The Silver Bullet ~ The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

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Synopsis: Katniss Everdeen reluctantly becomes the symbol of a mass rebellion against the autocratic Capitol.

Release Date: November 21, 2014

Thoughts: We aren’t that far off now from the beginning of the end for the tale of Katniss Everdeen. Though I’m no fan at all of the recent popular trend of splitting every film franchise written as a trilogy into four movies, in the case of this second sequel to The Hunger Games it may turn out to be a good thing. I’ve yet to read the book the film is based on (choosing instead to read it closer to the release date) but fans of the series have always been divided as to where Mockingjay stands against its printed predecessors with some loving it and some condemning it. So there’s room in two movies for the makers to right some potential wrongs devotees of Katniss and her quest may still be smarting over. It’s going to be a mega-watt blockbuster no matter what…but will Part 1 be more than a device to set the stage for the final hurrah? 

Check out my review of The Hunger Games here

Check out my review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire here

Check out my review of the teaser trailer for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 here

Interview ~ Ira Sachs

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Photo courtesy of Getty Images

 

Love is Strange is the new film from director Ira Sachs and it’s one that’s been getting major buzz since premiering earlier in 2014 at the Sundance Film Festival.  In the last few weeks the film’s ridiculous R rating has come into question from groups claiming the MPAA’s decision reeked of homophobia.  With no sex, nudity, violence the rating does seem, to this critic, to be another example of the secretive MPAA applying a double standard to films that may not follow their values.

No ratings or awards talk was discussed in my interview with the warm, genial Sachs early in the morning on August 12.  He was in town for a quick round of interviews and a visit to the Walker Art Center before taking to the skies spreading Love all around.

Love is Strange tells the story of New Yorkers Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) who find themselves newly married then separated after George is fired from his teaching post.  Only days after their wedding their family and friends now have to come together to help figure out how to help their two friends.

 

Your previous films (Leave the Light On, Forty Shades of Blue) seem to me to be cautionary tales regarding love with some dark, rough edges.  Love is Strange, however, seems to have a more positive outlook on relationships.  Was that an intentional shift?
That is completely true and I think it’s because I’m at a different stage in my life and I have different feelings about love.  For the first time I really feel optimistic about the possibilities of love to grow and blossom…and I think that’s been hard won, for me specifically also as a gay man it’s something that generationally we had to learn was possible.  So this film comes out of at time in my life where I’ve married my partner, we’ve had two kids, we’re raising the kids with their mom who lives next door…and I can imagine this being a good thing.  That’s where the film came out of…wanting to make a romantic love story.

In a recent interview you noted that your inspiration for the film were several long term relationships in your own extended family as well as films like Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives (critics note: which I coincidentally watched right before popping in my Love is Strange screener).  Do you find people, gay or straight, identifying with these characters?
I think a lot of people identify with the film for a number of reasons. This is a picture about a couple in a long term relationship and it was as inspired by my mother and stepfather as much as anyone else.  I think they see themselves in little moments between Ben and George, certainly.  And the similarities are almost as interesting as the differences. Ultimately, I’m a cinephile and film becomes part of my collective memory.  If you do your job right you’re taking them all in and speaking with your own voice.

What was the collaboration like with your screenwriter Mauricio Zacharias?
I think Keep the Lights On was definitely a dark film but it was a film about self-discovery.   It came out of a time in my life that was not dark…meaning when I made it I was very open.  And I think that Mauricio and I meet at that point in our lives.  We’re now finishing a third in a New York trilogy and we have a wonderful shared interest in people, and stories, and movies.  He’s the godfather of my son and we share qualities and beliefs – it’s very important in collaborations that you share human values because it makes for a much easier time together.  Not just in creative relationships but in love relationships – right?  It’s so much easier if your basic values are in line.

What I found especially interesting in the film were the supporting characters, how richly etched they were.  Each seemed to have a moment that made me want to know more, want to watch whatever movie they were entering after leaving this one.
For me, every person in the frame really does have my interest.  To the point in which there is a concert scene where you see a bunch of portraits of people you don’t ever see again…but for that moment the film values them.  As a filmmaker I try to be attentive to each individual and that’s in line with humanist tone of the film.  There isn’t a hierarchy of importance among the characters.

Living in New York, you have access to a wealth of talented actors from the stage (like Adriane Lenox, John Cullum, Harriet Harris, etc) and I know that both John Lithgow and Alfred Molina have strong roots in the theater.  Was there a rehearsal process before filming began?
My background is actually theater; I was a theater director in college and high school.  When I got into film, one of the things I learned from Sydney Pollack (executive producer on Forty Shades of Blue) is that he gave me permission not to rehearse.  He didn’t tell me to do that but I began to understand that for myself I wanted the actors to be really ready, feel comfortable, confident, and well taken care of but not to know what they were going to do.  Not to pre-consider subtext, we don’t talk subtext at all because the minute you talk subtext you begin to play subtext.
So what I do is that I meet with everyone individually and spend time talking through the script.  John, Alfred, and I had dinner and a steakhouse and just talked about our lives, trying to get comfortable.  Then you get on set and a production day is you shoot one scene for eight hours…that’s enough rehearsal.  I like it all to be in the moment of shooting, and that’s the texture I’m able to get in my films through that process.

It seems in the last few years Hollywood has begun to embrace the fact that romantic leads don’t have to be hunks and starlets in their pre-30s.  That veteran actors in their 50s and 60s can tell/sell a story as rich (or richer) than their younger counterparts.  Do you notice that shift as well?
One thing I’ve noticed on the other side for example, (he speaks directly into the recorder) “Sorry John and Alfred” but you don’t get covers of magazines…because covers of magazines won’t go over 30.  I will say that this was an independent film, not financed even with this cast from Hollywood.  And now Hollywood has embraced the film because they see that there is a market for it.  But they don’t finance the film and that’s an interesting place as a filmmaker because you really have to find your way in order to keep going.

Do you have to think about that when making films now?  I mean, making films independently is great but with then having to sell the film and thinking about promotion, does all of that come into play when creating the final product?
I’m always trying to make a movie that people will connect to.  In this case, I also benefit by having wonderful actors that are also very good at comedy.  There’s an access point which is humor and that’s something we knew going into it that’s important to their roles — they really do have exquisite comic timing within a dramatic film…

…and that winds up lending the film dramatic moments that really feel sharp.  We know how John Lithgow can flip from comedy to drama but there’s a restraint on both ends of his spectrum here that winds up giving him one of the best roles of his career.
There is a restraint and that’s something John and I talked about very early on…that this would be a very different kind of Lithgow.  What we see now is that he is very good, brilliant really, at delivering a naturalistic performance.  It’s just not what he’s been asked to do previously, it’s not what Third Rock from the Sun wanted.  It’s such a different palette and yet, the skills are evident.

After the success of Keep the Lights On, was this an easier film to get made?
It was easier.  It wasn’t easy…but it was easier.  Ultimately it was 26 individuals, 23 of which were gay and lesbian.  The majority of those were retired lesbian businesswomen that connected with the film.  They saw it as the story of same-sex marriage and felt that it was also a film women would connect to and parents would connect to.  And they’ve been right…they’re businesswomen for a reason and they had a good assessment of what the film could be.

Though it’s not the main subject of the film, one event that becomes a catalyst for your characters is when George loses his longtime job as a music teacher at a parochial school when he marries his partner.  It’s a story that seems to be happening repeatedly all over the country.  George could have been fired for any number of reasons so were the particulars included as a way to highlight what’s going on?
We had read of a case in the Midwest and that seemed to be the starting point of the story but I knew it was not the story itself.  One of the things I find interesting about Ben and George is that they aren’t individuals who then fight back.  They’re not taking it to the streets or joining ACTUP; that’s not who they are.  There’s a humility to them that I think is very much about this kind of class and this kind of age that I see in a city like New York.  They’re average people.  They’re going to find a new way to live their lives…but as themselves.
The film is about a lot of things.  It’s about discovery but it is about loss too…and acceptance of that loss to some extent.  For me it’s written from the perspective of being in the middle of my life and seeing my parents’ generation coming to their later chapters and having to face that head on.  Being a parent, I look at my children and they don’t know anything about loss…which is why I have a young character discovering those emotions of something so fresh for the first time.

 

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Check back this weekend for my review of Love is Strange, opening at Landmark’s Edina Cinema on September 5.

The Silver Bullet ~ All That Jazz (1979)

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Synopsis: Director/choreographer Bob Fosse tells his own life story as he details the sordid life of Joe Gideon, a womanizing, drug-using choreographer.

Release Date:  December 20, 1979

Thoughts: It took me a few viewings to truly “get” Bob Fosse’s non-traditional musical drama that’s really a barely veiled re-telling of his own rise to fame and glory first as a Broadway choreographer and then as an Oscar winning director.  Fosse won his Oscar six years prior for Cabaret and was nominated again two years later for Lenny.  He nabbed his third and final nomination for All That Jazz and had Kramer vs. Kramer not been such a major force of nature that year, Fosse and the film both would have taken the prize (sorry, Apocalypse Now, it was never going to happen).  As good as Best Actor winner Dustin Hoffman was in Kramer vs. Kramer, Roy Scheider (JAWS) delivers a performance without peer as Fosse’s screen alter ego that literally dances himself to death.  Though the overall message may be more Grim Reaper than Happy Jazz Hands, it miraculously steers clear of the morbidity it inches ever closer toward.  Ending with arguably one of the best finales in any motion picture ever, the film gets better each time I watch it.  My Criterion BluRay is arriving any day now and I can’t wait to watch Fosse’s masterpiece again…and again…and again.

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.