Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Poltergeist (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family whose suburban home is haunted by evil forces must come together to rescue their youngest daughter after the apparitions take her captive.

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris, Rosemarie DeWitt, Saxon Sharbino, Jane Adams, Kennedi Clements

Director: Gil Kenan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I was mad when MGM and Fox announced they were remaking the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist.  Like, mad.  Like, really, really MAD.  How could any studio, director, or screenwriter even hope to come close to, let alone best, a film that has aged well and still scares the ever loving hell out of anyone that gives it a spin?  Haven’t we learned from remakes lately that it’s best to leave well enough alone and maybe focus on something original…or in the absence of something original pour through the countless numbers of average films and give them a spit-polish for a new generation?

Now let me say that as mad as I was and as incredulous as I remain that a remake of Poltergeist made it through the planning stages, I’ll tell you now that this 2015 take on Poltergeist isn’t a bad film.  It’s made well, has a fair freak-out factor, and features worth-a-watch performances that don’t feel like they’re careening down the copycat highway.  Here’s the thing, though.  It’s also so completely unnecessary that I wound up just feeling bad for everyone involved because their budget and time were all for naught.

Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz The Great and Powerful) may have changed the names and some key plot elements from the original script by Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and he may have inserted some new millennium colloquialisms and technology that wasn’t present in the early ‘80s but he’s retained the overall gist and familial themes that worked so well in Tobe Hooper’s film.  This turns out to be a wise choice because what’s been carried over remains the most interesting thing about the film.

Downsized from his job and forced to move into a new home with his wife and three children, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) is your typical cool dad that has a witty quip at the ready but loves his family.  He’s a little ashamed that he can’t be the provider and feels guilty that his family has had to uproot their lives.  The original film featured a family that lives in a pristine new residential development but the neighborhood that the Bowens call home feels sad, another victim of a depressing economy.  The groovy ‘80s décor from the 1982 film gives way to a bland three story cookie cutter home with butter yellow walls and a heck of a lot of ghosts.

The events unfold in much the way we expect.  Family moves in, bad things start to happen, little girl starts talking to the television, a big storm arrives and the little girl vanishes.  While Lindsay-Abaire has nobly tried to put some feeling into the Bowens, the economical running time doesn’t leave much wiggle room to develop the characters as well as Spielberg did originally.  What made Spielberg’s script so jazzy for the time was putting JoBeth Williams’ stay-at-home mom front and center, a key player in the action of finding and saving her young daughter.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) mom is more passive and not only lets her husband do most of the work but lets her scared of the dark son overshadow her when the going gets rough.

Nice to see that the children cast aren’t the annoying tots that they could have been.  Kennidi Clements is a sprightly tyke, precocious enough to believe she may have been born with a psychic gift but endearing enough to make you fear for her safety.  Saxon Sharbino as the oldest daughter seems like an afterthought, a character kept in because the remake rules demanded it.  Though I had some problems with Kyle Catlett’s middle child being moved to such a prominent role at the expense of his parents, the young actor does good work with a role that might seem more at home in a PG rated thriller for kids.

Now for the bad stuff.

The original film featured Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight as a wise but unprepared paranormal psychologist who enlists the help of Zelda Rubinstein’s medium to save the day.  The remake casts Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) in Straight’s role and turns the medium into a television ghost hunter (Jared Harris, Pompeii) that was romantically involved with Adams years ago.  Adams is full-on crazy cat lady with her unkempt hair, multiple pairs of glasses, and plaid skirts while Harris is no worthy replacement for the missing medium Tangina.  I just haven’t the faintest clue what the thought process of the creation of these characters was…landing on the idea that perhaps the studio hopes to make some sort of spin-off with these two (if you must, stick around for a post-credits sequence that explains my thoughts) but it’s just unwise through and through.

Director Gil Kenan helmed the admirable animated Monster House and his Poltergeist comes across like a sequel to that film more than it feels like a remake of the 1982 Poltergeist.  In fact, in Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire’s hands the film has the overall sense of a campfire story that’s been passed down over the last thirty years.  Over time the names have changed and modern references have been inserted…but the heart of the film remains and when the ghosts come out to play there’s some marginal fun to be had.

Still…I left the film not totally disappointed in what I’d seen but so very depressed that much effort was spent on something with no lasting value.  I’m especially troubled by the thought that some audiences may see this film before ever experiencing the dynamite scare fest that inspired it.  I think it’s better than Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Poltergeist III…but overall it’s a bummer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Poltergeist (2015)

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Synopsis: A family’s home is haunted by a host of ghosts

Release Date:  July 24, 2015

Thoughts: I’ve so many thoughts and feelings about this particular instance of Hollywood remaking one of its tried and true classics. I’m not usually precious about a property but the original Poltergeist is one of my all-time favorite films (not just horror) and it was done so well, so right the first time that I’m cowering in a corner hoping that this remake doesn’t sully the good name that 1982 haunted house flick made for itself. I’m encouraged by the cast, led by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back) and Rosemarie DeWitt (Promised Land) but am a bit wary by Jared Harris (Pompeii) and Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) taking the place of Zelda Rubenstein and Beatrice Straight. It’s unfortunate so much of the plot is revealed here…leaving me to wonder why director Gil Kenan (Monster House) and producer Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Indian Summer) have left to surprise us with. Maybe it’s just best to leave well enough alone…

Movie Review ~ Oz The Great and Powerful

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time magician arrives in an enchanted land and is forced to decide if he will be a good man or a great one.

Stars: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Joey King, Bruce Campbell

Director: Sam Raimi

Rated: PG

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  When this project was first announced I remember being both horrified and excited at the prospect of a prequel to The Wizard of Oz.  The horrified part of me couldn’t imagine why a studio would want to get within ten feet of one of the most beloved films in history.  Excitement came from the rundown of talented artists that would be bringing Oz to life for Walt Disney Studios: director Raimi, composer, Danny Elfman, screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire, and an award winning crew of visual effects craftspeople.

So even if the final project isn’t everything some dreamed it would be, the more I think about Oz the Great and Powerful (and I have found it on my mind a lot in the week since I’ve seen it) the more I appreciated it.

Getting right down to it, this prequel to the events that take place before Dorothy drops in is really just a re-telling of that later story but with the would-be Wizard taking the place of the girl in blue gingham and ruby red slippers.  The film opens on a county fair where magician Oz (a miscast Franco…more on him later) is wowing the small town crowd with his tricks.  Not a bad magician, he has no heart so he can never be truly great…and to top it all off he’s a blowhard lacking in the charm department.

It’s not long before a twister tunnels by and sweeps Oz away in a hot air balloon to the magical land of…well…Oz.  It’s a sign!  At least that’s what naïve witch Theodora (a marginally miscast Kunis…more on HER later) thinks when she witnesses Oz fall from the sky.  Taking him to meet her sister Evanora (a perfectly cast Weisz), Oz eventually finds himself on the hunt for the Wicked Witch terrorizing the land with her flying baboons.  Along the way he’ll meet another witch or two (one of the green variety) and learn a thing or two about friendship, honesty, and finds out there’s more to his magic than meets the eye.

That’s the gist of things and fans of The Wizard of Oz (either the movie or L. Frank Baum’s library of Oz-ian tomes) need not fret that this film will sully the image of Oz…that will surely be done by 2014’s Legend’s of Oz: Dorothy’s Return.  Like the stage musical Wicked, this movie connects a few of the dots to its 1939 predecessor and those paying careful attention will see that the filmmakers have inserted a number of references to the previous film like using magical Oz-ian characters as Kansas counterparts .

Two bits of casting have received the most attention since the film was released and I can’t say that some of the gripes haven’t been justified.  Franco is simply not the man for the job here and he’s painfully miscast as Oz.  When you consider Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp were the first choices for the wizard an extra pang hits you for the performance that might have been.  Kunis (Ted) isn’t as bad as the reviews say but she struggles quite a bit for at least the first 2/3 of the film.  I felt she got better as her character progressed but it never really lands like it should.

The good news is that Weisz and Williams are so good as Evanora and Glinda that you almost forget they are sharing scenes with lackluster partners.  Weisz wipes the floor with them all, though, in a cleverly coy role rife with lip smacking and glinting eyes.  She’s the one actor that doesn’t let the sumptuous effects dictate her performance.  Williams is strong too but at times it felt like she hadn’t fully shed her Marilyn Monroe persona as Glinda the Good (or is she?)  Braff and King steal their fair share of scenes in dual roles and Raimi peppers his supporting cases with journeymen actors from his stable.

Effects-wise, Oz looks incredible.  Produced by the same team that brought us the mind-crushingly awful Alice in Wonderland reboot a few years back, they’ve wisely stayed away from that super fake looking Wonderland world for a slightly more realized take on Oz.  It’s still too CGI heavy for me but there’s no denying that the movie is a true feast for the eyes.  Elfman’s score doesn’t stray too far from his norm of notes but he’s tailored it to whip up some magical moments of his own.

Very rarely do I find that 3D is really worth the upcharge but Oz is a film that really should be seen through a pair of 3D glasses.  The opening shots in glorious black and white are presented in a small aspect ratio (picture size), emulating a film from that era.  The 3D is purposely less “deep” in these shots to play in nice contrast with the added depth once we get to the Technicolor Oz.  Though prices for the 3D experience have risen, this is one film that’s more than worth it.

When the screening I saw was through, I wasn’t quite ready to make a final call on what I thought of the film but found that it was on my mind often in the following days.  No, it’s not a perfect film or the most original storyline…but it’s a visually arresting wonder that impressed me the longer it lingered in my memory.  Rumor is that plans are afoot for another sequel and based on what I saw here, I wouldn’t be opposed to it.  Would it be weird to recast Franco, though?

The Silver Bullet ~ Oz: The Great and Powerful – Trailer #2

Synopsis: How the Wizard arrived in Oz and became the ruler. A prequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Release Date:  March 8, 2013

Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the teaser trailer for Oz: The Great and Powerful, I’m getting a strong vibe of revisionism along the lines of Tim Burton’s misguided Alice in Wonderland.  Still, the Oz books have a wealth of adventure to them and I’m interested to see what screenwriters Mitchell Kapner and whip smart playwright David Lindsay-Abaire bring forth.  The visuals certainly look stunning and never underestimate the power of Oz…though with this trailer I’m officially on the fence about the value of Franco’s contribution to the film.  He’s such a modern style actor that I’m not convinced (yet) he’s the man who would be Oz.  Thankfully, he’s backed up by a trio of dependable ladies (Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, and Mila Kunis) that should even things out.  Director Sam Raimi has worked wonders in film storytelling in the past – he might be the true man behind the curtain of the success or failure of the film.