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.           

Movie Review ~ Still Alice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth

Directors: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 101 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  It’s happened before…actors have been nominated for Oscars, deserved to win, and lost.  The next time they’re nominated maybe they win…but often it’s not for the movie that they really earned their Oscar gold for.  I could give examples (coughcoughRusselCroweinGladiatorareyoukiddingme?coughcough) but I’ll instead just say that though she’s been nominated for an Academy Award four times before, if Julianne Moore wins for her work in Still Alice (and she really, really should) it wouldn’t be for any other reason than her performance is worthy, moving, and delivered with a fierce honesty.

As a brilliant linguistics professor diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, Moore (The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Non-Stop, Don Jon) takes us through the stages of denial and acceptance as her character fights to maintain the life she’s led and the future she so desperately wants to keep intact.  With her husband as supportive as he can be and three children to think of, Alice charts a new course to a future while it’s still within her control.

As adapted by co-writers/directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland from Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, Still Alice doesn’t pull any punches nor is it a downer of a film.  By dealing with the illness head-on, it breaks down the walls of mystery that surround Alzheimer’s disease, allowing for the truth about its effects on families to come through.

Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine) is a bit of an odd presence here.  Though Baldwin and Moore have a generally believable rapport as married scholars that can wax on about textbooks till the sun comes up, there’s something slightly missing from Baldwin’s overall presentation of the healthy spouse gradually realizing his own limitations to fully assist his ailing wife.  Kate Bosworth (Homefront) is the oldest child trying to start a family of her own and Hunter Parrish is the son that turns up with a new girlfriend for each family occasion.  Both roles aren’t as well-defined but Parrish and especially Bosworth admirably make the most of their time onscreen to not simply be reactionary to the catalyst of the disease.

Then there’s the youngest child, played by Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman) in a turn that makes you forget the Twilight movies ever happened.  Stewart isn’t a bad actress, just the unfortunate victim of hitching her wagon to an oft-reviled series of films that opened the door for numerous treacly imitations to clog movie houses.  In Still Alice, we get to see Stewart back in fine form as the rebellious child that doesn’t see a lot of herself in either of her parents…especially not her mother.

It’s Moore’s film, make no doubt about that, but her generosity is such that every other actor she comes in contact with is made to look that much better because they have such a great scene partner.  As her character begins to forget more and more, we see her frustration manifest itself in small ways that become more heartbreaking as they get increasingly personal.  The first time Moore forgets one of her children (albeit briefly) nearly sent me over the edge but it’s when she stands in front of a conference for those suffering from Alzheimer’s and states “I’m not suffering, I’m struggling” that you’ll want to have a Kleenex on standby.

It’s interesting to note that co-directors Glatzer and Westmoreland are married in real life and that Glatzer suffers from ALS.  During the making of Still Alice Glatzer’s condition got so bad that he had to direct part of the movie using a speech-to-voice app on his iPad.  Considering the couple behind the scenes making the movie may be going through something similar to what Moore and Baldwin’s characters are experiencing help to give the film a real sense of dignity and unwavering grace in the face of a degenerative illness.

Is it Moore’s year to win her Oscar?  I sure think it is and even if some have said the Best Actress category is weak this year (um, did you see the impressively varied work of the other nominees?) there’s no denying that Moore’s performance stands tall above the others.  It’s also nice to report that the film itself is quite good, a bonus when you consider how many Oscars go to strong performances in otherwise weak films (coughcoughMerylStreepinTheIronLadycoughcough).  Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to get this cough looked at.

The Silver Bullet ~ Still Alice

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Synopsis: Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children, is a renowned linguistics professor who starts to forget words. When she receives a devastating diagnosis, Alice and her family find their bonds tested.

Release Date: January 16, 2015

Thoughts: Will this be the year that four-time Oscar nominee Julianne Moore finally takes home the trophy? Even turning up in the silly Non-Stop hasn’t seemed to hurt her chances at making her way to The Academy Awards come February. Between the buzzed about performances in Still Alice and Maps to the Stars (not to mention a nicely nuanced turn in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1), Moore is having a killer 2014. Odds seem to be good she’ll be nominated for both films but even money says Still Alice is a lock and after a look at the trailer showing Moore as a successful woman coming to terms with her early onset Alzheimer’s it’s easy to see why. Co-starring Alec Baldwin (Blue Jasmine), Kristen Stewart (Snow White and the Huntsman), and Kate Bosworth (Homefront), it’s sure to be Moore’s show but she seems to be in good company.

Movie Review ~ Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The uncompromising Tony and Emmy Award-winner is showcased both on and off stage via rare archival footage and intimate cinema vérité.

Stars: Elaine Stritch, Tina Fey, James Gandolfini, Cherry Jones, Alec Baldwin, Nathan Lane, Rob Bowman

Director: Chiemi Karasawa

Rated: NR

Running Length: 80 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The Oscar winner for Best Documentary this year was 20 Feet From Stardom, the melodic and inspiring look into the lives of the back-up singers heard on history making songs.  It bested the haunting The Act of Killing which centered on the genocide in Indonesia during the early 60’s.  Both documentaries had striking value but sentimentality seemed to win out in the end.  I’m not sure that Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me is going to wind up on any Oscar shortlist next year, but it possesses the same joie de vivre 20 Feet From Stardom had while holding up a painful mirror to the passage of time.

I liked the film so much I watched my screener twice, almost back to back, but talking with a friend who was less impressed later he pointed out that making an entertaining movie about Broadway’s irascible character Elaine Stritch wasn’t exactly hard work.  In fact, it’s akin to shooting fish in a barrel.  Almost from the first frame, Stritch is on fire, traipsing around the streets of NYC in her huge fur coat and comically large glasses that look like two see through dinner plates glued to two black shoehorns.

Over the course of a too short 80 minutes, director Chiemi Karasawa follows Stritch as she prepares for her final shows at the Café Carlyle, the famous NYC cabaret housed in the The Carlyle Hotel which Stritch has held residence in for several decades.  We meet people from her past through excellent archival footage and photographs along with several of the famous faces that our leading lady calls friends.

What makes the film so interesting is that we’re as aware of the cameras as Stritch is.  One of my favorite moments sees Stritch discussing her new show and without missing a beat hysterically dressing down a camera man that got too close for her comfort.  Brutally honest but directing the most fatally barbed comments to herself, there’s a refreshing honesty that comes naturally to her, making the octogenarian instantly relatable to any age group.

I’ve seen Elaine Stritch in her one woman show (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty) and thought I knew all when it came to her upbringing and career but this new documentary reveals yet another layer.  There’s a bit of a downward spiral Stritch is undertaking and though she’s giving it all she’s got you can tell she sees the very faint writing on the wall.  Perhaps that’s why she’s let the cameras follow her and capture some pretty vulnerable moments.

Overflowing with humor with a few dashes of pathos, it’s not the downer of a film I may have made it out to be.  I’d watch Stritch read the phone book so I knew I was bound to like this one – and if you’ve ever heard Stritch on a cast recording or caught her on 30 Rock you’ll probably wind up liking this one too.