Mid-Day Mini ~ Far and Away

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young man leaves Ireland with his landlord’s daughter, dreaming of owning land at the big giveaway in 1893 Oklahoma.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Thomas Gibson, Robert Prosky, Barbara Babcock, Colm Meaney

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Though director Ron Howard was already a proven commodity in Hollywood by the time Far and Away rolled around in 1992, the filmmaker had yet to direct a true epic which most seasoned directors attempt at one point in their career.  Coming off another success with Backdraft, Howard (Splash, Parenthood, Gung Ho, The Paper) sidled up with two hot stars for a film intended to be sweeping and grandiose…the type of film that Hollywood didn’t make anymore.

The final product wasn’t received with the same vigor of old Hollywood epics like Gone With the Wind but it was a moderate success…fueled on by the star power at play and the audiences that were starved for an old-fashioned large scale romance (they’d only have to wait five years until Titanic came along though).

I vividly remember seeing Far and Away in the theaters in its opening weekend at a theater that was projecting it in 70mm…a high-resolution film that fits perfectly with a movie as ambitious as Far and Away.  Though many theaters are only able to show films in 35mm, several theaters in my town were showing it the way it was shot and meant to be seen…and it truly was an impressively immersive experience.  Howard and cinematographer Mikael Salomon (The Abyss) capture the time period with great attention to detail and provide the audience with awe-inspiring visuals of the climatic and treacherous final act detailing the Oklahoma Land Rush.

Though Cruise (Oblivion, Rock of Ages, Jack Reacher) and Kidman (Stoker) have the kind of chemistry that comes along once in a blue moon, there’s precious little true heat that develops during the lengthy running time.  Individually they deliver but it’s curious that so many of their scenes together fall a little flat.  Maybe it’s knowing that their marriage would eventually sour that doesn’t allow the audience to truly buy into what they create onscreen…or maybe it’s that the script from Howard and Bob Dolman doesn’t give them much to work with aside from a fairly standard set-up.

Kudos do go to Howard and his team for attempting to mount a project of this size and stature.  Thankfully avoiding becoming a rancid vanity project for the lead couple, the movie is far and away not the best work of anyone involved but still impresses with the skilled contributions behind the scenes.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Gung Ho

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a Japanese car company buys an American plant, the American liason must mediate the clash of work attitudes between the foreign management and native labor.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Gedde Watanabe, George Wendt. Mimi Rogers, Sô Yamamura, Sab Shimono, John Turturro

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  You really have to keep in mind that Gung Ho was made in 1986 to swallow some of the ideas that the film offers up to you.  The world was in a totally different place with tensions high surrounding the protection of the job of the American worker as many jobs started being farmed out to other countries.  Those that had built their homes and families around a job were suddenly out of work as companies found faster and cheaper ways to keep up with products that were highly in demand.

In Gung Ho, that product is automobiles and the film focuses on a Japanese company that comes to a small town and takes over an automobile manufacturing plant.  The American workers clash with the Japanese management and star Michael Keaton is left in the middle as a liaison between the two.  His loyalty to his friends is tested as he tries to play both sides…to disastrous results.

Man, this sounds like a heavier film than it actually is.  Director Ron Howard (Backdraft, Parenthood, Splash) applies a light touch to the film and populates the cast with solid character actors with familiar faces.  Keaton, in the second of three movies he’d make with Howard (Night Shift and The Paper are the others) is nicely cast in a role that ultimately gets frustrating as written by Edwin Blum, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandell.  You see, Keaton’s character makes so many lame-brained promises and tells so many white lies that he almost solely creates the problems for everyone in the film.  In the hands of another actor, this may have proven interminable to watch…but Keaton is so likable and laid-back that he makes it work.

What doesn’t work for modern audiences are some truly cringe-inducing racial stereotypes that I can’t imagine played well even when it was first released.  Making nearly every Japanese joke known to man without the slightest bit of irony, I’m betting many of the people involved would like to forget these dark points of what is otherwise a very upbeat film.

Stereotypes aside, Gung Ho is a nicely structured film that’s not all together forgettable…but not one that will last in your memory either.  Thanks to a typically Howard-esqe strong supporting cast and Keaton’s leading man, it is a harmless distraction.

Movie Review ~ Monsters University

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the relationship between Mike and Sulley during their days at Monsters University — when they weren’t necessarily the best of friends.

Stars: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, Alfred Molina, Dave Foley, Sean P. Hayes, Joel Murray, Peter Sohn, Charlie Day, Nathan Fillion, Bobby Moynihan, Julia Sweeney, Aubrey Plaza, Tyler Labine, John Krasinski, Bonnie Hunt, Beth Behrs, John Ratzenberger

Director: Dan Scanlon

Rated: G

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Back in 2001 when Monsters Inc. was released Disney/Pixar was riding high off of the boffo success of Toy Story 2 and looking for another megahit.  While Monsters Inc. lined the pockets of all involved, for me it was one of the lesser Pixar films (though I’d still rank it above Cars, Cars 2, A Bugs Life, and Ratatouille) and its not one I’ve revisited much in the following twelve years.

In the last decade Disney/Pixar has matured as a production company, creating and developing moving movies with a purpose and a richly beating heart that it proudly wears on its sleeve.  With films like Up, Wall*E, and Toy Story 3 the animators took just as much pride in tugging at our heartstrings as they did in tickling our funny bone.  2012 saw the release of Brave and though it went on to win the Oscar (somewhat surprisingly) for Best Animated Feature some naysayers felt that film was not so much a step back in progress but a standing of ground with forward motion.

It’s a year later and the next Disney/Pixar film is upon us and it wasn’t a film I was particularly chomping at the bit to see.  In the realm of sequels to their films I would have preferred a sequel to The Incredibles or Finding Nemo (I’ll get my wish in 2015 when Finding Dory arrives) over another visit with the scare makers who work at Monsters Inc.  I just didn’t think it was a film that was needed now.

Well it turns out I was wrong because instead of an outright sequel the filmmakers have made a prequel, following Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) in their college years as they experience a monster of a college life at Monsters University.  The uptight, studious Mike clashes with the laid-back slacker Sulley and it’s only when their future in school is threatened that the two bond together to show what they’re really made of.  Working with a fraternity of misfit outcasts, can Mike and Sulley get back into the Scare Program at school by winning the annual Scare Games?

Monsters University finds the creative minds at Disney/Pixar firing on all cylinders as they bring to life the college experience with an explosion of colors, ideas, and comedic bits that nearly all land exactly where they’re supposed to.  Taking the awkward freshman process to new heights, director Dan Scanlan works with co-screenwriters Robert L. Baird and Daniel Gerson to create a fully developed array of characters that interact with our two lovable leads in a series of honestly hysterical situation.  Everything on screen looks unique and thought-out…carefully planned for maximum effect.

For fans of the original film there’s a lot of nicely placed foreshadowing in place and certain major players from the first movie pop up here and there as secondary characters.  I wished I had watched the first film again before seeing this because I feel I’d have found several more of these moments that hint at what’s to come.

Returning voice talents Crystal (Parental Guidance) and Goodman (Argo, Flight, Arachnophobia) are top notch here, conveying a youthful exuberance without sacrificing the wise charm that made them such a good team in Monsters Inc.  Oscar winner Helen Mirren (Hitchcock, The Door) is pitch perfect as the imposing dean of Monsters University that takes a dislike to Mike and Sulley and others such as Aubrey Plaza (Safety Not Guaranteed, The To-Do List), John Krasinski (Promised Land) and Steve Buscemi (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) have solid contributions.

What I’ve always appreciated about Disney/Pixar films are how economical they are…there’s rarely something on screen that isn’t engaging or interesting and when the film needs to make a point or highlight a lesson all of that extra business is pulled back to let the story shine through.  This is a film filled with larger than life characters and big laughs…a high water mark for all involved.  I found it better than the original because it makes more of an emotional connection to the audience with its themes of acceptance and finding value in others.

In the rash of summer movies that are about to be unleashed, Monsters University was nowhere near the top of my list of anticipated flicks.  Like a recurring theme in the film though, it’s important that I acknowledge that I was wrong and to say that I was surprised that the film surprised me as much as it did.  It’s a winning combination of creativity and talent that’s certain to entertain.  Enroll in Monsters University pronto and experience college life at its funniest finest.

The Silver Bullet ~ Shadow Dancer

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Synopsis: Set in 1990s Belfast, an active member of the IRA becomes an informant for MI5 in order to protect her son’s welfare.

Release Date:  May 31, 2013

Thoughts: In the last month I’ve become a big fan of star Andrea Riseborough after catching her in two strong performances: as an investigative news reporter in Disconnect and an icy company woman going toe-to-toe with Tom Cruise in Oblivion.  So I’m particularly interested in seeing her take the lead in this political drama involving the IRA in the early 90’s.  Aside from Riseborough, there’s the usually strong Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson who has parlayed herself away from her The X-Files fanbase by taking on some nicely flawed characters.  Director James Marsh has helmed several notable projects (winning an Oscar for the documentary Man on a Wire) so I’m excited to see what his latest offering amounts to.