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.

The Silver Bullet ~ Boychoir

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Synopsis: Completely out of his element, a young boy finds himself in a battle of wills with a demanding Choir Master who recognizes a unique talent as he pushes him to discover his creative heart and soul in music.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Coming so close on the heels of the well-received Whiplash, I can’t help but think that Boychoir looks like a mixture of that awards-lauded film and Mr. Holland’s Opus, the saccharine hit from 1995.  Now, with a cast that includes Oscar winners Dustin Hoffman (director of Quartet) and Kathy Bates (Tammy) (not to mention a rare screen appearance by Terms of Endearment Oscar nominee Debra Winger) I’m not going to dismiss this one outright because I love a good inspirational story as much as the next slow-Rudy-clapping guy in the seat behind me.  Still, I feel like I already know where this one is headed and can predict that though Boychoir’s tune may be pleasant, it won’t be stuck in my head for days to come.

The Silver Bullet ~ Iris

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Synopsis: A documentary about fashion icon Iris Apfel from legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Renowned documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles passed away in early March, but not without leaving audiences with one final work.  Though Albert, along with his brother David (who passed away in 1987) are best known for their jaw-dropping cult doc Grey Gardens, they were responsible for dozens of other fascinating biopics from features to short subjects.  Showing some of the same wry New York wit that was on display so lovingly in Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me, fashion maven Iris Apfel first popped up in the 2013 doc Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and she moves center stage for Maysles’ peek behind the style.  Looks like an appealing watch, made more intriguing by it being the swan song for a legendary documentarian.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Synopsis: Ethan and team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.

Release Date: July 31, 2015

Thoughts: I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several blogging years defending Tom Cruise. There’s a faction of audience members that can’t get past Cruise’s religious beliefs, wacky couch jumping tendencies, and somewhat self-aggrandizing attitude. Still…here’s the thing…the man knows how to make a movie. In fact, I’d say that Cruise has energetically come out of a mid-career slump of outings that were too serious and “important” and settled nicely into delivering popcorn chomping ready events that highlight his strengths. A lot of that renaissance was firmly cemented with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — maybe the franchise’s most enjoyable outing yet. I’ve got a good feeling about 2015’s upcoming fifth installment of Cruise’s spy series…and apparently so does Paramount Pictures. The studio moved it up from a prime Christmas Day release to an end of the summer bow that could be perfect time for box office gold. Reteaming Cruise (Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow) with his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack the Giant Slayer) and with familiar faces (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) returning and a new beauty (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules) on board this is one mission I’m more than happy to accept.

Movie Review ~ Cinderella (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When her father unexpectedly passes away, young Ella finds herself at the mercy of her cruel stepmother and her daughters. Never one to give up hope, Ella’s fortunes begin to change after meeting a dashing stranger in the woods.

Stars: Lily James, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Stellan Skarsgård, Derek Jacobi, Nonso Anozie, Holliday Grainger, Richard Madden, Sophie McShera

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I remember being none too plussed when it was announced that Walt Disney Pictures would be giving their timeless classic Cinderella the live-action treatment. Could you really blame a fella for worrying that the studio that turned their lovely Alice in Wonderland into a madcap mind meld that wasn’t even interesting to look at (it’s one of the few films in recent memory that lulled me to sleep behind my 3D glasses) would muck it all up again by sending another valued animated classic into the live-action void just in time for its 65th anniversary?

Turns out that the studio saw the error of their ways (even though an Alice sequel is in the works…shudder shudder) and took a very traditional approach to bringing the tale of the orphaned girl that slept in the cinders who gets to go to a ball courtesy of a fairy godmother to the screen. Well, traditional isn’t really the right word because that suggests something perhaps more serviceable than memorable…and this Cinderella might just be a classic all its own.

With a script from Chris Weitz (A Better Life) that hits all the proper beats of Charles Perrault’s pristine fairy tale, this Cinderella is a gossamer gown of a film that beats with a heart that’s true. It’s so rare these days to be able to describe a film as celebrating goodness without passing out an airsick bag to anyone that’s listening but even at its most saccharine (and it does get ever so close to diabetic-shock inducing sweetness) there’s something so totally winning and, yes, enchanting to be found in every frame.

The look and feel that director Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) brings to the screen can be attributed to Branagh’s classy Shakespearean roots, as well as Haris Zambarloukos’s (Thor) unobtrusive cinematography, Dante Ferretti’s (Hugo) striking production design, and Sandy Powell’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) gorgeous costumes. All of these production elements work in harmony to create a world of fantasy that doesn’t seem so hard to believe in.

Branagh has assembled a cast that are across the board perfect for their roles. Though she’s playing a damsel in need of a Prince’s salvation (which could be enough to make any grrrl power supporter raise an eyebrow or two), Lily James never lets her Cinderella be pitied. Though suffering through the tragic loss of her beloved parents and forced into servitude to a wicked trio of women, she never loses the goodness inside her or the search for the goodness she believes is in everyone else. She’s matched well by Richard Madden’s restless Prince, handsome and quite dashing is the name of Madden’s game. James and Madden create some palpably chaste chemistry, so by the time the two meet when James makes the kind of entrance usually reserved for a Broadway stage, we long to see them kiss more than anything else.

Oscar winner Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) has a devil of a fun time as the wicked stepmother and is wise enough to understand that she’s in a sophisticated re-thinking of Cinderella, resisting the urge to camp it up. Hers is a porcelain doll of a performance, never showing the cracks underneath until very near the end when some believable rationale for her treatment of her stepdaughter is revealed. Blanchett gets to wear Powell’s most gorgeous frocks and the actress revels in every moment onscreen.

Wicked stepsisters Holliday Grainger (Anna Karenina) and Sophie McShera may not be as comical as their animated counterparts, but they balance it nicely by being such refreshingly clueless dingbats. Derek Jacobi has several wise scenes as the King and Nonso Anozie (The Grey) is particularly impressive as the Prince’s trusted right-hand man. I could have done without a largely unnecessary political subplot involving Stellan Skarsgård, it’s the one weak spot in an otherwise rock-solid film.

Oh yes…let’s talk about Helena Bonham-Carter’s (The Lone Ranger) daffy Fairy Godmother. Sporting some interesting veneers, the actress is a looney treat as she bibbity bobbity boo’s her way through her short appearance onscreen. Her transformation of Cinderella, several four-legged friends, and one pumpkin into a troupe fit for a palace ball is, of course, a highlight.

This is one of those movie-going experiences I call a 1-101. It’s perfect for any age and moves briskly enough to hold your attention…not that you’d be bored with the sumptuous costumes and shimmering magic on display. I rarely see movies twice in the theater but this is one I’m looking forward to experiencing on the big screen again. Don’t forget to stay until the end for some familiar tunes!

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Cinderella is great entertainment on its own…but the good feelings start even before the credits roll because Disney is also releasing a new Frozen short before the film and it’s nearly worth the price of admission itself.

Picking up shortly after the events of Frozen, Frozen Fever finds ice princess Elsa planning the perfect birthday party for her sister Anna. Things don’t go quite as planned as Elsa comes down with a…wait for it…cold. With sneezes that produce mini snowmen (Disney’s attempt to Minion-ize their cash cow of a franchise), Elsa sings her way through her party plans while Olaf and Kristoff help out in their own way. The song featured here is no Let It Go (parents, you’ll be glad!) but it displays the same playful fun that won the same songwriters an Oscar a year ago.

It’s a truly delightful 7 minutes, so don’t be late!

The Silver Bullet ~ Self/Less

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Synopsis: An extremely wealthy man dying from cancer undergoes a radical medical procedure that transfers his consciousness into the body of a healthy young man. But all is not as it seems when he starts to uncover the mystery of the body’s origin and the organization that will kill to protect its cause.

Release Date: July 31, 2015

Thoughts: Here’s something interesting, a futuristic sci-fi yarn that isn’t based off an idea that sprang from the mind of genre favorites Philip K. Dick or Robert A. Heinlein. I must admit I’m a sucker for these kinds of far out fantasy films that pose questions about where our technology and scientific advances are taking us, exploring how each new boundary broken carries its own set of disadvantages. I’m a fan of director Tarsem Singh (his visually arresting but otherwise wretched Mirror, Mirror notwithstanding) but find it curious this is being deposited smack dab in the middle of a highly anticipated summer season. Perhaps it will provide a nice bit of brainy counter-programming to the bombastic sure-fire blockbusters headed our way.

Movie Review ~ The Lazarus Effect

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of medical students discover a way to bring dead patients back to life.

Stars: Mark Duplass, Olivia Wilde, Sarah Bolger, Evan Peters, Donald Glover, Ray Wise, Amy Aquino

Director: David Gelb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 83 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  The last film director David Gelb helmed was the well-received Jiro Dreams of Sushi from 2011, a documentary about a legendary sushi master and his heir-apparent.  Bereft of any creative pulse, The Lazarus Effect sees Gelb go from sushi to turkey in one fell swoop because the only thing that needs reviving at the end of this cheap-o effort are the audiences.  Not that Gelb and company don’t try to keep you awake by introducing a host of loud noises and seizure inducing flickering lights at random points along the way…but it’s best to sleep with one eye open so you can make a break for the door by the time the credits roll.

In an unnamed research facility on an unnamed college campus, two scientists (Mark Duplass, Tammy and Olivia Wilde, People Like Us) and their assistants (Donald Glover, The To Do List and Evan Peters, X:Men – Days of Future Past) are joined by a co-ed (Sarah Bolger) filming a documentary on their research.  Strangely (and maybe thankfully), given Gelb’s documentary past and aside from some grainy opening footage there’s none of that hand-held camera nonsense until the film reaches its hyperactive finale when the camera swoops around like it’s been tethered to a ceiling fan.

The scientists are working on a formula to re-animate dead animals…all because they eventually want to be able to “give doctors more time” to heal near-death human patients.  The first of many scientific miscalculations, the reasoning behind the research comes across more like the movie pitch it most certainly is.  Even Duplass and Wilde seem to have trouble making it through relaying their theories of resurrection without cracking a smile.

Now is a good time to really break down how much The Lazarus Effect will remind you of other movies:

Like Flatliners, the film is about a motley crew of apparently brilliant minds making a whole host of stupid decisions and pausing occasionally to talk about what’s on “the other side” and musing about what death really means.  Like Lucy, there are discussions about brain activity, how much of our brain we actually use, and what access to all of our potential would do to a person’s psyche.  Like Re-Animator and Bride of Re-Animator, the experimenters become the experimented when fate deals the kind of blow that necessitates speeding up the testing process and moving to human trials.  And like Hollow Man, the finale is a cat-and-mouse game where the group is locked in a lab and picked off one by one.

Screenwriters Luke Dawson & Jeremy Slater have Frankenstein-ed their script with so many other ideas that the only interesting thing about the movie becomes matching up the plot points to previously released films.  Eventually, the filmmakers totally give up and increase the volume and amount of times the lights are turned off.  Seriously, at one point I thought that the evil at work was simply an energy conservationist because the scariest thing they do is turn the lights off at the most inopportune times.

Sometimes in knock-off films like this some fun can be had in some well-crafted moments of bloody gore.  I get the feeling the movie was edited down to PG-13 territory because the way that the violence is cut away from suggests post-op censoring of the ickier bits.  There’s nary a drop of blood spilled and death either occurs off-screen or in a non-invasive method such as a twisted neck.

Hound dog faced Duplass is hardly the picture of the driven researcher he’s supposed to be playing.  Changing his intentions every ten minutes because the script tells him to, there’s a missed opportunity to give the character an edge so Duplass just sits on the middle of the fence for most of the picture.  Wilde is his Mozart-loving fiancé and research partner…though he never seems to sleep in the same bed as her as evidenced in three shots of her sleeping in the middle of a bed in the house they share.  It’s a strange thing to get hung-up on, I know, but it serves as an example of the lack of attention to detail from Gelb.  With a little over an hour to tell the story, there’s not time for much character development so the rest of the cast is hardly worth mentioning (though Bolger is perhaps the best of the bunch).

Between a heap of scientific mumbo-jumbo and sleepy performances by its B-grade cast, the only thing you could put in the pro column for The Lazarus Effect would be that it’s short (83 minutes…including a credit sequence that’s better looking than anything else onscreen) and goes by relatively quickly.  Made by Blumhouse Productions (The Purge, Insidious, Sinister) for the low fee of 5 million (yes, that’s now considered a low sum), the film likely won’t have any trouble making that money back from knee-jerk audiences merely in the mood for a cheap thrill.

Movie Review ~ The 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Live Action

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BEST SHORT FILM, LIVE ACTION

Aya
I was lucky enough to be able to watch these selections from the comfort of my own living room and Aya was the short I saved for last…mostly because of its running time (40 minutes).  This Israeli film (though most of it is in English) wasn’t quite what I expected it to be…and that’s a good thing.  I had heard that the movie was ponderous and ultimately of little substance but I thought it was a sweet tale of a woman who is mistaken for the chauffeur of a man traveling to Jerusalem for a music competition.  I could easily see the film, with its meet cute set-up and splendid performances being the basis for a rom-com remake in the U.S.

Boogaloo and Graham
Many a feature length film started off as a short (Oscar nominee Whiplash is a great example) and I always like to ponder which of the five nominees has the best shot of making a case for an expansion.  While Aya may have some legs as a remake, I’d say that as-is Boogaloo and Graham is the one film that I’d want to see more of as long as it brings along the same cast and director.  It’s the 70s in Belfast and two brothers are given baby chicks to care for by their farmhand father.  The mother is incredulous that the fowl are lavished with care while the father is happy that is boys are showing responsibility.  Played against the backdrop of the Troubles, the film feels like a chapter from a larger biographical conception.  A lovely film.

Butter Lamp
After watching Butter Lamp I can tell why it was included in the short list of nominees this year…and it’s for the last shot of the film.  Now, I’m not going to spoil it for you but it pivots around a reveal that’s meant to make a statement but actually feels like a sullying of the unique moments that came before it.  A photographer takes pictures of an array of nomadic Tibetans against a cornucopia of surreal backdrops.  I haven’t done enough research on this one to know how many actual actors were used but at times it felt like I was back watching the Documentary Short nominees and I had to remind myself that this was the Live Action Shorts.

Parvaneh
An immigrant girl from Afghanistan is working in Switzerland to make money that she can send back home to help with her ailing father.  Hearing of a place called Western Union that can easily transfer money to her home, she travels to Zurich where she encounters the good and bad that the city has to offer.  Rising above its standard-fare premise, the short is a pleasant and well-acted glimpse into 24 hours in the life of our titular character.

The Phone Call
This UK entry has two familiar names in its credits.  Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) plays a timid mouse of a woman that works at a grief center hotline.  She takes a call from a man (Jim Broadbent, Paddington) in great pain and their 20 minute discussion is the basis for this saccharine nominee.  Hawkins conveys a great deal of nuance as she converses with the suicidal man – you can tell that she’s dealing with her own social problems – and I liked that there was an unspoken internal dilemma of trying to do her job and understanding that perhaps she should just wait with him until the pills he’s taken have their effect.  The film mucks it up with a finale that feels safe and too eager to please.  Pity.

Movie Review ~ The 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

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BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECT

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1
The first nominee shown sets the bar so high that all of the others are already behind the eight ball before they even begin.  Following the men and women that answer the calls 24 hours a day at the Veterans Crisis Line, Ellen Goosenberg Kent’s documentary is a powerful glimpse into a workplace that is high tension and high stakes.  We only hear the side of the conversations from the workers and it’s incredible how, not ever hearing the voice on the other side of the line, we are brought right along as the staff goes above and beyond to make sure a veteran (or family of a veteran) in crisis knows they aren’t alone.  It’s a film that could easily have been politicized but instead lets the subjects speak for themselves.

Joanna
At times during Joanna’s 40 minute running length I forgot I was watching a documentary on a dying mother’s long good-bye to family…most especially her son.  The disease is rarely spoken of, instead the focus is on the conversations and experiences mother and son have, not all of them pretty but all resoundingly honest.  The cinematography is unexpectedly gorgeous and the construction is as good as any major motion picture I saw in 2014…though I did have a problem with the parts of the editing which seemed to jump back and forth in time without explanation.  Still, I can imagine when the young boy grows into a man he’ll feel blessed to have this film as a remembrance of his mother.

Our Curse
After Joanna, Our Curse is the second Polish film nominated for the Best Documentary Short and is director Tomasz Sliwinski’s personal account of the struggles he and his wife encountered after the birth of their son.  Diagnosed with Ondine’s Curse, the young baby stops breathing when he’s asleep…meaning that he’ll likely be on a ventilator his entire life.  Filmed by the parents, we bear witness to achingly private musings between the two on their hopes and dreams for their child as well as a harrowing sequence where they have to replace a tube to help him breathe.  That Sliwinski’s film ends on an uplifting note is one of the biggest surprises to come out of this batch of nominees.

The Reaper
Oh boy was I nervous about this one before going in.  Reading that this doc followed the life of a slaughterhouse employee in Mexico I was white knuckling it praying that they didn’t show death in graphic detail.  While the film goes to great lengths to show every grimy nook and cranny of the slaughterhouse, the actual shots of animals being slaughtered is brief and handled with respect.  While the film is made well, overall I was left cold by the subject.  A man of few words, his musings didn’t leave a lasting impression on me…it’s only when we see him at the end of the day that I felt any sort of connection between him and the material.

White Earth
The most puzzling inclusion (after The Reaper) is this documentary following families that relocate to the frozen tundra of North Dakota to work on the oil rigs.  It’s not about the men and women that toil away but the families (especially the children) that have to find their own path in a new environment.  The problem I had with White Earth was that it felt parsed down from a longer piece and I found myself missing the bigger picture details that seemingly were there but removed.  As it is, the stories and profiles offered are glorified nibbles of what could be a larger bite.

Movie Review ~ The 2015 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Animated

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BEST SHORT FILM, ANIMATED

Feast
I first saw this short before Disney’s Big Hero 6 and was struck by how much it seemed to be Disney’s animated answer to Boyhood.  Following a dog from his days as a puppy relishing in the single life with his bachelor owner through marriages and children, there’s also an element of Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree involved here as well.  The animation is swell (even if the 3D wasn’t working the first time I screened it and I ended up with a set of crossed-eyes) and who can resist an animated puppy?

The Dam Keeper
For my money, this is the short that felt the most complete to me and was delivered with the most heart.  Former PIXAR designers Robert Kondo and Daisuke Tsutsumi helmed this tale of a pig that lives and works in a windmill that keeps a local town from the brink of darkness held back by a damn.  All alone in the world, the pig carries on the work of his family during the night but also has to go to school during the day.  With his smudged face and dirty clothes, he’s bullied and teased…until a new friend appears and offers him happiness like he’s never known.  With animation that looks like an oil painting, The Dam Keeper has beautiful images to go with a touching tale.

Me and My Moulton
Based on director Torill Kove’s life as a girl growing up in Norway, Me and My Moulton is an often humorous but ever so pedestrian take on the biographical narrative.  With animation that feels straight out of educational cartoons from the 80s, there’s a feeling that the short has sprung to life from the doodles the young girl made in a sketch pad – which serves the story well but didn’t impress me as much as I thought it would.  It’s fine…simple but fine.

A Single Life
The shortest of all nominees this year, A Single Life is a clever little morsel focused on time-travel at the hands of a mysterious record.  It’s fast and funny but lacking in the kind of overall substance that voters would look for in rewarding the creators.  Actually, it would be better off as an ad that played before a YouTube video…because it comes on so strong that you’d think twice before clicking “Skip Ad” to get to your clip of Ellen Degeneres scaring her audience with the help of Justin Bieber.

The Bigger Picture
With its blending of animation and still life scenes, The Bigger Picture may be the most innovative of the five nominees but it was also the only one that had me checking my watch to see how much of it was left.  The story of two brothers caring for their elderly mother (one’s devoted, one’s careless), it’s a chilly little film from the UK that’s notable for what director Daisy Jacobs was able to accomplish but rather dull when compared to its fellow nominees.