2016 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

962749453_b577b6e9cbbc8fa9


Well hello there!  

So here we are about to start the SIXTH year of this blog!  Hard to believe it and boy, does time fly.  Below I’ve compiled my list of the best and worst of 2016.  In all honesty, by the time it came to make this list things became a bit of a jumble and I decided to choose the movies that I had the strongest reaction to when I saw them.  I don’t revisit movies often but anything in the Top 5 are films that I’d add to my collection.  

As always, I’ve appreciated your feedback, your patronage, and your general presence in my blog. Even if you read this everyday but have never commented or made contact I can still tell you’ve been here and that means a lot.  My readership and subscriptions continue to increase every month/year and it’s all thanks to your word of mouth, likes, and shares.  If you haven’t already, make sure to follow this blog, follow me on Twitter (@joemnmovieman), and like my Facebook page so you can help me continue spreading the news about The MN Movie Man.

Best Wishes to you and yours for a most Happy New Year!

~Joe (The MN Movie Man)


coollogo_com-1993827

5. Zootopia – no one, least of all me, was thinking Zootopia was going to be any kind of blockbuster at the box office but this intelligent and riotously funny entry from Disney animation hit a perfect bullseye.  Equally entertaining for adults as it is for children, it has your typical Disney moral but it’s disguised cleverly in a plot that encourages parents to have a deeper discussion with their children on the ride home. From a DMV run by sloths and a running joke parodying The Godfather, I don’t think I laughed harder (or longer) in any movie this year.

4. Sing Street – as he’s shown in his previous films Once and Begin Again, director John Carney knows how to seamlessly weave music and story together to form a not-quite musical but not-quite non-musical feature. For me, this is his best effort yet.  Focusing on a merry ragamuffin band of teens in Dublin during the 1980s, Sing Street wore its heart on its sleeve and won me over nearly from the start.  The songs are wonderful (much better than the ones in Moana or La La Land, in my opinion) and the performances warmly winning. This got completely ignored during its theatrical run but I have a good feeling it will have a long life once people find it on streaming/on-demand services.

3. Pete’s Dragon – oh boy was I NOT looking forward to this remake.  The original was a nostalgic personal favorite of mine but, let’s be honest, was no classic.  Still, I just couldn’t fathom why or how Disney would redo Pete’s Dragon when there are new movies to be made.  Turns out this is one reimagining that managed to respect the past while making its own path…and what a wonderfully moving path it was.  Buoyed by director David Lowery’s sensitive script and across the board excellent performances, all these months later I still remember the unmitigated joy this one brought me.

2. Manchester By the Sea/Moonlight – I’m cheating, I know but I just couldn’t decide between the two.  Though both movies couldn’t be more different (culturally, at the very least) they shared an uncanny understanding of human nature and emotion few films can grasp.  Manchester’s tale of a troubled man called back to his hometown to take care of his nearly orphaned-nephew forced to face his demons is chock full of superlatives: performances, script, direction, ambiance.  Moonlight’s triptic of the life of a black man coming to terms with his sexuality and rising above the pain of his past is representative of the bold, staggering filmmaking all films should aspire to. There’s good reason both movies are going toe-to-toe in end of the year awards talk as each film leaves a lasting impression resonating in your heart and mind.

1. The Nice Guys – I don’t remember the last time a movie ended and I wanted a sequel immediately. Though I’m sure The Nice Guys wasn’t imagined as a franchise starter and its meager box office might not inspire its studio to fund another entry, I’m praying for another two hours to spend with these characters.  A mystery set in 1970s California, the movie starts with a bang and rarely takes a breath as it piles on dead bodies, twists, and turns.  Chemistry in movies is so important and no one nailed it better in 2016 than Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe who seemed like they’d been working together forever.  Writer/director Shane Black created the Lethal Weapon series…maybe The Nice Guys could follow suit?  Pretty please?

Honorable Mentions: A Monster Calls, Jackie, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Eye in the Sky, Everybody Wants Some!!, The Invitation, The Meddler, The Shallows, Kubo and the Two Strings, Green Room

coollogo_com-203301273

5. The Divergent Series: Allegiant – unwisely split into two movies, this third entry in the Divergent series was so bad and performed so poorly, the second half is now likely to skip theaters and go straight to video.  If I had my druthers, they’d just stop now and let this agonizingly awful series fade from memory. With terrible effects and even worse performances, this series has always been a rip-off of The Hunger Games but with this chapter it comes off like a parody of itself…and no one is laughing. Titanically terrible.

4. Suicide Squad – in all honesty, I was more than half-hoping Suicide Squad would be the movie that helped DC Comics get their footing back after the critical drubbing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice took earlier in the year (for the record, BvS:DoJ wasn’t a bad movie at all…so there).  Sadly, Suicide Squad isn’t just more of the same…it manages to somehow be even worse.  All sound and fury that yields literally nothing, it’s got a strong cast and talented director whose vision was clearly neutered by the studio. An extended edition of this was released on video but I’m not sure how anyone could have fixed what was never whole to begin with.  A waste of time, resources, talent, and air.

3. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back – funny that in 2012 Jack Reacher was on my list of favorite films and this turd of a sequel nearly made it to the top of my worst of the year report.  This seven-car pile-up of an action film broke the box office winning streak of Tom Cruise and with good reason. There’s literally nothing commendable or recommendable about Cruise’s second go ‘round as the titular character.  I have carpet squares more talented than Cruise’s co-star, Cobie Smulders, and the rest of the supporting cast isn’t any better. Painfully trite and exceedingly dull, I was looking for the exit before the opening credits were complete.

2. Mother’s Day – Director Garry Marshall died shortly after this movie was released.  That should tell you something.

1. The Bronze – supposedly this film was a huge hit at various film festivals, inspiring a bidding war between independent studios but I can’t for the life of me figure out why. The most singularly repulsive film I saw in 2016 earns that honor by having zero redeeming qualities or likable characters, least of all Melissa Rauch’s one-joke (told badly) lead performance.  Rauch co-wrote the film with her husband and both should be fined somehow, someway for this crime against black comedies.  I don’t walk out of films ever but if someone were to have granted me a free pass to leave any film this past year, I would have grabbed my golden ticket less than fifteen minutes into The Bronze.

Dis(Honorable) Mentions: London Has Fallen, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows, Inferno, Rules Don’t Apply, Anomalisa

coollogo_com-251051185

Most Misunderstood: The Magnificent Seven (2016) – Despite it’s big stars, this remake of The Magnificent Seven failed to catch on with audiences or critics and I’m still scratching my head as to why.  A respectable Western that takes its time to carve out some otherwise stock characters should be celebrated instead of dinged for being too slow.  I actually enjoyed the pace of director Antoine Fuqua’s ensemble guns and guys gathering and if nothing else it’s a worthwhile experience just to see the normally stoic Denzel Washington loosen up a bit and have some fun.  It’s not as criminally misunderstood as previous choices but I was bummed out this one didn’t go further.
Honorable Mention: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2015: The Choice – I’ve been burned and bored by many Nicholas Sparks films over the years so I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to get a look-see at The Choice.  Not featuring any big names and arriving with little fanfare, this turned out to be surprisingly strong and maybe the best adaptation since The Notebook.  True, it follows the Sparks pattern without deviation but I was taken with the characters and soaked up the beautiful location filming.  I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll revisit this one and feel differently than I do now, but for the time being I’ll give the film its due and say that I went in thinking I’d hate it but came out more than decently pleased with what I saw.
Honorable Mention: The Boss

Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should

Captain Fantastic

Circle

Holding the Man

Housebound

I Smile Back

Imperium

Jenny’s Wedding

Kristy

Short Term 12

Tallulah

The Invitation (2015)

The Wave (Bølgen)

Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil

What Happened, Miss Simone?

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2016
Total Movies Seen in the Theater96
Total Movies Seen at Home212
Grand Total for 2016 (not counting films seen multiple times)305
Where I Saw the Most Movies – Showplace Icon (48!)

Movie Review ~ Swiss Army Man

swiss_army_man_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A hopeless man stranded in the wilderness befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home.

Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Director: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Bound to be remembered as “that movie where Daniel Radcliffe played a farting corpse” than for all its inherent creativity, I’ve actually been suggesting Swiss Army Man to people with that same flatulent logline.  This is the type of movie that doesn’t have much of an impact when released in theaters but is bound to find its audience through streaming and home rentals.  Starring Paul Dano (Prisoners) and Radcliffe (What If), the flight of fancy with a morbid streak is a never predictable tiny gem that shines nicely once you get past some hard edges.

Dano stars as a man who opens the film literally at the end of his rope.  An island castaway with no hope for survival, he’s about to take proactive action on his fate before nature does when he sees the body of a young man (Radcliffe) wash ashore.  Using the gaseous corpse as a jet-ski (stay with me here), Dano hitches a ride on the body thus beginning his quest to find a way home.  This leads to an adventure through the wild and showcases the relationship between the living and the dead, finally arriving at a poignant conclusion that feels well-earned.  Co-starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a fantasy girl from Dano’s past, Swiss Army Man is an elaborately designed film that shows how far directors Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert (aka The Daniels) can go with a small budget.  Worth letting ‘er rip and taking a chance on.

Movie Review ~ Assassin’s Creed

assassins_creed_ver3
The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Callum Lynch explores the memories of his ancestor Aguilar and gains the skills of a Master Assassin, he discovers he is a descendant of the secret Assassins society.

Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Khalid Abdalla, Michael K. Williams, Charlotte Rampling, Ariane Labed

Director: Justin Kurzel

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Let’s get this out of the way at the outset.  I’ve never played Assassin’s Creed nor did I have the faintest clue what the big screen adaptation was about when I cozied myself up in a warm theater for the 10am screening.  Maybe it was the early showtime or maybe not having any pre-conceived notions helped because I quite enjoyed this futuristic historical adventure with a hard edge.

Used to be when an A-List actor took a role in a video game adaptation, it signaled a career that had run its course but Assassin’s Creed proves to be a rare unicorn.  Featuring a host of Oscar winners and nominees, I was worried the film would reek of actors slumming for a paycheck but turns out they all bring a much needed gravitas to the proceedings.  Basically, they classed up the joint.  Re-teaming with his Macbeth stars, director Justin Kurzel makes good use of Michael Fassbender’s (Prometheus) dark side and nicely exploits Marion Cotillard’s (Two Days, One Night) air of mystery to keep you off balance surrounding the motivations of the central characters.

Fassbender is a death-row convict whose execution is faked by Cotillard in order to bring him to her next-generation laboratory in Spain.  There’s some mumbo-jumbo about the Knights Templar and a fabled Apple of Eden that holds the key to the nature of evil but it’s all a way to get Fassbender into Cotillard’s machine that takes his DNA and pulls up the memories of his ancestors and allows him to relive the past.  As part of the memories of his Assassins society days, Fassbender is plunged into a conspiracy where his life hangs in the balance in both the past and the present while mankind’s future is up for grabs if he achieves his goal.

The ideas in Michael Leslie, Bill Cooper, and Adam Cooper’s screenplay are loftier than one might imagine considering the source material.  Jeremy Irons (Beautiful Creatures) and Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) are Templar elders anxiously awaiting Fassbender’s find and both have fun (but not too much) with some nicely droll line readings.  The cast is rounded out by reliable character actors and an international cast of foes and friends working to either help or hinder Fassbender’s efforts.  Aside from the seemingly never-ending supply of bad guys to kill (in appropriately PG-13 non-bloody fashion), this doesn’t have the typical video game look that has weighed down similar movies.  For that, I am most grateful.

Unfortunately bound to get lost in a holiday season with bigger fish to fry (why didn’t this get a late January or February release?), Assassin’s Creed is better than it should be and more entertaining that I felt it would be.  Kurzel has now shown in two movies that he can get real dark real fast and the finale of Assassin’s Creed is a bold stroke of confidence that I hope pays off.

Movie Review ~ Jackie

1

jackie-poster
The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy fights through grief and trauma to regain her faith, console her children, and define her husband’s historic legacy.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, John Hurt, Billy Crudup, Max Casella

Director: Pablo Larraín

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I’ve found that the mention of the Kennedy clan is, at this point in American culture, met with either exhaustion or adulation.  Countless documentaries have been made over the years and it seems like a new and noteworthy book finds its way to shelves every other month.  That doesn’t even count the movies.  So, suffice it to say, the woes of the Kennedy’s are known and easily accessible to anyone that cares to investigate further.

So why Jackie and why now?  We’ve seen the first lady portrayed on screens big and small (and even on stage in a one-woman show) but we’ve never seen it quite like this before.  Taking a page from recent biopics that focus on one small window of time in the life of a historical figure, Jackie is an exceedingly engaging film that welcomes us to stare and gawk at the tragedy that changed the direction of our nation.

Jumping back and forth and around and through the events leading up to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and its aftermath, Noah Oppenheim’s screenplay pulls the attention away from the president to focus on Jackie herself and how her grief revealed a woman bolder and stronger than even her closest allies realized.  Chilean director Pablo Larraín may be an out of the box choice for this American as apple pie film but perhaps being un-enamored with the legendary Kennedy family was needed to tell this tale with such uprightness.

As Jackie, Natalie Portman (Thor: The Dark World) gives the performance of her career and gets my vote for Best Actress of 2016 for the way she buries herself in the role.  The funny thing is, you always know it’s Portman but you see and hear Jackie through and through.  I was worried that her pronounced Kennedy accent would be a distraction and, honestly, it is but mostly because no one else in the cast rises to the same level of technicality in their work.  Even so, the performance is bravely honest when it shows Jackie at her most brusquely direct and emotionally powerful when she lets her guard down and her sorrow bleeds through. Here is a woman that knew the power of media (visual and print) and made a point to stay in the public eye in the days after the assassination so no one would forget the price she and her children paid.  Though Portman is featured in gorgeous costumes and is always pristine (even when covered in blood), the performance lacks any kind of vanity.  Truly exceptional work is on display here.

With a leading role sketched with such skill, the supporting characters need to be on point too and for the most part Jackie’s support staff get the job done.  Greta Gerwig (Mistress America) is nicely understated as a White House staffer/confidant, Billy Crudup (Spotlight) plays a fictionalized reporter Oppenheim uses as a framing device and serves as the voice of the people, and John Hurt (Only Lovers Left Alive) turns up late in the film as a priest attending to Jackie’s questions of faith.  The only major disappointment is Peter Sarsgaard (The Magnificent Seven) sonorously taking on Bobby Kennedy with neither the accent, looks, or charm that is profoundly needed.  Sarsgaard sticks out like a sore, unconvincing thumb…especially in scenes featuring him with Jackie and JFK.

Along with Madeline Fontaine’s glorious costumes and Jean Rabasse’s beautifully articulate production design, Mica Levi (Under the Skin) has composed a most unusual and original score that you’re either going to love or hate.  Nearly always conveying a mood that is opposite to what is happening on screen, it gives another layer of depth to feature film about a family possessing public vs private personas that often are in competition with each other.

Audiences going to see another recreation of JFK’s assassination or conspiracy surrounding it are advised to steer clear as Jackie is about the woman behind the president and the storm she weathered behind closed White House doors while she remained strong in public for a nation in mourning

Movie Review ~ Passengers

passengers_ver2
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Morton Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but just a few short months ago there were whispers in Hollywood that Passengers, this sci-fi romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, might be a late-breaking entry up for award consideration.  Now it’s clear that those “insiders” were people stumping for Sony because while it isn’t quite the train wreck most people will tell you it is, it’s certainly a disappointment when you consider the people behind it.

This is one of those “looked good on paper” sort of affairs.  Two of the hottest stars (literally and box-office-y) working in Hollywood right now team up with an Oscar nominated director for a big-budget two-hander set aboard a spaceship traveling to a new world.  While I can admit the concept driving the action is fairly intriguing, it’s a bit of a puzzlement as to why many big names have been orbiting around the pedestrian script from Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) for some time.  Revolutionary material this is not and in many ways it’s a big step backward for at least one of its stars.

According to Passengers, in the future it will be possible to survive on different planets and Earth will see a sizable number of its inhabitants emigrate to a new solar system.  Sure, it will take over a hundred years, you’ll never see your loved ones again, and if you can’t afford the ticket you’ll be little more than an indentured servant for the span of your life…but what an adventure! As the movie opens, a meteor shower damages the massive ship and causes one of the transport pods to trigger an early wake-up call for Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World).

Noticing he’s the only one up and about, Jim learns of the pod malfunction and that he’s still 90 years from his destination with no way to get back to sleep.  He spends his days exploring the ship, practicing his free-throw, mastering a Dance Dance Revolution-style video game, and commiserating with an android bartender (Michael Sheen, Admission).  After a year, though, Jim is lonely and that’s when he catches sight of Aurora (Lawrence, Joy), a sleeping passenger he gets to know through her introductory videos prepared pre-flight.

Keeping spoilers at bay, I’ll just say that Aurora is roused as well and bonds with Jim in and out of the bedroom.  For a while, things are in breezy rom-com territory before reality sets in when Jim has to come clean about a Big Secret that threatens his relationship with Aurora and the other passengers as well.  Maybe another passenger wakes up and maybe there’s a recognizable star that shows up for literally 12 seconds near the very end but that’s for me to know and you to find out…if you want.

Passengers plays well, fueled by the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence.  The only problem is the chemistry is more brother-sister than boyfriend-girlfriend and that’s just the tip of the creepy iceberg when all is said and done.  Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) tries to sidestep some fundamental moral dilemmas of the characters by distracting audiences with plenty of skin from his leads (Pratt’s two rump shots elicited quite the murmur of approval from the guests at my screening) and forcing us to see what a perfect match the two are.

Things really go awry in the last 1/3 when Passengers morphs into an effects heavy action film.  Lawrence is reduced to a damsel in distress, a far cry from the take charge women of steel she’s been playing (and receiving Oscar nominations for) recently.  Pratt fares better, only because the blue-collar guy he’s playing isn’t too far outside of his wheelhouse.  I kept wanting Sheen to play a bigger role in the action and come out from behind the bar or do something (anything) that would keep the film from being so earthbound and ordinary.

While its nowhere near the level of sophistication it should be, Passengers isn’t a complete turkey.  Aside from the appeal of Pratt/Lawrence, there’s some fine effects work but one too many slow camera pans of the ship inside and out.  When the characters stare into the vast blackness of space tethered by a single rope as they float, I got a little spooked/excited at what could happen if they broke free from their safety net.  Same goes for the movie – it never breaks free from its constraints.

The Silver Bullet ~ Alien: Covenant

alien_covenant

 

Synopsis: The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Anticipation was high back in 2012 when director Ridley Scott’s mysterious Prometheus arrived veiled in secrecy.  Was it a prequel to Alien or wasn’t it?  Early previews gave few clues and neither Scott nor 20th Century Fox did much to fill in the blanks.  Prometheus sharply divided audiences and critics, some appreciating that Scott reached further back than mere prequel territory while others loathed it with a vitriol usually reserved for a Transformers sequel.  Personally, I loved it and saw it several times on the big screen; it’s cliffhanger ending only made me more curious about what would happen next.  The answer comes next May with Alien: Covenant and this first look is a neat (if overly gory/spoiler-y) intro to a film that looks very different than its predecessor.  Perhaps Scott (The Martian) and screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre, Hugo) are trying to please the fans and detractors of Prometheus at the same time.  Riding that fine line would be good, I just hope they don’t overcompensate and make a faded copy of the original entry.  Aside from Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Noomi Rapace (Dead Man Down) returning in their roles, star Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) certainly is going full-on Ellen Ripley and I’m interested (and a little nervous) to see how actors like Danny McBride (This Is the End) and the recently added James Franco (Sausage Party) figure into the mix. It’s worth noting that Alien: Covenant was originally intended for a release in October 2017.  It was then moved up to August before settling into a prime summer release date in May.  That’s a very good sign of a studio confident they have something big…let’s hope so.

The Silver Bullet ~ Blade Runner 2049

blade-runner-2049

Synopsis: A new blade runner unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. The discovery leads him on a quest to find Rick Deckard, a former LAPD blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.

Release Date:  October 6, 2017

Thoughts: When Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was first released in 1982 it was a little too ahead of its time.  Though Alien, Scott’s previous effort, successfully transcended its era there was something too cool to the touch in this adaptation of a Philip K. Dick short story.  Over time Blade Runner has become a respected classic, endlessly released in new edits that attempt to make the somewhat obtuse movie a bit more focused.  Instead of tinkering again with the source movie, Scott (busy with his second Alien prequel) wisely handed over the reins to skilled auteur Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, EnemySicario, Arrival) and boy am I glad he did.  As much as I love Scott’s work (I’m still ornery that he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for The Martian), Villeneuve is rising in the ranks of ‘can’t miss’ directors.  Set thirty years after the original film, it introduces a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling…ever heard of him?) who tracks down Harrison Ford’s character for…well, we don’t know quite what for yet.  All I know is that this is what a true teaser should be like and the hype growing around this one seems to be quite real and potent.  What a cast too, joining Gosling (The Big Short) and Ford (Star Wars:The Force Awakens) are Robin Wright (Wonder Woman), Mackenzie Davis (That Awkward Moment),  Lennie James (Lockout), Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy), and Jared Leto (Suicide Squad)

The Silver Bullet ~ Snatched

snatched



Synopsis
: When her boyfriend dumps her, Emily persuades her ultra-cautious mom to accompany her on a vacation to Ecuador.

Release Date: May 12, 2017

Thoughts: 15 years.  That’s how long it’s been since Goldie Hawn (Deceived) has been seen on the big screen (not counting midnight screenings of Death Becomes Her at revival houses) and for a Hawn fan like me, that’s far too long.  The Goldie drought will end this Mother’s Day as the Oscar winning comedienne teams up with Amy Schumer (Trainwreck) in Snatched, a mother-daughter comedy directed by Jonathan Levine (Warm Bodies).  While the optimist in me is hoping for the best, Schumer’s ascent to bona-fide leading lady hasn’t been totally proven and I wasn’t a fan of screenwriter Katie Dippold’s previous buddy film The Heat.  Also, remember the last time we were excited for a road-trip movie with a star that now makes infrequent appearances in movies?  Yeah…we wound up with The Guilt Trip.  The humor looks sophomoric and the production a bit on the cheap…but I’m interested to see what silly sparks Hawn and Schumer can make.

Movie Review ~ Miss Sloane

miss_sloane
The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the world of political power-brokers, Sloane takes on the most powerful opponent of her career and will do whatever is required to win.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow

Director: John Madden

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Miss Sloane is a timely political drama that has a stacked deck in its cinematic favor.  An Oscar nominated director and multi-award winning actors have been brought together with mostly good, but never great, results.  While that may sound like the movie overall is a disappointment considering the pedigree in front of and behind the camera, it has enough energy to rise above the scenes that enervate its forward motion.

Jessica Chastain (The Martian) plays the titular character, a sought-after D.C. lobbyist as ruthless in her pursuit of winning as she is about making sure her flame red hair is always tucked neatly behind one ear.  (At one point, I doubted she had two ears since we never saw the other).  As the film opens, Sloane is about to go before a congressional hearing to defend herself over accusations of impropriety, charges that could, if convicted, carry a lengthy term in prison.  Showing how the sleep-averse Sloane got into her current hot seat is what occupies most of the picture, tracing her path from a plum job at a high powered conservative lobbying firm to a grassroots boutique agency opposing a gun bill.

The parallels to David and Goliath are evident as Sloane and her recruits take on the big boys who begin to care more about derailing her than they do about pushing through their political agenda.  Sloane isn’t afraid to go up against her former employers, even if they already may know exactly what her next unscrupulous move will be.  Brief forays into high tech spy surveillance (what’s being done with cockroaches might make a PETA supporter reconsider squashing them on sight) and peeks into the upper pill popping Sloane’s personal affairs via clandestine meetings with a kindly gigolo (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers) thankfully break up the heavier moments with stale political rhetoric being recited expertly by Chastain and the rest of the cast.

The script from first-timer Jonathan Perera is very of the moment, even if it plays like the pilot of a new HBO series.  If you listen carefully, the entirety of the twists the film has in store are given away by one character within the first ten minutes but it’s buried so well by Perera that you don’t notice it until you’re walking to your car.  Director John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) maneuvers his actors well and keeps the film moving at a nice clip but at 132 minutes there’s probably a good ten to fifteen minutes that could be jettisoned in favor of a tighter running time.  While some may accuse the film of cheating in its final act, I’ll again point to Perera outright telling us what’s going to happen and then delivering on it.

As much as I like Chastian, I have to say that for the first twenty minutes of Miss Sloane I wasn’t sure what the hell she was doing.  Showing a ballbuster temperament on the surface without going very deep, I got worried that Chastain was using this as an exercise in overacting instead of layering in her performance.  Eventually, though, the actress tuned in and that’s when the film really starts to zip along.  Like the best complex characters, there’s not a lot of backstory given to how Sloane came to be how she is and that makes her one of the more interesting characters to show up in film this year.  The race for a Best Actress nomination is a tight one and Chastain might just find herself as one of the five nominees.

Supporting Chastain is Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Sloane’s boss at her new firm and Sam Waterson (The Man in the Moon) as her previous employer who sets his sights on destroying her completely.  Waterston may have more hair on his eyebrows than Strong has on his whole body but Strong easily bests Waterston performance-wise by underplaying expertly.  You can’t totally fault Waterston, though, because the first half of the film finds many characters shouting at each other…guess no one in Washington knows how to use their inside voices.  Though I’m a fan of Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), his terribly old-school New Yawhk accent only made me detest his already detestable character more.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast) and moon faced Alison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) are the lone prominent female roles and both are afforded showcasing scenes.  As the head of the congressional committee cross examining Sloane, John Lithgow (Interstellar) is his usual blustery self.

At the center of Miss Sloane is a debate over gun control that continues to be a hot button issue in this increasingly political climate.  Even as a work of fiction, Miss Sloane makes some interesting points about the current state of affairs regarding the NRA and the landscape of big business in our nation’s capital.  In setting out to tell this story, Perera and the cast aptly keep the conversation going without letting the movie be solely about that important issue.

An intelligent, well-read picture, Miss Sloane may be overstuffed and take some time to let its actress find her way but it winds up being a pleasing film with good intentions.  If it had been made as the first episode for a cable series, I’d be setting my DVR to record future episodes.

Movie Review ~ Office Christmas Party

office_christmas_party_ver4
The Facts
:

Synopsis: When his uptight CEO sister threatens to shut down his branch, the branch manager throws an epic Christmas party in order to land a big client and save the day, but the party gets way out of hand…

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Bateman, Vanessa Bayer, Jillian Bell, Jamie Chung, Rob Corddry, Abbey Lee, Kate McKinnon, T.J. Miller, Olivia Munn, Karan Soni, Courtney B. Vance, Matt Walsh, Da’Vine Joy Randolph

Director: Josh Gordon, Will Speck

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: In the new comedy Office Christmas Party, Kate McKinnon (Ghostbusters) plays Mary, a Human Resources manager at a mid-range tech company that’s business in front and no party in the back.  When branch manager Clay (T.J. Miller, Daredevil) and CTO Josh (Jason Bateman, This Is Where I Leave You) want to throw a bad-ass Christmas party to impress a much-needed new client (Courtney B. Vance, Terminator Genisys), Mary’s HR violation antennae pop up and she tries her hardest to derail the frivolity before giving in and just having fun with it all.  Plenty of critics venturing out of their hovels to catch OCP will be Mary’s and implore you to stay home but ‘tis the season to be jolly and this critic thinks this Party is worth an HR write-up.

Look, Office Christmas Party isn’t the be-all, end-all of raucous, growth-stunted juvenile comedies but it has its fair share of laughs and rambles along for most of its 105-minute running time with an inordinate amount of goodwill.  Maybe because I saw it on a Monday with a busy week at my own 9-5 job staring me down, but I (usually so averse to ribald druggy humor) found myself entertained by Miller, Bateman, and co who have set out not to redefine the raunchy comedy but to give audiences who can’t stomach the sight of Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa 2 an alternative option.  Then again, stomaching Thornton in anything is a feat in and of itself.

When Clay’s CEO sister Carol (Jennifer Aniston, We’re the Millers, yet again reveling in a role with a mean streak) announces plans to reduce the workforce at her brother’s failing branch right before the holidays, Clay and Josh make a play to nab a high-profile client (Vance) by showing him how well their company rewards its employees.  Trouble is, most of their workforce is already disgruntled and apathetic in their antiseptic office so whatever Clay and Josh do it has to be big…really big.  Along with the head of technology (Olivia Munn, X-Men: Apocalypse), they pull out all the stops in a few hours to put on a boffo holiday gathering that quickly devolves into a Sodom and Gomorrah style bash complete with co-worker make-outs, drug- fueled stunts of stupidity, and a bevy of genitals photocopied on the office machine.  Sounds kinda nasty, right?  I have a real nose for the overly lewd and while I got a few good whiffs I never thought this tipped the scales into plain bad taste.

It’s a minor affair to be sure, written and directed without much originality…but it’s the performances that help to elevate this one slightly higher than its peers.  I’ve found that a little Miller goes a long way but even in his more ADD moments the actor never lets us forget his character it good natured and the kind of people pleasing boss we’d all like to buddy up to.  Bateman is at his most Jason Bateman-y here, again playing the straight man at the center of some very zany periphery performances.  Bateman’s dirty scene with an ice sculpture and egg nog lets the actor venture slightly out of his comfort zone and for that alone I appreciated it.  McKinnon, Vanessa Bayer (Despicable Me 2), Jillian Bell (22 Jump Street), Rob Corddry (Warm Bodies), Abbey Lee (The Neon Demon), and Karan Soni (Safety Not Guaranteed) are but a few of the party goers that make an impression.  Only Munn disappoints…I continue to be stumped at what makes Munn in any way appealing aside from the fact that she always seems to be happy with being just one of the guys.

While it isn’t the kind of movie you could see as a holiday outing sponsored by your work, Office Christmas Party is a decent choice for adults looking for an R-rated holiday romp.  Like most parties, it might end up being one you want to leave early but being the last one out the door won’t kill you either.