Movie Review ~ Book Club


The Facts
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Synopsis: Four lifelong friends have their lives forever changed after reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their monthly book club.

Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley Jr.

Director: Bill Holderman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There are some that would say a comedy featuring four multi-award winning actresses of a certain age humorously discovering that “the next chapter is always the best” would be a no-brainer. Turns out they were spot on…Book Club has no brains to speak of. Here’s an aggressively dull, pandering movie that manages to do a disservice to its distinguished actors and an intended audience already woefully underserved. With its tin ear for realistic dialogue and a baffling cluelessness to how humans behave, no clichéd stone is left unturned.

Friends since college, Vivian (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Home Again), Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood), and Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes) meet for their monthly book club in one of their pristine dwellings. Starting with Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and recently coming off of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, vampy Vivian introduces the ladies to E.L. James’ famous smut tome Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s the first red flag that pops up in the script from Erin Simms (Pete’s Dragon) and director Bill Holderman (A Walk in the Woods). As poorly written as it was, James’ book was a phenomenon and you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of it or seen the movies adapted from her trilogy of novels. Aside from Vivian, none of the ladies seems to know much about it and are shocked to discover its titillating scenes of bondage and explicit couplings.

All four ladies are, naturally, having trouble in the romance department and find that the book not so much ignites a newfound lust for life as it influences their choices. Hotelier and notoriously single Vivian runs into a long-lost paramour (Don Johnson, Django Unchained) who might have been the one that got away while federal judge Sharon, still bruised from her divorce, signs up for a dating service and winds up attracting the attention of Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Wallace Shawn (Admission). Carol is finding it difficult to connect with her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in and out of the bedroom and widowed Diane ventures into a new relationship with a swarthy pilot (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) while her children pressure her to move closer to them.

What laughs there are to be had (and trust me, there aren’t many) come, surprisingly, from Bergen who I’ve always found to be a little aloof in films. Here she seems to be having a ball as a high-strung intellectual embarrassed she has to resort to finding a date online. Sadly, the film doesn’t give her a full arc so by the time we’ve gotten into her rhythm with Dreyfuss he’s disappeared, never to be heard from again. There’s even less time spent with Shawn who pops up in for a well-timed cameo but doesn’t get much chance to make an impression.

For my money, far too much time is spent with Fonda’s storyline, which is the most ham-fisted of the bunch. Wearing an awful wig and decked out in one gaudy outfit after another, it’s not hard to see where things are headed for the woman who likes to sleep with men but doesn’t like to “sleep” with them after. Always an underrated commodity in film and television, Steenburgen has nice moments here and there and while her thread is likely the most relatable, by the time the film has her tap dancing to a Meat Loaf song at a talent show you can literally see her working hard to keep up with things.

Then there’s Keaton who, to me, seems like the most natural fit for this type of froth. Sadly, Holderman and Simms make her character such a doormat and allow her children (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to take her for granted far too long. (It’s also a mystery to me why there are two daughters when the film only needed one) Keaton coasts through much of the movie on fumes and only comes alive when there’s some physical comedy to execute, if only Holderman and Simms had given her character dimension of any kind.

What kind of message is the movie ultimately sending? A detriment to the film’s credibility is its stupefying lack of diversity. Taking place in present-day Los Angeles (and made on the cheap with a ton of questionable green screen and downright lousy Photoshop), there’s nary a person of color to be seen aside from a few random service workers. Purporting the myth of the white woman fantasy so grossly admired in Nancy Meyers movies with its affluent rich white ladies, Book Club feels completely out of touch and out of step with our society. Even worse, when you get right down to it, every woman in the film needs to be defined by the men they are with.  There’s something uncomfortable about watching that unfold before you.

Book Club is for easy readers only.

31 Days to Scare ~ Jennifer 8

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A big city cop from LA moves to a small town police force and immediately finds himself investigating a murder.

Stars: Andy Garcia, Uma Thurman, Lance Henriksen, John Malkovich, Graham Beckel, Kathy Baker, Kevin Conway

Director: Bruce Robinson

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Jennifer 8 is a mystery/thriller that won’t work for many people but it’s been a reliable favorite of mine over the years.  In all honesty, the more I watch it the more I see the gaps in writer/director Bruce Robinson’s screenplay but it just doesn’t seem to change the way I feel about the movie as a whole.  Rich in atmosphere and at times decently creepy, it has fine performances and a true “what the hell” ending that I find to be a lot of fun.

After his marriage ends in divorce, L.A. policeman John Berlin (Andy Garcia, Ghostbusters) takes an old colleague (Lane Henriksen, Color of Night) up on an offer to join his police force in a remote northern California town.  The sleepy hamlet might be the right place for Berlin to heal and recover from the wounds of his failed union.  Shortly after he arrives a severed hand is discovered in a local dump and when the appendage is identified as belonging to a girl from a local institute for the blind, Berlin becomes embroiled in the case of a serial killer and a blind woman (Uma Thurman, Pulp Fiction) who could be the next victim.

There’s a lot that goes on in Jennifer 8 that isn’t fully explained…starting with the title.  A vague reference is made to a string of supposed victims of the killer under the code name Jennifer but the victims don’t add up to 8.  Then there’s a coincidental entry in a notebook from a murdered acquaintance that seems to inadvertently point to Berlin as a potential suspect, necessitating the appearance of John Malkovich (Zoolander 2) as an FBI interrogator out to prove Berlin made up the serial killer to cover his own tracks.  And Robinson adds in so many red herrings that when the solution is revealed you may be tempted to hit rewind to view it again and then pause it to draw the connections together in your head.

What does work for the film are the performances from Garcia, Thurman, and especially Kathy Baker (Saving Mr. Banks) as Henriksen’s wife.  Thurman blank stares with the best of them and Garcia’s frustration boils over so violently that his Cuban accent pops in frequently.  Christopher Young’s (Sinister) piano/string score is beautifully haunting and cinematography from three time Oscar winner Conrad Hall makes excellent use of shadows, the deserted corridors of the institute where a killer hunts, and the rain/snow soaked landscapes of the town.

The resulting film may be a bit overstuffed for audiences and I know there will be those that scoff at the finale Robinson cooks up…but I like it all.  It seems to be made with a classier touch than it probably deserved and though it was box office and critical disappointment I would call this one vastly underrated.  Decide for yourself, though.

Movie Review ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Following a ghost invasion of Manhattan, paranormal enthusiasts Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann, and subway worker Patty Tolan band together to stop an otherworldly threat.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, , Chris Hemsworth, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3.5/10)

Review: I feel like every review of this female-led reboot of Ghostbusters should start out with a few honest admissions just to make sure we’re all on a level playing field.  To admit a bias or pre-conceived notion is not only helpful in understanding where someone is coming from but it allows readers to trust that their friendly neighborhood movie critic is a straight-shooter.  So…here we go.

  1. I’m not a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters from 1985 and even less so of its goofy 1989 sequel. Watching the film again last year for its 30th anniversary, I was struck by how slow the it was.  Enlivened by, ahem, spirited performances from Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl) and Rick Moranis (Parenthood), it just didn’t have the same effect on me it did when I first saw it as a five-year old.
  2. I am a huge fan of Kristen Wiig (The Martian) and have even almost forgiven her for that dreadful 2013 entry Girl Most Likely, which happened to land on the top of my Worst of the Year List.
  3. Though she almost lost me for life with Tammy, I’m converting back to being pretty fond of Melissa McCarthy thanks to her stellar turn in Spy and holding back just enough in The Boss.
  4. In my book, Leslie Jones (Trainwreck) can do no wrong and I’m waiting for her to headline of movie of her own.
  5. Kate McKinnon (Sisters) is the unquestionable VIP of the current cast of Saturday Night Live and I perk up every time she appears on that show.
  6. I had zero qualms about this film, its cast, its trailers, or its marketing.  I was looking forward to it.
  7. I went in rooting for it, choosing to brush aside the early bad buzz as the slime fueled so-called “Ghost Bros” jumped to tear it down at every turn.

And the most honest admission of all…

  1. This is not a great film or even, sad to say, a very good film. Is it watchable?  Yeah, for the most part.  Is it funny? Sporadically but it flops more than it flies. It’s not the worst reboot we’ve seen but it may be the most disappointing because the potential was there for something great.  How the extremely talented roster of Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon wound up teaming on something so flat, awkward, and stupid is the biggest mystery of the summer.

While a pre-credit opening feels like a nice nod to the original film, it’s saddled with a heap of clunker jokes that don’t inspire any laughter, much less any kind of confidence in what’s to come. Wiig is back to playing her favorite character…Awkward Lady in Heels but this time she’s added a stylishly bad haircut with bangs to cap off the look.  Her tenure-seeking professor is reluctantly brought back into the paranormal antics of her former colleague played by McCarthy.  McCarthy is eerily restrained here, like she’s been given a tranquilizer that renders her potty mouth squeaky clean and her boisterous comedic timing nonexistent.  While she does manage to fit in a few funny bits of physical comedy, this is McCarthy is full pod-person mode.  When she stares down a ghost and says “Aw, shoot!” my heart broke a little for the actress I’m positive had a profanity-rific alternate take for the same scene.

McCarthy’s character has teamed up with an eccentric nuclear engineer (McKinnon) to continue her study of the supernatural and drags Wiig back into the mix when they discover a crop of ghost sightings that may be brought on by a sinister force.  McKinnon is full-on Looney Tunes and what she’s doing may be just odd enough to distract you from the larger problems of the script from The Heat collaborators Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, it winds up being a performance extracted from another movie all together.  It’s a shame because for her first stab at mainstream popularity Feig has allowed McKinnon too much room to play and the movie suffers greatly from it.

By the time Jones shows up as a subway worker with a knack for NYC history, it just seemed too little too late. Even though Jones gets the best moments of the movie (most of which you’ve already seen in the trailer) she, like McCarthy, feels held back by an invisible force field.  Perhaps these magnetic ladies just repelled when they were brought together because while the film had some impressively rendered special effects, there’s little magic or chemistry to be had.

Evidently scared of alienating its male ticket-buyers, Sony decided to plop Chris Hemsworth (Vacation) on the poster with the four leads and that’s a bit of a puzzlement.  While Hemsworth has a substantial role as the dumber than mud bit of receptionist eye candy, he’s barely required to do more than struggle through a series of painfully unfunny scenes and lead a host of extras to a badly cut dance sequence that plays over the end credits.  Hemsworth, bless his Australian heart, has absolutely no comic timing and it left me wondering if the role wasn’t written with Channing Tatum in mind.

It’s no spoiler to say that most of the cast from the ’85 film pop up at some point playing different roles, even the late Harold Ramis makes a blink and you’ll miss it appearance.  While these appearances trigger some nostalgia, the actors are plopped into roles that don’t seem respectfully tailored for them in the least.  It’s like they told director Feig when they could show up and just took whatever part was available that day.  Surprisingly, Annie Potts gets one of the biggest audience reactions while Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson) makes a frightfully terrible presence in his two scenes.

Ghostbusters has taken a lot of early heat for what is perceived as male bashing.  True, every male in the film (living or dead) is portrayed as a combination of dumb and misogynistic, morally reprehensible slugs that just get in the way of these female Ghostbusters.  Hemsworth is seen as such a piece of meat it’s amazing he wasn’t covered in steak sauce.  So yeah, the men aren’t shown in the best of light but who cares?  Women are treated far worse in film and I guess some credit should go to Feig for making a career out of putting actresses in the power positions of his movies.

I can only imagine what this could have been had it not been so stripped of the kind of slam-dunk laughs that all parties involved could probably find in their sleep.  It was never going to be a profanity laced R-rated wonderment, not when there were kids to pander to and adults to not offend.  So instead of Feig and company truly rebooting the franchise and doing something new, this female Ghostbusters has just as many fart jokes, bad humor, and, for those that stay until the very end, a “God I hope they greenlight a sequel” desperation as any other male-driven studio film that gets released.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kill the Messenger

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, a reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California.

Release Date:  October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though it reeks of Jeremy Renner continuing his neverending quest for Oscar glory, there’s little doubt that the real life story serving as the basis for Kill the Messenger has potential to be a pivotal moment in his career.  Look, we all know that Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) can act with the best of them…but I feel the actor is taking himself a bit too seriously at this point.  Working with director Michael Cuesta to bring journalist Gary Webb’s life to the big screen, Renner makes a good impression in this first trailer…though it does feel like we’ve seen this exact same story told several times each decade .

Movie Review ~ Rio 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s a jungle out there for Blu, Jewel and their three kids after they’re hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, will.i.am, Jemaine Clement, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Jamie Foxx, Andy Garcia, Rita Moreno, Bruno Mars, Kristin Chenoweth

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Rated: G

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m fighting against the grain and resisting the urge to heed the old adage that there comes a time to put away childish things. For me, that means not seeing every single animated film released in theaters. For a time, the market was on an even keel of producing one stellar film after another…until lesser studios took it upon themselves to insert themselves into the market, sullying it with cheap looking entries that shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as something coming from Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. See The Nut Job if you don’t believe me…or better yet, don’t.

I think we’re nudging into a new standard of animation and audiences are starting to convey that message with their money if you look at the diminishing returns on lackluster sequels (Monsters University) and the popularity of new specimens like The LEGO Movie. Also, you can’t just tack “in 3D” on to any old film because people don’t want to pay for something that won’t give them their money’s worth.

So where does that leave a sequel like Rio 2? A continuation of the story that started in 2011 right as the animation horizon was starting to shift, this is an overall workmanlike second chapter of a novel that wasn’t that original to begin with. It is, however, better than the first film and works a kind of magic that turns an entire cast of usually obnoxious performers into an appealing band of colorful characters by letting us only hear them, not see them.

It helped me in some small way to have watched the first Rio in the wee hours of the Saturday I caught an early morning screening of Rio 2. Picking up shortly after the first film ended, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables) are still in Rio with their three growing chirpers living the laid-back life that only animated birds could make acceptable. Originally thought to be the last group of blue macaws, when Blu’s owner (Leslie Mann, This is 40) finds a flock of macaws on an Amazon research trip the family packs up for a vacation to meet more of their kind.

Meanwhile, the now flightless Shakespearian bad bird from the first film (Jemaine Clement, Men in Black III) toils away the day as a pier side show attraction. A chance glimpse of Blu and Co. on the wing to the Amazon boils his bad blood and before you can say “extraneous subplot #1” he breaks free of the chains that bind him, taking a mute anteater and operatic poisonous frog (Kristin Chenoweth, Hit and Run) in his pursuit of revenge.

What Blu and Jewel find in the depths of the Amazon will feel mighty familiar and truth be told the entire film suffers from the same lack of originality that plagued the first one. Still, something about the earnestness of the performances, the tuneful music (I enjoyed Chenoweth’s goofy aria about Poisonous Love), and the eye-popping visuals won me over more than I thought it ever would.

Though the film does delve into more blatant themes of conservationism (ala Ferngully: The Last Rainforest), the message isn’t delivered with any real agenda so it remains benign. Returning director Carlos Saldanha keeps things moving even though the film stretches past 100 minutes, further making my point that no animated film should keep you in the theater for over an hour and a half. If there is to be a Rio 3, let’s hope the filmmakers push things forward so this pleasant series doesn’t turn into a turkey.