Movie Review ~ Annihilation

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

The Silver Bullet ~ On Chesil Beach

Synopsis: Based on Ian McEwan’s novel. In England in 1962, a young couple finds their idyllic romance colliding with issues of sexual freedom and societal pressure, leading to an awkward and fateful wedding night.

Release Date: May 18, 2018

Thoughts: Seems to me that Saoirse Ronan is getting a bit greedy. Her Best Actress Oscar run for Lady Bird isn’t even rounding third yet and she’s already marking her territory for next year with On Chesil Beach.  In all seriousness, Ronan has proven to be a smart actress with a talent for finding projects with characters that have real dimension to them.  After earning her first Oscar nomination with Ian McEwan’s Atonement, the actress takes on another McEwan project and it looks like an interesting slice of life tale costarring Emily Watson (The Theory of Everything) and Billy Howle (Dunkirk).  I’m not quite sure where the movie is going but I’m game for a day at Chesil Beach if Ronan is leading the way.

Movie Review ~ Game Night

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.

Movie Review ~ Early Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set at the dawn of time, when prehistoric creatures and woolly mammoths roamed the earth, Early Man tells the story of Dug, along with sidekick Hognob as they unite his tribe against a mighty enemy Lord Nooth and his Bronze Age City to save their home.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Tom Hiddleston, Maisie Williams, Timothy Spall

Director: Nick Park

Rated: PG

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: With all due respect to our prehistoric ancestors, I’ve always found movies about the dawn of man to be a bit of a drag. In films like the prologue of 2001: A Space Odyssey to One Million Years B.C. to 10,000 B.C. to The Croods, there’s only so far my imagination can take me before I’m wondering when technology will find its way into the lives of primitive man. That may help explain why I wasn’t thrilling to the notion of spending an hour and a half with the cavemen and women brought to stop-motion life in Early Man.

I’ve been a fan of Aardman Animations since their Wallace and Gromit days and they’ve continued to churn out quality work for the past several decades. They’ve brought the barnyard to life in Chicken Run and the Shaun the Sheep Movie and snagged an Oscar nomination for their work on The Pirates! Band of Misfits in 2012. While their latest effort is packed with jokes on top of jokes and is another wonderful use of the stop-motion technique, it falls far short of the overall entertainment package Aardman has come to be known for.

Early Man is set at the tail end of the Stone Age and introduces us to the tribe led by Chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall, Mr. Turner). Hunting rabbits as a group and going about their daily lives without much disruption seems like the long-term plan for all but young Dug (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) dreams of something more. Instead of the mammoth mammoth hunt he years for, he gets a taste of the future when Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston, Muppets Most Wanted) and his Bronze Age army tries to take over their land.

When Dug mistakenly hitches a ride back with Nooth’s troops he gets an eyeful. The crude stone utensils, clothes, and housing he’s used to give way to the latest in advanced design. Then there’s the stadium which houses the popular football (aka soccer for us Americans) games and it’s when he accidentally finds himself on the field and under Nooth’s glare that Dug proposes a challenge. If he and his tribe can beat the best players Nooth has to offer, Nooth will vacate the land. If they lose, they’ll be a nomadic tribe without even the most basic creature comforts they were used to.

The bulk of the film has Dug getting his team in gear with the help of a could-be love interest named Goona. As expected, the rag-tag members of this football party start without a prayer but (spoiler alert!) get good enough to take on Nooth’s ace team. It’s a disappointingly predictable affair with many of the standard lessons learned along the way. There are ample bits of comedy and visual sight gags but its low impact laughter if you think about it.

Director Nick Park could have trimmed the movie by a good ten minutes, truncating some of the characters more repetitive tics and eliminating a few of them all together. I kept waiting for something to inspire as well as entertain but Park and company just can’t get out of the deep valley of familiarity they’ve found themselves in. If there’s a strong positive for the movie, it’s that it’s as family friendly as they get. While adult audiences have had a spotty run in theaters lately, with Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit, and now Early Man, families looking to spend some time at the theaters have at least three decent options.

Movie Review ~ Black Panther


The Facts
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Synopsis: T’Challa, after the death of his father, the King of Wakanda, returns home to the isolated, technologically advanced African nation to succeed to the throne and take his rightful place as king.

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Audiences growing tired of the endless slate of comic book movies can roar a sigh of relief…Black Panther is here to cure you of all that ails you. After taking a fun leap with the wacky Thor: Ragnarok in November, Marvel Studios has scored another win with this not-quite origin story that manages to function extremely well as a stand-alone adventure while establishing its characters and place within the Marvel Universe. While the movie is clearly designed to make bank for its producers, out of all the Marvel entries so far it feels the most cleverly orchestrated – giving audiences what they want in terms of special effects and spectacle and slipping in a message of social consciousness.

Popping up first in Captain America: Civil War and set to return in May’s Avengers: Infinity War, the Black Panther (aka T’Challa, a price turned king of fictitious African nation Wakanda) is already familiar with his gifts when the film emerges from its flashback prologue. Coming from a long line of enhanced ancestors, T’Challa understands the mantle he has to pick up when his father is killed in the terrorist attack that occurred in Captain America: Civil War. Now, returning to Wakanda to mourn his king and grieve for his father, T’Challa must face his people.

There’s problems from the get-go, though, when a long-gestating conflict between Wakanda’s tribes must be dealt with and after several of the nation’s leaders press T’Challa to share the wealth of knowledge Wakanda has protected for years. On top of all that, there’s Ulysses Klaue (played with giddy ‘roided out rage by Andy Serkis, Breathe) trying to steal the powerful Vibranium mined richly in Wakanda’s mountains and the mysterious Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) who has arrived with a vendetta against T’Challa and his family.

By employing writer/director Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) to sit atop the Black Panther proceedings, Marvel has opened up their universe even further. Coogler brings an intelligence and depth to the plot and character development we just haven’t seen before in these movies. Themes of social unrest, slavery, familial obligation, and correcting the mistakes of the past flow throughout Coogler’s tale without bogging it down in the slightest. Coogler has also brought along Mudbound’s Oscar-nominated cinematographer Rachel Morrison (Cake) to film the exciting action sequences and sure to be Oscar winner Ruth E. Carter (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) to design the jaw-dropping costumes. On a technical level, Marvel has truly outdone themselves with this one.

All the beautiful images in the world and keen knack for plot-driven storytelling would have been for naught had Coogler not assembled one of the best casts in eons. Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) makes for a commanding T’Challa, showing the vulnerability of a well-liked son taking over for his well-respected father. Jordan is an inspired choice for Killmonger, creating one of the more memorable earth-bound villains in the Marvel canon. Serkis rips though the movie with a decent amount of glee, Martin Freeman (Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) manages to nail his American accent and his droll comic bits as State Department representative Everett Ross, and new Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) is a confidant of T’Challa’s with his own score to settle

Let’s face it though…though a man leads the movie it’s the ladies that steal the show out from under their male counterparts with next to no effort. The regal Angela Bassett (Olympus Has Fallen) is Wakanda’s Queen and T’Challa’s mother; no one (NO ONE) does regal queen like Ms. Bassett. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) is T’Challa’s warrior love interest and Letitia Wright (The Commuter) is a knockout as T’Challa’s mischievous sister. The MVP of the movie is surely Danai Gurira (TV’s The Walking Dead), though. As T’Challa’s army general Okoye, she’s the definition of badass and you won’t be able to take her eyes off of her each time she’s on screen. If The Academy was more adventurous, this is the kind of performance out of the box nominations for Best Supporting Actress are made of.

After a few ho-hum stumbles (sorry Doctor Strange and Ant-Man), Marvel is back on a roll at the start of 2018. Who knows what will happen when Avengers: Infinity War hits in a few months or when Ant-Man and The Wasp flies into theaters later this summer, but for now Black Panther is the king of the Marvel jungle.

Movie Review ~ Loving Vincent


The Facts
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Synopsis: In a story depicted in oil painted animation, a young man comes to the last hometown of painter Vincent van Gogh to deliver the troubled artist’s final letter and ends up investigating his final days there.

Stars: Helen McCrory, Saoirse Ronan, Aidan Turner, Eleanor Tomlinson, Chris O’Dowd, Douglas Booth

Director: Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Sometimes I am my own worst enemy. For months now, I’d been hearing critics sing the praises of Loving Vincent and proclaiming it to be a sure-fire nominee for Best Animated Feature Academy Award and a front-runner for taking home the big award on Oscar night. Yet I resisted seeing it for all this time, nearly getting cold feet again when it popped up at my local second-run movie theater. Could a film that is entirely hand-painted in the style of Vincent van Gogh keep me interested (and awake) for 94 minutes?

Oh yes. Oh boy, yes.

A true work of art, Loving Vincent is a Polish-British production and is the world’s first fully painted feature film. A vibrant mix of colors and ideas, it’s not a straight biopic of the Dutch-born painter who was posthumously proclaimed to be the father of modern Expressionism but a look back at his last few months as seen through the eyes of those that knew him. Van Gogh’s own portraits inspire many of the characters in directors Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman’s film and while the story may not hold up in court as entirely factual, the tale it tells is absorbing and enthralling.

A little over a year after van Gogh’s death by self-inflicted gunshot, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth, Noah), the son of a postmaster (Chris O’Dowd, The Sapphires) who was friendly with van Gogh, is tasked with delivering the painter’s final letter to his brother, Theo. This begins a journey that takes him to the small village of Auvers-sur-Oise near Paris where a mystery about van Gogh’s final days begins to unfold. Through recollections by various townsfolk that are relayed in stark black and white, Armand starts to piece together what led the painter who long struggled with depression to take his own life in a most unusual manner. Will the doctor (Jerome Flynn) who treated him and became his friend provide any insight? What about the doctor’s prim daughter (Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird) or their upright housekeeper (Helen McCrory, Skyfall)? Then there’s the boatman (Aidan Turner, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and a proprietress (Eleanor Tomlinson, Jack the Giant Slayer) of a local hotel where van Gogh took his last breath. All provide valuable clues that propel Armand further into needing to know the truth.

Over 100 artists worked on this film and it’s really a spectacular sight to behold. Everything in the past seems to have been created with a charcoal hue while the present proceedings jump off the screen with van Gogh’s famed thick layers of oil and paint. Even when nothing is moving on screen the film still seems to have a life of its own as the colors and hues change to give more depth. It’s highly imaginative and not the least bit the tough on the eyes watch I feared it may be.

With all due respect to Pixar’s Coco (which is a landmark achievement of its own), Loving Vincent surely represents the best animation had to offer in 2017. The Oscar should go to the film that pushed the boundaries the most and gave audiences something they’ve never seen before. The craft on display here is unparalleled and worthy of taking home the prize when all is said and done. Loving Vincent is currently playing in select theaters but is also available to rent/buy on streaming services and in physical DVD/BluRay. Check it out – it will be money well spent.

Movie Review ~ The 2018 Oscar Nominated Short Films – Documentary

BEST DOCUMENTARY, SHORT SUBJECT

Edith + Eddie (Dir. by Laura Checkoway & Thomas Lee Wrights, USA, 29 mins.)
Synopsis: Edith and Eddie, ages 96 and 95, are America’s oldest interracial newlyweds. Their love story is disrupted by a family feud that threatens to tear the couple apart.
Review: Watching the credits of Edith + Eddie you’re going to see a name listed as executive producer that may surprise you: Cher. Yep, the famous singer attached herself to this documentary after becoming personally involved in the story of an elderly couple that found eachother late in life and became unfortunate pawns at the center of a family dispute. There’s a frustrating sense of injustice permeating the proceedings and it becomes difficult to watch, especially in its final act. I wish there was more focus on the couple in their daily lives leading up to the event which changed their lives forever, too often situations are glossed over without much explanation. Still, the unconditional devotion shown by the two is the stuff of a sweet love story…even though the last chapter may not be what either expected.
Wanting to watch Edith + Eddie? You can check it out right here:

Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (Dir. by Frank Stiefel, USA, 40 mins.)
Synopsis: Mindy Alper is a tortured and brilliant 56-year-old artist who is represented by one of Los Angeles’ top galleries. Acute anxiety, mental disorder and devastating depression have caused her to be committed to mental institutions undergo electro shock therapy and survive a 10-year period without the ability to speak. Her hyper self-awareness has allowed her to produce a lifelong body of work that expresses her emotional state with powerful psychological precision.
Review: By far the most emotionally satisfying documentary short nominated this year, Heaven in a Traffic Jam on the 405 introduces audiences to Mindy Alper, a genius artist struggling with mental illness. Hearing from Alper herself and often illustrated by her own detailed pieces, there’s a ring of authenticity here that makes it almost immediately unforgettable. Suffering brain damage after a round of electro convulsive therapy, Alper’s speech is simple and often broken into individual syllables (instead of saying four-oh-five she says four-circle-five, instead of saying SQUEE-ze, she says SUH-QUIZE). Other people in Alper’s life are featured but the camera is almost squarely on Alper as she opens up about her life and lets us into her process as she readies a gallery display of her work. I was truly knocked out by this one, it’s worth the price of admission alone.
Wanting to watch Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405? You can check it out right here:

Heroin(e) (Dir. by Elaine McMillion Sheldon and Kerrin Sheldon, USA, 39 mins., Not Rated)
Synopsis: Once a bustling industrial town, Huntington, West Virginia has become the epicenter of America’s modern opioid epidemic, with an overdose rate 10 times the national average. This flood of heroin now threatens this Appalachian city with a cycle of generational addiction, lawlessness, and poverty. But within this distressed landscape, Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon shows a different side of the fight against drugs; one of hope.
Review: Huntington, West Virginia has a huge problem and it’s only getting worse. The town with the most overdoses in America, there’s no plateau in sight for the drug epidemic that has infested the blue collar town. Following three women (a deputy fire chief, a drug court judge, and a missionary that drives around at night distributing meals to prostitutes), this impressively absorbing documentary feels far too short for the magnitude of the story it’s trying to tell. I would have watched this for another three hours if I could have. I’d seen Heron(e) in my Netflix queue for a while but held back watching it because I had an inkling it would find its way an Oscar nomination. Now I’m glad I’m able to have easy access to watch it again. Here’s hoping the filmmakers revisit Huntington sometime in the near future and the brave women and men who are trying to figure out a solution for its continuing drug infestation.
Wanting to watch Heroin(e)? It’s available via Netflix streaming

Knife Skills (Dir. by Thomas Lennon, USA, 40 mins.)
Synopsis: What does it take to build a world-class French restaurant? What if the staff is almost entirely men and women just out of prison? What if most have never cooked or served before, and have barely two months to learn their trade? We follow the hectic launch of Edwins restaurant in Cleveland.
Review: This was the final film on the roster in the Documentary Shorts program and it leaves audiences with a pleasant, if slightly bitter, taste in their mouth.  Going behind the scenes at the launch of Edwins in Cleveland, Knife Skills gives you small bites into the lives of its staff, comprised almost entirely of convicted criminals. An initiative led by Brandon Edwin Chrostowski invited over 80 men and women who had served jail time to learn a trade, be it hosting or serving in the front of house, curating the wine and cheese for the restaurant, or acquiring cooking skills from a master chef in the kitchen. In his youth, Chrostowski also had his own troubles with the law and he is now a tough leader, foul-mouthed and hot tempered…but his passion for the restaurant and empathy for his staff comes through clearly. While we get to know select members of the staff and chart their journey, the film feels a bit too fragmented and the timeline isn’t always clear. This is one of the few films on the roster I would have preferred to be longer, filling in some important gaps that left me hungry for more.
Wanting to watch Knife Skills? You can check it out right here:

Traffic Stop (Dir. by Kate Davis & David Heilbroner, USA, 30 mins.)
Synopsis: Traffic Stop tells the story of Breaion King, a 26-year-old African-American school teacher from Austin, Texas, who was stopped for a routine traffic violation that escalated into a dramatic arrest.
Review: Released as a part of HBO’s series of documentaries in 2017, Traffic Stop is another film about injustice designed to make your blood boil. And watching the dash-cam footage of a young black school teacher pulled over for a speeding ticket that led to a violent confrontation will definitely have you wincing in horror. I just wish the film had dug a bit deeper into the system that failed this bright woman instead of focusing so much on illustrating what kind of person she is. In scenes showing her feeling free in her body in a dance class and serving as a mentor to eight children in her classroom, the message that she was wronged is drilled home over and over. The problem is that we already can clearly see this from the get-go. We already like her, we already are on her side. Not shining a light (even a small one) on a dark failure in law enforcement feels like a missed opportunity and leaves the film feeling half-finished.
Wanting to watch Traffic Stop? Check out HBO for more details.

Final Thoughts: I can’t remember the last time all five documentary short nominees were from the USA and this is a fairly strong year for this category. I’d put Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405 heads and tails above the rest with Heroin(e) an impressive, but distant, second. Knife Skills is a thoughtful piece that could have been served with a bigger helping of personality while Edith + Eddie felt a bit unfinished. Traffic Stop was my least favorite, only because it felt like an extended news piece instead of a deep dive documentary the subject deserved.

 

Movie Review ~ Peter Rabbit


The Facts
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Synopsis: Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.

Stars: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As I hunkered down on a chilly Saturday for an early morning screening of Peter Rabbit there were a few thoughts going through my head. The first was a silent prayer that Hollywood didn’t take Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters and turn them into grating kooky animations. The second musing I found myself pondering was what took so long for Potter’s creations to make their way to the screen in the first place? Plenty of small screen animation adaptions featuring Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, and more have popped up throughout the decades and a fond memory of my youth was going to see Beatrix Potter’s Christmas (think The Avengers, just with Potter’s most famous critters) over several years at MN’s Children’s Theater Company. Yet aside from a Potter biopic (the largely forgotten Mrs. Potter), there’s been little love for the woodland creatures themselves.

What a pleasure it was, then, to find that Peter Rabbit is a real delight, a rare family film that’s truly something the whole family can get something out of. For kids there’s plenty of slapstick comedy that doesn’t involve farts or other rude nonsense and for adults there are a bevy of laughs that will easily sail over the heads of tykes too young to get the humor.

In the English countryside, Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, Into the Woods) is fond of making his way into the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and filling up on his plump vegetables. Pulling his cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) in on his schemes and being cheered on by rabbit triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), days are just a series of adventures that usually end with Peter being chased by the annoyed farmer into the loving arms of his caretaker Bea (Rose Byrne, Insidious). One day, the antics go too far and Old Mr. McGregor has himself a heart attack leaving his garden and home to be overrun by animals.

In London, tightly-wound Thomas McGregor’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin) OCD ways have gotten him the heave-ho from his job at Harrod’s department store. Informed of his inheritance of a house from an uncle he’s never met and without much to keep him in the city, he treks out to see his new property in the country. Once he arrives and cleans up the place, he sets his sights on ridding himself of the vermin problem…but also starts to fall in love with Bea. The latter half of the film focuses on Thomas and Peter’s escalating war, fighting for their territory and over the lovely woman that cares for both of them.

Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck (Annie) has crafted a film that’s quite charming from the get-go. There’s sentiment for the origin of the stories (Bea is a painter that creates bizarre modern art but sketches her forest friends in intricate details, ala Beatrix Potter) but keeps enough pep in its step to not feel like a staid transfer of the books to the screen. The humor is broad and fast-paced but with a sly wink to always let the audience in on the joke. Sure, there’s a few questionable bits of mayhem (such as one moment where Peter briefly considers sticking a carrot into Old Mr. McGregor’s plumber butt crack) but the overall joy the film brings outweighs a few of these catering to the masses missteps.

Sprinkled with a soundtrack of familiar songs reimagined not to mention a few tunes Gluck penned himself and using Australia’s picturesque countryside as a stand-in for the English village of Windermere, this is a valuable film for parents to keep in their back pocket.  I found the 90 minute run time flew by and there are some nice touches from Gluck and company, such as having the live-action leads also provide voices for a few of the animals.  Along with Paddington 2, it represents a step above the usual family fare that blends live-action with animation (the result is dazzlingly seamless) and offers sure-fire matinee potential for the whole gang.

The Silver Bullet ~ I Feel Pretty

Synopsis: A woman struggling with insecurity wakes from a fall believing she is the most beautiful and capable woman on the planet.

Release Date: June 29, 2018

Thoughts: It’s refreshing to see an actress like Amy Schumer continue to find roles that she seems a total natural for. I’d imagine the script for I Feel Pretty was written with Schumer in mind and the timing for this one feels right.  Posed as an early summer comedic alternative to the rambunctious blockbusters set to invade theaters, the directorial debut of screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein casts Schumer (Snatched) as a woman who bumps her head and suddenly finds her inner goddess.  Buoyed by a strong (and surprising!) supporting cast featuring Michelle Williams (All the Money in the World), Lauren Hutton (American Gigolo), and Aidy Bryant (The Big Sick), I Feel Pretty put a smile on my face with the trailer alone…looking forward to getting the full view.

Movie Review ~ Fifty Shades Freed


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Anastasia and Christian get married, but Jack Hyde continues to threaten their relationship.

Stars: Jamie Dornan, Dakota Johnson, Eric Johnson, Eloise Mumford, Rita Ora, Luke Grimes, Victor Rasuk, Max Martini, Callum Keith Rennie, Bruce Altman, Arielle Kebbel, Robinne Lee, Brant Daugherty, Kim Basinger, Marcia Gay Harden

Director: James Foley

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: For movies like Fifty Shades Freed, I find it best to take a Roger Ebert approach when developing a critique of the film. Ebert was great at, among other things, taking each movie he saw for the experience it was and offering a review that spoke to how that particular film and that particular encounter made him feel. That led to him liking some movies other critics hated and hating ones that are now considered classics.

While this one will never be measured a classic in any stretch of the imagination, the good news is that Fifty Shades Freed is probably the best of the trilogy. It’s also the shortest. Like the two previous films in the Fifty Shades franchise, Freed is cheerfully plotless, little more than an excuse for audiences to get some vanilla kink on. There’s something for everyone that plops down some cash for this, whether it be to drool over the lavish life led by the two main characters or delight in their frequent couplings.

If you’ve avoided the films until now, be warned that some spoilers are present for the rest of this review.

Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson, A Bigger Splash) and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) have survived some roadblocks in their relationship that began in Fifty Shades of Grey. There was Anastasia’s initial shock at Christian’s S&M leanings and her adjustment into his pleasure and pain lifestyle. Christian had to acclimate to the headstrong Anastasia who proved to be a worthy equal to him only to nearly lose her to her sexual predator boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). Then there was that whole helicopter in a volcano business from Fifty Shades Darker but the less said about that the better. By the end of the second chapter, Christian has distanced himself from the mysterious Elena (Kim Basinger, who I swear I saw in promotional ads for this but doesn’t appear at all) and proposed marriage to Anastasia.

As Fifty Shades Freed opens, the wedding of Steele and Grey has commenced and the newlyweds are off on their honeymoon. She wants to sunbathe topless like the locals but he doesn’t like other men laying their eyes on his new bride. She doffs her top anyway, leading to a disciplinary bedroom session administered with handcuffs and a lot of heavy breathing. When their honeymoon is interrupted by a vandal at Christian’s company, the two return to Seattle and settle into married life.

And they lived happily ever after…well, not quite.

Adapting his wife’s third novel, Niall Leonard has a real knack for tin-earned dialogue. There’s enough dopey repartee between the actors that the film veers dangerously close to lampooning itself. Leonard has fashioned a hopelessly quaint series of events (especially in this day and age of #MeToo and #TimesUp) that play like a Cliffs Notes version of a longer film. There seems to be a need to speed through everything, rushing through major events like marriages, pregnancies, adultery, and home remodeling to get to one more of the awkwardly enthusiastic sex scenes. Director James Foley (Fear) doesn’t offer much in terms of style, just gentle teases and lots and lots and lots of shots of Johnson topless. The double standard of the series continues here…Johnson is naked often while Dornan can’t muster more than pulling his pants down halfway over his bum.

Speaking of our leads, what began as questionable chemistry has blossomed into a cozy kind of familiarity. Both actors give it their all in their steamy moments but then seem like they are embarrassed to be acting opposite each other when they have their clothes on. Johnson fares better than Dornan for most of the film but both succumb to looking board when the movie becomes a soapy romance thriller in its final act. There’s a lot of people from the other movies listed in the opening credits but don’t expect to see them much, most are just seen at the wedding and then disappear forever. Only Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden (Magic in the Moonlight) gets a second scene late in the film and she doesn’t have much to do in the way of acting.

Yet I’m giving the movie a semi high rating. That’s strange, right? I can’t disagree that this is overall pretty lousy but I must admit to enjoying myself more than I had for the first and second films. There’s something appealing in a movie you know is bad and wasn’t made to cater to your interests that frees one to not be stuffy and just go with it. There are a few honest laughs to be had but more than a few unintentional funny moments that unfortunately happen during scenes that are supposed to be seriously sexy. By the time Dornan hops behind a piano and attempts a hysterically soulful rendition of “Maybe I’m Amazed” while others look on in awe the wheels are definitely off the bus and you just have to enjoy what you’ve gotten yourself into.

They say all good things must come to an end and that’s also true for bad trilogies. The final chapter of the tale of Anastasia and Christian manages to entertain more than what’s come before but the bar has been set pretty low. If you’ve trekked out to see the first two you kinda owe it to yourself to finish what you started.