systar System, where Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) wants to marry Batman.  Determined to rescue his friends, Emmett decides to travel to the Systar System himself.  Helping him out is Rex Dangervest, who seems like the type of adventurer that Emmett has always dreamed of becoming.  Chris Pratt voices both Rex and Emmett and the film has a lot of fun playing with Pratt’s post-Guardians of the Galaxy stardom.  Rex is not just an intergalactic explorer.  No, he’s also a cowboy, a dinosaur trainer, an archaeologist, a first baseman, and — we’re told — a script doctor.  (Those, of course, are references to Pratt’s roles in The Magnificent Seven, Jurassic World, and Moneyball.  Interestingly enough, his work in Passengers goes unmentioned.)  Rex pressures Emmett to become more cynical and ruthless in his efforts to save his friends and destroy the Systar System and Chris Pratt does a great job voicing both roles.  Indeed, if nothing else, this film will always stand as a tribute to the incredible and unending charm of Chris Pratt.

If Lego Movie 2 never reaches the glorious heights of the first film, that’s because the element of surprise has been lost.  There’s no moment  in the sequel that’s as memorable as when a live action Will Ferrell suddenly showed up in the first movie.  (In the second movie, Ferrell appears in a flashback and has a brief voice cameo as President Business.  Maya Rudolph does show up as his wife but the sequel’s live action scenes just don’t have the emotional impact of the first film’s.)  But, with all that in mind, it’s still an undeniably cute and entertaining movie.  All of your old favorites back — everyone from Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill as Superman and Green Lantern to Alison Brie as Unikitty to Charlie Day as the astronaut. (Sadly, Liam Neeson did not return as the Good Cop/Bad Cop and his absence is felt.)  The film is full of clever parodies, my favorite being the references to Mad Max: Fury Road.  There’s more than enough witty lines, visual gags, and sweet moments that Lego Movie 2 will hold your interest and bring a smile to your face.

At the box office, Lego Movie 2 fell victim to the same Lego fatigue that took down the Lego Ninjago film and it did not become quite the phenomenon that the first movie did.  Regardless, it’s still a worthy sequel.  I wouldn’t quite say it’s awesome but it’s definitely a lot of fun.

Film Review: Spirits In The Dark (dir by Jozsef Gallai)


An abandoned building is just inherently creepy.

I mean, think about it.  Unlike a forest or a mountain or a canyon, a building is not something that forms naturally.  People actually have to build buildings.  Plans have to be drawn up.  Materials have to purchased.  Hours of backbreaking labor are required.  Creating a building requires work, resources, and time.  It’s not something that you do on a whim.  It’s something that’s done as a part of a larger plan.  With all of the effort that goes into creating the building, it’s always strange to come across one that has subsequently been abandoned.  You find yourself wondering what could have happened that made the inhabitants or the owners say, “We’d rather have all that hard work be for nothing than remain in this location?”

Walking through an abandoned building, it’s difficult not to think about the fact that, once upon a time, strangers that you’ll probably never meet moved through these now deserted hallways.  People worked in those empty rooms.  For a period of time, the building was probably the center of someone’s life.  Where are those people now?  Do they ever think about the past?  Do they still have memories of things that were said or thought while walking through those now-empty hallways?

Finally, there’s the constant reminders that even an abandoned building isn’t never truly abandoned.  There’s the animals that move in after the people leave.  There’s the plants the continue to grow around and, in some cases, consume the empty structure.  And, of course, there’s the reminders that you might not be the first person to have explored this empty building.  There’s the broken windows or the empty bottles or the crumpled cigarette pack, all of which remind you that others may even consider this building to be their home.  And, of course, there’s the graffiti.  Graffiti and abandoned buildings tend to go hand-in-hand.  For whatever reason, it’s often the graffiti that makes an abandoned building feel especially ominous.  Are those words on the wall a sign of ownership, an act of rebellion, or a warning?

Of course, the only thing more creepy than one abandoned building is when you come across an entire town of abandoned buildings….

And yet, as creepy as an empty building can be, it’s also hard not to be fascinated by them.  You look at them and you wonder why?  Why did everyone leave and how long will the building stand there deserted before it’s either torn down or destroyed by nature?  That’s one reason why ghost towns remains such a popular tourist destination.  They’re a reminder of just how short and fragile life can be.  You can build a home or an office but, once your time is up, it’s just going to be another abandoned building.

That’s something that Gil Spencer, the protagonist of Spirits in the Dark, understands.  Gil (played by the film’s director, Jozsef Gallai) used to love exploring abandoned buildings with his wife.  Ever since his wife’s death, Gil has struggled with being lonely and depressed.  But then, one day, something mysteriously appears on his laptop.  It appears to be a video shot by someone exploring an abandoned military complex.  The person shooting the video comes across a white pendant, one that looks exactly like the one that Gil’s wife used to wear.  While the person holds the pendant, we catch a glimpse of a ghostly figure standing a few feet away, watching.

Intrigued, Gil searches for and manages to track down the deserted complex.  As creepy as the abandoned and graffiti-covered buildings may be, Gil — who films his exploration — informs us that it’s nothing he hasn’t seen before.  Even when he spots blood on the wall, he figures that it was probably just someone shooting “an indie horror film.”  But then, he comes across a mask hanging in a corner.  And then his car’s horn starts honking for no reason.  And then, things start to get really creepy!

Spirits in the Dark is a haunting and moody exercise in atmosphere and genuine creepiness.  Wisely, instead of going for easy jump scares, the film takes its time to set up both the location and the situation.  We get to know Gil and, as he makes his way through them, we also get to know the abandoned building and the surrounding wilderness.  Like Gil, we find ourselves looking at every shadow, searching for some sort of explanation.  Just like Gil, we can feel the menacing atmosphere closing in on us and we become aware of every strange noise and every possible movement in the darkness.  When the scares do come, they’re all the more effective because the film has earned the right to frighten us.  It’s a wonderfully effective and creepy movie, one that has an intriguing plot and which is distinguished by the moody cinematography and the ominous score, both of which are credited to Gergo Elekes.

Wild Eye Releasing is going to be releasing Spirits in the Dark via DVD and VOD early in 2020 so keep an eye out for it!

Film Review: The Top Rope (dir by Cody Broadway)


About halfway through the 20 minute documentary, The Top Rope, a soft-spoken, bearded man named Billy Gray says, “It’s how I’m wired.”

Billy is explaining why he spends most of his time playing a character named Hunter Grey, a viking who is, at one point, seen carrying a big axe.  (By being a viking, he explains, he can make people laugh while still being believably intimidating.)  Billy, who was a championship wrestler in high school and who comes from a long line of wrestlers, now makes his living traveling the pro wrestling circuit in Colorado.  It’s hardly glamorous.  Billy tells us stories about having to change in parking lots and says that if you have a locker room, you should consider yourself to be lucky.  He also tells us about how his family was initially dismissive of his career and how it took a while before they actually started coming to his matches.  But, whenever we actually see Billy performing and in the ring, we understand why he does it.  The crowds love watching him.  When Billy Gray’s in that ring, he’s a star.

Billy is one of several wrestlers to be interviewed in The Top Rope.  Considering that one of the main appeals of pro-wrestling is the flamboyance of the people involved, it’s tempting to be surprised to discover that, outside the ring, the majority of the participants come across as being rather soft-spoken.  Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at all.  One of the joys of performing, after all, is assuming a new and different persona.

For instance, a wrestler named Zach Anaya is obviously somewhat bemused with his villain status but, when we see him in the ring, we see someone who is truly enjoying playing his role.  A scene in which he jumped off a ledge and landed on top of two wrestlers below left me cringing because you could tell that, for all the talk about how pro-wrestling matches are essentially a type of performance art, the participants can still get seriously injured.  Scripted or not scripted, you have to be willing to push yourself to extremes in order to pursue it.

Also interviewed is Curtis Cole, a wrestler who rather touchingly talks about how he used to watch wrestling with his mother.  You get the feeling that, to a certain extent, he’s wrestling in her memory.  Cole also discusses the importance of having a storyline in the ring.  Without a storyline, it’s just two guys jumping on each other.  With a storyline, it becomes an epic battle of good and evil.  Cole tears up while discussing once past storyline and I have to admit that he got so emotional that even I, who has never even watched a wrestling match, started to get emotional too.  In a film full of great storytellers, Curtis Cole might be the best.

This documentary was directed by Cody Broadway, who previously directed 4 Quarters of Silence, a film about the Texas School for The Deaf’s football team.  He brings the same empathetic touch to this film.  Though the film did not make me a pro wrestling fan (to misquote Billy Gray, it’s just not how I’m wired), it did make me a fan of the men who were interviewed and it made me happy that they have this in their lives.  We’re all wired differently but, as this film demonstrates, there’s a place for all of us if we’re willing to look for it.

Film Review: The Cleaning Lady (dir by Jon Knautz)


The Cleaning Lady opens with a close-up of several mice in a box.  A hand reaches down and scoops up the mice, one-by-one.  The mice are dropped into a blender.  We watch as a finger turns the blender on.  Now, before anyone panics, we don’t actually see the mice get turned into puree or anything like that.  (Indeed, if we had, I would have stopped watching the movie right at that moment.)  Still, just the sound of that blender coming to life was enough to make me cringe.

It’s also a signal of the type of film that The Cleaning Lady is going to be.  This is a dark horror movie about some seriously damaged individuals.  If you think that things can’t get any darker than mice being dropped in a blender, just you wait.

The film opens with the travails of Alice (Alexis Kendra), who has a nice apartment and a married boyfriend.  The problem with having a married boyfriend is that, no matter how much you love him, you still have to deal with the guilt of being a homewrecker.  Unfortunately, Alice is “addicted to love” and she simply cannot seem to resist the urge to call Michael (Stelio Savante) and ask him to come over to her place.  Not even attending a support group seems to help.  (Of course, Michael does invite her to to go to Italy with him and, seriously, who could resist a free trip to Italy?)

As for Alice’s apartment, it’s nice and big but what’s the point if you can’t keep it clean and neat?  Fortunately, Shelly (Rachel Alig) is here to help!  Shelly is the cleaning lady and she has a habit of mysteriously materializing in Alice’s apartment.  At first, Alice is a little bit nervous around the heavily scarred and withdrawn Shelly.  However, Alice soon comes to appreciate Alice’s ability to unplug a drain and dispose of dead rodents.  Soon, Alice is making Shelly dinner and inviting her to stay over and watch movies.  Alice even drives Shelly home one night and is shocked to discover that Shelly apparently lives out in the middle-of-nowhere.

Now, admittedly, Alice’s motives aren’t entirely altruistic.  There’s a hint of elitism to Alice’s attempts to be nice to “the help.”  Even more importantly, spending time with Shelly gives Alice something to do other than calling up Michael.  Alice is using Shelly to break her addiction.

What Alice doesn’t realize is that 1) Shelly’s become a bit addicted to her company and 2) Shelly is willing to do just about anything to get closer to Alice.  I’m not going to spoil things by discussing just how far Shelly goes but let’s just say that things do a get a bit extreme.  And that’s even before the knives and the axes come out!

The Cleaning Lady is hardly the first horror film to be made about obsession, nor will it be the last.  That said, it’s still an effectively creepy film.  By making Alice as obsessed with Michael as Shelly is with Alice, the film brings a few unexpected wrinkles to its plot and both Alexis Kendra and Rachel Alig do a good job bringing their characters to life, with Alig even managing to generate some sympathy for poor, scarred Shelly.  Alig especially deserves credit for underplaying a few key scenes, as opposed to going full psycho.  The fact that Shelly rarely speaks above a whisper actually makes her far more intimidating than she would have been if she had spent the entire movie screaming at her prey.

All in all, this is an effective indie horror film.  Of course, after seeing the film, it’s possible that you might never look at a blender the same way again….