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.