Movie Review ~ Labor Day

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tom Lipinski, Clark Gregg, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Brighid Fleming, James Van Der Beek, Maika Monroe, Brooke Smith, Micah Fowler, Tobey Maguire

Director: Jason Reitman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I have this nagging feeling that I’m going to be one of the very few people that likes Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel.  I’ve had time to think about the film a lot over the last few weeks since I attended a screening with the author present.  While I enjoyed the film when I saw it, I was wondering if the author’s buoyant personality in the Q&A after colored some of my judgment.  I gotta say…after some deep soul searching my opinion stands.  I liked Labor Day… I liked it a lot.

Though the trailer suggests Labor Day fits on the same golden hued shelf as countless film adaptations of those saccharine Nicholas Sparks books, rest assured that it’s so much more than that.  Reitman has become one of my very favorite filmmakers and I don’t believe he’s made a movie yet that I don’t have a high level of respect for…even Juno, which I caught part of recently and for the record does not hold up as well as I remembered.

I hold steady that Up in the Air is his best film but there’s signs here of a maturing director that doesn’t feel the need to make the same film repeatedly just because he found favor there before.  I’m in the camp that feels Young Adult was one of the under appreciated gems of 2011, navigating its pitch black comedic moments with ease and leading up to a less than satisfying resolution for our anti-heroine that was incredibly satisfying for the viewer.

That same against the grain approach Reitman has employed in previous efforts is true here with the director taking responsibility for adapting Maynard’s work for the screen.  As has been the case with every Reitman film, his taste in casting is impeccable.  From the A list stars above the title down to the extras populating the background Reitman finds himself in a league with directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher who have an eye for casting.

Reitman wanted Kate Winslet (Carnage) for this role so badly that he delayed production of the film to accommodate her schedule.  Back on screen after nearly two years, Winslet reminds us again why she’s so valuable an asset to any film set she joins.  In similar territory to her work in 2006’s Little Children, Winslet is a mother struggling with depression years after her husband (Clark Gregg, The To-Do List) left her to start a new life.  Living with her son (Gattlin Griffith) in the kind of New England home that’s too run down to be fancy but too well kept to be ramshackle, she rarely ventures outside, preferring to shut the world out and stay cocooned within.

Relative newcomer Griffith is remarkably assured and Winslet helps him avoid coming off with a misplaced hyper-sensitivity to the situation.  When an escaped convict (Josh Brolin, Oldboy) takes mother and son hostage during a once in a blue moon trip to the supermarket, a carefully played trio of agendas start to take shape over a hot and sticky Labor Day weekend in 1987.

Brolin’s character is wounded physically and emotionally, jailed for a crime of passion we see played out in brief flashbacks that reveal themselves cautiously rather than tease for show.  Coming off like a gentle giant rarely threatening, Brolin’s actions over the next several days are certainly unconventional as he helps around the house, fixes what was once broken, and, in a scene bound to be lampooned in the next Scary Movie entry, helps Winslet and Griffth make a peach pie.

Ah…the peach pie scene.  Y’know, I went into the movie with no knowledge of this but so many of the reviews are either deriding it as exceedingly syrupy or praising it as one of the sexier non sex scenes since Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze made a muddy mess at their Ghost pottery wheel.  Either way you’ll be licking your lips at how deliciously cinematographer Eric Steelberg (Draft Day) captures every flake of crust and piping hot filling.

Aside from the central trio, Gregg’s fatherly once a week outings with his son and new family have that forced happiness feel to them that we actually understand why Griffith can’t wait to get back to the man on the run playing house with his mom.  Brooke Adams has a nice little cameo as a mother to a disabled boy…and leaves a lasting impression with a genuinely startling surprise.  Even if she comes off like a character out of Diablo Cody’s imagination, Brighid Fleming’s turn as the new girl in town leaves you wanting more.  Heck, even James Van Der Beek gets a few good moments as a concerned sheriff.

In the stifling heat of a long Labor Day weekend (everyone maintains a glistening gleam of sweat for the majority of the film), three people form the kind of family environment they never knew they needed.   Sure, the final third of the film withers a bit and lingers a tad too long but it doesn’t die on the vine.  With a director now fully coming into his own leading a cast of esteem, Labor Day has even-keeled fireworks on display.

Movie Review ~ That Awkward Moment

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Three best friends find themselves where we’ve all been – at that confusing moment in every dating relationship when you have to decide “So…where is this going?”

Stars: Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas

Director: Tom Gormican

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I can imagine writer/director Tom Gormican sitting at home late one night and happening upon an early episode of Sex and the City.  Perhaps he caught one of those episodes with its four stars getting into some sexual pretzel involving relationships and that scary four letter word spelled L-O-V-E.  Over brunch at a swanky Manhattan eatery they would talk about all things bedroom related while never stopping to ask, “How’s your mom doing?” before strolling away to their tony loft apartments.

At this point Gormican could have thought to himself, “Hey, guys do that TOO!” and just took several episodes of the popular HBO show and reworked them, replacing Sarah Jessica Parker with Zac Efron, Kim Cattrall with Miles Teller, and Kristin Davis with Michael B. Jordan (sorry Cynthia Nixon, no dude parallel for you!) to provide the male’s eye view of romance in modern day New York.

That’s all well and good and more power to the filmmakers for following a proven model but yikes if the film isn’t terribly shallow and not nearly as insightful or entertaining as it thinks it is.  Even the meteoric charm of the three leads can’t keep the thin film afloat, though Gormican and company do try to distract you with plenty of shots of Efron nearly nude and nobly clearing the way for two females to shine.

Efron (Neighbors, The Lucky One), Teller (The Spectacular Now), and Jordan (Fruitvale Station) are twentysomethings moving through New York City in the ways that only a film would allow…with fantastically gigantic apartments and jobs that don’t require them to be there much of the time.  Efron and Teller work for a publisher and Jordan is a doctor with a marriage on the rocks.  Single and mingle-ing Efron and Teller make a pact with Jordan not to get into a relationship so all three can play the field.  Trouble is Efron and Teller find love quickly while Jordan, a hopeless romantic, keeps going back to a wife (Jessica Lucas, The Evil Dead) that can’t decide if it’s really over.

Efron’s job affords him the kind of stunning NYC apartment that would make the cast of Friends salivate (especially when you consider that Jordan and his lawyer wife live in a place one quarter the size) and his wardrobe of layers upon layers of sweaters, button-ups, and scarves gets the point across that he’s always warm.

While this role feels more age appropriate than what Efron’s been stretching for lately, it still tries to cast him as a cad…a charming cad to be sure…but a cad even so.  This seems to go against what Efron winds up playing so in the end we don’t understand in the least who this guy really is.  Though the unconventional beauty of Imogen Poots catches his eye, for some reason he can’t resist (probably because the script says he has to) doing things that are incredibly disappointing.  In fact, the film hinges on a decision Efron makes that’s so cruelly unforgivable and out of character that I don’t feel he ever fully recovers by the time the credits roll.

This turning point started to really bother me because up until then the movie could have been written off as well-intentioned but slightly off the mark.  That’s also when everyone else in the picture lost their damn minds and started saying, doing, and feeling things that were out of left field.   I choose not to believe that people are so shallow as to negate the emotions of those they claimed to care for so it became increasingly harder to accept that Gormican’s script could have led them down such a cooly mean-spirited road.  It’s a disservice to the talent onscreen to sell them that short.

Poots and Mackenzie Davis are honestly the real reasons to see the film.  Both come pretty close to walking away with their scenes…mostly because Gormican avoids making them stereotypes and the actresses bring a relatable believability to the screen.  And for all the shenanigans they get into, our lead trio do have a chemistry that’s hard to create, though it’s never clear how they became friends in the first place.

Fine for a rental when the day gets rainy but not necessary to trek though winter weather to see in the theater, That Awkward Moment has its fair share of charm but lacks the depth vital to truly make its moment memorable.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Million Ways to Die in the West

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Synopsis: A cowardly farmer seeks the help of a gunslinger’s wife to help him win back the woman who left him.

Release Date: May 30, 2014

Thoughts: Tough call, friends, tough call.  On the one hand, A Million Ways to Die in the West is headlined by Seth MacFarlane, a comedic presence that I’ve never really warmed to.  Complete annoyance as Oscar host aside, I’m not a devotee of Family Guy and felt Ted had some snuggle up and laugh moments but ultimately was a one-trick teddy bear of a film.  On the other hand, MacFarlane has assembled an impressive posse of actors that are worth their salt when it comes to wry comedy.  Charlize Theron didn’t get the credit she deserved for her bitingly funny turn in Young Adult so it’s nice to see her stretching her funny bone again.  While MacFarlane seems to be aiming for a next-gen Blazing Saddles, his go big or go home attitude assures us that like it or not this will rise or fall in a blaze of glory.

The Silver Bullet ~ Oculus

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Synopsis: A woman tries to exonerate her brother, who was convicted of murder, by proving that the crime was committed by a supernatural phenomenon.

Release Date: April 11, 2014

Thoughts: First things first…I appreciate that this is truly a teaser trailer.  We all know how much I’m in favor of the less is more approach and while a longer version of this may be released before the film comes out in April, I have to say that this first look at another low-budget horror film from wunderkind producer Jason Blum (Paranormal Activity 4, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2, The Purge, Lawless, Sinister, Lords of Salem) gets the job done.  That being said, these movies tend to open big (usually without advance screenings) and then sink like a stone once word of mouth makes its way around.  One can only hope that Oculus will wind up being more ambitious than the rest and strike gold not only in the box office but with critics desperate for a good scare.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Dead Zone

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A man awakens from a coma to discover he has a psychic detective ability.

Stars: Christopher Walken, Brooke Adams, Tom Skerritt, Colleen Dewhurst, Martin Sheen, Herbert Lom

Director: David Cronenberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I find it difficult to think back to a time when films made from Stephen King novels weren’t saturating the cineplexes.  For a while, the author’s novels were brought to the screen with frightening regularity…even if more than a few of the books and short stories didn’t exactly lend themselves well to the big screen treatment.  Still, for every turkey like The Lawnmower Man and Thinner audiences struggled through there were a healthy dose of winners.  Even though it’s not exactly what you’d expect from a King novel, The Dead Zone remains a qualified success thirty years after it opened.

Released in 1983 (the same year as Cujo and Christine), The Dead Zone is more thriller than horror with a strangely episodic nature for a genre film.  It’s no wonder the source material was turned into a successful Canadian television series for several years because it’s easy to see how King’s general set-up (man wakes from a coma to discover he has psychic powers) could lend itself well to weekly self-contained storylines.

Opening with Michael Kamen’s haunting score over picturesque views of the small New England town the film takes place in, it’s not long before quiet schoolteacher John Smith (Christopher Walken, A View to a Kill) meets the business end of a runaway semi and winds up in a five year coma.  Awakening to a changed world, he has to adjust to a life that’s moved on from him.  His girlfriend (an underused Brooke Adams, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) has married and had a child so there’s not a lot John has to live for or look forward to even though he now possesses a powerful gift of second sight.

It’s in these first forty-five minutes that The Dead Zone really makes its mark on the audience.  There are several chilling scenes of John foreseeing danger coupled with his sadness knowing what awful things await his loved ones.  Director David Cronenberg (A Dangerous Method) isn’t afraid to take time with our introduction to the characters, only to rush through the final hour of the film with several storylines that feel like a mash-up of scripts intended for sequels.

These storylines involve John helping a local sheriff catch a rather benign serial killer, his tutoring of a young boy with a sinister father, and his crossing paths with a rising political candidate (Martin Sheen) John knows has dangerous ulterior motives.  Screenwriter Jeffrey Boam manages to overlap these threads believably but none of them wind up feeling fully thought out or adequately resolved.

Though it may not have the true horror aspects associated with King, The Dead Zone does manage to maintain its momentum, however fractured the narrative continues to become as the film progresses.  It’s not concerned with the blood and guts that make up the flashier later adaptations but wants to look more into the psyche of the characters.  For that, I find it one of the best adaptations of King’s work to date featuring fine performances and appealing production values.  Worth revisiting.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Zero Theorem

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Synopsis: A computer hacker’s goal to discover the reason for human existence continually finds his work interrupted thanks to the Management; this time, they send a teenager and lusty love interest to distract him.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: Say what you will about the deeper meaning of many of Terry Gilliam’s films but it’s hard to deny that the director doesn’t have a style that’s instantly recognizable. Even if I didn’t know that this first look at The Zero Theorem was the newest entry of Gilliam’s colorful oeuvre, I’d have come away thinking it very Brazil-esque.  Starring two time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), The Zero Theorem’s trailer isn’t one I’ll be craving to watch over and over again without an Aleve handy but I’ll keep my peepers open for the finished product.

Down From the Shelf ~ Hard to Kill

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Mason Storm, a ‘go it alone’ cop, is gunned down at home. The intruders kill his wife, and think they’ve killed both Mason and his son too. When Mason wakes up, everyone is in danger – himself, his son, his best friend, his nurse – but most of all those who arranged for his death

Stars: Steven Seagal, Kelly LeBrock, William Sadler, Frederick Coffin, Andrew Block

Director: Bruce Malmuth

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Back in those carefree days known as the early 1990’s, my parents would always know where to find me if I wasn’t hanging around the house, at school, or causing some sort of mischief in our neighborhood.  They’d just have to call up to Video Vision, a mom and pop video store in a strip mall several blocks away from my house and odds are I’d be there perusing the inventory or doing a little child labor to score a free rental.  I have such great memories of those days and all the movies that would come in several times a week (this was when there was just one release day in a given week) and I’d get a look at the latest action flick hitting the shelves.

Remember, we were in a time when action films were cheap to make and could turn a big profit before word of mouth spread that they weren’t very good.  That still happens today but with all of the advance screenings and the internet anonymity to provide spoilers savvy moviegoers can find the right ones to skip…but during that period it was fairly easy for studios to get in and get out without doing much harm to the bottom line.

Hard to Kill caught my eye right away with its flashy red cover design featuring the then husband and wife duo of Steven Seagal and Kelly Le Brock and I knew that I’d have to get my hands on it pronto.  When I did (the manager knew I was a mature 10 year old) I have the vague recollection of enjoying Seagal’s butt-kicking.  When the opportunity to watch the film again presented itself recently, I couldn’t resist taking a trip down memory lane to see how Hard to Kill has stood up 24 years later.

Well, as often happens when you revisit something you enjoyed as a child, my adult taste superseded any fond memories…causing Hard to Kill to sink like a stone.  I think to really enjoy this I would have had to had some sort of forced amnesia, wiping my memory clean of Seagal’s later work and the evolution the action genre has undergone in the following decades…viewing it now there’s no denying this is really a plump juicy turkey of a film.

Though Seagal’s roles in the early 90’s all blend together to form one character with different names, here he goes by Mason Storm, introduced in a rather long prologue where we see Seagal catching on video a corrupt politician who eventually hires some gunmen to wipe out his Seagal and his family.  While his wife takes a bullet and his son escapes, Seagal takes twice as many hits as his wife but finds himself in a coma rather than the morgue.

Thus begins a series of convoluted (to put it mildly) situations starting with  Seagal’s cop friend hiding him under a false name in a rehab facility and putting his son into protective custody.  Seven years go by and Seagal wakes to a new nightmare…being nursed back to health by Le Brock.  With the film clocking in a shade over 90 minutes there’s barely time for Le Brock to remove his catheter before a bevy of indistinguishable muscle men arrive to finish Seagal off and eliminate anyone in their way.

Director Bruce Malmuth never establishes a tone for the film, jumping from one action sequence to the next with a few montages of Seagal regaining his fighting skills.  There’s a laughable attempt to instill some romance between Seagal and Le Brock into the mix and their complete lack of chemistry provides some evidence as to why their marriage dissolved six years later.

True to its title, the film finds it difficult to end with several wrap-ups that merely lead us to another opportunity for Seagal to flex his weak acting muscles while cracking skulls in a few well choreographed fights.  Limping to its conclusion, Hard to Kill makes it to the credits with little life left and you the viewer may feel the same way.

Look, there’s no denying that these films are a product of their time and have a place in the action lexicon…but that doesn’t mean we have to excuse their convenient coincidences that propel the action and the lackluster performances from the leading players.  Good memories are truly hard to kill but this one went down without much of a fight.

The Silver Bullet ~ Need for Speed

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Synopsis: Fresh from prison, a street racer who was framed by a wealthy business associate joins a cross country race with revenge in mind. His ex-partner, learning of the plan, places a massive bounty on his head as the race begins.

Release Date:  March 14, 2014

Thoughts: I’ll admit the first time I saw the preview for Need for Speed I feared we had lost star Aaron Paul to the Nicholas Cage darkside of films.  The more I saw it though (and I’ve seen it a LOT lately) I’m intrigued by what looks to be a popcorn flick (ala Fast & Furious 6) wanting to emulate those grindhouse-y films from decades ago but filtered through a modern lens.  It’s hard to balance a retro-feel with an updated approach but I find myself cautiously optimistic that this will deliver the goods.  Bonus points for having the intriguing Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment) and Michael Keaton (Gung-Ho, also in the RoboCop reboot) on board in supporting roles.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Quiet Ones

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1GNyQusclgw

Synopsis: A University physics professor assembles a team to help create a poltergeist.

Release Date: April 25, 2014

Thoughts: With a string of UK produced vampire, werewolf, and other random monster movies that had its peak in the 60’s and 70’s, Hammer Horror has been resurrected in recent years with higher profile releases like 2012’s The Woman in Black and its sequel waiting for a release date.  The studio seems to have left its penchant for creature features in the past and is focused on feeding your terror appetite with a supernatural twist.  The Quiet Ones is their new film and what the trailer lacks in originality (haven’t we seen this set-up dozens of times lately?) it makes up for in the promise of a period horror flick that makes good use of the haunted house setting.  If I’m being honest, I’m still a bit skeptical of the finished product but as a devoted fan of Hammer and its history I won’t be able to pass this one up.

The Silver Bullet ~ About Last Night (2014)

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Synopsis: New love for two couples as they journey from the bar to the bedroom and are eventually put to the test in the real world.

Release Date: February 14, 2014

Thoughts: David Mamet’s 1974 play Sexual Perversity in Chicago was already made into a film and modernized for an 80’s audience as About Last Night…, the mostly decent 1986 film that helped further establish the careers of Rob Lowe and Demi Moore.  For Valentine’s Day 2014, Mamet’s tale of the complications of love, friends, and relationships is getting another update, this time with a black cast. With a script from Leslye Headland (Bachelorette) and featuring the likes of Kevin Hart (Ride Along) this could be to the original what The Wiz was to The Wizard of Oz: a film that took the framework of an established product and added its own distinct touches.  I’ll be most interested to see how Headland’s dialogue retools Mamet’s razor sharp observant prose.