Down From the Shelf ~ A League of Their Own

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two sisters join the first female professional baseball league and struggle to help it succeed amidst their own growing rivalry.

Stars: Geena Davis, Tom Hanks, Lori Petty, Madonna, Rosie O’Donnell, Jon Lovitz

Director: Penny Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:   There are certain and specific indicators that summer is on its way: the greening grass and budding trees, the rising temps and thawing snow drifts, the appearances of short shorts and sandals (with and without socks), and the baseball season openers from coast to coast. Just as bears come out of hibernation and seek nourishment, so do the baseball fans trek to their stadiums hoping to catch a fly ball. Baseball has been called the national pastime and baseball films remain the most popular subject for sports related films.

Up until A League of Their Own was released in the summer of 1991 (and pretty much ever since) the baseball genre has been dominated by films that targeted the male moviegoers. Whether it was appealing to their comedic side (Major League, Bull Durham) or tugging at their macho heartstrings (Field of Dreams, The Pride of the Yankees), you’d be hard pressed to find a strong female presence that wasn’t relegated to the arm of the star pitcher or as the wife of the general manager.

So it’s no wonder that A League of Their Own was such a big deal because not only did it introduce a female centered film but shone a light on a time in history that many had forgotten or were unaware ever existed. For 12 years, the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League operated with 15 teams featuring a grand total of 600 players. With World War II occupying the public interest, baseball executives like Philip Wrigley and Branch Rickey wanted to make sure that the sport wasn’t forgotten during that difficult time.

To keep the cherished sport viable and considering so many men were away at war, the executives turned to female players to begin this new league that would make history. Though looking at it now you can see the sexist and misogynistic overtones (short tunic dresses replaces the baseball pants worn by men), it was the athleticism of the women that left the lasting impression on the record books.

Director Penny Marshall was on a winning streak at the time and though her original casting of Debra Winger and Moira Kelly as ace baseball playing sisters recruited from a rural town who join the Rockford Peaches fell through, I think she was dealt a better hand by bringing Geena Davis and Lori Petty in as replacements.

The rivalry that develops between scrappy pitcher Kit (Petty) and her sister Dottie (Davis) plays out among other small slice of life stories brought to us by a talented cast of women that not only act their parts with style but trained hard to become believable baseball players. Madonna and Rosie O’Donnell became fast friends offscreen, mirroring their Abbot and Costello-like relationship onscreen and Megan Cavanaugh is a scream as the shy Marla who makes up for her lack of camera-ready looks by consistently knocking balls out of the park.

Let’s not forget that some notable men pop up here as well: though Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips, Joe Versus the Volcano) is the top-billed star, he’s wise enough to find a balance between making sure his character is developed while being sure not to step on any moments that spring forth from the likes of Davis and Petty. Jon Lovitz has a dynamite supporting role as a hysterically crass recruiter and Marshall gives him just enough slack to do his shtick without steamrolling everyone else.

Inspired by a story from Kelly Candaele and Kim Wilson, the script from Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandell (Splash!, Gung Ho!, Parenthood) is fairly episodic and isn’t above introducing a character for a comedic bit only to ignore them completely for the rest of the film. This approach actually helps the film not feel as long as it is by breaking up the action into what could be seen as innings along the way.

Most sport films tend to wear me out when we’re in game mode but the opposite is true in A League of Their Own. Marshall and the screenwriters have packed so much into their fictionalized story that much of the film’s developments happen on the field, in the dugout, or in the locker room. The scenes where we are away from the baseball diamond are the ones that dip in interest, but luckily those are few and far between.

Lovingly book-ended with real players from the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, the film still works all these years later because baseball seems to be (to me) the one sport that is truly timeless. The comedic moments are still light and play off the strengths of the actors while the more dramatic sequences are handled with an honest hand, though it’s easy to see some manipulation at play.

This is one film I find myself revisiting often and I always walk away with a sense of satisfaction because there’s a winning completeness to the movie as it touches all the right bases. So now that the days of summer are creeping their way toward us, it’s time to dust off this film too if you haven’t seen it recently.

Make sure to check out Forgotten Films for more reviews in the Big League Blogathon!

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The Silver Bullet ~ Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

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Synopsis: The town’s most hard-boiled citizens cross paths with some of its more reviled inhabitants.

Release Date: August 24, 2014

Thoughts: Not exactly striking while the iron was hot, this sequel to 2005’s technically sound but pretty darn moody Sin City finally makes it to the big screen after almost a decade of false starts and other production delays. Again directed by Robert Rodriguez and graphic novelist Frank Miller (also at the pen for 300 and 300: Rise of an Empire) this looks to have the same dark flash as its predecessor while introducing a new roster of shady characters like Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Don Jon), Eva Green (Cracks, Dark Shadows), and Josh Brolin (Oldboy, Labor Day) along with returning stars Bruce Willis (Color of Night), Mickey Rourke (Iron Man 2), and Jessica Alba. The first film broke new ground with its visuals…but it’s 10 years later and what was one revolutionary is now standard. What more does this film have to offer…and will it be too little, too late?

The Silver Bullet ~ Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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Synopsis: The city needs heroes. Darkness has settled over New York City as Shredder and his evil Foot Clan have an iron grip on everything from the police to the politicians. The future is grim until four unlikely outcast brothers rise from the sewers and discover their destiny as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Release Date: August 8, 2014

Thoughts: I had to resist the urge to just publish the words that accompany the theme song for the classic animated Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series as my review of the first teaser trailer for producer Michael Bay’s reboot. Though a big screen animated restage of the franchise was attempted in 2007, it didn’t catch on like everyone had hoped…until Bay swooped in and brought the turtles over to Paramount Pictures. Directed by Bay protégé Jonathan Liebesman (Wrath of the Titans), I’m surprised how fondly I’m reacting to our first glimpse of the redesigned turtles who work with reporter April O’Neil (Megan Fox, What to Expect When You’re Expecting) to combat The Shredder (William Fichtner, The Lone Ranger) and save the city. The humor looks to be on par with the original 80’s films while the action/effects/make-up is modern times all the way. Hope this is a nice retro ride for fans like myself weaned on the TMNT movies, animated series, and Nintendo video game.

Movie Review ~ Noah

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Nick Nolte

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the recent religious releases Son of God and God is Not Dead! doing surprisingly good box office business, I’m sure the studio heads at Paramount were breathing a tad easier as the release date for Noah crept ever closer. Buzz had been that the execs weren’t very confident in director Darren Aronofsky’s cut of the film so they screened several of their own versions to audiences to gauge their reaction. In the end the director’s cut won out, leaving me to wonder how bad the other edited versions were.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters much which version ended up being released because the whole film is such a meaty hunk of expired baloney that it may not have been salvageable in any form.

It’s hard to know exactly how to take Aronofsky’s Noah. Most people plunking down coin to see the epic will be expecting a re-telling of the Old Testament story about a man, an ark, and lots of animals trotting up two by two to avoid a massive flood that will wipe out civilization. What these people won’t be expecting, however, is a bloody and violent film featuring formerly A-list stars playing infuriatingly stubborn people that you wouldn’t want to spend 40 minutes on a boat with, let alone 40 days in torrential rain.

After a brief opening that covers the first few passages of the Bible, the film goes its own way by introducing mystical snake skins and stone creatures that one minute want to destroy man and the next are helping Noah and his brood build the ark. Looking like castoffs from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, these iff-ily rendered creatures supposedly are fallen angels encased in rock after they landed on earth in a fiery storm.

The threat of the destruction of civilization isn’t enough, though, so Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel throw in another villain of the human kind in the form of a descendent of Cain. More extraneously inconsequential than interesting and played by the gruff Ray Winstone (Snow White and the Huntsman) as if his life depended on it, the character falls into high camp early on when we see his flowing locks of blonde hair that would make Rapunzel drool.

With about 50 minutes of actual material to work with, the film is stretched to a punishing 139 minutes by including lots of grandiose speechifying from nearly every main character…almost as if they had it in their contracts to be given their moment to shine. So we get lots of introspective musings and preachy pontificating on man’s inhumanity to man. Not wholly or outwardly religious, the film tries to make the issue of a wicked society not so much a Biblical idea but a atheistic one.

I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s work for a while now, though the only film of his I can bring myself to revisit is Black Swan, his brilliant psychological drama from 2010 that won Natalie Portman an Oscar. That film was a hallucinatory and riveting journey into madness and though Aronofsky tries to get inside the head of Noah in a similar fashion, it doesn’t the same effect.

Though he may have made a good Noah on paper, Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) seems so out of touch with the kind of roles he should be playing that it’s becoming pretty fascinating to see the jobs he’s taking on. For my money, he should have played Winstone’s part and let someone like Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale (both were offered the role and declined) have the role. Aronofsky has imagined Noah as so devout to his Creator that he is willing to do horrible things…and something about Crowe’s wild-eyed approach comes across more zealot than pious.

Co-starring with Crowe for the second time in 2014 (the first being February’s lame-o Winter’s Tale), Jennifer Connelly makes some headway with her underwritten role, though it comes late in the game with an impassioned speech that leaves her face awash with tears and snot. With her hair never much out of place and her teeth gleaming white (Noah’s family clearly had a good dental plan), Connelly brings a kind of precision to the role that works in her favor.

Another pair of co-stars re-united, The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Leerman are part of the Noah pack and while it’s appreciated that Watson continues to stretch her wings outside of the Harry Potter franchise, this role seems to get away from her. As the only other major female in the film, she delivers every important speech Connelly can’t be present to give herself.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock), getting an early start on his yearly cinematic appearance in the “grizzled old man” role…this time playing Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. I’m not sure Hopkins even reads his scripts anymore before signing on to a film because the Oscar winning actor has little to do but pass along useful information when needed. The animal stars of the show are entirely CGI and factor in very little to the overall scheme of things.

Visually, the film looks great in typical Aronofsky fashion. Shot in Iceland, the cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Iron Man 2) is stunning and is aided by a strong sound design layered nicely in with Clint Mansell’s (Stoker) rich score. Of particular interest is a five minute sequence halfway through the film where Crowe narrates the Genesis story, brought to life in stunning fashion. I’d recommend seeing the film (eventually when you can fast-forward it) for that segment alone.

So what’s my problem with the film? I’m not a Bible thumper or Sunday School devotee that had to have everything in perfect order and sticking to just the facts, jack. No, I’d have been totally on board with the film Aronofsky was trying to make…if I could just grasp what film that was. Though the filmmakers can suggest all day long that their goal was to keep the film non time-specific, the costume design suggests post-apolopytic, not B.C. chic.

For as visually and aurally pleasing as the movie most certainly is, the perils depicted are incredibly unpleasant to sit through. The last 20 minutes are particularly rough going and even for this habitual watch checker, I started feeling like time was going backward rather than inching closer to the end credits.

Had this film been called, say, Bernard or Jethro I think I would have been able to take it with a finer grain of salt. Slapping Noah on the film and then turning the story into a Middle Earth meets Waterworld soggy epic robs the film of its voice and robs the audience of $10. I still like Aronofsky and applaud him for having the balls to do what he’s done here…but I feel like I want to throw the Good Book at him.

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Movie Review ~ Enemy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mélanie Laurent, Sarah Gadon, Isabella Rossellini

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: After Prisoners became one of my favorite films of 2013, I could not have been more on board for this second pairing of star Jake Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve.  Actually, Enemy is really their first project together because it was on this film the two began discussing joining forces on the dark kidnapping mystery.  Though I find Prisoners to be the superior of their two collaborations, Gyllenhaal & Villeneuve have cooked up a patience testing mystery that may not be your cup of tea but was fine red wine to me.

Based on Portuguese writer José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double and reminiscent of Brian De Palma’s 1973 thriller Sisters, Enemy finds Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) in sullen form as a college professor going about the routine of someone that’s settled in for an unfulfilled life.  He goes to work, comes home to his barely furnished apartment, and often spends the night with a woman (Mélanie Laurent) that rarely stays the night.

One day a random colleague makes an even more random movie suggestion and what Gyllenhaal sees on in the movie is someone that looks an awful lot like him…setting into motion a tricky mystery with layers upon layers to uncover and can’t be revealed here.  What I can say is that the movie holds its cards so close to its chest that it will be difficult for some to accept that not everything has (or deserves) an answer/explanation.

Making good use of its Canadian setting (Toronto has never looked so foreboding even in the beige tones and glowing amber palette Villeneuve  and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc employ), Enemy started to feel like a Where’s Waldo book after a while as I sought meaning in almost everything seen on screen.  Doing the same when you see the movie (and you should) would be a mistake because you’ll may miss Gyllenhaal’s rich performance and good supporting work from the intriguing Sarah Gadon and Isabella Rossellini who pops up in a role that sets the movie on its ear in such a way that it would make David Lynch drool.

You’ll hear a lot about Enemy’s ending and it’s admittedly a doozy of a WTF moment that left me impressed with its moxie rather than baffled at its meaning.  At a trim 90 minutes, the film flies by so that when the ending does come it’s a shock in its execution and that the film has run its course.  Worthy of your time and your intelligence, this is one to take you identical twin to.

Movie Review ~ Bad Words

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A spelling bee loser sets out to exact revenge by finding a loophole and attempting to win as an adult.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rohan Chand, Kathryn Hahn, Allison Janney, Phillip Baker Hall, Rachael Harris

Director: Jason Bateman

Rated: R

Running Length: 88 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  Y’know the old adage that it’s not what you say but how you say it?  That good rule of thumb can be applied to Jason Bateman’s feature directorial debut, a black comedy with such a nasty streak that you’ll feel bad the moment you start to laugh.  Bad Words…more like bad feelings.

It’s easy to see what attracted Bateman to the story of an adult who enters a series of spelling bees after discovering a specific clause that allows him to compete against children a quarter of his age.  Andrew Dodge’s script was a hot ticket on Hollywood’s The Black List (a list of the top motion picture screenplays that haven’t been produced) and Bateman was looking to make the transition from directing television episodes of Arrested Development to something of the feature length variety.

The positive first: it’s short and Bateman was able to compile a hefty amount of good talent for supporting roles.  From Kathryn Hahn (We’re the Millers, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) as a reporter ally of Bateman’s that also occasionally shares his bed to Allison Janney (The Way Way Back) as a sinister spelling bee head honcho, the deck was stacked in favor of Bad Words being a nice little nugget of fun.  And tiny star Rohan Chand makes a nice foil to Bateman’s overgrown adolescent.

So why isn’t it a film I’d recommend?  It’s so darn mean, that’s why.  Very much in the vein of a cult hit like Bad Santa, the way these characters speak and act is so appalling and so disdainful that you can’t help but root for no one to succeed.  I’m not going to say I didn’t laugh during Bad Words, because I did and often.  However it’s the gradual icky feeling I had as the film progressed, realizing that these people were just that awful that made it hard to sit through.

If I want to end on a positive note, I should say that the film does have what seems to be a complete arc.  You can tell why the script found such favor as it made the rounds of Hollywood because it has clearly defined characters and a beginning, middle, and end that plays nicely with the conventions that audiences come to expect.  All that in between stuff though…not fun.

Movie Review ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

Director: Wes Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  In the interest of total transparency, I wanted to let you know that I’m not a dyed in the wool devotee of Wes Anderson.  Sure, I devoured The Royal Tenenbaums as fast as the next art house hound but I started to have my doubts with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and, full disclosure, didn’t even bother with The Darjeeling Limited.  Meryl Streep got me back to Anderson providing a voice for the clever clever clever The Fantastic Mr. Fox and my journey was complete with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of my top films of that year.

It’s March now but I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel in February and knew even then that another Anderson film would be near the top of my list for 2014 because this film represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, most focused, most comedic, and most free from the convention and chumminess that I felt stymied some if not all of his pre Moonrise Kingdom works.

Here’s a director with that rarest of rare gifts…a point of view.  You don’t even need to know this is a Wes Anderson film to know it’s a Wes Anderson film.  His use of color and his attention to symmetric detail demonstrates a skill very few directors possess and Anderson continues to lead the way.  It says something that in Hollywood’s copy happy climate I can’t recall another studio or director that has even attempted the kind of precision and whimsy Anderson makes look effortless.

His new adventure (and it’s truly an adventure) takes place in three different time periods (and, if your theater is heeding the filmmakers instructions, three different aspect ratios) and charts the goings on of the titular lodging and it’s charismatic concierge that made it famous   Inspired by the writings of Austrian Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s film has a little bit of everything from campy farce to murder mystery foibles.  Behind every door of the hotel could lie danger or a lusty encounter with lord knows who.

Priding himself on his exceptional service in and out of the bedroom, randy would-be sophisticate concierge Gustave H (an inspired Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall) mentors young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (perfectly etched by Tony Revolori in the past and F. Murrary Abrahm in the almost present) in the ways of love and lodge, eventually embroiling him in a family squabble after a rich old lady (a marvelously brief cameo by Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin) kicks the bucket under suspicious circumstances and leaves a prized painting to the concierge that warmed her bed.

Chock full of familiar Anderson players, some are seen briefly while others have meatier roles that allow them to go all out.  All are standouts but notables are Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as Swinton’s son wanting his just reward, Willem Dafoe (Out of the Furnace) drawing on his Shadow the Vampire character to play a ghoulish thug, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Big Chill) odd as ever as a family lawyer, Jude Law (Side Effects) as a curious writer, Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) turning up as a detective while Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now, The Host), Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), Tom Wilkinson (The Lone Ranger), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and of course Bill Murray (The Monuments Men) pop up when you least expect them to.

No big surprise that Anderson’s film is given the grandest of grand production designs courtesy of production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar nominated in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave), art directors Stephen O. Gessler (Cloud Atlas), Gerald Sullivan (The Dark Knight Rises), & Steve Summersgill, set decorator Anna Pinnock (Life of Pi), and three time Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (Carnage).  Frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat composes a typically tonally perfect score that sets the mood with style.  Count on all to be recognized with Oscar nominations a little less than a year from now.

Hopefully, Anderson, Fiennes, and the picture itself aren’t too distant of a memory when the award nominations are announced at the end of the year.  It would have been so easy for Anderson to toss this jewel of a picture into the 2013 award race but I think it was a wise choice for Fox Searchlight to hold this one back a bit and let audiences come down from their American Hustle and Gravity highs to start their new season off with a bang.

A film of numerous superlatives, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, for my money, Wes Anderson’s finest film to date.  Energetic, often hysterically funny, and excellent from the first frame to the last it’s as close to a perfect film experience as I’ve had in some time.  For some, it may be too left of center to feel the same way but I was bowled over with little reservation.

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Movie Review ~ Need for Speed

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The Facts
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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.

Stars:  Aaron Paul, Imogen Poots, Dominic Cooper, Ramon Rodriguez, Rami Malek, Harrison Gilbertson, Scott ‘Kid Cudi’ Mescudi, Michael Keaton, Dakota Johnson

Director: Scott Waugh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Though I want you to read the whole review, let me say right off the bat that there’s no real need to see Need for Speed.  It’s a hare-brained, noisy, overlong film that most will probably find subpar in comparison to other muscles and muscle car films like Fast & Furious 6.  Even with that disclaimer, I’ll tell you that I found myself enjoying Need for Speed more than I thought I would/could.

Based on a popular game from Electronic Arts, Need for Speed has a rather lenghty set-up that takes up a good half hour of your time but ably covers a lot of bases you’ll need to get something out of the final 100 minutes.  Tobey Marshall (Aaron Paul) is a good ole boy living in the kind of quaint small time town that so many city denizens would long to visit…for a weekend.  Taking over an auto-body shop from his recently deceased dad, he’s seeing the bills pile up and begrudgingly takes an offer from rival Dino Brewster (Dominic Cooper) to soup up a car to be sold at auction.

Said car is a beaut and attracts the attention of a Julia, a comely associate (Imogen Poots) of a wealthy business man…and leads to a dangerous situation that sees Tobey imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit.  Upon his release he sets out for revenge, bringing Julia and a bunch of emotional baggage along for the ride.

A gigantically silly film, I couldn’t help but just sit back and enjoy the ride that the 3D converted film provides.  Needing to make it cross-country in less than 48 hours, Tobey burns rubber though scenic vistas while avoiding the police and an array of roadblocks both literal and figurative.  Culminating in an illegal street race across the beautiful coast of California, Need for Speed should be credited with never slowing down…because it’s only after the lights come up that you realize how ludicrous the whole thing is.

Compensating for his tiny facial features by pitching his gravely voice to the Christian Bale basement level and over emoting the simplest of line readings, Paul isn’t nearly as impressive here as he was in his award-winning turn on TV’s Breaking Bad.  He’s better than Cooper (Dead Man Down, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), though, who isn’t the formidable foe the character and movie calls for.  Michael Keaton (recently seen in 2014’s failed Robocop reboot) must have filmed his scenes in a day and laughed all the way to the bank as a hyper mastermind behind the final race.

The grand prix winner of the film is Poots who works the same kind of magic she did with That Awkward Moment earlier in 2014 by effectively stealing the role out from under her male counterparts.  I had forgotten she was in this so when she appeared on screen I had the feeling the movie was about to be kicked into a higher gear…and I was right.

Though it hits the skids plot-wise as it nears the finish line, director Scott Waugh stages some mighty fine action sequences that don’t fall victim to repetition.  Using very little in the way of visual effects, Waugh is able to up the ante on race films without coming off as showboating.  It adds a considerable amount of realism to a non-realistic flick and I enjoyed his employment of interesting camera angles.

This is a film I wish was released later in the summer when I could have seen it at a drive-in movie theater.  Though set in present day it has a pleasingly retro-vibe to it even if it lacks the overall cool factor that made classics like Bullitt so monumental in the race genre.  If you’re in the mood to put your brain on cruise control and can take your hands off the wheel, Need for Speed could be a road trip worth taking.

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Movie Review ~ Divergent

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoё Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I knew from the early previews of Divergent that it was going to be derivative of several other films released in the past few years.  And hey, I get it, studios have been scouring the bookshelves of young adults for the next big thing and Veronica Roth’s bestselling trio of futuristic novels was a tantalizing treat that could capture males and females in that prime target market studios gnash their teeth for.

Trouble is, the film that’s been made out of Roth’s first novel winds up being so cobbled together from other, better, books/films that by the end of the numbing 139 minute running length audiences may feel like they’ve been barreled over by this Frankenstein of a film.  Considering the caliber of the cast and the impressively mammoth production design, that’s pretty depressing because had director Neil Burger and screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty trimmed some of the fat, a true franchise starter could have emerged.

You know the drill… a futuristic society that appears utopian really hides dystopian tendencies that threaten the lives of everyone.  The good are really bad and those considered bad are really good.  The opening narration from Beatrice (the usually stellar but oddly uncomfortable Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now, The Descendants) lets us know this world is divided into five factions and the time draws near for her to choose which group she wants to belong to.  Does she stay with the good Samaritan faction her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) raised her in, does she go with the one a never fully realized loopy test assigns her to, or does she choose her own path?

Without spoiling too much, Beatrice (soon to be just Tris, if you’re nasty) finds herself in a tribe that will challenge everything she knows to be true while putting her life at risk from the very people she thinks are her friends.  It’s a tricky set-up and the exposition of such is handled well…but it all seems to be in service to future films not yet greenlit.  That leaves newcomers to Roth’s world in a paint-by-the-numbers environment where everyone is exactly who they appear to be, though the film would have you think its throwing you off the scent at every corner.

Like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and its sequel, Tris is a symbol of heroism for young girls/women but unfortunately lacks the overall growth that made Everdeen such a relatable character that could cross gender lines.  Tris never seems to overcome her weaknesses and hang-ups, not helped by Woodley’s awkward approach.  I’m a big fan of Woodley and can’t quite decide if it’s her performance that I didn’t care for or the milquetoast character she’s bravely tackling.

Alarming in its violence, especially toward women, I never could figure out what kind of film Divergent was aiming for.  Equal parts Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, it never breaks away from the pack to blaze its own trail.  Though a huge bulk of the film centers around Tris being brutally trained by faction leadership, there’s never a decisive moment when Tris takes her life into her own hands.  Though the make-up team ably shows the bruises and effects of her training, Woodley’s flowing locks seem straight out of a Pantene ad.

Rounding out the cast are Theo James, a Franco family look alike that is a surprisingly strong leading man for Woodley, Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher) as a tattooed ruffian keen on taking Tris down, Miles Teller (That Awkward Moment) as a classroom foe, and Ansel Elgort (Carrie) as Tris’s brother who makes an equally tough decision on his future.

Then there’s Kate Winslet (Labor Day) and here’s where I’m treading lightly.  You see, I’m a huge Winslet fan so saying anything bad about her is tantamount to breaking my own heart.  However, in her first attempt at villainy I found her wanting.  As a politicized blonde ice queen she’s not benign enough to share the bad with others and she’s never evil enough to justify our needing to see her taken down spectacularly.  I don’t think it’s necessarily her fault but Winslet has the star power to tailor the role to her talents.  Go bad or go home, I say.  Pregnant while filming, she’s almost always shown with a large notebook in front of her stomach and one close-up scene clearly is a reshoot with her hair and make-up not matching shots before and after.

As the intended start to a major franchise, Divergent doesn’t make the case for a sequel.  When the film was winding toward its conclusion, I realized that I had no investment in what happens next.  If the second book is adapted into a film, I’m hoping for a new team behind the scenes that will help move the film into an event that leaves audiences excited.  The cast is ready and willing…now the material just needs to be there.

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Movie Review ~ Muppets Most Wanted

muppets_most_wanted

The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a grand world tour, The Muppets find themselves wrapped into an European jewel-heist caper headed by a Kermit the Frog look-alike and his dastardly sidekick.

Stars: Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Ricky Gervais, Ty Burrell, Tina Fey

Director: James Bobin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The release of The Muppets in 2011 represented a new start for the felt character franchise that had seen its share of ups and downs during its history spanning over three decades.  Though I found that film to be fun overall, I felt that it wasn’t as Muppet-centered as it could be, focusing too much time and attention on the human stars (Jason Segel and Amy Adams, American Hustle) instead of the characters so many of us grew up with.

Wisely, Walt Disney Studios (which now owned the trademark for Jim Henson’s creations) wasn’t above retooling their reboot and righted some of the past wrongs with this much better sequel that keeps the  puppets front and center were they belong while keeping the humans at bay on the sidelines.  Original director Jams Bobin is back as are screenwriter Nicholas Stoller (The Five-Year Engagement, Neighbors) and songwriter Bret McKenzie (who won an Oscar for “Man or Muppet” and then went on to star in the awful Austenland) and all seem to be on better footing this time around.

If the first film was more akin to The Muppet Movie from 1979 then Muppets Most Wanted could be compared (favorably) to 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.  Picking up literally where the first one left off, Kermit, Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Gonzo, and the rest of their comrades are sweet-talked into capitalizing on their popular resurgence and going on a world tour.  Trouble is, the man behind the tour is Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais, almost as intolerable as Segel was in the previous film) and he’s in cahoots with a criminal mastermind named Constantine.  Recently escaped from a Siberain gulag, he looks an awful lot like Kermit though he sounds like a amphibian Borat.

This leads to a switcheroo landing Kermit back in the gulag and Constantine using the world tour to steal pieces to a puzzle that will help him to snatch the crown jewels.  Along the way there are musical numbers, a sizable amount of cameos (none of which I’ll spoil here), and quite possibly a long-overdue wedding that I thought had happened in a previous film.

The voices and talents behind The Muppets are beyond reproach (kudos Steve Whitmire, Bill Barretta, Matt Vogel, David Rudman, Eric Jacobson, Dave Goelz) so let’s focus on the flesh and blood stars that are getting in on the Muppet action.  As mentioned previously, Gervais is a lot to handle and the film features far too many close-ups of his fang-y mug…though a song and dance number that finds Constantine tap dancing on his head provides a hearty chuckle.  Tiny Fey (Admission) has a thin singing voice and an even thinner Russian accent as the gulag grand dame that takes a shine to Kermit.  Ty Burrell plays a Jacques Clouseu-esque detective always ready to go on break…the jokes here get repetitive and old pretty quickly.

McKenzie’s songs are better than the original with several of them landing squarely on target.  Though he stumbles out of the gate with the obvious “We’re Doing a Sequel” he lands a one-two punch of the Barry White-like disco seduction “I’ll Get What You Want (Cockatoo In Malibu)” and the fun  “Interrogation Song” delivered with rap panache by Burrell and Sam the Eagle.

Though it runs ever slightly too long at 112 minutes and lacks the free spirit charm that came with the first trio of adventures to hit the big screen, Muppets Most Wanted is a marked improvement on every level from the previous entry…even though the new Muppet, Walter, is still featured too prominently.  It can’t be a coincidence that those early films were the entries that Jim Henson was most involved with and that kind of vibrancy is hard to duplicate…but this one inches closer to that pleasant territory.

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