Movie Review ~ Last Flag Flying


The Facts
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Synopsis: Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, a former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon and Reverend Richard Mueller, to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez, Kate Easton, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It’s not lost on this reviewer that the director behind the tin-eared Last Flag Flying is Richard Linklater.  Linklater has built a career on authentic sounding/feeling movies like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, not to mention his career high of Boyhood.  Following that up with the enjoyable Everybody Wants Some! which was seen as a spiritual sequel to his earlier Dazed and Confused, Linklater seemed like he was entering a mid-career golden zone of easy-going character driven films.

So you’ll forgive me for being pretty surprised that he’s at the helm of Last Flag Flying, a phony baloney film that not only wastes two good actors (and one mediocre one) but your valuable holiday time as well.   A kinda-sorta sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail (which, full disclosure, I have not seen), this is a long trip with a short premise and it all goes nowhere.  I’m usually fairly forgiving with movies that limp out of the gate if they can finish strong but this one falls flat from the very beginning and never gets back up again.

On a cold night in 2003, a Larry Shepherd enters a dive bar in Virginia.  The man (Steve Carell, Freeheld) strikes up a conversation with Sal, the guy behind the bar (Bryan Cranston, Godzilla) and reveals himself to be an old Vietnam war buddy the bartender hasn’t seen in decades.  With lingering guilt over a crime Sal was involved with that Larry took the fall for, Sal agrees to accompany Larry on a day trip to a church nearby.  That’s where they meet up with former comrade in arms Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, Passengers), who has transformed from a war-time wild man to a man of the cloth.

Larry has tracked down these two men because he recently lost not only his wife to a long-term illness but has just learned his son was killed in the Iraq war.  Would these men accompany Larry as he buries his son in Arlington Cemetery, you know, for old times sake?  Mueller was also involved with the indiscretion that saw Larry serving time in custody and while Larry doesn’t explicitly say the two men owe him one, the suggestion is that this small favor is something they can do to right a past wrong and clear their conscience.  It also helps Mueller’s wife forces him to go.

Thus begins a road trip that stretches across multiple states and forms of transportation as the three men bring the fallen solider home to his final rest.  Along the way old war wounds are opened and the guys must come to terms with what they did and how that changed the course of everything they’ve done since they returned to the states.  There’s even a chance for some small redemption with a stop to visit with the mother (Cicely Tyson, Alex Cross, excellent with limited screen time) of a soldier killed in Vietnam.

All of this should have panned out to a rewarding experience, but the movie is so faux in thought, word, and deed that I never warmed to anyone or anything on screen.  I never once bought that the three leads were former military, nor that they would ever in a million years be friends.  I know war makes friends out of enemies but there’s no authenticity in the performances or in the script from Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan.  While Fishburne is the most believable, he’s also the one least invested in the movie.  Carell continues to be an actor with interesting depths but struggles with a role that asks him to emote in all the wrong ways.  As usual, the actor that has the greatest trouble is poor Cranston who proves again that he’s an actor probably best suited for television.  Cranston’s performance (much like his hammy Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo) is all hot air and booming voice; when you place it aside Fishburne and Carell who are trying to find their own arcs he just crumbles under the pressure.  It’s a memorably forgettable performance in a movie that’s equally a huge write-off.

I can think of a half-dozen actors that could have pulled these roles off better but at the heart of the movie’s problems is a meandering script and poor pacing – that falls squarely on Linklater’s shoulders.  There’s a kernel of an appealing movie at play but before we’d even reached the halfway mark I was waving the white flag of distress.  Skip it… Now it’s time for me to go seek out The Last Detail.

Movie Review ~ Trumbo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though it’s not a great movie, Trumbo has been enthusiastically received by the lords and ladies of Tinseletown and I think I know why.  There’s nothing Hollywood loves so much as a good redemption story…especially one that it’s involved with.  Any chance they have to pat themselves on the back is taken with glee, even if it’s involving a dark stain on its history that never should have happened in the first place.

Playing like a made for TV movie that could have aired on HBO (where director Jay Roach has seen several of his political projects find great acclaim over the last decade), Trumbo is a hammy take on the years when numerous Hollywood players were put on the blacklist thanks to the McCarthy hearings.  Thought to be Communists in a time of great fear of the unknown, friends turned on friends and the mere mention of affiliation with the Communist parties saw careers, not to mention lives, destroyed.

Already explored in countless films/documentaries over the years (including a fictionalized take like 1991’s also mediocre Guilty by Suspicion), the way that Trumbo could have set itself apart was not playing like a standard biopic of one man’s downfall.  Yet it falls prey to every convention, every plot trap, every pothole that you can think of.  It may be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t go beyond the surface.

What elevates the film is the presence of several star players.  Helen Mirren and John Goodman have some solid screen time and make the most of it.  Mirren (Hitchcock) is Hedda Hopper, the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist with a poison pen for anyone that crosses her.  Mirren’s demeanor changes on a dime when challenged and the actress balances that sweet/sour persona with ease.  Goodman (Flight) is also notable as the hot-headed small-time studio exec that isn’t one to be pushed around.  And before Diane Lane (Man of Steel) fades into the background as her role becomes mere wallpaper, she’s a strong matriarch in a family that’s struggling.

These three performances can’t save the picture, though, mostly because they aren’t the leading player.  I’ve long struggled with Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Rock of Ages) onscreen, feeling that he’s never as good as people think he is and certainly lacking the charisma that made his Breaking Bad character such a legend.  He’s off the mark here for most of the picture, cartoonishly impersonating Dalton Trumbo’s voice and mannerisms that suggest he’s older than he really is.  It’s only when the character actually ages that the performance matches up.

Worst of the bunch is Louis C.K., completely out of his league as a disgraced writer dealt even more devastating blows as he falls from favor.  The comedian seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and with his dialogue, never convincing us that he’s to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.  It’s a woefully poor performance, and put up against the roster of other strong cast members it just can’t be considered on the same level.

As a biopic, I guess Trumbo earns marks for its draft of events.  It’s workmanlike in its execution and the production design is pleasing.  Still, I kept waiting for the film to be better, to say something extraordinary…instead of just playing by the rules.  Aside from Mirren, Goodman, and Lane…it’s a fairly insignificant telling of a painful part of history.

Movie Review ~ Godzilla (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The world’s most famous monster is pitted against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence

Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen, Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins, David Strathairn, Bryan Cranston

Director: Gareth Edwards

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Boy, do I love a good blockbuster. Personally, I don’t lump the superhero films featuring men who can leap tall buildings in a single bound and hulky iron men teaming up with American captains quite into the same category as the epic scale movies that remind me of all those summer films I so eagerly anticipated back in the 90s. Give me a Jurassic Park over another Marvel film any day of the week, not that the Marvel films aren’t enjoyable in their own right.

Though I wasn’t yet born when 1975 became the summer of the shark (Jaws) and created the blockbuster event film, I do remember seeing Jurassic Park in theaters and I found myself flashing back to Spielberg’s dinosaur adventure as the reboot of Godzilla played out before my eyes. Here is a film that knows its audience, takes its time, and seemingly says “You want your money’s worth…OK…we can do that.” Setting a high bar for every other film to come in summer 2014, Godzilla is that must see entertainment that even people who only venture into a dark theater a few times a year will want to put on their list.

You know you’re in good hands right off the bat with a smart credit sequence that covers a lot of ground, showing newsreel clips from history about the A-Bomb testing and eventually making the suggestion that the bomb was actually used to subdue a threat to humankind rather than making a case for scientific advancement. From there, the film uses a lengthy prologue to its advantage as it hops continents, laying the groundwork for our titular monster to rise again from the ocean depths.

Not too long after an estranged scientist father (Bryan Cranston, Argo, Rock of Ages) and his military son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Kick Ass 2, Savages) are reunited in Tokyo, the men get swept up in a closely guarded multi-government secret involving, well, here’s the rub…I could tell you what they find is being contained in an abandoned nuclear power plant but that would give away one of the secrets the marketing department over at Warner Brothers has wisely kept out of sight. Let’s just say that it ain’t good for anyone involved. What they find there sets into motion a good old fashioned creature feature as a hunt ensues with edge of your seat thrills and the kind of massive destruction of major West Coast cities that only a fire breathing lizard could be forgiven for.

Director Gareth Edwards and screenwriter Max Borenstein take a page from Spielberg’s Jaws (even naming of the leads Brody) and keep Godzilla out of sight until almost half the movie has gone (flown, really) by. When he’s finally shown in full, the effect is similar to the first time the shark in Jaws rears up to say hi to Roy Scheider – that of a giddy release that the great beast is actually as satisfyingly menacing as we imagine him to be. Impressively rendered via state of the art visual effects, this 2014 Godzilla is a mash up of many different versions of the beast over the years. Edwards and company did their research and have produced a greatest hits Godzilla, and the overall effect is spot-on.

There’s a lot going on in the film and if the end result is that the flesh and blood characters get a little short shrift, I’m totally OK with it…especially when you have a scenery chewer like Cranston on board. Much like Jon Hamm in Million Dollar Arm, Cranston proves that he’s no movie star (something he seems to have been making a case for in a series of disastrous supporting roles the last few years) thanks to a hammy, overly emotive performance. When Godzilla’s performance can be described as more subtle, you know you’re on the wrong track. It also doesn’t help he seems to be wearing two of the least convincing wigs in recent memory…the first making it look like he has the same haircut as Juliette Binoche.

The rest of the players seem to be content with playing second fiddle to the lizard. Taylor-Johnson’s cardboard performance oddly works for the film and Elizabeth Olsen (Oldboy) does what she can as a woman always either crying or on the verge of tears. As in-the-know scientists, Oscar nominee Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine) and Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins) are called on only when needed but lend a head-scratching gravitas. Even with Cranston, Edwards has pulled together a unique cast, one that you wouldn’t instantly think “Monster Movie” if you heard their name.

Don’t get too wrapped up in the human element of the film because this is an old-fashioned yet decidedly modern monster movie through and through…and a damn entertaining one at that. The first half of the film is largely a set-up for the mayhem of the second hour and the wait is both involving and well worth it. By creating a believable back story and letting his star shine, Edwards has done what Roland Emmerich’s soggy 1998 attempt couldn’t…have its lizard cake and eat it too. April showers truly brought May flowers as Godzilla stakes an early claim as the best film of the summer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Godzilla (2014) Trailer #2

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Synopsis: A giant radioactive monsters called Godzilla appears to wreak destruction on mankind.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Even after the impressive teaser trailer for Warner Bros. big (like really big) budget reboot of Godzilla I remained a tad skeptical.  Sure, the preview was edited in such a fashion that kept the title character a mystery until the final shadowy moments but would the movie just be effects-heavy rehash of the famously goofy Godzilla films of the past?  Well, the second trailer has arrived and it stirs a greater excitement in this viewer, suggesting an edge of your seat sci-fi action epic as much about the radioactive beast as it is about the havoc he leaves in his wake.  Roaring onto the screen at the start of a busy 2014 summer season, Godzilla is quickly moving to highly anticipated status in my little black book.

The Silver Bullet ~ Godzilla (2014)

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godzilla_ver3

Synopsis: A giant radioactive monster called Godzilla appears to wreak destruction on mankind.

Release Date:  May 16, 2014

Thoughts: Though he first arrived in 1954 in one of the many campy big rubber monster movies, ever since 1998’s Hollywood-ized version of Godzilla belly flopped at the box office that mean ole monster has been keeping a low profile here in the states, retreating to the deep waters from whence he came with his powerful tail between his legs.  Warner Brothers is giving the big guy another go in 2014 and this first teaser is a nicely compact taste of what audiences can expect from a new millennium Godzilla.

With a story by David S. Goyer (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel) that led to a script Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) put a shine on, and featuring cast members like Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Bryan Cranston (Argo, Rock of Ages), and Aaron Taylor-Johnson(Savages, Anna Karenina), actors so diverse that you’d think they were in a spoof video on Jimmy Fallon, I’m digging what I’m seeing, finding this to be an effective first glimpse at Godzilla’s next bid for domination.

Movie Review ~ Total Recall (2012)

The Facts:

Synopsis: A factory worker, Douglas Quaid, begins to suspect that he is a spy after visiting Rekall – a company that provides its clients with implanted fake memories of a life they would like to have led – goes wrong and he finds himself on the run.

Stars: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bokeem Woodbine, Bryan Cranston

Director: Len Wiseman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  There are some movies that need to be remade.  Maybe something went awry the first time a film was produced that caused it to fail or not hit the right chord.  Maybe it was the casting…the perfect star wasn’t born yet.  Maybe the technology wasn’t available to put a shine on a film that needed buffing.  Countless reasons exist to look back into film history and take another stab at a mediocre film.  Trouble is, Hollywood isn’t that creative so instead they are looking at what was popular ten or twenty years ago and putting these films through the remake wringer.  It’s a cannibalistic industry and its appetite is growing.

Sometimes the effect is acceptable.  I found 2011’s update of Footloose to be a great example of how to please the audiences of now while not upsetting fans of the original.  With clever nods to the 80’s film that inspired it, the movie landed quite well and stood on its own two feet.  Last summer a 3D remake of Fright Night was released and it too felt right to me because it used the original more as inspiration than doing a scene-for-scene remake.  It was funny, scary, and served its purpose without causing too much of a stir. 

The star of that remake, Farrell, is back in another summer remake but this time with less than stellar results.  I consider 1990’s Total Recall to be a sci-fi classic that was a high point for star Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven.  With its strong production design, thrilling score, extreme action, and pulsing pace the 90’s Recall was a huge box office hit and is still highly regarded today.

It’s a puzzlement, then, that Sony Pictures felt the need to release a so-so remake that is not superior in any way to the original.  I’m not exaggerating when I say that absolutely nothing in 2012’s Recall will make you forget the vision that Schwarzenegger/ Verhoeven gave us – so it’s impossible to really enjoy the film.  It’s not a bad film, per se, but it’s overall so unnecessary that you’ll probably find yourself wondering why you just didn’t stay home and pop in your old DVD copy of it instead.

Here’s a film where a lot of effort yields sparse results.  The film is big and bombastic with nice special effects and some sincere performances…but at the end of the day it doesn’t add up to a movie with lasting value.  There are a few tips ‘o the hat to the original (the three-boobed lady being the most memorable) but it does feel like screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback purposely went against the grain to be different.  Messing with something that already worked ultimately doesn’t do anyone any favors.

Looking objectively, Farrell makes for a good leading man of the future that is put into danger when his erased memories are triggered during a journey to Total Rekall.  Total Rekall promises to give you “the memory of a lifetime” but this memory can’t be similar to any memories that currently exist in your brain.  Trouble is, because Farrell’s memory has been erased he doesn’t remember he used to be a spy which causes trouble when the procedure is begun.  Once he starts to remember, all hell breaks loose and he’s hunted down by various synthetic robots, corrupt police, and one very volatile operative (Beckinsale) with secrets of her own.

Giving credit where it’s due, there is more detail about the procedures and effects of Total Rekall in this film but trying to make sense of it all may throw you for a loop.  The beauty of the original was that you were never quite sure what was reality and what was “Rekall” but here you always know which world you’re operating in. 

Maybe it’s because the film does follow the same trajectory as the first that this viewer always knew what was coming next.  Surprise revelations and scenarios are anticipated rather than revealed so nothing came as a surprise.  Perhaps someone not familiar with the Verhoeven film would get more out of the movie but as it stands, I kept checking off various events as we neared the end.

I’m not familiar with the Phillip K. Dick source material this was based on so I’m not sure if this one is more true to the original plot but even so there seems to be a pretty thin objective for the main villain (Cranston in yet another bad wig and overzealous performance.  After a dismal turn in Rock of Ages earlier this summer, Cranston probably should stick to winning awards for television shows) and in the end it doesn’t seem to really matter.  The story is more interested in Farrell and his daring escapes while being pursued.

The film really could have been called Colin Farrell Jumps Off Stuff because that would be a more accurate way to describe most of the action sequences.  Farrell never misses an opportunity to jump off a roof or through a window and nearly every scene is punctuated with a man who leaps from ramshackle buildings in a single bound.  In the Blade Runner inspired production design, that gives him a lot of buildings for jumping off points as he evades Beckinsale in her pursuit.

Beckinsale is married to director Wiseman (they also collaborated on the Underworld films) and her role has been beefed up probably so he could keep her on set longer.  She seems to be an amalgam of the Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside characters from the original and that plays well into Beckinsale’s butt-kicking persona and wicked streak.  She’s fun for most of the film until she becomes just part of a series of plot devices rather than an actual character. 

She comes off better than fish-faced Biel who does adequately until the final few minutes when her thin acting talent shines through.  Also, Biel and Beckinsale look pretty similar so it becomes confusing as to who we are following during chase sequences.  Overall, Biel seems to be a weak choice for this role and I would have preferred a less refined looking actress in the role.

As I mentioned before, the action sequences are not too bad with a few inventive sequences.  Alas, they don’t make up for everything that comes between them that feels warmed over with a been-there-done-that vibe.  I often found myself wondering why the film had to take the route it does to get to a ho-hum conclusion.  It’s not a high-stakes film, you never have any doubt who is going to make it and who won’t so you just munch on your popcorn and shift in your seat until the expected outcome arrives.

My advice is to take the 2012 Total Recall for what it is…a mediocre remake of a film that didn’t need to be remade in the first place.  It’s diverting enough to not make you pull your hair out but you may regret spending the money on movie that you already got your money’s worth out of 22 years ago.