Movie Review ~ Vengeance

The Facts:

Synopsis: A journalist and podcaster travels from New York City to West Texas to investigate the death of a girl he was hooking up with.
Stars: B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae, Ashton Kutcher, J. Smith-Cameron, Lio Tipton, Dove Cameron
Director: B.J. Novak
Rated: R
Running Length: 107 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: The time we find ourselves living in is so “now” that it’s going to be strange to look back on it in just a few short years. It’s not just the technology that will undoubtedly be dated; the ideas, concepts, and beliefs we hitch our rides on will evolve from where they have been idling for the past 24 months. Maybe even further back than that is the generational divide that has driven interaction into one-sided conversations through podcasts available through your phone, computer, or other streaming devices. I remember when these tiny nuggets of info launched, and I could not grasp what I would receive through my earbuds. It wasn’t music, and it wasn’t an audiobook. Instead, they were informative dialogues, deep dives, and op-eds we sought out because they were points of view we were interested in.

The writer/director/star of Vengeance, B.J. Novak, is keenly aware of this medium as a delivery tool and how it has progressed from its educational origins to a lucrative business model for the profit-minded. For a while, his film finds some intriguing corners to shine a light into, uncovering characters we don’t often meet. These surprisingly agile moments give audiences a quirky look underneath expectations before the freshman filmmaker throws it all away for one of the most uncomfortable displays of narrative wrongheadedness I’ve seen in some time.

As Vengeance opens, a woman dies on a small town Texas oil field in the middle of nowhere, trying to send a text begging for help. Meanwhile, out East in NYC, Ben Manalowitz (Novak, Saving Mr. Banks) and his friend John (singer John Mayer) are spending a typical night out discussing the trickier points of dating in the modern age. Later that night, Ben is awoken by a long-distance phone call letting him know a girl he used to date occasionally has been found dead and requesting his presence at her funeral in deep state Texas. The trouble is, while the deceased’s brother seems to know Ben well, Ben can’t place the girl as someone who has left much of an impression on him.

Curious to know more and riding a wave of guilt for forgetting someone who held him in high regard, Ben is on the next flight to Texas, meeting grieving sibling Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook, The Cursed) after landing. Vague recollections of Ty’s sister Abilene (Lio Tipton, Warm Bodies) emerge as Ben gets to know her family over the next few days. Soon, he’s investing his time in investigating her suspicious death. At the same time, he’s pitching his strange drama in real life to a podcasting producer wiz  (Issa Rae, Little) who agrees this odd tale might make for addictive listening. Armed with his agenda while purporting to be helping the Shaw’s serve theirs, Ben explores this tiny Texas town and its colorful characters, finding the case can only be cracked by unraveling a tricky knot of deceit.

If Novak was a true amateur, one might be able to forgive how lumpy Vengeance feels throughout. What begins as a mystery eventually curves into examining blue state/red state eccentricities that opens into a study of cultural justice doled out via social media. The lightest takedowns of toxic misogyny are peppered within, equivalent to a satirical send-up that only an Ivy League grad could get away with without losing sleep. The real issue comes with the ending, and let me be clear, it’s not merely a case of, “I didn’t like it, so, therefore, it’s bad.” This finale turns a central character around in such a head-spinning way that I halfway thought it was a dream sequence. Not only does it fail the rest of the movie in the course of storytelling, but it doesn’t make sense logistically or ethically. It’s a shocking torpedo that soured my opinion of the whole film because it made me go back and analyze it with much more scrutiny.

That’s all so disappointing because were it not for the ending, I think there would be much to recommend about Vengeance. I’ve never been on the Ashton Kutcher train, failing to find the charm (or, frankly, the star quality) that has set his star aflame. Novak’s film changed my mind on Kutcher (jOBS), though, because playing the role of a maybe-no-good record producer has given the actor something meaty to work with. Novak’s flair for dialogue to chew on works well with Kutcher’s delivery, and his two brief scenes are charged with an energy that’s markedly different than what we’ve seen before. Holbrook also has a nicely wired electricity to him, and there’s honestly nothing I wouldn’t like to see J. Smith Cameron (Man on a Ledge) do at this point. As the matriarch of the mourning family, the stage actress quickly takes control of the screen.

That ending, oof. I can’t forgive it, and while I would encourage giving Vengeance a look for Kutcher’s performance and the overall strength of some of Novak’s ideas he introduces, I wouldn’t be able to recommend it in the long run. Intelligent filmmaking also has to include being a responsible authority. Novak chooses an easy out based less on good ideas and more on what might be pleasing to the audience for a moment in time. That might be somewhat the point of it all, but it’s not a clear enough message of satire for the dark humor of it all to land correctly.

Movie Review ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him, impacting on his life.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak

Director: Marc Webb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 142 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the arrival of this sequel to a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I’m still not at all sold that the world needed a re-imagining of the series so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy of films released between 2002 and 2007. That being said, with a more forward moving plot and a collection of interesting characters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows a marked improvement over the moody and overly emo blockbuster that arrived two years ago.

I find that the first entries in most superhero series are always tricky because it’s necessary to tell an origin story detailing how the central character (or characters) became the caped crusaders or men of steel we know them to be. Very few films have been successful in that regard, with 1978’s Superman being the gold standard of origin story films in my book.

The Amazing Spider-Man faced an uphill battle because in my mind it had to provide some rationale for why we needed to go back to square one with Peter Parker and his arachnid powers. It couldn’t make the case and though it made a truckload of cash for Sony/Marvel and had some impressive special effects, it was slow and housed an uninteresting villain that provided more yawns of boredom than gasps of excitement.

The sequel sets to out to right some of those wrongs but winds up overcompensating for its lackluster predecessor by stuffing so much into its first hour that audiences should buckle up for tonal whiplash. Returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, People Like Us), Roberto Orci (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeff Pinkner have great difficulty finding their bearings in the further adventures of Peter Parker and it’s not until well into the second act of their film that they get into the groove.

Opening with a whiz-bang flashback prologue that shows what really happened to Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) after they mysteriously left him with Aunt May (Sally Field, Lincoln) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) we jump right into a present that finds Peter (Andrew Garfield, less troubled here but still a tad whiny) and Gwen (Emma Stone, bringing valuable sparkle to her role) trying to navigate their relationship. Haunted by a promise he made to her dying father, Peter struggles with honoring his word and the love he feels for Gwen.

At the same time and in true sequel fashion, more time is spent on introducing several new villains to the mix than with our hero. The first foe Spidey has to deal with is Electro (Jamie Foxx, Annie) who starts the film as a dopey nerd desperate for attention that finds himself at the business end of a tub of electric eels. Foxx plays these early scenes as such a simpleton it borders on insulting stereotype though he does manage to find good but hardly electrifying moments when he gains his evil powers.

Also appearing is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, Lawless, Chronicle) who, after the death of his father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County) returns to manage Oscorp, the mega company that employs Gwen and seems to be the breeding ground for villains out to take over the world. Dying due to a genetic disease, Harry needs Spider-Man’s blood to save himself…a problem made more difficult when he discovers that Spidey is really his childhood friend Peter Parker. DeHaan and Garfield are both talented young actors, so it’s guffaw inducing to watch scenes that have them spouting douche-y dialogue with numerous “bro” and “dude” interjections.

There’s something to be said when the most interesting character has no superpowers at all. Showing once again why she’s such a value add to any film, Field makes the most of her limited screen time by creating a character designed to be the voice of reason but delivering her material with an honesty that seems out of place in a film otherwise populated with some fairly generic dialogue and plot developments.

Composer Hans Zimmer replaced James Horner and the resulting score creates an excitement the original was lacking. Aided by super producer Pharrell, Zimmer’s score is just as impressive as the special effects which are deployed in a spectacular fashion whether it’s in Spidey’s high flying opening pursuit of a gang of thugs or a final showdown with Electro at a power plant. T

he final third of the film is pure action, leading to a series of endings (there are at least three) that signal change is ahead for Parker and company. With a third entry on its way in 2016, there’s little doubt Spidey will spin his web for years to come and if this sequel is any indication, the series will continue to improve.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends a slew of supervillains up against him.

Release Date:  May 2, 2014

Thoughts: While I wasn’t married to the idea of Tobey Maguire being the one and only Spider-Man forever and ever, I wasn’t convinced in 2012 that Sony needed to reboot our webbed hero with The Amazing Spider-Man.  The film, while impressive visually, was missing that special spark that all lasting superhero films need to stand the test of time.  History has shown that some franchise films need to work out some bugs at first so I’m going to put faith in director Marc Webb and the creative time that this second go ‘round with Spidey hits the bullseye.  Adding rising star Dane DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), and Jamie Foxx (White House Down, Django Unchained) to the mix, this special New Year’s Eve preview is shorter and more compact than the longer trailer released a month ago, truly teasing the audience with images of the nasty baddies that await them when the film is released in May.

 

Movie Review ~ Saving Mr. Banks

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Author P. L. Travers reflects on her difficult childhood while meeting with filmmaker Walt Disney during production for the adaptation of her novel, Mary Poppins.

Stars: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Annie Rose Buckley, Ruth Wilson, B.J. Novak, Rachel Griffiths, Kathy Baker

Director: John Lee Hancock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: I have to be honest and say that I was probably pre-destined to enjoy Saving Mr. Banks.  As a huge fan of all things Disney (especially the early days) and growing up watching Mary Poppins I was looking forward to seeing how the studio that produced the classic film would handle a tell-all tale surrounding its creation.  Would it be a warts and all expose of the dark side of the House of Mouse or would it be a toothless feature length ad for the BluRay release of Mary Poppins?

While there are no warts to be found in the film and the sappy quotient is kept to a minimum, the overall effect of Saving Mr. Banks is one evoking a certain nostalgia for the golden age of filmmaking and Disney itself.  Who knows exactly how “honest” the script from Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith is but I can tell you that as a viewer I was moved and as a fan I was impressed.

Saving Mr. Banks is really two films in one.  The first follows Poppins author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson, Beautiful Creatures) as she travels from England to California to attend working sessions during the pre-production stage of the film version of Mary Poppins.  It’s well documented that Travers flinched at the idea of her beloved novels being turned into childish films and when Walt Disney (Tom Hanks, Joe Versus the Volcano) finally got her to agree to a meeting after over a decade of trying to get the rights he found the writer’s demanding requests to go down more like ipecac than a spoonful of sugar.

The second film springs from the mind of Travers as she recalls her childhood in Australia and the interaction she has with a father she idealized (Colin Farrel, Dead Man Down).  An alcoholic, her father was the center of her world and even through his failures he remained on a pedestal for her entire life.  We see how elements of her upbringing inspired the Mary Poppins books and can see why she so kept her novels so fiercely protected from those that would sully the memory of not only her creations but her beloved father.

Director John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Rookie) weaves together both stories in a nicely seamless way, keeping the movie afloat through some rough waters near the end when the movie starts to lay it on thick.  Overall, I didn’t mind that extra dose of syrup because it brought me back to the salad days of the studio when they had contract players and churned out many live-action classics. 

The film provides an interesting peek into the studio system that existed on the Disney lot in the 50’s and 60’s and the period design from Michael Corenblith is right on the money.  It was nice to see the Disney park recreated in the way guests would have seen it back then and the film historian in me loved seeing early production sketches of Poppins essentials that have stood the test of time.

Performance wise, Hancock has assembled the right cast…many of whom turn in surprisingly effective turns.  That’s never truer than in Thompson’s commanding performance as the chilly Travers.  She’s so cross and mean-spirited at times that it takes an actress of Thompson’s class to keep her this side of biddy without making her cartoonishly mean.  There’s Oscar buzz around Thompson and it’s completely warranted for her steel jawed ice queen that may not ever totally melt but thaws nicely.

Tom Hanks proves a bit more troublesome in his role as Walt Disney. Perhaps it was too much to hope that someone could truly portray Uncle Walt as good as the real deal but still I just never felt like Hanks got the job done.  The actor is so good-natured and easy to like but I had a hard time warming up to his off the mark Missouri-cadence and squinty stare…though he does muster up that same twinkle Mr. Disney had when addressing an audience. 

With each passing film I become more impressed with how Farrell has turned his movie career around.  He’s gone from Next Big Thing to Yesterday’s News and has come back nicely with a string of roles that are unexpected and unexpectedly sincere.  He’s wonderful here as the trouble father of Travers and gets the right emotional oomph out of his final scenes.  There’s nice work from Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina, The Lone Ranger) as Travers exhausted mother, Rachel Griffiths (Muriel’s Wedding) as a late in the game familiar visitor, and B.J. Novak and Jason Schwartzman (Moonrise Kingdom) as the songwriting team of The Sherman Brothers who suffer the most wrath from Travers red pen.  Not usually a fan of Paul Giamatti (12 Years a Slave), I’ll say that his role as Travers’ chauffer has perhaps the most emotional payoff in the film and I enjoyed his performance quite a lot.

Though mysteriously rated PG-13 (for a few scary moments involving some blood), this is one film you can bring the whole family to.  Pair it with Mary Poppins when you get home and you’ll have a practically perfect double feature.

The Silver Bullet ~ Saving Mr. Banks

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Synopsis: Author P.L. Travers travels from London to Hollywood as Walt Disney adapts her novel Mary Poppins for the big screen.

Release Date:  December 20, 2013

Thoughts: It’s not a huge Hollywood secret that getting Mary Poppins to the big screen wasn’t an easy task.  In fact, it wasn’t an easy task to get the woman who wrote the book that inspired the classic Disney tale to even meet with Walt Disney about his long held wish to bring the magical tale of a nanny to life.  By all accounts, P.L. Travers was fiercly protective of her creation and it was only when faced with some thin funds that she finally relentented….much to her eventual chagrin.  No fan of the finished product, Travers liked the screen adaptation of Mary Poppins about as much as Stephen King liked the 1980 film based on his novel The Shining.  This Christmas tale about Disney and Travers is made by the House of Mouse itself so I’ll be interested to see how warts and all they make it.  I’ll admit that only the last half of the trailer really caught my attention when it becomes more about the reasons why Travers was so close to the material…but coupled with a nice production design and canny performances, this should be a nice way to end 2013.