Synopsis: 17-year-old Jem Starling struggles with her place within her Christian fundamentalist community. But everything changes when her magnetic youth pastor Owen returns to their church. Stars: Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Kyle Secor, Claire Elizabeth Green, K.J. Baker, Jessamine Burgum, Jimmi Simpson, Wrenn Schmidt, Ellie May, Austin Abrams, Chris Dinner, Paige Leigh Landers Director: Laurel Parmet Rated: R Running Length: 116 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Over the last several years, there have been several documentaries and limited series across streaming services that have taken eager viewers behind the scenes into religious communities, unveiling practices that may seem foreign, strange, or wrong to an outsider. Removing the judgment that comes with a lack of understanding and putting aside some of the shock and awe meant to accompany these programs, I’ve appreciated getting these glimpses into a different way of finding a path forward in spirituality or family.
One of those paths is through belonging to a church where the literal interpretation of the Bible is observed, like the one fictionalized in The Starling Girl. Correctly understanding and following God’s Word is the only way to your final reward, and those who stray are doomed to lead a cruel life after death. It’s in this community of devoted faith that we meet Jem Starling (Eliza Scanlen, Little Women), a 17-year-old of good intentions who has reached a point in her adolescence where the world seems incredibly small when staring straight ahead at the mirror but also temptingly large if she glances over her shoulder at what might be waiting just out of reach.
As she approaches her 18th birthday, her parents (Jimmi Simpson, Fool’s Paradise, and Wren Schmidt, Nope) are preparing for the courting tradition to begin, likely with preacher’s son Ben (Austin Abrams, Do Revenge), a strange boy Jem has no inclination toward. Ben’s older brother Owen (Lewis Pullman, Top Gun: Maverick) has recently returned to town with his wife to continue his youth ministry and learn the ways of the church from his father. Drawn together through some indescribable pull, Owen and Jem are surprised at how the other has changed while Owen was away. They begin a flirtation (already considered taboo and not just because of their age-difference) before giving in to an illicit interaction that threatens to derail their lives and families.
While ostensibly a work of fiction, it wouldn’t be hard to squint your eyes and see writer/director Laurel Parmet’s The Starling Girl being a dramatized version of a story that came out of one of these fundamentalist sects that operate along the Southwestern Bible belt. That’s partly where Parmet’s inspiration originated, with the filmmaker using her lived experiences and research within similar Christian communities. That authenticity in tone helps Parmet’s film through a few of the slower and more repetitive passages, bridging the gap between its fiery high points when you can’t look away even though you feel you should.
Aiding that pull is Scanlen’s immensely controlled work as Jem. As a coming-of-age story, The Starling Girl is already firing on all cylinders showing a young woman learning the hard way that first love isn’t without pain, but Scanlen’s deep well of feeling gives it an extra kick of grief. It’s tough in the final act when Jem faces an imbalance of consequences that will likely frustrate most viewers as much as it did me. Parmet manages to handle both sides of the agreement without ever coming down harshly on either, it’s clear something terrible has happened, but Parmet is not here to tell audiences about the inequalities that exist in the world.
While the film is often quietly riveting, it’s often just too quiet to gather much momentum for longer than a few scenes at a time. Scanlen is in nearly every scene of the movie, but she can’t be in multiple places at once, so it’s up to others to carry some of the burden. Pullman is a good partner for Scanlen, and the two have an electric chemistry that feels dangerous from the start. Richards also has a few solid passages as Jem’s devout mother, forced to make decisions based on faith instead of maternal instinct. Several supporting characters and side plots are trite, causing the film to go flat at critical junctures.
Likely to find more of an audience when it flies onto streaming/on demand, The Starling Girl is a respectable debut for Parmet as a writer/director. Teaming with cinematographer Brian Lannin (Somebody I Used to Know) for some gorgeous views of Kentucky at several gauzy moments, you can tell Parmet has a voice and a viewpoint we’ll get more of.
Synopsis: After a clandestine run-in, Drea (Alpha, fallen it girl) and Eleanor (beta, new alt girl) team up to go after each other’s tormentors, the scariest protagonists of all: teenage girls. Stars: Camila Mendes, Maya Hawke, Austin Abrams, Rish Shah, Talia Ryder, Ava Capri, Jonathan Daviss, Maia Reficco, Paris Berelc, Alisha Boe, Sophie Turner Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Rated: NR Running Length: 118 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: If you’re putting me in a locked room and asking me to scribble a list of my Top 3 favorite specialty movie genres on the wall, it would have to be these.
1. The Shark Film 2. The Creature in Space Film 3. The Bitchy High School/College Film
So far this summer, I’ve had my fill of the shark film (see The Reef: Stalked and Maneater, or better yet, don’t and see JAWS if it’s still in IMAX near you), and I can watch Alien or its sequel anytime I want. I must admit that I’ve cycled through my favorite high school comedies more than a few times, knowing the beats and lines of the classics for most by heart.
When I first heard about Do Revenge, I knew it was initially called Strangers. That could only mean one thing, like Amy Heckerling’s all-time hit Clueless, which derived inspiration from Jane Austen’s novel Emma, screenwriters Jennifer Kaytin Robinson and Celeste Ballard were borrowing from another master. The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Very loosely based on 1951 Strangers on a Train (even less than 1987’s Throw Momma From the Train was), this wicked little zinger is a breath of fresh air as we move into the hottest part of the summer.
It’s spring at Rose Hill prep school, and junior Drea Torres (Camila Mendes, Palm Springs) is sitting on top of the world. She has a great group of friends, the most popular boy in school is hers, she’s in a video for Teen Vogue, and her #1 pick for college (Yale) is interested. Not bad for a girl that attends school on a scholarship and is surrounded by classmates who don’t understand the sacrifices she’s made to get where she is today. She seems to have forgotten a little of that humility, but now she’s ready to party and enjoy the end of the school year. Then she makes a classic blunder…she trusts the wrong guy.
Boyfriend Max (Austin Abrams, Chemical Hearts) leaks a raunchy video she sent to him, ruining her reputation overnight, jeopardizing her collegiate future, and seriously impacting plans for a perfect senior year. Working at a tennis camp over the summer to hide from all the eyes that have seen her online video, she meets Eleanor (Maya Hawke, Fear Street: Part One – 1994), a tomboy she bonds with over swapped stories of broken trust. Eleanor is transferring to Rose Hill in the fall, and, surprise, her bully also attends. When fall rolls around, the two stay out of sight in public, but behind closed doors, the summer friendship turns into a plot to destroy the tyrants that ran their names through the mud. How far is too far when the future, and high emotions, are on the line?
Nicely harnessing an air of surreal reality, Do Revenge sits comfortably on the shelf with Heathers (a live musical version debuts on Roku this weekend) and Jawbreaker. The buttery pastel uniforms worn at school (seriously, you’ll believe anyone looks good in a whipped lavender capelet and matching beret) are in pleasant contrast with the outlandish fashion designs created by Alana Morshead. The supporting cast members all sport impressive duds, but Morshead saves the most distinctive styles for Mendes and Hawke, who show up in several jaw-dropping outfits during the film. Coupled with a slight fantasy-like school setting and outdoor locations that feel a little outside of the natural world, you have a movie set now that definitely takes place on a different planet.
Everything can look great but without a solid cast to support it, what’s the point? Directing her screenplay, Robinson (a writer for Thor: Love and Thunder) nails it across the board. Precious few adults are present (one major cameo Netflix has asked us not to spoil, even though they recently released an ad featuring them), so the film primarily rests on the shoulders of Mendes and Hawke. Each actress has individual moments to carry the movie, but I give the slight edge to Hawke for blowing me away with a character that gets more complex as the story develops. There are no spoilers, but Robinson and Ballard’s screenplay has more up its sleeve than meets the eye at the outset. Hawke looks and sounds so much like her mother, Uma Thurman, that it’s eerie.
Like another release this week, The Woman King, Do Revenge stumbles when it includes a romantic subplot that feels squeezed in rather than organically grown. It only adds to the long run time, and a wildly careening third act doesn’t help. Some may think a slight detour featuring Sophie Turner (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) is dragging things, but Turner is so ferociously funny in just two scenes that I wouldn’t lose her presence for anything. Thankfully, I think Robinson has a noble end goal with Do Revenge that passes the right message on to the viewer, and it’s a message its target audience could hear more of now. With a soundtrack that has nothing but winning needle drops, eye candy clothes that don’t quit, and leading performances that hit their target like twin lighting bolts, this is worth skipping school to watch.
Synopsis: A high school transfer student finds a new passion when she begins to work on the school’s newspaper.
Stars: Lili Reinhart, Austin Abrams, Sarah Jones, Adhir Kalyan, Kara Young, Coral Peña
Director: Richard Tanne
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: The other day I was revisiting an old chestnut romance that has become a favorite for many. By “old” I mean 1992 and the movie was The Cutting Edge, that sleepover-ready PG lovey dovey figure skating film that did decent box office when first released but caught on like wildfire when it arrived on home video. Aside from having major nostalgia pangs for non-stadium general admission theaters and remembering finding the show times for it on MovieFone, what struck me about the film was how it never would have worked the way it does, or held up the way it has, if it weren’t for the undeniable chemistry between the two leads. It fueled the movie and gave credence to everything their characters said and how they acted – we believed them because we believed the actors. It’s a rarity in film, especially in ones meant to appeal to young adults which often are targeted for something lower than the heart.
So it’s nice when a movie like Chemical Hearts arrives and you can witness that same chemistry on display for a whole new generation of viewers, albeit in a movie far more complicated than one about Olympic dreams. An adaption of Krystal Sutherland’s 2016 novel “Our Chemical Hearts”, an added emotional element the filmmakers couldn’t have planned for is that the high-school set film is arriving on Amazon’s streaming service at the tail end of a summer when the future is uncertain about what the upcoming school year will bring. This gives the film a palpable immediacy on top of several issues it attempts to tackle during its short run time.
Henry Page (Austin Abrams, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark) is a high school senior that’s living your typical teenage experience. He gets average grades but aspires to do better, holds his parents as a model for a healthy relationship though he hasn’t had one of his own, and simply aims to please everyone by being what they need when they need it, regardless if it pleases him in the process. His life takes a swift turn when Grace Down (Lili Reinhart, Hustlers) transfers into the school and becomes not just his co-editor of the newspaper but also the object of his interest and, eventually, affection. That love hits him so hard seems to both excite and scare him a bit, compounded by Grace harboring her own guarded emotions and heavy baggage. During a tumultuous senior year, Henry and Grace will each have their own moments of growth and shared lessons in the strength found in working together.
We’ve seen countless movies about the boy/girl that likes another boy/girl who has an air of mystery to them and know that whatever love blooms will surely be tested by secrets that are revealed and Chemical Hearts is no exception. That adapter/director Richard Tanne handles it all with such a fine hand is a breath of fresh air and I found myself growing closer to the couple the more the film progressed rather than keeping them at arm’s length in preparation for the other shoe to drop. That’s partly due to that whole chemistry bit we discussed earlier but also because the characters have genuine interest and depth not often found in the YA genre. Separately, Henry and Grace feel like people we can relate to and together they are a couple we want to root for, further illustrating how well-rounded Tanne, Abrams, and the quite mesmerizing Reinhart have made these leading players.
What doesn’t quite work, though, are the supporting group of friends and relatives that seem to interfere with the action more than they help propel it forward. Truly stellar films have side characters that marry themselves nicely into plot points throughout but in Chemical Hearts almost anytime Abrams and Reinhart aren’t onscreen the movie feels like it slumps its shoulders. That’s especially tangential plots regarding Henry’s friend pursuing a lesbian relationship and his weepy sister going through a traumatic break-up that doles out sage wisdom when the movie needs it. With a bit more finesse, Tanne could have made this work but I wasn’t buying into it because while Tanne goes to the finish line for Henry and Grace, everything else becomes distracting footnotes. Plus, I hate it when movies show long-time friends totally dumping one of their own the first time they don’t come through in a pinch for them. That happens here and the pure forgiveness that comes lets the group off too easy, in my opinion.
Without much in the way of films that have spoken to this age group over the past several months, this is one of two movies released in the same weekend giving young adults mature entertainment that doesn’t speak down to them. Along with Words on Bathroom Walls, Chemical Hearts doesn’t go for the obvious sentiments about how being young is hard and that school is difficult but aims for something deeper that yields more fruit in the end. There’s honesty throughout (again it should be stated that Reinhart and Abrams are terrific) and a sweet sincerity in its final moments that should please more than just its target audience.
Review: There were a few books in my elementary school library that, should you be lucky enough to catch them on the shelf and check them out, were signs of great prestige. As a fifth grader, I remember being so desperate to read the first volume of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark that through some junior detective work I found out who currently had the book and made a deal with them to be there when they returned it so I could swoop in and have it next. Then they went and screwed it up by returning it in the book drop first thing in the morning, forcing me to haunt the library until they opened and I could retrieve it. I definitely carried the book around on top of my Trapper Keeper so all could see during the day while I saved the reading for the evening.
The three books that make up the trilogy of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark have become famous, if not quite literary classics on a Dickens level but legendary in their own right for their popularity with youngsters and their unpopularity with their parents. Often banned in libraries for their intense content and routinely challenged at school board meetings, the slim (none are more than 130 pages) collections of terrifying tales by Alvin Schwartz have inspired countless imitators over the years. It’s telling that none have come close to the simplicity of the way Schwartz relayed his collected stories of urban folklore with sinister twists. Since the first entry was released in 1981, they have held up remarkably well. Revisiting a few selections recently I was amazed at how vivid the storytelling remained all these years later.
I’m actually surprised it took so long for a film version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark to find its way to the light. It just missed the anthology-movie boon of the late ‘70s and lacked the hard edges that became popular in the mid ‘80s. Some of the urban legends have expanded into their own films or were lifted in part into the plots of other horror flicks but nothing has come out that bore the title that stirs so much nostalgia in my particular generation. These small volumes were to me what the Goosebumps books were to kids that came up after I did. While I was unsure at first in the wake of the recent silliness of the Goosebumps film and its even wackier sequel, it was encouraging to see this movie greenlit under the watchful eye of Oscar winner Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) who then hired up and coming Norwegian director André Øvredal to handle the directing duties.
While I’d love to report the final product was every bit as spine-tingling as I wanted it to be, the overall experience was more like revisiting something that was scary when you were younger but had decidedly less of an impact when you returned to it as an adult. Though it has a handsome production design and a fairly engaging and intense opening act, it quickly turns back from the horror elements I craved in favor of embracing its PG-13-ness in all its vanilla gore-less glory. Usually, I’m a fan of less is more and wishing a filmmaker would be creative in their power of suggestion rather than crude in their need to shock but by the end I desperately wanted Øvredal to amp up the chills.
On Halloween night, friends Stella (Zoe Colletti, Annie), Auggie (Gabriel Rush, The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Chuck (Austin Zajur, Fist Fight) run afoul of a local bully (Austin Abrams, Paper Towns) and wind up exploring the deserted Bellows mansion and uncovering its dark history. With a drifter (Michael Garza, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1) along for the ride, the friends uncover a mystery tied to the family that owned the house and ran the local paper mill before vanishing into thin air. When Stella takes a book from a hidden room within the expansive manse, she unleashes a vengeful spirit that starts writing stories in the book, stories of murder, stories of monsters, stories that feature her friends who begin to disappear at an alarming rate.
It was a nice touch for screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman (The LEGO Movie) to set the film in the low-tech 1968 when the country was tuned into the continued conflict in Vietnam while deciding between Nixon and Humphrey for the presidency. By having the movie take place half a century ago, there’s a certain unsullied charm to the investigation Stella launches into the sordid history of her town. The kids may be going through some of the same growing pains experienced nowadays but with the war not yet totally encroaching on their lives they remain, well, kids and not the woke meta meme-ified generation that we have now. If anything, there’s too much time spent on character development at the expense of keeping the forward momentum the movie really needed to gain some steam.
As he showed so brilliantly in The Autopsy of Jane Doe (for real, check out that underseen gem), Øvredal has a way with creating a distinct atmosphere that greatly influences the overall feel of the production. Though set in 1968, the movie isn’t screaming ‘60s and Øvredal puts more emphasis in fleshing out the Bellows mansion and, later, a hospital that holds key clues to the mystery. I only wish once we were in these locations Øvredal was able to turn the dial on frights a few degrees higher. It’s all appropriately creepy but never truly scary, like the filmmakers were afraid (or opposed?) to delivering what seems inherently promised by the title. Aside from several notable sequences that achieved their desired impact of raising both goosebumps and pulses, there’s a curious lack of follow-through despite a valiant set-up. A creepy scarecrow turns out to look more menacing than he actually is, a toe-less ghoul is all moan but no mayhem, a plain teenage zit harbors the best pop for your buck even if it’s achieved with some iffy CGI.
Maybe I’m being too hard on the movie though. Perhaps the books were meant for my generation while this film is intended as a low-impact primer for budding (young) horror fans. After all, reading the books opened up my imagination to run wild with the delightfully demented legends Schwartz included. So could it be that Øvredal and del Toro held back from giving the full horror monty to viewers in the hopes they would create some of the scares themselves in their minds? It seems a bit of stretch but at the same time this isn’t your standard cut and paste waste of space either. There’s some sophistication to the movie, for sure, just not the quality scares I had came looking for.
Synopsis: It’s 1968 in America. Change is blowing in the wind…but seemingly far removed from the unrest in the cities is the small town of Mill Valley where for generations, the shadow of the Bellows family has loomed large. It is in their mansion on the edge of town that Sarah, a young girl with horrible secrets, turned her tortured life into a series of scary stories, written in a book that has transcended time—stories that have a way of becoming all too real for a group of teenagers who discover Sarah’s terrifying tome.
Release Date: August 9, 2019
Thoughts: I can still vividly picture the covers of the three books that comprise the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark canon. I can also close my eyes and remember how my mind would play tricks on me long after I had finished a story, concocting various ways for the fictional tales of terror to become reality. Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) produces this big screen adaptation directed by André Øvredal (The Autopsy of Jane Doe) and the presence of these two guys with an eye for scares tell me to brace myself for more tingles up my spine. This first look at the period set film isn’t at all what I was expecting and it feels like the movie will have some creepy images but may struggle in…other areas. Still, the youngster in me is more than a little excited to see these stories come to life after all these years.
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.
I just wasn’t prepared for July. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a wave of cinematic excursions that made my head spin. So many movies were released that it was hard to keep track from week to week what was arriving and what was still waiting for its release date. As you can see below, I had a lot of catching-up to do
The month began with the disappointment of Terminator Genisys. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger but it for sure wasn’t the muddled misfire that was supposed to reboot this franchise. Badly cast with shoddy special effects, this was supposed to be the beginning of something but should likely be the end (though it did do well overseas so we may yet get another one of these in a few years).
A few summers back I lamented how bad the original Magic Mike was. Trading eye candy entertainment for any semblance of watchable narrative, it was another dud (for me) from Steven Soderbergh. So you’d understand why I wasn’t keen on Magic Mike XXL because I felt we’d already been there done that. Much to my delight, the sequel was much better than its predecessor, maintaining the fun frivolity of the world of male strippers while injecting some personality into the proceedings. Quite possible the biggest surprise of the summer for me.
I learned a lot from the wise documentary Amy, chronicling the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the singer with the bluesy voice and broken butterfly backstory. She had a lot to overcome and the film made a compelling argument that she would still be here today had she had a better support system.
Though I loved the Minions in the Despicable Me films, I didn’t care for their solo outing with its half-baked story and less that inspired vocal work. It felt like a quick cash-grab and it looks like it accomplished its goal. Hopefully next time they’ll come back with a better story and more convincing actors.
The found footage horror movie had its death knell with The Gallows, a brainless exercise in tedium peppered with cheap scares and lousy acting. Could have (and should have) been much better.
Now we approach a stretch where I checked out for a bit – but I’m atoning for it now with these mini-reviews.
Movie Review ~ Batkid Begins The Facts: Synopsis: On one day, in one city, the world comes together to grant one 5-year-old cancer patient his wish. Batkid Begins looks at the ‘why’ of this flash phenomenon. Stars: Miles Scott Director: Dana Nachman Rated: PG Running Length: 87 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: Can I admit something to you and not have you hate me? When I first saw the media frenzy around this back in 2013 I remember rolling my eyes are the saccharine nature of the whole endeavor. Why would an entire city be brought to a screeching halt because of one kid’s wish to be Batman for a day? Well, the documentary Batkid Begins showed me why and by the end I was feeling like a lout for my initial feelings and wiping away the happy tears the film easily brings forth from the viewer. Following the planning and execution by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a 5 year old leukemia survivor the day of his dreams, viewers get a glimpse at what goes into even the smallest wish granted by the organization. While it at times comes off like a big advertisement, it’s heart is most certainly in the right place and I found myself getting choked up with each good deed and promise fulfilled by a host of people involved in making the day come off without a hitch. An audience-pleasing winner.
Movie Review ~ The Overnight The Facts: Synopsis: A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on. Stars: Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godrèche Director: Patrick Brice Rated: R Running Length: 79 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: There and gone in an instant, The Overnight is a film better suited for home viewing anyway. A couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) new to the area meet Jason Schwartzman at a local playground where both of their children are playing. Their kids have hit it off so Schwartzmann invites the family over for more fun, but when the kids go to bed Schwartzman and his wife Judith Godrèche have more interesting games to play for the unsuspecting couple. Saying more would spoil the fun but it’s an adults only evening with oodles of twists and turns as both couples bare their secrets (and their bodies) before the night is over. Already famous for its full frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (sorry, both are wearing prosthetics), at 79 minutes the movie is short but does start to feel long in the middle section. It helps immensely that all four actors are competent and comfortable with the material…the story doesn’t hold back and neither do they.
Movie Review ~ Ant-Man The Facts: Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world. Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, David Dastmalchian, T.I. , Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Gregg Turkington, Abby Ryder Fortson Director: Peyton Reed Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 117 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Early troubles with the start of production with Ant-Man and some seriously questionable teasers/trailers didn’t get me very excited for this mid-summer superhero movie. I think Marvel was hoping that Ant-Man would score along the lines of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxybut it’s sadly missing the humor that made Guardians so much fun. It’s not a total wash though because for every 10 minutes of standard origin-story developments, there’s a solid 5 minutes of exciting action sequences to wake audiences up from their slumber. I know that with an origin story you need to cover a lot of ground and Ant-Man, to its additional credit, doesn’t waste much time in getting to the goods…but it’s a cheap-o undertaking and one that feels like a second-string entry in Marvel’s blockbuster universe. Paul Rudd makes for a surprisingly solid action lead as does Corey Stoll as Rudd’s nemesis, but Evangeline Lilly labors too much under her severe wig (that seems to change lengths multiple times, in the middle of scenes) and isn’t a good enough actress to carry some weighty responsibilities. A decent entry as far as Marvel films go…but I’m not clamoring for a sequel any time soon.
Movie Review ~ Irrational Man The Facts: Synopsis: A tormented philosophy professor finds a will to live when he commits an existential act. Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg Director: Woody Allen Rated: R Running Length: 96 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: It happens every year and every year you never quite know what to expect. I’m speaking, of course, of the annual Woody Allen release and like many of the directors works, it’s a hit or miss affair. I’m constantly in awe that Allen has churned out a film a year (sometimes two a year) for the last three decades and even the really bad ones aren’t as terrible as the other dreck dumped on us during the summer. Last year Magic in the Moonlight was dismissed as too slight even for Allen but I enjoyed its frothy charm…something that was missing from the more serious-minded Irrational Man. As a boozy professor that gets into hot water in his New England college town, Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps the wrong choice because the actor plagues himself far too much for Allen’s light material. At least co-star Emma Stone helps keep Phoenix from the quicksand of his own creation but she can’t be in every scene and it’s when Phoenix is on his own that the film goes slack. Then there’s Parker Posey who I’m becoming convinced is simply not of this earth and doesn’t try to hide it anymore. Bizarre line readings and the tendency to let her mouth hang open are only the tip of Posey’s strange acting iceberg. Very much in line with the dark humor of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man should hold your interest for a time but it’s quickie ending feels like Allen was ready to move on to his next film rather than put a period at the end things.
Movie Review ~ Trainwreck The Facts: Synopsis: Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy. Stars: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, LeBron James, Method Man Director: Judd Apatow Rated: R Running Length: 125 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: One of the true success stories of the summer has to have been Amy Schumer, not so much for writing and starring in Trainwreck but the collective impact she’s had on the comedy scene. Unapologetic in her crassness and wise in her observations, Schumer is a comic moving like a shooting star and it’s nice to report that I think she’s a pretty decent actress as well. As much as I enjoy Schumer I was nervous that she was attaching herself to director Judd Apatow because Apatow, as we all know, has a way of turning in muddled work. Unfortunately, Apatow’s influence led the film to be about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be and ultimately overstaying its welcome. I don’t care what anyone says about the appearance of LeBron James as a bona fide supporting player, his entire storyline should have been excised and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all. The problems get worse because Apatow likes to cast non-actors in his film and put in cameos when you least expect it…to the detriment of the flow of the narrative. He stumbles badly in several places here but is saved by Schumer and Bill Hader as the opposites attract duo that confidently lead the film. Special mention must, again, be made to Tilda Swinton for disappearing within her role as Schumer’s glam yet grim boss. Worth it for Schumer, Swinton, and Hader…but watch it at home so you can fast forward through the slow Apatow-ish parts.
Movie Review ~ Mr. Holmes The Facts: Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman. Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Philip Davis, Milo Parker Director: Bill Condon Rated: PG Running Length: 104 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: In reality, I probably should have given Mr. Holmes a more thorough review than I’m about to give here…but I have a feeling I’ll have a chance to discuss it more over the next few months because if all is right with the world Ian McKellen will find himself nominated in a few Best Actor categories during the end of the year awards round-up. McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes living in the country, attended to by a no-nonsense housekeeper (Laura Linney) and entertained by her young son. There’s actually three Holmes on display here as the present Holmes recalls two previous cases he was involved with that had an impact on his life. With a smart script from Jeffrey Hatcher adapted from a popular novel, it’s directed with a mellow grandeur by Bill Condon. Condon and McKellen scored before with the fascinating Gods and Monsters and here’s hoping they go the distance with this one too. An interesting tidbit, at one point Holmes ventures out to see a Sherlock Holmes movie…and the actor playing Holmes on screen (Nicholas Rowe) played the detective in 1986’s fun frolic Young Sherlock Holmes.
Movie Review ~ Paper Towns The Facts: Synopsis: A young man and his friends embark upon the road trip of their lives to find the missing girl next door. Stars: Nat Wolff, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith Director: Jake Schreir Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 109 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: After The Fault in Our Stars became a runaway hit last summer movie studios were looking for the next big alt-teen romance that could lure YA audiences away from summer action flicks. Turns out they didn’t have to look far because Paper Towns was adapted from the novel by the same author as The Fault in Our Stars. While Paper Towns doesn’t center around a disease that threatens to tear our lovebirds apart, it has its own mystery about it as Nat Wolff goes looking for his recently vanished neighbor (Cara Delevingne) that he’s been enamored with (or more like fascinated by) since they were children. Following the clues she seemingly left for him, Wolff and his friends embark on a journey of discovery where they Learn Life Lessons. The film kept my interest for most of the running length and it’s only in the final passages when all is explained does it feel a little like a letdown. Still, there’s a smart air of riskiness that elevates the film and more often than not it lands on the good side of taking that risky step.
Movie Review ~ Pixels The Facts: Synopsis: When aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth in the form of the video games. Stars: Adam Sandler, Brian Cox, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad Director: Chris Columbus Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 105 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: A movie where everyone involved should hang their head in shame. There’s actually some semblance of a good idea here with aliens attacking earth with classic arcade games but unfortunately it gets trampled by Adam Sandler’s lazy acting, Kevin James bad acting, and Josh Gad’s awful everything. Michelle Monaghan looks positively embarrassed to be sharing scenes (especially romantic ones) with Sandler and only Peter Dinklage comes out relatively unscathed in a campy, mullet wearing performance. For fans of ‘80s nostalgia there are some pleasant diversions as video game characters pop up in (supposedly) comical ways and I think that director Chirs Columbus really did give the material a chance to be something interesting…but Sandler and his crew suck the life out of everything and are so devoid of any vested interest that you wonder why you should care at all either.
Movie Review ~ Southpaw The Facts: Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track. Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Clare Foley, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Naomie Harris Director: Antoine Fuqua Rated: R Running Length: 123 minutes TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: By now, we know that Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart actor. With role after role from Prisoners to Nightcrawler to End of Watch we’ve seen that he’s up for most any challenge and likes to dive deep into his roles. So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to this tale of redemption concerning a famous boxer at the top of his game dealt a series of terrible blows (in more ways than one) and his eventual path back to himself. What is surprising is that while the performances are very good you can’t get away from the fact that the story feels recycled and originally intended for a different set of lower string stars. I’m always on the fence regarding Forest Whitaker but as the wise boxing manager that grudgingly comes to Gyllenhaal’s aid, the actor reminds us why he so deserved his Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. Also turning in a great performance in Rachel McAdams (The Vow) as Gyllenhaal’s high school sweetheart, mother of his daughter, and the only one that seems to have his best interest at heart.
Southpaw was also at the center of some controversy that arose this summer about movie trailers that give away too much of the film. If you have seen the trailer for Southpaw you know what I’m talking about…if you haven’t, please go into the movie blind. I had a faint idea what the spoiler was and even that made the first ¼ of the film much less involving. Worth it for the performances but gets knocked out by an also-ran plot.
Movie Review ~ Samba The Facts: Synopsis: Samba migrated to France ten years ago from Senegal, and has since been plugging away at various lowly jobs. Alice is a senior executive who has recently undergone a burn-out. Both struggle to get out of their dead-end lives. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers, while Alice tries to get her life back on track until fate draws them together. Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo Director: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano Rated: R Running Length: 118 minutes TMMM Score: (5.5/10) Review: Of all the movies I’m talking about in this wrap-up this is one I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard of. And you couldn’t be blamed because this barely made a blip on the usually forgiving art-house circuit. From the star and directors of 2012’s dynamite The Intouchables comes this story of an immigrant man living in France who crosses paths with a burned out executive when the man is discovered to be an illegal alien. Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t have that much chemistry but in a weird way it works for the oddball romance that develops over the course of the film. I never could get a real feel if the movie was a comedy, drama, or something in between…and neither could most of the people involved. Slightly recommended but only if the plot or stars appeal to you.
That almost did it for July…but there was still one weekend to go! Moving up several months from its planned December release, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise had its brains in the right place but at times forgot to bring its brawn. I still prefer Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation but as long as star Tom Cruise keeps making these films interesting I’ll keep accepting future missions. Here’s hoping he brings along Rebecca Ferguson again because finally there is a female that is every bit a match to Cruise’s daring agent.
I wasn’t sold at all when I heard that Warner Brothers was planning on remaking National Lampoon’s Vacation but as time went on I heard more that it was more of a sequel than a reboot (resequel?) and I started coming around to the idea of a new Vacation. I enjoyed Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the hapless couple traveling cross-country with their children…but audiences and most critics didn’t. It wasn’t a great movie and was probably too crude to be part of your Vacation marathons…but I have to say the worst part about it was when original stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo showed up. Still, I’m hoping it made enough money to warrant a holiday themed sequel. In any event…it’s a damn sight better than European Vacation.
Wow – July didn’t skimp on variety, did it? Arguably the hottest month for releases, it carried over the promise of May and June and laid a path for August to do quite well…but could it top the three months that came before it?