Synopsis: An action epic revolving around international espionage, time travel, and evolution.
Release Date: July 17, 2020
Thoughts: Shrouded in mystery, if you’ve been to the movies the last few months you may have caught a super exclusive theatrical-only preview for Tenet, the new thriller from Christopher Nolan (Dunkirk, Interstellar) but the time has finally come for a full trailer to be released. Starring John David Washington (BlacKkKlansman) and Robert Pattinson (The Rover), little is known what exactly is up Nolan’s tricky tricky sleeves and this first look appears to leave viewers with even more questions. In other words, it’s a pretty fantastic way to get people excited for the July release – here’s hoping Nolan can maintain that secrecy until it opens.
Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Robert Duvall
Review: If there’s one truly unfortunate thing that happened at the movies this year it’s that Steve McQueen’s Widows failed to catch fire at the box office. The director of 12 Years a Slave and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, have adapted an ‘80s UK crime series and updated it to present day Chicago and cast some of the best actors working today. It’s a gritty, great film and that it went largely unnoticed just totally baffles me. Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) turns in what I think is the best performance of her career as a woman whose life is totally turned upside down and then is tossed sideways by a series of revelations that shock her and the audience. Gathering together a group of disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby, Michelle Rodriguez, Furious 7) to follow through on a crime their husbands were planning, just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie is going it throws in multiple twists that I just did not see coming. It’s hard to pull one over on movie-goers but McQueen and Flynn do it twice.
Hopefully, this is one movie that people will rediscover when it arrives on streaming services and then kick themselves for missing it when it was on the big screen. Perhaps it was marketed wrong or maybe it was released at a bad time of year, but something strange happened with Widows because this is one of the best films of the year that just totally vanished way before it should have. Find it, see it…you’ll understand what I’m saying when you do.
Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except debts left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.
Release Date: November 16, 2018
Thoughts: Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) had a fondness for Widows, a UK television series created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect). In fact, McQueen liked it so much that he brought on Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn to modernize the story and signed on top notch talent to bring it stateside. The result can be glimpsed in this trailer, an exciting first look at a hard-boiled crime drama that could be an award contender when all is said and done. The cast is made up of Oscar winners Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) and Robert Duvall (The Paper), Oscar nominees Liam Neeson (The Commuter), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), and Jacki Weaver (Life of the Party), not to mention impressive names like Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (Furious 7), and Cynthia Erivo. If the finished product is as impressively dynamite as this trailer, McQueen and company will have a very good fall.
Synopsis: Feature adaptation of Beatrix Potter’s classic tale of a rebellious rabbit trying to sneak into a farmer’s vegetable garden.
Stars: James Corden, Rose Byrne, Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Daisy Ridley, Elizabeth Debicki, Margot Robbie
Director: Will Gluck
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As I hunkered down on a chilly Saturday for an early morning screening of Peter Rabbit there were a few thoughts going through my head. The first was a silent prayer that Hollywood didn’t take Beatrix Potter’s beloved characters and turn them into grating kooky animations. The second musing I found myself pondering was what took so long for Potter’s creations to make their way to the screen in the first place? Plenty of small screen animation adaptions featuring Peter Rabbit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin, and more have popped up throughout the decades and a fond memory of my youth was going to see Beatrix Potter’s Christmas (think The Avengers, just with Potter’s most famous critters) over several years at MN’s Children’s Theater Company. Yet aside from a Potter biopic (the largely forgotten Mrs. Potter), there’s been little love for the woodland creatures themselves.
What a pleasure it was, then, to find that Peter Rabbit is a real delight, a rare family film that’s truly something the whole family can get something out of. For kids there’s plenty of slapstick comedy that doesn’t involve farts or other rude nonsense and for adults there are a bevy of laughs that will easily sail over the heads of tykes too young to get the humor.
In the English countryside, Peter Rabbit (voiced by James Corden, Into the Woods) is fond of making his way into the garden of Old Mr. McGregor (Sam Neill, Jurassic Park) and filling up on his plump vegetables. Pulling his cousin Benjamin Bunny (Colin Moody) in on his schemes and being cheered on by rabbit triplets Flopsy (Margot Robbie, I, Tonya), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby), and Cottontail (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express), days are just a series of adventures that usually end with Peter being chased by the annoyed farmer into the loving arms of his caretaker Bea (Rose Byrne, Insidious). One day, the antics go too far and Old Mr. McGregor has himself a heart attack leaving his garden and home to be overrun by animals.
In London, tightly-wound Thomas McGregor’s (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin) OCD ways have gotten him the heave-ho from his job at Harrod’s department store. Informed of his inheritance of a house from an uncle he’s never met and without much to keep him in the city, he treks out to see his new property in the country. Once he arrives and cleans up the place, he sets his sights on ridding himself of the vermin problem…but also starts to fall in love with Bea. The latter half of the film focuses on Thomas and Peter’s escalating war, fighting for their territory and over the lovely woman that cares for both of them.
Director and co-screenwriter Will Gluck (Annie) has crafted a film that’s quite charming from the get-go. There’s sentiment for the origin of the stories (Bea is a painter that creates bizarre modern art but sketches her forest friends in intricate details, ala Beatrix Potter) but keeps enough pep in its step to not feel like a staid transfer of the books to the screen. The humor is broad and fast-paced but with a sly wink to always let the audience in on the joke. Sure, there’s a few questionable bits of mayhem (such as one moment where Peter briefly considers sticking a carrot into Old Mr. McGregor’s plumber butt crack) but the overall joy the film brings outweighs a few of these catering to the masses missteps.
Sprinkled with a soundtrack of familiar songs reimagined not to mention a few tunes Gluck penned himself and using Australia’s picturesque countryside as a stand-in for the English village of Windermere, this is a valuable film for parents to keep in their back pocket. I found the 90 minute run time flew by and there are some nice touches from Gluck and company, such as having the live-action leads also provide voices for a few of the animals. Along with Paddington 2, it represents a step above the usual family fare that blends live-action with animation (the result is dazzlingly seamless) and offers sure-fire matinee potential for the whole gang.
Synopsis: A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.
Stars: Dane DeHaan, Cara Delevingne, Clive Owen, Rihanna, Ethan Hawke, Herbie Hancock, Kris Wu, Rutger Hauer, Elizabeth Debicki
Director: Luc Besson
Running Length: 137 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Plenty of people (aka snobby critics) are going to tell you how terrible Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets is before you’ll get a chance to see the movie and judge for yourself. That’s too bad because while Valerian admittedly has its hefty share of major problems, every now and then something kinda brilliant happens. Popping into theaters showing movies that reek of summer sameness, Valerian at least has some imagination up its over-the-top and messy sleeves.
I’m not familiar with the French science fiction comics series Valérian and Laureline, created by writer Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières, that inspired director/screenwriter Luc Besson (The Family). From what I hear it remained tremendously popular since it was originally published in 1967 all the way through to its final issue in 2010 so its no wonder that studios interested in selling their film globally would invest in what Besson had in mind. Even if it tanks at the US box office (which, sadly, it will) it most surely will turn a profit in the international market.
The screening I attended had some major 3D projection issues during the five-minute montage that opens the film, showing the progression of space habitation as the years tick away. Passing by in a blur (literally) the universe evolves to welcome all forms of alien life from around the galaxy. The generally well-rendered CGI beings that Besson introduces us to first are Avatar-ish chrome domes living in a pastel colored planet that get major feels from pearls pooped out of a cute creature. I’ll let that last sentence sink in a moment. Have you recovered? Let’s move forward.
Just when the planet and its inhabitants are threatened by objects crash landing from sky the film cuts quickly to Valerian (Dane DeHaan, Lawless) who has just awoke in a cold sweat. Was it all in his head or is he in possession of historical knowledge hidden deep within? Before we get to that answer Besson makes a costly error out of the gate by awkwardly introducing us to Major Valerian and his partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne, Suicide Squad) with a battle of the sexes sparring that would have seemed trivial on Moonlighting. DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry, radiating genial brother-sister admiration much more than any carnal craves.
Valerian and Laureline are mid-mission in a race to obtain a precious element (no, not The Fifth Element) that winds up playing a big part in explaining Valerian’s other-planetary visions. There’s not enough megabites in this blog to go into details on where Besson takes our plucky hero and heroine but I can tell you that it involves singer Rihanna (Battleship) as a shape shifting blue alien that has Ethan Hawke (Sinister) for a pimp, a race through an underwater world of sea monsters, Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby) strangely voicing a male alien royal, and Herbie Hancock as Valerian and Laureline’s exhausted boss. To all you Rutger Hauer fans, don’t blink or you’ll miss his barely there cameo.
This film is without a doubt totally cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs but it’s sheer brazen wackiness is what winds up keeping it afloat when Besson’s script falters and its stars stall out. There’s barely a moment when things are at a standstill and yet the action onscreen is delivered with such fervent fury throughout I was never not entertained in one way or another. How much you get out of the film is entirely dependent on how much you’re willing to just go with the flow and know that everyone else in the audience thinks its as bizarre as you do.
I was wanting an immersive experience for Valerian so I opted for a seat close to the screen, only to move the back row 20 minutes in when I was started getting seasick. Besson’s never been a filmmaker that knows what subtle means (I mean did you SEE Lucy?) and in many ways, that’s what helps this one wind up in the Good Bad Movie category. Laughably overlong at 137 minutes, you’ll have to be in the right frame of mind to like it but if you’re up for a nutso ride into Besson’s candy-colored brain then this is the movie for you.
Synopsis: The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mysteries of Peter Quill’s true parentage.
Release Date: May 5, 2017
Thoughts: Surpassing the expectations of audiences and even, I think, its own studio, Guardians of the Galaxy was a late summer splash in 2014. Elevating star Chris Pratt to A-List status (further cemented the next summer when he headlined Jurassic World) and bringing to the screen heroes that didn’t wear a red cape or a cowl, GoTG was slick, funny, exciting, and fueled with enough adrenaline to power several city blocks. The hype is big for Vol. 2 when it arrives in May 2017 and this first teaser is but a taste of things to come (not to mention multiple full length trailers). In all honesty, like the trailer for the original this one is too jokey for my taste but as a whistle whetter, it gets the job done.
Synopsis: Macbeth, a Thane of Scotland, receives a prophecy from a trio of witches that one day he will become King of Scotland. Consumed by ambition and spurred to action by his wife, Macbeth murders his king and takes the throne for himself.
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Paddy Considine, David Thewlis, Jack Reynor, Sean Harris, Elizabeth Debicki
Review: Everyone has their favorite Shakespeare play (or they should) and while I’ve always gravitated toward the comedies more than the tragedies, if I had to pick one of his darker works I’d go with Macbeth without much hesitation. There’s something so sinister about the plot, something so overtly wicked about it that it has kept me interested in whatever iteration is released. I’ve seen it on film, and onstage as a play and an opera and it’s malicious deeds always give me the chills.
There have been several screen adaptation of Macbeth over the years (as well as some clever twists on it, see Scotland, PA for a fun one) and they’ve all made their own mark. Justin Kurzel’s 2015 Macbeth is the shortest adaptation so far, truncating Shakespeare’s prose down to its barest core and taking some liberties with the action that may have purists sharpening their knives.
While watching the film, I was decadently disengaged. I went in thinking I would instantly love it, especially considering the leads were cast with two of my favorite actors working today. Yet throughout the two hours I wasn’t able to immerse myself in the proceedings like I expected to. It usually takes me a few minutes to acclimate to Shakespeare’s dialogue but I struggled mightily, even knowing the play fairly well. Artfully made and shrewdly performed, it didn’t grab me.
Then I had some time to think about the film and slowly but surely I realized just how effective the piece was. It’s not your typical Macbeth adaptation and more’s the better for it. Sure, it’s been slashed to smithereens but what Kurzel cuts he makes up for with imagery and imagination that fill in the gaps for us.
I’d always considered Macbeth more of a pawn to his wife’s ambition but Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) plays the Thane of Scotland as conflicted yet not contrite. He may have needed the initial push from his significant other but once he gets going he finds that he can’t stop his mission to rise to power. In typical Fassbender form, it’s an all-in approach that gives the character fearsome depth and calculated strength.
Equal to (and possible besting) her co-star, Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night) takes on the famous role of Lady Macbeth and chooses to add anxiety into her ambitious ways. Her urging her husband to commit heinous acts comes from a survival instinct…but she realizes too late the machine she’s helped start will bring about their downfall instead of their ascension. Cotillard has a thrilling monologue late in the film that’s simply shot but complex in its delivery.
Not everyone will love this Macbeth…I sure didn’t when it was happening in front of me. However, taking the time to ponder it in the hours/days after I found that my appreciation for the work only grew. It wasn’t what I expected and that wound up working in its favor.
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.
Traditionally, August is the month when the wind-down begins. It never has any of the big tent pole pictures featured earlier in the summer and it can be a time when studios try to burn off some troubled pictures or try to skillfully position a sleeper hit. This August for sure had its share of high and low points, much like the summer that it capped off. I was still in frolic mode so didn’t get to as many reviews as I had wanted but sitting here now, in still sunny September, it’s time to review the movies I missed!
Movie Review ~ Shaun the Sheep Movie The Facts: Synopsis: When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, he gets a little more action than he bargained for. A mix up with the Farmer, a caravan and a very steep hill lead them all to the Big City and it’s up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home. Stars: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak Rated: PG Running Length: 85 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: I’m not saying that the U.S. doesn’t churn out a fine slate of family friendly films…but there’s a certain aura around the British imports that seem to work time and time again. Like Paddington earlier this year, Shaun the Sheep Movie was an unexpected delight, 85 minutes of smart comedy that’s deep enough for adults to not need a lobotomy to enjoy and zany enough to keep the attention of young tykes. Remarkable when you consider there’s not any dialogue in the movie aside from some rumbles and grumbles from human and animal characters, it’s a big screen adventure adapted from a popular television show. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprisingly entertained and quite impressed by the stop-motion animation. The film didn’t have great marketing so it slipped by most people but if it’s at your bargain movie theater, pack those kids up in your minivan and get to it…or treat yourself to a solo show.
Movie Review ~ Dark Places The Facts: Synopsis: Libby Day was only seven years old when her family was brutally murdered in their rural Kansas farmhouse. Twenty-five years later, she agrees to revisit the crime and uncovers the wrenching truths that led up to that tragic night. Stars: Charlize Theron, Drea de Matteo, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Tye Sheridan, Shannon Kook Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner Rated: R Running Length: 113 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: With the huge success of Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girland seeing how fast the movie rights were snapped up, it’s only natural that her other two other books would take a similar path. Dark Places is the first of these to hit theaters (Sharp Objects is arriving as a television movie) and it shows one of two things, either the third time was the charm for Flynn or something was lost in translation. Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book but I’m inclined to think that it’s the fault of the screenwriter because there are so many hazardous movie mistakes only a Hollywood writer could make. Though the mystery of a decades old killing spree coming back to haunt the sole survivor is initially intriguing, it quickly dissolves into a sticky mess that makes less sense the more secrets are revealed. It also doesn’t help that it’s badly miscast, with the usually impressive Charlize Theron relying on her ever-present trucker hat to do most of the acting for her…or maybe to hide her embarrassment at being looped into this turkey. Though it boasts a cast that typically gets the job done, no one quite seems to know what they’re doing…as if they hadn’t read the book before undertaking their scenes. The only worthwhile performance is Christina Hendricks as Theron’s murdered mom, bringing some dignity to a role that, as written, doesn’t earn it.
Movie Review ~ Fantastic Four The Facts: Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy. Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey Director: Josh Trank Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 100 minutes TMMM Score: (4/10) Review: Well, what can I saw bout the Fantastic Four that hasn’t been said (loudly) already? Is it a lousy movie? Yeah, probably. Could it have been better? After two attempts to bring these characters to the big screen I’m not sure we’ll ever get a decent adaptation. What went so wrong? If you believe the outspoken director, it was studio interference that took his movie from a rich origin story to an overstuffed thundercloud of action movie clichés and fairly terrible special effects. If you are to believe the studio, it was that director Josh Trank (who debuted with the surprise hit Chronicle) disconnected from the material, a development that was costing time and money. Watching the film with this knowledge you can see the moment that something went awry. Because the thing is, the first 20-30 minutes of Fantastic Four is quite good, sensitive even. It’s a slow start and, let’s face it, audiences these days don’t want a slow start. They want their action and they want it now. The studio was happy to oblige and when it becomes a standard summer superhero movie my interest took a nosedive and it became a waiting game of the good guys defeating the bad guys so I could go home. I think the colossal outcry from fans and critics was a little on the dramatic side, even for a superhero film, but it’s not wholly unwarranted.
Movie Review ~ Ricki and the Flash The Facts: Synopsis: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family. Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield Director: Jonathan Demme Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 102 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: So we’ve all long agreed to the fact that Meryl Streep can do no wrong. You can love her for it or hate her for it, but she never fails to impressive me with each new role she takes on. From starring in The Iron Lady to taking a supporting role (cameo, really) in The Homesman, Streep seems to take a role if it speaks to her, no matter the size or commitment. It’s not hard to see why she was attracted to the rough rocker Ricki with her tattoos and braided hair, here was another opportunity for Streep to strip away the classical actress aura and go barefoot into the wild. She’s ably aided by Diablo Cody’s middling script, Jonathan Demme’s careful direction, and a supporting cast that don’t just play second fiddle to Streep’s lead guitar. I think there’s one too many musical numbers allowed to play longer than they should and Cody’s dialogue doesn’t have the snap that it used to. The whole thing is worth it though for a stellar scene between Streep and Audra McDonald, the new wife of Streep’s ex-husband. A sparring match spoken with calm and some care, the two women have an electricity between them that the film needed more of. It falls apart swiftly in its second half, but it’s not a totally out of tune affair.
Movie Review ~ The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The Facts: Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons. Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant Director: Guy Ritchie Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 116 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: I never watched the television series on which this cool-as-can-be spy movie was based on but I’m pretty sure there weren’t the same amount of homoerotic jokes during the weekly adventures of Solo and Kuryakin. While I feel that director Guy Ritchie relied a bit too heavily on his similar experience at the helm of two Sherlock Holmes films, he brings his A game to this big screen adaption, sparing no expense when it came to production design. And that’s a good thing because though it’s never truly predictable, the plot is pretty thin. So it’s up to Ritchie and his cast to sell the film and they are more than up for the challenge. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is perfectly cast as the smooth Solo and he’s well matched with Armie Hammer’s (Mirror Mirror) simmering Kuryakin. The two trade barbs rich with double entendre while protecting Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) from falling into the hands of a sinister villainess (the scene stealing Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gastby). The film looks and sounds amazing, here’s hoping costume designer Joanna Johnston gets an Oscar nomination for her impeccable suits and stunning dresses.
Movie Review ~ End of the Tour The Facts: Synopsis: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner Director: James Ponsoldt Rated: R Running Length: 106 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: I never thought I’d say the words “potential Oscar nominee Jason Segel” in a work of non-fiction…but then again I didn’t think two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill was possible either and look what happened there. Yes, Segel’s work as tormented writer David Foster Wallace is worthy of acclaim as the actor digs deep within and bypasses his comedic instincts to find the truth of the man behind the epic novel Infinite Jest. Jesse Eisenberg (who also pops up in American Ultra) turns in strong work as well, though he’s really just a prop for Segel to react off of. Their five day road trip interview for Rolling Stone is the basis for the movie and it leads the men and the audience into interesting territory. It’s a movie you watch once, appreciate, then file away as something you can recommend to people and feel like you’ve done them a favor. One thing that must be said…Eisenberg needs to learn how to smoke a cigarette. Here and in American Ultra he looks a child does when they are mimicking their parent. Many things about Eisenberg annoy me and this is just another thing to add to the list.
Movie Review ~ The Diary of a Teenage Girl The Facts: Synopsis: A teen artist living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Stars: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig Director: Marielle Heller Rated: R Running Length: 102 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: It’s nice to go into a movie with only a basic logline and a list of the actors featured. I didn’t know what to expect from The Diary of a Teenage Girl but whatever I thought, the movie surprised me in the best ways. The story of a young girl’s sexual awakening in San Francisco is gloriously set in the mid ‘70s, an era of freedom and discovery. While some may be off put by the relationship between an older man and an underage girl (star-in-the-making Bel Powley is older than she looks, thankfully), they’d be missing the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based. It’s a frank flick that frequently finds its actors in the buff but doesn’t feel gratuitous because these characters are coming into themselves, marveling at a new experience they never knew existed. I appreciated that the film pulled no punches in showing nudity and discussing sexual situations and director Marielle Heller shows respect for all people involved. It’s a bold film with animated sequences, a killer soundtrack, and splendid performances.
The dog days of summer brought three other notable releases to theaters, though I’m guessing by the poor box office returns of two of them that the studios (and actors) wish the films had just quietly gone away.
I hadn’t heard a thing about American Ultra until two weeks before it was due to arrive, strange considering it starred Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. The two aren’t serious box office draws but they do have a fanbase that might have helped build more buzz for the stoner comedy. Not that it would have made the film any better because at its best it was a mildly diverting mix of comedy and gratuitous violence and at its worst it was a merely the thing you watched because you’d seen everything else at the theater and wanted some time in the air conditioning. It’s bad when you don’t know what the movie is about, but it’s worse when it feels like the filmmakers don’t have a clue either.
I’ve gone on record as no fan of director Noah Baumbach and very on the fence for actress Greta Gerwig so I wasn’t at all looking forward to their latest collaboration, Mistress America. Once again, the universe has a way of loving to see me humbled and I emerged from the screening not only in a damn fine mood but the desire to see it again. That rarely happens with any movie, let alone a Baumbach/Gerwig joint so that should tell you something about the quality of this movie that is firmly in a New York state of mind. Sure, it has its share of problems but they don’t ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment the film brings.
Finally, there’s the sad, sad case of We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron’s latest attempt to be a serious dramatic actor. While I think it’s Efron’s best dramatic performance to date and didn’t totally hate the film, audiences sure did and it became the third biggest box office failure of all time…pretty stunning considering how many other bad movies have been released and made at least a few million during its opening weekend. I think the film got a bum rap and just was released at the wrong time, but it should hopefully send a message to Efron that he needs to spend some time figuring out exactly where his place is in Hollywood because he is, like his character here, totally lost.
Review: It would be hard to graduate high school without having had to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel “The Great Gatsby”. A treasured tome for some and a hollow warning on the price of the American dream to others, the novel wasn’t a success when it was first released and only became popular after Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. Over the years it’s been adapted for stage and screen (both large and small) but the key core of the novel’s brilliance has never been truly captured accurately.
This 2013 version of The Great Gatsby also misses the mark of what made has made the novel so timeless but it does capture the mood and feel of the era the best of any previous incarnations of the work. Yes, it’s over the top, flashy, and delirious at times…but so were the roaring 20’s! Director Baz Lurhmann has been faithful to the book as much as possible and utilized a well conditioned cast to the best of all of their collective abilities.
It’s the summer of 1922 and NYC is in the middle of Prohibition and right on the cusp of some major social change. The days of wine and roses are numbered with The Great Depression right around the corner but no one is the wiser as they roll down their stockings, bob their hair, spend money like there’s no tomorrow, and dance the night away in speakeasies and at Jay Gatsby’s massive Long Island mansion.
Our narrator/moral center is Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and as the film opens he’s relating a story of love and loss from the icy confines of a sanitarium. Unable to bring himself to speak the words, he begins to write and so truly begins the story of how he found himself a bystander to a doomed love triangle between his mysterious neighbor Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio, Django Unchained), his cousi Daisy (Carey Mulligan, Inside Llewyn Davis), and her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton, Zero Dark Thirty).
All of the elements from Fitzgerald’s novel come to life under the stellar work of production designer Catherine Martin (who also designed the jaw dropping costumes and happens to be Mrs. Lurhmann). The green light that sits at the end of the Buchanan’s dock and acts as a beacon to Gatsby across the bay, the watchful billboard of a forgotten optometrist, even the classic lines and descriptive phrases are nicely incorporated courtesy of Lurhmann and Craig Pearce’s everything but the kitchen sink script.
That being said, even with everything in place there’s a severe lack of “the underneath” as I like to call it. While the characters move around this gossamer landscape enacting acts of love and revenge, there’s precious little sympathy for any of them…which is largely the way Fitzgerald wrote them. That may be hard for some people to get over when watching the film but Fitzgerald didn’t see these people as heroes in need of salvation but as indictments of the time and place in which they flourished. Even so, I kept wishing there was more blood and guts on display rather than just flesh and bone.
Strangely, I’m not usually a fan of most of the leads in The Great Gatsby. DiCaprio is constantly mentioned as one of our great actors and while I can give it to him that he’s turned in solid work in the last decade I haven’t thought his work was that underappreciated. He was refreshing in Django Unchained and should have nabbed an Oscar nomination for his efforts but it’s with The Great Gatsby that I finally saw in DiCaprio the actor that I think he should be. The haunted and deeply fragile Gatsby seems the most natural fit for DiCaprio and he’s quite acceptable in the part.
Mulligan is making a habit of playing these delicate, bird-like characters and this just seems another exercise with Mulligan using the tricks she’s accumulated in her cinematic wheelhouse. Though I think she’s ultimately well cast, those familiar with her work won’t see anything truly new. DiCaprio’s best friend Maguire is well suited for playing the closest thing Gatsby has to a best friend and thankfully ditches his puppy-dog mumble technique to really deliver as the flawed narrator of the piece that isn’t so innocent in what happens over the course of the film.
Edgerton makes a strong showing as Tom Buchanan, a man that doesn’t appreciate what he has until it’s nearly gone. Though having an affair with a mechanic’s wife (Isla Fischer who’s better here than she is in Now You See Me), he clings to Daisy when he sees her getting close to Gatsby. Ultimately, Tom sets into motion the tragic final act of the piece involving the mechanic (Jason Clarke, so good in Zero Dark Thirty and Lawless), all the while knowing what the outcome will be.
Special mention needs to be made for Elizabeth Debicki’s strong supporting work as golf pro Jordan Baker, a friend to the Buchanan’s, Gatsby, and Nick. Though she could be viewed as working all sides, in Debicki’s capable hands the role is smoothed out and is the best representation of a character that would believably be living and breathing during the 20’s. Keep an eye on this actress, she’s fascinating to watch.
Much has been made of Lurhmann teaming with rapper Jay-Z to bring a modern sound to the film and I was nervous after hearing early reports that the film was sidelined by its soundtrack. So I was happy to see (well, hear) that the music is worked in rather unobtrusively to the film and in some cases works to heighten the happenings onscreen. Lana Del Rey’s spine chilling “Young and Beautiful” is laced into several scenes in a few different iterations, its lyrics and sound perfectly capturing the longing and fears of our characters. Other efforts, like Beyonce’s cover of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black” don’t land right but that’s the problem of the re-working of the song not the movie.
Filmed in 3D, the first half of the movie is very much like previous Lurhamann efforts…meaning that it’s fast edited within an inch of its life. The editing really represents what’s happening on screen because the first part is a fever dream of excess and confusion. When Gatsby and Daisy are reunited (in a scene that I’ll admit had my pulse racing) the movie settles down and only works itself up again as it careens into its finale.
Though it was brought to television in a 2000 effort starring Mira Sorvino, the last time Gatsby was on screen was in 1974 starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. While that sounds like ideal casting, the final effort was a dreadful bore – it’s 1 minute longer than this version but feels like an hour. Though this still isn’t the perfect Gatsby, for me it’s dang close. Still without a vibrantly beating heart, the movie swirls and twirls around you and is more engaging than you might think. Ultimately, it’s a film that’s been on my mind a lot in the last few days and one that is worth seeing in the theaters.