Movie Review ~ Vacation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Rusty Griswold takes his own family on a road trip to “Walley World” in order to spice things up with his wife and reconnect with his sons.

Stars: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Chevy Chase

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Like the memories of a long-ago family road trip, watching the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies have a special place in my mind.  I’ll never forget hearing my dad howl with laughter watching Chevy Chase strap a dead body to his car in the original Vacation from 1983.  I also remember my parents fumbling with the VCR remote to fast forward through some of the racier parts of 1985’s European Vacation.  And I can’t count how many memories are associated with the multiple annual viewings of 1989’s Christmas Vacation. Vegas Vacation from 1997?  Eh, I think I saw it on an airplane once…and I won’t even deign to watch the 2003 TV Movie Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.

So you have to understand that I approached this reboot/sequel of the Vacation franchise with a side eye glance and full on arched eyebrows.  While the franchise didn’t have a spotless track record I didn’t want another inferior sequel to sully the good times of the past.  Gradually, I started to come around once the casting came together and several funnier-than-they-should-have-been previews were released.  Still…what’s to say that all the funny bits weren’t crammed into the trailers just to get unsuspecting butts in seats?

Well, the summer Vacation of 2015 is a nice throwback to the one that started it all and while many of the funny bits were tipped off in early trailers, I’m pleased to report that most of these jokes are taken a step further in the finished product and it has a healthy amount of raucous material heretofore yet unseen.

Is the ride clear of bumps?  Oh goodness no.  Thankfully, the film is so packed with gags (and a few gag worthy moments) that these rough patches are cleared in time for a better joke to land.

Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms, We’re the Millers, another in a long line of actors that have played the character, something the film delightful acknowledges) is, like his dad, a hard-working family man that just wants to eek out the best kind of life for his wife and two sons.  Working as a pilot in a bargain airline, he looks forward to the family togetherness of a yearly summer cabin retreat.  This year is going to be different, though.  Noticing a lack of excitement in the same old routine and feeling nostalgic for his family trips, he ditches the cabin idea and invests in a tricked out rental car to carry his tribe to Walley World…the destination of the first film that paved the comedic way for all trips to come.

Rusty’s wife (Christina Applegate, a good straight-man, er, woman, to Helms’s dopey simpleton) wished for a Paris trip for two but goes along with her husband’s plans in hopes of reigniting a spark in their marriage.  Their sons are post-pubescent Skyler Gisondo (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), a hopeless romantic, and pre-pubescent Steele Stebbins, a foul-mouthed nightmare that lives to torture his older brother.  All three would rather be anywhere else than road-tripping it across the country with the good natured head of their family.

As in the original, the road to Walley World isn’t an easy one and the Griswolds encounter a host of comedic roadblocks along the way…from hazardous waste ponds to a drunken sorority charity event to a detour to meet up with Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann, The Other Woman) and her bo-hunk husband (Chris Hemsworth, Cabin in the Woods, who gets the best visual joke with the most, um, girth).   There are nice nods to the first film that I won’t spoil here and while it starts to run out of steam near the finale the ride up to that point has been more memorable than you’d care to admit.

Ironically, the worst part of this new Vacation are the two holdovers from all of the previous films…Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.  Popping up late in the game to offer some unnecessary words of wisdom, it’s a sequence that was included with the best of intentions but comes off as superfluous, especially considering that this film seeks to establish itself on its own four wheels.  It doesn’t help that Chase looks like he took one too many extra scoops of mashed potatoes and D’Angelo’s plastic surgeon went a little wild with the Botox.

Directors and co-writers John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) start things off with a laugh in a fun (if low-brow) credit sequence and keep things light, there’s no villain of the film and the only problems that pop up are of the Griswold’s own making.  Helms and Applegate are terrific comedians and don’t oversell the material – here’s hoping this Vacation is well received to get a holiday sequel on the books.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Freeheld

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Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Release Date: October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice) might want to pick out another redhead friendly clothing ensemble because Freeheld could nab the actress another season pass for end of the year rewards. Starring alongside fellow Oscar nominees Ellen Page (The East), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel), this true life drama concerns the fight for equality by two lesbian life-partners. While the trailer dips into some TV-movie-of-the-week-ish maudlin speechifying, I’m hoping that screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who penned the similar Philadelphia, also Oscar nominated) finds the honesty in the midst of the sentimentality.

The Silver Bullet ~ Brooklyn

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Synopsis: In 1950s Ireland and New York, young Ellis Lacey has to choose between two men and two countries.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Thoughts: After making an impressive (and Oscar-nominated) debut in 2007’s Atonement, Saoirse Ronan has found herself in a diverse line-up of roles/films that have shown she’s not a one-trick pony.  From the post-Twilight teen romance The Host to Wes Anderson’s zany masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel to the bold (and woefully underseen) How I Live Now, Ronan seems to favor keeping her options and not being pigeon-holed in any one genre.

Tackling another period piece in Brooklyn (based on the novel by Colm Tóibín), Ronan looks like she has another small winner on her hands.  Then again, I’m a sucker for films set in this era so it’s not a shocker that I’m looking forward to this tale of an Irish immigrant making a go of it in 1950s New York City. Director John Crowley last helmed the so-so Closed Circuit in 2013 but his screenwriter is Nick Hornby (About a Boy, Wild) who knows a thing or two about what it takes to bring a novel to life.  Arriving after the summer din and before the holiday rush, here’s hoping it’s as good as it looks.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Revenant

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Synopsis: The frontiersman, Hugh Glass, who in the 1820s set out on a path of vengeance against those who left him for dead after a bear mauling.

Release Date: December 25, 2015

Thoughts: You can tell the summer season is nearing its end when the movie previews shift from action spectacular blockbusters to films aiming for awards season glory. Already this week we’ve seen Joy, David O. Russell’s bid for a best director Oscar nomination and now comes the newest film from the most recent winner, Alejandro González Iñárritu (Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). It also marks Leonardo DiCaprio’s first film in two years after The Wolf of Wall Street, surely an effort he hopes will nab him his fifth nomination. I’ve always found DiCaprio to be a good actor that takes himself perhaps just a tad too seriously, a reason why Oscar gold has eluded him all these years. Teaming with Iñárritu is a wise choice as he’s known to push actors out of their comfort zone…just the thing that DiCaprio has needed for some time. Co-starring Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), Domhnall Gleeson (About Time), Will Poulter (We’re The Millers), and Paul Anderson (Passion) there are some stunning images in this first look at The Revenant…this one looks like a tough watch but Iñárritu and his cast have their work cut out for them.

The Silver Bullet ~ Joy

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Synopsis: Joy is the story of a family across four generations and the woman who rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: Here’s the deal: I loved Silver Linings Playbook, the first film that brought together Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: Days of Future Past), Bradley Cooper (Aloha), and director David O. Russell and I hated American Hustle, the film that reunited the three.  So my interest in Joy is marked with more than a little trepidation.  On the one hand, it places the best thing about Playbook and Hustle (Lawrence) front and center, telling the true life tale of the woman that invented the Miracle Mop.  On the other, I’d hate to see it drown in its own love of self which was what torpedoed Hustle for me.  It looks like a wild ride, one everyone in Hollywood is waiting for to see if Lawrence finds herself in the Oscar race yet again.

The Silver Bullet ~ Sisters

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Synopsis: Two sisters decide to throw one last house party before their parents sell their family home.

Release Date:  December 25, 2015

Thoughts: Long-time friends Amy Poehler (Inside Out) and Tina Fey (This is Where I Leave You) were a dynamic duo on the small screen during the time as co-hosts of Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live.  Bold comediennes, they played off of each other well and were the one thing you could count on from week to week to hit the bullseye with their observant comedy.  The relationship continued on into the big screen with 2008’s Baby Mama, a slight romp that didn’t really serve either of them very well.

Arriving in time for the 2015 holiday season, the two are back together with Sisters and while it looks like the latest entry in the “chicks can be raunchy too” genre, Poeher and Fey are so damn likable that I’m willing to toss some goodwill toward (wo)men their way since it’ll be Christmas-time and all.  I like that the actresses are playing against type, with Fey as the more out of control sister and Poehler as the more grounded one.  The trailer is a lively mix of spot the former SNL cast member and ok, it’s not all that funny…but there’s potential.

The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (Comic-Con Trailer)

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Synopsis: Fearing the actions of a god-like Super Hero left unchecked, Gotham City’s own formidable, forceful vigilante takes on Metropolis’ most revered, modern-day savior, while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs

Release Date: March 25, 2016

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the first teaser for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I wasn’t a huge fan of Man of Steel and was pretty reticent that we needed another Batman entry so soon after Christopher Nolan’s quite satisfying trilogy wrapped up. Well, an extended trailer released at the 2015 Comic-Con convention in San Diego has got my attention and while I’m still iffy on this sequel to a sub-par Superman reboot there’s a growing kernel of anticipation for this one that I can’t totally ignore. Like the recent preview for Suicide Squad, I was a little taken aback that the trailer was so long but while it shows audiences what they can expect from the March 2016 release, thankfully not every plot development has been laid out for us. Give it a look…I think, like me, you’ll like what you see.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Suicide Squad

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Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Release Date: August 5, 2016

Thoughts: One thing that’s always bothered me about the slate of Marvel movies released over the past several years is that they’ve all been so damn sunny. Sure, they’re fighting some pretty bad baddies and lives are certainly lost…but there’s a particular lack of edge that can sometimes result in the stakes being a little lowered. I’ve always leaned toward the darkness of the DC Comics world through outings with Batman and Superman…but next summer DC takes it a step further with Suicide Squad.

Our first look at the highly anticipated flick may clock in over three minutes but it seems to only skim the surface at director David Ayer’s vision of the bad side of justice. Ayer has delivered the goods in films like End of Watch and Fury so I’m especially excited to see him put those talents to work on this franchise starter. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) is getting the major press for his nightmare inducing take on The Joker but don’t forget that the film also stars Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Will Smith (Winter’s Tale), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and a few other not-so-surprise cameos that live within this universe.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Finest Hours

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Synopsis: The Coast Guard makes a daring rescue attempt off the coast of Cape Cod after a pair of oil tankers are destroyed during a blizzard in 1952.

Release Date:  January 29, 2016

Thoughts: I’m happy to see that the Walt Disney Studios continues to give a fair share of their time to produce live-action films to balance out their animation division.  True, I think the time has passed for the classic entertainment of their hey-day of the ‘50s and ‘60s but they seem committed to releasing stories that resonate with audiences.  It’s also true that the efforts can be hit or miss.  I loved 2015’s McFarland U.S.A. but was fairly underwhelmed with 2013’s Million Dollar Arm…thanks to Jon Hamm’s lackluster leading man performance and story told from the wrong perspective.  The director of that film, Craig Gillespie, is on board for Disney’s 2016 film The Finest Hours and it already looks like an improvement over his previous effort.

The true life tale of the “most daring rescue attempt in Coast Guard history”, this period piece boasts a nice assemblage of character actors and Chris Pine (Into the Woods) as the leading man.  As usual, I think the trailer is too long and gives too much away for a film of this nature…but if the final product captures that old-school Disney storytelling magic all will certainly be forgiven.

Movie Review ~ Amy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Amy Winehouse in her own words, featuring unseen archival footage and unheard tracks.

Stars: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27 I, along with the rest of the world, mourned the loss of a talented artist taken before her time.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the belief that the singer’s much publicized struggles with drugs and alcohol had led to her demise and this was a case of Winehouse making her bed and then lying in it.  I cringe at that callousness now, especially after seeing Amy, the new documentary on Winehouse’s rise to fame and the ultimate price she paid for the life she led.

I was late to the Winehouse game so by the time the singer was nearing her end I was just coming into the appreciation for her talent as a songwriter and her haunting vocals.  This was a singer that knew real pain and could express through music and lyrics the way she was feeling in a way that few artists can truly tap into.  Her addiction to booze, hard drugs, and various men in her life that didn’t have her best interest at heart produced prodigious music but also great pain.

Director Asif Kapadia has compiled a strong documentary from voiceover interviews, home movies, private videos, and television clips to piece together how Winehouse first made it big and what contributed to her dying before she was 30.  Winehouse’s family have distanced themselves from the finished film and it’s no shocker why because Kapadia’s narrative clearly implicates some complicity by those closest to Amy.  Her father especially gets the brunt of it as the film shows him cozying up to his daughter like a friend rather than a parental figure.  We can’t know truly how much her family tried to help her with her vices, but Kapadia’s film indicates they could have done more.

Even without the outside factors that infiltrated her system, it’s clear that Winehouse battled other demons throughout her short life.  Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and an obsession with perfection were only heightened when under the influence of narcotics.  She idolized jazz singer Tony Bennett and in one harrowing sequence she gets the opportunity to record a duet with him and nearly blows it when she can’t figure out how to deliver her vocal track.  This and other sound booth videos show a vulnerability to Winehouse that makes it even more difficult to know where her life ended.

When she died, Winehouse joined the infamous 27 Club with the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison…all musicians that passed away at 27.  We won’t ever know what she could have done with her talent but in those few short years she burned, she burned bright and left behind an all-too brief legacy of her artistry and a cautionary tale of a life led by excess.