Movie Review ~ Pixie

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The Facts
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Synopsis: To avenge her mother’s death, Pixie masterminds a heist but must flee across Ireland from gangsters, take on the patriarchy, and choose her own destiny.

Stars: Olivia Cooke, Ben Hardy, Daryl McCormack, Colm Meaney, Alec Baldwin, Dylan Moran, Rory Fleck Byrne, Fra Fee, Pat Shortt, Frankie McCafferty

Director: Barnaby Thompson

Rated: R

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: There are times when you can think of movies like food.  Some are hearty main courses that fill your belly with their ambition and dogged charm like 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark while a comfort meal of a film such as Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion will always be one you know you can return to time and time again.  Singin’ in the Rain is like a delectable desert that is almost at times too perfect to get to the bottom of and Tootsie is a fizzy refreshment that seems to fit whatever table you find yourself at.  Some films are more like appetizers than anything else, quickly consumed and enjoyed but no match for the more savory dishes that are yet to come.

The Irish crime comedy Pixie is a quirky little amuse-bouche that you won’t turn your nose up at but won’t come back for seconds on, either.  It packs a nice little punch and while it has a number of pleasingly salty double crosses and tart one-liners, the plot feels a tad crunchy.  Promising to be more of a raucous romp than it winds up being, there’s still a lot to like about director Barnaby Thompson’s cheeky film based on a screenplay written by his son, Preston.  While it plays a great deal like a TarantinO’Shea production that allows it to start off on the right foot, Pixie doesn’t have quite the stamina to maintain an overall tone to be as bold in its choices or twists.  So it can’t hope to leave an impression that lasts, despite a solid cast, some lovely location shooting, and inventive work by cameraman John de Borman (Quartet) throughout.

In a small church not too far outside Belfast, Ireland, two masked men interrupt a group of priests that turn out to be less holy men and more holy rollers armed with shotguns to protect a sizable suitcase full of drugs.  The robbery goes right…until it goes wrong for reasons of a more personal nature.  You see, the men were acting on the advice of Pixie O’Brien (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), a sneaky little thing that hopes to bypass her gangster stepdad (Colm Meaney, Tolkien) and violently oafish stepbrother (Turlough Convery, Saint Maud) and use the drugs to pay for her passage to America.  Both men were involved with Pixie and had a different understanding of who was the more important one to her.  It doesn’t end well.

By happy (and highly convoluted) coincidence, Pixie’s classmates Frank (Ben Hardy, Bohemian Rhapsody) and Harland (Daryl McCormack) come into possession of the stolen drugs Pixie was hoping to snag for herself.  After getting wind that her original fellas mucked it up and the drugs are in play somewhere else, it doesn’t take her long to find out who they might have been transferred to.  When she finds them, she tells the men where the drugs came from and paints a vivid picture of what happens to those who steal from the crime families in their town.  Fearing for their lives but mostly falling under her charms, both men agree to travel across the country with their unpredictable new friend who has vowed to help them sell the drugs and attempt to salvage their reputation back home.  However, Pixie hasn’t counted on several factions getting wind of the theft (including a smug Alec Baldwin, Aloha) and when they all start to converge on the same village, she’ll have to think fast if she wants to get out alive and consider if she trusts her new mates enough to bring them along with her.

While I appreciated that Barnaby Thompson keeps the film moving at a healthy clip, it can’t quite hide the obvious shortcomings in the script from his son.  The whole set-up at the heart of Pixie has been done before and feels recycled from a draft of an earlier film.  In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised in the least to learn this was a script that had been bouncing around for more than a decade before it got made.  The filmmakers should have just set Pixie in the early 1990s because it has a sensibility and gait that doesn’t remotely resemble the world we live in now.  The violence is bloody (yet highly digitized) and the language chirped through with such rapidity, everyone sounds like they are being kept from using the bathroom until the scene is in the can (pardon the pun).

Why the film has the energy it does, and what makes it fall on the slightly recommended side are the performances from our lead trio of young stars.  Cooke, Hardy, and McCormack make for a fine triumvirate of players and work well off of another either as a group or one-on-one.  Cooke continues to change things up with each successive film she makes.  The sprite character with a fatal edge in Pixie is light years away from the punk rock singer that turns her life around in 2020’s Sound of Metal.  I wish the material had risen up to meet her instead of her having to lean down to match its height but, no matter, she elevates the screenplay immeasurably with her natural charm.

What becomes pretty clear in the final third of Pixie is that the script only was thinking about how to get to a certain point (an eyebrow raising shootout between mobsters disguised as priests and nuns) and then it doesn’t have much more up its sleeve.  Once it assembles all the players where it imagined them to be it doesn’t quite know what to do with them or how to get at a resolution that falls into step with the askew tune the rest of the film had been singing up until that point.  This is why Tarantino, love him or hate him, remains an ace at the three-act structure.  He’s always thinking about that end goal and when the movie is over you can look back and see how well appointed it was in service to all the plot details throughout.  Pixie wants to have those same attributes but isn’t sophisticated enough to play on that same level.

All that being said, there’s far worse ways to spend an hour and a half (Barnaby Thompson produced Fisherman’s Friends last year and that was dreck compared to this) and Pixie at least has some pep in its step thanks to Cooke so you’re never apt to be bored for long.  It may not entirely steal your heart, but you won’t feel robbed of your time once you’ve tooled around the countryside with Pixie.

Movie Review ~ Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind


The Facts
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Synopsis: The iconic Canadian musician, Gordon Lightfoot, reflects on his life and career.

Stars: Gordon Lightfoot, Randy Bachman, Anne Murray, Sarah McLachlan, Tom Cochrane, Burton Cummings, Sylvia Tyson, Lenny Waronker, Geddy Lee

Director: Martha Kehoe & Joan Tosoni

Rated: NR

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I’m getting old.  I know this not by the birthdays with cakes that have enough candles to recreate the finale of Backdraft or the amount of complaining I do about the assortment of aches and pains I have but in my relationship with music.  Used to be that I knew the popular songs of the day and the artists that were involved but a recent scan of the top charts at the Billboard website reads like a Who’s Who of who’s not on my radar at all.  The rare song I do catch hardly speaks to me the way I remember the medium had in the past and I think it’s because the artist behind the tunes have changed.

That’s never clearer than in the new documentary Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, a sometimes candid but more often than not straight-up love letter to the folksy singer-songwriter.  Blazing a trail through his native Canada with his storytelling through song coupled with his melodic voice before making a similar splash in the states, Lightfoot’s songs have been covered by artists across a number of genres, further proof of their lasting appeal.  Yet the music that was often written out of emotional points in Lightfoot’s life wound up coming back to haunt him over the years and he paid a personal price his devoted audience wasn’t privy to.

Growing up in a city outside of Ontario, Lightfoot sang in his church choir and excelled at music throughout his high school years and moved to California in 1958 to study music seriously.   Returning to Toronto, he left his day job in a corporate environment that would have left him unfilled for an opportunity to perform on a country western music television show.  From there, he sang in various bands and side gigs before finally going solo, eventually finding success in Toronto’s burgeoning coffee house folk music scene.  Writing songs that would go on to be recorded/covered by the likes of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Elvis Presley, Judy Collins, and contemporaries such as Sarah McLachlan, and Diana Krall, Lightfoot came to be known for his deeply felt lyrics and ability to transport the listener.

Interviewing Lightfoot now, directors Martha Kehoe & Joan Tosoni mostly let the acclaimed musician drive his own narrative, choosing what he wants to cover and skillfully dodging the more personal moments along the way.  While Lightfoot’s addiction to alcohol and resulting sobriety serve as a main focus for an extended sequence in the home stretch of the film, there’s little about his marriages or his six children included.  Perhaps that’s at their request or maybe it’s because Lightfoot has felt the blowback of drawing on inspiration from his intimate life before in his art.  For example, his tumultuous affair with backup singer Cathy Smith (herself the center of controversy over her involvement in the death of John Belushi) led Lightfoot to write the hit song ‘Sundown’.  It’s also a bit surprising that Kehoe and Tosoni sidestep Lightfoot’s health issues in recent years, like a minor stroke that happened onstage a decade ago.  It’s not because there’s a particular need to see any kind of suffering but because the entire film feels like a testimony to his staying power. At 81, Lightfoot is still performing, often sharing the stage with the same band members that have been by his side for several decades.  So why not show his journey back like they do with his canoe trips that helped him when he gave up booze?

Canadians and fans of Canadian musicians will surely spark to the interviews with a number of famous faces from that scene, all who join the chorus to sing Lightfoot’s praises.  They speak of their first experience with his music and how it inspired them in their careers, often recounting the personal impact of his lyrics with great emotion.  The only interview that seems out of place is Alec Baldwin who doesn’t seem to share any ties with Lightfoot other than being a fan.  It’s a weirdly shoehorned in discussion, like he was doing a favor for the directors.

Running a too-short 91 minutes, I can’t help but wonder when a big-screen biopic of Lightfoot will make its way to theaters or spring to life as a limited series.  The internet has already pegged Chris Pratt as bearing a striking resemblance to Lightfoot in his early to mid-adult years but in his later period he’s beginning to look a lot more like Bryan Cranston…so there’s definitely options if this ever came to be.  For now, hear (most of) the story from the man himself and take a journey in song…and what good songs they are.

Movie Review ~ Before You Know It


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A pair of sisters find out the mother they thought was dead is alive and starring on a soap opera.

Stars: Hannah Pearl Utt, Jen Tullock, Judith Light, Alec Baldwin, Mike Colter, Mandy Patinkin

Director: Hannah Pearl Utt

Rated: NR

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Once you’ve been to New York City and done all the touristy things, that’s when the real adventure starts. Only then can you truly get to the heart of the city and explore the neighborhoods to find hidden gems that are off the beaten path. Restaurants, clothing stores, art galleries, and little theaters are all over the place just waiting to be discovered. Back in the day, the films of Woody Allen that were set in the Big Apple had a way with making good use out of these little-seen corners of a mostly familiar city.

It’s probably not the best comparison to make at this time or might not be exactly the kind of praise the writers and director of Before You Know It would love to hear but there’s a Woody Allen-esque quality to this quirky comedy. It would be easy to fathom Allen conjuring up this NYC set tale on his typewriter, assembling his cast drawn from a stable of familiar faces, and garnering praise for its astute look at familial relationships that break down at the most inconvenient times. Yet this isn’t another offering from that divisive director but the product of two women that wrote, directed, and star in the film. Being so interwoven into the framework of the movie can, at times, be the kiss of death for those that take on multiple roles on a film production but that’s not the case here – in fact, it makes the movie richer.

Living above their tiny off-off-off Broadway theater, sisters Jackie (Jen Tullock) and Rachel (Hannah Pearl Utt) have taken on their responsibilities to keep the operation afloat. Free-spirit actress Jackie takes to the stage and supplants that work with other odd jobs on the side while her more serious younger sister tends to the business side and directs. Their father, Mel (Mandy Patinkin), who raised them on his own after their mother died, is a former Broadway actor turned playwright that’s just earned a prestigious fellowship, one that will help produce a long gestating play the family has been working on together. Mel abhors the corporatization of the theater and doesn’t do much to ingratiate himself with his new benefactors…so when he suddenly passes away and leaves the sisters with mounting debts and an unfinished play they aren’t in the mood for more surprises.

A visit to their lawyer to hear the reading of their father’s will reveals a whopper, though. The mother they had been told passed away is actually very much alive is the sole owner of the theater…and she’s closer than they might have guessed.  Leaving her family all those years ago to pursue her dreams of stardom, Sherrell (Judith Light, Amazon’s Transparent, making a rare but welcome appearance in a feature film) is a famous actress on a popular soap opera that’s feeling the sting of ageism at work. When her daughters sneak onto her set and make a surprise appearance, it isn’t exactly the happy reunion any of them had imagine.  As they get reacquainted with a woman they don’t know and pretty much abandoned them for a different life, all three women are forced to take a hard look at their choices in the past and plans for the future.

Directed by Utt and written by Utt and Tullock, the women do more than just play on their strengths and fashion their movie around several highlighting moments. Jackie and Rachel both have their own hang-ups that get some attention but the spotlight is shared with the supporting cast as well. Having an affair with her daughter’s new therapist (played in brief cameo by Alec Baldwin, Still Alice), Jackie is used to taking the backseat to the stronger personalities she surrounds herself with. At the same time, without being able to find a work/life balance, Rachel is unable to maintain a steady relationship with any woman she finds interesting. When they meet their long-lost mother, instead of filling a gap they’ve been missing they find maybe her taking off wasn’t such a bad thing.

The trickiest role is given to the most interesting actor and Light steps up to the plate and hits a home run. Obviously drawing from her years starring in the One Life to Live, Light’s soap diva wants to be taken seriously but doesn’t want to look bad doing it. She’s OK if they make her an evil twin…just not an “ugly” one. Light makes the character brittle but not broken, vain but not vapid.  I thought I knew where her character was headed but was surprised at the little things Light does along the way to keep us interested. When Rachel offers to rewrite some of the dialogue her mom finds beneath her, they bond in a way neither expect…leading to drama between the sisters and their newly acquired parent.

There’s some extraneous storytelling when the action shifts from the sisters and Sherrell to Jackie’s daughter being befriended by an accountant (Mike Coulter, Girls Trip), who shows up to do the books. It’s the only askance bit of narrative I found in the film but it eventually finds a cohesive way into the story Utt and Tullock wrap up nicely by the end. Though writing as two there’s the feeling of a single voice in the screenplay and that helps keep the film buoyant, with laughs in unexpected places and honest bits of drama along the way.

31 Days to Scare ~ Beetlejuice (1988)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A recently-deceased husband and wife commission a bizarre demon to drive an obnoxious family out of their home

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Michael Keaton, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Winona Ryder

Director: Tim Burton

Rated: PG

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  Some movies feel like great equalizers, something we all can agree on even when we disagree on most everything else.  For me, Beetlejuice is one of those movies.  Even the hardest of hearts and the most unpleasant of critics are able to find something to praise in this loads of fun horror comedy first released in 1988.  Now celebrating it’s 30th Anniversary (and with a musical stage adaptation headed for Broadway in 2019), it’s a great time to revisit ‘the ghost with the most’ in all his ribald glory.

Director Tim Burton cut his teeth with many darkly comic shorts in the early ‘80s, making his big screen debut with Pee Wee’s Big Adventure in 1985.  Three years after that and one year before he’d officially be catapulted into the A-List with the summer smash, career-defining adaption of Batman, he gave us this endlessly creative and visually captivating flick.  Though originally intended to be a much darker film (and almost starring Sammy Davis Jr. as the titular character) it was wisely steered in the direction of going for more laughs than shrieks.  Sure, there are scary parts to Beetlejuice but with its focus on dynamite practical effects and ingenious make-up (which would win an Oscar) the majority of film wants to make your jaw drop in awe instead of in a scream.

Adam and Barbara Maitland are just settling in to a two-week vacation at their home in postcard perfect Winter River, CT when they die in a car crash after careening off a picturesque covered bridge.  They find themselves trapped on earth in their previous home with its new tenants, pretentious NYC transplants. Though they try to get rid of the family first in their own newbie ghostly way, they eventually summon Beetlejuice, a bio-exorcist for the undead that has more effective ways of cleaning house.  When Beetlejuice sets his sights on marrying the goth daughter of the owners, the Matilands take further action to evict the trouble-making exorcist.

Though later on in his career Burton would use his actors more like scenery in service to his muddy CGI vision (yikes! Sweeney Todd!) here he has cast the film to absolute perfection.  Alec Baldwin (Aloha) and Geena Davis (A League of Their Own) ably play the slightly square recently deceased couple who sees their house go from Norman Rockwell perfection to new wave mania.  It’s fun to see Jeffrey Jones (Howard the Duck) and Catherine O’Hara (Frankenweenie) play off of each other’s small town discomfort in a Green Acres-sorta way.  The film also nicely introduces Winona Ryder (Mermaids) to a larger audience with Ryder nailing her adolescent ambivalence toward most everything she comes in contact with.

Even if he has the least screen time of any of the principal actors, when you hear the word Beetlejuice you can’t help but instantly think of Michael Keaton (Spotlight, Gung-Ho, Pacific Heights).  Making the most out of his limited appearances, Keaton is a live wire with enough energy to practically lift him off of the ground.  His make-up and costuming could have been limiting or in the hands of a lesser actor could have done the work for him but Keaton mines every opportunity to go big before he goes home.  If the Oscars had been a bit more free-thinking, it’s the kind of memorable performance that should have put Keaton into the awards discussion as an outside of the box nominee for Best Supporting Actor.

While Burton (Dark Shadows, Big Eyes) would go on to create they moody Batman and its sequel, he never has returned to this type of free-wheeling carnival of fun and that’s a damn shame.  He clearly knows his way around this tone and finds a perfect balance throughout.  When CGI became more available he started to rely on that way too much and all but abandoned the kind of in-camera effects and large scale production design employed here.  While his next film, Dumbo, looks like a heart-tugging triumph…all I can see is the overuse of CGI again.  If anything, Beetlejuice remains a reminder of the kind of filmmaker Burton originally started out as and what I hope he’ll continue to work back toward being.

This is one of the rare movies I manage to see at least once a year.  I watched it on a plane back in January and then attended a 30th Anniversary Screening of it recently and I could easily see watching it again before the year is through.   I’m seeing the musical in a month so I have a lot of Beetlejuice in my life right now…and so should you!

Movie Review ~ Concussion

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In Pittsburgh, accomplished pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu uncovers the truth about brain damage in football players who suffer repeated concussions in the course of normal play.

Stars: Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Luke Wilson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Arliss Howard, Paul Reiser, David Morse, Albert Brooks

Director: Peter Landesman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In recent years, I haven’t been the biggest Will Smith fan.  Not that he’s given us any reason to be.  A series of high-profile pseudo vanity projects have trampled the one-time surefire blockbuster maker into questionable territory, with audiences not totally trusting the former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.  Honestly, I’ve never totally warmed to Smith’s onscreen presence, too often feeling like the actor was showboating more than acting.  Even his Oscar nominated turns in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness felt like Smith barely tapping into the maximum of his potential.

So I approached his latest drama with some caution because the melodramatic trailers had the whiff of a desperate attempt redemption.  Well, there’s redemption to be had in Concussion but it’s not the least bit desperate or undeserved.  As a brilliant pathologist that finds a link between football players and traumatic brain injuries, Smith (Winter’s Tale) turns in his best performance to date.  He dives deep into the character, eschewing his penchant for winking compliance in the face of adversity for a more realistic take on a man that knows a dangerous truth and can’t understand why others don’t know it too.

I’d imagine that the timing of Concussion was not only considered for Smith’s chance at an Oscar nomination but for the final weeks of the NFL Pro Football season.  In recent years there’s been much discussion, more at the high-school and college level, about the long-term effects of football related head injuries and what steps are being taken to prevent these tough damages within a sport known for its necessary roughness.

Director Peter Landesman (Kill the Messenger) created Concussion out of a GQ article that followed the studies of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant working in the Pittsburgh coroner’s office.  Dr. Omalu came to America like so many, looking for the American dream with his own set of ideals and values.  When he delves deeper into the death of an ex-pro footballer, he identifies a slow-developing injury in the brain previously undetected.  His colleagues (especially a bitter co-worker) think he’s marching down the wrong path but Dr. Omalu’s drive and conviction eventually attract national attention.

Going up against an organization as big as the NFL is no small feat but with the help of a former NFL physician (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, more awake and alive than ever) and his superior (Albert Brooks, A Most Violent Year, excellently wry) he shines a light on a problem many are choosing to actively ignore.   First dismissed then vilified, Dr. Omalu’s persistence in his findings aims to bring about a change…but at what personal cost?

The film is on point in its message and overall is an entertaining two hours that goes by quickly.  It’s only after that you realize the loose ends present, the characters introduced but not fleshed out or truly finalized.  Years go by over the course of several scenes and it can be difficult to keep track of where we are in the grand scheme of things.  The movie relies on Dr. Omalu’s growing relationship with a romantic interest (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jupiter Ascending) and the building of his dream house to help us chart the timeline.

While this is Dr. Omalu’s story, Concussion doesn’t seem like it has a serious agenda at play.  That could be purposeful, a way to not anger the football fans that are likely the target audience.  But this isn’t just another sports picture, there are no nail-biting touchdown plays or Hail-Marys in the final seconds. It’s a true life account of one man seeing a problem and trying to fix it, no matter how unpopular his opinion may be.  And it’s worth seeing.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Ethan and team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Tom Hollander

Director: Christopher McQuarrie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I’ve said time and time again in this here blog it’s that Tom Cruise knows how to deliver a spectacular action film.  Off-screen antics aside, Cruise proves with each new release that he knows how to build off of his strengths and give the audience what they came for.  Never less than 100% committed to the work (see his bold turn in the otherwise blah Rock of Ages), he’s best when he’s going the extra mile.

That being said, for this fifth installment of the TV show turned blockbuster franchise I felt that Cruise and company didn’t take as strong a step forward as they did with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.  That film felt fresh, with a renewed interest in inventive action sequences coupled with an intriguing plot of crosses, double crosses, and triple crosses.  Cruise tried out some cool stunt work and director Brad Bird produced a nice mix of over the top action and sly spy work.

With Bird off directing Tomorrowland, Cruise brought old pal Christopher McQuarrie into M:I5 and that’s where some problems surfaced.  All four previous installments had brought Cruise together with different directors he had no prior shorthand, but this is the first time Cruise is working with a director he has history with.  McQuarrie wrote 2008’s Valkyrie and 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow for Cruise and wrote/directed the underappreciated Jack Reacher back in 2012.

So what we have is a star and a writer/director that kinda already had it all figured out before starting up production and the final effect feels like an overly safe but still better than average film that could have been great.  No matter how many of his own stunts he was reported to have performed himself, Cruise isn’t challenged much by McQuarrie to truly push the limits so the resulting movie feels slightly tentative and more in service of protecting the profitable franchise instead of doing something truly original.

Not that McQuarrie’s script is your run-of-the-mill spy tale.  Sure, there’s a lot of intrigue to go along with the spy movie checklist items but it’s more intelligent than its predecessors and aims high in covering a lot of thoughts and ideas.  Each previous Mission: Impossible film has had its share of twists and turns and this is no different, it’s a credit to the filmmakers that even when the plot points feel rehashed from similar films they still manage to be effectively entertaining.

Building off of an idea introduced in the final moments of Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, Rogue Nation starts with Ethan Hunt and his IMF (Impossible Missions Force) compatriots attempting to prevent a stash of nuclear armaments from falling into the hands of the shadowy organization known as The Syndicate.  At the same time, the future of the IMF is called into question by a high ranking government official (Alec Baldwin, Aloha, doing his best impression of Alec Baldwin) and soon Hunt becomes a wanted man by The Syndicate and his own government.  Teaming with a skilled agent with a questionable allegiance (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules), Hunt hops around the globe in search of the head of The Syndicate (rat-faced Sean Harris, Prometheus, a mostly forgettable villain).  Saying more of the serpentine plot would take up too much room here but suffice it to say that the quest isn’t easy and more than a few lies will be told along the way.

Where the film really excels is the breath-taking stunt work.  From the opening airplane sequence (already more than a little spoiled by the trailer and poster) to an underwater operation to thwart a complex security system to an edge of your seat motorcycle chase through the Moroccan desert, the film is a must-see on the biggest screen possible.  I didn’t catch it in IMAX but will seek out a screening later to really appreciate the scale of the work that went into these stunts that are more than worth the price of admission.

While Cruise may be the star of the show, Ferguson manages to swipe the film right out from under him.  Previous movies have placed the females as little more than damsels in distress (no matter if they’re trained super agents or not), but Ferguson represents a character that’s Hunt’s equal in every way.  Sure, her presence in a variety of skin baring costumes gives Cruise and audience members something to swoon over but McQuarrie wisely keeps it all business, adding to her mystery.  We never really know quite what side she’s on, so we never know what to expect when she appears onscreen,

While I’ve loved Simon Pegg’s work as a supporting cast member in Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and two previous Mission: Impossible films, it was an unfortunate mistake to beef up his role here as Cruise’s nervous ally within IMF.  Sure, he’s a valued element of comic relief but he’s made too much of a central figure here, taking time away from Cruise, Ferguson, and the forward motion of the plot.  It’s not all Pegg’s fault, but I’m sure Jeremy Renner (Avengers: Age of Ultron) and Ving Rhames (Won’t Back Down) would have liked a little more screen time of their own.

I felt like Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol heralded the start of a new chapter of Ethan Hunt and the IMF and thankfully that’s continued here in Rogue Nation.  I do, however, wonder whatever happened to Paula Patton from Ghost Protocol, and Maggie Q from #3…not to mention Hunt’s wife (Michelle Monaghan, briefly seen at the end of the last film).  I kept hoping for a hint at what’s to come next but sadly the film leaves us with more questions than answers.  I’m invested enough in the series to keep accepting future Missions…but hope that the next outing feels a bit more challenging.

Movie Review ~ Aloha

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray

Director: Cameron Crowe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: One of the more interesting e-mails to emerge from the Sony data breach in 2014 were private conversations between top studio execs bemoaning how bad Cameron Crowe’s latest dramedy was.  You can read the story here but I’ll summarize and say that from the moment the film was first screened (under its original clunker of a title Deep Tiki) it was contending with bad audience reactions and a filmmaker that didn’t seem to want to change anything.  In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.

Originally planned for a Christmas 2014 release but moved to May to allow for writer/director Crowe (We Bought a Zoo) to tweak his film, the final product is maybe the hammiest thing to hit Hawaii since SPAM became an island favorite food.  Considering the reliable track record of the A-List talent involved I can only blame Crowe’s inability to make sense of his own script which in turn leaves his actors totally adrift, trying to create something out of nothing.

There’s really three films happening at once and if you believe what you read, a healthy chunk has been sliced out of Crowe’s original plot (excising whole characters and a subplot involving island mysticism) and what’s left is 105 minutes of incoherent scenes with incongruous characters.  The marketing will have you believe Aloha centers around a love triangle between Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), his ex Rachel McAdams (The Vow), and Air-Force upstart Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) but in reality McAdams appears in about fifteen minutes and the love story between Cooper and Stone is awkwardly shoehorned in apparently for the sake of Crowe’s carefully chosen film soundtrack.

Crowe originally set the film up with Ben Stiller in Cooper’s role and Reese Witherspoon in Stone’s and after the two actors (wisely) left, he didn’t bother to tailor the script for his new stars.  Stone’s entire performance feels like an impersonation of the type of square-jawed task master that Witherspoon would have flourished in.  Stone is an actress with definite charisma but it’s absent without leave here, robbing the Oscar nominee of chances to show the dramatic range we know she has.  I suspect, again, that this has to do with Crowe’s editing after the fact…he’s done Stone no favors the way he cut her role.

While I don’t feel like McAdams has quite the range of Stone she’s well cast as Cooper’s long lost love that fell quickly into the arms of a pilot (John Krasinski, Promised Land, who probably could have thrived in Cooper’s role) after Cooper chose work over her.  Trouble is, she’s such a non-presence in the movie that when she does pop up we don’t quite remember why she’s important…until she reveals a Big Secret that you’ll see coming a mile away.

While Cooper knocked my socks off in American Sniper, he fumbles badly here and comes off unlikable…a problem when the entire film depends on a redemption that is never fully explained or earned.  Twisted up in Crowe’s baffling plot that involves assisting a megalomaniac millionaire (a badly badly miscast Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson) in manipulating native Hawaiians out of their land so he can launch a satellite into space (I’m not kidding), Cooper can’t find his way out of the mess and starts to phone it in pretty quickly.

Since it’s been in the news so much as its release date drew near, I feel I must mention the accusations that in terms of casting the film eschews native Hawaiians for the “pretty” actors from Hollywood.  It’s not a claim that’s unfounded, sadly.  Relegating native Hawaiians only to roles seen as obstacles is a bad misstep…made more embarrassing by Stone’s tanned blonde character telling everyone she comes in contact with she’s ¼ Hawaiian…as if that somehow fills a quota.  It’s not totally white-washed ala any Nancy Meyers movie (for shame!) but there’s a definite lack of racially diverse casting at play…and that’s quite unfortunate.

It’s fitting that Crowe favors shots of people looking backward over their shoulders because it’s hard to believe that the writer/director of such true blue classics like Jerry Maguire and Say Anything… could have developed such a tin ear for dialogue.  There are a few classic Crowe turns of phrase but the random bon mots can’t save the film from being an absolute disaster and a huge chore to sit through.  In typical Crowe fashion the film is stuffed to the brim with music (some from composers Jónsi & Alex are quite pleasing) so much so that the soundtrack credits go on for a full minute in the end…if you make it that far.

Depressingly bad, Aloha will be another in a long line of failures from Crowe…and considering he’s only directed eight feature films that’s not a great track record.  Who knows what would have happened if Crowe was able to release the film he originally shot and maybe one day we’ll see his version of Aloha…but until that time comes this is one Hawaiian vacation you should decline.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

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Synopsis: Ethan and team take on their most impossible mission yet, eradicating the Syndicate – an International rogue organization as highly skilled as they are, committed to destroying the IMF.

Release Date: July 31, 2015

Thoughts: I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time over the past several blogging years defending Tom Cruise. There’s a faction of audience members that can’t get past Cruise’s religious beliefs, wacky couch jumping tendencies, and somewhat self-aggrandizing attitude. Still…here’s the thing…the man knows how to make a movie. In fact, I’d say that Cruise has energetically come out of a mid-career slump of outings that were too serious and “important” and settled nicely into delivering popcorn chomping ready events that highlight his strengths. A lot of that renaissance was firmly cemented with 2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — maybe the franchise’s most enjoyable outing yet. I’ve got a good feeling about 2015’s upcoming fifth installment of Cruise’s spy series…and apparently so does Paramount Pictures. The studio moved it up from a prime Christmas Day release to an end of the summer bow that could be perfect time for box office gold. Reteaming Cruise (Oblivion, Edge of Tomorrow) with his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie (Jack the Giant Slayer) and with familiar faces (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner, Ving Rhames) returning and a new beauty (Rebecca Ferguson, Hercules) on board this is one mission I’m more than happy to accept.

The Silver Bullet ~ Aloha

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Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him.

Release Date: May 29, 2015

Thoughts: Had I not known before seeing this first look at Aloha who wrote and directed it, I can honestly say that I would have said to myself “Wow, this looks like a Cameron Crowe film…” and that says something about the type of movie Crowe is known for making. For his eighth film (and first in four years after the disappointing We Bought a Zoo), Crowe appears to have returned to the type of storytelling that first put him on the map.  In the first trailer for Aloha you can tell that he’s created real people, not some focus-group tested summary of average humans. And what about that cast? Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Emma Stone () are Oscar nominated red hot A-Listers with stars in an unparalleled ascent, joined by the likes of Rachel McAdams (The Vow), John Krasinksi (Big Miracle), Alec Baldwin (Still Alice), and the always interesting (if eternally grumpy) Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom). Originally referred to as The Untitled Hawaii Project, then Deep Tiki (shudder to think!) before blessedly settling into its current Hawaiian moniker, this could easily wind up in the saccharine melodrama bin…but I get the feeling Crowe has a warm welcome waiting for audiences.