Movie Review ~ To the Stars


The Facts
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Synopsis: Under small town scrutiny, a withdrawn farmer’s daughter forges an intimate friendship with a worldly but reckless new girl in 1960s Oklahoma.

Stars: Kara Hayward, Liana Liberato, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Adelaide Clemens, Lucas Jade Zumann, Malin Åkerman, Tony Hale

Director: Martha Stephens

Rated: NR

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I open my review of the new coming-of-age drama with a familiar slap on the wrist to myself.  Yes, once again I did the film I was about to see a disservice by reading the little blurb about it first and getting to the “coming-of-age” part and doing one of those exasperated “Blerghs”.  Like a badly drawn character from the Sunday comics, my next thought bubble was, “now you’ll tell me that it’s set in the South in the 1960s”.  Sure enough….a small Oklahoma town in the 1960s is where the action of To the Stars takes place.  The one thing that intrugied me, though, is when I read the movie was shot in black and white…which I found interesting because so few movies go that route.  So let me say I was a little fraught when I started the movie and it was in full dust bowl color…a pause and a scan of the internet told me that while the movie was shot in B&W and premiered at festivals in that format, the wider release would be in color.  Huh. Ok.

All this to say that for whatever reason I came to this indie film in, how should I say it?, not the best spirit.  I recognized that, though, and promised myself to work hard at letting all that go because the movie deserved my honest feedback.  Turns out, I didn’t have to work hard at all because this is one fine film, a surprisingly moving bit of entertainment boasting genuine heartfelt performances.  Well-paced and taking the kind of turns I wasn’t expecting at the beginning, it may follow some familiar rough roads but it’s when it veers off in its own path that it really soars.

When mousy Iris Deerborne (Kara Hayward, Moonrise Kingdom) first meets fireball Maggie Richmond (Liana Liberato, Banana Split), she doesn’t know quite what to make of the new girl in town.  A gang of bullies that have found a reliable target has just stopped Iris on her way to school and Maggie isn’t aware that Iris rarely puts up a fight.  Though Maggie tries to fit in by standing out in their small town school crowd, she only connects with Iris when the two share of moment of vulnerability late at night at a pond between their houses.  A friendship blossoms where Maggie encourages Iris to come out from the shadow of her well-intentioned but wrong-headed mother (Jordana Spiro) and Iris helps Maggie tear down some of the defensive walls she’s built up, eventually revealing why her family suddenly moved to their small town.

Shannon Bradley-Colleary’s script has a languid way of developing at first, slowly letting the friendship between the two girls come center stage.  The first half perhaps spends a tad too much time involved with school politics, namely the way Iris is shunned by the cool girls who are mean to Iris just…because. (It’s a big pain point of the script that none of the antagonists are ever given any background/reason to their actions.)  In a set-up that reminded me of Muriel’s Wedding, the cool girls glom on to the ‘prettier’ Maggie, who would rather spend her time with Iris who she senses (correctly) is far better for her than they are.  Scenes with Maggie and her parents (a staid Tony Hale, Toy Story 4, and Malin Åkerman, Rock of Ages) are fairly interesting because it’s clear something is going on in the family dynamic but just what that is only comes to light later on.

What the script does provide, even in small doses, are some excellent moments of authenticity not just for the two leading ladies who are both resolutely excellent throughout but for the supporting players.  From Shea Whigham (The Quarry) as Iris’s soft-spoken and supportive father to Spiro as her boozy mother that flirts with anything that moves.  I was also quite taken with Adelaide Clemens (The Great Gatsby) as Hazel, the town hairdresser who plays a special role of comfort as the film continues.  To say more about how all of these complex characters factor into the surprising turn of events would rob the movie of some of its emotional kick but director Martha Stephens guides it all with a delicate touch.

Watching the movie, the whole black and white business was always on the forefront of my mind.  At first, the wide shots of the open Oklahoma prairie land seemed like the perfect way to utilize the film stock drained of color but quite a lot of the movie is set at night.  I actually think the decision to flip to color was the right one because seeing that a few major events happen in the darkness, it especially helps as the film moves toward its bittersweet conclusion.  A wise choice for a wise movie.  Don’t miss this one – it’s one of those I think you could easily recommend to others.

 

Movie Review ~ The Great Gatsby (2013)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Midwestern war veteran finds himself drawn to the past and lifestyle of his millionaire neighbor

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Elizabeth Debicki, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Amitabh Bachchan, Adelaide Clemens

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

Trailer Review:  Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It would be hard to graduate high school without having had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby”.  A treasured tome for some and a hollow warning on the price of the American dream to others, the novel wasn’t a success when it was first released and only became popular after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940.  Over the years it’s been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) but the key core of the novel’s brilliance has never been truly captured accurately.

This 2013 version of The Great Gatsby also misses the mark of what made has made the novel so timeless but it does capture the mood and feel of the era the best of any previous incarnations of the work.  Yes, it’s over the top, flashy, and delirious at times…but so were the roaring 20’s!  Director Baz Lurhmann has been faithful to the book as much as possible and utilized a well conditioned cast to the best of all of their collective abilities.

It’s the summer of 1922 and NYC is in the middle of Prohibition and right on the cusp of some major social change.  The days of wine and roses are numbered with The Great Depression right around the corner but no one is the wiser as they roll down their stockings, bob their hair, spend money like there’s no tomorrow, and dance the night away in speakeasies and at Jay Gatsby’s massive Long Island mansion.

Our narrator/moral center is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and as the film opens he’s relating a story of love and loss from the icy confines of a sanitarium.  Unable to bring himself to speak the words, he begins to write and so truly begins the story of how he found himself a bystander to a doomed love triangle between his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained), his cousi Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty).

All of the elements from Fitzgerald’s novel come to life under the stellar work of production designer Catherine Martin (who also designed the jaw dropping costumes and happens to be Mrs. Lurhmann).  The green light that sits at the end of the Buchanan’s dock and acts as a beacon to Gatsby across the bay, the watchful billboard of a forgotten optometrist, even the classic lines and descriptive phrases are nicely incorporated courtesy of Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s everything but the kitchen sink script.

That being said, even with everything in place there’s a severe lack of “the underneath” as I like to call it.  While the characters move around this gossamer landscape enacting acts of love and revenge, there’s precious little sympathy for any of them…which is largely the way Fitzgerald wrote them.  That may be hard for some people to get over when watching the film but Fitzgerald didn’t see these people as heroes in need of salvation but as indictments of the time and place in which they flourished.  Even so, I kept wishing there was more blood and guts on display rather than just flesh and bone.

Strangely, I’m not usually a fan of most of the leads in The Great Gatsby.  DiCaprio is constantly mentioned as one of our great actors and while I can give it to him that he’s turned in solid work in the last decade I haven’t thought his work was that underappreciated.  He was refreshing in Django Unchained and should have nabbed an Oscar nomination for his efforts but it’s with The Great Gatsby that I finally saw in DiCaprio the actor that I think he should be.  The haunted and deeply fragile Gatsby seems the most natural fit for DiCaprio and he’s quite acceptable in the part.

Mulligan is making a habit of playing these delicate, bird-like characters and this just seems another exercise with Mulligan using the tricks she’s accumulated in her cinematic wheelhouse.  Though I think she’s ultimately well cast, those familiar with her work won’t see anything truly new.  DiCaprio’s best friend Maguire is well suited for playing the closest thing Gatsby has to a best friend and thankfully ditches his puppy-dog mumble technique to really deliver as the flawed narrator of the piece that isn’t so innocent in what happens over the course of the film.

Edgerton makes a strong showing as Tom Buchanan, a man that doesn’t appreciate what he has until it’s nearly gone.  Though having an affair with a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fischer who’s better here than she is in Now You See Me), he clings to Daisy when he sees her getting close to Gatsby.  Ultimately, Tom sets into motion the tragic final act of the piece involving the mechanic (Jason Clarke, so good in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless), all the while knowing what the outcome will be.

Special mention needs to be made for Elizabeth Debicki’s strong supporting work as golf pro Jordan Baker, a friend to the Buchanan’s, Gatsby, and Nick.  Though she could be viewed as working all sides, in Debicki’s capable hands the role is smoothed out and is the best representation of a character that would believably be living and breathing during the 20’s.  Keep an eye on this actress, she’s fascinating to watch.

Much has been made of Lurhmann teaming with rapper Jay-Z to bring a modern sound to the film and I was nervous after hearing early reports that the film was sidelined by its soundtrack.  So I was happy to see (well, hear) that the music is worked in rather unobtrusively to the film and in some cases works to heighten the happenings onscreen.  Lana Del Rey’s spine chilling “Young and Beautiful” is laced into several scenes in a few different iterations, its lyrics and sound perfectly capturing the longing and fears of our characters.  Other efforts, like Beyonce’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” don’t land right but that’s the problem of the re-working of the song not the movie.

Filmed in 3D, the first half of the movie is very much like previous Lurhamann efforts…meaning that it’s fast edited within an inch of its life.  The editing really represents what’s happening on screen because the first part is a fever dream of excess and confusion.  When Gatsby and Daisy are reunited (in a scene that I’ll admit had my pulse racing) the movie settles down and only works itself up again as it careens into its finale.

Though it was brought to television in a 2000 effort starring Mira Sorvino, the last time Gatsby was on screen was in 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow.  While that sounds like ideal casting, the final effort was a dreadful bore – it’s 1 minute longer than this version but feels like an hour.  Though this still isn’t the perfect Gatsby, for me it’s dang close.  Still without a vibrantly beating heart, the movie swirls and twirls around you and is more engaging than you might think.  Ultimately, it’s a film that’s been on my mind a lot in the last few days and one that is worth seeing in the theaters.

The Silver Bullet ~ No One Lives

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Synopsis: A gang of ruthless highway killers kidnap a wealthy couple traveling cross country only to shockingly discover that things are not what they seem

Release Date:  May 10, 2013

Thoughts: There seems to be a severe uptick in these uber violent horror flicks as of late and before other films like The Purge and You’re Next arrive in theaters we’ll get No One Lives which promises to raise the gore/ick bar pretty high.  Though this red-band trailer gives away several key plot points, I’m most intrigued to see what director Ryûhei Kitamura has cooked up for his wrongned man in the woods thriller.  Kitamura helmed the cult Japanese vampire yarn Versus and also guided Midnight Meat Train into the station.  Star Luke Evans is under the radar enough that this might not get the press to make it a sleeper hit…though these survivalist films may soon start to  wear out their welcome for audiences.