Movie Review ~ Being the Ricardos 

The Facts:  

Synopsis: Lucille Ball struggles in her personal life with husband Desi Arnaz amid cheating allegations, existing under the watchful eye of the FBI for being a potential communist threat, and much more. 

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Javier Bardem, J.K. Simmons, Nina Arianda, Tony Hale,  Jake Lacy, Alia Shawkat, Linda Lavin, Clark Gregg, Ronny Cox, John Rubinstein 

Director: Aaron Sorkin 

Rated: R 

Running Length: 125 minutes 

TMMM Score: (8/10) 

Review:  There was a time during one high school summer when I worked a job that ended at such a late hour that there was nothing much on television to watch but episodes of I Love Lucy.  Consequently, over the ensuing years I’ve found it comforting to fall asleep to the comedic stylings of Lucille Ball, be it on her landmark television program or her subsequent shows that didn’t feature her husband Desi Arnaz.  While I’m not an expert of all things Lucy, I know what I know so knew enough to realize that casting Nicole Kidman as the legendary comedienne was a big risk for writer/director Aaron Sorkin.  It was also a decision that sent fans reeling, wondering how the Aussie star could believably take on the New York Ball’s signature look and sound. 

As was the case with the woman she’s portraying, it’s wrong to underestimate Kidman, like, ever.  The Oscar-winner has proven time and time again that while she may not always pull off transformations on the physical side of the aisle, it’s not even necessary when you have the spirit of a person nailed to perfection.  You see, Kidman achieves something amazing in Sorkin’s new film Being the Ricardos: another carefully built performance by the actress from the inside out, reliant less on recreation & more on essence. It’s Lucille Ball, for sure, and precisely the razor sharp, vulnerable, very human star she certainly was.  

A trend recently with biopics, at least those bound by a feature-length run time, is not to take on the enormity of a life story because two hours is just not enough time to cover it all.  It certainly wouldn’t have been able to go into the kind of detail a Hollywood legend like Ball (or even Arnaz) would have deserved…I mean you’d need at least 45 minutes to discuss that disastrous 1974 movie version of the musical Mame alone!  I digress.  What Sorkin (The Trial of the Chicago 7) does is what he does quite well, find a point of time to focus on and then use that as the center with which to spring out the life events that helped get these people to this point.  And it works wonderfully here.

Maybe this is more well known but I had no idea there was a week of time in the early part of the run of I Love Lucy where Ball was under scrutiny by the McCarthy hearings and was accused of “being a Red” …and not just because of her hair.  The fallout from the first accusation and the potential for more over the ensuing week are played out while the cast rehearse a new script set to be taped in front of a live audience at the end of the week.  The stress of it all brings up once smoothed-over fissures in the Ricardos marriage, old rivalries between Lucy and Vivian Vance (Nina Arianda), and further ostracizes the writer’s room (made up of Jake Lacy, Rampage, Alia Shawkat, Green Room, and executive producer Tony Hale, American Ultra) from everyone.

I loved the behind the scenes view of I Love Lucy and the various contributors (all well-cast by Francine Maisler & Kathy Driscoll) to its success from creation onward. Javier Bardem (Skyfall) is strong as Desi, a most unenviable task for a persona often seen as the villain of the Desilu love story. Bardem and Kidman (Aquaman) don’t really look like their real-life counterparts, but it honestly doesn’t matter in the slightest.  If much time had been spent to achieve more of a resemblance, I think audiences would have focused too much on that and not on the acting both Oscar winners are doing.  Of all the actors Sorkin has brought together for his film, J.K. Simmons (Ghostbusters: Afterlife) and Arianda (Richard Jewell) are the closest to impression but are fantastic in the undertaking.  There are times when both are eerily similar to the William Frawley and Vivian Vance. It’s well-known the two didn’t get along in real life and if you didn’t know it before, you’ll know it after this movie.

Yes, you’ll see some famous scenes that have been recreated but they are part of a larger (good) idea Sorkin employs by showing viewers how Lucy would put together comic moments.  It’s always hard to gain access into the workings of a person’s “process” but Sorkin’s method has an appropriately cinematic flair that achieves its goal while also providing a nice jolt of nostalgic recognition.  Releasing in theaters before debuting on Amazon Prime in time for the holidays, Being the Ricardos is the kind of biopic I appreciate, one that doesn’t bite off more than it can chew yet remains satisfying. 

Movie Review ~ Moxie

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Inspired by her mom’s rebellious past and a confident new friend, a shy 16-year-old publishes an anonymous zine calling out sexism at her school.

Stars: Hadley Robinson, Amy Poehler, Alycia Pascual-Peña, Lauren Tsai, Josephine Langford, Ike Barinholtz, Marcia Gay Harden, Sydney Park, Clark Gregg, Patrick Schwarzenegger

Director: Amy Poehler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Nostalgia is funny thing when it comes to the high school experience.  I wonder how many youths that have graduated within the last decade during the biggest boom of social media will look back on their time during what everyone knows is the most awkward period of growing up.  Those freshman through senior years can be quite influential for the person you will become, at least for the next few years into whatever comes after high school.  It’s entirely why movies and television shows about this age group have been so appealing over the years, changing through the decades to reflect the current state of what life is like for those living it.

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I would not have flourished in the environment that exists for teenagers nowadays.  Not only is there added pressure in the realm of academia but thinking about the extra layer of technology allowing for anonymous cyber bullying and the sharing of personal information among classmates is enough to keep you up past your bedtime on a school night.  Then there are the social, racial, and gender norms which are going through an upheaval with the advent of politics becoming more radicalized, finding the next generation of leaders suffering the consequences for a system that doesn’t support their choices.  Sexism and misogyny run rampant and without anyone to call it out, it will continue unchallenged.

In Jennifer Mathieu 2017’s YA novel, Moxie, the author posits what would happen if an unassuming high school junior suddenly took it upon herself to push back against the imbalance in the way women and other marginalized groups are treated by other students, teachers, and school administrators.  An early fan of the book was comedian Amy Poehler (Sisters) and after directing the easy breezy gal pal comedy Wine Country for Netflix in 2019, she signed on to film an adaptation of Moxie for the streaming service and take a small supporting role as well.  Taking cues from a screenplay by Tamara Chestna and Dylan Meyer, Poehler wisely avoids making Moxie into a simple girl power tale that winds around expected corners on its way to a syrupy ending.  Working with a talented cast of up and comers, Poehler instills a strong message without going overboard in dramatic histrionics to make her point.

The start of a new school year means Vivian (Hadley Robinson, Little Women) and her best friend Claudia (Lauren Tsai) are one year closer to graduation and then off to the smarty pants college they plan to go to together.  They’ve gotten used to their place in the school hierarchy and Vivian especially has resigned herself to remain unnoticed, though long-time platonic friend Seth (Nico Hiraga, Booksmart) has had a definitive growth spurt over the summer.  Is it her imagination or does he seem awfully talkative with her in their morning class together?  While Vivian musters  about the courage to check in with Seth, she notices that high school quarterback Mitchell (Patrick Schwarzenegger, Daniel Isn’t Real) is already giving new girl Lucy (Alycia Pascual-Peña) a chilly welcome after she doesn’t respond to his phony charm act that others have fallen for.

At first, Vivian turns a blind eye to Mitchell and encourages Lucy to do the same, but as the taunting gets worse and more behavior goes unchecked, she impulsively puts together a crude manifesto of sorts after uncovering a suitcase filled with her mom’s old paraphernalia from her days as a rabble-rouser in her high school.  Distributed anonymously around the school and credited to “Moxie”, the ‘zine’ becomes a tool of empowerment for a number of students at the school and a hot button issue for everyone else.  Rules are broken, voices are raised, and the usual way of doing things is challenged by a growing number of students that find they have a voice and there is strength in numbers.  As the identity of Moxie is sought, Vivian struggles with keeping her secret from a new group of friends while maintaining her old relationship with Claudia and being honest with her single mother (Poehler) who doesn’t understand why her daughter is suddenly shutting her out.

I’m going to say something a little controversial for all you Wine Country fans out there.  While I found that film to be a lot of fun for a Friday night, it had some uneven spots that left me feeling it was missing something overall.  Perhaps it was just a case of having too many good people to choose from – the cast was an abundance of riches and I never felt like I got a healthy sampling of any one of them.  With Moxie, I feel as if Poehler worked out some of those directing kinks because it’s a far superior film where pacing is concerned and since it’s been cast with a number of fresh faces it doesn’t come with a lot of expectation attached to it.  Instead, Poehler has thought about who should play the adults and filled those roles with the likes of Marcia Gay Harden (Grandma) as the school principal who doesn’t make life easy for Vivian and her friends, Clark Gregg (Live by Night) in a minor role playing a co-worker of Poehler’s, and Ike Barinholtz (Suicide Squad) as a hapless teacher that never can quite be on the right side of an argument.

Where Moxie shines the most is its strong cast playing the high school students aching to be valued for more than what they look like on the outside.  As Vivian, Robinson is an inspired, naturalistic presence that convincingly goes from a shy not-quite wallflower into a more confident dance like no one’s watching activist in her own right.  With Tsai holding the more cautious side as her longtime best friend and Pascual-Peña the bolder new kid on the block, both actresses’ lived-in performances offer Vivian opportunities to lead or become a better leader.  As other Moxie girls that get into the act, Sabrina Haskett, Sydney Park (Wish Upon), Anjelika Washington all have nice moments along the way, with Haskett especially going through a nice moment in standing up for herself in front of others.  It’s no fun playing the bad guy and Schwarzenegger seems to be enjoying himself at least, so there’s that.  Get ready to swoon over Hiraga playing the kind of compassionate boy every mom (or dad) would want their daughter (or son) to date.

You could nitpick at a few things along the way, sure, like the way the film either introduces threads of ideas and then completely abandons them (two characters kiss and then their relationship is never mentioned again, a trans character auditions for a musical which is supposedly a big deal but there’s no follow-up) or it drops in something out of left field.  Yet in some way, the script resembles the mind of a teenager in that way.  Everything is important in that very moment and sometimes it remains at the forefront and maybe it goes away quickly…or that incident they were mad about years ago they’re going to bring up now just because they need to be angry about something…anything.  That could also be me rationalizing some gaps in the writing or editing.

Netflix has done well by their teen audiences over the past few years and Moxie is another sign they know their audience, as well as another vote of confidence on Poehler’s evolution as an artist.  Her role in the film is just enough to satisfy your fix for her onscreen (not that I would have begrudged a scene or two more) but it’s clear she wanted to focus to be on a new crop of talent, giving voice to a different kind of conversation. Keep being a part of these forward-moving films, Netflix.

31 Days to Scare ~ What Lies Beneath

The Facts:

Synopsis: The wife of a university research scientist believes that her lakeside Vermont home is haunted by a ghost – or that she is losing her mind.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Michelle Pfeiffer, Miranda Otto, James Remar, Wendy Crewson, Amber Valletta

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  As we are pummeled with more and more content in streaming services and theatrical distribution, I’m finding that I have less and less confidence in feeling satisfied with my overall experience.  There’s simply too much coming too fast and that has led me to latch on to older films that I know will always deliver.  Cinematic comfort-food, these movies can be relied on to provide laughs, thrills, chills, or tears exactly when I want them with little risk involved.  Around this time of year, I’m clearly in the mood for some scares and though it’s nice to explore the available new releases and to dig into the past to discover overlooked older titles there comes a time when only the true-blue winners will do.  The time is now.  And What Lies Beneath is one such film.

On paper, you couldn’t have asked for a more perfect movie in the eyes of this critic back in 2000.  A lifelong Michelle Pfeiffer Pfan (not sure if that’s a thing, but I’m starting it now) and having grown up on Harrison Ford adventures, watching them being teamed up in a Robert Zemeckis suspense/thriller was just too very good to be true.  I trolled the movie websites endlessly for news of the production, bought the poster and hung it in my room, watched the trailer on repeat, and was there opening night to see the finished product.  Delivering on every promised level, it’s a well-orchestrated, old-fashioned scare machine that unapologetically jolts you as much as it can in 130 minutes.

After sending her only daughter off to college, Claire Spencer (Pfeiffer, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) is dealing with the empty nest blues in her New England lake house.  With her university professor husband Norman (Ford, Blade Runner 2049) busy working days and long nights at the college, she’s often alone and becomes interested in the tempestuous couple who have moved in next door.  Eventually turning into full-on nosy neighbor with binoculars in tow, Claire is startled when she witnesses the wife (Miranda Otto, Annabelle: Creation) having a private emotional outburst that hints she’s somehow scared of her spouse (James Remar, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).  When the wife disappears and a ghostly spirit seems to start sending Claire messages, she becomes convinced a sinister presence has descended over the house.  What she doesn’t expect is just how close to home the spirit may be.

Fans of the Marvel movies will be interested to note the screenplay was written by Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson in Iron Man, etc.) and he’s done a good job, especially in the first hour, of establishing Claire and Norman’s relationship and how it changes the more she believes she’s being haunted.  Norman is sympathetic to his wife’s feelings, having supported her through a recent accident, but can’t quite get on board with her paranormal paranoia.  Gregg’s script does shift into a different gear that is clearly a nod to Alfred Hitchcock and it’s not the last of the twists the movie has in store for us.  True, if you watch the preview (which I highly suggest you Do Not Do) you’ll have picked up on the turn of events but almost 20 years after its release I think we’re far enough along that you could watch the movie again and not remember where it’s heading.

Made during a hiatus in filming Cast Away when Tom Hanks was losing all that weight, Zemeckis (Welcome to Marwen) pulls out all his bag of tricks and creates a few new ones along the way.  There is one camera move in particular involving Ford and Pfeiffer that’s often cited as a “How’d They Do That” moment and it is quite impressive.  The entire film looks amazing with each piece perfectly assembled and every clue exactly where it needs to be to assist audiences in putting the puzzle together.  Even if you are a few steps ahead of the Spencers in figuring it all out, you’ll still be impressed with what Zemeckis and his team have done in the presentation of the film.  As mentioned before, the scares are plentiful and become relentless in the final forty minutes.  Not just relegated to jump scares, some genuinely hair-raising moments and shocks come when you are the least prepared for them.

While Ford may get top billing, this is Pfeiffer’s film all the way.  In nearly every scene of the movie, she’s totally glorious as a woman already a tad emotionally vulnerable teetering on the edge of feeling crazy but also knowing she’s not imagining the strange occurrences and sights that are happening in her house.  She’s gets ample support from an energized Ford who would soon turn into a bit of a grumpy presence in film; he’s quite invested here playing against his usual action hero role type as a man with imperfections that may be contributing in part to what’s happening with his wife.  Pfeiffer has to go through a lot, spending a large portion of the film soaking wet but it’s all in great service to the success of the performance and film.  In a small supporting role, Diana Scarwid (Mommie Dearest) is kooky fun as Claire’s eccentric friend.  Though I get the impression more of her work was left on the editing room floor, what little we see of her brings a welcome lightness to the movie.

Released in the summer of 2000 to great box office and becoming the 10th highest grossing film of the year, it surprised me critics weren’t kinder in their original takes on the film.  Sure, it’s definitely derivative of Hitchcock and yeah, of course it would have been more enjoyable had the trailer not given away one major twist which rendered the first hour almost inconsequential, but not totally. Thanks to Pfeiffer’s commitment alone, there’s a high-class of sophistication to this thriller so few movies aspired to even back then.  We definitely don’t have movies like this anymore…all the more reason to celebrate the shivers it so gleefully gives.

Movie Review ~ Captain Marvel

 


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Stars: Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Jude Law, Lashana Lynch, Annette Bening, Gemma Chan, Djimon Hounsou, Lee Pace, Clark Gregg

Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: This should be a time of full-scale rejoicing. I mean, it only took 11 years and 21 films but Marvel Studios finally is releasing a superhero movie with a female lead. Though it may be trailing Warner Brothers’s epic Wonder Woman by a full two years, Captain Marvel is surely a welcome addition to the Marvel stable of action heroes and the studio seemed to be thoughtful in bringing the character to the big screen. Casting an Oscar winning actress as the titular character and signing on a directing team known for their independent dramas seemed like unexpected choices for an action movie of this size and unfortunately the payoff isn’t entirely worth the risk.

We’re so deep into this saga that it’s almost become a requirement for audiences to have seen, or have qualified knowledge, of previous films in order to make sense out of the action and developments that take place throughout whatever hero’s adventure we’re watching. That’s even true in this first appearance of Captain Marvel, which is set in 1995, long before the events of the movies that preceded it. Make sure to bone up on your Avengers knowledge (namely watch The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy) because it will go a long way in getting you up to speed.

Starforce warrior Vers (Brie Larson, The Gambler) is on a mission with her team on a desolate planet when she is captured by a band of Skrulls led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn, Darkest Hour) and taken back to their ship. Staging a daring escape, she crash lands on Earth where she meets a young Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Glass, de-aged quite nicely) and teams up with him to locate a power source integral to her own origin story…and future Avenger movies. Along the way Vers learns why she’s plagued with nightmares of a fallen comrade (Annette Bening, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool) and memories of a life before her time with Starforce. The secrets she discovers help shape the hero she’ll become and reframe what she’s actually defending.

I’ll be honest and say that I couldn’t resist closing my eyes for a small section of the movie around the forty-five minute mark.   Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck can’t quite keep up a solid pace and the film drags early on, even when we should be actively engaged with Vers uncovering more of her history. Things start to pick up once we meet her old Air Force buddy (Lashana Lynch) who fills in some memory gaps and helps to propel us forward into the final act. It’s when her old Starforce buddies, led by Jude Law (Side Effects), Djimon Hounsou (Serenity), and Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians) show up that the film becomes unstoppable as Vers realizes the full force of her power (a moment that gave me goosebumps) and uses it against an enemy she never considered.

Working with a script from four credited screenwriters (Meg LeFauve, Nicole Perlman, Roy Thomas, Gene Colan), Captain Marvel is a bit of an odd duck because it’s an origin story for several key elements that make up the Avengers universe. There’s the obvious first steps for Vers discovering she’s really Carol Danvers, a pilot with the U.S. Air Force presumed dead after her plane went down years earlier. Then you have the beginnings of Nick Fury’s pet S.H.I.E.L.D. project as well as grudges introduced that get resolved in later installments. It’s a lot to juggle and it’s not a totally satisfying balance of storylines.

It doesn’t much help that Larson walks through the movie strangely blank-faced, rarely changing expression from one emotion to the next. She’s definitely putting the acting effort into the movie but one wishes she’d loosen up a bit and I also wonder if she’d ever seen an Avengers movie prior to signing on. Most of the films are sold with tongue planted firmly in cheek but Larson seems averse to going along with any kind of joke. She does create a pleasant chemistry with Jackson’s Fury…you can see why he’d call on her when the going gets tough in Avengers: Infinity War.  The supporting cast is what helps to keep the movie afloat, namely Mendelsohn and Lynch as two key elements to Danvers coming into her own and embracing her superpowers.

Starting off slow but gradually building to an exciting finale, right now I feel like Captain Marvel falls squarely in the middle of the Marvel canon. That being said, I’m willing to wait it out and see if time is kinder to the film over the next few years as the studio wraps up some loose ends and decides what’s next in their plans for the Avengers.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)
Captain Marvel (2019)
Avengers; Endgame (2019)

Phase Four
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

 

Movie Review ~ Labor Day

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Tom Lipinski, Clark Gregg, Alexie Gilmore, Lucas Hedges, Brighid Fleming, James Van Der Beek, Maika Monroe, Brooke Smith, Micah Fowler, Tobey Maguire

Director: Jason Reitman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I have this nagging feeling that I’m going to be one of the very few people that likes Labor Day, Jason Reitman’s adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s 2009 novel.  I’ve had time to think about the film a lot over the last few weeks since I attended a screening with the author present.  While I enjoyed the film when I saw it, I was wondering if the author’s buoyant personality in the Q&A after colored some of my judgment.  I gotta say…after some deep soul searching my opinion stands.  I liked Labor Day… I liked it a lot.

Though the trailer suggests Labor Day fits on the same golden hued shelf as countless film adaptations of those saccharine Nicholas Sparks books, rest assured that it’s so much more than that.  Reitman has become one of my very favorite filmmakers and I don’t believe he’s made a movie yet that I don’t have a high level of respect for…even Juno, which I caught part of recently and for the record does not hold up as well as I remembered.

I hold steady that Up in the Air is his best film but there’s signs here of a maturing director that doesn’t feel the need to make the same film repeatedly just because he found favor there before.  I’m in the camp that feels Young Adult was one of the under appreciated gems of 2011, navigating its pitch black comedic moments with ease and leading up to a less than satisfying resolution for our anti-heroine that was incredibly satisfying for the viewer.

That same against the grain approach Reitman has employed in previous efforts is true here with the director taking responsibility for adapting Maynard’s work for the screen.  As has been the case with every Reitman film, his taste in casting is impeccable.  From the A list stars above the title down to the extras populating the background Reitman finds himself in a league with directors like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher who have an eye for casting.

Reitman wanted Kate Winslet (Carnage) for this role so badly that he delayed production of the film to accommodate her schedule.  Back on screen after nearly two years, Winslet reminds us again why she’s so valuable an asset to any film set she joins.  In similar territory to her work in 2006’s Little Children, Winslet is a mother struggling with depression years after her husband (Clark Gregg, The To-Do List) left her to start a new life.  Living with her son (Gattlin Griffith) in the kind of New England home that’s too run down to be fancy but too well kept to be ramshackle, she rarely ventures outside, preferring to shut the world out and stay cocooned within.

Relative newcomer Griffith is remarkably assured and Winslet helps him avoid coming off with a misplaced hyper-sensitivity to the situation.  When an escaped convict (Josh Brolin, Oldboy) takes mother and son hostage during a once in a blue moon trip to the supermarket, a carefully played trio of agendas start to take shape over a hot and sticky Labor Day weekend in 1987.

Brolin’s character is wounded physically and emotionally, jailed for a crime of passion we see played out in brief flashbacks that reveal themselves cautiously rather than tease for show.  Coming off like a gentle giant rarely threatening, Brolin’s actions over the next several days are certainly unconventional as he helps around the house, fixes what was once broken, and, in a scene bound to be lampooned in the next Scary Movie entry, helps Winslet and Griffth make a peach pie.

Ah…the peach pie scene.  Y’know, I went into the movie with no knowledge of this but so many of the reviews are either deriding it as exceedingly syrupy or praising it as one of the sexier non sex scenes since Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze made a muddy mess at their Ghost pottery wheel.  Either way you’ll be licking your lips at how deliciously cinematographer Eric Steelberg (Draft Day) captures every flake of crust and piping hot filling.

Aside from the central trio, Gregg’s fatherly once a week outings with his son and new family have that forced happiness feel to them that we actually understand why Griffith can’t wait to get back to the man on the run playing house with his mom.  Brooke Adams has a nice little cameo as a mother to a disabled boy…and leaves a lasting impression with a genuinely startling surprise.  Even if she comes off like a character out of Diablo Cody’s imagination, Brighid Fleming’s turn as the new girl in town leaves you wanting more.  Heck, even James Van Der Beek gets a few good moments as a concerned sheriff.

In the stifling heat of a long Labor Day weekend (everyone maintains a glistening gleam of sweat for the majority of the film), three people form the kind of family environment they never knew they needed.   Sure, the final third of the film withers a bit and lingers a tad too long but it doesn’t die on the vine.  With a director now fully coming into his own leading a cast of esteem, Labor Day has even-keeled fireworks on display.

Down From the Shelf ~ Thor

thor_ver3
The Facts
:

Synopsis: The powerful but arrogant god Thor is cast out of Asgard to live amongst humans in Midgard (Earth), where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins, Rene Russo, Stellan Skarsgard, Jaimie Alexander, Kat Dennings, Ray Stevenson, Josh Dallas, Tadanobu Asano, Idris Elba, Clark Gregg, Colm Feore, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Buoyed by the enormous success of Iron Man and Iron Man 2, Marvel sought to continue toward its ultimate goal of making what would become the 2012 blockbuster The Avengers by releasing Thor in May of 2011.  Re-watching the film again before taking in its 2013 sequel, Thor: The Dark World, I was again reminded why Thor was my least favorite of the Marvel films franchise so far.

In the two years since I originally saw Thor theatrically Marvel has also released Captain America: The First Avenger and Iron Man 3 and these films have only served to solidify my thoughts that Thor doesn’t work as well for me  because so much of it is set primarily in a world of CGI fantasy.  Whereas characters like Iron Man and Captain America operate in a world not so far away from our own recognizable metropolis capitals, Thor’s land of Asgard is a nicely rendered but ultimately too shiny a façade to keep my interest.

It doesn’t help that Thor has the least interesting characters and villains in the Marvel Universe so it’s hard to get attached to any of them.  While he fared better in The Avengers, Chris Hemsworth (Rush, Cabin in the Woods) is a sullen dud as Thor, confusing rote glowering for juvenile indignation when he doesn’t get his way.  When he’s banished from his homeland and left powerless in the deserts of New Mexico where he’s rescued by astrophysicist Jane (Natalie Portman, fresh from her Best Actress Oscar win for Black Swan) who happens to be studying the very wormhole that brought him to Earth.

In a plot that mines some of Shakespeare’s best works (no wonder Bard-indebted actor Kenneth Branagh is in the director’s chair here), Thor must come up against his half-brother Loki (a benignly sinister Tom Hiddleston) to stop him from taking the throne as the heir of Asgard and plunging the world into a frozen wasteland.  The familiar themes of a royal family betrayal are a nice complement to the mythology of the superhero but a lack of original battle sequences and climax that feels rushed ultimately lets the film and audience members down.

The big budget bucks are fully on display here and, don’t get me wrong, though the film is effects heavy it looks great.  It’s just so different from the other Marvel films (so far) that I always knew I was watching a film that existed within its own rules.  There’s something about seeing Iron Man/Tony Stark pursued by various nasties through an urban earthly landscape that speaks to me more than watching Thor dangle dangerously on the edge of an impressive but obviously effects created black hole.

As with every Marvel film there are fun cameos, hidden clues that tie the film to other movies, and hints at what’s next to come.  The final scene in the end credits was directed by The Avengers writer/director Joss Whedon because it served as a bridge toward the opening scenes of Whedon’s awesome summer blockbuster.  There’s also a quick appearance by Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) as Clint Barton/Hawkeye who would become a major player that next summer.

A solid super-hero flick with a spattering of theatrical drama, Thor is still low on my Marvel list but does serve its purpose of introducing The God of Thunder to whole new legion of fans.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Labor Day

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Synopsis: Depressed single mom Adele and her son Henry offer a wounded, fearsome man a ride. As police search town for the escaped convict, the mother and son gradually learn his true story as their options become increasingly limited.

Release Date:  December 25, 2013 (limited)

Thoughts: By all accounts, Jason Reitman is on a roll.  Starting with the sly Thank You For Smoking before breaking into the major leagues with the unconventional hit Juno, he followed that with the rewarding Up in the Air and the very underappreciated Young Adult.  So for his fifth major motion picture, Reitman probably had it in the bag the moment he enlisted Kate Winslet (Titanic), an Oscar winner continuing her streak at the top of her cinematic game.  Winslet costars with Josh Brolin (Men in Black III) in a film adaptation of the Joyce Maynard novel that has shades of Winslet’s 2006 suburban drama Little Children but seems to maybe not cut quite as deep a wound.  That’s not a bad thing when you consider Reitman’s talent for taking off-kilter material and fashioning something wonderful from it.  Keep your eye on this one; it may be one of those sleeper films that slip in to award conversations at the last minute.  The pedigree is certainly there.

Movie Review ~ The To Do List

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Feeling pressured to become more sexually experienced before she goes to college, Brandy Clark makes a list of things to accomplish before hitting campus in the fall.

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Scott Porter, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg

Director: Maggie Carey

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Fret not, all of you out there that have lamented the death of the 80’s screwball sex farce for a picture is coming that should get you all misty for a cinematic time long since passed.  In the grand tradition of films like Joysticks, Hardbodies, The Last American Virgin and the more ribald sequels to American Pie, The To Do List is a decidedly slight coming of age story chock full of crude humor and kooky performances.  Like those earlier films, though, there are some troubles to be had as the one joke set-up reaches its climax long before our leading lady does.

In an interesting bit of genre gender bending, The To Do List exchanges a nerdy, awkward virginal male for a nerdy, awkward, virginal female that has spent her high school hot lunch days with her nose in books rather than the crotches of her classmates.  After graduating and before heading to Stanford, Brandy (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed, Monsters University) has a summer job to look forward to and watching Beaches with her friends (Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele).

This being a sex comedy, of course the film has to take place in the past (1993 never looked so perfectly embarrassing), Brandy’s job is at a struggling summer pool that operates in the shadow of a larger country club and her two friends are stock character non-virgins more than happy to educate our naïve star on what she has to look forward to in college.  Taking advice from her foul mouthed sister (Rachel Bilson), Brandy makes up a list of all the sins of the flesh that she wants to commit before September rolls around.  This “To Do List” is filled with a variety of popular terms out of the urban dictionary that aren’t fit to print in a review my mom will probably read.  As Brandy goes through her list –  ‘Wow…there are a lot of ‘jobs’ here”  – the audience laughs along with the knowing nostalgia of where we were the first time we found out what a ‘shocker’ actually was.

As Brandy makes her way through the list and through several boys at her work (including a perfectly pitched performance by Johnny Simmons as an ardent devotee of Brandy) her end goal is to lose her V-Card to studly lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a bleach blonde 90’s stud that “feels like Marky Mark looks”.  Some nice turns from Porter and Bill Hader as the washed out manager of the pool do land where they need to but poor Connie Britton and Clark Gregg (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Marvel’s The Avengers) are underused as Brandy’s parental units…an understanding mom and uptight dad.  Britton and Gregg are talented enough to make their shoehorned in roles appealing but are ultimately stymied by an underwritten script.

Reportedly inspired by writer/director Maggie Carey (Hader’s wife) and her experiences before college, the movie is really just a series of the same punch lines over and  over again.  That works for a while but with a film that nearly reaches 105 minutes the laughs don’t come as often as they should and the lessons that will be learned are clear before the first reel is over

Though the dialogue is incredibly (and almost laughably) crude and there’s an abundance of bodily emissions that end up in the mouth of Plaza the film is surprisingly chaste.  The one thing that the 80’s film has on this entry is stars not quite famous enough to feel self-conscious about showing a little skin.  Even in the throes of passion everyone is covered up in the film but I’m not saying if the film had nudity it would have been more successful…just more in line with the old-school feel the more is obviously already going for.

For fans of these retro sex comedies, you’ll probably get more than a few laughs out of The To Do List but it’s a film that will probably play better on the small screen rather than in a cavernous theater where the laughs die quickly.  Though well acted by a more than game cast in an obviously low-budget production, the movie can only manage to get up to second base before losing stamina.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Iron Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Tony Stark has declared himself Iron Man and installed world peace… or so he thinks. He soon realizes that not only is there a mad man out to kill him with his own technology, but there’s something more: he is dying.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Jon Favreau, Mickey Rourke, Sam Rockwell, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Garry Shandling, John Slattery, Kate Mara, Clark Gregg, Olivia Munn

Director: Jon Favreau

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I’m going to say it, okay?  I’m just going to come out and say it.  The time has come for me to state something publically for all the blog-world to read.  Are you ready?   I liked Iron Man 2 more than I liked the first Iron Man.  Wow…ok…that felt really great to say.  I realize I’m in the minority here and that many, many, many people would disagree but at the end of the day and after watching both films back to back I still find the second entry to be a tad more entertaining and fulfilling than the first.

Now that’s not a knock on the first film which in and of itself was a strong film and a great kick start to the Avengers franchise that we have today.  What shaved a tiny fraction of a point off for me was an iffy first half where I always find my mind wandering whenever I see it.  Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in the first Iron Man is strong but I think everyone that was carried over into the second entry (good-by Terrence Howard, hello Don Cheadle) just has more to work with.

Maybe that’s because the script for Iron Man had four writers while Iron Man 2 was penned solo by Justin Theroux (recommended by Downey Jr. after writing Tropic Thunder) and the script feels more like the voice of one rather than the voice of many.  There’s more character development, a tighter beginning, and enough material to carry the film from start to finish.

After the success of Iron Man in 2008, Marvel Studios stumbled again with yet another attempt at The Incredible Hulk.  Though that film did decent business (and included a cameo from Iron Man), it wasn’t the homerun that Iron Man was so there was even more pressure on Iron Man 2 to right a listing ship.  Aided by more action and visual effects, the movie really delivers on a massive scale…even more impressive when I saw it on an IMAX screen that awed me even as I was deafened by the booming sound design.

Adding more layers to Tony Stark, Downey Jr. feels at home in the role and Theroux adds some opportunities for Downey Jr.’s wry comedic strengths to shine.  Once again Downey Jr. and Paltrow exhibit a great chemistry and even the introduction of a sultry new Stark Company employee (Johansson) can’t drive a wedge between the two.  Johansson (who replaced Emily Blunt) is here to introduce the Black Widow that would play a part in later Avengers films and her presence adds a decent amount of anticipation for what would come next.  Rockwell and Rourke are nice yin/yang villains with Rockwell’s hyper charm working well alongside Rourke’s reserved blood boiler. 

I found the first Iron Man to be an entertaining superhero movie but nothing truly spectacular.  Iron Man 2 falls into largely the same category but it does what sequels should do – deliver something bigger while also moving our characters forward at the right pace.  It’s clear that these Avenger movies have been very carefully plotted out because they need to tie into each other at key points – Iron Man 2 fits nicely into the grand scheme of this world.