Movie Review ~ Book Club


The Facts
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Synopsis: Four lifelong friends have their lives forever changed after reading Fifty Shades of Grey in their monthly book club.

Stars: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Wallace Shawn, Richard Dreyfuss, Ed Begley Jr.

Director: Bill Holderman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: There are some that would say a comedy featuring four multi-award winning actresses of a certain age humorously discovering that “the next chapter is always the best” would be a no-brainer. Turns out they were spot on…Book Club has no brains to speak of. Here’s an aggressively dull, pandering movie that manages to do a disservice to its distinguished actors and an intended audience already woefully underserved. With its tin ear for realistic dialogue and a baffling cluelessness to how humans behave, no clichéd stone is left unturned.

Friends since college, Vivian (Jane Fonda, Peace, Love, & Misunderstanding), Sharon (Candice Bergen, Home Again), Carol (Mary Steenburgen, Parenthood), and Diane (Diane Keaton, And So It Goes) meet for their monthly book club in one of their pristine dwellings. Starting with Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and recently coming off of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, vampy Vivian introduces the ladies to E.L. James’ famous smut tome Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s the first red flag that pops up in the script from Erin Simms (Pete’s Dragon) and director Bill Holderman (A Walk in the Woods). As poorly written as it was, James’ book was a phenomenon and you’d have to be living under a rock to not have heard of it or seen the movies adapted from her trilogy of novels. Aside from Vivian, none of the ladies seems to know much about it and are shocked to discover its titillating scenes of bondage and explicit couplings.

All four ladies are, naturally, having trouble in the romance department and find that the book not so much ignites a newfound lust for life as it influences their choices. Hotelier and notoriously single Vivian runs into a long-lost paramour (Don Johnson, Django Unchained) who might have been the one that got away while federal judge Sharon, still bruised from her divorce, signs up for a dating service and winds up attracting the attention of Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) and Wallace Shawn (Admission). Carol is finding it difficult to connect with her husband (Craig T. Nelson, Poltergeist) in and out of the bedroom and widowed Diane ventures into a new relationship with a swarthy pilot (Andy Garcia, Jennifer 8) while her children pressure her to move closer to them.

What laughs there are to be had (and trust me, there aren’t many) come, surprisingly, from Bergen who I’ve always found to be a little aloof in films. Here she seems to be having a ball as a high-strung intellectual embarrassed she has to resort to finding a date online. Sadly, the film doesn’t give her a full arc so by the time we’ve gotten into her rhythm with Dreyfuss he’s disappeared, never to be heard from again. There’s even less time spent with Shawn who pops up in for a well-timed cameo but doesn’t get much chance to make an impression.

For my money, far too much time is spent with Fonda’s storyline, which is the most ham-fisted of the bunch. Wearing an awful wig and decked out in one gaudy outfit after another, it’s not hard to see where things are headed for the woman who likes to sleep with men but doesn’t like to “sleep” with them after. Always an underrated commodity in film and television, Steenburgen has nice moments here and there and while her thread is likely the most relatable, by the time the film has her tap dancing to a Meat Loaf song at a talent show you can literally see her working hard to keep up with things.

Then there’s Keaton who, to me, seems like the most natural fit for this type of froth. Sadly, Holderman and Simms make her character such a doormat and allow her children (Alicia Silverstone and Katie Aselton) to take her for granted far too long. (It’s also a mystery to me why there are two daughters when the film only needed one) Keaton coasts through much of the movie on fumes and only comes alive when there’s some physical comedy to execute, if only Holderman and Simms had given her character dimension of any kind.

What kind of message is the movie ultimately sending? A detriment to the film’s credibility is its stupefying lack of diversity. Taking place in present-day Los Angeles (and made on the cheap with a ton of questionable green screen and downright lousy Photoshop), there’s nary a person of color to be seen aside from a few random service workers. Purporting the myth of the white woman fantasy so grossly admired in Nancy Meyers movies with its affluent rich white ladies, Book Club feels completely out of touch and out of step with our society. Even worse, when you get right down to it, every woman in the film needs to be defined by the men they are with.  There’s something uncomfortable about watching that unfold before you.

Book Club is for easy readers only.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Cold in July

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a protective father meets a murderous ex-con, both need to deviate from the path they are on as they soon find themselves entangled in a downwards spiral of lies and violence while having to confront their own inner psyche.

Stars: Michael C. Hall, Don Johnson, Sam Shepard, Vinessa Shaw, Nick Damici, Wyatt Russell

Director: Jim Mickle

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  The first preview I saw of director Jim Mickle’s adaptation of Joe R. Landsdale’s grim noir novel gave me flashes of Blood Simple, the masterful 1984 debut film of Joel and Ethan Cohen (Inside Llewyn Davis).  With good reason too.  Both films are set in Texas and both have moments of shocking violence that come out of left field.  While Blood Simple would win in any battle royale between the two films, don’t let Cold in July fall off your radar because it’s a seething film with plenty of twists and turns…culminating in a finale that amps up the tension and takes no prisoners.

Mickle is a filmmaker to watch and while I haven’t yet published my review of We Are What We Are, his creepily effective cannibal film from 2013, I can tell you now that he’s batting 1000 in my book.  With Michael C. Hall and Sam Shepard (Mud) as two fathers brought together by a murder that turns into something more sinister and Don Johnson (The Other Woman) nearly stealing the show as a man with no scruples the stage is set for a dark crime drama that, though familiar on paper, entertains nonetheless.

Movie Review ~ Django Unchained

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the help of his mentor, a slave-turned-bounty hunter sets out to rescue his wife from a brutal Mississippi plantation owner.

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Samuel L. Jackson, Gerald McRaney, Dennis Christopher, Laura Cayouette, M.C. Gainey, Don Johnson, Kerry Washington,

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Rated: R

Running Length: 161 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  If you’re headed into a Tarantino film chances are you are expecting certain mainstays: coarse language, outrageous violence, non-linear storytelling, an eclectic soundtrack, and Samuel L. Jackson.  This holiday season, right in time for Christmas, Tarantino is releasing his latest epic yarn that thankfully gives his audiences/fans exactly what they’ve come for – amped up a few notches.  Django Unchained is one of Tarantino’s most enjoyable films, one that takes the standard spaghetti western and gives it a nice bristle brush scrubbing thanks to an assured bravado most filmmakers today wouldn’t dare to employ.

Beginning in 1858, Tarantino opens his film with slave Django (Foxx) trudging along in chains through a desolate landscape after being sold at auction.  A superlative theme song and the director’s trademark bold titles establish that the movie is operating in a slightly altered reality, though it is set in the heart of a country on the brink of civil war.  This was the age of slavery and the film pulls no punches in how black men and women were treated, painting a fairly revolting picture on the way. 

All hope seems lost for Django until a bounty hunter by the name of Dr. King Schultz (Waltz) waltzes into his life and changes his path from plantation to salvation.  Schultz needs Django to help identify a trio of wanted men…and in exchange he will give him his freedom and a split of the earnings.  When this initial bounty hunt show promise, the men decide to team up for a winter until Django can return to Mississippi and find his wife (Washington). 

The first half of the picture is really a breezy buddy film as Django and Schultz make a killing (har har) tracking down the men that are wanted dead or alive.  In between scenes of gruesome violence/vengeance there are some solid exchanges that Foxx and Waltz work wonders with.  Waltz still shines from his Oscar winning turn in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds and returns in another memorable performance here in a role tailor-made for him.  I often find Foxx to be a little overrated but his work as Django is exciting and commendable – starting off as a man with spirit but without hope, you gradually see the life reentering his body as his friendship with Schultz thickens and a reunion with his wife draws nearer. 

It’s about halfway through the movie that things take a curious, but no less interesting, turn as Schultz and Django set their sights on finding the location of Django’s wife Broomhilda von Shaft (just one of the memorable character names  along with Jinglebells Cody, Tennessee Redfish, Chicken Charlie, and Lara Lee Candie-Fitzwilly).  Information comes to them that Broomhilda or “Hildy” is now the property of one Calvin Candie (DiCaprio)…a silver spoon fed plantation owner Django and Schultz must outsmart if they are to save the girl and make it out alive.

The final act of Django Unchained plays out in Candie Land, and it in and of itself could have been expanded into an entire film thanks to some fascinating dialogue from Tarantino, scenes of violence that are both hysterical and horrifying, and a troupe of actors doing some very brave work when you consider their previous film roles.  It’s touchy subject matter but instead of shying away from it, Tarantino encourages all involved (the audience included) to go with it and stay engaged. 

Some early reviews of the film criticized Django Unchained for being too talky and long but I found it to be easier to get through than Inglourious Basterds (which I also liked).  This is probably because the nearly three hour film is episodic in nature so it just has a natural flow from one adventure to another. 

In typical Tarantino fashion, the violence is surreal, stylish, and in your face.  Nearly everyone comes face to face with a bullet at some point and they do one of two things: go quietly or die in screaming agony as the blood drains from them.  It’s gory and grotesque but there’s something definitively cinematic about it that keeps it from feeling too exploitative. 

Though Tarantino packs his film with more recognizable character actors than I’ve seen in any film recently (including Ted Neely – the Jesus Christ Superstar of stage and screen), the leads carry the film with ease.  In addition to the strong work from Waltz and Foxx, you have Washington playing the physically and emotionally taxing role of Django’s wife with beautiful confidence and Johnson as a Colonel Sanders looking plantation owner resisting the urge to be a cartoon.  Johnson in particular has a riotous passage with would-be Klansmen that wind up fighting over the sacks they wear over their head.  It’s a wonderful scene courtesy of Tarantino that gets the audience laughing at the bigoted bickering.

DiCaprio finally figures out the formula to turning in an award-worthy performance: be a supporting player.  Though many have cried foul that DiCaprio hasn’t received the award recognition he deserves over the years, I’d say that he really hasn’t truly earned it in any picture up until this point.  Here, in a large supporting role, he does his best work in ages as a vicious southern brat that has the tables turned on him in royal fashion.

Though much of the pre-release Oscar buzz has been for DiCaprio, I’d argue that the best performance in the film belongs to Jackson as DiCaprio’s head slave.  As slyly evil a character as I’ve seen Jackson play, he goes all out in the vile department without tipping the scales to farce.  I actually didn’t recognize Jackson the first few frames of the film he’s in, but once it sunk in and the audience saw him…it truly was his picture to steal and that’s exactly what he does.  If DiCaprio is to receive an Oscar nomination (as he probably will) here’s hoping that Jackson gets one as well.

The movie has about four endings and as the third hour was approaching I do admit that I was ready for the film to end.  Tarantino just can’t leave well enough alone (or resist a personal and oddball cameo) and while the ending was satisfying and felt right, I also wouldn’t have minded if it had said its goodbye twenty minutes prior.  That may not have worked for some audiences that demand explanation or a true wrap-up…but it would have made the ending of the film feel as special as the proceeding two and a half hours.

Tarantino has done wonders with this genre…turning the Western picture into what he’s called a Southern.  It’s a fast, funny, ferocious affair and it’s either going to send you out of the theater dazed and amazed or dazed and confused.  I thought it was a splendid film for mature audiences and wouldn’t mind putting it on my end of the year Best of lists.