Movie Review ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil


The Facts
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Synopsis: Maleficent and her goddaughter Aurora begin to question the complex family ties that bind them as they are pulled in different directions by impending nuptials, unexpected allies, and dark new forces at play.

Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Skrein, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Harris Dickinson, Sam Riley, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Robert Lindsay

Director: Joachim Rønning

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The spindles of the spinning wheels were poised and ready to strike when Maleficent was released in 2014 to much fanfare.  How would ardent fans of the classic Disney animated feature Sleeping Beauty react to a live-action retelling of the genesis of the evil fairy that cursed the snoozing princess?  Crafting a backstory for the dark fairy that softened her up a bit but still let her sinister side through, the film was saturated with CGI and not all of it looked great.  While it added it’s own twist to the fairy tale, it still felt tied to the source material and lifted large portions of dialogue from the 1959 animated film.  The result was a box-office winner that satisfied but didn’t exactly inspire – there was simply too large a shadow looming over it.

Five years later Maleficent is back and this time she’s free from being moved through the paces recounting a story we already know the end of and more’s the better in my opinion.  While it still relies far too much on CGI (though in a make-believe kingdom stuffed with elves, sprites, and other woodland creations what did you expect?) it’s a more engaging story than the first.  I won’t say the stakes are exactly higher in the sequel but future happiness for more than just Princess Aurora (now Queen of the Moors Aurora) is on the line.  The biggest improvement is that screenwriters Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), Micah Fitzerman-Blue, and Noah Harpster give star Angelina Jolie a worthy opponent in another high cheekbone-d A-lister.

Living in their happily ever after bliss, Aurora (Elle Fanning, The Neon Demon) and Philip (Harris Dickinson) decide to make it official and get married, much to the dismay of Maleficent (Jolie, Kung Fu Panda 2) who still feels the sting of scorned love and wishes to keep her goddaughter close to her.  Pledging to keep Aurora happy, Maleficent agrees to meet Philip’s parents for a dinner at their castle but doesn’t make a great first impression, living up to her reputation as a temperamental guest.  When the King (Robert Lindsay) falls under a spell before they can have dessert, Queen Ingrith (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) accuses Maleficent of resorting to her old tricks to stop the wedding.

Fleeing the castle and Aurora’s suspecting glare, Maleficent is injured and taken in by a horde of Dark Feys, winged creatures like her that possess many of her same powers.  Even without her godmother by her side, Aurora moves forward with her wedding to Philip, unknowingly entering into dangerous territory with Ingrith who has a dark agenda planned for her future daughter-in-law and the land she reigns over.  As a war brews between the human kingdom and the Moor forces, a power struggle emerges between Ingrith and Maleficent that will alter the fate of many of our favorite characters.

What’s surprising to note in Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is how much time Jolie is absent from the film.  It’s not a significant amount of time but there are large stretches when you’ll likely miss her presence because she lends the film (as she did in the first) a certain winking fun.  When she’s not onscreen, the action starts to feel a little melodramatic and silly and even Pfeiffer isn’t immune to some over-the-top bits of camp.  Still, Pfeiffer doesn’t often get to play the heavy like she does here and she looks like she’s having a grand time in her gorgeous costumes by Ellen Mirojnick (The Greatest Showman).  The sparring between Pfeiffer and Jolie is a bit restrained (even the ladies in Downton Abbey got a few more snide jabs in) but they are both strong forces that have a commanding onscreen presence.  Often, the screen is definitely not big enough for the two of them.

While the CGI is still plentiful, it’s smoother looking than the first film so not quite as cartoony this time around.  I enjoyed the aerial views of the two kingdoms resting next to one another and the various creature creations the artists have dreamed up.  I could have done without two gibberish speaking nymphs that get trapped in a dungeon by a fallen pixie (Warwick Davis, Solo: A Star Wars Story) but as a whole the variety of flora and fauna were a wonder to behold.  Director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kon-Tiki) keeps the movie going full steam ahead, even if it does clock in longer than it should running nearly two hours.  There’s perhaps a bit too much time spent with the Dark Feys Borra (Ed Skrein, Alita: Battle Angel) and Conall (Chiwetel Ejiofor, The Lion King) without giving them more backstory but its in service to getting back to the main action with Maleficent and Ingrith.

While I still find Fanning to be lacking in the total package for a next generation leading lady, she’s improving and shows it here with a more balanced take on a princess coming into her own.  Paired with the cardboard-ish Dickinson, she doesn’t let the script put her into a damsel in distress box and gamely takes action in the super-sized finale.  There’s one line near the end that’s terribly misogynistic that I’ve been stuck over for the last few days and it’s almost enough for me to knock the film a whole star down.  I’ve decided in the end I’m giving it a slight pass seeing the resolution to another storyline that could have gone wrong handled in an unexpected way.

Pairing nicely with the original movie, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil didn’t have a huge hurdle to overcome in living up to its predecessor.  I think it will please fans of the first film and, like me, might serve as an improvement over what came before.  It goes to show you how getting the right combination of people together is worth taking the time for, had this sequel been turned out quickly after Maleficent came out in 2014 it might not have been as polished as this follow-up is.

Movie Review ~ The Lion King (2019)


The Facts
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Synopsis: After the murder of his father, a young lion prince flees his kingdom only to learn the true meaning of responsibility and bravery.

Stars: Donald Glover, James Earl Jones, Billy Eichner, Seth Rogen, John Oliver, Alfre Woodard, Beyonce Knowles, Chiwetel Ejiofor, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph, John Kani, Florence Kasumba, Eric Andre, Keegan-Michael Key

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: There seem to be two camps of Disney animation aficionados. The first feel the studio hit its apex of its second golden age of hand-drawn animation in 1991 with Beauty & the Beast and the other side believe the tipping point was 1994 with the release of The Lion King. Both are a little right because each represent new advances not just in animation but in storytelling and musicality. Fans of the The Lion King are many and while I don’t count myself as one of the ride-or-die devotees of this Hamlet in the Serengeti tale I do appreciate it’s mature themes and humanistic approach to life and loss.

Even though I don’t find the film to be as precious as others, I was considerably surprised Disney would take the risk of adding this beloved classic to their growing roster of revisited films for a new generation.  It was easy to get Cinderella to go to the ball, Aladdin to find his magic lamp, and Pete’s Dragon was downright delightful…though it was considerably harder to convince audiences to see Dumbo take flight. Even so, how would they capture life in the African veldt in a somewhat realistic way? Going off of the success of the photorealistic computer generated animals created for 2016’s The Jungle Book, Disney handed the reins to back to director Jon Favreau and asked him to fully immerse himself in the technology to bring The Lion King to life.

Frankly, while the film is gorgeous to look at and makes the transition to screen far better than any other 2019 release has, it’s ultimately a bit of a pointless endeavor due to it being a nearly shot for shot remake of the animated original with very little creativity added in. At times, the film is frustratingly stuck in 1994, completely ignoring all of the new music added into the subsequent 1997 behemoth Broadway musical and many of its wise decisions in narrative structure. Once I resigned myself to it being so furiously beholden to the original film, I was able to settle in and admittedly got swept up in some of the grand scale of majesty, both visual and emotional, on display.

I have a feeling there will be a lot of audience members coming out of this 2019 retelling of The Lion King looking for someone to blame for the film not living up to their expectations so I’m going to run down the list of blame-ees to see if we can’t land on a culprit.

Blame Jon Favreau (Spider-Man: Far From Home). This one’s easy. Blame the director who brought only a concept to the table. Yes, the technology for The Jungle Book was a massive undertaking and the results quite splendid but the same magic doesn’t translate here. Going for realism over fantasy limits the film with rules in ways the animated one didn’t have to abide by. There’s little ingenuity to how the movie is constructed, with much of it, including the still goose-bump inducing ‘Circle of Life’ opening (sung by long time London Rafiki Brown Lindiwe Mkhize), just a complete copy of the first film.  I’m familiar enough with that opening sequence to recognize similar focus pulls and camera zooms so I’d love to see the two sequences side by side to see how close they are to each other. I’m a bit taken aback at how frightening Favreau let this one get. Animals that were slightly menacing as animated cells are positively terrifying when realistically rendered – parents should take note of the trio of teeth gnashing hyenas that are decidedly not played for laughs. There’s an attack/chase scene in this that rivaled Crawl for it’s tension and element of surprise.

Blame Julie Taymor. Poor Taymor has long been a scapegoat in the industry so why not throw her to the aforementioned hyenas here as well, right? I guess you could say she “ruined” The Lion King for multiple generations by creating such an unforgettable Broadway musical out of the original material. With brilliant costumes, soaring additional music, and a genius creativity flowing through each and every nook and cranny it set a new standard for what was possible in translating a film to stage.   Actually, she did what I feel the studio should have done here and that is to take the original film, retain the best parts about it and make something equally amazing out of it that lets both exist independently of the other. That doesn’t happen here. I can’t imagine people will be more inclined to watch this 2019 version over the 1994 original and then only if they couldn’t get tickets to the Broadway show.

Blame the cast. While it was nice to hear James Earl Jones (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) back as Mufasa and Billy Eichner is dang delight as Timon, much of the casting falls flat. What’s worse, several of the actors just plain and simple can’t sing. As perfect a villain voice as Chiwetel Ejiofor (Secret in Their Eyes) provides as Scar, his speak-singing his way through a stupefyingingly truncated ‘Be Prepared’ and unsure high notes are a real bummer. As Pumbaa, Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) is the worst offender and while the part doesn’t require a good voice it at least requires someone to stay on pitch. Donald Glover (The Martian) is also a bit of a dud as the adult Simba showing little fire while Beyonce Knowles-Carter’s Nala (Dreamgirls) doesn’t exactly sound like she’s part of a regal pride of lionesses.  Everyone sounds like they’ve just been woken up from a nap, the lions were definitely sleeping tonight before recording their lines.

Blame the Disney executives. Here is where I think we have our winner, the big baddie of them all. Though this can’t be called a live-action remake seeing that the entire film is computer-generated, it represents another attempt by Disney to again cannibalize their catalog. For what purpose? The argument I’ve heard is that “every generation deserves their version of these stories” but that’s just…stupid. By signing off on giving The Lion King a CGI upgrade but not bothering to incorporate any of the new music (aside from Beyonce’s incredibly mediocre Oscar-bait single which has no place in the film) or making inventive creative choices they’ve not provided a purpose for the movie to exist other than lining their purses.  At its best, this new Lion King takes flight because of the durability of the source material and at it’s worst it’s merely a product crafted mindlessly for consumption with a pretty awful Elton John sung tacked into the credits for good measure.

Yet I’m still encouraging people to see this film and will likely see it again myself in theaters.  It’s absolutely better than the dull Dumbo and wooden Aladdin and operates on a different scale of filmmaking.  When all is said and done, the bottom line is that the movie is incredible to look at and what works the best is what has made The Lion King a classic since it was first released 25 years ago. The songs from Elton John and Tim Rice are melodic and will stick in your head, Hans Zimmer’s score is rousing, and the storyline of parental loss and finding strength within is as resonant as ever. I’ve listened to the soundtrack now a few times since seeing the movie and still get chills when the chorus of ‘Circle of Life’ fully kick in. No improvement on the original was needed to reinforce those feelings, though.

The Silver Bullet ~ Maleficent: Mistress of Evil



Synopsis
: Explores the complex relationship between the horned fairy and the soon to be Queen as they form alliances and face new adversaries in their struggle to protect the moors and the magical creatures that reside within.

Release Date: October 18, 2019

Thoughts: Though it was inspired by an undying classic and received a prestige release from Disney in 2014, Maleficent still managed to defy some lofty expectations to become a sizable hit.  Retelling the Sleeping Beauty story from the perspective of the supposedly evil protagonist (how very Wicked of them), the film had great visuals and a nice style but suffered from often being a word-for-word remake of the animated film.  It’s taken five years but the studio has enticed Oscar-winner Angelina Jolie (Unbroken) back to play the titular character and expanded her tale in an original story.  This first teaser hints at some interesting new alliances and feels less like a plain cash-grab. Will new director Joachim Rønning (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales) and the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer (mother!) help to elevate Maleficent: Mistress of Evil from being a sulky sequel?

Movie Review ~ Doctor Strange

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, Benedict Wong

Director: Scott Derrickson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Can I let you in on a little secret?  Every time I hear the phrase ‘space time continuum’ in a movie I start to look for the nearest exit.  After years of taking in sci-fi movies that zig zag and fold back on themselves (like Interstellar and Inception) I’m at the point where any talk of the butterfly effect, messing with the natural order, or the aforementioned space time continuum means that naptime is imminent for The MN Movie Man.

I make this admission at the start of my review of Doctor Strange so you know that though I went in with mid-range expectations for Marvel’s latest superhero origin story (as 2nd tier as the Doctor Strange character may be), the moment the talk turned to time travel my internal timer started its countdown to impatience.  Here’s a film with a lot of heavy hitters and some big ideas that can never corral them all into being on the same page at the same time. What made previous Marvel films work so well (aside from Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and Ant-Man) was a meeting of the minds where effects and character lived in entertaining harmony.

Shades of the first Iron Man haunt the first quarter of the movie as we meet a brilliant but uncouth surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) known for his steady hand and icy heart.  A terrible car crash (never text and drive, ok?) leaves him scarred and shaky but just as cool and distant to those that care for him.  Exhausting his options medically he hears of a possible miracle cure near Kathmandu and it’s there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck) who opens a new world of possibilities.

As he regains his strength and explores the untapped regions of his consciousness, Strange becomes wrapped up in a plot orchestrated by a nasty villain (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, who has a PhD in playing bad guys) and his crew of disciples wearing some fierce drag make-up to, what else?, destroy humanity.  Leaping from Hong Kong to London to New York, Strange makes a pit stop to get some medical attention from a former colleague and love interest (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight) before being chased through a kaleidoscopic parallel universe where the world gets turned literally upside down and inside out.

If you’re like me and are literally physically exhausted by movies that are all flash and special effects spectacle, you’ll get the same bad taste in your mouth from Marvel’s newest piece in their larger cinematic puzzle.  The best parts of Doctor Strange are also the most taxing on the brainwaves and when you add a 3D presentation on top of it all it’s time for the theaters should pass out free barf bags.  I don’t get queasy in movies but almost from the start I was nervously wondering where I would toss my cookies if I was forced to flee.

Yeah, the effects are impressive (and pleasantly colorful) when it counts but too often give off the stink of third level craftsmanship.  That goes for the script as well with McAdams’ character being so tragically underwritten they couldn’t even find a place for her to show up in the last 40 minutes.  Swinton seems to be having a crazy ball as a bald headed mystic (sketched in the comics as an elderly Asian man…oy) but Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) looks like he wants to cry for the majority of his screen time.  It’s only in the closing credits (it’s a Marvel movie, you know you need to stay to the end, right?) that we see what may have attracted him to the role.

That brings us to Cumberbatch who is merely serviceable in the title role.  Sitting here I can’t think who would have been better but the character is so onerous in his bravado that Cumberbatch has no room to wiggle around in.  Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) doesn’t do him any favors by allowing a cape to steal the scenes it shares with Cumberbatch…yes you read the right, Cumberbatch gets upstaged by an article of clothing.

If credit should go to something, it should be to the entire cast for giving it the good old college try with some very silly material.  Cumberbatch and his gang have a way of conjuring portals to hop continents by doing a modified “wax on” sort of motion and around the 100th time this action is performed I had to let a laugh escape.  The sight of all these characters making something out of nothing draws some obvious parallels to the Oscar nominees playing them.  Destined to be one of the films you’ll beg to skip if doing a Marvel marathon down the road, Doctor Strange wheezes when it should whallop.

Movie Review ~ Triple 9

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A gang of criminals and corrupt cops plan the murder of a police officer in order to pull off their biggest heist yet across town.

Stars: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Clifton Collins Jr., Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Michael K. Williams, Gal Gadot, Woody Harrelson, Kate Winslet

Director: John Hillcoat

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Triple 9 kinda snuck up on me.  Admittedly, I’ve been a little distracted with the upcoming Oscars to prep for and an aversion to perusing trailers that give too much of the movie away.  Still, I was surprised that a movie boasting the A-List talents that Triple 9 has didn’t register on my radar until it’s release date was already rapidly approaching.  We’ve emerged out of the murkiness of a dull January and are entering into the warmer waters of February and while Triple 9 isn’t the best work of anyone involved, it’s a solid entry into the crime drama family.

Presented with the right amount of grit, grime, and gore (one bloody scene takes place in a dilapidated housing project infested with vermin both human and animal), the movie takes a solid 45 minutes to get going into any interesting direction.  First it’s a heist film, then a cop drama, then it’s (briefly) a buddy picture before settling into its tale of corruption and double crosses.  All of it seems a bit recycled from better pictures but I kept going back to the fact that it’s quite well made and earnestly performed by its impressive roster of bad guys and gals.

The film opens with a bank robbery executed with tactical precision led by small time criminal Michael Atwood (Chiwitel Ejiofor, Secret in Their Eyes).  On a mission to obtain the contents of a security deposit box that’s set to net him and his crew a tidy sum upon delivery, Atwood has more than money on his mind as his payday is being funded by his son’s mother’s sister (did you follow that?), the acting head of a Russian mafia family.  When the boss lady (a smirking Kate Winslet, Labor Day) demands Atwood and his crew take on one more mission, it comes with hefty consequences for all involved.

Into the mix is thrown Chris Allen (Casey Affleck, The Finest Hours) a cop returning to duty in a new precinct.  The new kid on the block steps on some toes, including that of his grumpy partner (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) and the local gangbangers who are used to cops looking the other way. How Chris becomes linked to Atwood is one of the twists you’ll have to experience for yourself but no double cross comes as a surprise and no one is safe from the chopping block as one major character learns early on.

Look, there’s some good stuff to be found here, such as director John Hillcoat’s (Lawless) staging of several tense chase scenes and shoot-em-ups.  Hillcoat is solid at ratcheting up the stress meter of the actors and the audience as we peer around dark corners not knowing what we’ll find.  We’re all let down by Matt Cook’s script, a mish mash of underdeveloped characters and a final feeling that the whole dirty business was pretty pointless.  As you can see from the poster above and nearly all the marketing materials, red is the color du jour and Hillocat goes a little overboard with the red herrings and red visuals (smoke, clothes, signs, lighting, etc) to the point where you just want to say “OK, we get it…it’s symbolic.” and move on.

Ejiofor seems a little sleepy here, only coming alive in scenes where he’s going toe to toe with Winslet.  Winslet, for her part, is to be commended for trying out another bad girl (after her swing and a miss with Divergent) but it just doesn’t suit her…kinda like her iffy Russian accent.  Winslet’s actually in more of the movie than I thought she’d be, but it’s reduced to a series of scenes where she taunts Atwood that she can whisk his son away at any moment.  Aaron Paul (Need for Speed), Clifton Collins Jr. (Pacific Rim), Teresa Palmer (The Choice), and Gal Gadot (Fast & Furious 6) comprise the rest of the cast and, especially where the women are concerned, fade to the background faster than they should.  Let’s not forget Woody Harrelson’s (Out of the Furnace) half serious/half jokey performance as a veteran detective, the uncle to Affleck’s character.  Seeming to be impersonating his True Detective co-star Matthew McConnaughey’s laid back twang and sporting a confusing set of false teeth, Harrelson adds some spark to the film…but at what some significant cost to his overall effectiveness.

It’s a rather mulligan stew of a picture and it’s too long by a good twenty minutes, but Triple 9 isn’t a totally unwelcome guest.  Might be worth a lazy matinee day but it could easily wait to take up your time at home.

Movie Review ~ Secret in Their Eyes

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A tight-knit team of rising investigators, along with their supervisor, is suddenly torn apart when they discover that one of their own teenage daughters has been brutally murdered.

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Alfred Molina, Joe Cole, Michael Kelly

Director: Billy Ray

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  It’s always a funny thing to me when a well-respected foreign film gets remade for US audiences.  The US versions are frequently inferior, often lacking the risk taking afforded by films produced outside of the Hollywood system that’s more concerned with overall mass marketability than transferring the themes and ideas of its inspiration to American audiences.

So it’s no big shock that this North American remake of the South American thriller El Secreto de sus ojos doesn’t quite hit the same kind of riveting bullseye that propelled the original to be a surprise Best Foreign Film winner at the 2009 Academy Awards.  Based on a Spanish novel, the original film was a dark tale taking place in two different time periods with the same brutal murder the central focus of each.

Originally intended to feature Denzel Washington, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Julia Roberts when the remake took shape back in 2011, it would be another four years for Secret in their Eyes to finally see the light of day and by the time cameras were ready to roll Washington and Paltrow were out and Chiwetel Ejiofor and Nicole Kidman were in.  In some ways, the extra time and casting shake-up might have helped the film overall because by putting some distance between the original and altering the structure of its trio of leads (not to mention changing the gender completely of one character) I felt the movie was able to stand on its own quite capably.

In present day 2015, Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) is a former cop now working in private security for a NY baseball team that’s been haunted by a murder investigation involving his former partner (Robets, August: Osage County) 13 years earlier.  Thinking he’s stumbled upon a fresh lead for the case long since considered closed, he returns to California in hopes that his ally in the justice system (Kidman, Stoker) will re-open the case based on the new evidence.

All three players reunite early on and though they’ve taken different paths in the ensuing years, the lasting effect of this case clearly still holds something over them.  Roberts’ only child was the murder victim, found in a dumpster next to a mosque under investigation by the counter-terrorist unit she and Ejiofor are assigned to. Kidman was the young District Attorney supervisor new to her job that quickly gets in over her head with her colleagues when she strays too close to slicing through some political red tape involving her boss (a smarmy Alfred Molina, Monsters University).

Writer/director Billy Ray (Oscar nominated for his script for Captain Phillips and a helluva long way from his first script, the lurid Color of Night from 1994) adds some interesting hints of police corruption, but then again the past storyline is set in 2002 when the country was still reeling from the 9/11 attacks and law enforcement officials were tasked with getting answers no matter the cost.  At first, I felt that complexity took away some of the forward momentum of the case but Ray manages to tie it together nicely.

This seems like a passion project for Roberts (her husband was the cinematographer) and to her credit she dives head first into the mix as a woman preoccupied by the death of her daughter, riding the fine line between wanting justice and wanting vengeance…something the film makes very clear are two different things.  One character describes Roberts as looking “a million years old” and without a stich of make-up on Roberts is far away from the glamorous beauty that graces magazine covers.  Yet it never feels false, like she’s trying to be something she doesn’t have somewhere deep inside.  Roberts has to go to some dark places and she’s never anything but totally convincing with her pursed lips and tightly wound demeanor.

Ejiofor and Kidman have a trickier road to travel, nimbly working with the overt hints at a brewing romance rekindled as they work together to piece together the clues that might lead them to a killer.  Ejiofor favors overzealous reactions that feel showy but gets grounded when opposite Kidman with whom he has intriguing chemistry.  Kidman has the grace and poise to pull off the character and perhaps more than anyone feels like a wholly changed person in the present day sequences.

Viewers are advised to pay close attention to the time shifts because they can be confusing.  The best advice I can offer is to keep your eye on Kidman’s hair which is long in the past and short in the present.  The movie doesn’t always make it clear when action is taking place and at my screening several people were confused at the timeline of events.

The Spanish film had a whopper of a sequence set in a soccer stadium that starts as an approaching aerial shot then journeying into the stands before following a breathless chase between officer and suspect.  Seemingly captured in one long shot (it’s likely impossible but I can’t tell where the cuts happen) it alone was Oscar worthy in its execution.  Changing the sport from soccer to baseball, the remake doesn’t even try to attempt to recreate this, but the edge-of-your-seat chase still gets the job done.

It’s a tough film for all the right reasons.  I won’t reveal if the real killer is ever identified or how it wraps itself up but I had forgotten some of the details of how the original film ended, leaving me to discover the fine finale all over again.  I still think remakes are ill-advised, but once in a while one slips through that’s able to capitalize on why its inspiration was worthy of a Hollywood effort.

Movie Review ~ The Martian

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: At 77, director Ridley Scott has directed films across seemingly all genres.  Starting with his first film, 1977’s war drama The Duellists to his breakout hit Alien two years later, it was clear that Scott had something going for him.  Not that there weren’t stumbles along the way (1985’s Legend, 1992’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise) but for the most part Scott has exceled in drama (1991’s Thelma & Louise), historical epic (2000’s Gladiator) and even the occasional bit of fluff (2006’s charming A Good Year).  Still, sci-fi is where Ridley Scott has felt most at home and be it the aforementioned Alien, 1982’s polarizing Blade Runner, or even his more polarizing sorta-Alien prequel Prometheus in 20012 he always (for me) delivers the goods.

So it’s with great pleasure that I report that not only is The Martian the best film I’ve seen yet in 2015 but it’s Scott’s most appealing work in years.  Based on the hit novel by Andy Weir that’s been well adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), The Martian is one of those big crowd pleasing epics that audiences won’t see coming.  I’d imagine most people will turn up to see an outer-space action film starring Matt Damon (Interstellar) but what they’ll get instead is a full bodied, full blooded, blockbuster in the making that continues to impress with each passing twist.

I was worried that Weir’s first person narrative would be tough to adapt but Goddard has fleshed out not only our titular character but a host of his comrades along the way.  Now, characters that were intriguing on the page leap to life fully formed and ready to play a part in a rescue mission taking place several light years away.

Through a series of unfortunate events, astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead during an emergency evacuation of his team from their Mars outpost.  His captain (Jessica Chastian, Mama) and fellow teammates (Michael Pena, End of Watch; Kate Mara, Fantastic Four; Sebastian Stan, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Aksel Hennie, Headhunters) have no choice but to save themselves after it appears that Watney has perished in a harsh Martian sandstorm.

But miraculously Watney has survived, though it can be argued that his current situation is little better than his presumed one.  While he has enough food to last a little over a year, the next spacecraft isn’t scheduled to return for another four so he has to put his botanist skills to the test to make his own food supply while staying alive in a small habitat that isn’t designed to last as long as he’ll need it to be.

Back on Earth, a NASA authority figure (Jeff Daniels, Looper) has to deliver the bad news of a man dying on his watch but when a tech (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) notices some satellite images that suggest someone is still alive on Mars, he teams with the mission leader (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave) to devise a way to get Watney home.  This choice is mostly to rescue the stranded astronaut but also a tiny way to save face in the eyes of media scrutiny.

At nearly two and a half hours, your bladder may shudder in fear but make sure to go before the movie starts because you won’t want to risk missing a single second of the adventure this movie takes you on.  The running time flies by due in no small part to Scott’s skill as a director and Matt Damon’s bravura performance.  If we didn’t care about Watney or like Damon the film would have sunk faster than the other movies about Mars released in the past two decades (though I liked John Carter better than, well, everyone).

The Martian is a nice opportunity for Damon to show some nuance that sometimes feels lacking in his roles lately.  His is a powerful, mesmerizing performance and it should easily put him on the short list for Oscar recognition.  From Damon on down the cast is excellent.  I was wondering why Chastain would take such a ho-hum role, until a late in the game Hail Mary that I won’t spoil tells me exactly what attracted her to the part. Daniels is appropriately gruff, Ejiofor is galvanizing, and what a treat to see Kristin Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) as serious-minded media correspondent for NASA.  As the characters are introduced it felt like an abundance of riches and their presence makes the film that much more polished.

With the advancement of special effects it seems like anyone can make you believe that you’re in outer space floating weightless but there’s something truly incredible about the production design and visual effects on display here.  Seamlessly integrating green screen technology, it’s the first film in a long while where I couldn’t tell where the effect ended and reality began.  Couple that with Harry Gregson Williams’s gorgeously haunting score and exemplary cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and you have a film that’s a real stunner.

I can’t remember the last time I left a film so fully satisfied and, better yet, energized.  Rocketing to the top of Best Picture frontrunners, the film has all of the elements that could help it nab the top prize.  We’re pretty far off from the final nominees and the dramatic films seem to rise to the top of the pile but I’m going to be pulling for The Martian to find its way into the mix.  Don’t miss it and feel free to spring for the 3D too, the effect works well to give Mars a unique depth while letting computer read-outs pop out at you.  Seriously…not to be missed.

The Silver Bullet ~ Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

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Synopsis: A tight-knit team of FBI investigators, along with their District Attorney supervisor, is suddenly torn apart when they discover that one of their own teenage daughters has been brutally murdered.

Release Date:  October 23, 2015

Thoughts: Before we talk about this American remake I want you to track down the Spanish language original.  Click here for more information.  Not only is it a damn fine example of a beautifully layered mystery that unfolds over several decades, it rightfully took home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film in 2010.  I still remember the incredible (and now infamous) tracking shot that starts as an aerial view of a soccer stadium and seamlessly moves to a handheld chase sequence, implying everything was done in one spectacular take.

Anyway, I have some strange feelings about this US remake, mostly because I’m iffy on the casting.  Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) teams with Oscar winners Julia Roberts (August: Osage County) and Nicole Kidman (Stoker) for this and while that seems like a slam-dunk where star wattage is concerned, I’m nervous that the actors will overshadow the material.  Roberts (in a role originally written as male) gets put through the emotional ringer and it will be interesting to see how well she tackles it.  The film strangely hides the fact that Roberts and Kidman are really in the back-seat with Ejiofor driving the car…at least that’s how it is in the foreign original.  It seems like some changes have been made for the American-ized version and I’m hoping too much tinkering hasn’t been done…the original is gripping and near perfect in the way it unfolds.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Martian

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martian

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Release Date: November 25, 2015

Thoughts: There’s a Mars curse in Hollywood and everyone knows it. Numerous films about the red planet have been released over the years and, save for the 1990 version of Total Recall, they’ve all been belly-up flops. True, it’s not as if these were great films to begin with…like the 2000 double-header of Brian DePalma’s Mission to Mars and Anthony Hoffman’s Red Planet. John Carter was savaged by critics but it was better than it was given credit for.

Now here comes director Ridley Scott (Prometheus, Blade Runner) with his bid to break the Mars curse and it looks like he may have cracked the code. Though the first trailer clocks in at an astounding 3+ minutes, it’s a brilliantly edited preview of the November release…giving us some idea on what to expect but not foreshadowing what’s to become of an American astronaut stranded on Mars.

Based on Andy Weir’s 2014 novel and adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), Scott has gone big with the visuals and cast. After sharing no scenes in Interstellar, I’m wondering if Matt Damon (Promised Land) and Jessica Chastain (Mama) will meet up again in this space tale. There’s also Jeff Daniels (Terms of Endearment), Kate Mara (Iron Man 2), Sebastian Stan (The Apparition), Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), Sean Bean (Mirror Mirror), and Kristen Wiig (Girl Most Likely…).

Oscar Predictions 2014

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Hello!

Well, though I always find it difficult to nail down my Oscar selections pre-nomination day because I feel like I’m somehow cosmically jinxing  potential favorites, I’m taking part in The 2014 Oscar Contest over at Film Actually because…well…it’s just the right thing to do 🙂

This being a contest and all I threw in a few dark horse candidates and left out some bigger names just to keep it interesting.  I don’t necessarily think there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture but ultimately I couldn’t make up my mind on which ones to remove from my list…

I hope there are a few surprises tomorrow morning, though….even if it means I lose a few points in the contest 🙂

Below are my predictions for who will go to bed tomorrow night an Oscar nominee…

BEST PICTURE
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Spike Jonze, Her
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle

BEST ACTOR
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl, Rush
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

BEST EDITING
Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, American Hustle
Joe Walker, 12 Years a Slave
Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips
Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger, Gravity
Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen, Her

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle
Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Philomena
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium
The Hunt, Denmark
The Grandmaster, Hong Kong
The Great Beauty, Italy
The Notebook, Hungary

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Sean Bobbitt, 12 Years a Slave
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska
Roger Deakins, Prisoners

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Adam Stochausen & Alice Baker, 12 Years a Slave
Judy Becker & Heather Loeffler, American Hustle
Catherine Martin & Beverly Dunn, The Great Gatsby
Jess Gonchor & Susan Bode, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael Corenblith & Susan Benjamin, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SOUND MIXING
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST SOUND EDITING
All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Patricia Norris, 12 Years a Slave
Daniel Orlandi, Saving Mr. Banks
Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle
Mary Zophres, Inside Llewyn Davis

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Alex Ebert, All is Lost
Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks
Steven Price, Gravity
John Williams, The Book Thief
Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing
The Crash Reel
Stories We Tell

The Square

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Croods
Despicable Me 2

Frozen
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club
The Lone Ranger


BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Amen”, All is Lost
“Let It Go”, Frozen
“The Moon Song”, Her
“Ordinary Love”, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
“Young & Beautiful”, The Great Gatsby