Movie Review ~ Room

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After 5-year old Jack and his Ma escape from the enclosed surroundings that Jack has known his entire life, the boy makes a thrilling discovery: the outside world.

Stars: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy

Director: Lenny Abrahamson

Rated: R

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: You know those times in movies when the tears come more from relief than sadness?  Room has one of those moments where the tears just sprang from my eyes without much warning.  Up until that moment we’ve been so invested in the two main characters that the threat against them and the possibility of denied salvation just gets to be too much.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though…and dangerously close to spoiler territory (not that the trailer didn’t give away several key developments already).

Adapted by Emma Donoghue from her 2010 bestseller, Room is narrated largely by young Jack (brilliant newcomer Jacob Tremblay) who has only known life with his Ma (Brie Larson, The Spectacular Now) inside what he calls ‘room’.  ‘Room’ is a securely locked tiny living quarters with a bed, a makeshift kitchen, a small bathtub, and a wardrobe where Jack sometimes sleeps when a man he calls Old Nick visits.  As audience members, we gradually learn that Old Nick took Jack’s Ma when she was a teenager and has been holding her captive for years.

Being stowed away for all that time, Ma has given up hope of ever being released and has created a world inside ‘room’ where she and Jack can make it through day in and day out.  Ma cares deeply for Jack and keeps the dark crime surrounding their imprisonment a secret from him…even though he’s a daily reminder of the violations inflicted on her.  When an opportunity arises for escape, the mother and son must overcome their own fears of the life outside to make the moves necessary to secure their freedom.

It’s no secret that Ma and Jack are liberated from their confines but the story is far from over as both have a major adjustment to make back in the real world outside of ‘room’.  Jack is experiencing a life of wide-open space and new knowledges denied him until that point.  Ma works through her painful realizations of the true effect the lost time has had on her emotionally as well as physically.  Living with her mother (a stoic, supportive Joan Allen, The Bourne Legacy) and stepfather, Jack and Ma take divergent paths toward redemption that brings them closer to each other as a unit and as individuals.

Larson’s portrayal of Ma is one of the best performances you’ll see all year, resisting the urge to elicit pity and opting instead for finding renewed strength as she goes along.  She takes you on a journey through the mind of someone that was caged and then set free…what that does to a psyche and how to move forward is a difficult internal thread to show externally but Larson somehow manages to do it.  Tremblay, too, is a marvelous presence of the film as a representation of pure innocence.  Tremblay and Larson form a symbiotic, cohesive partnership to such an extent that I’m not sure either performance could have existed without the other.

Director Lenny Abrahamson opts for a decidedly non-flashy execution, letting Donoghue’s script play out with honesty.  Room is in intense watch, there’s no getting around it.  When you step back and think of the kidnapping, repeated molestation, and confinement for all these years you wonder how anyone could have survived that alone.  Larson and Tremblay show you how they got through it together.

Movie Review ~ Spotlight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup

Director: Tom McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: More than anything, Spotlight reminds us what true journalism used to look like.  In this day and age of up to the minute coverage that often relies on conjecture, I think we as a public have forgotten what it meant to do your homework, cite your sources, and deliver honest news.  Sensationalism may have sold more papers but it wasn’t the driving force behind most true-blue journalists.

That’s the overall message I took away from writer/director Tom McCarthy’s slow burn look into the investigative unit of the Boston Globe (the Spotlight team) that first uncovered the molestation scandal within the Boston Archdiocese.  Setting into motion a global outcry for justice, the members of the squad took their time in gathering information, pounding the pavement, asking the tough questions, and documenting the horrifying answers.

Drawing justified comparisons to All the President’s Men and filled with several genuinely troubling passages where shocking admissions of guilt are made as off the cuff remakrs, there’s nothing salacious on display.  If anything, audiences may start to pull their hair out that Spotlight didn’t come forward with their evidence sooner…but to jump the gun before all the facts had been hammered out would have left them open to doubt when there was little to be had.  They put their careers on the line to tell this story the right way and in doing so they likely saved lives.

Singling out any one person doesn’t feel fair because Spotlight is the very definition of an ensemble film.  McCarthy has cast his movie well starting with Michael Keaton (RoboCop) as the team lead that ultimately makes the call when they bring their findings forward.  Mark Ruffalo (Thanks for Sharing) is the impassioned champion of the down-trodden that wants to push forward even though his journalistic side tells him Keaton’s path is the right one.  Rachel McAdams (The Vow) underplays her role so much that the actress basically disappears inside herself while Liev Schrieber (Fading Gigolo) crackles as the editor-in-chief that prods Spotlight to keep going.

The film isn’t flashy or overly sentimental so as a whole it’s not as ingrained in my memory like other films I’ve seen in 2015.  It does have several moments, though, that are hauntingly present when anyone brings up the film.  It’s easy to see why it’s been heralded as one of the best films of 2015, it’s old-fashioned in construct and forward thinking it its execution.

Movie Review ~ Trumbo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though it’s not a great movie, Trumbo has been enthusiastically received by the lords and ladies of Tinseletown and I think I know why.  There’s nothing Hollywood loves so much as a good redemption story…especially one that it’s involved with.  Any chance they have to pat themselves on the back is taken with glee, even if it’s involving a dark stain on its history that never should have happened in the first place.

Playing like a made for TV movie that could have aired on HBO (where director Jay Roach has seen several of his political projects find great acclaim over the last decade), Trumbo is a hammy take on the years when numerous Hollywood players were put on the blacklist thanks to the McCarthy hearings.  Thought to be Communists in a time of great fear of the unknown, friends turned on friends and the mere mention of affiliation with the Communist parties saw careers, not to mention lives, destroyed.

Already explored in countless films/documentaries over the years (including a fictionalized take like 1991’s also mediocre Guilty by Suspicion), the way that Trumbo could have set itself apart was not playing like a standard biopic of one man’s downfall.  Yet it falls prey to every convention, every plot trap, every pothole that you can think of.  It may be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t go beyond the surface.

What elevates the film is the presence of several star players.  Helen Mirren and John Goodman have some solid screen time and make the most of it.  Mirren (Hitchcock) is Hedda Hopper, the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist with a poison pen for anyone that crosses her.  Mirren’s demeanor changes on a dime when challenged and the actress balances that sweet/sour persona with ease.  Goodman (Flight) is also notable as the hot-headed small-time studio exec that isn’t one to be pushed around.  And before Diane Lane (Man of Steel) fades into the background as her role becomes mere wallpaper, she’s a strong matriarch in a family that’s struggling.

These three performances can’t save the picture, though, mostly because they aren’t the leading player.  I’ve long struggled with Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Rock of Ages) onscreen, feeling that he’s never as good as people think he is and certainly lacking the charisma that made his Breaking Bad character such a legend.  He’s off the mark here for most of the picture, cartoonishly impersonating Dalton Trumbo’s voice and mannerisms that suggest he’s older than he really is.  It’s only when the character actually ages that the performance matches up.

Worst of the bunch is Louis C.K., completely out of his league as a disgraced writer dealt even more devastating blows as he falls from favor.  The comedian seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and with his dialogue, never convincing us that he’s to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.  It’s a woefully poor performance, and put up against the roster of other strong cast members it just can’t be considered on the same level.

As a biopic, I guess Trumbo earns marks for its draft of events.  It’s workmanlike in its execution and the production design is pleasing.  Still, I kept waiting for the film to be better, to say something extraordinary…instead of just playing by the rules.  Aside from Mirren, Goodman, and Lane…it’s a fairly insignificant telling of a painful part of history.

Movie Review ~ Chi-Raq

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I can’t remember the last Spike Lee movie I saw…I’m ashamed to admit that I kind of gave up on the director about a decade ago after a series of heavy-handed offerings that got bogged down in their own messages.  And I hadn’t even heard about Chi-Raq until a screening popped up on my list so I stayed away from any previews, put away my pre-conceived notions of the director’s past work, and knowing only that it was Lee’s update to Lysistrata by Aristophanes, I let the film speak for itself.

And speak it does…with a strong, loud, clear voice.  It’s Lee’s voice and it’s familiar in its tone and delivery, but wrapped in a timely package about guns, violence, diversity, and peace.  Lee has brought forth his most focused film in quite some time and while it has its interminable sections, there are moments of sheer brilliance that’s as good as anything else I saw in 2015.

In Chicago, violence is at an all-time high. People are gunned down on the streets, in their homes…the innocent and the guilty are indistinguishable. Into this mix we meet Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, giving a star-making performance), the girlfriend of rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who has had it with the violence always right outside of her doorstep.  Moving in with a neighbor hardened by violence in her past (Angela Bassett), her eyes are opened to the power she holds to help effect change in her neighborhood.

After a child is gunned down in broad daylight, Lysistrata and her girlfriends band together to attempt to force their males to put down the weapons and make peace.  How do they do it?  Well, those familiar with Lysistrata will know but for newcomers, I’ll let that be something you discover on your own.  It proves to be a method that brings international attention to the war on street violence, a happening that moves Lysistrata to the front lines of the battlefield.

Lee expertly brings Lysistrata forward to the new millennium and has created a movie arriving when gun violence is at an all-time high and questions about police action and neighborhood activism is front page news.  Using Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) as a hilarious Greek chorus, Lee gets his message across in a more commercial way but its nonetheless powerful in how it’s received.

There are some parts of Chi-Raq that bristle with firepower and moments that seem to stretch on forever, thankfully in the end there’s more that crackles than strains and the end result is a movie that’s important to see with a message imperative to heed.

Movie Review ~ Youth

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A retired orchestra conductor is on holiday with his daughter and his film director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.

Stars: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Watching Youth late one night with three other people, by the time it was over I was the only one awake so right off the bat I’ll let you know that just like director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous film (2013’s The Great Beauty, an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film), his follow-up isn’t going to be for everyone.  Youth is a commitment to take in and even those concentrating hard may not walk away with much from the proceedings.  Easy to hate, hard to love…like most good movies should be.

Taking place over several days at a European health spa, Youth follows a retired conductor (Michael Caine, Interstellar) and fading director (Harvey Keitel, The Grand Budapest Hotel) making their annual pilgrimage for some rest and rejuvenation.  Caine’s character has just been asked by the Royal Palace to conduct a song he composed for his late wife, a song he hasn’t been able to approach since her death.  Keitel’s director is holed up with writers trying to figure out how to work his latest film after a series of failed flops.

Into the mix comes Caine’s daughter (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) arriving as her marriage is falling apart and a young actor (Paul Dano, Prisoners) taking a brief hiatus while preparing for his next big role.  The film is a series of overly talky scenes that tend to come off as new-agey tripe but somehow managed to continually captivate me.  The film and its characters never seem to go where you think they will, making for a curiously fascinating two-hour excursion into some out-there territory.

It’s the performances that trump Sorrentino’s considerable style (still heavily influenced by Fellini).  Caine is almost impish over the course of the film and Keitel’s shows a vulnerability he hasn’t been able to achieve in some time.  Before the last few years, Dano has always struck me as a shapeless lump on film but he’s starting to actively take form before our eyes…his character here has a transformation that’s, to put it mildly, shocking.  Weisz has a humdinger of a monologue delivered in one-take…reminding us why she’s an Oscar winner.

Speaking of Oscar winners, there’s big buzz that Jane Fonda (This is Where I Leave You) will snag a nomination for her work here, and I’m still not quite sure whether I agree with it or not.  As Keitel’s leading lady, she is onscreen for less than seven minutes but makes quite the impression in that small amount of time.  It’s either a gaudy camp excursion or an elegantly sad triumph but darn it all if I can’t decide what it ultimately is.  One thing is clear though, Fonda is lampooning her own celebrity in some way and because of that, it’s a zinger of a scene.

As in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino shows a flair for style and music…though it’s not always refined.  Some scenes are deliberately obtuse and characters pass by without explanation…but the more you try to make sense of it the less likely you are to let the movie simply exist in its form.  I loved the opening set to “You Got the Love” from Candi Stanton (performed with airy verve by The Retrosettes) and a later scene involving Keitel encountering a host of previous actresses is pretty fun.

It’s not going to be for everyone…I’m not even sure if I see it again I’d feel the same way about it.  But my first impression of Youth was that I enjoyed its fresh feeling.

Movie Review ~ Macbeth

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Macbeth, a Thane of Scotland, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself.

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: R

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Everyone has their favorite Shakespeare play (or they should) and while I’ve always gravitated toward the comedies more than the tragedies, if I had to pick one of his darker works I’d go with Macbeth without much hesitation. There’s something so sinister about the plot, something so overtly wicked about it that it has kept me interested in whatever iteration is released.  I’ve seen it on film, and onstage as a play and an opera and it’s malicious deeds always give me the chills.

There have been several screen adaptation of Macbeth over the years (as well as some clever twists on it, see Scotland, PA for a fun one) and they’ve all made their own mark.  Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth is the shortest adaptation so far, truncating Shakespeare’s prose down to its barest core and taking some liberties with the action that may have purists sharpening their knives.

While watching the film, I was decadently disengaged.  I went in thinking I would instantly love it, especially considering the leads were cast with two of my favorite actors working today.  Yet throughout the two hours I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the proceedings like I expected to.  It usually takes me a few minutes to acclimate to Shakespeare’s dialogue but I struggled mightily, even knowing the play fairly well.  Artfully made and shrewdly performed, it didn’t grab me.

Then I had some time to think about the film and slowly but surely I realized just how effective the piece was.  It’s not your typical Macbeth adaptation and more’s the better for it.  Sure, it’s been slashed to smithereens but what Kurzel cuts he makes up for with imagery and imagination that fill in the gaps for us.

I’d always considered Macbeth more of a pawn to his wife’s ambition but Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) plays the Thane of Scotland as conflicted yet not contrite.  He may have needed the initial push from his significant other but once he gets going he finds that he can’t stop his mission to rise to power.  In typical Fassbender form, it’s an all-in approach that gives the character fearsome depth and calculated strength.

Equal to (and possible besting) her co-star, Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) takes on the famous role of Lady Macbeth and chooses to add anxiety into her ambitious ways.  Her urging her husband to commit heinous acts comes from a survival instinct…but she realizes too late the machine she’s helped start will bring about their downfall instead of their ascension.  Cotillard has a thrilling monologue late in the film that’s simply shot but complex in its delivery.

The rest of the cast has to take whatever remnants screenwriters Jacob Koskoff, Michael Lesslie, and Todd Louiso have left of their roles, with Sean Harris (Prometheus, Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation) getting the most out of his turn as Macduff.  Good cracks from Paddy Considine (The World’s End), Jack Reynor (Transformers: Age of Extinction), and a most minor appearance from Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) round out the supporting players.

Not everyone will love this Macbeth…I sure didn’t when it was happening in front of me.  However, taking the time to ponder it in the hours/days after I found that my appreciation for the work only grew.  It wasn’t what I expected and that wound up working in its favor.

Movie Review ~ In the Heart of the Sea

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the 1820 event, a whaling ship is preyed upon by a giant whale, stranding its crew at sea for 90 days, thousands of miles from home.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Benjamin Walker, Tom Holland, Brendan Gleeson, Ben Whishaw, Cillian Murphy, Jordi Molla, Michelle Fairley, Charlotte Riley

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I finished the book that In the Heart of the Sea was based off of mere hours before I caught its big-screen adaptation and it’s probably the reason why I didn’t like it as much as I maybe would have had I not recently experienced Nathaniel Philbrick’s well-researched book.  Philbrick’s historical recounting of the tragedy of the whaleship Essex was a straight-forward piece equal parts storytelling and instructional guide.  Details about the whaling industry, on-board dynamics, and deeper looks into the backstories of the characters was something no film could capture fully…so it’s hard to blame the filmmakers for diverting so far away from the truth.

Well…actually…there is some blame to be had here because what was already a storied tale of survival on the high seas has been unnecessarily Hollywood-ized.  Events have been falsified, details overlooked, and certain aspects have been downright made up to serve…who?  Not the lovers of historical fiction that made the book a bestseller, that’s for sure.

Unwisely adding bookends to the piece featuring a young Herman Mellville (Ben Whishaw, Paddington) interviewing one of the survivors of the wreck (Brendan Gleeson, Song of the Sea) as he researches what will become his celebrated novel Moby Dick, the film starts off on the wrong foot by including this imagined meeting.  Historically it doesn’t make sense, just the first of many ill-advised missteps.  The old man recounts his time aboard the Essex (including scenes where he wasn’t even present) which ran afoul of one massive whale that destroyed the ship and set a band of survivors in lifeboats to fend for themselves on the harsh open sea.

After seeing the equally disappointing Unbroken last year, this survival against all odds seems a bit been-there, done-that so screenwriters Charles Leavitt, Rick Jaffa, and Amanda Silver take some major liberties with the historical facts and add in events that never happened.  In the film, the whale returns several times to taunt/terrorize the men hanging onto life when in reality the massive mammal appeared only once when it originally capsized the Essex.  While the extra whale sightings may add some fairly nice tension to the mix (Silver and Jaffa wrote Jurassic World so they know how to craft a creature attack), knowing that it never happened pushes the film into Jaws: The Revenge territory.

There are other false happenings that I won’t spoil for you here…but the more the story took untrue turns, the less I cared about the film as a whole.  Director Ron Howard (Parenthood) reteams with his Rush star Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods) and the results aren’t nearly as notable.  Hemsworth is a stiff actor and while his physical appearance may have made him an ideal candidate on paper for the headstrong sailor he’s playing, his performance never makes it out of the bilge.  Also feeling a bit lost is Benjamin Walker (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) as the combative Captain, in the book he’s a social leader done in by his inability to lead by example but here he’s a brat at sea.

The film was shot in 3D and it’s used to good effect here.  Unfortunately, much of the film is CGI-d to death so it can feel like you’re watching an animated film at times.  The camera is constantly moving so those prone to sea-sickness may want to take a Dramamine before embarking on this voyage.

When it was delayed from its intended release in March of 2015, many thought that the studio was positioning the film to play big on the high seas of awards season…but the final product is a total land lubber, unable to find its sea legs.

Movie Review ~ Concussion

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.

Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, David Morse, Albert Brooks

Director: Peter Landesman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In recent years, I haven’t been the biggest Will Smith fan.  Not that he’s given us any reason to be.  A series of high-profile pseudo vanity projects have trampled the one-time surefire blockbuster maker into questionable territory, with audiences not totally trusting the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Honestly, I’ve never totally warmed to Smith’s onscreen presence, too often feeling like the actor was showboating more than acting.  Even his Oscar nominated turns in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness felt like Smith barely tapping into the maximum of his potential.

So I approached his latest drama with some caution because the melodramatic trailers had the whiff of a desperate attempt redemption.  Well, there’s redemption to be had in Concussion but it’s not the least bit desperate or undeserved.  As a brilliant pathologist that finds a link between football players and traumatic brain injuries, Smith (Winter’s Tale) turns in his best performance to date.  He dives deep into the character, eschewing his penchant for winking compliance in the face of adversity for a more realistic take on a man that knows a dangerous truth and can’t understand why others don’t know it too.

I’d imagine that the timing of Concussion was not only considered for Smith’s chance at an Oscar nomination but for the final weeks of the NFL Pro Football season.  In recent years there’s been much discussion, more at the high-school and college level, about the long-term effects of football related head injuries and what steps are being taken to prevent these tough damages within a sport known for its necessary roughness.

Director Peter Landesman (Kill the Messenger) created Concussion out of a GQ article that followed the studies of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant working in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office.  Dr. Omalu came to America like so many, looking for the American dream with his own set of ideals and values.  When he delves deeper into the death of an ex-pro footballer, he identifies a slow-developing injury in the brain previously undetected.  His colleagues (especially a bitter co-worker) think he’s marching down the wrong path but Dr. Omalu’s drive and conviction eventually attract national attention.

Going up against an organization as big as the NFL is no small feat but with the help of a former NFL physician (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, more awake and alive than ever) and his superior (Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year, excellently wry) he shines a light on a problem many are choosing to actively ignore.   First dismissed then vilified, Dr. Omalu’s persistence in his findings aims to bring about a change…but at what personal cost?

The film is on point in its message and overall is an entertaining two hours that goes by quickly.  It’s only after that you realize the loose ends present, the characters introduced but not fleshed out or truly finalized.  Years go by over the course of several scenes and it can be difficult to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  The movie relies on Dr. Omalu’s growing relationship with a romantic interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending) and the building of his dream house to help us chart the timeline.

While this is Dr. Omalu’s story, Concussion doesn’t seem like it has a serious agenda at play.  That could be purposeful, a way to not anger the football fans that are likely the target audience.  But this isn’t just another sports picture, there are no nail-biting touchdown plays or Hail-Marys in the final seconds. It’s a true life account of one man seeing a problem and trying to fix it, no matter how unpopular his opinion may be.  And it’s worth seeing.

Movie Review ~ Joy

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Joy is the story of a family across four generations and the woman who rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Elisabeth Röhm, Bradley Cooper

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The good news to report about Joy is that it’s eons better than American Hustle, the last film that teamed up director David O. Russell with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro.  The bad news is that, like American Hustle, it’s largely a watch it and forget it kind of experience with only Lawrence’s performance lingering in the memory after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up.

Working with the same three actors for his last three pictures, one could argue that Russell is gathering a bit of a cinematic repertory of talent that he finds a way to plug into his films.  That’s an interesting concept and one I’m not totally opposed to, but the problem arises when the roles being offered to these stars don’t fit them, forcing them to be the square peg valiantly sucking in their guts to fit into Russell’s round hole.

Touted as being “loosely” based on the life of Joy Mangano (c’mon Russell, it’s either based on her life or it isn’t…you can’t ride the middle ground), Joy is all over the map when it comes to its narrative.  Much of the movie is recounted by Joy’s grandmother (a divine Diane Ladd)…except when it’s not.  Long stretches of the movie go by without the grandmother’s guiding voice so the narrative device becomes a tool to assist in transitions when simple filmmaking alone can’t do the trick.

Mangano’s life plays like an ‘80s sitcom: she’s a divorcee living in her mother’s house and her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez, Point Break) lives in the basement.  Her mom (Virginia Madsen) hides away from the world, losing herself in her soap operas (hilariously recreated by the likes of Susan Lucci and Donna Mills) and letting her daughter do most of the household upkeep.  When Joy’s hot-tempered father (De Niro, Cape Fear) moves in after his longtime girlfriend kicks him out, the dynamic of the already erratic household is thrown into disarray.

The first hour or so of Joy is an awkward mix of family situational comedy and pallid drama.  Joy’s airline job is going nowhere and her attempts at promoting a new kind of mop of her own invention isn’t attracting any business.  When her dad starts dating a rich Italian widow (Isabella Rossellini, Enemy), Joy sees a potential investor for her creation and enters into a business deal with the woman, along with her father and half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm)

It isn’t until Joy winds up in the offices of upstart company QVC that the movie starts to take some kind of shape.  Meeting the brainchild behind the business (Bradley Cooper, American Sniper), she’s encouraged to go big with her idea, leading to her becoming the first “real” person to pitch a product on the network.  The scene where Joy first appears in front of the camera to demonstrate her Miracle Mop was the only time in the entire movie that I felt something magical was happening.  That’s largely due to Lawrence’s ability to shed the skins of her previous roles and totally disappear into this woman.  A relatively short scene, it’s stuck with me in the weeks since I first saw it.

Sadly, the film reaches its peak at that moment and the rest of the time is spent tracking Joy’s bumpy ride to the top, complete with epic failures and miracle reversals of fortune.  How much of it is actually accurate I couldn’t tell you but in the eyes of Russell and co-writer Annie Mumalo (This is 40) the journey is one of pure will and unflinching drive.

The main issue I had with the movie is also the one thing that makes it worth seeing…Jennifer Lawrence.  Though she’s entirely believable as a young mother looking to make ends meet, she becomes less successful as the years go by and her character has to move into the early stages of midlife.  By the time we see her in a power suit and French manicure, all plausibility has left the room and it comes across as a great actress playing dress-up for her favorite director.  I know Lawrence and Russell have a deep fondness for each other, but both need to see that there are limits to the roles they can work on together.

The story being told here is interesting and the actors are attention-grabbing in and of themselves.  Yet something kept everything from gelling in a way that made a lasting impression.  Russell is known for his quirky tone and unexpected performances…it’s why Silver Linings Playbook worked so damn well…but his two follow-up films haven’t been able to latch onto that same magic.

Movie Review ~ Point Break (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young FBI agent infiltrates an extraordinary team of extreme sports athletes he suspects of masterminding a string of unprecedented, sophisticated corporate heists. “Point Break” is inspired by the classic 1991 hit.

Stars: Édgar Ramírez, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Delroy Lindo, Ray Winstone

Director: Ericson Core

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When the first trailer for this remake surfaced back in May, I went against the popular opinon that decried its very existence and said “here’s hoping the boys of summer bring some heat to the holidays.”  Little did I know that the heat I was hoping for came in the form of pure fury.  In retrospect, calling that early preview ‘kinda fun’ makes me shiver in my snowboots that I ever truly had faith that the 2015 Point Break could ever hold a candle to the original from 1991.

Now, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that that Keanu Reeves/Patrick Swayze led action film was any kind of classic.  It’s very much a product of its time and capitalized on what both stars brought to the table, the laid-back (nigh sleepy) performance of Reeves and the dangerous-but-I’d-still-like-to-be-his-friend vibe Swayze was great at delivering.  That it was helmed by a female director (future Best Director Oscar winner Kathryn Bigelow) with more macho bravado than any five films directed by her male peers only made it more of an attractive property over the years, strangely fascinating with each subsequent viewing.

So yeah, I kind of get why a remake of Point Break looked somewhat appealing.  The original wasn’t so much of a blockbuster that it felt untouchable and its slight cult status in the years following its release didn’t give off a feeling that a remake would be outright condemned.  And I can imagine that the studio heads over at Warner Brothers cooed when they hired director Ericson Core to not only direct the film but serve as the cinematographer as well.   Add in a script updated by Kurt Wimmer (who also delivered a new treatment for Total Recall in 2012), lock in some hunky but cheap talent, and decide to release it in 3D and call it a day.

If only they had quit while they were ahead.

Moved from an intended summer release date to Christmas Day, instead of riding the wave to holiday thrills this remake is hanging ten on my worst of the year list.  It’s an abysmally conceived action film with hardly any action that winds up taking itself so seriously that you can’t help but laugh every time a character waxes poetic about nature and our place in the ecosystem of life.

Opening with a stunt sequence that changes the career course for extreme action star Johnny “Utah” (we learn Utah is his nickname, related to his Native American heritage…oy), it features an accident handled so awkwardly it’s hard to fathom how it winds up playing such a big part of Utah’s later mission with the FBI.  Morphing from his extreme sports career to an FBI trainee in danger of being cut, Utah discovers a connection between a series of bank robberies and the test of the wills sort of vision quest he believes the burglars to be embarking upon.

Before you know it, Utah (remember, he’s not even a full FBI agent yet) is given carte blanche by his superior (Delroy Lindo, phoning it in like a pro) to cozy up to the men he believes are behind the daring swindles.  It brings him on a globe-trotting adventure where he forges a sort of kinship with the adrenaline junkies and their leader, Bodhi.  Lines between right and wrong get blurred for a period until it disintegrates into a stilted chase picture that wants to fly but never takes wing.

The film strays so far from its source material that I almost wished it had ditched the title and went on its own merry path, shrugging off obvious comparisons to certain touchstone elements of the original.  Making the film less about robberies and more about conservation of resources, it becomes a new age-y garbage dump of plot holes and extended action sequences that feel far too long.

There’s some praise to be had here, though, and that has to do with Core’s thrilling cinematography that takes audiences through mountains, waves, alpine slopes, and through the streets of its European locations.  Seen in 3D, there are some mighty impressive sights to behold, all filmed with elaborate flair from someone that obviously knows what he’s doing.

Where Core succeeds in cinematography, he outright fails as the overall director of the piece.  Aside from the aforementioned chuckle-headed script, the acting in Point Break is maybe the most offensive thing of all.  I can tell that Luke Bracey (The November Man) wants to make his character multi-dimensional but the way he plays it feels like an acting exercise gone horribly wrong.  Attaching the wrong emotion to nearly every one of his hysterically inane line readings, Bracey’s future looks bleak as an actor let alone a leading man.  He’s covered in some of the most atrocious tattoos ever put on film, making him look like a complete douchebag (the man-bun doesn’t help), offering him no chance to be someone the audience can root for.  Speaking of bad tattoos, nearly everyone in the movie sports some sort of heinous skin art…the kind of ink you wake up with after a drunken night in Cabo San Lucas.

Faring ever so slightly better is Édgar Ramírez (Joy) as the earthy Bodhi, a kind of spiritual father figure to Bracey’s lost boy.  Ramírez is a better actor than Bracey (actually Pauly Shore is a better actor) but is taxed with delivering the most grueling of the zen fortune cookie lines.  Ramírez and Bracey have several ab-offs as they flex, surf, and punch their way through a series of high stakes tests of their mettle.  At one point, I was wondering if they’d ever get back to robbing banks.

Thrown in for dictation is a lame love interest for Utah named Samsara (Teresa Palmer, Warm Bodies) and though I’m sure sparks are meant to fly here, Bracey and Palmer can’t rub their two sticks together to create anything more than a frustrated puff of smoke.  Palmer’s character waltzes in and out of the proceedings seemingly at will, only showing up when the testosterone level reaches its max peak.  At least the original film had Lori Petty as the love interest, Petty and Reeves had little chemistry too but she was such an interesting actress that you wanted to see more…here I couldn’t wait for Palmer to exit stage right.

I’m guessing by some poorly dubbed lines that the movie was filmed as an R-rated action flick but edited down to a more box-office friendly PG-13.  How else would you explain Bracey calling a group of thugs ‘funny a-holes’…a line that doesn’t match what his mouth is saying.

An endurance test to be sure, this remake of Point Break surfs shallow waters and sinks like a stone early on.  It never can overcome its shortcomings in the acting department, even if some parts are beautifully shot.  With so many better movies to see at your local theater, this is one to avoid at all costs…