After the emotionally impactful The Water Diviner, one would’ve hoped that Russell Crowe’s latest directorial effort would be as reasonable, if not better, as that movie. But, unfortunately, his next film, Poker Face, falls relatively flat on its face from the moment it begins.
Part of the reason the movie does not work is that it has no idea what it wants to say or what it’s truly about. Crowe also stars in the film as Jake Foley, a professional gambler recently diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. He decides to host a high-stakes poker game with his childhood friends, Michael (Liam Hemsworth), Drew (RZA), Alex (Aden Young), and Paul (Steve Bastoni). However, a group of criminals plans to hijack Jake’s house and steal some of his most valuable art pieces, jeopardizing the group’s safety.
But Jake has also poisoned all his friends to put them on the same level as his illness. What does this have to do with anything? Absolutely nothing, other than a bit where one of the criminals (Paul Tassone) accidentally touches a poisoned glass and starts to exhibit symptoms, putting him in a state of total panic. That bit is fun, especially when Jake tricks him into believing that he has an antidote but injects him with more poison! Tassone’s gonzo performance from beginning to end should be lauded as the one saving grace in Crowe’s film.
Because the rest of Poker Face is a bore, it feels peculiar that Jake would want to poison his best friends, even if his rationale is to make them believe they are dying so they could confess they’ve been taking advantage of their friend. It feels ridiculous. And you’ll be relieved that the film’s entirety is silly – especially its supporting performances from a decent cast who has no idea how to approach the material. Liam Hemsworth, in particular, is woefully miscast as one of Jake’s friends with alcohol addiction. Not even Elsa Pataky, who briefly appears as the dealer for Jake’s game, can save the film’s dismal performances.
Aside from Tassone, no one gives a decent performance, even Crowe, which is weird considering that he would be the most passionate about delivering the material since it’s his film! But Crowe sleepwalks throughout the thing, even providing clichéd voiceover narration, talking about the game of Poker. Still, it’s revealed during the film’s ending that he was talking about his life, and from the great beyond…
Please, if you’re ever going to use voiceover narration in your film, make sure that the character narrating the film is either an outside presence or alive because the final “reveal” makes absolutely no sense. I won’t spoil it, I’ve already given too many things away, but it’ll either make your eye roll in utter disbelief or make you yell out, “WHAT?!?”
That’s how I felt while watching Poker Face – its beginning goes on for way too long, its middle section makes no sense, and its end is a complete and utter joke. Crowe struck gold when he made The Water Diviner, but not even the multiple poker faces (ha) he makes throughout the film can save a movie aptly titled Poker Face. You’re better off rewatching Unhinged, which is by all accounts the best piece of media Russell Crowe has done since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Poker Face is now available to rent or buy on video on demand.
Knock at the Cabin Review | Sixth Sense Says Don’t Let ‘Em In
M. Night Shyamalan missing is getting ‘Old.’
Let Knock at the Cabin be a warning — never vacation in Pennsylvania. M. Night Shyamalan’s latest film is a mixed bag of good ideas and horribly–overt messages and a toothless R rating that can’t help but make you question the worth of that rating in totality. Hell, even Dave Bautista’s second-best glasses-wearing performance can’t salvage Knock at the Cabin.
Staying true to the Shyamalan code, Knock at the Cabin wastes no time in getting right into the meat of the story as we begin with the adorable Wen (Kristen Cui), who’s by far the most relatable character in this film for her taste in cinema (she specifically cites Kiki’s Delivery Service as her favorite film). She’s doing what all little children do and capturing bugs save for the fact that she’s charting each creature with all of its key characteristics. She is approached by a hulking man, Leonard (Bautista), who, don’t worry, is not a stranger — he’s a potential friend just trying to get to know her!
Leonard warns Wen that he and some “co-workers” will be dropping in on her family with a grand problem that only they can solve. Four people — Leonard, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Redmond (Rupert Grint) and Adriane (Abby Quinn) — hold the family of Wen, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) hostage warning them of the impending apocalypse. It’s up to this family to save the world by sacrificing one of them. If they don’t abide, one by one each of the strangers will trigger a plague to occur (think The Mist but worse). It leaves the family with the most difficult question imaginable and the literal weight of the world on their shoulders.
Now credit where credit is due — Shyamalan knows how to shoot a film. Most of the film takes place in the living room of Eric and Adnrew, but Shyamalan and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke make the most of the small space. Blaschke is clearly used to working in confined spaces — look at his collaborations with Robert Eggers (particularly on The Lighthouse). The cinematography is never boring — which is a compliment. The same can be said for composer Herdís Stefánsdóttir’s score. The Icelandic composer has slithered from her stellar work on The Essex Serpent with her partner Dustin O’Halloran to a Shyamalan score that effectively keeps the tension up (especially when the actions on-screen don’t).
It also should not go unnoticed that Knock at the Cabin features some good performances. We all know that Bautista will give a good performance, and this is no exception. The former WWE superstar has a lot more range than most expect of him. His performance in the opening scene of Blade Runner 2049 remains his best work, but his transitions from the likes of Drax and being the heavy in Spectre are underrated. Now just give him his rom-com! For my money, however, Cui is the standout. While the character of Wen doesn’t come with quite the same level of emotional complexity as, say, Frankie Corio in Aftersun, the young actress not only acts terrified on cue, but she holds her on-screen parents tight like it may just be the last time they embrace. Young actors have come such a long way since Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, and Cui is a glowing example of that.
Both Groff and Aldridge juxtapose each other quite well. Andrew is a hot-headed and impulsive man. Aldridge even gives his best Al Pacino impression throughout Knock at the Cabin with his various screams. Eric, however, is much more even-keeled and attempts to level with the strangers — making you question whether he begins to believe what he’s being told — much like that one friend who takes one psychology course and becomes the defacto (and self-appointed) therapist in the friend group.
The most baffling aspect of Knock at the Cabin is its R rating. Considering Shyamalan’s last six films have been PG-13 or PG, it was a welcomed surprise to learn Knock at the Cabin was given an R rating. I’m not a stickler about ratings — though I stand by my opinion that most PG-13 horror does not hold a candle to Lights Out — but the rating made me think that perhaps Knock at the Cabin would have some more bite and flare to it.
That was far from the case. I’m okay with off-screen kills, especially if they’re guaranteed to be extremely gory — but the frequency with which Knock at the Cabin cuts away from any sort of notable action makes you question the R rating. Truthfully, I cannot remember if it would’ve been the language or the gore that would push it to R. Either way, I’m shocked Universal didn’t push for a PG-13 edit since the finished product was not that far off.
Even the situation itself lacks true terror. That’s likely because Shyamalan’s quartet of home invaders feels like a cheap riff on “Jesus freaks” or any staunch member of a religious group. They sound eerily similar to the killers of 2022’s Scream with the way that they all met. Outside of Leonard, they all lack any sort of personality or depth, frankly.
The whole idea of the “Shyamalan twist” has become a cliché, so I’m quite okay with the fact that Knock at the Cabin doesn’t have some ridiculous curveball thrown in (very little really would’ve worked given what takes place), but the film is so straightforward that it was as boring as an awful twist is disappointing. The issue stems from the overexplaining Knock at the Cabin’s writers Shyamalan, Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman felt the need to do — which is baffling in itself considering the story they’re telling (I mean, they literally have a character attempt to lock Bautista up in a bathroom and expect that to hold him in). Maybe the book the film’s based on is better, maybe it’s not. Frankly, it shouldn’t matter and your film adaptation should just be a compelling story on its own.
Knock at the Cabin is a classic example of a film that peaks far too early. The opening scenes lead you to believe that Shyamalan has perhaps turned a new leaf whereas the rest of the film reminds you that he did, in fact, make Glass and Old. If you weren’t a fan of the Unbreakable director’s recent outings, you should follow your sixth sense and avoid Knock at the Cabin like the plague(s).
Knock at the Cabin will be released in theaters on February 3.
M3GAN Review | Chucky and Annabelle Meet the 21st Century
2023’s year of doll movies is off to a bad start.
Could I have skipped this one? Why am I so tired? Should I go to the bathroom?
These are the questions I find myself asking when attending press screenings. These usually begin at 7 pm and after a long day preceding it, so it’s natural that I ask myself these questions as I stare blankly at what’s in front of me. Facing opposite me is a large screen filled with images from the film all of us in the auditorium are about to see and the social handles/hashtags associated with the film.
That’s how 99% of screenings go. M3GAN, however, turned that on its head because about 20 minutes before the film was about to start, the entire auditorium was collectively jump-scared by a pre-screening screen that moved. Our titular robot spoke to us! She thanked us all for watching her “documentary” on a 65-ft tall screen and gave a fair warning to all of those in attendance of the potential repercussions should anyone take their phone out during the screening.
I’m sad to report that this was the highlight of M3GAN — the latest misfire from Blumhouse; whose 2022 was a mixed bag ranging from good ideas (The Black Phone) to horrible franchise enders (Halloween Ends) and plenty of indie hits (Nanny). What happens when Chucky and Annabelle meet the 21st century? You get a film with one-note jokes and no thrills to speak of. It’s a case of one step forward in the doll horror subgenre and two steps back.
M3GAN begins with an ad for a children’s toy that looks eerily similar to SNL’s takes on various companies such as Target and Starbucks. This toy — the name of which is slipping my mind — is basically a Furby that poops when necessary. Cut to a family that is attempting to drive through a snowstorm. Cady (Violet McGraw — sister of The Black Phone’s standout Madeline McGraw) is sitting in the backseat and attached to her Furby-adjacent toy — feeding it endlessly from her tablet. Her parents both dislike the toy for different reasons, but that becomes the least of their problems after they get into a fatal car crash that leaves Cady alone.
Cady is then placed into the custody of her Aunt Gemma (Allison Williams) — an engineer at a toy company who’s really attached to her life-like doll idea and sick of designing the same old schlock (in this particular case it would be Furbys). But as every industry goes, if the cost of making the product and the price for families to buy it is too expensive (the doll will run you $10,000), is it worth the investment? That’s the question that Gemma’s boss David (Ronny Chieng clearly understood the assignment and tone of this film) poses throughout M3GAN.
David is a skeptic of this radical idea until the moment he watches M3GAN in action. The presentation that Gemma gives may not go completely as planned, but the doll puts on enough of a show for David to give the green light to this product.
But when Gemma is having a hard time connecting with her niece and sees the job come across her face at the sight of a robot she built in college, she decides to spend 100 bands on building the prototype and finishing M3GAN (played by Amie Donald and Jenna Davis provides the voice). But as the bevy of sci-fi films about A.I. and robots have taught us, you cannot trust them and M3GAN is no exception.
You see, when Gemma first builds M3GAN for her niece, it was meant as a temporary distraction/placeholder as she felt the squeeze from work. After all, Cady has been a shell of herself since the passing of her parents, and M3GAN nicely slotted into the type of warm figure Cady needed at the time. But there is such thing as getting too close to something, especially as M3GAN technically is an inanimate object (though programmed to be insentient), and the doll begins causing the typical mayhem that you come to expect in this genre all culminating in a ridiculously dumb final battle.
Therein lies the problem with M3GAN. We’ve already seen the story that plays out in Gerard Johnstone’s latest film. We all have come to expect the doll to hurt people and make the owners look bad unbeknownst to them, and the sassy one-liners delivered by Davis can only do so much in the film’s effort to make the titular doll more than one note. I’ll give M3GAN scribe Akela Cooper (who was also assisted by James Wan) some credit for updating this type of story to the 21st century with technology that doesn’t feel that far off, but the film rushes through its 100-minute runtime once M3GAN is introduced into the story (thanks to the guy sitting in front of me and his bright Apple Watch, I can tell you that this occurs about 23 minutes into the film) to get to the film’s third act which sees the toy company setting up a live-stream to reveal M3GAN to the world. Again, one step forward, two steps back.
And look, I know that I’m a stickler when it comes to PG-13 horror films, and M3GAN is a unique case. It’s much more in the vein of the Child’s Play films (especially the sequels) with its dosage of camp — M3GAN pays homage to Sam Raimi by suddenly shoehorning the “Raimi Zoom” into a few shots in one sequence— so perhaps expecting anything up to the level of another PG-13 horror flick that was actually scary, 2016’s Lights Out, was asking for disappointment, but even when it tries, M3GAN lacks any sort of tension whatsoever.
Much of this issue stems from the fact that anytime our titular doll is in action, you know that she’s simply going to kick butt and the scene will end. It’s almost like the Jason Voorhees situation in the Friday the 13th video game in that the counselors have no shot against this otherwordly being. It makes the game no fun to play when the odds are stacked so heavily against you, and the scares in M3GAN are about on par with anything you’d see in that video game.
And yes, there are jump scares in M3GAN. How else would a film rated PG-13 have any chance of keeping an audience awake? My biggest complaint with these types of scares that have become a mainstay in contemporary horror films is that they’ve become too predictable. Trust me, you won’t be surprised in the slightest when something pops out of a corner as a character opens a door slowly or walks down an empty hallway. Whether it was a theater issue or not, it certainly didn’t help that the jumpscares weren’t loud. The usage of loud sounds to enhance the jump scares is truly an eye-rolling tactic, but the ones in M3GAN had no second hit in what’s usually a 1-2 punch.
The PG-13 rating serves the film fine whenever M3GAN is slaughtering somebody — I don’t really need to see the doll stabbing someone or Quentin Tarantino-levels of gore — but you’re going to leave disappointed if you’re expecting any gnarly kills. I’ve read the interview where Johnstone talks about the PG-13 rating and how they “embraced” it, but I struggle to imagine what an R-rated version of this film looks like if this iteration is somehow scarier because the end result screams that this was a way to make the film more accessible to a wider demographic and more money at the box office.
It doesn’t feel great being a Grinch after the holiday season, but M3GAN just didn’t do it for me. I suppose I can see how the camp appealed to some, but most of the jokes missed — which especially hurts a film attempting to be a horror-comedy — and the lack of scares/tension severely hurt the fun of the film. And this film is far more concerned with having fun than actually tackling its themes of A.I. and the repercussions of allowing it to replace the roles of humans (for better or worse). In the battle of horror films with viral marketing horror movie campaigns, Smile wins by a landslide (though the DMs were a great idea). Can M3GAN win the battle of 2023 doll movies? Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is coming for that crown and does not have a high bar to clear.
Universal Pictures will release M3GAN in theaters on January 6.
‘Avatar: The Way of Water’ Review | An Immersive Motion Picture Spectacle
“Avatar The Way of Water” is truly the motion picture event of a generation boasting an incredible, immense, and immersive 3D experience like no other seen on the big screen. James Cameron delivers an epic odyssey on a stunning scale showcasing breathtaking visuals, action, and a powerful, emotional story about family and discovering your identity.
Thirteen years ago, Academy Award®-winner James Cameron introduced us, moviegoers, to a whole new world unlike any we’d ever seen with his breathtaking epic “Avatar.” Now, the visionary filmmaker returns and invites us on a brand-new cinematic journey with the highly anticipated “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldaña reprise their iconic roles, playing Jake Sully and Neytiri, alongside Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Cliff Curtis and Kate Winslet. The movie also introduces audiences to a group of talented young actors including Britain Dalton, Jamie Flatters, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion and Bailey Bass.
Set more than a decade after the events of the first film, “Avatar The Way of Water” begins to tell the story of the Sully family (Jake, Neytiri and their kids), the trouble that follows them, the lengths they go to keep each other safe, the battles they fight to stay alive and the tragedies they endure. However, they must leave their home and explore the regions of Pandora. They travel across the vast reaches, ultimately fleeing to a territory held by the Metkayina clan, who live in harmony with their surrounding oceans. There, the Sullys must learn to navigate both the dangerous water world and the uncomfortable dynamics of gaining acceptance from their new community. However when an ancient threat resurfaces, Jake must fight a difficult war against the humans.
Making The Magic
“Avatar: The Way of Water certainly had 13 years of preparation to deliver a memorable cinematic experience and making a sequel to the most successful movie of all time seems like a daunting challenge but as the saying goes never doubt James Cameron who had before written and directed two of the most successful and beloved sequels of all-time: “Aliens” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” This world of Pandora and its inhabitants has been with Cameron for quite a long time, originally he had written an early treatment in 1994, though the technology and means to bring his vision to life didn’t exist yet. The filmmaker brought wealths of Knowledge from his filmography and “The Abyss” creating a live-action film, transforming motion capture into performance capture and truly pushing the technology with visual effects which in turn has become truly revolutionary within Hollywood.
Cameron writes movies with themes that are bigger than their genre and that’s why his movies resonate with people. Back in 2010 Cameron, Landau, and a gathering contemplated a future on Pandora by exploring and expanding stories set on the lush alien moon and with more than 1,500 pages of notes on the story, they worked on not just one sequel but a series of subsequent movies all anchored around one central theme, the importance of family.
They had all screenplays for the four movies completed before moving on to production on the first sequel. This allowed him to map out all the stories and then get the scope and scale of the different stages of production such as capturing the actors across multiple films with performance capture, live-action, and then post-production. The success of 2009’s Avatar heavily influenced the direction of digital filmmaking and distribution,. The film includes 22 tracks, featuring music by Grammy Award-winning composer Simon Franglen, who worked alongside the late Jame Horner on the original Avatar film and spend much of the last three years composing the score for the highly anticipated sequel.
Family Is Our Fortress
Set approximately 15 years after the events of the original Avatar. In the forests of Pandora, Jake Sully, having begun “Avatar” as a paraplegic Marine grieving the death of his twin brother and desperately searching for a new path, now begins “The Way of Water” as the happily married patriarch of his family and the head of the Omatikaya clan, fully inhabiting his Na’vi body. “Family is our fortress,” he often reminds wife Neytiri and their children, Neteyam (Jamie Flatters), Lo’ak (Britain Dalton), Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and their adopted teenage daughter, Kiri (Sigourney Weaver). Much to Jake’s and Neytiri’s chagrin, their kids often hang out with Spider (Jack Champion), a human child orphaned by the war and too small at the time to return to Earth.
Sam Worthington returns to the leading role of Marine turned Na’vi leader Jake Sully. Zoe Saldaña once again is the Na’vi warrior Neytiri, now wrestling with her obligations and duties to her family and her clan. Sigourney Weaver plays their adopted teenage daughter Kiri, who’s the biological daughter of the avatar of Dr Grace Augustine, the deceased character Weaver played in the first film. Weaver truly gives one of her best performances throughout this film, she truly transcends through Kiri.
Jamie Flatters is Neteyam, the eldest of Jake and Neytiri’s boys, and the somewhat golden child, who can do no wrong. Britain Dalton, is the proverbial second son, Lo’ak. desperate to win his father’s approval, Lo’ak was born with an extra finger, which makes him something of an outcast among his clan. Trinity Jo-Li Bliss portrays Tuk, another favourite character of mine as she is daring, mischievous and incredibly close to her mother Neytiri, her grandmother Mo’at (CCH Pounder reprising her “Avatar” role) and big sister Kiri.
The Sully family truly are a delight as we go on a journey across Pandora with them. Its the importance of family that makes this movie outstanding, this theme is universal as it shows on screen the bonds between a mother, father and their children whilst the sons try to live up to their fathers legacy. the film brings a dilemma to these characters as you’ve got to do what’s right for the greater good or to do your job and duty of what your heart tells you for your family.
Into The Water
After making the long journey across the vast oceans of Pandora, the Sullys arrive at the home of Metkayina clan, they’re oceanic Na’vi located on Pandora’s reefs in the village of Awa’atlu led by Ronal (Kate Winslet) and Tonowari (Cliff Curtis). Reluctantly welcoming their guests, Ronal and Tonowari instruct their children Tsireya (Bailey Bass) and Aonung (Filip Geljo) to attempt to help the Sully kids adapt to the water clan’s customs and traditions.
Reuniting with James Cameron for the first time since 1997’s “Titanic,” Kate Winslet portrays Ronal, the Tsahik, and Matriarch of the Metkayina clan, married to Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) the Olo’eyktan of the clan.
They live along the shores of the Pandoran oceans, housing in Mauri pods which are built into the roots of mangrove-like trees spanning the islands, these homes hang directly above the water. Massive seawall terraces that guard the village from strong waves and provide easy access for the clan to fish. The main village Awa’atlu has small docks for canoes, a centralised ilu pen and communal areas for gathering, eating and the telling of tales and singing of songs.
The characters themselves are a slightly different shade of blue than the Omatikaya, and they have a different physiology, with large hands, wider chests and rib cages, and thick protuberances of cartilage beneath skin, almost like fins, that extend down the sides of their arms and legs to help them swim. They also have wider tails to help propel their bodies through the water.
The islands of the Metkayina and the waters surrounding them are home to many unique specimens of fauna and flora such as having a close relationship with tulkuns, sentient, whale-like creatures of Pandora, and are able to communicate with them. The Metkayina consider them to be their siblings, with each member having a tulkun “spirit brother/sister”. They have also domesticated ilus, using them as a mode of transport across the Pandoran oceans, much like direhorses of terrestrial Na’vi. During combat, skilled hunters of the Metkayina ride the skimwing; taming one is also a rite of passage into adulthood. most notably is the Cove of the Ancestors which is a sacred place.
The Metkayina have a unique and spiritual relationship with the tulkun, a species of sentient whale-like creatures that can grow to 300-feet long. the tulkun culture and the Na’vi culture are joined together with music, with singing, with dance. Jake and Neytiri’s son Lo’ak befriends Payakan an adolescent tulkun, somewhat of an outcast—the two communicate using sign language developed specially by actor and deaf-advocate CJ Jones for the production of the film.
Cameron’s world-building is absolutely phenomenal as he brings to life a new species of Na’vi that are accustomed to the way of water and enriched with such stunning landscape. The underwater sequences are truly a spectacle to behold especially in 3D.
We continue to explore more of the moon Pandora itself, Pandora is another character in the movie ultimately being used as a metaphor for our world throughout the film explores new biomes and new cultures. And Cameron sets this story focusing on his love for the oceans.
The production design is beautiful everything from the natural Pandora to the Na’vi Dylan Cole designed while Ben Procter designed the environments, vehicles and weapons of the human characters. Two worlds collide in “Avatar The Way of Water”, the human world which is highly advanced and technological, and then the world of Pandora, its inhabitants, the creatures, the plants.
Underwater Perfomance Capture
Captureing performances under water was something that had never been done before. They actually shot underwater and at the surface of the water so to capture that the actors were swimming properly, getting out of the water properly, and diving in properly, each underwater sequence is real because the motion was real. The filmmaker constructed an enormous tank at where Cameron and Landau’s production company, Lightstorm, is housed. The tank could hold enough water to allow the filmmaker to replicate real-world oceanic conditions. Standing 120 feet long, 60 feet wide and 30 feet deep and holding more than 250,000 gallons of water, the massive tank functioned as the films’ underwater performance capture stage.
For the performance capture technology to work underwater, however, the water had to be clear. The actors and crew of course, had to be holding their breath so to help them give compelling performances underwater, the cast studied free diving with internationally recognised expert Kirk Krack. Kate Winslet was able to do a static breath hold for 7 minutes and 20 seconds.
An Immersive, And Emotional, Theatrical Spectacle
With “Avatar The Way of Water” James Cameron creates an immersive experience in which audiences will feel like they’re alongside the characters on their adventures. He pushes the boundaries of cinematic storytelling, by expertly utilising enhanced 3D technology, Cameron transports filmgoers inside the narrative, enabling them to truly experience the richly detailed environments of Pandora and allowing them the opportunity to traverse its majestic terrain alongside brave and bold heroes Jake and Neytiri.
Ultimately Cameron has delivered an epic! blockbuster that succeeds in taking us back to Pandora with such emotional weight, sheer scope, and incredible detail. It’s worth seeing on the biggest screen possible.
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