Movie Review ~ A Simple Favor


The Facts
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Synopsis: A mommy blogger seeks to uncover the truth behind her best friend’s sudden disappearance from their small town.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Blake Lively, Henry Golding, Andrew Rannells, Linda Cardellini, Jean Smart, Rupert Friend

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Bouncing back nicely from the unfortunate misfire of the Ghostbusters reboot, director Paul Feig wisely cleared his stable of familiar players and cast Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 3) and Blake Lively (The Shallows) in this supremely fun adaptation of Darcey Bell’s mystery novel.  It’s a darker, edgier film for Feig and one that doesn’t rely on silly humor for its amusement.

Kendrick is a do-it-all divorced single parent befriended by Lively’s chic married professional.  The two become fast friends over afternoon drinks during their kids playdates and while Kendrick’s character is a bit of a wet blanket at first, Lively gives her some good advice on how to get what you want by speaking  up.  When Lively disappears and doesn’t seem likely to return, a national search is enacted by her husband (Henry Golding, Crazy Rich Asians) and Kendrick who grow closer the longer she is away.  There are twists aplenty as dead bodies are found and skeletons in closets are uncovered, leading to a solution to the mystery that’s intriguing and competently executed by Feig and company.

Apart from keeping the movie floating along with ease, Feig has filled the film with a great color palate and wonderful supporting characters (Jean Smart is a riot in a small but pivotal role), not to mention snazzy costumes for all.  Kendrick leans into the complexities her character is given but it’s Lively who has the most interesting material to work with.  To say more might tip you off as to what transpires in the second half of the movie but just when you think you’ve figured out what’s happening a new wrinkle is tossed in to throw you off balance.  This was one of the most fun movies I saw in 2018 – a highlight to be sure.

Movie Review ~ Pitch Perfect 3


The Facts
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Synopsis: Following their win at the world championship, the now separated Bellas reunite for one last singing competition at an overseas USO tour, but face a group who uses both instruments and voices.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Britanny Snow, Ruby Rose, John Lithgow, Ester Dean, Hailee Steinfeld, Elizabeth Banks, John Michael Higgins, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Chrissie Fit, Anna Camp, Shelley Regner, DJ Khaled

Director: Trish Sie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

TMMM Score: (3.5/10)

Review: In 2012, Pitch Perfect was an unexpected stealth weapon smash for Universal Studios.  Arriving with very little fanfare in the midst of a busy fall season, the movie relied on good word of mouth to keep audiences buying tickets and coming back for seconds.  It helps the movie was genuinely good, introducing actors and characters that were funny and appealing.  Two years later, Pitch Perfect 2 was positioned as an early summer blockbuster and the results weren’t quite as memorable.  A slack script, uninspired direction, and more than a few performances that looked like they were delivered under duress or as a way to pay off their backyard pool.  It was your typical cash-grab sequel that offered no forward motion for its players.

Here we are in the waning weeks of 2017 and Pitch Perfect 3 has arrived, supposedly as a finale of a trilogy planned on the fly.  While it corrects some structural mistakes from the first two films, it winds up suffering more than its predecessors as it falls prey to exhaustion and too-slick filmmaking.  Fans of the series will likely find major joy in the final adventures of the all-female acapella group and welcome their return, but all others might be in for a stressful 90 minutes.

It’s been two years since the Barden Bellas have sung together and the troupe has scattered to live their post-grad lives.  Becca (Anna Kendrick, The Accountant) and Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson, Bachelorette) share an apartment in the big city and while Amy spends her days on the street performing as Fat Amy Winehouse, Becca continues to pursue her dream of producing music for the stars.  Trouble is, she’s working with some less than talented characters, a troublesome position for someone clearly far more talented than the clients she serves.  At a supposed reunion of the Bellas organized by senior Emily (Hailee Steinfeld, The Homesman), the ladies express interest in signing together one last time and, wouldn’t you know it, gung-ho former leader Aubrey (Anna Camp, Café Society) remembers that there is a big USO show starting up and her high-ranking military dad might be able to get them a spot.

Flying off to join the troops on a European tour, when they arrive they learn the show is doubling as an audition to open for DJ Khaled (I mean, who wouldn’t want to open for a DJ, right?  Right?) at a big upcoming gig.  It’s not long before the Bellas realize their acapella harmonies don’t stand a chance against the other acts which include a twangy country band, a soul singer, and an all-female rock band (led by the bewitching and underused Ruby Rose) that call themselves Forever Moist (ew).  Jet lag hasn’t even set in before there’s the expected riff off between the groups and the Bellas, with the pre-recorded vocals being mimed pretty poorly by everyone in the movie, this has far less of the off the cuff energy that made the one in the original film so dazzling.

Sadly, there’s more to the movie and it involves John Lithgow (Intestellar) sporting an Australian accent so broad it should come with its own groaning laugh track and an out of left field kidnapping action film plot that feels like screenwriters Kay Cannon (How to Be Single) and Mike White (The D Train) got offered too much money to make a rumored Fat Amy spin-off happen.  Can’t forget to mention that the snide color commentators from the first two films (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks) are following the ladies around trying to make a documentary (sorry, daccamentary) about their struggles to remain relevant.

Looking less pained than the previous film, Kendrick grooves with the movie and regains her star status after taking a back seat in the more ensemble-y sequel.  Wilson is up to her usual schtick…is anyone else concerned that after all this time she’s still playing second banana in movies?  It’s time for Wilson to take the lead because she has potential that continues to be squandered on lame physical humor.  It’s nice to see Camp back in a larger role after having a glorified cameo in PP2 and Brittany Snow has a few pleasant moments as she allows her prefect outward façade to crack and show the vulnerability below the surface.  Banks (Magic Mike XXL) and Higgins (A Million Ways to Die in the West) have been reduced to grotesque, mean-spirited caricatures that began the series as well-sketched comic critics.  It’s a lowbrow end of the road for those two.

All of these quibbles might not matter because you might not be able to discern much of the action that’s taking place.  Director Trish Sie has shot and edited her film so frenzied that it feels like it was assembled by rabid piranhas.  Forget about the camera zooming back to catch the Bellas performances in widescreen. Nope, Sie favors quick shot close-up cuts and blink and you miss them wide shots.  I’m not convinced the movie wasn’t shot in some warehouse in Pasadena because aside from locales that look like old Euro sets on the Universal backlot, most of the musical numbers have a sameness to them.  Only a nice performance in the Brooklyn aquarium has any special feel to it.

On the positive side, the movie is 20 minutes shorter than the first two films and wisely keeps the men (including Adam DeVine, Skylar Astin, and Ben Platt) out of the mix.  For a series that has nicely sung the merits of female empowerment, it was always strange that men played such a pivotal role up to this point.  I’m even willing to forgive the inclusion of a leering producer with his eye on Becca because he factors so little into her overall arc.

Much like fans of Marvel, DC, and the Star Wars saga, the devotees of the Pitch Perfect series don’t want to hear the negative and that’s OK too.  These three films have brought some musicality back to movie theaters and that’s totally fine in my book…I just wish these last two films had the same spirit of originality that launched the first one into the repeat viewing category.

Movie Review ~ The Accountant

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The Facts
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Synopsis: As a math savant uncooks the books for a new client, the Treasury Department closes in on his activities and the body count starts to rise.

Stars: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jean Smart, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow

Director: Gavin O’Connor

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Here are a few professions I wouldn’t have a hard time believing Ben Affleck to have onscreen: firefighter, steel worker, bartender, caped crusader, kingpin, suburban dad, cowpoke.  One profession I couldn’t see?  Accountant.  Look, Affleck has matured into a solid actor (Gone Girl) and talented director (Argo) during his time in Hollywood.  There’s little he could lend his name to that I wouldn’t willingly sit through and for the most part, The Accountant is a solid thriller that’s predictable but nonetheless entertaining.  Yet try as he might and squint as I may, I never fully bought Affleck playing an on the spectrum number cruncher by day and gunslinger by night.  I’m getting ahead of myself, though.

I’m naturally squirmy when I go to the movies.  I’m a habitual watch checker, sometimes in desperation to see how much longer I have to spend in movie prison with drek like Mother’s Day or to attempt to halt the clock hoping to have more quality time with the movies I do enjoy.  I almost feel my ratings should be in watch checks and if I did, The Accountant would have scored high.  It took me 105 minutes to get the itch to check and that’s in large part due to the film’s entertainment value as a throwback vehicle for its star.

Affleck plays Christian Wolff, an autistic savant posing as a small-time CPA that’s great with numbers but not so great with people.  He’s so good at his job in fact that all sorts of unsavory clients come his way, most of them in need of finding the leak in their amassed fortunes.  This talent brings him to the more legit high-tech robotics company owned by brother (John Lithgow, Interstellar) and sister (Jean Smart, Hope Springs) needing to uncover the mole that’s been skimming millions off of their bottom line.  Working with a curious but overly talkative whistle-blowing employee (Anna Kendrick, Cake), they aren’t even 24 hours into the investigation when someone winds up dead and their services (in the office and on earth) are no longer needed and are targeted by a mysterious hitman (Jon Bernthal, Sicario).  While all this is going on, a Treasury Department agent (J.K. Simmons, Zootopia) blackmails a young analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Star Trek Into Darkness) into finding out who this rogue accountant is so Wolff winds up having two factions after him.

The Accountant is structured in a way I happen to love.  Random threads in the beginning half start to slowly tie together as Bill Dubuque’s (The Judge) screenplay introduces a multitude of twists and turnbacks all the way until the final frame.  There’s one big reveal that seemed to come as a shock to some audience members that was clear as day to me an hour earlier.  This isn’t an attempt to toot my own clue following horn but it’s not as landmark of a bombshell as the movie wants it to be.  There are a few strands that don’t get a proper tie off or even a deeper explanation after they’ve been introduced, but Dubuque keeps his head in the game most of the time.

Stuck behind a pair of glasses with a square haircut and stiff suits, Affleck commits to the piece and does what he can in a part he ultimately just isn’t right for.  It’s not a knock against him in the least, sometimes the spark just isn’t there.  Kendrick has played this type of chatty pixie before and, aside from holding her own in a claustrophobic fight scene, she seems to be coasting.  Same goes for Simmons who has a monologue right before the final reel that slows the film to a jarring halt…that’s when the watch got a peek, by the way.  For me, Addai-Robinson was the real find for me, though her promising arc feels forgotten before the movie was half over.  Director Gavin O’Connor fills the rest of the cast with interesting character actors like Smart and Jeffrey Tambor (The Hangover Part III) that I wouldn’t have minded seeing more of.

While I was energized by the fact the movie was born from an original script and not an established property or novel, The Accountant finds some trouble when it comes time to sum itself up, falling prey to curse of one too many endings.  You’ll be half out of your seat in anticipation of the credits rolling until O’Connor adds in another unnecessary establishing shot of something we already understand.  All nitpicks aside, for the fall movie-going season The Accountant represents entertainment at its most cozy and I engaged with it more than I thought I would.  It’s not going to rock your world but it’s a nice way to spend a few hours of your time.  It’s not even tax season yet, but take some time to audit The Accountant.

The Silver Bullet ~ Table 19

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Synopsis: Ex-maid of honor Eloise – having been relieved of her duties after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man via text- decides to attend the wedding anyway only to find herself seated with 5 “random” guests at the dreaded Table 19.

Release Date: January 20, 2017

Thoughts: I seem to have attended more weddings in the past two years than I have in my entire lifetime and have enjoyed each one of them.  Not only were they unique individual celebrations but I’ve been lucky enough to be seated at some fun tables and have met new friends. This first look at Table 19 introduces us to some characters that feel the burn of the high-number table assignment and decide to do something about it. Seems I’m eternally on the fence with Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2) but I’ll trek through mountains of toulle and tasteless wedding cake to see anything Lisa Kudrow (The Girl on the Train) is in. This seems to be one of those indie films picked up for a song hoping to be a sleeper hit, but I’ll walk down the aisle with it if there’s more funny stuff not shown in the trailer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Trolls

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Synopsis: This holiday season, enter a colorful, wondrous world populated by hilariously unforgettable characters and discover the story of the overly optimistic Trolls, with a constant song on their lips, and the comically pessimistic Bergens, who are only happy when they have trolls in their stomach.

Release Date: November 4, 2016

Thoughts: If you’ve yet to watch the trailer for Trolls,  the new animated film from Dreamworks, you should probably put on a pair of sunglasses. Not only is the color palette so vibrant it practically vibrates but the overall cheer of the piece is as sunny as a day in May.  Already making a splash with a catchy music video from Justin Timberlake, Trolls takes those whispy haired wonders from being mere lucky Bingo idols to the big screen in an original musical adventure.  It looks like quite the trip and with voices from Timberlake (Inside Llewyn Davis), Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect 2), James Corden (Into the Woods), Gwen Stefani, and more all signs point to a zany treat come November.

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
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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 ~ Pitch Perfect 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a humiliating command performance at the Kennedy Center, the Barden Bellas enter an international competition that no American group has ever won in order to regain their status and right to perform.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Alexis Knapp, Brittany Snow, Adam DeVine, Hailee Steinfeld, Ester Dean, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Skylar Astin, Keegan-Michael Key, Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Ben Platt

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  What Pitch Perfect 2 has is a deadly case of sequelitis.  It’s a not-so-very-rare disease that most sequels succumb to and, sadly, it has no cure.  Now, it should be said that Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t deserve to be chucked in the hazardous materials bin with the likes of Poltergeist II: The Other Side and The Hangover Part III but it deserves a good spanking for taking the sweet surprise fun of the original and turning it into a off-key and slack feature length ad for a variety of advertisers.

What made 2012’s Pitch Perfect so, well, perfect was that no one involved was expecting much from the modestly budgeted comedy…least of all its studio.  When early test screenings scored high with audiences, Universal launched a smart ad campaign and released the film slowly allowing that good ‘ole word-of-mouth to drive people into the theater.  The film exploded and, thanks to its (mostly) charming cast and skilled mash-up of the musical and college comedy genres, became a bona fide repeat viewing go-to for old and young, male and female.

A sequel seemed like a no-brainer and, true to form, that’s exactly what we get.  Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon hasn’t done much to move our characters along; merely letting a few of them graduate school or to new planes of maturity doesn’t exactly qualify as improving a character arc.  Cannon’s screenplay gives the film no purpose and commits the deadly sin of gathering up all the laughs from the previous film and just repeating them, sometimes verbatim.  Laughs that worked in small doses back in 2012 are piled high and frequently fall flat because they feel so been-there-done-that.  Worse, even more time is given to Adam DeVine (who I referred to in my original review as a Jack Black-alike…and at this point DeVine should be paying Black a percentage of his earnings) who pops up all too frequently to stink up the joint.

A co-star and producer of Pitch Perfect, Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) steps behind the camera for the first time as the director and while that may seem like an inspired choice, Banks can’t seem to find a rhythm to the overly episodic nature of the film.  With its garish lighting and questionable use of color it looks like a badly produced industrial training video and unspools at an awkwardly motionless pace.  Continuity between the two films is non-existent (Anna Kendrick’s character originally sported a canvas of tattoos that she seemingly had removed in the last three years) and there just seems to be an overall forced energy in the film.

What does help to qualify the film as only a near miss in my book are several engaging performances and a loud and clear message of female empowerment and positivity.

While Pitch Perfect really centered on grumpy Beca (Kendrick, Into the Woods) falling in with the all-female a capella group at her new college, the sequel doesn’t have one central character and that works in its favor.  Now, it’s an ensemble comedy that mostly gives equal time to several of the Barden Bellas that are going through some “stuff” while the group struggles to regain its reputation after an incident labeled by the press as Muffgate (to explain it would give more time to this idiotic plot device than necessary).

The breakout star of the first film, Rebel Wilson (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), is of course given more to do here and that’s a decision that has qualified success.  Too often she’s a Rebel without a cause as the actress lazily mumbles through some improvised shtick that probably was better than what the script had her saying.  Returning Bellas like Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee are joined by freshman Hailee Steinfeld (The Homesman) and all deliver exactly what’s expected of them…which is very little.  As for the men, Skylar Astin and Ben Platt are barely utilized because the film has no real place for them or any real reason to add them into the mix.  Each time they pop up it feels extraneous and more unnecessary than ever before.  A time-waster of a side-story features Keegan-Michael Key as Beca’s boss…these scenes could have been subtitled The Sound of Silence because the comedian’s jokes land with a thud.

Forced to fight for their survival at the World Championship, the Bellas go up against Das Sound Machine, led by Flula Borg & Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.  Looking like the Eurotrash villains from a stage musical of Die Hard, the members of DSM are supposed to be forces to be reckoned with but, as is the case with an alarming amount of the musical numbers, next to none of the performances are very exciting.  It’s only in the finale (with a surreally bizarre cameo by Robin Roberts) that some sparks are ignited with a song composed by Sia and Sam Smith Hailee Steinfeld’s character.  In Pitch Perfect the music seemed to be justified and had a pulsating verve that got your toes tapping but the song choices for the sequel are pretty bewildering and not memorable in the least.

A centerpiece of the original was the Riff Off, a battle of the bands of sorts that tests the best of the best.  There’s a repeat of that (of course) here and it happens to be one of the more inspired bits in the film.  Watching the Bellas battling the likes of DSM, the Treblemakers, and one totally random group (the biggest spoiler of the movie…if someone tells you who it is, they aren’t your real friend) is where the most joy in this rather joyless sequel is found.

I recognize that I’ll probably be in a minority of those that failed to fall into the orbit of Pitch Perfect 2 (and hey, I liked Hot Pursuit so clearly I’m operating on a different playing field currently) but if this is the sequel fans were waiting for I’m glad it did its job.  I just happened to find it off-key and resting too much on its well-earned laurels.  When Pitch Perfect 3 comes out (and trust me, it will), can I make a suggestion that it’s a prequel?

Movie Review ~ Cake

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Claire becomes fascinated by the suicide of a woman in her chronic pain support group while grappling with her own, very raw personal tragedy.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Felicity Huffman, Sam Worthington, Anna Kendrick, Adriana Barraza, Chris Messina, William H. Macy. Britt Robertson

Director: Daniel Barnz

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though she’s getting a lot of recognition for her dramatic turn in Cake, I’m wondering if the masses have forgotten that this isn’t Jennifer Aniston’s first trip to the non-comedic side of films…but it may be her best. OK…so maybe films like The Good Girl and Derailed didn’t afford Aniston to truly carry a film with some weight behind it but they did show that there was more to her than that 90s show she was on and her twice yearly visits to the multiplex with a romantic comedy in tow.

Where Aniston seems to excel (and thrive) is with roles that are the exact opposite of how people see her. With other actors, that can come off as merely trying to pull a fast one on fans in a display of false supposed dexterity but in Aniston’s case you get the sense that she has real depth waiting to be tapped.

As Claire, Aniston (Wanderlust, We’re the Millers) finds that raw edge and runs with it, elevating the film in the process. For a movie about suicide, chronic illness, divorce, substance abuse, loss of a child, and depression there’s often the relief of a welcome promise of redemption around every corner. True, Claire fails to recognize these moments and continues on in pain and cynicism but as time goes on we see that she’s coming around.

Opening with a support group for chronic pain discussing the recent suicide of a member (Anna Kendrick, Into the Woods), Claire seems to be the only one unwilling to play along with the namby-pamby kumbaya-ness of the exercise. Obviously considering suicide once or twice herself, Claire becomes interested in the family the young mother left behind, particularly the husband (Sam Worthington, Man on a Ledge) that hasn’t dealt with his grief. Between popping pills and discouraging her well-meaning housekeeper (Adriana Barraza, Thor) from interfering with her wallowing, Claire gains a new perspective on where her life is taking her.

Though the premise of the film seems simple, there are a lot of complexities into the relationships featured onscreen. Barely able to stand up straight for long periods of time, Claire finds solace in random encounters with handymen and calls on her UCLA-trained law education to sweet-talk her doctor into yet another prescription of the pain meds she downs like candy. Worthington and Aniston have a nice rapport as they both flesh out characters in different stages of the acceptance of loss of a loved one.

The film is best, however, in its scenes between Aniston and Barraza. Oscar nominated for her work in Babel, Barraza quietly steals the majority of her scenes right out from under Aniston. For all of the Academy Award buzz surrounding Aniston’s work here, it’s really Barraza that was snubbed for more widespread recognition. There’s an empathy Barraza displays for Aniston’s character suggesting a mother/child relationship more than an employee/employer one. Though they bicker frequently, when push comes to shove both women stand up for one another in moving displays of emotional support.

I usually walk into these types of movies with the knowledge from experience that someone will start off one way and be a changed individual by the time of the final fadeout but with Cake I was never sure where it would all end. Of course we know how it should end but do we really want everything wrapped up in a ribbon as we head to our cars and into the world outside the movie theater?   A slice of life film that’s fairly filling, Cake may not have snagged an Oscar nom for Aniston (though she did get SAG and Golden Globe nominations) but it reaffirmed that she’s an actress worthy of more of these types of roles.

Movie Review ~ Into the Woods

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests.

Stars: Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman, Frances de la Tour, Johnny Depp, Lucy Punch, Simon Russell Beale, Tammy Blanchard, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Christine Baranski, Billy Magnussen, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Richard Glover, Joanna Riding, Annette Crosbie

Director: Rob Marshall

Rated: PG

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: If there’s one take-away from the big-screen adaptation of Stephen Sondheim & James Lapine’s Into the Woods it would be that director Rob Marshall proves once again that it’s possible to transition a stage-bound work quite nicely to the silver screen.  As he did with his Oscar-winning Chicago (which, to be fair, was a far trickier beast to wrangle), Marshall brings a sense of wonderful theatricality to the proceedings that helps keep a saggy second act afloat.

Arriving on the heels of the disappointing remake/reboot of Annie, the first 75 minutes or so of Into the Woods is a gleefully wry take on the fairy tales we all grew up with.  There’s Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) spunky as all get-out, even when faced with a zoot-suited Wolf (Johnny Depp, The Lone Ranger) intent on making her his next meal.  Depp is, pardon the pun, howlingly bad in his brief cameo and you’ll be glad to know that his total screen time amounts to about 5 minutes…which still feels too long.

We also get Cinderella (Anna Kendrick, Pitch Perfect) fresh-faced and clarion voiced even under a pile of soot.  Kendrick has true musical theater chops and Marshall gives her a wonderful moment to shine in a delightfully reimagined “On the Steps of the Palace” which takes place in a bit of suspended time as Cinderella ponders her next move.

Then there’s the Baker (James Corden, One Chance) and his wife (Emily Blunt, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) so desperate for a child they agree to fetch items for a next-door Witch (Meryl Streep, Hope Springs) who promises in return to have the ‘curse reversed’.  Venturing into the woods (a-ha!) to find the items they run into Little Red, Cinderella, as well as a pre-Beanstalk Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), and a variety of other storybook figures.

It’s within the first half of the film that the best scene arrives featuring two puff-chested Princes (Star Trek’s Chris Pine and Broadway newcomer Billy Magnussen) hysterically belaboring their romantic entanglements (one with Cinderella, one with Rapunzel) while traipsing around a waterfall.  It’s the crown jewel of a film sparkles quite a lot.

Then something happens…and if we were in a theater I would say it was Intermission.

You see, it’s in the second half of the film that I found the same sort of problems I have with the stage show.  I know that the whole point of the second act of Into the Woods is to show what happens “after happily ever after” and that’s all well and good but where the stage show becomes somewhat intriguingly heavy handed the screen musical loses its spark and never fully recovers.

That’s due in some small part to the ‘Disney-fication’ of the film.  With the House of Mouse forking over the dough for funding certain adjustments were necessitated and that includes softening of more than a few rough edges that helped define the stage musical.  Now, certain tragedies that helped drive the musical to a conclusion onstage are rather toothless here…with some changes downright confusing from a narrative point of view.  Even die-hard fans of the show may be left scratching their heads wondering what just happened.

Were the performances not so strong, this type of late in the game mishap may have spelled certain doom for Marshall and company but he’s assembled a frothy cast with several unexpected delights.  Streep is, of course, right on the money with her hag witch popping up (and in and out) at just the right moments.  She eschews the delivery of any previous Witch and makes the part wholly her own.  I question the decision in the second half to give her a peculiar set of buck-tooth veneers that have a worrisome impact on her speech but otherwise she looks and sounds exactly how you’d imagine.

The roly-poly Corden and ethereal Blunt make a nice pair and the two play off of each other quite nicely.  Both have pleasant voices with Blunt the real surprise as she tackles the difficult passages Sondheim created.  Crawford, Mauzy, and Magnussen acquit themselves nicely but as the film progressed I found that Pine’s bo-hunk royal, with his affected upper-crust accent, didn’t work for me.  Pine takes the cartoon-y nature of his character a bit too far and Marshall should have reined him in a bit.

With a gorgeous production design (the majority of the film was shot in a man-made forest) and Colleen Atwood’s trusty duds the film looks like a fairy tale come to life.  Even with a slower second half the film doesn’t feel long and breezes by as fast as Sondheim’s score.  Worth a trip into the theater.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The Last 5 Years

the-last-5-years-first-poster

Synopsis: Based on the musical, a struggling actress and her novelist lover each illustrate the struggle and deconstruction of their love affair.

Release Date: February 13, 2015

Thoughts: I have to admit that since its debut in 2001 I’ve struggled with warming to the small two-person off-Broadway musical being brought to the screen by director Richard LaGravenese (Beautiful Creatures). Not that the material isn’t good or the talent wasn’t there, I just found myself too removed from the proceedings to latch on to anything that truly moved me.

The first trailer for The Last 5 Years finally stirred something inside of me and I’m more interested than ever to re-discover this piece that quickly became a cult favorite for theaters big and small around the world. Borrowing ever so slightly from Pinter and telling it’s tale from the start and end of a relationship, all eyes will be on leads Anna Kendrick (about to score with Into the Woods, another popular musical adaptation come Christmastime) and Jeremy Jordan (Joyful Noise) to see just how sweet their three hanky musical romance will play out. Though it’s not based on a musical seen by millions, I think there’s a strong possibility this could be a sleeper success…