Movie Review ~ The Spectacular Now

spectacular_now

The Facts:

Synopsis: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical “nice girl.”

Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Director: James Ponsoldt

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The best thing about seeing July’s The Bling Ring was getting to see the first preview of The Spectacular Now and ever since that time I’d been counting down the days until I’d be able to get my butt into the seat.  Harkening back to the early days of John Hughes (I’m talking Pretty in Pink era, not Curly Sue thank you very much) yet possessing a style and confidence all its own, The Spectacular Now may not have wound up being the perfect film of 2013 (that honor still goes to The Way, Way Back) but it makes it to the winner circle thanks to two incredible lead performances and director James Ponsoldt’s smart, attention-to-details direction.

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp and coming armed with an observant screenplay by (500) Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, there’s a lot to like within the 95 minute journey that The Spectacular Now takes viewers on.  “Like” may be just too…easy of a word.  “Relate to”, “empathize with”, “agree upon” could be the better way to say it because there seems to be something at the core of the movie and the lives of the people we meet that will speak to anyone regardless if you’ve been home schooled or passed through the walls of the famed “high school experience” so often put on celluloid.

What sets this movie apart from its contemporaries is how un-clichéd the story develops and how impressive it is that it manages to maintain this for all but a scintilla of time as it nears its conclusion.  Though it does rely on the oft-used voiceover narration/college essay as a framing device, I didn’t mind the commentary as much as I normally do because the narration makes sense in the context of the story being told.

High school charmer Sutter (Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole) is living the teenage dream.  He’s popular, has a great girlfriend, has a long leash of freedom from his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and generally deals with each new life situation with a can-do spirit.  The trouble is, all of that positive energy and care for others is masking some inner conflict he’s not ready to deal with.  We’ve all had to face these moments when we look around to see that we may possess everything we could ever want yet are frightened to recognize that maybe having it all doesn’t equal happiness…or at least what we thought happiness was meant to be.

Sutter is also an alcoholic…a hard subject for a teen romance to deal with yet an important one to call out as it’s a growing problem in our schools.  In their small town, Sutter has no trouble finding liquor or going to work with a flask to freshen up what’s really being held in his Big Gulp.  As the movie begins, a misunderstanding has caused a rift between Sutter and his girlfriend (Brie Larson) and after a night of hard partying he wakes up on the lawn of a home on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants)  paper route.

A classmate he’s never noticed, Sutter befriends Aimee and a relationship soon develops.  Is Sutter using Aimee as a rebound, as a way to get back at his girlfriend who has moved on, or does Aimee’s understanding and sensitivity to the pain she sees beneath his surface mean that Sutter can finally be seen and loved for who he truly is?  These are the very adult questions being asked in a movie that could be carelessly classified as just another trivial teen romance.

It’s Teller and Woodley’s dynamic chemistry together and apart that make the movie really ignite.  Teller fits the bill for his character but never lets Sutter drift into maudlin sentimentality just because he’s finding new corners of himself.  Woodley too shows an introspective maturity that far exceeds her years as she takes Aimee through first love to heartache and back again.  Though Aimee takes some selfless, hard turns that are tough to watch and may be frustrating to some, they all feel like they are coming from the right place and have an earthy truth that side-steps hitting a false note.

If anything, it’s the supporting characters that don’t live up to the performances of Teller and Woodley.  The young actors that portray other members of Sutter and Aimee’s social circle don’t come across with the same confidence and it’s not just how they’re written.  They seemed to be playing catch-up in a race that Teller and Woodley were always destined to win.  Leigh has a nice turn as Sutter’s sometimes distant mom and Kyle Chandler gets the job done as Sutter’s estranged father.

The movie trips a bit when it gets to these scenes with Sutter and his father because it appears the writing is on the wall as to the cycle that Sutter seems to be on.  Thankfully, the script is smart enough to take a flimsy contrivance and spin it into, if not gold, a solid silver of an ending.

With a few genuinely surprising elements, The Spectacular Now is absolutely a movie to seek out and soak in.  The lead performances are some of the best you’ll see all year from two rising stars and Ponsoldt is quickly establishing himself as a director with depth and a keen eye for casting.  Worth a serious look from viewers that don’t mind a little heartbreak at the hands of honest men and women.

Movie Review ~ Kick-Ass 2

kickass_two_ver8

The Facts:

Synopsis: The costumed high-school hero Kick-Ass joins with a group of normal citizens who have been inspired to fight crime in costume. Meanwhile, the Red Mist plots an act of revenge that will affect everyone Kick-Ass knows.

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloë Grace Moretz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Morris Chestnut, John Leguizamo, Donald Faison, Jim Carrey

Director: Jeff Wadlow

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Like I said in my review of the red-band trailer for Kick-Ass 2, I wasn’t a huge fan of the 2010 original which had a premise (everyday kid turns crime fighter with less than spectacular results) that was exploited ad nauseam and was much longer than it needed to be.  While I enjoyed that when the good guys got a beat down they actually bled and that some had vocabularies that would make a sailor blush, the original film just felt played out before the first reel was done.

So a sequel was not high on my wish list in the grand scheme of things.  Ah, but when you have a film that does surprisingly well at the box-office that didn’t cost a lot to make, movie studio execs quickly get those crazy dollar signs instead of pupils and before you know it three years later I found myself taking in a decent if totally unnecessary second chapter in the story of Kick-Ass and his rough and tumble compatriots.

In the years since the first film, two of the three leading actors have turned in some interesting work.  While Dark Shadows wasn’t the hit Chloë Grace Moretz thought she signed up for, her character had a wacky arc that the actress went to the mat with.  Even more surprising, Aaron Taylor-Johnson got the Oliver Stone treatment in Savages before buttoning-up nicely for Anna Karenina last fall.  It was refreshing to see that both actors easily slid back into their roles and try though they might to get something cooking with the development laid out by writer/director Jeff Wadlow, there’s only so much you can do with very few ingredients.

The worst thing about the movie is not the crazy violence (violence so outlandish that star Jim Carrey, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone, refused to promote it…after cashing his sizable paycheck, natch) or the funny-in-a-sad-way performance of Christopher Mintz-Plasse (The To Do List…and what’s with the three name names of our leads?) but that it’s not very well made.  This had to have had a larger budget than the original…so why does everything from the sets to the costumes to the special effects look so flimsy and cheap?  There’s a chase scene on top of a van that, while impressively choreographed, appears to be filmed via time travel to 1985.

Another sticking point was that the movie keeps our two leading players apart for so much of the movie.  While Moretz is off working a Mean Girls meets Carrie subplot (bad-timing, because Moretz is starring in October’s Carrie remake), Taylor-Johnson is making new friends in Carrey, Donald Faison, and Lindy Booth as upstart civilian superheroes.  When Moretz and Taylor-Johnson are together the movie finds a pleasantly comic groove but these moments come too little, too late.

All said, Kick-Ass 2 is no gem and not a film worthy of your dog days of summer time or effort.  If you’re a fan of the original, this can wait until you can rent it…all others are advised to pick something else.  (Check my archive if you want a few suggestions!).

Movie Review ~ Fruitvale Station

fruitvale_station

The Facts:

Synopsis: The purportedly true story of Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old Bay Area resident, who crosses paths with friends, enemies, family, and strangers on the last day of 2008.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Octavia Spencer, Melonie Diaz, Ahna O’Reilly, Kevin Durand, Chad Michael Murray

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: R

Running Length: 85 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: There’s little doubt as to how December 31, 2008 will end for Oscar Grant…we’re shown the actual footage of the shooting at the hands of a police officer that led to his death before the first five minutes of Fruitvale Station have elapsed.  For a movie that starts and ends with death it says something that you come away with powerful thoughts on your own life and the path that we’re all on.

One of the most buzzed about films at the recent Sundance Film Festival, I’d already read a lot about Fruitvale Station, the family that the film was based on, and the journey the movie took to the screen.  Being released at the tail end of a very busy but not totally memorable summer movie season was a bold move of counter-programming and I think that the film was timed right for audiences that were ready to put aside overblown superheroes and frat boy comedies for a more serious movie-going experience.

Writer/director Ryan Coogler favors efficiency over showmanship with a script filled with scenes that pull no punches and a reserved directing hand that guides his actors to strong performances.  It would have been easy to paint Oscar Grant as a tragic hero but Coogler and Michael B. Jordan let the flaws show…giving  way to a leading performance that’s honest and grounded.  Oscar had run-ins with the law and dealt with problems that many inner-city youth face and if he had lived maybe things would have changed or maybe they would have stayed the same…but the tragedy of it all was that we’ll never know what could have been.

As a young father, the movie really crackles when Jordan and the mother of his daughter (Melonie Diaz…another vastly underrated actor) have moments of anger and intimacy over the course of the day.  Their relationship may have had its ups and downs but these two people understand each other…which makes the disappointments hurt that much more.  Same goes for Oscar’s relationship with his mother (stoic Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer).  In a powerhouse flashback, Oscar’s mother visits him in jail and delivers a galvanizing tough love speech, proving that Spencer’s Academy Award was no fluke.

If I had to quibble with the film (and, let’s face it, I have to quibble with something) it’s that perhaps the 24 hours we spend with Oscar Grant seem a bit too packed with forward-motion developments.  By the time he boards the train that will lead him to the Fruitvale Station platform he seems to have figured out a lot of things like work, love, and future plans.  It makes the tragedy to come that much more painful but also seems like a small manipulation in a film that has eschewed any easy outs until that point.

I was surprised that when the reenactment of those final moments came how much of a gut-punch it actually was to watch.  We know what’s going to happen…we’ve seen the camera footage 80 minutes prior…yet by this time we’ve gotten to know the man who died that day.  We’ve met his daughter, visited his mother for her birthday, watched him care for a wounded dog….so to see him cut down in such a way is chilling and numbing.

Aside from any award recognition this will garner (expect Oscar nominations for Jordan and Spencer), the movie is a testament to the influence of restrained direction and committed performances.  It’s a motion picture that sticks with you long after you’ve left the theater and had the chance to hug your loved ones.  When you do, chances are you’ll be like me and remember Oscar Grant, his death, and the family that misses him.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Monuments Men

the-monuments-men-poster

Synopsis: In a race against time, a crew of art historians and museum curators unite to recover renowned works of art stolen by Nazis before Hitler destroys them.

Release Date:  December 18, 2013

Thoughts: After scoring so well as the producer of the sleeper underdog of 2012 (Argo), George Clooney now has two movies in the latter half of 2013 to get excited about.  Up first is October’s outer-space thriller Gravity where Clooney will take a secondary seat next to Sandra Bullock but it’s in December that he’ll take center stage in front of and behind the camera for this adaptation of Robert Edsel’s true life historical novel.  Clooney has a knack for assembling high star wattage for his work and he’s rounded up his usual suspects who have already done quite well for themselves this year (Matt Damon, Elysium and Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine).  You can always count on Clooney to deliver something topical, well-made, and slyly humorous that can make even a film about saving historical artifacts from the hands of the Nazi’s an edge of your seat event.

Movie Review ~ 20 Feet From Stardom

twenty_feet_from_stardom_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti

Director: Mogan Neville

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The most I can ever ask from a film is that it moves me.  Now sometimes a movie will move me to the nearest exit and pronto when the lights come up but then there are the movies that you don’t want to end so you stay firmly planted in your seat until the final credits roll, the lights come up, and the usher kindly asks you to leave so he pick up all the junk left on the floor (note…take your garbage with you!!!).  20 Feet from Stardom is a film that captures your attention and doesn’t let go for a joyous 91 minutes.

In 2002 there was a documentary called Standing in the Shadows of Motown and it told the story of the legendary Funk Brothers, musicians that backed up countless numbers of Motown artists.  20 Feet from Stardom finds itself with a similar theme but instead looks at those using a totally different kind of instrument…their voice.  Backup singers don’t always get their due but filmmaker Morgan Neville shines a light on them and produces a truly magical experience that gave me all sorts of goosebumps.

Neville has an abundance of riches when it comes to famous faces that go on camera to endorse the various background vocalists they have worked with over the years but he uses people like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting sparingly in favor of giving more time to a handful of powerhouse talents.

Though Darlene Love may be the most known out of the group thanks to her yearly holiday appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and playing Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films, there’s a nice balance between her story of coming up through the ranks and other, lesser known, names.  You may not be familiar with Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, or Tata Vega but after hearing some of the famous songs they sang back-up on you’ll always have a face to put with a spine-tingling vocal.

While the archival footage is fun, it was the present day material shot for the film that leaves a lasting impression.  Showing that time hasn’t changed the power in their timbre, Neville lets the ladies tell their own stories…the triumphs and set-backs, the struggles and the successes.

It’s an audience-pleasing, good for you kind of movie-going experience that I would hope everyone gets a chance to take in.  In a summer where the action movies are loud and the acting sometimes louder, it was so refreshing to see a film with a big heart to match some powerful soul.

Movie Review ~ Blackfish

1

blackfish

The Facts:

Synopsis: Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity

Stars: Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 83 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Like many kids who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s I made a trip to Florida for my own Disney Adventure with a side trip to Sea World and a front row, spash-zone seat for the Shamu show.  I screamed in delight as the majestic fish leaped and dove, spraying water all over my family and left the park with a stuffed animal as a reminder of the day.  I keep that happy memory with me even after seeing Blackfish, a documentary that uses the story of one whale in captivity to present a larger cautionary tale of the dangers of life in captivity.

The center of the movie is Tilikum, a male orca that was captured off the shores of Iceland at just three years old and brought to a small seapark in Canada.  When a young trainer drowns after falling into the orcas pool, the park is shut down and the whale was moved to Sea World in Orlando.  The ensuing years saw the orca become a favorite of the trainers but who occasionally shows a dark side as well.  Leading up to the highly publicized death of a respected trainer, Blackfish charts Tilikum’s behavior as seen through the eyes of former Sea World staff that worked with him.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film is set-up like an edge-of-your-seat thriller and makes wise use of archival footage from the whale being caught as well as home video material of Tilikum’s interactions with Sea World staff.  The film is clearly slanted to the side of not keeping animals in captivity and instead of merely launching a Greenpeace-y argument on the subject Cowperthwaite uses her resources and interviewees to make the case for her.

A solid documentary with an abundance of information and impassioned interview subjects that come off as well-informed, if slightly biased, Free Willy this movie is not.  Ultimately, the question always being asked is any animal truly better off in captivity?  In the case of orcas, family-oriented and long-living, the answer is unquestionably no.