Down From the Shelf ~ Planes, Trains and Automobiles

The Facts:

Synopsis: A man must struggle to travel home for Thanksgiving with an obnoxious slob of a shower ring salesman his only companion.

Stars: Steve Martin, John Candy, Laila Robins, Michael McKean, Kevin Bacon, Ben Stein

Director: John Hughes

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

Original Release Date: November 25, 1987

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Here’s a movie I’m really, truly thankful for.  30 years (!!!) after its original release, Planes, Trains and Automobiles is a gift that has kept on giving to countless people throughout the year but especially at Thanksgiving.  Writing this review in 2017 as I’m about to hit the road to celebrate the holiday with family, I knew I had to get my annual viewing of this one in a day before the big Turkey Day. Revisiting this one is like meeting up with an old friend who tells the same jokes but still delivers them with a master’s precision.

It’s two days before Thanksgiving and marketing exec Neal Page (Steven Martin, Parenthood) is rushing to catch an early flight home to Chicago to be with his family for the holiday.  If only he could make it to the airport.  In mid-day NYC rush hour traffic, he races for a cab with another big shot (Kevin Bacon in a cameo done as a favor to John Hughes right before they made She’s Having a Baby together), gets his cab stolen out from under him by an unseen man toting a large trunk with him, and arrives at the terminal to find his flight delayed.  That’s where he meets Del Griffith (John Candy, Splash), a portly shower ring salesman that turns out to be the cab thief.  When their plane is diverted to Kansas on account of the weather, Neal and Del become unlikely travel mates as they work together to get back to their families.

Hughes was on a real roll at this point, having just come off of directing back to back to back to back hits that have become seminal favorites (Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) not to mention writing National Lampoon’s Vacation, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful.  This was his first movie to deal with real adults and it’s a marvelous pairing of a perfectly assembled cast with Hughes’ hilarious (if episodic) script.  There’s not a single boring moment in the movie, pretty remarkable considering how hard it is to sustain comedy for any length of time, let alone 92 minutes.

The movie is filled with classic scenes.  Martin and Candy waking up in their small hotel bed in an awkward embrace, Martin’s hysterically foul-mouthed run-in with a car rental agent (Edie McClurg, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), Candy driving cross-country and accidentally getting both of his arms stuck behind him while Martin sleeps, the list goes on.  Hughes is smart enough to have Del be the catalyst for a joke but not make him the ultimate target, to do that would be too cruel to be funny and that’s not what he’s interested in.

Martin is great as the tightly wound Neal who alternates between hating the schlubby Del and hating himself for the way he treats him.  It’s not hard to see why Neal gets so frustrated, either, because Del does himself no favors.  He’s a slob, he takes all the air out of any room he’s in, he doesn’t recognize normal social signals, and he has an uncanny way of destroying anything he touches.  Still, in Candy’s brilliant hands he’s a lovable dude and by the time the movie reaches its surprisingly emotional zenith, you’ll probably be like me and wiping tears away.  Oh yeah, I cry every time I watch the movie…I know I will and have accepted it at this point.

On a personal note, I can’t watch this movie without remembering my late father’s howling laugh when I first saw it.  I can still hear him roaring at Candy’s cluelessness and Martin’s slow-burn reactions.  This was a family favorite of ours and while my dad isn’t here to watch it with me, I think of him constantly when I put it on.  I watch a lot of movies and don’t always take the time to go back and rewatch many films…but there are exceptions and Planes, Trains and Automobiles is certainly one of them.

Movie Review ~ Coco

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to work out the mystery.

Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Gael García Bernal, Ana Ofelia Murguía, Renee Victor, Jaime Camil

Director: Lee Unkrich

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: There was time when Disney/Pixar had the market cornered on movies that hit you with enough emotional force that tears were inevitable.  Often they were happy tears but every now and then they’d find a way to trigger the kind of ugly cry that made audiences glad the lights didn’t come on right when the credits rolled. With the advent of 3D technology being used in their films, we then had another way to hide our red eyes as we shuffled toward the exit and our cars.

Over the past decade Pixar has lost a little bit of that luster producing not fully satisfying sequels to proven franchises.  They looked great and were amusing, sure, but something was missing…there wasn’t the magnitude of honest heart and soul the studio was known for.  Add to that live-action movies and rival animation studios locking into that coveted emotional sweet spot and Pixar started to become one of the gang instead of their leader.

Now along comes Coco.

I didn’t know what to expect from Pixar’s latest release, an original tale of a boy in Mexico struggling with accepting his family and having them understand him too.  Early previews didn’t give much in the way of plot but they sure got tongues wagging with its spectacular animation and the promise of something inventive. not just another rehashed sequel (Monsters University).  Could this be the spark that re-ignited the Pixar fire?  And would audiences make time for something that might be out of their cultural comfort zone?

Young Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez, who also has a sweet singing voice) narrates our tale and through a creative prologue catches us up on his family history.  His great great grandmother was abandoned by her musician husband, leaving her to raise their daughter alone.  Banishing all forms of music from her descendants, she starts a successful shoe business that is passed down from generation to generation.  In present day, though he knows its forbidden, Miguel dreams of becoming a famous musician like his idol, matinee star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt, Doctor Strange).  Though de la Cruz perished onstage in an unfortunate scenery malfunction, his memory lives on in movie appearances Miguel replays in a secret hiding place where he can play his guitar along with his hero.

When a talent contest is announced to take place in conjunction with Dia de los Muertos (the three-day celebration in October that’s a staple of Mexican culture), Miguel chooses to emulate de la Cruz and ‘seize the moment’, but when his family gets wind of his plot his dreams are crushed.  It’s when he breaks into the mausoleum of de la Cruz and strums his famed guitar that Miguel becomes enmeshed in a family curse he’ll need de la Cruz’s help to break.  Meeting up with his relatives that have long since passed and teaming up with a fast-talking hobo (Gael García Bernal, Rosewater) to find de la Cruz, Miguel embarks on a journey of discovery to get back to the Land of the Living before the sun rises.

The story, co-written by director Lee Unkrich (Inside Out) is full of colorful characters and creative endeavors.  There’s a bit of a mystery to solve and it gets more interesting as the film goes along and Miguel learns more about his family.  Parents should heed the PG rating because there are some images/ideas that may frighten younger children but kids that can sit through its rather long running time should be quite enthralled.  I was pretty mesmerized from the word go and marveled at how intricate the plot becomes, especially when it threw in Frida Kahlo and other references to Mexican history.

Speaking of detail, the animation here is just outstanding.  The background designs are super and the fine details on each of the skeletal faces of the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are unique and serve to soften what could be a scary sight.  There’s wonderful music pulsating through the film (some from the team behind Frozen) and a recurring musical theme is put to good use, especially in the final 1/3 when Unkrich amps up the emotion and carefully (if shamelessly) goes for the jugular.

For a film that takes place mostly in the Land of the Dead, there’s an abundance of life and joy on display.  It signals that Pixar is listening to audiences and critics that wanted the studio to get back to what made them so special in the first place: telling original stories that touched us on more than a simply entertaining level.  Coco represents a high-water mark for the studio, arguably one of their best films so far.  In addition to its dazzling animation that uses every color known to the human eye it has a strong story about family and finding one’s place in your lineage.  It pulls very few punches and will likely inspire some discussion afterward for parents to have with their children. Make sure to stay until the end, the final image that serves as a thank you from the filmmakers is the cherry on top of an already personal-feeling experience.  Also…major props for directing audiences to their local libraries to study up on the cultural events depicted in the film.

Movie Review ~ Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In this darkly comic drama, a mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.

Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Peter Dinklage, John Hawkes

Director: Martin McDonagh

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I’m going to not-so-secretly admit something I’ve been holding inside for a few decades now, I never understood why Frances McDormand won Best Actress for Fargo in 1996.  Now, I don’t want to take anything away from McDormand because she’s been a consistent actress since she began but I’ve been scratching my head over the years about that win (maybe that’s why my bald spot grows bigger each year…).  Sure, her performance was rock solid and deserving of attention but I always felt it was more of supporting role that landed in the wrong category in an otherwise weak year.  I’m ok with it…I just don’t understand it.

Now that we have that out of the way, let me say that McDormand’s performance in the new film Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is truly one for the record books and worthy of all the awards that can be thrown at her.  This will, I’m sure, enrage McDormand (Promised Land) to no end seeing as how in interviews she laments these types of accolades but if ever there was a role best suited for her, it’s this one.  Mildred Hayes is wily, profane, blunt, and honest and McDormand pulls absolutely no punches as she takes this woman through an emotional journey that might not heal her broken heart but slaps a strong band-aid on it so she can solider on.

At the start of the movie, Mildred is driving on a backcountry road near her house that isn’t used as much now that a new highway has gone in.  Noticing three billboards in disrepair displaying fragments of advertisements from years past, she gets an idea that sparks a furor in town, reopening old wounds for the town that have never healed for Hayes and her family.  Mildred’s daughter was raped and murdered and no one has as of yet been brought to justice.  The police don’t even have any suspects or leads to go off of.  Feeling like the justice system has failed her, she rents space on the billboards and puts up two statements and a question meant to shock the police force and it’s chief (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2, in a damn fine performance) into action.

Action is taken all right, but the energy generated is more toward Mildred and creating various forms of pressure put on her to take the billboards down.  Most of the town loves its revered family man chief of police, especially his troubled deputy (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) who takes the billboards as a personal attack.  Already in trouble with a police brutality charge likely racially motivated, the deputy becomes unhinged and is willing to do whatever it takes not to help Mildred’s cause but to impel her into silence.  Lucky for her (and us), Mildred isn’t one to back down as she shows when a dentist friend of the chief chastises her and then attempts some oral surgery without anesthetic.

Director and screenwriter Martin McDonagh scored a sizable indie hit with 2008’s In Bruges and followed that up with the clever Seven Psychopaths.  As he’s shown in film and even more with his skilled plays, McDonagh isn’t afraid of a little blood, violence, and profanity and he brings the big guns to Ebbing.  People get burned, shot, bloodied, thrown out second floor windows, and most of those are only periphery characters.  All that brutality might be something to recoil from but McDonagh balances the bloodshed with multiple emotional punches to the gut in the form of developments you’ll be hard pressed to see coming.

This is a twisty, twisted narrative and it works throughout the film.  When you get to go to a lot of movies each year you begin to see sameness to what you’re watching but with Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri I felt like I was seeing a picture with a purpose.  The performances are note-perfect (especially anytime McDormand and Rockwell share the screen) with effective supporting turns from John Hawkes (Lincoln) and Mildred’s ex-husband, Lucas Hedges (Lady Bird) playing their son, Peter Dinklage (The Boss) as Mildred’s would-be suitor, and Clarke Peters (John Wick) as another police chief who comes into play late in the film.  I also enjoyed Caleb Landry Jones (The Florida Project) as the man who rents the billboards out to Mildred and pays a costly fee and Sandy Martin (Lovelace) as Rockwell’s ornery mother. For a movie so bleak it can be hard to stick an effective ending in but McDonagh manages to tie the picture up without a tidy bow that remains wholly satisfying.

With the emotional knob cranked up to 12, this isn’t an easy movie to watch but it’s one I can’t recommend highly enough.  It’s a story that feels like it could happen anywhere and, sadly, probably has and that makes it all the more resonant to this viewer.

Movie Review ~ Roman J. Israel, Esq


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An attorney at an L.A. law firm discovers some unfavorable things about his partner and decides to right his wrongs.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Shelley Hennig, Carmen Ejogo

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Oof…can someone please, PLEASE find Denzel Washington a comedy?  Flying (deservedly) under the radar until it’s late 2017 release, Washington’s Roman J. Israel Esq. is one of those painfully pointed exercises in social importance that thinks it’s a power player but is really just an also-ran that drags several good actors down with it.  Coming off a fun roster in 2016 that saw him cut loose (a little) in the undervalued The Magnificent Seven remake and nearly nabbing another Oscar for his tremendous Fences, this is a paltry piffle of a film that deserves to be buried in paperwork and forgotten.

Writer-director Dan Gilory gave us one of 2015’s best films, Nightcrawler, and one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s most impressive roles so I’m sure the hope was that lighting could strike twice with Roman J. Israel Esq.  Sadly, Gilroy’s follow-up is a draining affair that’s far too long and isn’t destined to be the high point for anyone involved.  This is a film that feels like one you’re assigned to see in a social justice class that you watch half off, get the point, write your paper, and never think of it again.

Washngton (Flight) is the titular character, an enormously intelligent partner in a small Los Angeles law firm.  Best suited for working behind the scenes writing briefs and letting his colleague be the face of the firm in the courthouse, he’s called into action when his partner suffers a stroke and is unable to continue working.  The first day Roman must take over the docket, his consternation at the broken judicial system lands him in contempt of court and running afoul of his clients.

When the niece of his partner brings in a big-wig lawyer (Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to take-over the existing cases and close up shop, instead of accepting his offer to work at his fancy firm Roman decides to go it on his own. Reaching out to a non-profit social worker (Carmen Ejogo, The Purge: Anarchy) with the hope of finding assistance in introducing a long in the works brief he thinks will fix the system, Roman finds doors closing to him left and right.  Reluctantly returning to work for the expensive law firm, he’s put in charge of a case that will change everything.

Gilroy’s script has some interesting twists and turns for our leading man, placing upon him a moral dilemma to show that Roman might be just as susceptible to corruption as his colleagues.  Yet the film, told mostly in flashback, struggles with its own timeline and can be confusing if you aren’t paying rapt attention.  This is hard to do with Washington turning in a skittish performance on the spectrum that doesn’t provide any heart or soul.  In Nightcrawler, Gilroy presented an anti-hero as the protagonist that we’re supposed to abhor, but in this one the way Washington plays it we’re supposed to find some nobility in his actions and that never comes together correctly.

When the film first screened at a film festival, the buzz after was that Washington and Gilroy went back and took several minutes out…but by my estimation they could have done well with removing another fifteen.  The film has a serious case of droopy drawers in its middle half, with much too much time spent with Washington trying to intellectually woo Ejogo who strangely falls under his spell much too easily.  Audiences won’t be as receptive, I think, and with good cause.

This is another much too serious film from Washington that’s not as bleak as other recent works but is somehow darker because the actor never truly forms a connection between the material and the audience.  I can see why Washington was attracted to the role but it’s trying to say more than we want to hear, it all winds up a jumble of jargon that feels more like homework than entertainment.

Movie Review ~ Last Flag Flying

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, a former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon and Reverend Richard Mueller, to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez, Kate Easton, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It’s not lost on this reviewer that the director behind the tin-eared Last Flag Flying is Richard Linklater.  Linklater has built a career on authentic sounding/feeling movies like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, not to mention his career high of Boyhood.  Following that up with the enjoyable Everybody Wants Some! which was seen as a spiritual sequel to his earlier Dazed and Confused, Linklater seemed like he was entering a mid-career golden zone of easy-going character driven films.

So you’ll forgive me for being pretty surprised that he’s at the helm of Last Flag Flying, a phony baloney film that not only wastes two good actors (and one mediocre one) but your valuable holiday time as well.   A kinda-sorta sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail (which, full disclosure, I have not seen), this is a long trip with a short premise and it all goes nowhere.  I’m usually fairly forgiving with movies that limp out of the gate if they can finish strong but this one falls flat from the very beginning and never gets back up again.

On a cold night in 2003, a Larry Shepherd enters a dive bar in Virginia.  The man (Steve Carell, Freeheld) strikes up a conversation with Sal, the guy behind the bar (Bryan Cranston, Godzilla) and reveals himself to be an old Vietnam war buddy the bartender hasn’t seen in decades.  With lingering guilt over a crime Sal was involved with that Larry took the fall for, Sal agrees to accompany Larry on a day trip to a church nearby.  That’s where they meet up with former comrade in arms Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, Passengers), who has transformed from a war-time wild man to a man of the cloth.

Larry has tracked down these two men because he recently lost not only his wife to a long-term illness but has just learned his son was killed in the Iraq war.  Would these men accompany Larry as he buries his son in Arlington Cemetery, you know, for old times sake?  Mueller was also involved with the indiscretion that saw Larry serving time in custody and while Larry doesn’t explicitly say the two men owe him one, the suggestion is that this small favor is something they can do to right a past wrong and clear their conscience.  It also helps Mueller’s wife forces him to go.

Thus begins a road trip that stretches across multiple states and forms of transportation as the three men bring the fallen solider home to his final rest.  Along the way old war wounds are opened and the guys must come to terms with what they did and how that changed the course of everything they’ve done since they returned to the states.  There’s even a chance for some small redemption with a stop to visit with the mother (Cicely Tyson, Alex Cross, excellent with limited screen time) of a soldier killed in Vietnam.

All of this should have panned out to a rewarding experience, but the movie is so faux in thought, word, and deed that I never warmed to anyone or anything on screen.  I never once bought that the three leads were former military, nor that they would ever in a million years be friends.  I know war makes friends out of enemies but there’s no authenticity in the performances or in the script from Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan.  While Fishburne is the most believable, he’s also the one least invested in the movie.  Carell continues to be an actor with interesting depths but struggles with a role that asks him to emote in all the wrong ways.  As usual, the actor that has the greatest trouble is poor Cranston who proves again that he’s an actor probably best suited for television.  Cranston’s performance (much like his hammy Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo) is all hot air and booming voice; when you place it aside Fishburne and Carell who are trying to find their own arcs he just crumbles under the pressure.  It’s a memorably forgettable performance in a movie that’s equally a huge write-off.

I can think of a half-dozen actors that could have pulled these roles off better but at the heart of the movie’s problems is a meandering script and poor pacing – that falls squarely on Linklater’s shoulders.  There’s a kernel of an appealing movie at play but before we’d even reached the halfway mark I was waving the white flag of distress.  Skip it… Now it’s time for me to go seek out The Last Detail.

Movie Review ~ Justice League

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Earth’s greatest heroes are assembled to form the Justice League, to combat a threat beyond each member’s capabilities.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Jesse Eisenberg, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard

Director: Zack Snyder

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the rousing success of Wonder Woman this summer, you had high(er) hopes for Justice League too, didn’t you?  After the gloominess of Man of Steel, the critical drubbing lobbed at Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the just plain awful debut of the Suicide Squad, the first solo outing of the Amazon princess made a huge splash with a snazzy film that signaled the floundering DC Universe might be getting back on track.   Alas, it was not meant to be because five short months later Justice League arrives with a huge thud, halting any momentum Wonder Woman had kicked off.

The problems are evident from the beginning.  It should be noted that original director Zack Snyder had to be replaced shortly after filming ended while the movie was in post-production due to a family crisis. Joss Whedon (The Avengers) was brought it to touch up the script, and handle reshoots.  Huge mistake.  Whedon did good work with his involvement in the Marvel Universe but his humor doesn’t translate to the DC world that’s far darker and leaves itself less open for flights of fancy.  His attempts to inject jokey humor crash and burn, especially seeing that they are awkwardly inserted into sequences already filmed by Snyder.

Another elephant in the room to discuss is Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), or, more to the point, Cavill’s mustache.  After wrapping his scenes for Justice League, Cavill had grown a mustache to film a role in the next Mission: Impossible film and when he was called back for reshoots Paramount wouldn’t allow him to shave it.  So he filmed his new scenes with facial hair that was then digitally removed…badly.  Cavill comes off looking like a creepy puppet, with the bottom half of his face strangely not in communion with the upper.  He’s in the first shot of the movie and it’s a jarring image that sets the tone for the rest of this schizo outing.

The first half of the film is occupied by a bewildering series of episodic vignettes where we meet characters that the movie treats us as if we already know but in reality have never seen before.  We’re plopped right into the stories of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) without much in the way of introduction or origin, almost like these were clips from a previous entry that was never released.  We’re supposed to know and care about these characters instantly, but their arrivals are treated with such little fanfare it’s hard to warm up to any of them.  Miller winds up being the most intriguing; his loner character is secretly desperate for friends and is brought into the fold by Batman (Ben Affleck, Gone Girl, checking out so much I can see why he’s trying to get excused from The Batman, a planned solo shot for the Caped Crusader) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Keeping Up with the Joneses).

What I always enjoyed about the previous incarnations of Batman and Superman was how they were up against villains that seemed somewhat plausible…at least for a comic-book foe.  From the Penguin to Lex Luthor, the heroes were battling adversaries that sought awesome power, not ones that already had other-worldly talents.  The villain in Justice League is Steppenwolf, a poorly rendered CGI baddie voiced by Ciarán Hinds (Frozen) that’s as generic as they come.  This is a bad guy that might have worked better as a Marvel rival but definitely not one the Justice League should be working to thwart.  Steppenwolf is on the hunt for three Mother Boxes that form a trinity that can, snooze, give him power over all earth.  Yawn, boring, wake me when it’s over.

Poor Wonder Woman.  That’s what I kept thinking throughout Justice League.  Gadot looks miserable having to carry this film, it’s clear the plot was tweaked at some point to give her character more to do and capitalize on the success of Wonder Woman.  Her ascension to co-lead comes at the sacrifice of a bunch of familiar faces that get sidelined.  Diane Lane (Inside Out) and Connie Nielsen  pop up in brief cameos as the mothers of Superman and Wonder Woman, J.K. Simmons (The Snowman) doesn’t even have to glue down his toupee, and Amy Adams (Her) wears multiple bad wigs but does get the most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the film: “I’m no longer Lois Lane, dedicated reporter”.

The effects of the hand-off between Snyder and Whedon really sink the film in its last ¼, when the Justice League works together to stave off Steppenwolf before he can unite the Mother Boxes.  There are a few decent action sequences but they’re so darkly lit it all becomes a blur, especially when you add in Steppenwolf’s drone warriors that fly around in a head-spinning frenzy like wasps.  It’s a blessing the movie is as short as it is, but it still feels pretty long when the content is as forgettable as this.  You keep wanting to find something, anything to root for but no one seems interested in being memorable in any way shape or form.  It’s like everyone was forced into making this and are waiting for their final scene to be shot.

There’s a post-credit scene that does nothing to get you excited for the future, it feels like it was shot last week with the actors involved under duress.  Based on his performance here, I shudder to think about Momoa’s Aquaman film coming in 2018, wish that Wonder Woman 2 wasn’t two years away, and am intrigued at a chance to get more info on The Flash in 2020’s Flashpoint.   At this point, whatever the creative team behind these DC films are doing, it’s not working.  Not only do audiences deserve better, but so do the actors locked into contracts for future films.

The Silver Bullet ~ Strangers: Prey at Night

1

Synopsis: A vacation turns macabre when three masked strangers return to menace a family visiting a trailer park in this sequel to the disquieting horror shocker.

Release Date: March 9, 2018

Thoughts: It took a while, but a sequel to 2008’s The Strangers is finally going to see the light of day.  The original film was, in my opinion, one of the best horror films of that decade and I still remember seeing it by myself late at night in a near-empty theater.  The walk to my car was a little tenser that night, let me tell you.  The conclusion of the first film was open-ended so there are multiple places this follow-up can go.  The teaser for Strangers: Prey at Night has good atmosphere, even if it maybe shows a bit more than it needed to.  Directed by Johannes Roberts (47 Meters Down) and starring Christina Hendricks (The Neon Demon) and Martin Henderson (Everest), I’m counting on some good scares from this one.

Movie Review ~ Lady Bird

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There was a time in the not so distant past when Greta Gerwig and I weren’t on speaking terms.  I know when the rift started: Frances Ha.  While Gerwig’s collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach became an indie twee delight, it didn’t bowl me over in the slightest.  Finding Gerwig’s titular character vapid, vain, and selfish, I just couldn’t get into the film and struggled to even finish it.  Gerwig’s popped up here and there in the following years, to better results, in Mistress America, Jackie, and 20th Century Women but it’s Lady Bird where our fences can be considered mended.

A thinly veiled but admittedly autobiographical look at Gerwig’s years as a teen in Sacramento in the late ‘90s, Lady Bird is going to be compared to Juno and with just cause.  Both are female led films that find a truth to their portrayal of adolescence and an authenticity in how teens and adults struggle to find common ground while just trying to make it through the day.  The difference between the two is that looking back at Juno it seems like it arrived from another wacky dimension while Lady Bird is already a period piece so there’s less chance of it becoming rapidly dated.

About to enter her senior year of high school, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) demands that her family and friends call her Lady Bird and wants to attend college as far away from her Northern California town as possible.  She dreams of a life surrounded by arts and artists, while her mother (Laurie Metcalf, Uncle Buck) wants her daughter to come down from the clouds and understand that community college may be the best she can do.  With a father (Tracy Letts, The Post) that just lost his job and a brother living at home with his goth girlfriend, there isn’t much space for Lady Bird to breathe.

A small chance at happiness shows up in the drama department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.  Cast in the ensemble, she falls for the leading man (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) who is both her first love and first heartbreak.  Feeling like she has to climb higher socially than she can sticking by her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, who was wonderful in Broadway’s Hello Dolly!) she ingratiates herself with the popular girl (Odeya Rush, Goosebumps) and takes up with an alt-emo boy (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name).  As the school year draws to a close and the great unknown future awaits, Lady Bird will learn tough lessons about finding one’s place and making a unique path toward happiness.

As she did in Brooklyn, Ronan is able to find a mainline to your heart without making it seem like a huge effort.  That’s surprising because her Brooklyn character was warm and selfless, and Lady Bird is anything but that.  Constantly sucking the air from any room she’s in and preventing others from finding their own orbit, Lady Bird is a force of nature and while it can be easy to get frustrated with her it’s just as easy to feel her pain as dreams she makes for herself vanish just as fast as they take shape.  If you’ve ever heard Gerwig talk it’s instantly clear that her voice comes through loud and clear not only in Ronan’s performance (Ronan channels Gerwig in eerie ways) but in the thoughts and ideas expressed by other characters.

Ronan isn’t the only star of the show here, though.  She gets the movie stolen away from here more than a few times by Metcalf as her steely mother.  Though the movie opens with mother and daughter waking up staring into each other’s eyes, both women soon wind up in an argument that bursts whatever peaceful bubble they had formed.  Scene after we scene we see Metcalf deliberately divert attention away from her daughter if she feels she’s getting too big for her britches or cast a spotlight on her when she makes the wrong move.  It sounds bad, but she’s doing what every parent tries to do but doesn’t always succeed in…help their child see that life is tough with the least amount of outside pain as possible.  It’s easy to see part of oneself in these moments when a child will push their parent’s buttons or the parent cuts their teen down just to prove their point.  I know I winced a few times when I recognized actions I’ve had in my own life.

If you’re already a fan of Gerwig’s, you’re going to get a lot of satisfaction out of her directorial debut which will likely earn her a place on the shortlist for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  Expect Ronan and Metcalf to earn nominations as well for their deeply felt and carefully layered performances. If you’re just coming around to Gerwig like I am you’ll find it easier than ever to use Lady Bird to fly back into the fold.

Movie Review ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Sergei Polunin, Willem Dafoe

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In my limited experience with Amtrak, I’ve come to the conclusion travel by train through the Midwest can be the most exciting way to be bored. There’s a rush of fun and thrill to board, find your seat, and sit back as the chugging engine moves you past the fields of wheat and country roads. Then that first half hour is over and you realize you have seven more to go until you reach your destination. I’ll admit that there were times when I wish there was something more exciting to do aside from looking forward to your time in the dining car. Not saying that murder would be a welcome addition to riding the rails but…it could spice things up a bit.

Maybe that’s why I was always such a fan of Agatha Christie’s sparkling 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express and its various incarnations on film and television over the years. I have a particular fondness for Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film that featured Albert Finney as Christie’s famed moustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot. Though too young for the role and padded enough to make him look like a Belgian Humpty Dumpty, Finney won me over (even if Christie didn’t care for him) and the ensemble cast of A-listers made solving the mystery Christie cooked up that much more fun. Poirot has ridden the Orient Express again in two more adaptations for television but he’s back onscreen under the guidance of director/star Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the results are similarly old-fashioned and quite fun.

Many are going to have a problem with the relative cool tone of the film and it’s aloof star player. This is a movie that unspools slowly and with precision, taking care to present grand elegance instead of common luxury and nuanced performances in place of star cameos. I’m not saying it all works but, for me, it was the ride I was hoping for.

On his way back to London to help with a case, Poirot finds himself on the famed Orient Express on a three day journey back from Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded at this late winter date so all compartments are occupied. En route, Poirot’s careful eye sees an unusual familiarity between two supposed strangers (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) and a sadness in a deeply religious missionary (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2).  He spots a divide in the working relationship between an art dealer (Johnny Depp, Tusk) and his two employees (Derek Jacobi, Cinderella, and Josh Gad, Beauty & the Beast) and observes a brusque chill from a Russian Princess (Judi Dench, Skyfall) traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman, Hyde Park on Hudson).  There’s also a strange German doctor (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) and a brash man-eater (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) keeping him occupied and, at the very least, entertained.

It’s when the train derails in the middle of the night and one of the passengers ends up dead that Poirot’s brief bid for rest gets interrupted. There’s a killer onboard and the longer Poirot interrogates each passenger the more he begins to realize there are multiple suspects with the same motivation.  Can he detect who done the deed before the rescue crews arrive and the train makes its way to its final stop?  The solution to this one is a corker and those who know it won’t be surprised but Branagh and company want you to remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

This is a handsome looking film and Branagh has captured it nicely in 65mm, preserving the lushness of the setting and maintaining the classic grain of a celluloid experience while keeping things crisp. The landscapes are almost entirely CGI (didn’t think Dench was going to get snowbound in the middle of nowhere did you?) but the period details are all practical and perfect.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor)works with Branagh to find interesting angles, such as the discovery of the body filmed from above which makes the audience feel like we’re watching rats in a maze.  There are nice long takes as the camera moves throughout the train and everyone is framed to look their absolute best.

Branagh will likely catch some heat for making the thrust of the film rely a bit too much on him. The magic of the previous movie was how well balanced Finney was with the rest of the actors; Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her small role which is played here by Cruz.  The interrogation scenes felt more intimate and personal there whereas under Branagh’s watch the interviews are brief and blunt.  There’s a crime from the past that mysteriously links everyone on board and because it weighs so heavily into the solution there could have been better steps taken by screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) to lay the groundwork throughout the first ¾ of the film.

I didn’t mind Branagh’s screen time, nor did I think twice about his crazy facial hair or thick Belgian accent. I liked his persnickety ways and it plays nicely off the rest of the cast who are allowed to be a bit more broad.  The film ends with a hint that we might get more Poirot (Death on the Nile, from the sound of it) and I’d be up for another adventure with Branagh.  Dench, as always, makes the most out of her role, easily nailing all of her character’s grand snooty comebacks.  Gad and Depp are usually pain points for me but they play a good game here, both actors are restrained without feeling constrained.  Ridely, Odom Jr., and Cruz might be far less memorable than previous actors that have played these roles but they acquit themselves nicely the more we get to know them.  Lovely Pfeiffer is having a grand time playing a loudmouth widow, she looks gorgeous and Branagh even got her to sing a lullaby over the closing credits.  Pfeiffer has a sweet, if thin, voice but it works for the song and the character.

I always enjoyed watching the original film during the winter months on a cold day. It’s good timing this new version is coming out just as the temperature is dropping and snow is on the horizon.  It’s a perfect film for a lazy day or sophisticated night out.  The deliberate pace and overall conservation of energy might bore audiences that just paid to see the brain smashing Thor: Ragnorok last weekend, but I’d encourage you to book passage on Murder on the Orient Express for another type of adventure.

The Silver Bullet ~ I, Tonya

Synopsis: Competitive ice skater Tonya Harding rises amongst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.

Release Date: December 8, 2017

Thoughts: Well this looks like a wild ride. The brouhaha surrounding the infamous conspiracy involving figure skater Tonya Harding’s involvement in the injury of her competitor Nancy Kerrigan was the stuff of tabloid dreams.  Over the years Harding has faded from the public eye but  I, Tonya aims to drudge up events that have been on ice for some time.  Directed by Craig Gillespie (The Finest Hours), while the movie looks like a black comedy at its bleakest and darkest (I get shades of Gus Van Sant’s To Die For, no?), I’ve already heard buzz that it’s one you’re either going to get a huge kick out of or feel like you need a shower after to wash away the mean grime the film leaves on you.  I’m still nowhere near sold on the overall impact of Margot Robie (Exhibit A: Goodbye Christopher Robin) but if the Oscar rumors are true about co-star Allison Janney (Minions) then all shall be forgiven…for now.