Movie Review ~ Amy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Amy Winehouse in her own words, featuring unseen archival footage and unheard tracks.

Stars: Amy Winehouse, Mitch Winehouse, Blake Fielder-Civil

Director: Asif Kapadia

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: When Amy Winehouse died in 2011 at the age of 27 I, along with the rest of the world, mourned the loss of a talented artist taken before her time.  At the same time, I couldn’t shake the belief that the singer’s much publicized struggles with drugs and alcohol had led to her demise and this was a case of Winehouse making her bed and then lying in it.  I cringe at that callousness now, especially after seeing Amy, the new documentary on Winehouse’s rise to fame and the ultimate price she paid for the life she led.

I was late to the Winehouse game so by the time the singer was nearing her end I was just coming into the appreciation for her talent as a songwriter and her haunting vocals.  This was a singer that knew real pain and could express through music and lyrics the way she was feeling in a way that few artists can truly tap into.  Her addiction to booze, hard drugs, and various men in her life that didn’t have her best interest at heart produced prodigious music but also great pain.

Director Asif Kapadia has compiled a strong documentary from voiceover interviews, home movies, private videos, and television clips to piece together how Winehouse first made it big and what contributed to her dying before she was 30.  Winehouse’s family have distanced themselves from the finished film and it’s no shocker why because Kapadia’s narrative clearly implicates some complicity by those closest to Amy.  Her father especially gets the brunt of it as the film shows him cozying up to his daughter like a friend rather than a parental figure.  We can’t know truly how much her family tried to help her with her vices, but Kapadia’s film indicates they could have done more.

Even without the outside factors that infiltrated her system, it’s clear that Winehouse battled other demons throughout her short life.  Eating disorders, low self-esteem, and an obsession with perfection were only heightened when under the influence of narcotics.  She idolized jazz singer Tony Bennett and in one harrowing sequence she gets the opportunity to record a duet with him and nearly blows it when she can’t figure out how to deliver her vocal track.  This and other sound booth videos show a vulnerability to Winehouse that makes it even more difficult to know where her life ended.

When she died, Winehouse joined the infamous 27 Club with the likes of Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison…all musicians that passed away at 27.  We won’t ever know what she could have done with her talent but in those few short years she burned, she burned bright and left behind an all-too brief legacy of her artistry and a cautionary tale of a life led by excess.

Movie Review ~ The Gallows

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The Facts:

Synopsis: 20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

Stars: Cassidy Gifford, Ryan Shoos, Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown

Director: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofling

Rated: R

Running Length: 81 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Unlike most of my critic colleagues I haven’t been able to fully ring the death bell for the found footage horror genre that reached its critical mass about five years ago.  Made on the cheap with the ability to make a profit based on its open weekend haul alone, it’s not hard to see why these types of films produce big dollar signs in the eyes of movie studios that don’t have to spend a lot to get something big in return.  It’s clear though that the found footage fad is down to its dying breath (see The Devil Inside, Paranormal Activity 4, and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones for proof), and The Gallows is the most recent example of its drawn out death rattle.

I was a theater nerd in high school so hearing that The Gallows concerned the spirit of student killed in a tragic onstage accident that returns for some vengeance I was amused and interested.  Talk to any actor that’s spent time onstage and they’ll tell you about ghostly occurrences they’ve witnessed or legendary tales of the unexpected that have been passed own from one actor to another.  There’s gold in them there ghost stories and I half expected co-writers/directors Travis Cluff & Chris Lofling to produce a scary bit of gold in a genre that’s pretty much all lumps of coal.

Sadly, ‘twas not to be and The Gallows is one of those forgettable blips on the summer movie scene, a shot-in-the-dark bit of counterprogramming that substitutes loud sonic jolts for honest scares and manages to waste a whole lot of narrative potential.  Actually, the biggest mistake from the filmmakers was making this a found footage film in the first place.  Yes, the handheld camera/phone bits may have added to the overall sense of dread and contributed to the dizzying delirium of getting lost in the underbelly of a high school theater but had it gone the traditional route I think the scares would have been an easier sell.

It’s been 20 years since a student was accidentally hung during a performance of “The Gallows” and, surprisingly, for the anniversary the school board has approved a recreation of the show.  The majority of the filming is from the perspective of Ryan (Ryan Shoos) as an obnoxious (that’s putting it mildly) class clown that’s joking his way through his required Theater 101 course with his best friend Reese.  Reese (Reese Mishler, a young Tom Cruise doppelgänger) has the leading role opposite Pfeifer but is unsure of his lines or his talent.  When Ryan convinces Reese that the only way out of embarrassing himself is to break into the school after dark and destroy the set, a night of terror awaits as the guys get locked into the school along with Pfeifer and Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, the daughter of Kathie Lee and Frank) and begin to be stalked by an unseen presence.

Many of the scenes seem to be improvised, an unwise decision because the four actors don’t have the confidence to move the story along with only a bare-bones concept of what’s happening next.  The dialogue is forced, phony, and crammed with endless bits of obvious exposition only present because Cluff and Lofling have no other way of indicating what’s happening.  At one point, another camera is introduced and the same sequence is repeated twice from different lenses…but they don’t match up with one another.

The film is crass with its stereotypes of jocks/populars vs. theater nerds/outcasts.  The more popular students are tanned, toned, and beautiful with the theater folk are geeky, oversized, and forgettable.   This is a school where theater practice happens during the day and students wear their costumes in the halls…though why the actors in the play were wearing Elizabethan costumes for a play set in colonial times is anyone’s guess.

Gifford and Mishler are relatively impressive in their performances while the aforementioned Shoos suffers from playing a character that’s so grating you’re praying for the moment he gets strung up (not saying he does or doesn’t…but I was ready and willing to let him go).  Pfeifer Brown (yes, the actors share the same names with their characters) ably screams her way through the finale that ratchets up the tension with a few impressive spooks but it’s too little, too late.  Even a nice head-spinner of an epilogue can’t acquit the rest of the film from its shortcomings.

The Gallows might make for nice viewing at cast parties down the road but don’t make much of an effort to catch this one during its brief run in theaters.

Movie Review ~ Minions

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob are recruited by Scarlet Overkill, a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb, hatches a plot to take over the world.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Allison Janney, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Steve Carell

Director: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In my review of 2013’s Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that the filmmakers succeeded in making an enjoyable sequel because of their understanding of exactly what the audience wanted…more Minions.  After Despicable Me 2 broke big at the box office, a third film was set for release in 2017 but in the interim a spin-off animated adventure has been created that focuses solely on how the Minions came to serve their not-quite-so evil master Gru.  You’d think that the most enjoyable elements from the first two films would be a slam-dunk when given their own film…but it turns out that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

Look, I loved the Minions in the first two films and laughed at their gibberish language and love of bananas as much as the next easily pleased adult in the audience.  Heck, I even waited in line for a considerable time in a light drizzle for a spot on the Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios in Florida.  It’s clear, though, that these were characters that worked better in their featured supporting roles and aren’t quite ready for headlining their own film.

The opening credits show the genesis of the Minions as they emerge from a prehistoric ocean and start their quest to serve the baddest of bad guys throughout time.  Their bumbling winds up offing their masters throughout history, though, from a T-Rex to Dracula to Napoleon and eventually they find themselves exiled into a cave frozen over with ice where they languish without a villainous boss to serve.  Not content with just lying around any longer, during the ‘60s the resourceful Kevin recruits two of his compatriots (Stuart and Bob) to venture out in search of an evil genius they can attend to.

Starting out in New York before heading to Florida and then England, the film follows the three pals as they become involved with the first female supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock, Gravity) as she plots to overthrow the British monarchy.  Owing a little bit of its plot to King Ralph, the final half of film has the Minions first trying to help Overkill steal The Crown Jewels and then staving her off as she goes mad with newfound power.

Like the previous two entries in the Despicable Me universe, Minions feels too long even at the relatively short 91 minutes.  I was checking my watch before it was half over, a bad omen for a film not lacking in color or 3D distraction. (Like its predecessors, this one is worth the 3D upcharge…but make sure to stay until the final credits have passed for some impressive 3D effects.)  Directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices every last Minion…totaling almost 1,000!) seem to know they don’t have enough material for a full-length feature so there are more than a few pit stops along the way, such as Stuart leading some Royal Guards in a sing-a-long to, randomly, a selection from the musical Hair.

The voice talent also is disappointingly underwhelming.  I was looking forward to Bullock’s performance but didn’t get much from her.  Like Frozen, the voices never seemed to really match their animated counterparts so you have the voices of talented actors like Bullock, Michael Keaton (RoboCop), Allison Janney (The Way Way Back), Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm), and Steve Coogan (Philomena) coming awkwardly out of designs that don’t sound totally correct.

It’s in the final five minutes where the movie shows some signs of life, not surprisingly it’s the part that acts as a bridge between Minions and Despicable Me, by that time I was just ready to get up and go so it’s a credit to the film that it finished up strong.  Still, in a summer that’s shown that there’s a case to be made for successful sequels, Minions is an example of how a spin-off (even one with good intentions) isn’t always the wisest route to take.  I’m sure the film will rake in a buttload of cash, though, so I hope that Despicable Me 3 puts the Minions back to work at what they do best…support the action rather than lead it.