Movie Review ~ The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special

The Facts:

Synopsis:  On a mission to make Christmas unforgettable for Quill, the Guardians head to Earth, searching for the perfect present.
Stars: Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn, Michael Rooker, Kevin Bacon
Director: James Gunn
Rated: NR
Running Length: 42 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review:  In 1978, the now-infamous Star Wars Holiday Special aired for the first and only time on CBS, becoming an example of how pandering to fandom can be dangerous.  While that special has become the punchline for jokes over time, it’s so legitimately terrible that even a revaluation can’t change public opinion.  The joke has now extended so far into the meta-verse that a popular franchise (which draws from much of the same fanbase) is throwing caution to the wind and creating its own holiday special.  Released as the second Marvel Studios Special Presentation in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special is intended as an early gift to unwrap but might be a lump of coal for some.

Shot during the production of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (due out in May 2023) by writer/director James Gunn (The Suicide Squad), this 44-minute short film is a standalone adventure that mainly focuses on Drax (Dave Bautista, Riddick) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff, Oldboy) attempting to cheer up Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World: Dominion) during the holidays. (A classic set-up.)  Mantis thinks it’s due to the recent loss of a loved one and a secret she’s keeping from Peter, so she’s extra invested in making this season merry and bright while Drax is volun-told he’ll be helping her out.  Their big plan?  Bring back Peter’s favorite Earth-bound hero as a surprise for Christmas.  If only they knew where this Kevin Bacon fellow lived…

YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary) is a term growing in shorthand popularity, meaning that your experience with something may differ from others.  That applies perfectly to The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special.  Watching it, I got the distinct impression the comedic bits of physical comedy and juvenile-level jokes were meant for a specific group instead of a broader base that could join in the appreciation of it.  A litmus test is the opening credits which play over a cracked song about Santa performed by the band the Old 97’s.  If you aren’t guffawing through the number, the next 40 minutes may be rough-going. The humor is stagnant and half-baked in an exhausting “we’ve seen Napoleon Dynamite, too” sort of way.

The first Marvel Studios Special Presentation, Werewolf by Night, had a more serious tone. While it was meant as a standalone story in the overall Marvel Universe, it felt like it invited the audiences into its orbit.  Conversely, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special doesn’t have to work to introduce new characters, so it’s a bit freewheeling and unfocused. Drax and Mantis dipping into a gay bar feels like a badly timed bit, made worse by the lame zingers lobbed while inside.  Gunn tightens things up when Bacon (They/Them) enters, playing himself.  Demonstrating again that he’s a good sport, he lets Gunn, and the oddball Guardians characters gently rib his persona and fame, likely because he gets the last laugh (and sings a closing number), and the whole thing is generally received in good fun.

Not destined to be the kind of Christmas perennial classic like a Rankin/Bass feature nor relegated to the “never-watch” wasteland like the misguided television special from which it drew inspiration, The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special will get the laughs from the fans but isn’t likely to capture any new followers.  The filmmaking feels a bit like we got the B-Team of effects techs, and if you told me they had a quick turnaround time to get this done, I’d believe it based on how soft the completed film looks.  I wouldn’t put it on my naughty list; just more of an obligatory watch for most. I hope these Special Presentations will start feeling a little more ‘special’ in 2023.

Movie Review ~ Licorice Pizza

The Facts:  

Synopsis: The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973. 

Stars: Alana Haim, Cooper Hoffman, Sean Penn, Tom Waits, Bradley Cooper, Benny Safdie, Skyler Gisondo, Mary Elizabeth Ellis, John Michael Higgins, Christine Ebersole, Harriet Sansom Harris, Ryan Heffington, Nate Mann, Joseph Cross, Danielle Haim, Este Haim, Moti Haim, Donna Haim 

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 133 minutes 

TMMM Score: (7/10) 

Review:  Some filmmakers get to a point in their careers where they can evoke a particular response in their devotees just by performing the most mundane of movie marketing tasks.  Take Paul Thomas Anderson (or PTA, if you will, and you must if you are in the PTA fandom universe) and the release of his newest film, Licorice Pizza. The director debuted the simple poster for his coming-of-age story set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973 and according to the internet activity you’d have thought it was an undiscovered Rembrandt being displayed for the first time.  Following up with a trailer edited in typical PTA style to give you a taste of the movie without much of the flavor and the eyes of #FilmTwitter collectively rolled back in their head, unable to sustain the force of such wonder.

Then there was me, over in my corner, wondering what the fuss was about.  Sure, I’ve had my rocky relationship with PTA over the years and often felt like he’d wandered away from the fray more than he partied down with the crowd, but that’s just my particular preference.  I get that PTA’s signature auteur-ism is what the film cognoscenti take pride in dissecting with loud voices in small crowds or displaying on their homemade media shelves filled with every one of his movies, and while my IKEA shelf certainly contains the PTA old school essentials like Boogie Night and Magnolia, you won’t find later efforts like The Master and certainly not Inherent Vice.  He won me back with the elegant Phantom Thread, tearing at the seams of a spikey relationship (while somewhat examining his own marriage to Maya Rudolph in the process), but each new movie feels like starting over again with him.  So the poster and the trailer and the crazed early buzz were taken in with several pinches of Kosher salt.

After what seemed like an eternity of waiting, I finally had my bite of Licorice Pizza and found it, unsurprisingly, meaty. There were some slices of PTA’s episodic yet extremely loosey goosey structured film that I favored more than others and absolutely understand the hype for its star Alana Haim, but at the same time it’s a film that drifts when it should be forging ahead and drags when it could use a significant boost of energy.  Fueled by a blazing soundtrack and a colorful cast of supporting characters that help balance out Haim’s less successful co-star, PTA’s film is his most easily accessible and commercially minded film to date and that’s going to attract a number of new viewers to get on his bandwagon.

Inspired by the stories PTA heard from child actor turned producer Gary Goetzman as well as his own observances, Licorice Pizza opens with Alana Kane (Haim) first meeting Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) as he waits in line to have his high school photo taken.  Charming the bored young woman nine years his senior with his quick wit and stories of his time as a child actor, by the time Gary says “cheese” he’s made a bold pitch to get her to meet him for dinner.  Intrigued by the teen, she goes, and the two form a quick bond based on his not-so-secret pining and her pretending not to recognize just how much he’s fallen for her. 

This isn’t your typical romantic pairing, however.  Gary and Alana wind up being more than potential love interests after they go into business selling the latest hot craze in CA at the time: waterbeds. With Gary’s days as a child actor fading and Alana’s career as a would-be ingenue starlet ending before they even began (a lengthy interlude with Sean Penn as Jack Holden should have been excised completely, it’s the weakest part of the film), they recruit their equally young friends to be employees in their enterprise, a get-rich-quick scheme that pays off…for a time.  They even manage to snag a celebrity client and Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Jon Peters, the infamous Hollywood hairdresser who became an enfant terrible film producer and boyfriend to Barbra Streisand, is where the best material in Licorice Pizza begins to take form.

It helps if you know about Peters, his attitude and style, his penchant for violent outbursts and pompous actions of egotistical preening.  Cooper (Nightmare Alley) nails the man in an eerie way and I don’t doubt the real deal was just as terrifying to come face to face with as he is shown here, though it winds up coming across with a comic effect more than anything.  This entire sequence where Alana, Gary, and a few of their cohorts make a delivery to the home Peters shared with Streisand in the Hollywood hills featuring a series of mishaps is what the movie is leading to and then never manages to live up to later on.  If only the rest of the film were this funny and smartly constructed.

It can’t be stressed enough how correct all the advance word about Alana Haim was.  The more you hear about a performance the less it seems like it could actually be as good as they say but Haim is a terrifically engaging, unique, talent that brings something interesting to the role.  Perhaps not an A+ right out of the gate but skirting pretty close and consistently the one person in the film that gets most of her laugh lines right.  It likely helps that her actual family plays her two sisters (the trio form the Grammy-nominated band bearing their surname) and parents as well.  If only Hoffman was as strong as Alana…or shows the same kind of raw honesty his father, the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman, did.  I didn’t buy him in this role and while Gary and Alana are supposed to feel mismatched, the actors shouldn’t and it’s largely due to Hoffman that they do.

Aside from Bradley Cooper’s good turn and Penn’s (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) removable one, Harriet Sansom Harris (Memento) gets a killer scene as Gary’s edgy agent that pulls no punches and hasn’t yet been cited by the PC Police.   The PC Police would definitely be knocking on the door of John Michael Higgins (Pitch Perfect 3), as a restaurant owner with a revolving door of Asian wives who has a rather horrendous way of talking to them. Though his storyline was a bit extraneous and fit into that episodic feel, Benny Safdie (Pieces of a Woman) does good work as a politician Alana gravitates toward.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Christine Ebersole (The Wolf of Wall Street) as a Lucille Ball-ish star that Gary has to make appearances with and Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a rival for Alana’s attention.

Controversy swirled very briefly around Licorice Pizza because of the age discrepancy between Alana and Gary but y’know what, I’m not even going to go there.  Plenty of films have had the situation flip and no one mentions it.  Besides, PTA handles the nuances of their relationship so kindly on both sides of the coin that whatever the outcome of their time together, both will be in each other lives for longer than we’ll ever be.  Never striving for meaning that is too deep or analytical was a refreshing respite in PTA’s examination of emotions and he’ll likely bounce back with something totally different.  For now, we should enjoy our meal that’s been put in front of us.  It may be extra long, er, large but it’s filling.

Movie Review ~ Nightmare Alley (2021)

The Facts:  

Synopsis: An ambitious carny with a talent for manipulating people with a few well-chosen words hooks up with a female psychiatrist who is even more dangerous than he is. 

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Rooney Mara, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen, David Strathairn, Holt McCallany 

Director: Guillermo del Toro 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 150 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8.5/10) 

Review:  ‘Tis the season for directors that just ‘get’ movies to be coming back to theaters with a vengeance.  Filmmakers that simply understand the language of cinema and the power of the medium have had some time to either tweak their projects that were delayed due to the COVID-19 lockdown or have been continuing to work through the pandemic to finish their anticipated flicks on schedule.  And it’s so good to have them back because as much as we like to believe that moviemaking is more and more like a collaborative process, when all is said and done the buck stops with the director because it’s their vision that dictates what the tone of the film is going to be.  That’s why you can spot a Steven Spielberg (West Side Story) movie from a mile away or recognize the latest from Paul Thomas Anderson (Licorice Pizza) as it draws near, not to mention waffling around an Adam McKay satire (Don’t Look Up) and deciding if it’s for you or not.

Another director that has become instantly recognizable is Guillermo del Toro and maybe more than anyone I’ve already mentioned the Oscar-winner for The Shape of Water has a signature style that couldn’t possibly be anything else but him.  The early trailers for Nightmare Alley were classic del Toro, with the noir-ish period setting that we know was set in the past but how far in the past was anyone’s guess, well, if you hadn’t already read the 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham that inspired it.  Not just a well-respected filmmaker but a celebrated film fan as well, del Toro engineered those trailers and even the marketing of Nightmare Alley to be as mysterious as can be, keeping hidden the true plot of the film and it’s worked out wonderfully in creating interest to see just what is down this Alley of del Toro’s creation.

While you won’t get any spoilers out of me, I will say that like many of the foreboding places that frightened us when we were young, Nightmare Alley is a movie that gets less intriguing as more light leaks onto the shadowy plot, but for a time it does it’s work considerably well.  It also gives some already strong actors even more rich moments to add to their lifetime achievement reels.  If only the plot could be as finely etched as the performances that are floating through the piece, then we might have had something as grand as del Toro wanted to give us. 

Joining a traveling circus to escape a past we learn in doled out fragments, Stanton “Stan” Carlisle (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) remains a silent mystery for most of the first hour of Nightmare Alley.  Observing the carnies and hucksters who entice onlookers into the cheap freak show, he eventually moves onto working with Pete (David Strathairn, Nomadland) and Zeena (Toni Collette, Muriel’s Wedding) on their clairvoyant act.  Learning the secrets of their success becomes an opportunity for Stan and before you know it, events occur which send Stan out into a world removed from the carnival folk where he puts the “powers” he has gained to use as a way of reinventing his life.

Years later, he’s working with fellow former performer and girlfriend Molly (Roony Mara, Side Effects) in a sophisticated act for high-paying customers when an elegant but hard-edged woman (Cate Blanchett, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) tries to trip him up and expose him as a fraud.  How this woman plays into Stan’s life and what is means for his future is where the real story of Nightmare Alley begins…and where this part of the review has to end because I wouldn’t dare reveal the twists which begin to entangle with deadly results anyone that gets too close to Stan.

An overly hesitant first act/hour is mere set-up for Blanchett to swoop into del Toro’s grandly staged Nightmare Alley and remind us all how much she loves her job. In a cast of VPs, she’s ready for noir, elevating each scene to its chilling maximum potential.  The centerpiece scene between Blanchett and Cooper is a considerable crown jewel of filmmaking for 2021 and is rightfully being shown ad nauseum in clips for the film and in campaigns for both actors for awards consideration.  I don’t know if the movie will make it across that line but if anyone has the potential to get there, it’s Blanchett for her gorgeously mysterious and dangerous efforts here.

As expected, del Toro provides visuals that are impressive without being needlessly flashy. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen, The Possession, a long-time collaborator with del Toro, clearly speaks the director’s language and their work in tandem gives the film its flawless period look, along with Tamara Deverell’s beautiful production design. Though overly episodic at times and more simplistically predictable than I would have anticipated, it’s also stunningly rendered by its creative team. Expect to leave Nightmare Alley wishing to have had just one more scene for a few characters left dangling. The 150 never-boring minutes you spend in your seat with Cooper and company does fly by, though.

Movie Review ~ The Mule


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A 90-year-old horticulturist and Korean War veteran is caught transporting $3 million worth of cocaine through Illinois for a Mexican drug cartel.

Stars: Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, Dianne Wiest, Michael Peña, Laurence Fishburne, Taissa Farmiga

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It’s time to put Clint Eastwood in the same bucket as Cher and Tina Turner, artists who said they were retiring from one stage of their career only to launch a comeback years later.  Now, I’m not sure if the grizzled Oscar-winning star of spaghetti Westerns and the Dirty Harry films would necessarily mind being in the company of the leggy Turner and the ageless songstress but he’s definitely said on two previous occasions that he was done acting in front of the camera (in 2008’s Gran Torino and 2012’s Trouble with the Curve) and yet here we are in 2018 talking about Eastwood’s latest acting turn in The Mule.

The arrival of The Mule came as a bit of a surprise to many, with the movie picking up late breaking steam in an already packed Oscar season.  This had Hollywood talking because the last time an Eastwood picture arrived on the scene late it was back in 2004 with Million Dollar Baby and we all know how that turned out: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor.  Many Oscar pundits suddenly were keeping a fifth slot in all categories open for The Mule on the off-chance Eastwood had another dark horse on his hands.

Well, The Mule has trotted into theaters and even if it’s not going to pose any threat to the already established Oscar contenders this year, it’s still a nice achievement for the 88 year old director who has managed to stay quite prolific over the years.  Though his early 2018 film The 15:17 to Paris was a significant critical and box office flop and his record is starting to become overly spotty (hello the horror of Jersey Boys) Eastwood knows how to construct a hit as the huge earnings of Sully and American Sniper indicate.  The evening showing of The Mule I attended was sold out and its crowd seemed comprised of Eastwood’s target audience, white late fifties Midwesterners who like their movies straightforward and not too challenging.

Written by Nick Schenk (The Judge) and inspired by Sam Dolnick’s New York Times Magazine Article “The Sinaloa Cartel’s 90-Year Old Drug Mule”, The Mule follows Earl Stone a former champion horticulturist facing foreclosure that starts to run drugs between Texas and Illinois as a way to earn money.  Well, actually Earl just drives the truck and doesn’t ask questions as to what his cargo is…he’s just happy to be making enough money to pay for his grandaughter’s wedding expenses, buy back his home, update his local VFW, and improve the lives of his family and friends in other ways.  For so many years Earl focused solely on his own needs, pushing his family aside and he begins to see in his advanced age how important making amends is.  What does he care how he makes the money as long as no one gets hurt?  As the runs get more frequent and the cargo gets bigger, the danger increases and Earl is watched not only by paranoid figures within the cartel but DEA agents tasked with bringing down the ring of drug smugglers.

While Eastwood keeps the film moving along at a good pace, there are multiple storylines he’s balancing and not all of them feel like they totally work.  The best moments are actually when Eastwood is flying solo, talking to himself on the road or singing along to oldies as he makes the trip from TX to IL.  There’s a ease the actor/director has with the camera that feels familiar and right, he’s the strongest when he’s by himself.  Awkward moments showing Earl’s inherent bigotry are played for laughs but is it really all that hilarious to laugh at or excuse away hard-wired racism in 2018?  Everyone seems willing to just brush it off as “Oh, he’s just old”…but where is the person that stands up and says “No, we don’t talk like that anymore.”  That character isn’t in this movie and it should be consider a missed opportunity that they aren’t.

Eastwood obviously called in a few favors when pulling together his supporting case.  There’s Dianne Wiest (Parenthood) acting up a storm in her cat-eye glasses as Earl’s bitter ex-wife who gradually softens the more he shows he’s not the absent husband/father he was when they were married.  Wiest and Eastwood have a good rapport, though I never in a million years believe they were ever hitched.  Taissa Farmiga (The Nun) fares poorly as Earl’s granddaughter – sure, she’s saddled with some creaky dialogue but the performance is just so weak when you compare it to who else she’s on screen with.  Laurence Fishburne (Last Flag Flying) is a DEA Special Agent obsessed with getting “busts” and tasks agent Colin Bates (Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born) in making sure he makes good on his promise to track down the mule.  It’s well known Eastwood is Cooper’s mentor and you can feel Cooper absorbing every screen trick Eastwood employs throughout the film.  I also liked Andy Garcia (Book Club) in his brief supporting turn as the flamboyant head of the Mexican drug cartel.

Even though I’d love for him to make an appearance in a movie directed by his protégé Cooper, it seems like this was the movie that Eastwood truly will call his final acting on screen – I mean why else would he include not one but two scenes of him bedding two ladies at once?  Feeling like your grandfather’s version of what a drug movie would be like (with an inordinate amount of shots of women’s butts in thongs), The Mule is a watchable film that has a surprisingly poignant climax but one that won’t go down as one of Eastwood’s most memorable.

Movie Review ~ A Star is Born (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Dave Chappelle, Sam Elliott, Anthony Ramos, Andrew Dice Clay

Director: Bradley Cooper

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can say about this fourth version of A Star is Born it is that you should most definitely believe the hype that has followed the film for the last several months as it has held private screenings and then debuted at the fall festivals. After laboring in development for nearly a decade and going through directors like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg and rumored stars such as Will Smith and Beyoncé, the stars have aligned (literally) and produced a mega-watt 2018 version of this timeless tale of stardom.

I think we can all thank our fair godmothers Eastwood didn’t find his way behind the camera. As much respect as I have for him as a director, his films over the last few years have gotten stodgy and square which is the exact opposite tone of what was needed to bring this story into a new era. Instead we have Eastwood adjacent Oscar-nominated Bradley Cooper in the director’s chair and he’s definitely taking a confident page from his American Sniper colleague in moving from the actor period of his career into the actor-director phase.

The last time A Star is Born was seen onscreen was a whopping 42 years ago in Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson’s ill-advised update which moved the action from Hollywood to the rock-and-roll music scene of the late ‘70s. That version was sunk by a lead actress that wasn’t right for the character, a leading man that wilted in the presence of his co-star, a script that stunk, and a director that couldn’t salvage it. Plain and simple, it was a blight on the 1937 and 1954 versions and while it was the third highest grossing film of 1976 it’s considered by many to be the least enjoyable of the triptych.  It’s no small miracle, then, that Cooper and fellow screenwriters Eric Roth (Forrest Gump and Wolfen) and Will Fetters (The Lucky One) managed to keep the music setting of the 1976 version but brought back the magic and music of the 1954 version along with the tragedy of the 1937 original. Here’s the best cinematic take on the material, a handsome film that runs too long but has such a dynamic duo at its center that audiences will easily forgive sitting in their seats 15 minutes longer than necessary.

Though decades have passed, the story of A Star is Born remains the same: A young upstart is guided to fame by a man whose own career is nearing the end. Aging country singer Jackson Maine (Cooper, Silver Linings Playbook) is a hard-drinker that’s losing his hearing. Though not struggling to stay relevant as previous iterations of this character, he’s in a certain holding pattern in his career where he can see the writing on the wall. Desperate for another drink and not wanting to go back to his hotel, he has his driver drop him at the nearest bar…and it happens to be a drag club that Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing in. Her performance and presence captivate him and they spend a night discussing his life, her plans, and everything in between.

The first hour of A Star is Born is devoted to Jackson and Ally’s burgeoning relationship as he whisks her away from her job and family (dad is played by Andrew Dice Clay, Blue Jasmine) to constantly be by his side. Jackson’s creativity is reenergized by Ally’s talent and by the time he brings her onstage for a duet of the song they co-wrote on the fly the film is positively bursting at the seams to have audiences stand up and cheer. Much like Judy Garland’s performance of The Man that Got Away early on in the 1954 version, the rest of the film can’t quite match that jolt of lightening moment, even though Cooper and Gaga fill the remaining time with memorable music and scenes that highlight the rocky road to fame and the dramatic fall of losing it all.

All pervious takes on A Star is Born have placed the female lead as the heart and soul of the picture but, and this is no slight on Lady Gaga who more than holds her own in the acting department, Cooper walks away with the movie. His greasy hair, grizzled features, and gravely voice instantly give you the entire story of years of rough living and his weary eyes tell of a man with a soul that is winding down. Meeting Ally and falling in love saves him from falling over the edge but is her love and care enough to keep him on steady ground? Cooper digs deep here and by the time the film reaches it’s four-hanky finale with the most startling ending yet, your heart more than aches for him.

As mentioned above, any fears that Lady Gaga wouldn’t be up for the challenge vanish almost the moment she appears onscreen. Though she does her best work while signing (as someone who has attended four of her concerts I can tell you she gives 150% every time and that’s the same here) Cooper coaxes far more nuance out of her than most people will realize. The chemistry between the two is off the charts and you can expect both actors to be showered with awards and/or nominations at the end of the year.

Another person to mention is Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams, Grandma) as Cooper’s manager/big brother who has had to play father and sober cab nursemaid to his sibling while foregoing his own dreams and aspirations. Elliott has always been a strong presence in films but he’s given some pretty special scenes here that allow him to stretch further than he’s gone in quite some time. It helps that Cooper matches Elliott’s bottom basement growl; I had no trouble believing these were brothers with a fraught history.

The first half of the movie is so good and well paced that the numerous leaps in time that fill the second half are a bit jarring. Focused on Ally’s rise to fame as a pop music star (hosting Saturday Night Live, being nominated for a Grammy, etc) the film hops around quite a bit and leaves some storytelling elements in the dust. That’s also when Lady Gaga is at her weakest as her musical performances feel a bit restrained and overproduced. Anytime the two leads are alone on screen, however, brings the movie back to solid ground and by the time we reach the end we’re on the edge of our seats even if we already know how it’s going to end.

It’s easy to see why this garnered such hugely positive buzz months before it was released. It’s been finished for some time and waiting for it’s October release date. In the meantime, Cooper isn’t a dummy and wisely showed it to several big names in Hollywood (including Streisand) who have been effusive in their praise of the film. When it rolled out to critics they too were taken by the prestige of the picture and by the time the general public gets their eyes on it this weekend I’m certain even more good notices will come their way. It’s going to go even further with strong word-of-mouth and, I’m guessing, repeat business. I’m already finding time in my schedule to see it again.

The Silver Bullet ~ A Star is Born (2018)

Synopsis: A movie star helps a young singer and actress find fame, even as age and alcoholism send his own career into a downward spiral

Release Date:  October 5, 2018

Thoughts: A third remake of 1937’s A Star is Born has been in the works for a while.  It was long thought Clint Eastwood would direct Beyoncé and Will Smith in the story of a fading rock icon mentoring and falling for a star on the rise but the A-listers couldn’t align their schedules and Eastwood lost interest.  Cut to Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) directing his first feature and snagging Lady Gaga, one of pop music’s most prominent celebrities, to costar alongside him.  It’s a well known secret many people in Hollywood have already seen this  – the notoriously fame-averse Sean Penn says its one of the best films he’s seen and calls Gaga “a miracle.”  While Gaga earned a Golden Globe for her work on American Horror Story: Hotel her acting, well, didn’t quite sing in my book.  After catching this first look at her work here, could Gaga be on the Cher route to Oscar gold?

The Silver Bullet ~ Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

guardians_of_the_galaxy_vol_two

Synopsis: The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage.

Release Date: May 5, 2017

Thoughts: Surpassing the expectations of audiences and even, I think, its own studio, Guardians of the Galaxy was a late summer splash in 2014.  Elevating star Chris Pratt to A-List status (further cemented the next summer when he headlined Jurassic World) and bringing to the screen heroes that didn’t wear a red cape or a cowl, GoTG was slick, funny, exciting, and fueled with enough adrenaline to power several city blocks.  The hype is big for Vol. 2 when it arrives in May 2017 and this first teaser is but a taste of things to come (not to mention multiple full length trailers).  In all honesty, like the trailer for the original this one is too jokey for my taste but as a whistle whetter, it gets the job done.

Movie Review ~ Joy

joy

The Facts:

Synopsis: Joy is the story of a family across four generations and the woman who rises to become founder and matriarch of a powerful family business dynasty.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Édgar Ramírez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Elisabeth Röhm, Bradley Cooper

Director: David O. Russell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The good news to report about Joy is that it’s eons better than American Hustle, the last film that teamed up director David O. Russell with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Robert De Niro.  The bad news is that, like American Hustle, it’s largely a watch it and forget it kind of experience with only Lawrence’s performance lingering in the memory after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up.

Working with the same three actors for his last three pictures, one could argue that Russell is gathering a bit of a cinematic repertory of talent that he finds a way to plug into his films.  That’s an interesting concept and one I’m not totally opposed to, but the problem arises when the roles being offered to these stars don’t fit them, forcing them to be the square peg valiantly sucking in their guts to fit into Russell’s round hole.

Touted as being “loosely” based on the life of Joy Mangano (c’mon Russell, it’s either based on her life or it isn’t…you can’t ride the middle ground), Joy is all over the map when it comes to its narrative.  Much of the movie is recounted by Joy’s grandmother (a divine Diane Ladd)…except when it’s not.  Long stretches of the movie go by without the grandmother’s guiding voice so the narrative device becomes a tool to assist in transitions when simple filmmaking alone can’t do the trick.

Mangano’s life plays like an ‘80s sitcom: she’s a divorcee living in her mother’s house and her ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez, Point Break) lives in the basement.  Her mom (Virginia Madsen) hides away from the world, losing herself in her soap operas (hilariously recreated by the likes of Susan Lucci and Donna Mills) and letting her daughter do most of the household upkeep.  When Joy’s hot-tempered father (De Niro, Cape Fear) moves in after his longtime girlfriend kicks him out, the dynamic of the already erratic household is thrown into disarray.

The first hour or so of Joy is an awkward mix of family situational comedy and pallid drama.  Joy’s airline job is going nowhere and her attempts at promoting a new kind of mop of her own invention isn’t attracting any business.  When her dad starts dating a rich Italian widow (Isabella Rossellini, Enemy), Joy sees a potential investor for her creation and enters into a business deal with the woman, along with her father and half-sister (Elisabeth Röhm)

It isn’t until Joy winds up in the offices of upstart company QVC that the movie starts to take some kind of shape.  Meeting the brainchild behind the business (Bradley Cooper, American Sniper), she’s encouraged to go big with her idea, leading to her becoming the first “real” person to pitch a product on the network.  The scene where Joy first appears in front of the camera to demonstrate her Miracle Mop was the only time in the entire movie that I felt something magical was happening.  That’s largely due to Lawrence’s ability to shed the skins of her previous roles and totally disappear into this woman.  A relatively short scene, it’s stuck with me in the weeks since I first saw it.

Sadly, the film reaches its peak at that moment and the rest of the time is spent tracking Joy’s bumpy ride to the top, complete with epic failures and miracle reversals of fortune.  How much of it is actually accurate I couldn’t tell you but in the eyes of Russell and co-writer Annie Mumalo (This is 40) the journey is one of pure will and unflinching drive.

The main issue I had with the movie is also the one thing that makes it worth seeing…Jennifer Lawrence.  Though she’s entirely believable as a young mother looking to make ends meet, she becomes less successful as the years go by and her character has to move into the early stages of midlife.  By the time we see her in a power suit and French manicure, all plausibility has left the room and it comes across as a great actress playing dress-up for her favorite director.  I know Lawrence and Russell have a deep fondness for each other, but both need to see that there are limits to the roles they can work on together.

The story being told here is interesting and the actors are attention-grabbing in and of themselves.  Yet something kept everything from gelling in a way that made a lasting impression.  Russell is known for his quirky tone and unexpected performances…it’s why Silver Linings Playbook worked so damn well…but his two follow-up films haven’t been able to latch onto that same magic.

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
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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!

The Silver Bullet ~ Burnt

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Synopsis: Adam Jones is a Chef who destroyed his career with drugs and diva behavior. He cleans up and returns to London, determined to redeem himself by spearheading a top restaurant that can gain three Michelin stars.

Release Date:  October 23, 2015

Thoughts: Before Bradley Cooper was BRADLEY COOPER OMGOMGOMGOMGOMG he had a brief flirt with fame as the star of the much-touted by short-lived Fox show Kitchen Confidential, the small screen adaptation of infamous chef Anthony Bourdain’s autobiography.  While that show lasted only 13 episodes, it was enough to get Cooper the attention of big screen players, leading to roles in Wedding Crashers and Failure to Launch before officially hitting the big time with The Hangover.  Now a four time Oscar nominee (American Sniper {which he also produced}, American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook), Cooper has his pick of roles so it’s interesting that he chose to revisit the kitchen with Burnt.  He might be cooking with gas though because the film looks like a nice showcase not only for Cooper but several other stars, but veteran and rising.  Co-starring Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures), Daniel Bruhl (Rush), Alicia Vikander (Ex-Machina), Uma Thurman, Omar Sy (Jurassic World),  and Cooper’s American Sniper co-star Sienna Miller, it’s a bit worrisome that it’s on its third proposed title and that it’s directed by John Wells who sluggishly oversaw August: Osage County…but never count-out Cooper’s ability to present a good dish.