Movie Review ~ Still Alice

still_alice

The Facts:

Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth

Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s happened before…actors have been nominated for Oscars, deserved to win, and lost.  The next time they’re nominated maybe they win…but often it’s not for the movie that they really earned their Oscar gold for.  I could give examples (coughcoughRusselCroweinGladiatorareyoukiddingme?coughcough) but I’ll instead just say that though she’s been nominated for an Academy Award four times before, if Julianne Moore wins for her work in Still Alice (and she really, really should) it wouldn’t be for any other reason than her performance is worthy, moving, and delivered with a fierce honesty.

As a brilliant linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Non-Stop, Don Jon) takes us through the stages of denial and acceptance as her character fights to maintain the life she’s led and the future she so desperately wants to keep intact.  With her husband as supportive as he can be and three children to think of, Alice charts a new course to a future while it’s still within her control.

As adapted by co-writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, Still Alice doesn’t pull any punches nor is it a downer of a film.  By dealing with the illness head-on, it breaks down the walls of mystery that surround Alzheimer’s disease, allowing for the truth about its effects on families to come through.

Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine) is a bit of an odd presence here.  Though Baldwin and Moore have a generally believable rapport as married scholars that can wax on about textbooks till the sun comes up, there’s something slightly missing from Baldwin’s overall presentation of the healthy spouse gradually realizing his own limitations to fully assist his ailing wife.  Kate Bosworth (Homefront) is the oldest child trying to start a family of her own and Hunter Parrish is the son that turns up with a new girlfriend for each family occasion.  Both roles aren’t as well-defined but Parrish and especially Bosworth admirably make the most of their time onscreen to not simply be reactionary to the catalyst of the disease.

Then there’s the youngest child, played by Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman) in a turn that makes you forget the Twilight movies ever happened.  Stewart isn’t a bad actress, just the unfortunate victim of hitching her wagon to an oft-reviled series of films that opened the door for numerous treacly imitations to clog movie houses.  In Still Alice, we get to see Stewart back in fine form as the rebellious child that doesn’t see a lot of herself in either of her parents…especially not her mother.

It’s Moore’s film, make no doubt about that, but her generosity is such that every other actor she comes in contact with is made to look that much better because they have such a great scene partner.  As her character begins to forget more and more, we see her frustration manifest itself in small ways that become more heartbreaking as they get increasingly personal.  The first time Moore forgets one of her children (albeit briefly) nearly sent me over the edge but it’s when she stands in front of a conference for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and states “I’m not suffering, I’m struggling” that you’ll want to have a Kleenex on standby.

It’s interesting to note that co-directors Glatzer and Westmoreland are married in real life and that Glatzer suffers from ALS.  During the making of Still Alice Glatzer’s condition got so bad that he had to direct part of the movie using a speech-to-voice app on his iPad.  Considering the couple behind the scenes making the movie may be going through something similar to what Moore and Baldwin’s characters are experiencing help to give the film a real sense of dignity and unwavering grace in the face of a degenerative illness.

Is it Moore’s year to win her Oscar?  I sure think it is and even if some have said the Best Actress category is weak this year (um, did you see the impressively varied work of the other nominees?) there’s no denying that Moore’s performance stands tall above the others.  It’s also nice to report that the film itself is quite good, a bonus when you consider how many Oscars go to strong performances in otherwise weak films (coughcoughMerylStreepinTheIronLadycoughcough).  Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to get this cough looked at.

Movie Review ~ Song of the Sea

song_of_the_sea_poster

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two children must embark on a fantastic journey across a fading world of ancient legend and magic in an attempt to return to their home by the sea.

Stars: Brendan Gleeson, Fionnula Flanagan, Lisa Hannigan, Pat Shortt, Liam Hourican, David Rawle, Jon Kenny, Lucy O’Connell, Colm O’Snodaigh, Kevin Swierscz

Director: Tomm Moore

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: When The Academy Award nominations were released last week there were lots of hemming and hawing about the films that didn’t get the love many felt they deserved.  Nowhere was that felt more than in the category of Best Animated Feature with the omission of the widely popular The LEGO Movie.  While I was put-off by the film’s seizure inducing ADHD frenzied style, I must admit that I was as surprised as anyone that it wasn’t on the shortlist.

The thing is, though, even had it been nominated it would have undoubtedly been up against Song of the Sea and I’m not sure it could have bested this wonderful film from Ireland.  It’s a true beauty, one that catches your attention early on with its striking animation and lush score before fully capturing your heart with its lovely Celtic folklore inspired tale.

Living with their father in a lighthouse on the shores of the Irish coast, Ben and his sister Saoirse have grown up without a mother.  A distant memory for him and a non-presence for her, the brother resents the sister that showed up the night his mother left while their father still grieves in silence, unable to be the present father the children need.  When their feisty granny whisks them away to the city, Ben decides to steal off back home, begrudgingly letting his sister tag along.  What starts as a journey home for two runaways turns into a fantastical adventure that will test sibling bonds even as it opens old wounds.

Drawing on the oft-told myth of the selkie (men and women that are seals in the water and humans on land), writer/director Tomm Moore (Oscar nominated in 2010 for the also-impressive The Secret of Kells) uses the legend as a framework to tell a larger tale about the emotions we bottle up and try to forget.  Moore creates a world of witches, fairies, and magic to illustrate how keeping our sentiments bottled up can wind up causing greater pain than merely allowing yourself to feel all of the hurts and happiness our lives can bring.

Featuring hand-drawn animation that’s less 3D and more 2D lends itself well to the merging of the real world and the dream-like arenas Ben and Saoirse cross through on their passage home.  With delicate curlicues spiraling through watercolor-like backgrounds there’s something of interest in every frame.  If you really pay attention you’ll catch many hidden treats as power lines start to resemble animals and faces pop up in rocks, trees, and hills.

Musician Bruno Coulais lends a delicate score to the film that’s as soothing as a lullaby, which several stirring passages are.  With song/music playing a huge role in the plot there’s ample opportunity for Coulais to layer the film with haunting melodies and serene vocal tracks.  As integral to the movie as the perfect blend of animation and narrative, it’s a beautiful marriage of the aural and visual.

This movie really transfixed and transported me and I think it will have the same effect on anyone that comes into contact with it.  Looking at the other nominees in the Best Animated Feature category (Big Hero 6, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Boxtrolls, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya) I can’t imagine Song of the Sea going home empty-handed on Oscar night.  It’s the high-water mark of achievement in animation for 2014 and earns a spot on my must-see list.

Movie Review ~ A Most Violent Year

2

most_violent_year_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Fans of the 70s and 80s potboiler crime dramas from the likes of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), Sidney Lumet (Serpico), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) will want to make time for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s well-constructed look at NYC before it became the Disney-fied commercialized metropolis that it’s morphed into over the last 30 years.

Chandor (Oscar nominated for 2012’s talky Margain Call before going almost dialogue free for 2013’s All is Lost) sets his gritty period piece right on the precipice of the Big Apple exploding into a year of murder and crime the likes the city had never seen. Though strolling through Times Square and the upscale posh surrounding boroughs may seem carefree now, don’t forget there was a time when NYC was not the place to be and violence ran rampant in select (and populous) parts of town.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Won’t Back Down) is in the heating-oil field running a business he took over from his father-in-law. Industrious and looking forward, Isaac’s Abel Morales is pursuing the American Dream and trying to owe as few people as possible in his quest to achieve it. We get the impression that he’s a different businessman than his father-in-law was, as Abel resists the urge to go with the flow but rather to control his own destiny. That doesn’t always sit well with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Lawless) who’d rather her husband assert dominance first and ask questions later.

After a series of violent hijackings of Abel’s fuel transportation trucks as well as escalating threats by his competitors with ties to shady dealings of the criminal underground variety, Abel must choose a path that will help him toward the future he envisions for himself and his family – but at what cost? There’s a lot of moral dilemma going on in A Most Violent Year, not the least of it involving the ultimate price of ambition. We know Abel is one of the good guys so we’re brought to the edge of our seats with interest when everyone around him seems to be nudging him toward ever darker solutions to his problems and wondering when/if he’ll break.

Isaac carries the weight of the film on his broad shoulders with a quiet ease, suggesting the internal struggle more than making a show of it on the outside. The stakes are high and though we never see him break a sweat, inside you know his heart rate is sky-high. With her platinum Dorothy Stratten/Galaxina hairdo and a manicure that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond femme fatale, Chastain’s the Lady Macbeth of the film. Wise enough to know that the character could come off one-dimensional; Chastain gives Anna a valued aura of mystery so we’re never quite sure what her endgame is.

It all builds to a satisfying and necessary ending, one that rides the razor’s edge of being both too pat and ever so slightly ambiguous. New York wasn’t yet close to getting its make-over so we know what lies ahead for our characters, even if they think they’ve got it all figured out. This is a velvety piece of old-school filmmaking, very worth your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ It Follows

it_follows_ver2

Synopsis: After a strange sexual encounter, a teenager finds herself plagued by disturbing visions and the inescapable sense that something is following her.

Release Date:  March 27, 2015

Thoughts: If early buzz and trailer/poster quotes can be believed, It Follows could make a bloody little splash in the ever shrinking pond of indie horror films. Though at this point the splatter film has for the most part once again been put out to its cinematic pasture, there’s still room for the one-off winner to break through. 2014’s The Babadook was a nifty bit of slow-burn suspense and It Follows could ride that same word-of-mouth wave to some success. Playing off fears of STDs and the oft-used trope of teen angst, I’m following this film closely…you should too.

Movie Review ~ Cake

cake_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Claire becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group while grappling with her own, very raw personal tragedy.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Felicity Huffman, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, Adriana Barraza, Chris Messina, William H. Macy. Britt Robertson

Director: Daniel Barnz

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though she’s getting a lot of recognition for her dramatic turn in Cake, I’m wondering if the masses have forgotten that this isn’t Jennifer Aniston’s first trip to the non-comedic side of films…but it may be her best. OK…so maybe films like The Good Girl and Derailed didn’t afford Aniston to truly carry a film with some weight behind it but they did show that there was more to her than that 90s show she was on and her twice yearly visits to the multiplex with a romantic comedy in tow.

Where Aniston seems to excel (and thrive) is with roles that are the exact opposite of how people see her. With other actors, that can come off as merely trying to pull a fast one on fans in a display of false supposed dexterity but in Aniston’s case you get the sense that she has real depth waiting to be tapped.

As Claire, Aniston (Wanderlust, We’re the Millers) finds that raw edge and runs with it, elevating the film in the process. For a movie about suicide, chronic illness, divorce, substance abuse, loss of a child, and depression there’s often the relief of a welcome promise of redemption around every corner. True, Claire fails to recognize these moments and continues on in pain and cynicism but as time goes on we see that she’s coming around.

Opening with a support group for chronic pain discussing the recent suicide of a member (Anna Kendrick, Into the Woods), Claire seems to be the only one unwilling to play along with the namby-pamby kumbaya-ness of the exercise. Obviously considering suicide once or twice herself, Claire becomes interested in the family the young mother left behind, particularly the husband (Sam Worthington, Man on a Ledge) that hasn’t dealt with his grief. Between popping pills and discouraging her well-meaning housekeeper (Adriana Barraza, Thor) from interfering with her wallowing, Claire gains a new perspective on where her life is taking her.

Though the premise of the film seems simple, there are a lot of complexities into the relationships featured onscreen. Barely able to stand up straight for long periods of time, Claire finds solace in random encounters with handymen and calls on her UCLA-trained law education to sweet-talk her doctor into yet another prescription of the pain meds she downs like candy. Worthington and Aniston have a nice rapport as they both flesh out characters in different stages of the acceptance of loss of a loved one.

The film is best, however, in its scenes between Aniston and Barraza. Oscar nominated for her work in Babel, Barraza quietly steals the majority of her scenes right out from under Aniston. For all of the Academy Award buzz surrounding Aniston’s work here, it’s really Barraza that was snubbed for more widespread recognition. There’s an empathy Barraza displays for Aniston’s character suggesting a mother/child relationship more than an employee/employer one. Though they bicker frequently, when push comes to shove both women stand up for one another in moving displays of emotional support.

I usually walk into these types of movies with the knowledge from experience that someone will start off one way and be a changed individual by the time of the final fadeout but with Cake I was never sure where it would all end. Of course we know how it should end but do we really want everything wrapped up in a ribbon as we head to our cars and into the world outside the movie theater?   A slice of life film that’s fairly filling, Cake may not have snagged an Oscar nom for Aniston (though she did get SAG and Golden Globe nominations) but it reaffirmed that she’s an actress worthy of more of these types of roles.

Movie Review ~ The Boy Next Door

boy_next_door

The Facts:

Synopsis: A woman falls for a younger man next door, but their torrid affair takes an obsessive, dangerous turn.

Stars: Jennifer Lopez, Ryan Guzman, Kristin Chenoweth, John Corbett, Ian Nelson

Director: Rob Cohen

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Sometimes when I’m sick in bed I can’t resist putting on one of those so bad its good trashy erotic thriller films from the 90s. I’m talking “classics” like Mark Wahlberg’s Fear, Sharon Stone’s Sliver, Bruce Willis’s Color of Night, and Kevin Bacon’s Wild Things. All totally B-grade films with A-list stars released by major studios that probably should have known better. We’ve been largely starved for these films recently but leave it to a former Fly Girl and the man that directed the first Fast and Furious film to bring home the bacon.

Ham is featured heavily in The Boy Next Door, actually, with its hambone script, hammy acting, and ham-handed direction. No cliché is off limits according to screenwriter Barbara Curry and much of the plot holes, contradictions, and outright impossibilities began to make sense once I found out Curry is an ex-Assistant U.S. Attorney from Los Angeles.

Curry’s set-up comes across like a movie on the USA Network you’d have on as background noise while you dusted your tchotchkes on a lazy Saturday afternoon. In the midst of a painful separation from her philandering husband (John Corbett), high school teacher Claire (Jennifer Lopez, who looks like anything but a woman named Claire) spends the final days of summer eating huge plates of food and staring lasciviously out the window at new boy next door Noah (Ryan Guzan, looking like he’s pushing 30 instead of 20) who has befriended her awkward son (screechy voiced and intolerable Ian Nelson, The Judge).

In a moment of “weakness”, i.e. she’s just a girl that can’t say no, Claire and Noah do the nasty in one of two surprisingly explicit and raunchy sex scenes. Waking up and realizing her mistake, Claire rejects Noah’s further advances, changing Noah from a horndog to a hellhoud in the process. Somehow the script finds a never ending supply of rationales for why she doesn’t come clean to anyone…least of all her friend and colleague played by frozen faced Kristin Chenoweth (Rio 2) and Kristin Chenoweth’s Botox (Hit and Run).

Made in less than a month for the chump change price of 4 million (half of which must have gone to lighting J.Lo’s house to constantly look like a purple-hued nightclub), the film doesn’t look bad nor is it assembled poorly…it just doesn’t hide any of the multiple faults at play. Clearly filmed out of sequence as evidenced by performances that are routinely caught in mid-hysteria only to be near comatose in the very next location shot, the film is only 90 minutes long but has no forward momentum.

Lopez has shown that she’s not a bad actress and I’m frankly surprised it’s taken her this long to try her hand at this kind of quick buck film, but she deserves better than the slack direction from Rob Cohen (Alex Cross) and nonsensical script but at least she looks fabulous in every single shot. Guzman may have been trying to have a permanent case of bedroom eyes but it comes off like he’s reading an eye chart on a distant horizon, the character is more bratty than diabolical and I kept wanting Lopez to just give him a good spanking and have the credits roll.

Personally, I would have been interested in having the titular boy next door be Lopez’s son…since Nelson plays him as such an oddball knob that having him flip out over his mom dating his friend might have been more intriguing to watch. Hard to say what exactly Chenoweth was going for here, one minute she’s concerned best friend, the next she’s a sassy woman of the world sporting jewelry four sizes too big for her neck. Though she gets to deliver the most hilariously awful in the film, she’s dealt no favors by Cohen featuring the pint sized Broadway imp in too many shots next to his Amazonian curvy star.

This being the film it is there was no ending to be had but the one that finds Lopez fighting for her life in a musty old barn while Guzman terrorizes her with a variety of ishy violent acts before getting his well-earned (and equally ishy) comeuppance. It’s maybe the only thing marginally satisfying about this well below average effort. Maybe worth a rental if you’re planning a night of adult cocktails…this can take the place of your cheeseball if you’re counting calories.

Movie Review ~ American Sniper

american_sniper_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jonathan Groff, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Jake McDorman

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Including a spoiler alert here because while many are aware of elements about the subject of this film, I realize that some pieces may not be as well know. To avoid any angry claims I didn’t warn you…I just did.

There’s been a lot of brouhaha in the press about American Sniper and the life of the man the movie is based on. Chris Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL honorably discharged from the Navy in 2009 who went on to write his autobiography that recently Oscar nominated screenwriter Jason Hall based this movie on. Accumulating 160 confirmed kills over four tours of duty in the Iraq War, he was thought to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. It was only after he was gunned down in 2013 by another vet Kyle was helping cope with PTSD that the mysteries behind certain pieces of Kyle’s memoir started to come to light.

What you should know about the film is that while I haven’t read the source novel it was based off of, the disparities between Kyle’s account and what some would argue as the truth aren’t the focus of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film. I’m not going to speak to those that claim Kyle fabricated several sequences or events, I’m merely reporting out on the movie as it was presented to us. I did read an article recently detailing the false claims and I don’t recall any of these incidents being included in the movie.

Whether that was a conscious decision on Hall’s part, creative editing after the fact, or simply not the story Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) wanted to tell is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that Eastwood’s film is an edge-of-your-seat experience anchored strongly by Cooper’s revelatory performance as Chris Kyle.

Arguably the most pro-American movie you’re likely to see in some time, the film bleeds red white and blue from frame one. It’s clearly established who the “good” guys and the “bad” guys are and Eastwood makes no apologies for injecting some politicized grandstanding throughout. I can’t say it really bothered me because it didn’t really stray into that insufferable right wing territory.

Bulked up and burly, Cooper transformed himself from the sinewy muscled look of previous projects to an impressive built Navy SEAL that’s 100% believable. With his Texan twang in full drawl his performance is the most flesh and blood in his already impressive career. Cooper may have been nominated for an Oscar twice before (for Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook) but his nomination for American Sniper is his most warranted. He’s never been better.

Unlike December’s Unbroken, American Sniper doesn’t shy away from showing the after effects of war on the men, women, children, and families of veterans after they return home. A decent chunk of the movie is devoted to showing Kyle’s adjustment to life with his wife Taya (a stellar Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher), and young children. Responsible for so many fatalities, the film looks (but doesn’t press) into the psyche of those that have to live with themselves long after their service to our country ends.

To round the film out there’s a through line arc of Kyle’s multiple run-ins with a stealth sniper and while these war torn sequences are impressively staged they start to feel like a part of an action film rather than a human drama which is really what American Sniper is at its core. It’s no wonder that directors like Steven Spielberg and David O. Russell circled this project at one time or another, there’s some meat to the script and the chance to explore not just the destructive side of war but the healing piece as well.

Eastwood struck out earlier in 2014 with the disastrous Jersey Boys so I was hoping he’d redeem himself with this film and it’s nice to report he found his footing with American Sniper. The 84 year old director’s laid-back style could easily have worked against the overall momentum of the film but it’s as breathless and engaging as any film he’s made before.

Nominated for 6 Academy Awards, American Sniper may not hit on the full scope of Chris Kyle’s life, but what’s told is a powerfully moving tale of service and sacrifice.

Movie Review ~ The Wedding Ringer

wedding_ringer

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two weeks shy of his wedding, a socially awkward guy enters into a charade by hiring the owner of a company that provides best men for grooms in need.

Stars: Josh Gad, Kevin Hart, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Cloris Leachman, Jenifer Lewis,  Olivia Thirlby, Mimi Rogers, Ken Howard

Director: Jeremy Garelick

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: I suppose it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement to say that this new Kevin Hart and Josh Gad comedy isn’t nearly as bad as it looks.  The kind of raunchy bro-fest film a critic dreads an impending screening of, I wasn’t prepared to enjoy it as much as I did.

Well, enjoy is maybe too strong of a word…let’s go with tolerate.  What we have here is a C-grade script given the B-movie treatment thanks in no small part to an A-list star.  Yes, I’m finally giving Hart (Ride Along) his due because the role was tailor made for his talents and the comedian delivers the least annoying performances of his skyrocketing career.

In an opening scene before the studio logo is even displayed (interesting choice), we meet roly poly Doug (Gad, Frozen, Thanks for Sharing) as he goes down a list of casual male acquaintances in the hunt for a best man for his nuptials to Gretchen (Cuoco-Sweeting) less than two weeks away.  Moving around in his youth left him no time to make real friends so here he finds himself about to get married with no family to speak of and without any groomsmen.

Enter Jimmy (Hart), who runs a company that provides his best man services for a price.  Doug hires Jimmy to be his stand-up guy and Jimmy organizes a group of groomsmen that, as Doug puts it, “look like the cast of The Goonies grew up and became rapists.”  From there it’s a ribald mix of frat boy humor involving peanut butter on genitals, a rowdy old vs. young game of muddy tackle football, and in the film’s most hilarious sequence, a grandmother (Cloris Leachman, The Croods) in flames.

Don’t worry if all this raises some major flags in your movie-ometer…it’s certainly no prize of a film.  The basic premise is ludicrous and the movie hammers home the kind of clichéd gender stereotypes usually reserved for in-class demonstrations illustrating how far we’ve come as a society (Men don’t cry! Women have feelings!), and a romantic subplot for Hart seems to be there only because they found an actress as short as Hart is.  Even so, I found myself engaged by Hart’s energy (he’s less screechy and ADD-ish here than ever) and entertained by the proceedings though I knew I had no real right to.

It’s important to note that the usually exasperating Gad is toned down here.  Even if the actor is subjected to one too many injuries to the face or crotch, Gad doesn’t let the role morph into one big fat joke.  I’ve never watched Cuoco-Sweeting on The Big Bang Theory so can’t speak much to her historically but let’s just say her work here screams “TV Actress On The Big Screen”.

Not great, not awful, but pleasing when it stays away from the vulgar and gross out teen boy shenanigans that form its core, The Wedding Ringer doesn’t aspire to be anything more than what it is…and that worked just fine for me.

Movie Review ~ Blackhat

2

blackhat

The Facts:

Synopsis: A furloughed convict and his American and Chinese partners hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom

Director: Michael Mann

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Director Michael Mann hasn’t released a film since Public Enemies came and went back in 2009.  Though the 71 year old director tried his hand at the ill-fated HBO series Luck, it seemed like Mann was taking his sweet time on deciding on his next project.  Now, if Blackhat had been the kind of return to form Mann fans had been waiting for, I’d say that the wait would have been worth it…but it’s not and it isn’t.

Originally titled Cyber (wait, are you snoring yet?), Black hat refers to someone violating computer or Internet security maliciously or for illegal personal gain.  A globe-hopping crime drama involving a team of computer experts and government agents tracking down a cyber-villain that hatches a plot straight out of a failed James Bond film, Mann’s film is a cold as steel chrome-plated stumble.

Moody to the point of needing an anti-depressant, the film opens with an inside look at a computer virus attacking a Chinese nuclear reactor.  (This sequence looks like it was drafted the same time Matthew Broderick was playing his WarGames.)  When a stock market upset happens shortly after, federal agents (involving a bored looking and sounding Viola Davis, Beautiful Creatures) partner with a Chinese official (Leehom Wang) to identify the criminal.

Enter Chris Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods) as a jailed cybercriminal that happens to be the ex-college classmate of the Chinese agent.  Sprung from prison so his talents may be further exploited, he leads everyone on a chase over the Western part of the globe as each new destination provides a clue to the whereabouts and endgame of our terrorist.  Oh, and Hemsworth falls in love with the sister of the Chinese agent…just so there’s a reason to feature Hemsworth frequently sans shirt.

While the movie has the typical Mann touches of gorgeous aerial shots and breathless action sequences that put you right into the action, it’s also chock full of concerning missteps that wouldn’t seem out of place for a newbie filmmaker.  The film is far too long and in need of a editor willing to stand up for several subplots to be excised and the love story between Hemsworth and Wei Tang is hardly steamy and with Tang’s heavy accent hard to make much sense of.  Let’s not mention some of the worst dubbing in a mainstream film you’ll ever see.

A final showdown finds Hemsworth hunting down our bad guy and his cronies in the midst of a parade.  Things understandably get out of control pretty fast and the revelers laughably keep moving like nothing’s wrong amidst gunfire, stabbings, and other bloodletting.  Perhaps this sequence would have been better on the written page as the ending for some spy novel you’d pick up in an airport kiosk.

With his impressive body of work, Blackhat won’t be the final word on Mann’s career but it may be his most disappointing footnote.  While I found myself engaged when the film started deciphering its central mystery, I drifted away when the plot became a convoluted mess.  With a running time of over 2 hours, Blackhat is one that is easily skippable in theaters and possibly worth a look when it arrives for home consumption…that way you can rewind it if you fall asleep.

Movie Review ~ Paddington (2014)

paddington_bear_ver15

The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Peruvian bear travels to London in search of a home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he meets the kindly Brown family, who offer him a temporary haven

Stars: Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville, Jim Broadbent, Nicole Kidman, Ben Whishaw, Peter Capaldi, Julie Walters, Imelda Staunton, Michael Gambon

Director: Paul King

Rated: PG

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I wouldn’t hold it against you if you took one look at the above poster for Paddington and wanted to run for the exit – with it’s on the nose tagline and been-there-seen-that antics you may write off this big screen adaptation of Michael Bond’s beloved literary bear as a kids-only affair.  That would be a mistake.

My history with Paddington goes way back to a local theater company in Minnesota.  My first theatrical experience was seeing a stage production of Paddington at the Children’s Theater Company and ever since then I’ve had an overwhelming fondness for the bear from darkest Peru that arrives in London looking for a family that will take him in.  As lovable as that other popular children’s bear, Winnie-The-Pooh, but faced with bigger city adventures, Paddington was a true bear of the world.

As this is (surprisingly) Paddington’s big-screen debut, we’re treated to a streamlined origin story that shows how our hero moves from living the wilds of Peru with his aunt and uncle (Imelda Staunton, Maleficent, and Michael Gambon) to modern day London where he’s taken in by the Brown family.  When his arrival catches the eye of a sinister taxidermist (Nicole Kidman, Stoker), it’s up to Paddington and the Browns to outwit her and avoid getting stuffed.

Had Paddington been an American production, this whole set-up might have played like the also-ran story it is.  Under the helm of a British team, however, the movie is positively charming from its spirited performances to a colorfully gorgeous (not gaudy) production design.  Populated with richly strong primary colors that ground the movie in a kind of whimsical reality instead of the pure fantasy it actually is, there’s interesting detail around every corner.

Director Peter King keeps things moving at a brisk pace, never letting the 94 minutes feel slack.  True, that does mean some slight overuse of slapstick humor but it’s a good natured fun that’s well-mannered and veddy veddy British.

Though originally voiced by Colin Firth, the voice of Paddington comes courtesy of Ben Whishaw (Skyfall) and it’s easy to see why Firth and the filmmakers parted ways.  Firth’s voice was perhaps too mature for the impish bear and Whishaw gives him a youth that rings true.  Hugh Bonneville (The Monuments Men) and Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) are nicely paired as the head of the Brown family.  She’s a free spirit and he’s a button-ed down businessman overly protective of their two children which leads to a nice subplot about the Browns that blends nicely with Paddington’s tale.

Even saddled with a platinum bob that appears to have gone through several iterations during filmmaking, Kidman is razor sharp as the villainess of the picture.  Even when she’s popping up in slight films, Kidman keeps things interesting so while her role may veer to the “too scary for young kids” side (you decide if you want to explain taxidermy to your youngins) she’s a statuesque ice queen that’s nicely menacing.

A true unexpected delight, it’s a shame the film wasn’t released in its original Christmas slot to attract the kind of family crowds it deserves but it was quite a busy time for holiday releases.  The humor may not be crass enough to keep U.S. audiences used to fart jokes appeased but I was downright charmed by the movie.  It’s sweet, quite funny, and exceedingly well made…did I mention the visual effects deserve a round of applause?  Paddington has taken a long time to get from Peru to movie screens…and the journey was worth the wait.