The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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Synopsis: On the heels of the worldwide success of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder is bringing together the two greatest Super Heroes of all time – Batman and Superman for the first time on the big screen.

Release Date:  March 25, 2016

Thoughts:  I still think 1979’s Superman: The Movie is one of the best all around “comic-book” origin movies to be made and I was more than willing to give director Zack Snyder’s reboot a fair chance.  After all, look what Christopher Nolan did with his reinvention of Batman in three films about the caped crusader.  Sadly, Superman’s return in 2013 was a glum bummer, and a movie that took way too long to come out (how can a new Star Wars movie be filmed and come out in a little over a year but Snyder takes almost three years for his meal to cook?).  Disappointments aside, the film made good on its franchise starter nature at the box office yet it’s a little surprising that Warner Brothers decided that the sequel should merge its flying superhero with The Dark Knight – the poor guy was enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Feeling the heat from Marvel’s unstoppable films, I’m sure that DC Comics was more than happy to bring their Justice League dreams to light…why else would this Superman sequel feature not only the Man of Steel and Batman but Wonder Woman and Aquaman as well?  I hope the film isn’t merely a bridge to a bigger idea, but from the looks of this impressive teaser Snyder may be borrowing a page from Nolan and going ultra-dark.

Movie Review ~ The Hunting Ground

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An expose of rape crimes on U.S. college campuses, their institutional cover-ups, and the devastating toll they take on students and their families.

Director: Kirby Dick

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: I believe the best kind of documentaries are the ones that expose an ongoing problem that may not be getting the media attention it deserves.  With so many of our headlines looking at the issues we face on foreign soil, there can be a lack of attention to the concerns that are right on our front doorstep. Director Kirby Dick has been a documentary filmmaker of acclaim for over three decades but especially in the last ten years he’s been shining a light on a diverse roster of subjects.

Receiving his first Oscar nomination for 2005’s Twist of Fate which focused on child abuse within the Catholic Church, Dick followed that up in 2006’s This Film is Not Yet Rated, where he attempted to peel back the veil of secrecy surrounding the ratings board of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America.  Controversy surrounded 2009’s Outrage as it looked at the hypocrisy of Washington D.C.’s closeted gay politicians, and 2012’s Oscar-nominated The Invisible War detailed rape within the armed forces.

Now comes The Hunting Ground, a painful journey into the growing epidemic of rape on college campuses from sea to shining sea.  Interviewing dozens of survivors of sexual assault during their college experience, Dick goes further and suggests that many of these incidents are kept on the down low by college officials more interested in keeping the money flowing than guarding their student body.

As is the case with most of the work from this director, it’s pretty incendiary material meant to spark discussion.  Dick seems to be of the position that if he’s presenting the facts, it’s the onus of the individuals and collegiate organizations accused of sweeping reports of rape and sexual assault under the table to provide proof that he’s wrong.  Sadly, it seems clear that Dick and producer Amy Ziering have revealed a long-standing cover-up that’s remained unchallenged until now.

What makes this documentary so powerful and terrifying to watch is not the evidence that shows students have a better chance of being kicked out of school for cheating than raping a classmate but in the stories relayed by the victims themselves.  Mostly women (several men are interviewed but only briefly), it’s painful to hear their narratives of elation at being accepted into higher education turn into somber reflections of grief after being victimized not just by their attacker but by the school that should have protected them.

It’s a well-made documentary that has a lot of talking heads spouting facts and countless faces of survivors with stories to tell.  Dick devotes a nice portion of the film into following the efforts of two females that decided to take a stand and effect change within the collegiate system even if their administrators wouldn’t.  As they travel around and connect with other individuals in similar situations, their network of support grows.

A film that should be shown on all college campuses and especially to all incoming freshman, The Hunting Ground will hopefully be a call to action that a very real problem continues to plague the grounds of higher learning.

Movie Review ~ Seymour: An Introduction

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Meet Seymour Bernstein: a beloved pianist, teacher and true inspiration who shares eye-opening insights from an amazing life. Ethan Hawke helms this poignant guide to life.

Stars: Seymour Bernstein, Ethan Hawke

Director: Ethan Hawke

Rated: PG

Running Length: 84 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This sensitive doc from Ethan Hawke (Boyhood) is a good example of how to treat your elders…listen, learn, let them talk.

Famed pianist Seymour Bernstein may not be a household name to most because he hasn’t performed in public for decades, but after a chance encounter with Bernstein at a dinner party the actor became interested in learning more about the life-long New Yorker that imparts his wisdom to his students, his friends, and his contemporaries.

At a trim 84 minutes it’s less a biopic and more of a discussion with biographical context. We hear about Bernstein’s first encounter with music when a piano is brought into his house, which up until that point didn’t even have a radio to listen to.  Over the years his talent became evident, with only his mother fully supporting the musical prodigy her son was becoming.  Growing stage fright kept Bernstein out of the public eye for years, only occasionally playing for anyone outside his small one room apartment just big enough for a piano and pull out bed.

Hawke clearly found a kinship is Bernstein as the actor relays his own burgeoning stage fright these past years.  Perhaps making a film on Bernstein’s life and capturing on film his sage words was a way to exorcise some of those demons that plague many a creative individual.  No matter what the reason, Hawke’s portrait of Bernstein is as delicate as Bernstein’s technique, a technique Hawke shows in several working sessions Bernstein has with his students.  Quick to correct his pupils but just as quick to praise them, his attention to the smallest detail provides great insight into what it takes to achieve his level of musical sophistication.

A treat of a film, if there’s one drawback it’s that there’s no true momentum to be had.  Yes, Bernstein’s an interesting character and I think I could have sat through his entire master class, but the final result is an abridged autobiography conveyed on film.  Still, it’s so short that you can’t help but pay rapt attention and think about the Seymour Bernstein’s in your own life.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mr. Holmes

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Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.

Release Date:  July 17, 2015

Thoughts: Let’s get excited for this one, shall we?  Though Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) made a lovely Sherlock Holmes in two less than lovely big screen outings and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) has put his quirky stamp on the legendary detective via the BBC series, I’m quite interested to see Ian McKellan (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) give his take on an elderly Holmes.  McKellan re-teaming with his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) is exciting enough but this early tease at July’s Mr. Holmes hints at a fine effort and I’m waiting with bated breath for the full trailer.

Movie Review ~ The Longest Ride

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The lives of a young couple intertwine with a much older man as he reflects back on a lost love while he’s trapped in an automobile crash.

Stars: Britt Robertson, Scott Eastwood, Alan Alda, Jack Huston, Oona Chaplin, Gloria Reuben, Lolita Davidovich

Director: George Tillman, Jr.

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Looking over the bibliography of author Nicholas Sparks, the pickings are getting mighty slim for studios hunting for titles to bring a little romance to their paying audiences.  After the (deserved) critical drubbing and box office failure of 2014’s ghastly The Best of Me (insert obligatory “worst” joke here) I was leery about jumping into another Sparks suds-a-thon even though the preview had me more interested that I cared to admit.  Sadly, The Longest Ride is just another run-of-the-mill page to screen adaptation from the Sparks roster of tear-jerking tales.

As I mentioned in my review of 2012’s The Lucky One, there is a clear formula at play whenever you settle in for a Sparks saga and The Longest Ride is no different.  As in previous films, the women are lithe in limb and the men are smoldering hunks who work manly jobs and have macho hobbies.  There’s the requisite scene of the lovers running off a dock, leaping into a body of water in which they can embrace…and in The Longest Ride it actually happens more than once.  Throw in an old geezer with a life lesson to teach, the threat of injury that could put a halt to the love affair, and a soundtrack of easy listening radio friendly country tunes and the menu is complete.  It’s a pre-packaged TV dinner of a meal, ultimately overbaked.

I wish I could say that it’s strictly the fault of the source material on which screenwriter Craig Bolotin based his sappy adaptation but unfortunately the acting adds another uneven layer to the mix.  While I think Britt Robertson (Cake) will fare better sharing the screen with George Clooney in May’s highly anticipated Tomorrowland, here she struggles with a role she doesn’t feel right for.  Playing Sophia, a college senior, onscreen she reads like a high school junior making her romance with bull rider Luke (Scott Eastwood) hard to swallow.  Arguably saddled with the laziest developed character in the film, Robertson spends most of the film relying on her expressive face rather than her heart.

Robertson has some chemistry with Eastwood (Texas Chainsaw 3D) but with the aforementioned issue with age their passionate scenes wind up falling flat.  Showing more flesh than I thought possible for a PG-13 movie (Robertson’s breasts are seen several times and Eastwood bares his backside), their couplings aren’t worth the tortuous build-up.

The whole film I had trouble shaking how much Eastwood looks like his father but the similarities end there.  The elder Eastwood favors a less is more approach but the younger Eastwood never finds a balance of true subtlety in his portrayal of a one-time rodeo star battling personal demons while struggling to reclaim his career.  In fact, Eastwood may have more connection to a ferocious bull that haunts him than anyone else in the film.

The story of the bull rider and his gal probably would have been enough to satiate audiences eager to fall in love with another Sparks adaptation but there’s an entirely other story inserted as flashbacks and if there’s one thing to recommend about The Longest Ride, it’s this secondary tale.

After saving an elderly man (Alan Alda, Wanderlust) that veered off the road in a rainstorm, Luke and Sophia visit him often enough as he recuperates to hear him recount the time he spent with the love of his life.  Played by two descendants of true Hollywood royalty, Jack Huston (American Hustle, grandson of acclaimed director John Huston) and Oona Chaplin (What If, granddaughter of Charlie) make for an appealing pair and, like the recent Woman in Gold, I found myself much more engaged by what happened in the past than anything that was going on in the present.

Director George Tillman, Jr makes the flashbacks look sharp and lovely, a nice contrast to the almost dewy quality of the scenes involving Luke and Sophia.  As pleasant as it all looks, there’s no getting away from the fact that neither story is particularly engaging and at 139 minutes (this is the longest Sparks adaptation to date) it starts to feel protracted before it’s even half over.  I think Tillman could easily have lost several Luke/Sophia scenes and given the film a better pace without sacrificing any of the drama that clutters up the final 1/3 of the movie.  As is typical with Sparks films, there’s a series of unbelievable contrivances introduced less because they make sense but more because they get our characters where they need to be faster.

This is the tenth film adapted from a Sparks bestseller (I do find it odd that his other novels with more supernatural twists haven’t made it to the silver screen yet) and by this point you’re either a Sparks supporter or you aren’t.  The Longest Ride isn’t the worst effort nor can it (or should it) be included among the best.

Movie Review ~ Furious 7

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Deckard Shaw seeks revenge against Dominic Toretto and his family for the death of his brother.

Stars: Paul Walker, Jason Statham, Lucas Black, Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Vin Diesel,Djimon Hounsou, Kurt Russell, Tony Jaa, Dwayne Johnson,Nathalie Emmanuel, John Brotherton, Iggy Azaela

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  While preparing to write my review of the seventh film in the lucrative Fast and the Furious franchise, I went back to my review of 2013’s Furious 6 to make sure I didn’t self-plagiarize that entry.  Turns out I was in for a challenge because reading over my thoughts on the previous chapter confirmed my suspicions…that Furious 7 is nearly the exact same film.

Now if this were the newest release in any other long-running series I likely would have gone after the filmmakers for lack of creativity or the general laziness that can befall a cash-cow like these films have been for Universal Studios.  What started in 2001 as a run of the mill action film with a lack of brain cell activity has come a long way, arguably getting better and more assured with each passing episode.  There’s a decidedly set formula in the way the Fast & the Furious vehicles are assembled and why mess with something that works so well?  The answer to that question?  You don’t.

Before we move forward I need to put a disclaimer that it’s impossible to discuss Furious 7 without giving away some spoilers on events that happened in the first six films.

Picking up not quite where Furious 6 left off (but before the third entry The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift takes place – figure THAT one out!) it’s not long before Dom (Vin Diesel, Riddick), Brian (Paul Walker), Letty (Michele Rodriguez, Turbo), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson, Hercules) and the rest of their comrades are targeted by the brother of the villain featured in the last film.  Proving that revenge is a dish best served at 180mph, Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham, The Expendables 3) is mad as hell and out for blood against those who nearly killed his baby brother (Luke Evans, Dracula Untold).

What I’ve enjoyed so much about these movies over the years is their ability to maintain a consistent crew of familiar faces that keep coming back film after film.  Maybe introduced as a minor character originally, each entry seems to shift the power around and plays off the strengths of what each actor brings to the table.  Not that this is high art requiring application of the Meisner technique to each line of dialogue, but even with certain limitations on acting expertise no one embarrasses themselves…well, almost.

The star of the show where action is concerned continues to be Vin Diesel and, bless his heart, he tries so dang hard in this one to bolster his cred by delivering his lines with sincerity.  However, with his cue ball cranium and muscles that can’t be contained in any shirt large or small, he’s maybe the one person that swings and misses while attempting to be the dramatic heavy.  With the tragic death of co-star Paul Walker halfway through filming, it’s evident that large parts of the script were re-written and I’m guessing Diesel was tapped to lay the groundwork for the film’s touching send-off and, to his credit, Diesel is never anything less than totally committed to getting the job done.

This isn’t a film that has the ghost of Paul Walker hovering above it, however, even though you can easily tell which scenes were shot with a double with his face being CGI-ed in later.  The overall feeling of the movie is onward and upward and I think Walker would have been proud of how it all turned out.  He’s involved with several of the film’s crazy action sequences, passages that include souped-up cars being dropped from airplanes and flying through skyscrapers.  These are impressively staged, totally ridiculous, and supremely enjoyable.

It’s when the film slows down that there are problems.  With director James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious) taking over for Justin Lin there seems to be an effort on Wan’s part to balance high-impact action with treacly familial drama…and who knows how much of that was influenced by Walker’s death.  Seems like poor Jordana Brewster (who seems to add two new teeth with each film, I swear she has 32 teeth on the top row alone) suffered the most, with the script sequestering her away from the action to protect her pregnancy…which is a ludicrous sham they don’t even bother to make believable.  Brewster is supposedly far enough along to know the sex of the baby but has a stomach so flat you could play Jenga on it.

Wan’s trademark loop-de-loop cinematography seems like a nice match with the action onscreen though it’s overdone in the lengthy finale that has our gang racing around a downtown cityscape straight out of Grand Theft Auto as they try to keep a valuable piece of technology out of the hands of a villainous terrorist (Djimon Hounsou, How to Train Your Dragon 2) while avoiding getting run down by Statham.  I’m skipping over a lot of plot twists and turns that I simply don’t have the time or the word count to explain in full…it’s beside the point anyway because the film is really about getting to that next action sequence.

I’ve no doubt that eighth, ninth, and tenth entries of this series will be produced and if they can maintain the forward motion of their predecessors I’m all in favor.  Leaving several loose ends dangling while tying up one big one, there’s more gas in this Furious tank and I’m happy to buckle up for more.

The Silver Bullet ~ Tomorrowland

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Synopsis: Bound by a shared destiny, a teen bursting with scientific curiosity and a former boy-genius inventor embark on a mission to unearth the secrets of a place somewhere in time and space that exists in their collective memory.

Release Date:  May 22, 2015

Thoughts: Shrouded in secrecy for the duration of its filming, we’re a little over a month away from Disney opening the gates to Tomorrowland and after two trailers I’m still not quite sure what we’re in for.  Now, in this spoiler-ready climate we’re living in today I think that knowing less is better and I have faith that director Brad Bird (Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and screenwriter Damon Lindelof (Prometheus, World War Z) have some magic up their talented sleeves.  With Hollywood heavyweight George Clooney (The Monuments Men) and rising star Britt Robertson (The Longest Ride, Cake) leading the pack, this stands a good chance at being the second boffo blockbuster of 2015 after the May 1st release of The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

The Silver Bullet ~ Max

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Synopsis: A dog that helped US Marines in Afghanistan returns to the U.S. and is adopted by his handler’s family after suffering a traumatic experience.

Release Date:  June 26, 2015

Thoughts: Warner Brothers is betting big on the Max moniker in 2015.  In May the studio releases their forever-in-production highly anticipated Mad Max: Fury Road and a month later Max arrives.  While the trailer, sadly, falls victim to the widespread epidemic of previews giving simply too much away, I think this one looks like a surefire winner, especially considering the massive popularity of the similarly war themed American Sniper (also released by Warner Brothers) in 2014.  The at-risk situations for man’s best friend will have even the most stoic gent sobbing into their hankies and Max looks ready to wring those tears out with the best of them. 

Movie Review ~ Woman in Gold

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Maria Altmann, an octogenarian Jewish refugee, takes on the government to recover artwork she believes rightfully belongs to her family.

Stars: Helen Mirren, Ryan Reynolds, Katie Holmes, Daniel Brühl, Elizabeth McGovern, Jonathan Pryce, Tatiana Maslany, Charles Dance, Max Irons, Frances Fisher

Director: Simon Curtis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:

Review: For Oscar winning star Helen Mirren, Woman in Gold probably looked like a sure bet.  Here was a true life tale of a woman battling painful memories from her childhood in her quest to take back what is lawfully hers and teaming with a young upstart lawyer to do so.  Throw in some courtroom drama and a lovely series of period-set flashback sequences and the Dame was likely flashing that wickedly smug smile of hers to any passerby on the street.

So how does Woman in Gold come across so phony, so airless, so totally beneath her talents?  It’s all in the surroundings, my friends…all in the surroundings.

As an attorney introduced to Maria Altmann (Mirren, The Hundred-Foot Journey, RED 2) by a mutual acquaintance (his mother, played by Frances Fisher, who hopefully pocketed a nice paycheck for her five minutes of screen time) Ryan Reynolds (A Million Ways to Die in the West, Ted) spends the first half of the film playing second fiddle to Mirren’s old biddy of a client.  She wants to reclaim a series of paintings by family-friend Gustav Klimt, the well regarded artist responsible for the painting known as Woman in Gold.  Maria knows the titular character as her aunt Adele, a beauty that died tragically young but with a visage immortalized in the gold leaf heavy work.

Forced out of her home and homeland by Nazi invaders, she came to know that the paintings that adorned the walls of the stately apartment owned by her wealthy family were seized and later displayed in one of Austria’s most renowned galleries.  As a way to retrieve some semblance of a family legacy, Maria joins the famous legal battle in the late 90s that sought to restore the countless works of art stolen by the Nazis to the Jewish families they originally belonged to.

No doubt about it, all the elements for a finely tuned drama were available to everyone involved but what a mess they make of it.  From the tin-earned dialogue courtesy of Alexi Kaye Campbell to the ham-handed direction of Simon Curtis (My Week with Marilyn) the final product is a teeter-totter of a film with some very good elements unable to overcome the larger weaknesses that weigh the whole thing down.

The first problem is Mirren’s co-star.  Reynolds has never been what you’d call an emotional heavy in his roster of roles up until now, trading on his good looks and frat boy “charm” in place of lines delivered with any semblance of sincerity.  Reynolds has carved a nice little career in comedies and the occasional superhero bomb film (Green Lantern, X:Men Origins: Wolverine) but his dramatic roles have been scarce.  There’s clearly a reason for that.

A bizarre party of random familiar faces dot the supporting cast, most of whom can’t make heads or tails of their roles which are little more than walking plot devices for Reynolds and Mirren to do their thing.  I have to believe that most of Katie Holmes’s role was removed in editing…how else can you explain her character (Reynolds’s wife) dropping in only to have the occasional child and reciting lines that, and I’m paraphrasing slightly here, “Here’s what you’re going to do.  You’re going to drop me off at the hospital so I can have this baby and then you’re going to Washington D.C. because it’s the right thing to do.”  The scenes between Holmes (Batman Begins) and Reynolds are awkward to sit through because they’re meant to be emotionally driven yet the film never establishes anything about them as a couple so we don’t care about what they’re going through.

Jonathan Pryce (Tomorrow Never Dies) and Elizabeth McGovern turn up as various judges that Mirren and Reynolds appear before.  Pryce is supposed to be a member of the Supreme Court but for the life of me I can’t figure out which one.  McGovern, the wife of the director, obviously did her husband a solid and donned a robe for her brief, yet enjoyable, cameo.  There’s also Brit Charles Dance (Dracula Untold) doing the most head-scratching Kentucky-fried accent you’ve ever heard and several minor doughy-faced European males feebly sketched as villains that won’t relinquish Maria’s beloved painting.

The good news is that a good chunk (though not nearly enough) of the run time is devoted to Maria’s flashbacks to her youth when she’s played by Tatiana Maslany (The Vow).  Not only does Maslany look strikingly like Mirren but she makes it feel like Mirren modeled her performance off of Maslany and not the other way around.  These flashbacks are where the real gold lies in a film that’s otherwise very paint by numbers.  Another positive to mention is that these flashbacks are almost entirely in German, resisting Hollywood’s penchant for being afraid of using subtitles.

Had the movie been set in the past with brief glimpses of the present, Woman in Gold may have been an overall better film.  Saddled with weak performances (Maslany and Mirren notwithstanding), a hokey-pokey script that feels like the first draft of an intro to screenwriting assignment, and a director that can’t make lemonade out of these lemons, it’s a pure pyrite affair.

The Silver Bullet ~ Spectre

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Synopsis: A cryptic message from Bond’s past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization. While M battles political forces to keep the secret service alive, Bond peels back the layers of deceit to reveal the terrible truth behind SPECTRE

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Thoughts: First things first…if you haven’t seen 2012’s Skyfall yet I’d suggest not watching this teaser for the next installment in the James Bond franchise. Not that it gives a lot away, but I found more than a few references to the previous film that may spoil a few of the more intriguing wrinkles the 23rd 007 introduced. For Bond’s 24th outing, director Sam Mendes and star Daniel Craig (Casino Royale) are hoping to capture that same lightning in a bottle that made Skyfall so very, very entertaining. From the looks of it, they’re headed down a similar path to success…because this is a wonderful tease at what audiences can expect come November. As a huge Bond fan (check out Bond-ed for Life), I’m anxiously awaiting this one.