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

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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)


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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

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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

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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!)

Oscar Predictions 2016

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Hello!

Well, though I always find it difficult to nail down my Oscar selections pre-nomination day because I feel like I’m somehow cosmically jinxing  potential favorites, I’m once again taking part in The 2016 Oscar Contest over at Film Actually because…well…it’s just the right thing to do 🙂

This being a contest and all I threw in a few dark horse candidates and left out some bigger names just to keep it interesting.

I hope there are a few surprises tomorrow morning, though….even if it means I lose a few points in the contest 🙂

Below are my predictions for who will go to bed tomorrow night an Oscar nominee…

BEST PICTURE
Bridge of Spies
Brooklyn
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
Room
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton
The Big Short
The Martian
The Revenant

BEST DIRECTOR
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Ridley Scott, The Martian
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Todd Haynes, Carol

BEST ACTOR
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl
Will Smith, Concussion

BEST ACTRESS
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon, 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria
Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

BEST EDITING
Creed
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Big Short
The Martian
The Revenant

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Spotlight
Straight Outta Compton
The Hateful Eight

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Carol
Room
Steve Jobs
The Big Short
The Martian

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A War
Embrace of the Serpent
Labyrinth of Lies
Mustang
Son of Saul

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
Sicario
The Martian
The Revenant

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Bridge of Spies
Carol
Crimson Peak
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian

BEST SOUND MIXING
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Straight Outta Compton
The Martian
The Revenant 

BEST SOUND EDITING
Mad Max: Fury Road
Sicario
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Brooklyn
Carol
Cinderella
Crimson Peak
Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Bridge of Spies
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Hateful Eight

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
Amy
Going Clear
He Named Me Malala
The Hunting Ground
The Look of Silence

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Anomalisa
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
The Good Dinosaur
The Peanuts Movie

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Jurassic World
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
The Martian
The Walk 

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Black Mass
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
‘See You Again’, Furious 7
‘Writings on the Wall’, Spectre
‘Love Me Like You Do’, Fifty Shades of Grey
‘Til It Happens to You’, The Hunting Ground
‘Simple Song 3’, Youth

2015 – Best of the Best, Worst of the Worst, Grand Totals

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Well hello there!  I wound up skipping my Best of 2014 list because when 2015 rolled around there were still too many “2014” movies that I hadn’t been able to catch.  Then one thing lead to another…and it was March!

So here we are starting the fifth 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 2015.  At first I was going to do a Top 10 for both because I absolutely had candidates to fill all the slots, but then I decided to stick with five each to truly highlight the best of the best and worst of the worst.

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 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)

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5. Mad Max: Fury Road – like a lightning rod, the fourth Mad Max film conducted the kind of electricity that could fuel a dozen other pictures.  Director George Miller upped the ante for not only summer blockbusters but for filmmaking as a whole with his non-stop action flick that took no prisoners and left most 2015 films in its fiery dust. Starring Tom Hardy but owned by Charlize Theron, this Mad Max signaled the start of the summer season with a rocking battle cry. Truly amazing.

4. Creed – the best unexpected TKO of the year, Creed is really Rocky 7 but don’t let that stop you from entering the ring.  Star Michael B. Jordan brings a blistering intensity to the role of a young boxer trying to make a name for himself out from under the shadow of his legendary father’s career.  The biggest surprise is original star Sylvester Stallone stepping into the mentor role for his best performance since the original Rocky.  Stallone is valiant, vulnerable, and, under the direction of writer/director Ryan Coogler, fairly unforgettable.  A champion of a film.

3. Carol – anchored by two of the strongest performances of 2015, this love story between young Therese and married Carol is an achingly beautiful achievement from director Todd Haynes.  Delicate as a flower but steely enough to cut deep, it’s a picture about the understanding and acceptance of one’s own desires. Unlike anything else I’ve seen this year, it’s a gorgeous looking film that lingers in the memory long after you’ve left the theater.

2. Brooklyn – the most charming film of 2015, Brooklyn is a sweet love story set against the backdrop of Ireland and New York in the 1950’s.  It’s funny, sad, poignant, and delightfully underplayed so that by the time it reaches its emotional climax the tears it wrings from you are well earned.  Superbly acted and glowing with grace, it’s a wonderful wonderful period piece.

1. The Martian – the best film I saw in 2015 (twice) is Ridley Scott’s grand space adventure adapted from Andy Weir’s best-selling novel.  A full meal of a movie, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here from comedy to action to drama to suspense and even some surprisingly emotional arcs.  Powerfully led by Matt Damon and a small army of familiar faces, movies like The Martian are the reason why we go to movies, to be transported and changed. 

Honorable Mentions: Paddington, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Cinderella, Jurassic World, Magic Mike XXL, Far From the Madding CrowdThe Visit, Sicario, Crimson Peak, RoomStar Wars: The Force Awakens

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5. Love the Coopers – arriving like a stale piece of fruitcake, this turkey is reason enough for even the sweetest Christmas fan to say “Bah Humbug”.  It’s an obnoxious and lazy attempt at creating a warm family togetherness film with neither the direction nor the performances to help it rise from the sludge. Wasting the talents of its diverse ensemble cast, this is a White Elephant of a yuletide film.

4. Point Break – making the original 1991 film look like High Noon in comparison, this atrocious remake diverts so far from its dopey origins that it should have just ditched the title and shrugged off the obvious comparisons from its detractors.  With his unforgivable man-bun, heinous fake tattoos, and not good enough for the Sci-Fi channel acting, Luke Bracey leads the film right off a cliff sans parachute.  More focused on being an eco-message film than a heist flick, it sports beautiful cinematography but is overall a lamentable effort.

3. The Lazarus Effect – Kudos to you, Olivia Wilde.  You appeared in two of my least favorite films of the year.  Beautiful as she is, Wilde just can’t seem to find a film that suits her in the acting department and The Lazarus Effect is a prime example. Barely 80 minutes long, there’s no amount of spiritual help that could raise this one from the graveyard of bad horror thrillers.

2. Aloha– pay no attention to the critics that championed this gigantic turd of a film in 2015…they’ve been blinded by a devotion to a filmmaker that has lost his way.  Cameron Crowe’s colossal misfire makes every wrong turn in the book, from casting pale Emma Stone as a Native Hawaiian with a half-Asian father to an inability to assemble a movie that makes any kind of sense.  Legendary in its production for going through titles and reshoots like candy, the final product was more of an ‘adios’ to Crowe’s storied status in Hollywood.

1. The Water Diviner – this waste of a film won three Australian Academy Awards.  Three.  And one of them was Best Picture.  Well, turnabout is fair play and I’m awarding Russell Crowe’s directing debut with Worst Picture of the year honors.  An interminable slog through an incomprehensible plot and ridiculously banal performances, I was praying for some sort of divine intervention to cut the screening short.  It’s bad from the moment it starts until it releases us from our agony.

(Dis)Honorable Mentions: Inherent Vice, Blackhat, The Boy Next Door, Woman in Gold, Terminator Genisys, The Gallows, Dark Places, American Ultra, Freeheld, Jem and the Holograms, Victor Frankenstein

 

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Most Misunderstood

Hot Pursuit – Ok, so I’m not going to sit here and waste my time telling you that Hot Pursuit is a good movie because it’s fairly derivative from countless other female buddy pictures, too broad for words, and in the end is an inconsequential blip on the careers of stars Reese Witherspoon and Sofia Vergara.  Where I took issue was how the movie was dragged through the grime by critics that would laud the same type of movie had it been released with males in the leading roles.  People took actual offense that Witherspoon went from an Oscar nominated turn in Wild to something so lightweight as Hot Pursuit and I kinda just wanted to tell ‘em all to scoot up a tree.  The film plays right into the strengths (and assets) of both leading ladies and is ultimately harmless.  It’s not great entertainment, but it’s not the garbage mess that people would have you believe.

Honorable Mention: San Andreas

Joe’s Humble Pie Award of 2015

The D Train – I’m a die-hard anti-Jack Black fan but even I had to admit that The D Train was one of the more unexpected small victories of 2015.  Black is winning as a lovable loser running his class reunion that makes a bid to get a famous-ish classmate to attend.  Flying out to California to convince the guy (James Marsden) to make an appearance, the film takes an unanticipated turn that audiences just won’t see coming.  The film has a dark charm and strong performances to justify your seeking it out.  I think you’ll be surprised…I was.

Honorable Mention: Mistress America

Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen But Should:

The Diary of a Teenage Girl

I’ll See You in My Dreams

Song of the Sea

The Hunting Ground

Beyond the Lights

Playing by Heart

Good Kill

Starry Eyes

The Taking of Deborah Logan

Click HERE for a full listing of films seen in 2015

Total Movies Seen in the Theater: 146

Total Movies Seen at Home: 176

Grand Total for 2015 (not counting films seen multiple times): 317

Where I Saw the Most Movies: Showplace ICON – 66!

Down From the Shelf ~ The Gambler (1974)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Axel Freed is a literature professor with a gambling vice.

Stars: James Caan, Paul Sorvino, Lauren Hutton, Jacqueline Brookes, Burt Young, M. Emmett Walsh, James Woods

Director: Karel Reisz

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Movies like 1974’s The Gambler exhaust me.  Like, honestly exhaust me.  Though clearly a product of its time in direction, production design, costume design, and performance it features the same hopeless characters that still populate movies 40 years later.  I call these Lost Cause Characters because it’s clear from the get-go that no amount of mountain moving or lesson learning will move them from their path to ruin.

With his star on the rise after his tough-guy role in The Godfather earned him an Academy Award nomination, James Caan (Misery) plays the role of the lit professor by day / gambling addict by night (and sometimes day) with all the right moves.  With his groovy print shirts never having more than three buttons in use, he looks the very image of 70s hunk with a tough edge.  Opening on a daytime binge of cards, dice, and lost cash the movie wastes no time in establishing that he’s an experienced gambler but one on the endless hunt for a winning streak.

Even in his early 30s Caan always looked like he was pushing 40 so it’s hard to buy him as a spoiled trust fund kid that manages to weasel out of any sticky situation.  His doctor mother (Jacqueline Brookes, playing conflicted to the point of incapacitation) continues to bail him out even when his wealthy grandfather won’t.  His relationship with a pretty thing (Lauren Hutton, American Gigolo) isn’t fleshed out enough to give audiences anything to grasp onto and the overall effect is that this character is very much alone in his universe…with his best relationship a shady guy (Paul Sorvino) who would just as soon break his legs as he would sit down for dinner with him.

James Toback’s script is heavy with far too many scenes that feel repetitious but light on the kind of forward momentum that would allow director Karen Reisz (The French Lieutenant’s Woman) the opportunity to make something memorable out of this mish-mash.  Maybe the whole point was for the audience to be talking back to the screen yelling “Don’t double down!” and if that’s the case then bravo to all involved…but I doubt that an early 70s film would be (or could be) that self-aware.

The film totally loses all focus in the last twenty minutes and never more so than in the final moments.  I had to rewind it to see if I missed a key plot point but alas, it’s just another bust for this rough crap table of a film.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Big Chill

The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of seven former college friends gather for a weekend reunion at a posh South Carolina winter house after the funeral of one of their friends.

Stars: Tom Berenger, Glenn Close, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, JoBeth Williams, Mary Kay Place, Meg Tilly, Jeff Goldblum

Director: Lawrence Kasdan

Rated: R

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Some movies set in the 80’s just do not age well.  I can’t tell you how many films I’ve had fond memories of until I took them for another spin and squirmed uncomfortably at their failure to have the same hold on me years later.  On the other hand you have the films that age like a fine wine, getting richer and more meaningful as they age and such a film is 1983’s The Big Chill, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan’s Oscar nominated ensemble dramedy.

Taking place over a long weekend for a funeral of a close friend that dies suddenly, The Big Chill introduces us to a group of baby boomers that are all at different phases of their adulthood.  Kevin Kline (In & Out) and Glenn Close (Albert Nobbs, Jagged Edge) are the stable married couple, the ones that their less mature friends look to for support and guidance.  Gathering their old college friends in their expansive South Carolina home, Kline and Close (who was Oscar nominated for her work) are perfect hosts…ones that allow their friends the chance to let loose, grieve, and cavort like they did when they were younger.

As we all know, there is a time to put away childhood playthings but in Kasdan’s eyes people need to let go in their own way at their own pace.  Saying goodbye to their friend (an unbilled Kevin Costner) means saying goodbye to a part of their youth they can never get back and for some that’s a frightening notion to wrap their heads around.

Hollywood playboy Sam (Tom Berenger) rekindles a romance with married Karen (JoBeth Williams) while actors like Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) and William Hurt (The Host, Altered States) find themselves at different crossroads of their romantic lives.  I’ve always found Mary Kay Place’s nebbish attorney the most interesting yet consistently frustrating character as she struggles to pinpoint exactly what she wants in life…and when she does the solution surprises everyone.

As famous as the film, the soundtrack to The Big Chill is remarkable, and not only because nearly all of it was added in after the movie was shot.  All the choices from music of the present day to the folk/rock music of the past blends so well together, resulting in a bestselling soundtrack that takes on a life of its own.

Kasdan’s script is extremely funny with a dry wit that speaks to the frustrations of the Baby Boomer generation yet still remains apt to modern audiences viewing it thirty years later.  After all, becoming an adult hasn’t gotten any easier in the decades since The Big Chill was first released and the movie is a lasting reminder that even in the worst of circumstances it’s nice to have a group around you as screwed up as you are to help you find support.

Got something you think I should see?
Tweet me, or like me and I shall do my best to oblige!

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie ~ This is My Life

The Facts:

Synopsis: A stand-up comic neglects her two daughters in the midst of her newfound fame.

Stars: Julie Kavner, Samantha Mathis, Gaby Hoffmann, Carrie Fisher, Dan Akyroyd

Director: Nora Ephron

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Shortly after writer/director Nora Ephron passed away in the summer of 2012 I began looking for This is My Life, her directorial debut from 1992.  I’d seen it numerous times and even owned a copy on VHS but it was just nowhere to be found so I eventually forgot about it.  Enjoying the films she wrote like Heartburn and When Harry Met Sally…, I was more interested in the films she directed.

I wasn’t about to revisit You’ve Got Mail mostly because the AOL age update to The Shop Around the Corner is so dated you’d need to be an amnesiac emerging from a time machine to really enjoy it.  I also wasn’t up for the sappy but still warm to the touch PG-ness of Sleepless in Seattle.  And even Madeline Khan’s presence in Mixed Nuts couldn’t get me to take that mess for a spin again.  No…it had to be This is My Life or nothing.

Flash forward a few months later to a sleepy Sunday morning and I was browsing On Demand making the Sophie’s Choice between…well…Sophie’s Choice and some Bruce Willis movie when lo and behold there was This is My Life streaming for free.  Jackpot!  93 minutes later I remembered why Ephron’s no-frills first feature was high on my list to see…and her name is Julie Kavner.

There seem to be two audiences that know Kavner.  One is from her days playing sister to Valerie Harper on Rhoda and the other only recognizes Kavner as Marge, the animated matriarch on The Simpsons.  Kavner (Radio Days) has rarely had a chance to let loose on screen, certainly never in a leading role which makes this bittersweet comedy a real gem.

Adapted by Ephron from a novel by Meg Wolitzer, This is My Life is the story of a department store cosmetics lady that wants to be a stand-up comedian.  Raising two daughters as a single mother, she gets by by making due and making others laugh.  When her star begins to rise and eventually takes off, mother and daughters get some hard lessons on the price of fame.

As is the case of most films about comedians, very little of the material is actually funny with Kavner’s character telling some pretty dusty jokes about the trials of being a single mother. (Zoinks!)  It’s very hard to make material that works better live seem as immediate as being there and that’s one of the areas the film struggles through…but thankfully the rimshot jokes wind up playing second fiddle to the drama taking place offstage.

It’s easy to see why this film got lost in the shuffle at the box office.  With no bankable star and a female heavy presence, audiences and studios didn’t know what to do with it so it flamed out quickly and landed on video soon after.  Though it’s no work of art, there’s an assured charm to it all that makes even the more conventional emotional outburst (and there are probably two too many) work.

While Ephron had some true triumphs as a writer, her career as a director was spotty.  Of the eight films she directed less than half are worth a second viewing and that’s being generous.  Still, films like This is My Life aren’t likely to be made even in this day and age so this laughter through the tears melodrama is a worthwhile reminder of what made Ephron’s voice such a special one.

Got something you think I should see?
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Mid-Day Mini ~ Matinee

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time film promoter releases a kitschy horror film during the Cuban Missile Crisis

Stars: John Goodman, Cathy Moriarty, Simon Fenton, Omri Katz, Lisa Jakub, Kellie Martin, Jesse Lee Soffer, Lucinda Jenney

Director: Joe Dante

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Occupying the softest spot in my critical hard heart, Matinee is a real joy to watch no matter how many times I come across it.  I think Joe Dante’s 1993 love letter to B-movie producers and their schlocky gimmicks is especially effective for anyone that has a love of cinema’s bygone era.  This is a time when film-going was true escapism and if you weren’t dressing up to see a road show presentation of the big movie at the time, you were huddled in a theater for an all day line-up of classic serials, cartoons, newsreel footage, and perhaps a horror film with men in rubber suits.

Matinee takes place in Florida right on the brink of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Army brat Gene (Simon Fenton) is the man of the house while his dad is overseas and keeps a good eye on his little brother Dennis (Jesse Lee Soffer).  An avid movie-goer at the local town theater, Gene is thrilled that uber producer Lawrence Woolsey (John Goodman, Inside Llewyn Davis, Arachnophobia, Stella) is previewing his new film Mant! for one day only.  Together with his friend Stan (Omri Katz) and two girls they are interested in (Lisa Jakub and Kellie Martin), Gene is in for an interesting screening when jealous rivals, malfunctioning gimmicks, a feisty theater manager, a tagalong younger brother, and the possibility of nuclear war at any moment threaten to keep the credits from rolling.

I enjoyed that Dante (who started off his career working for Roger Corman, a schlock impresario in his own right) gently lampooned the crazy effects famous B-movie producer William Castle thought up to help sell his movie.  From seats that gave you a shock at the right moment to fake bugs flying in the audience, Goodman’s warm Woolsey (like Castle) thinks that the entertainment doesn’t need to be only up on the screen…it can go into the audience as well!

This is one of those nice bits ‘o fun that they just don’t make anymore: PG rated mostly family friendly entertainment that has a little smattering of something for everyone.  If it’s lost a tiny bit over the years in my older eyes, it’s only because the wonder of being a 13 year old movie nerd has worn off a smidge.  Still, there’s plenty of goings-on to keep you interested and the attention to period detail in the production design is quite fun.

If you can get your hands on a copy of the film it’s worth it to see Dante’s reverential ode to the types of movies that went out of fashion as audiences became more discerning.  It’s the next best thing to actually being there and getting that shock to your seat.

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31 Days to Scare ~ Jaws: The Revenge

jaws_the_revenge

The Facts:

Synopsis: Chief Brody’s widow believes that her family is deliberately being targeted by another shark in search of revenge.

Stars: Lorraine Gary, Lance Guest, Mario Van Peebles, Michael Caine, Karen Young, Judith Barsi, Mitchell Anderson, Lynn Whitfield

Director: Joseph Sargent

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review:  It’s somewhat sad that the first Jaws film I ever saw in the theaters was this third sequel and final nail in the coffin of the series (for now).  Remember when the Sunday newspaper would have an ad for movies opening on Friday and a listing of the theaters it would be playing at?  I can vividly recall opening the paper and finding the announcement for Jaws: The Revenge , clipping it out, and keeping it with me all week while begging my parents to take me over the weekend.  Well, my parents and I found ourselves at Yorktown 3 for a Sunday showing and even as a seven year old I knew the film was crap.

Truly the lowest of the low, Jaws: The Revenge is a travesty of a film…one that gets worse with each viewing and is so off the mark that you wonder how anyone involved kept showing up for work day in and day out.  The premise is ridiculous, the direction stale, and the shark is so fake looking you expect to see a Made in Singapore stamp on its rubbery dorsal fin.

Star Lorraine Gary was so enjoyable in Jaws and Jaws 2 as the wife of Chief Brody that it was easy to overlook that in real life she was the spouse of the head of Universal Studios.  Now a widow, Ellen Brody still lives in Amity and her youngest son is following in his father’s footsteps.  One wintery night, Sean Brody answers a call to dislodge some pilings stuck on a buoy and he’s soon gobbled up by a mean ole shark as a choir of townsfolk sings Silent Night, masking his cries for help.  What could have been a reasonably effective opener (after a nice underwater credit sequence) is marred by an already fake looking shark and stilted direction from Joseph Sargent.

The grieving Ellen is convinced the shark intended to kill her son…which is totally logical, right?  Instead of shipping her off to a loony bin, her other son (Lance Guest) encourages her to come down to the Bahamas to clear her mind and spend some time with her granddaughter.  End of movie.  Wait…no…it isn’t?  Oh…OK.  So…Ellen flies off to the Bahamas and our revenge-seeking shark swims all the way from New England to the warm waters of another island town looking for Ellen and her family.

There are so many problems with this scenario that I don’t even need to go over them here.  It simply makes no sense in the least…begging the question why no one raised their hand and said “Um, that’s dumb.”  Even co-star Michael Caine (Now You See Me) missed accepting his Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters because he was filming his gaffe-filled performance as a pilot that takes an interest in Ellen.  So we have about forty minutes where the shark pops up randomly and continues to do things sharks wouldn’t (and couldn’t) do like standing still in the water, leaping out of the water, and roaring like a dinosaur.  It’s laughably bad and is a total affront to the films that came before it…even Jaws 3D.

In a way, I’m glad that Jaws: The Revenge was the last in this series.  Though other shark films have been released over the years there hasn’t yet been another attempt to continue the Jaws legacy.  I’d be up for it if someone had a good idea, talented director, and made use of the original location of Amity Island.  Just please…no more trips to the Bahamas.

31 Days to Scare ~ Jaws 3-D

jaws_3d

The Facts:

Synopsis: The sons of police chief Brody must protect civilians at a Sea World theme park after a gigantic 35-foot shark becomes trapped in the park.

Stars: Dennis Quaid, Bess Armstrong, Simon MacCorkindale, Louis Gossett Jr., John Putch, Lea Thompson, P.H. Moriarty

Director: Joe Alves

Rated: PG

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  It’s not that hard to see that this was originally intended to be a comedy in the National Lampoon vibe and titled Jaws 3, People 0.  The trouble is, when the producers got cold feet and went back to making a more serious-minded film, no one told the shark because it gets its fair share of laughs.

One of the first films in the early 80’s to employ the revitalization of 3D technology; I still wouldn’t mind seeing this second sequel in the Jaws franchise the way it was originally projected in the summer of 1983.  Maybe hiding behind some cardboard 3D glasses a more enjoyable film would have emerged because stripped of this gimmick, the movie sinks pretty fast as so many similarly released 3D films did in that era.

The one interesting thing about this entry is its setting.  Moving away from the fictional New England set Amity Island, Jaws 3D takes place at Sea World.  Yeah, you read that right…it’s not Sea Park or Ocean World or something that suggests the famous theme park but the big girl herself.  Nowadays, this kind of movie would never be allowed to film in a place that relies on benign tourism to stay afloat.   What goes on in this film would send a modern mom and dad from Utah running back to Dollywood for their summer vacation.

Directed by Joe Alves who served as the production designer on Jaws and Jaws 2, Jaws 3D once again follows members of the Brody family (sons Michael and Sean) as they happen to be in the very same place where a great white shark gets loose in and around the lagoons of Sea World.  Dennis Quaid (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) and Bess Armstrong are likable enough in their lead roles but it’s strange to see Oscar winner Louis Gossett, Jr. hemming and hawing as the blustery owner of the property.  He’s not required to do much and he does that just fine.  Lea Thompson and the late Simon MacCorkindale are also on board to add a few colorful touches…not that the film’s gaudy color palette needed them.

The way the movie was filmed with 3D cameras spells trouble when viewing the film in 2D because it’s a rather ugly looking movie that shows its age in nearly every frame.  It’s no wonder this was the first and last film Alves directed, but it’s not so much a failure on his end but rather on the studio itself for making the unwise decision to take the shark out of its familiar surroundings in the first place.

I’ve seen clips of the movie in 3D on YouTube and while some of the effects might have been nice projected 30 feet high, seen on the small screen in 2013 they are not that far removed from a school cut and paste project.  Won’t some local theater dig up a print of this and have a screening so fans of the series too young to  have seen it in theaters can experience it for themselves?  The film won’t magically get better just because the shark will come out of the screen in 3D…but there’s something to be said for seeing a movie as it was intended to be shown.

Until then…I’ll keep watching Jaws 3D and lamenting its poor choices, decent performances, corny effects, and serviceable shark.

Down from the Shelf ~ Insidious

insidious

The Facts:

Synopsis: A family looks to prevent evil spirits from trapping their comatose child in a realm called The Further.

Stars: Patrick Wilson, Rose Byrne, Lin Shaye, Ty Simpkins, Barbara Hershey, Joseph Bishara, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson

Director: James Wan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: One of my all time favorite horror films is 1982’s Poltergeist.  Following a family experiencing strange goings on in their house, the film came from the mind of Steven Spielberg and was directed by Tobe Hooper who shocked audiences with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  It remains a shining example in the horror genre as a perfect balance of supernatural horror and family drama.

So it’s no big shocker that I have a fondness for 2010’s Insidious which, if you really think about it, is practically a modern day retelling of Poltergeist.  It follows the Poltergeist formula quite faithfully, i.e. suburban family of five is terrorized by ghostly happenings, eventually calling on a medium to figure out what (or who) the heck is reaching out from the other side.  Frights and freak-outs abound until the final showdown when the living and the dead collide.

I’m still aghast that 2014 will see the release of a Poltergeist remake so why am I letting Insidious off the hook so easily?  Well, it’s because Insidious is still very much its own movie with its own twist on the well-worn ghost story.  Director James Wan (The Conjuring) and screenwriter/supporting star Leigh Whannell (Saw) cleverly work in more than a few spine-tingling turns and several honest-to-goodness terrifying moments.  There are certain sequences in the film that to this day I find hard to watch without feeling my heart start to race.

It helps that Wan has gathered a unique cast together that you may not normally associate with horror films.  Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) has come a long way from the guy I saw in the The Full Monty on Broadway and he is an interesting enough actor to not let himself get pigeon-holed in one character.  While Bridesmaids was still a year away for Rose Byrne (The Internship), she’d already made a minor splash on television with her twisty, layered role on Damages.  The first time I saw the movie I remember not caring much for Byrne’s performance but revisiting it recently I found her to be the true solid center of the troupe.

Colorful supporting performances abound including Barbara Hershey’s minor role as Wilson’s mother who has some key information about the origin of the strange events besieging her son and his family.  Though Hershey memorably starred in the otherwise unmemorable The Entity from 1982 (in which her nude body was famously molested by a ghost) she wasn’t known for her work in this genre.  Lin Shaye, Whannell, and burly Angus Sampson are part of a trio of paranormal researchers that help the family get to the root of the evil that gives way to a spooky as all get out finale.

Wan’s freaky final act of Insidious has the same effect as going through a haunted house – working with cinematographers David M. Brewer and John R. Leonetti he puts the audience right there with the actors never letting the viewer see something that the others don’t.  It’s a nerve-wracking sequence heighted by Joseph Bishara’s nightmare-inducing score, not to mention Bishara’s performance as “Lipstick-Face Demon”.

Though a low-budget film, the movie has a nice shine to it and holds up on repeat viewings…which is saying something for a horror film dependent on the element of surprise.  It’s a tad too long and some viewers may find a few passages a little silly but it’s all part of the fun and (scary) games Wan and company have waiting for you.