Mid-Day Mini ~ Backdraft

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two Chicago firefighter brothers who don’t get along have to work together while a dangerous arsonist is on the loose.

Stars: Kurt Russell, William Baldwin, Robert De Niro, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Scott Glenn, Rebecca De Mornay, Donald Sutherland

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: R

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewBackdraft was one of those films that I responded to fairly well when I first saw it at a second-run theater in the summer of 1991.  Already familiar with the work of director Ron Howard (Parenthood) and as the proud grandson of a firefighter, I remember liking the drama created between two firefighting brothers and enjoying a secondary storyline involving an arsonist that seems to know a thing or two about setting buildings ablaze. 

Viewed nearly 22 years later (!),this film which once seemed epic to me now feels a little too soap opera-y, a feeling aided by the fact that it’s filled with some off-the-mark performances.  Don’t get me wrong, Howard stages some still impressive eye-popping sequences involving fire up close and personal but seen now there’s a curious lack of restraint that made the movie feel longer than it was.

Russell and Baldwin aren’t totally believable as brothers but they find some cohesion in their macho roughness that helps color the film  We’re told that Baldwin has flitted around a lot, much to the disapproval of his older brother who has followed their father’s career path and has become a respected fireman.  When the younger brother gets into the family business and is assigned to the same station as his elder sibling there’s some old wounds that re-open…especially when deadly fires start being set that Russell’s character may be involved with.

This being a Ron Howard movie, there’s a lot going on at all times and the large supporting cast of familiar character actors pop up here and there and are generally put to good use.  Sutherland (Ordinary People) has two short scenes as a jailed arsonist but makes the most of his onscreen time.  De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) and De Mornay (Mother’s Day) make the most impressive impact in their roles…the most fleshed out in Gregory Widen’s slight script.  While I appreciate Leigh for some of her more out of the box performances her work here is embarrassingly poor…

If the film has lost some heat over the last two decades, it’s only the fault of some changes in taste.  There was a time when these type of emotion-driven, large-scale films played quite well and there’s still value to be found in the film thanks to some strong performances (I forgot to mention that Russell is particularly good here) and Howard’s trademark immersive production design.  If the script could have been elevated a bit and some recasting done we may have had a film that weathered the furnace of time.

The Silver Bullet ~ Red 2

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Synopsis: Frank Moses and his motley crew of retired assassins return for a second outing.

Release Date:  July 19, 2013

Thoughts: In 2010, RED was an unexpected fall hit, propelling a sequel forward with much of the original cast in tow.  The nicely constructed first film was an oddball mix of action, comedy, and violence that played into the strengths of people like Bruce Willis while letting a star of Helen Mirren’s ilk go guns ‘a blazin’.  The sequel looks to be more of the same and in true Oceans 11 fashion more big names have been added to the list like Oscar winners Catherine Zeta-Jones and Anthony Hopkins.  With new director Dean Parisot (taking over for Robert Schwentke who had his hands full with R.I.P.D) I’m hoping the same light touch is maintained, making this second film the first of several sequels.

The Silver Bullet ~ The East

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Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities irrevocably changed after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

Release Date:  May 31, 2103

Thoughts:  Here’s an interesting one for you.  Writer/star Brit Marling has been slowly building a comfy career in indie Hollywood with high profile roles in lower profile films.  After a strong turn alongside Richard Gere in Arbitage, Marling re-teams with her Sound of My Voice director/collaborator Zal Batmanglij for this thriller focused on a woman that becomes immersed with a group out to expose eco problems within big corporations.  With an interesting support cast that includes Patricia Clarkson and  Alexander Skarsgård (Disconnect), Marling may have a breakthrough film on her hands.  Though the first preview made the film look a bit too pat, this second trailer indicates a taut little indie awaits us at the end of May.

Movie Review ~ Disconnect

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A drama centered on a group of people searching for human connections in today’s wired world.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Hope Davis, Frank Grillo, Michael Nyqvist, Paula Patton, Andrea Riseborough, Alexander Skarsgard, Max Thieriot, Colin Ford, Jonah Bobo, Haley Ramm

Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

ReviewDisconnect is that rarest of films…the kind that works like gangbusters while you’re soaking it in at the theater but one that gradually erodes away with each day that passes.  It would be easy (and fair) to call this Crash 2.0 or Crash Online as the film is an ensemble drama with intertwining plots that circle around a single topic.  Where Crash took a hard look at race relations, Disconnect takes a timely look at how the internet has worked its way into our lives with troublesome results.

As is the case with many of these films with large casts and multiple story arcs, some of them work well and some of them fall flat.  For me, the most effective of these involves a news reporter (UKer Riseborough, sporting a flawless American accent) doing some investigative journalism into underage teens using the internet to provide sexual favors/shows in return for gifts/money.  Lured into this life, these teens are exploited and put into dangerous situations and it isn’t long before the FBI gets interested in the reporter and her relationship with an older teen (Thieriot) that agrees to go on camera to tell his story.

Riseborough is a fascinating actress to watch and though she does equally good work in the sci-fi actioner Oblivion, it’s in Disconnect where we enjoy her more because the character has some interesting moral dilemmas to go through.  Thieriot is impressive too as he graduates from Disney-fied teen films to a raw and revealing look into some dark material.

There’s also a Catfish-y story about two young high schoolers (Ford and Avian Bernstein) that use Facebook to pose as a girl interested in an outcast (Bobo).  Not just cyber-bullying but using the boy’s desire to connect against him, the two take their joke too far and soon find lives and futures are put into question when their target goes to drastic measures to free himself from their humiliation.  Grillo (building quite the impressive resume recently with films like The Grey, End of Watch, and Zero Dark Thirty) and Bateman (Hit and Run, Identity Thief) are fathers that are directly affected by the actions of their sons and both do solid dramatic work.

The least effective section involves Patton and Skarsgard as a couple with a marriage in trouble further put to the test when they are the subject of identity theft.  Was it Skarsgard’s online gambling habit or Patton’s online support group friend that opened them up to having their bank accounts drained?  That’s the back and forth issue they bicker about a lot…leading them to a confrontation with a man (Nyqvist) that may have the answers to their questions.  Patton and Skarsgard don’t have the right chemistry to sell this and I found myself squirming anytime the movie shifted focus.

How these different stories connect are mostly interesting and maybe sometimes too convenient but I won’t spoil how these overlap lest it ruin some of the discoveries the movie reveals as it goes on. Director Rubin (of the great documentary Murderball) and writer Andrew Stern clearly used Crash as an inspiration for the resolution (everything comes to a head in one high-tension series of slow-mo throat grabbers) and for the most part the film works. 

It was on my way home and in the days since that I saw how manipulative the film was.  Though there’s a connection that most audiences will make with the movie, if you sit down and consider the film you’ll see some of the plot holes and disconnecting contrivances that don’t seem to be a big issue when the fast paced movie is being taken in.  Perhaps because I enjoyed the film so much at the time and thanks to several strong performances, I’m giving it a higher rating than it deserves.

Movie Review ~ The Lords of Salem

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Heidi, a radio DJ, is sent a box containing a record — a “gift from the Lords.” The sounds within the grooves trigger flashbacks of her town’s violent past. Is Heidi going mad, or are the Lords back to take revenge on Salem, Massachusetts?

Stars: Sheri Moon Zombie, Bruce Davidson, Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, Ken Foree, Patricia Quinn, Dee Wallace, Maria Conchita Alonso, Judy Gleeson, Meg Foster, Griffin Boice

Director: Rob Zombie

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  In his previous four films, director Rob Zombie was in it to win it.  A fan of old-school horror films, Zombie brought back a throwback nature to films like The House of 1,000 Corpses and its superior sequel The Devil’s Rejects.  These films were low down, dirty movies not for the faint of heart and established Zombie as a talent with an eye for the twisted.  Undertaking remaking the king of the slasher films, Zombie took a reboot of Halloween to a place I didn’t care for and then slashed through a sequel that managed to be even more vile – both of those movies really scared me, not so much because of any frights provided on screen but because of the lasting impression Zombie left with his shockingly violent killings.

So it’s pretty surprising that his latest effort seems so tame in comparison – it’s as if Zombie has gotten the need to shock out of his system and decided instead to focus on a more serious filmmaking exercise.  Clearly taking a page from Roman Polanski, Stanley Kubrick, and early Dario Argento, The Lords of Salem finds Zombie not so much holding back but moving forward.  It’s not a great movie but it shows continued growth from the filmmaker.

Zombie’s wife (with an acting style that’s passable at best, laughable at worst) is a radio DJ in Salem, MA —  a dreadlocked bohemian chick that loves her dog, has colorful tattoos, and likes to sleep in the nude no matter how chilly it is outside.  Working in a Mod-Squad type set-up on her radio show (Phillips and Foree are her fellow mic-men), they play death metal and generally roll off each other well.  It’s interesting that Sherri Moon Zombie is the most effective in these scenes…naturalistic and unguarded – it’s only when she’s working through dialogue on her own that she sounds like she’s reading the script for the first time and missed all the punctuation.

Living in the type of boarding house straight out of any number of 70’s possession flicks, Heidi gets sent a record from The Lords and when it’s played on the air it’s eerily dissonant instrumental music has a strange effect on Heidi and other women of Salem that happen to be listening at that time.  You see, Heidi is the descendant of a famous witch hunter and has opened the door for the witches to return and bring Satan back with them.

That’s the gist of the set-up and Zombie takes a good forty minutes to set his picture into true motion.  There’s something to be said for a focus on characterization before the odd manifestations start to take place…but the material and performances in this first act doesn’t rise to the occasion.  It doesn’t help matters that wild-haired Davison blusters his way through the film as an author interested in witchcraft who surprisingly knows very little about the town he’s grown up in and its storied history.

Aside from Sheri Moon Zombie and Davison, the film casts four interesting veteran actresses in memorable roles that pretty much steal the show.  As the big bad super high meanie witch, Foster (with those icy blue eyes) is buck naked for 98% of the film and seems to relish the artistic freedom that comes with it.  As three sisters that seem to be auditioning for a local production of Macbeth, Quinn (The Rocky Horror Picture Show), Stone (The Howling, Cujo), and especially Geeson (To Sir, With Love) are nearly worth the  price of admission – here are three established actresses that are game to play with what Zombie has given them.

Though his previous movies have creaked toward the two hour mark, this barely cracks the 90 minute plateau and all the better.  Zombie seems to have made it to the final reel before giving in to his previous stylistic trappings and decides to cram it all into a finale that features a lot of old lady nudity, ripped out intestines, and several strangely effective demonic images.

Even with all this it’s a slow film and I found myself fighting to keep my eyes open on more than a few occasions.  Let me be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Zombie tightening his reins and trying something different.  His last film, Halloween II, was way too violent for me and The Lords of Salem was overly languid to go along with.  Zombie picks and chooses his projects carefully so I’m hoping his next effort is a better balance of directorial narrative and the stylized violence and imagery he clearly is so adept at.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grown Ups 2

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Synopsis: After moving his family back to his hometown to be with his friends and their kids, Lenny finds out that between old bullies, new bullies, schizo bus drivers, drunk cops on skis, and 400 costumed party crashers sometimes crazy follows you.

Release Date:  July 12, 2013

Thoughts: Grudgingly, I’ll admit that when I caught the original Grown Ups at a second-run movie theater I liked it more than I thought I would.  A few years later, I’m confident that I’m over these types of lame-brained comedies from lame-brains Adam Sandler, David Spade, and director Dennis Dugan (other stars Kevin James and Chris Rock get a pass…for now).  This summer releasing sequel looks like more of the same antics so chances are I’ll wait on this one to see if lightning can strike twice at the discount movie houses.

Movie Review ~ Pain & Gain

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A trio of bodybuilders in Florida get caught up in an extortion ring and a kidnapping scheme that goes terribly wrong.

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Ed Harris, Rob Corddry, Tony Shalhoub, Bar Paly, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Yolanthe Cabau

Director: Michael Bay

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  If Pain & Gain demonstrates anything, it’s that director Michael Bay can do an awful lot with a tiny budget…if you consider 25 million dollars a tiny budget.  Unfortunately, even with a budget that’s about ¼ of the last Transformers movie, Bay shows himself again as a director that’s full of sound and fury but truly signifying nothing by delivering a rather unpleasant film that’s doesn’t shortchange the audience on flash, flesh, and felons.

Based on a true story, Pain & Gain is told in flashback by multiple narrators who pop in whenever the film deems it necessary to tell the tale of three Miami muscled gym rats that find themselves in a whole mess of trouble thanks to their own buffoonery and poor planning.  Their efforts to swindle a greasy client (Shaloub) out of his money and property is so out of this world crazy that the film has to keep telling us it’s a true story when it takes some fairly incredible turns. 

Directed with the reckless commercial sleaze that Bay is famous for, the film does look great with vibrant colors and slo-mo work that delivers several humorous sight gags.  The movie hums with adrenaline but has a strange hollowness to it, never really making it up the hill of better black comedies that didn’t need to resort to gross out gore/humor to keep the attention of its audience. 

Wahlberg (Ted, Contraband) is more jacked up and cracked out than ever before and it’s plain to see that he put in some extra time in the gym to prepare himself for the trainer turned criminal that’s the ringleader of this strange mix of people.  Wahlberg plays this guy so wound up that when he has some freak outs of rage they’re more funny than threatening – which is, I believe, what he’s going for. 

His two compatriots are Mackie (Man on a Ledge, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) and Johnson (Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) as fellow bodybuilders that have more going on in their right bicep than they do between their ears.  Mackie has a strange and extraneous side romance with Wilson (Pitch Perfect) who doesn’t have much to do but play on her dependable foul-mouthed shtick. 

It’s clear that Johnson is a box office favorite but he tries to go the extra mile here in the acting department and comes up short, never really getting to the heart of the dim-witted tool that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were going for.  Plus Johnson is at this point just one big muscle with eyes so it’s hard to take him seriously. 

When Harris (The Abyss, looking like a white raisin) shows up, he adds the kind of laid-back delivery that helps to balance the ADD-addled film and the characters within.  A retired private detectice, Harris gets looped into the mix by a patsy targeted by the men and tries in van to stop the eventually downfall he sees coming.  It’s the most level performance in the film and is a valued contribution.  Not a valued contribution is Jeong, once again turning in an awful “comedic” performance – how is this guy considered funny?

After a engaging but seedy first hour, the film takes on a darker tone and that’s when it transitioned from buzzy black comedy to an unhappy trek through tough territory as murder comes into play.  Blood is spilled, body parts are BBQ’d, and a few other appendages are damaged along the way as Bay steers his film into some unapologetically foul territory. 

Far from Bay’s best work (I’d still say that The Island is the most satisfying film he’s made), Pain & Gain suffers from an excess of style without any real support of substance.  Not a bad film if I’m being really honest, just one that didn’t need to be a brashly bold as it is.  Though it does have two sinewy legs to stand on, it starts to weaken as the time ticks by to the end of a very long 129 minutes.

The Silver Bullet ~ No One Lives

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Synopsis: A gang of ruthless highway killers kidnap a wealthy couple traveling cross country only to shockingly discover that things are not what they seem

Release Date:  May 10, 2013

Thoughts: There seems to be a severe uptick in these uber violent horror flicks as of late and before other films like The Purge and You’re Next arrive in theaters we’ll get No One Lives which promises to raise the gore/ick bar pretty high.  Though this red-band trailer gives away several key plot points, I’m most intrigued to see what director Ryûhei Kitamura has cooked up for his wrongned man in the woods thriller.  Kitamura helmed the cult Japanese vampire yarn Versus and also guided Midnight Meat Train into the station.  Star Luke Evans is under the radar enough that this might not get the press to make it a sleeper hit…though these survivalist films may soon start to  wear out their welcome for audiences.

MIFF Movie Review ~ The Hypnotist (Hypnotisören)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A detective pairs himself with a famous psychologist on a case involving a traumatized young witness to a crime.

Stars: Tobias Zilliacus, Mikael Persbrandt, Lena Olin, Helena af Sandeberg, Anna Azcarate, Jonatan Bökman

Director: Lasse Hallström

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  The novel of The Hypnotist has been sitting on my nightstand for the better part of a year, gathering dust as it continues to be moved down the pile in favor of more pressing reads that I’ve been involved with over time.  I had hoped to work my way through the hefty tome before the rumored US adaptation was released, never realizing that like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, home country Sweden would take a crack at it first.  After seeing director Hallström and screenwriter Paolo Vacirca’s version of Lars Keplar’s blockbuster novel, I’m considering selling it instead.

If the novel is anything like this highly contrived and bloated film then I don’t need to read one page of it because making it through the film was frustrating enough.  What a huge disappointment this one was, a major let-down considering Hallström’s pedigree (to be fair, this is the man that has recently directed the treacly Dear John and Safe Haven…but also churned out the delightful Salmon Fishing in the Yemen).  Hallström’s first Swedish language film in 25 years is also one of his more lugubrious sloughs as the audience is drawn into family drama, red herrings, and enough loop holes to sink a small island.

The set-up of the film isn’t half bad – a killer has struck a family in a Stockholm suburb, leaving all dead but a boy and an estranged sister.  With the boy fighting for his life in a coma, a disgraced doctor (Persbrandt) is called in to see what memories he can extract from the boys psyche.  When the killer targets the hypnotist and his family (including Hallström’s wife Olin), the family must work with a dedicated cop (Zilliacus) to identify the danger.

Even writing that description was better than the execution provided by Hallström and company.  I’m dedicated to leaving things spoiler free for my readers but I’d be interested in conversing with anyone that does see this to go over some phenomenally hare-brained plot developments that baffled me during the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  So many things seemed to be presented solely for the benefit of getting our characters where the film needed to be, reality checks be damned.  I didn’t buy some lapses in memory for a moment, seeing right through their mechanical nature.   Perhaps it’s because I’ve seen enough thrillers in my life to populate a small library but I picked out who ‘dun it almost immediately.

What’s worse is that the actors don’t seem to have any clue what’s going on either.  Conveniently cast as an artist, Olin is nearly swallowed by her mass of hair and tightly pulled face.  I’m a big fan of Olin but she looks disheveled for most of the film and I’m pretty sure every line of dialogue she has was a question rather than a statement.  Worse still is Persbrandt as the titular character, played without any emotion and barely moving his mouth when he does speak.  He looks like Frankenstein and I half expected him to start drooling from his slack-jawed, droopy performance.  Zilliacus has the most interesting character and gets some good mileage out of him, but the film fails him in developing his character beyond the surface information we get on him.

Hallström does deliver a decent final act that equates to about five minutes in a film that wheezes in at around two hours.  The days following my viewing of the film have only widened the problems I have with the movie, it’s a gloomy gus affair that doesn’t have any fire or crackle to it.  If a US version is to be made (and it probably will), I’m hoping that these plot holes are fixed so I can hypnotize myself to forget the Swedish original.

MIFF Movie Review ~ The Reluctant Fundamentalist

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young Pakistani man is chasing corporate success on Wall Street. He finds himself embroiled in a conflict between his American Dream, a hostage crisis, and the enduring call of his family’s homeland.

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Kate Hudson, Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, Om Puri, Martin Donovan, Shabana Azmi

Director: Mira Nair

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Every now and then a smaller movie rolls around that you feel like you should get a gold star for choosing to see over a more mainstream feature.  There’s a certain sense of back-patting that goes on for plunking down your cash to see something more intelligent and timely than the latest 3D action adventure film playing on nineteen screens.  The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one such movie, a film that feels very prescient in our world that is still reeling in a post 9/11 culture…but it’s also a movie that you exit feeling you should get at least two gold stars for sitting through.

Now let me say that I had high hopes for this one going in, though I’m weary of these types of international relations dramas I’m a fan of director Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Namesake) and of many of the people involved with bringing this adaptation of Mohsin Hamid’s novel to the screen.  The end result of this collaboration, however, is a densely worded rehash of a plot that feels overly familiar and a little late to the party.

Not that Nair hasn’t delivered a decently oiled product for audience consumption because much of the film is rich with her trademark stylistic use of color and controlled narrative.  Told in flashback between 2001 and 2011, the movie lives and dies with its lead performance and star Ahmed ably handles the role of a conflicted man torn between his ideal life in the US and possibly more important obligations at home.  Ahmed is onscreen for nearly every frame and he fills up the space nicely.

As he moves from college campus to the offices of a Wall Street corporation, he develops a relationship with a troubled photographer and that’s where the film takes the first of its missteps.  I generally like Hudson and though she has a dynamite scene late in the film, for most of her short time on screen she seems lost in the role and abandoned by her director.  I don’t think Hudson is necessarily wrong in the role but she looks so washed out and idle that it’s hard to pinpoint what our lead character sees in her.

Schreiber’s character feels constructed to give Ahmed’s fundamentalist an outlet to spill his life story to and though we gradually see that there’s some complexity to the person Schreiber is portraying, the film never makes a case for why the two dialogue for so long with increasing unrest/danger outside their door.  The best performance in the whole film is Sutherland as Ahmed’s superior, a bulldog of a businessman so tightly wound you can practically hear the gears grinding against each other when he walks.  It’s through Sutherland’s scenes that the film has the biggest impact but sadly he’s not on screen as much as the audience wants him to be.

This is a talky film that requires a lot of your attention – and maybe it asked more of me than I was willing to give in the screening I saw at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.  It’s not a film I’d choose to see again and not one I could recommend to anyone that doesn’t have more than a passing interest in political films of this nature.  It could use a slick trim of excess scenes (mostly Hudson’s) and a more focused approach to some final act business that feels unresolved.  Reluctantly, I say this was a disappointment.