Down From the Shelf ~ Jurassic Park III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A decidedly odd couple with ulterior motives convince Dr. Alan Grant to go to Isla Sorna (the second InGen dinosaur lab.), resulting in an unexpected landing…and unexpected new inhabitants on the island.

Stars: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Laura Dern

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It took four years for Steven Spielberg to direct a sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park and with the problematic reception of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, the award-winning director was understandably cool to the thought about returning behind the camera for the third entry in 2011. Instead, Spielberg gave his old pal Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) the chance to direct and while the end result was a marked improvement over his lugubrious sequel, Jurassic Park III has its own set of problems to contend with.

Paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neil, The Vow, making a welcome return to the series) is facing budget cuts and a scientific community more interested in his adventures at Jurassic Park than the research he’s devoted his life too. When a wealthy couple want to hire him and his assistant (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) to guide them on a sight-seeing trip over Isla Sorna (Site B featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park), he reluctantly agrees as a way to make ends meet. Nevermind that series fans will know that Grant never set foot on Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park took place on Isla Nublar)…it’s a detail explained later but not very well. A crash landing is only the start to the bad luck Grant and company encounter as they try to survive an island with dinosaurs that have run amok and double-crossing members of their party.

At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) the film doesn’t take much time to breathe (or to think) and it’s probably best if you follow suit. Between some fairly terrible CGI dinosaurs and animatronic models that look like they were plucked out of your local science museum, the quality of the effects took a tumble here.  Odd colored dinosaurs look like they have graffiti on them and the raptors have mohawks…punk rock raptors? A big bad dino has a head that looks so fake you wonder if Johnston wasn’t making a spoof of the original film instead of a continuation of that story.

Performance-wise, only Neil (and a brief cameo from Laura Dern, The Master) have any real sense of urgency. Everyone else seems to be present to chew the scenery or be chewed on. Particularly bad is Téa Leoni who takes one too many pratfalls and apparently gets several haircuts during the 24 hours they are stranded on the island. Leoni also has an annoying way of running through the forest screaming and waving her arms and legs like she’s on fire, leading me to wonder if someone ever bothered to tell her she wasn’t in a comedy.

It’s not as boring as The Lost World; Jurassic Park but it’s far sillier. Depending on your mood, that could be either a good thing or a very bad thing. Watching it again recently I rolled my eyes a lot but didn’t have the outright disdain for it that I had when it was originally released. The script (with a contribution from Alexander Payne, Nebraska) feels like a tired third entry in a successful franchise, nothing more and nothing less. Its lackluster performance at the box office signaled the closing of this beleaguered park, a wise move if nothing of substance could be produced.

 

 

Movie Review ~ A Most Violent Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Fans of the 70s and 80s potboiler crime dramas from the likes of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), Sidney Lumet (Serpico), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) will want to make time for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s well-constructed look at NYC before it became the Disney-fied commercialized metropolis that it’s morphed into over the last 30 years.

Chandor (Oscar nominated for 2012’s talky Margain Call before going almost dialogue free for 2013’s All is Lost) sets his gritty period piece right on the precipice of the Big Apple exploding into a year of murder and crime the likes the city had never seen. Though strolling through Times Square and the upscale posh surrounding boroughs may seem carefree now, don’t forget there was a time when NYC was not the place to be and violence ran rampant in select (and populous) parts of town.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Won’t Back Down) is in the heating-oil field running a business he took over from his father-in-law. Industrious and looking forward, Isaac’s Abel Morales is pursuing the American Dream and trying to owe as few people as possible in his quest to achieve it. We get the impression that he’s a different businessman than his father-in-law was, as Abel resists the urge to go with the flow but rather to control his own destiny. That doesn’t always sit well with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Lawless) who’d rather her husband assert dominance first and ask questions later.

After a series of violent hijackings of Abel’s fuel transportation trucks as well as escalating threats by his competitors with ties to shady dealings of the criminal underground variety, Abel must choose a path that will help him toward the future he envisions for himself and his family – but at what cost? There’s a lot of moral dilemma going on in A Most Violent Year, not the least of it involving the ultimate price of ambition. We know Abel is one of the good guys so we’re brought to the edge of our seats with interest when everyone around him seems to be nudging him toward ever darker solutions to his problems and wondering when/if he’ll break.

Isaac carries the weight of the film on his broad shoulders with a quiet ease, suggesting the internal struggle more than making a show of it on the outside. The stakes are high and though we never see him break a sweat, inside you know his heart rate is sky-high. With her platinum Dorothy Stratten/Galaxina hairdo and a manicure that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond femme fatale, Chastain’s the Lady Macbeth of the film. Wise enough to know that the character could come off one-dimensional; Chastain gives Anna a valued aura of mystery so we’re never quite sure what her endgame is.

It all builds to a satisfying and necessary ending, one that rides the razor’s edge of being both too pat and ever so slightly ambiguous. New York wasn’t yet close to getting its make-over so we know what lies ahead for our characters, even if they think they’ve got it all figured out. This is a velvety piece of old-school filmmaking, very worth your time.

The Silver Bullet ~ Selma

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Synopsis: Chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tried and failed to chronicle the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a fictionalized historical figure. Self-serving dialogue and a cast roster more interesting than effective sunk what could have been a film of importance. Slipping in at the end of the year just in time to qualify for the busy awards season is the drama Selma and it looks like a more focused work, brimming with the passion of a call to action Lee Daniels’ The Butler was so sorely lacking. I’ve watched the trailer a few times now and found my interest quite energized by the spark director Ava DuVernay has ignited and that stars David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy) look goose-bumpy good as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King. Quickly moving to the top of my anticipated list, I’m ready to take the trip to Selma.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Most Violent Year

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Synopsis: A crime drama set in New York City during the winter of 1981 centered on a the lives of an immigrant and his family trying to expand their business and capitalize on opportunities as the rampant violence, decay, and corruption of the day drag them in and threaten to destroy all they have built.

Release Date:  December 31, 2014

Thoughts: Writer/director J.C. Chandor has had a most prosperous last few years after receiving an Oscar nomination for his debut feature Margin Call in 2011. He followed that up last year by giving Robert Redford one of the best roles of his career in All Is Lost which I loved but divided many a moviegoer. Chandor is back in 2014 with this highly anticipated crime drama starring Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) and Jessica Chastain (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them) that looks like an intriguing mix of styles that have echoes of of Scorcese, De Palma, & Cassavetes. Could be a sleeper hit thanks to its distinguished pedigree.

Movie Review ~ American Hustle

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A con man and his seductive British partner are forced to work for a wild FBI agent who pushes them into a world of Jersey powerbrokers and mafia.

Stars: Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Alessandro Nivola, Michael Peña, Louis C.K., Robert DeNiro

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: R

Running Length: 138 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  Maybe it’s because I saw American Hustle so close in time to seeing Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street that I can’t help thinking that Hustle was really just Scorsese-lite.   All the elements that make-up a classic Scorsese film are present and accounted for here.  You have the West Coast setting of wheelers and dealers all looking for a break no matter how small time it may be.  The familial and familiar relationship that law enforcement has with these crooked folk is grist for the mill of the scheme that screenwriters Russell and Eric Warren Singer lay out.  And you have all the loyalty-testing double crosses (both real and imaginary) that have populated many a Scorsese crime drama for the last four decades.

So why isn’t American Hustle better?  That’s the question I kept asking myself as the movie slogged along for nearly two and a half hours and it’s a question that was left unanswered by the time the credits rolled.  With a talented director who scored so well with 2012’s surprise hit Silver Linings Playbook, a starry and award ready cast gnashing their way through the material, and a mostly true story to pull from this should have been a much more entertaining film.  But it’s not and that’s just the cold hard truth.

There’s enough fault to go around so we’ll go through it step by step.

First off, though Russell has assembled a cast culled largely from his previous projects there’s something to be said about working with your friends because they are right for the roles and simply working with them to have them around for a few months of shooting.  Two of the actors present have won Oscars for working with Russell and another three have been nominated so it’s easy to see why they’d eagerly sign up for another round with Russell.

In the case of Christian Bale (The Dark Knight Rises), Russell has made the right choice with the actor once again falling whole hog into the character.  With his bloated stomach and comically nutso comb over system, Bale’s puffy Bronx-born hustler Irving is truly a sight to behold.  Though married with an adopted son, he becomes enamored with kindred spirit Sydney (Amy Adams, The Master, Man of Steel) and soon they’re partnered up in the bedroom and in a loan scam that makes them comfortable if not rich.  Bale was better in Out of the Furnace but this performance is nothing to shake a stick at, either.

Adams is a strong actress that seems to appear in no less than four films each year and while I salute her work ethic I’m wondering if she’s not spread perhaps a bit too thin.  The vixeny femme fatale doesn’t sit quite right with her and no amount of plunging necklines can change that.  Side note, Adams wears so many dresses day and night with a neckline that plunges past her navel that if her character needed to go into the witness protection program she’d only have to put on a turtleneck and she’d be incognito.  Her performance winds up feeling governed by great costumes, perfect hair, and a justifiably awful English lilt.  She’s much more effective in her supporting turn in Her, coming out in early January.

I had high hopes for Bradley Cooper after his dynamite turn in Silver Linings Playbook but he dashed those tidings with summer’s grotesque The Hangover Part III and doesn’t quite regain his footing here either.  There’s a lot of showboating going on and you can just feel Cooper’s desire to Brando-ize every single scene he’s in.  The acting reeks out of him, to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from the movie, ‘from the feet up.’

If the movie has a secret weapon it’s most certainly Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) as Bale’s immature wife.   Fresh off her Best Actress win for Silver Linings Playbook, Lawrence is way too young for the role but otherwise takes the movie by the balls whenever she’s onscreen which isn’t often enough.  Her wise acre grimace and towering head of hair ignites the film in ways that no one else is capable of doing.  Though the buzz is growing on her for an upset win for Best Supporting Actress, it doesn’t make the kind of lasting impression that she did last year but should earn her a place on the shortlist for a nomination.

Rounding out the cast is Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, Marvel’s The Avengers) as the mayor of New Jersey who unwittingly gets sucked into the abscam scheme Cooper’s federal agent cooks up to catch crooked politicians.  Renner is fine in the role but I can’t for the life of me figure out why Russell casts his children with actors that look at least a decade older than Renner and his wife.  Louis C.K. (Blue Jasmine) is totally out of place as Cooper’s beleaguered superior, Michael Peña (End of Watch) turns up ever so briefly as a Mexican impersonating an Arabian sheik, and if Alessandro Nivola wasn’t doing a Christopher Walken impression in his role then I’ll eat my shoe.

The central plot scheme of the movie is your standard compilation of betrayal and criss-crossing double crosses.  Only in the final fifteen minutes or so does the movie start to resemble something of interest and by that time I was nearly slumped over in my seat.  Though the film has an admirable production design that deftly recreates New York in the late 70’s without being obnoxious and a soundtrack of era favorites, there’s a dullness that really overtakes everything.

This film has been greatly lauded and I just can’t see why.  As a fan of nearly everyone involved I wanted to like this and desperately tried to latch on to something, anything, that would allow me to recommend it to others.  It lands with a thud, though, and for that I have to suggest you temper your expectations if you choose to take it in theatrically.

The Silver Bullet ~ Devil’s Knot

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Synopsis: The savage murders of three young children sparks a controversial trial of three teenagers accused of killing the kids as part of a satanic ritual.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: Aside from a Broadway musical, I’m not sure if any visual art hasn’t taken a stab at the crime saga surrounding the West Memphis Three.  After the three landmark Paradise Lost documentaries and one recent feature documentary (West of Memphis) the story has now been adapted into a film starring two Oscar winners under the direction of an Oscar nominated director.  So why doesn’t the first trailer for the big screen treatment of Mara Leveritt’s well-researched investigative novel land better?

For me, it’s because I feel it’s all been done before using the real life players that have been involved in the tragedy.  We’ve seen the faces of the murdered children and the three young boys that were targeted as their killers.  We’ve followed their families, seen the pain of loss, and the gnawing feeling that the real person or persons responsible remain unpunished.  Can good actors like Reese Witherspoon (This Means War, Mud) and Colin Firth (Arthur Newman) get across that same emotion?

Originally positioned as an awards contender, after some early screenings the buzz is considerably lower and who knows how large of a release this will even get.  That’s too bad because this has a fantastic cast…however I think they’re simply stuck in a re-telling of events we’re familiar with.

The Silver Bullet ~ American Hustle

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Synopsis: The story of a con artist and his partner in crime, who were forced to work with a federal agent to turn the tables on other cons, mobsters, and politicians – namely, the volatile mayor of impoverished Camden, New Jersey.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013

Thoughts: David O. Russell has been very, very good to his actors that are featured in his newest film.  Christian Bale and Amy Adams both were nominated for Oscars for 2010’s The Fighter with Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) walking away with an Oscar for his searing performance.  Same goes for recent Best Actress winner Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) who starred with Bradley Cooper (The Hangover Part III) and Robert DeNiro (Being Flynn) in the critically lauded Silver Linings Playbook.  All five actors appear in American Hustle, a 70’s set crime drama that along with November’s 80’s set The Wolf of Wall Street indicate that the holidays are going retro.  Russell is an interesting filmmaker so I’m curious to see what kind of film he can craft from this material…it certainly looks like something right up his alley.