Movie Review ~ The November Man

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An ex-CIA operative is brought back in on a very personal mission and finds himself pitted against his former pupil in a deadly game involving high level CIA officials and the Russian president-elect.

Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Bill Smitrovich, Will Patton

Director: Roger Donaldson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  It was only a few short weeks ago that my review for the trailer of The November Man appeared on this website, indicating my cautious optimism that this late summer action flick might be former 007 Pierce Brosnan’s welcome return to his James Bond/Thomas Crown roots.  Sadly, it serves only as a reminder that Brosnan’s cooly effortless action hero is a relic of the past, replaced by the aging and overly earnest titular character projected for audiences around the globe to (hopefully) not see.

I wasn’t aware of this until after the fact, but The November Man is based on the seventh book in a series of spy novels by the late author Bill Granger.  A pet project for Brosnan that finally moved into production after almost a decade of delay, it’s puzzling that the actor would opt to play a character so similar to Bond yet bring to the role none of the efficiency he lent the legendary spy in four films.

Instead, Brosnan makes the actors fatal mistake of attacking a deeply flawed character without really giving us a reason to understand why he’s all rough edges and fisticuffs.  Surely the script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek (Oblivion) doesn’t seem to mind that it has more plotholes than open road as it bounces from one bland location to another detailing a plot concerning Russian government officials and a possible US cover-up of war crimes.  It all feels like, well, a bargain paperback knockoff of a James Bond plot.

Now I’m not saying the movie doesn’t have some modicum of potential because as an audience member I’ve been craving a tidy action film with political intrigue and near-miss car chases through international locations for some time.  Yet The November Man’s execution is so unruly and unpleasant that it feels like a chore to sit through before you’ve had a chance to get to the bottom of your popcorn.

As sexist as the James Bond franchise has been criticized for being, it pales in comparison to the icky abject misogyny on display here.  Women are treated as mere objects and I think at one point every woman with a speaking line is dragged by her arm around a locale by a gruff man that calls her a word unprintable in full but begins with t and ends with wat.  As brutal as the violence is in the film (and with gunshots to the head and knife wounds galore the film is bloodier than necessary) it’s no match for the distasteful chauvinism on display.

If I’m being honest, I’ve never found Brosnan to be that impressive of an actor.  Though he filled the James Bond suit nicely (in GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day), Brosnan’s Bond wears thin on repeat viewings and the actor hasn’t found much success in his non-Bond endeavors.  I can see why tackling a character slightly to the left of Bond would be appealing but Brosnan’s teeth gnashing solemnity comes across as more him spoofing his spy thriller past than cutting new ground.

With his Sean Bean looks and Keanu Reeves acting chops, Luke Bracey makes for a lackluster adversary with the young actor unable to make even the simplest of dialogue seem convincing.  He looks too young to be a junior colleague of Brosnan’s well-worn spy and wearing an alarming amount of eyeliner he comes across as an indie-rocker more than the CIA killer he’s supposed to be playing.  An unfortunate subplot involving Brosnan and Bracey locking horns over items in their personal life adds fifteen minutes, one cat, and two extraneous characters to the proceedings.

I’m going to assume supporting players Bill Smitrovich and Will Patton got together and decided to pull one over on the hair team by asking that they switch hairstyles.  Smitrovich’s curly pate is swapped for Patton’s bald chrome dome…and that’s the only good idea either actor brings as both grow fatter as the film drones on from chewing the scenery.  Smitrovich in particular should be absolutely ashamed of himself…as should director Roger Donaldson for casting him.

If there’s one bright spot to the movie, it’s certainly Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) as a woman in need of saving by Brosnan’s off the grid spy.  Though the role is painfully lacking any sort of feminist assuredness, Kurylenko at least makes the wounded bird she’s playing somewhat sympathetic.  Chased by a female assassin (who looks like she was plucked from playing the lead role in a Moscow production of Funny Girl), Kurylenko gets the one true pleasing moment of the film as she brings one character to a nice dénouement.

Still, the film simply cannot overcome its wet noodle leads and a series of plot contrivances so ludicrous that I briefly considered breaking my spoiler-free rule and analyzing them further here.  Yet that would give the film more time than it’s worth because The November Man will be in the discount bin at WalMart before November 2014 is over.

The Silver Bullet ~ White Bird in a Blizzard

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Synopsis: In 1988, a teenage girl’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears.

Release Date:  September 25, 2014

Thoughts: Star Shailene Woodley has been on a roll ever since making an impressive bid for stardom opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.  In 2014 alone she’s been an action star (in the otherwise forgettable Divergent), broke YA hearts (as a cancer teen in The Fault in Our Stars) and now takes on another dramatic role in Gregg Araki’s coming of age tale White Bird in a Blizzard.  With Araki’s history of putting the squeaky clean youth of Hollywood through his adult blender, expect Woodley to mine new ground and bare all (literally) as a teen affected by the disappearance of her unbalanced mother (Eva Green, Cracks) in the late 80s. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Pride

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Synopsis: UK gay and lesbian activists work to help miners during their lengthy strike of the National Union of Mineworkers in the summer of 1984

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: Ever since The Full Monty, working class comedies from the UK have been making their way over to our shores to varying degrees of success. All are pleasing, no doubt but some are lighter than air and ultimately pretty inconsequential. I’m thinking Pride will fall squarely in the middle of the road and am hoping that it hasn’t revealed all of its laughs in the arguably entertaining trailer. With an ace cast like Bill Nighy (About Time) and Imedla Staunton (Maleficent) leading a colorful looking ensemble, if Pride plays its cards right it could join the long list of UK indie sleeper hits.

The Silver Bullet ~ Maps to the Stars

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Synopsis: A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.

Release Date: TBA 2014

Thoughts: How it is possible that Julianne Moore hasn’t taken home an Oscar yet?  Though rewarded with a handful of nominations over the years, she’s lost out on all of the big wins and I think it’s time we fixed that, don’t you?  Director David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone) does too and he’s offered Moore a real barnstormer of a role as a self-absorbed actress with a shot at the big time.  Moore (Carrie) took home the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and if early buzz it to be believed, we’ll see a lot more of the flame haired star when awards season rolls around in a few months.  Co-starring John Cusack (The Raven), Robert Pattinson (The Rover), Sarah Gadon (Enemy, What If), Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) the movie itself looks like your typical Cronenberg head trip…but more always helps things come into focus.

The Silver Bullet ~ Men, Women & Children

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Synopsis: A look at the sexual frustrations that young teenagers and adults face in today’s world.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: Earlier in 2014 Jason Reitman had what some consider his first real stumble with the coolly received Labor Day.  I was one of the few that seemed to absolve it from its awkward assembly and languid pacing because it’s clear that Reitman is a filmmaker that knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to say.  With October’s Men, Women & Children, Reitman is taking a page from the American Beauty experience and digging under the perfect veneer of a suburbia and its inhabitants.  With its tantalizing images played over a silky update of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, I get the feeling Men, Women & Children has the potential to truly put Reitman on the A list if handled correctly.

The Silver Bullet ~ This is Where I Leave You

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Synopsis: When their father passes away, four grown siblings are forced to return to their childhood home and live under the same roof together for a week, along with their over-sharing mother and an assortment of spouses, exes and might-have-beens.

Release Date: September 19, 2014

Thoughts: I’ve read Jonathan Tropper’s book that inspired this big screen adaptation and I can’t for the life of me see what would attract such appealing comedic names like Jason Bateman (Bad Words), Tina Fey (Muppets Most Wanted), Rose Byrne (Neighbors), and Kathryn Hahn (We’re The Millers). The novel, transparently written with a movie deal in mind, reminded me of a lackluster mid-season replacement pilot that NBC would have burned off in the dog days of summer. While occasionally funny in a depressing way, I couldn’t get past the workmanlike comedic set-ups and generic character sketches Tropper etched for readers. Here’s hoping director Shawn Levy (The Internship) and a cast that also includes Jane Fonda (Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding) and Adam Driver (What If) can make something of it all.

Movie Review ~ The Expendables 3

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Barney augments his team with new blood for a personal battle: to take down Conrad Stonebanks, the Expendables co-founder and notorious arms trader who is hell bent on wiping out Barney and every single one of his associates.

Stars: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Randy Couture, Terry Crews, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Wesley Snipes, Antonio Banderas, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, Kellan Lutz, Ronda Rousey, Victor Ortiz, Glen Powell, Kelsey Grammer

Director: Patrick Hughes

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 126 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I believe that part of being a balanced critic is to a) see most every film that comes your way and not just the latest blockbuster and b) being able to view a film for what it is and try to put yourself in the place of its intended audience. As a child of the 80s that grew up with action films featuring the headliners of these films, I was amped to hear they’d be brought together for The Expendables. When I finally saw the much-hyped film in 2010 I was awed by how ugly a film it was and how its one-joke premise stalled out before the first reel was done. Though 2012’s The Expendables 2 showed signs of improvement, it too faltered when it came to being more than the sum of its muscly, scar-tissued parts. It would be great to report back that the third film of the franchise finally knocked it out of the park but it’s actually a step backward, proving that logic, decent effects, and convincing performances are the true expendables on display.

Clocking it at an astounding 126 minutes and devoid of the CGI blood that pushed the first two entries into silly R-rated territory, The Expendables 3 feels neutered into a PG-13. Nothing much happens and nothing is truly at stake for our rag-tag bunch of mercenaries and certainly not for audiences. At least its predecessors had a little bit of loss to overcome…here the overstuffed script just puts everyone through the motions while making sure that every one of the hardly recognizable yet oddly familiar action star faces gets at least one zinger in.

Stallone (Escape Plan, and looking like he’s getting into character to play the title role for a live-action Droopey Dog) is as mush mouth as ever as the leader of The Expendables who are found as the film opens racing alongside a prison train to free Doc (Wesley Snipes). It’s one of the least exciting openers of any action film I’ve seen, though director Patrick Hughes tries to flash it up with a lot of flying fists, kicking legs, and a whopper of an explosion.

Hurtling into another mission that puts the crew face to face with a turncoat from their past (Mel Gibson, gleefully camping it up, whether you like it or not), Stallone and his men spend the rest of the film waxing nostalgic about the past, lamenting the fact that they’re getting older, and taking to task some new whippersnappers that are the next generation of Expendables…all the while being fired at by thousands of armed men that continually miss their shots.

Shot in Bulgaria (and numerous cockpit sets that appear lifted from a mall arcade), the film isn’t as dreadful to look at as the first film but achieves a new dullness thanks to lame green screen effects (I’m positive several of the big name stars weren’t in the same room when they filmed their scenes) and a non-existent visual style that renders the film almost black and white. Everything on screen feels cheap, from the cardboard sets to the CGI effects…leading me to believe that most of the budget went to the star salaries.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have a few things that keep it from being total crud. Snipes is a refreshing addition to the cast and he gets a nice moment of self-mockery that you’ll see coming but still enjoy. While it may have been a coup for Stallone to land Gibson and Harrison Ford (Working Girl), their presence is more of a curiosity to see than anything really exceptional. Speaking of exceptional, Antonio Banderas (Haywire) should get substantial credit for nearly walking away with the film as a hilariously eager strong-arm for hire. The rest of the gang and especially the new recruits are better left unmentioned, lest they take it as encouragement to continue in their acting careers.

With a built-in audience I expect we haven’t seen the last of The Expendables…and as the film dragged on I started to think of names that could be tossed around to star in future installments. I’ll keep those to myself so I can check off my own personal list, but if the goal is to continue to feature faded names from the past…Stallone is just getting started.

Movie Review ~ Alive Inside

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.

Director: Michael Rossato-Bennett

Rated: NR

Running Length: 78 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: It would be highly advised to have a box of tissues handy when taking in this moving documentary.

Looking into how the power of music can open doors to people locked away in their minds as they battle Alzheimer’s disease, Alive Inside maybe would have been better as a short subject feature because it tends to stall out when it moves beyond the people and into issues related to the system behind nursing homes and elder care in the US.

Thankfully, the film is short enough so that the tangents are few and we have more time to spend with the people director Michael Rossato-Bennett captures over three years as he follows Dan Cohen into nursing homes with his Music & Memory program. Using the music from iPods, Cohen finds out about the time these patients grew up and selects music that would speak to them in some way. Soon, audiences literally see people wake up to the world and the effect is the stuff of goosebumps and watery eyes.

Rossato-Bennett’s look into the creation of elder care and where our country is headed in terms of ages across generations provides some nice backgrounds, but the introduction of politics into the discussion seems a little gratuitous and out of alignment with the revelatory awakenings that give strength to the rest of the film. Pushed too far, the success stories can start to feel like supporting documentation for an agenda rather than inspiration for others to act in their own community.

Still, that may be reading too far into the situation and for the most part Alive Inside stirs the kind of emotions within that ring true and go deep. If you are headed to the theater to see this, check and see if they are participating in the iPod recycling program. It’s something you can do for your community that will benefit Cohen’s Music & Memory organization.

Movie Review ~ What If

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Wallace, burned out from a string of failed relationships, forms an instant bond with Chantry, who lives with her longtime boyfriend. Together, they puzzle out what it means if your best friend is also the love of your life.

Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Rafe Spall, Megan Park, Mackenzie Davis, Oona Chaplin

Director: Michael Dowse

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though I am appreciative that Daniel Radcliffe (The Woman in Black) continues to push himself out of his Harry Potter comfort zone, I’m less inclined to think of him as a romantic leading man…especially after seeing his awkward effort in the daffy rom-com What If. Points for trying, though.

Radcliffe’s off the mark performance isn’t the only thing wrong with What If, an adaptation of the play Toothpaste and Cigars, but it is the most troublesome in comparison. Romantic comedies live and die by their casting and if you don’t believe in one or both of the leads, the film has an uphill battle to climb. Reminding me more than a little of the breezy charm of (500) Days of Summer, What If tries to capture that same tone but only half makes it…succeeding (like Summer) mostly on the strength of its female players.

As is standard, Radcliffe’s Wallace meets cute with artist Chantry (Zoe Kazan, Ruby Sparks) at a party thrown by his friend/her cousin Allan (Adam Driver, Lincoln, with his Salvador Dali face). He’s heartbroken and single, she’s sorta happy and dating (Rafe Spall, Prometheus) yet a friendship blossoms. With a dash of trying to buck the When Harry Met Sally… stereotype that men and women can’t be just friends, Wallace and Chantry somehow make it work…until both are honest with themselves to see that there may be something there.

There’s a good nugget of a film here and I honestly think if Radcliffe and Driver had switched roles the film would have been better for it. Not that I’m a fan of Driver at all, he’s essentially playing the same obnoxious character from Girls, but at least he’d have been able to make Elan Mastai’s script hum along better than Radcliffe’s forced conversational approach.

As it is, Radcliffe is lucky that he’s paired with Kazan. Though I haven’t seen her in much, I was struck by how perfectly cast she was for the role. Showing that flawed and vulnerable doesn’t equate to weak, Kazan makes the character charming and offbeat enough in that twee sort of way that isn’t aggravating but earnestly winsome. She saves the film every chance she gets.

As Chantry’s sister, Megan Park is a nice dose of comedic relief and Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment) actually convinces us that Driver is appealing as the yin to his yucky yang. Spall gets the raw end of the deal playing the boyfriend with an arc that reads like a laundry list of bad boyfriend clichés (jealous, manipulative, etc)…it’s so much more interesting if the girl isn’t choosing between a louse and a Lancelot, right?

Another thing to note is that though the film has a playful edge as evidenced in a nice opening and closing animated sequence, it’s obsessed with toilet humor in a way that becomes unnerving. With its multiple references to excrement in various forms and textures, I half wondered if the original title wasn’t Everyone Poops.

Best, ahem, digested with an at-home viewing, What If is a pleasant flick to be sure but is unfortunately hampered by a miscast lead, an obnoxious supporting character, and fecal humor more suited for an Adam Sandler film. Will leave you asking “What if this was a better movie?”

The Silver Bullet {Flashback} ~ Toys (1992)

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Synopsis: When a military general inherits a toy making company and begins making war toys, his employees band together to stop him before he ruins the name of Zevo Toys forever.

Release Date: December 18, 1992

Thoughts: With the tragic passing of Robin Williams this week, I’ve seen a lot of people bringing up some of his more underappreciated film roles and thought I’d toss one out there as well. For every Mrs. Doubtfire Williams had a Bicentennial Man, for every Jumanji there was a What Dreams May Come, with each Dead Poets Society there was a Lee Daniels’ The Butler…the list goes on. 1992’s Toys is an oddball film to be sure that still doesn’t quite work for me but there’s something about the Oscar nominated design and the balanced performance of Williams that helps the movie click on more than a few occasions. I can’t imagine anyone else playing Williams’ zany role with quite the same amount of sensitivity – give this one a whirl and see how a good Williams can overcome a bad script.