Movie Review ~ Freeheld

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The Facts:

Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell

Director: Peter Sollett

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Why didn’t I like Freeheld more? That’s a question that hasn’t necessarily kept me up at night since the screening but it’s one that has stuck with me over the course of the last several days. As an advocate for equality for all and a sucker for a triumphant true story (not to mention a dedicated fan of Julianne Moore) I thought going into it that I’d emerge with a tear-stained face and strong sense of due justice…but instead I left dry-eyed and frustrated.  What should have been a slam dunk missed the net entirely.

The story of a lesbian couple fighting for equality regarding pension benefits has some mighty heft to it, so much so that it inspired the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name. In a solid, moving 40 minutes we met Laurel Hester, a 23 year veteran of the New Jersey police force battling terminal lung cancer and the system that says she can’t leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. As Laurel’s health fades and the odds stack up, a community of support forms around the women, changing the law in the process.

That’s a story! And the dramatization of that short should at least come close to the emotional impact the documentary had. Sadly, it’s a terribly clumsy affair that loses its footing early on and can’t rally enough to make it to a satisfying finish line. Though it features typical good work from Moore (Still Alice), Ellen Page (The East), and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), it has its share of performances painted with broad strokes, weakening the overall effectiveness of a movie that never feels organic or personal.

Most of the problem likes with Peter Sollett’s stodgy direction and Ron Nyswaner’s ham-fisted script. It’s especially surprising that Nyswaner stumbles as hard as he does considering her wrote the far more effective Philadelphia in 1993. That movie was about justice and this one is about equality but Nyswaner doesn’t seem to know the difference because there’s a lack of overall tone. One moment it’s a tender love story and the next it’s a camp-fest with Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) woefully miscast as a gay Jewish civil rights activist played like an even more amped up version of his character from The Office. Carell is so very bad that he overwhelms everyone whenever he’s onscreen, no small task when you’re sharing space with the likes of Moore.

It’s a film with dialogue that seems taken verbatim from a sensitivity training video or a pamphlet on the gay rights movement. The “bad guys” tote religious beliefs and incredibly general stereotypes, unmoved by any example presented showing that gay people love their partners just like everyone else, the “good guys” dole out mighty preachy sentiments about acceptance and equality. It just never feels honest, even though it’s well intended.

Another big problem I had was that I never bought Moore and Page as a couple. Both actresses capably portray their characters but we’re supposed to believe in their bond and I never did. So it made it harder to relate to the situation the real-life couple found themselves in. Instead it becomes a film about Moore dying before justice is served, instead of the struggle for equality that Hester herself wanted to be front and center.

It says something when the most memorable thing for me was the song played over the end credits.  “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and performed beautifully by Miley Cyrus and it’s the one chance the film has for an Oscar contention.

Is the film important to see?  Sure, if you’re wanting to have a larger discussion with someone on the continued fight for equality for all.  But as a dramatization of real life events that led to a landmark change in the law, it’s an overall letdown.

The Silver Bullet ~ Freeheld

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Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Release Date: October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice) might want to pick out another redhead friendly clothing ensemble because Freeheld could nab the actress another season pass for end of the year rewards. Starring alongside fellow Oscar nominees Ellen Page (The East), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel), this true life drama concerns the fight for equality by two lesbian life-partners. While the trailer dips into some TV-movie-of-the-week-ish maudlin speechifying, I’m hoping that screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who penned the similar Philadelphia, also Oscar nominated) finds the honesty in the midst of the sentimentality.

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Days of Future Past

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants

Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Boo Boo Stewart, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Ok, I believe by now we’ve established the kind of reader-critic relationship that allows me to be as open and honest with you as I possibly can.  So, I the spirit of putting it all out there on the table I need to tell you that the X-Men and all their variations have never really been my thing.  Aside from a childhood desire to beat the SEGA game, I’ve never truly warmed to Professor X and his motley crew of mutant heroes and villains…even after seven films.

Though the overreaching message of the film (we’re all mutants in some form or another and that’s ok) is a positive one that has the ability to speak to anyone, there’s something about the over eagerness of the filmmakers to constantly “get it right” that I find myself enjoying the spectacle at a distance.

It doesn’t help that the quality of the movies hasn’t maintained any sort of consistency since X-Men was released in 2000.  The first sequel improved upon its predecessor but when original director Bryan Signer vacated the series for Superman Returns the third entry landed with a thud.  Spinning off the series into a poorly executed Wolverine origin story further dug a hole for the franchise before 2011’s X-Men: First Class saved a listing ship.  I didn’t dislike 2013’s The Wolverine as much as my colleagues but by that point fans were a little sensitive to their mutants getting less than stellar cinematic adventures.

Now we’ve arrived in the present with X-Men: Days of Future Past…but we won’t stay there long as the enjoyable seventh entry of the series is more interested in looking back than moving forward.  There’s a lot (A LOT) going on in Simon Kinberg’s script…so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember how all the pieces fit, who is who, and what decade we’re in.  After an opening in a desolate not-too-distant future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, who must have been paid in how many bicep veins are present) is sent back to the early 70’s by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) to prevent rouge Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) from setting a series of events into motion in the past that will have a deadly impact for the future.

Juggling two separate time frames, returning director Bryan Singer manages to keep everything in balance for the most part.  Having watched X-Men: First Class directly before seeing this new film, I was impressed that Singer and Kinberg carved out a new path while keeping continuity through some difficult loose ends previous director Matthew Vaughn left for the new crew to figure out.

Less impressive is an overall humdrum feeling the movie left me with after all was said and done.  I’m not suggesting the movie isn’t terrific popcorn entertainment or doesn’t contain a handful of impressively filmed sequences (like Evan Peters as Quicksilver showing off his talents while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background) but it all feels overly calculated, designed to allow the franchise to continue without really having to answer for past mistakes.

With Lawrence’s star gone supernova since the last installment, her part is significantly beefed up here.  Mystique has never been so front and center and Lawrence manages to eek out some nice moments under her full body make-up.  As the younger Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy (Trance) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) don’t seem quite as invested this time around, but then again there’s not the same kind of character discovery available to them.  Jackman can play the role in his sleep…and by now it looks like he is.

Moving fast through its 131 minute running length, the end of the film sets up the next volume of X-Men escapades nicely…but then again if you really think about it that’s all the movie seemed interested in in the first place.  Fairly and frequently violent for a PG-13 film, parents should think twice before bringing young children along…Godzilla has less death/carnage in it.

With all my griping about overall ulterior motives, I’ll admit the movie fits neatly into the mode of summer blockbuster by combining all the right elements into the mix.  I think fans will look back and see the mechanics of the script in years to come…but by that time these will be the true days of future past.

Movie Review ~ The East

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities changing dramatically after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

Stars: Brit Marling, Alexander Skarsgård, Ellen Page, Toby Kebbell, Shiloh Fernandez, Patricia Clarkson

Director: Zal Batmanglij

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: It might be easy to dismiss The East as another indie granola thriller with an activism agenda but it’s thanks to a nuanced script co-written by star Brit Marling (Arbitage, Sound of My Voice) and director Zal Batmanglij and some seriously layered performances that should put your movie compass due north toward this nicely constructed film.

Indie-darling Marling has had a boon of opportunity in the last few years turning up in several well reviewed flicks that may not have made much of a dent at the box office but upped her street cred in Hollywood causing many to take notice.  Resisting the urge to snap up roles in any number of summer blockbusters, Marling instead took a more creative route by rounding up her frequent collaborator Batmanglij and gathering a crackerjack cast for her urban potboiler.

As Sarah, an agent recruited by a mysterious intelligence firm to find a way to get inside a grassroots anarchist group targeting specific big money companies, Marling convincingly gets under the skin of her character. Without laying it all out for us she shows us the complexities of the work, what it takes to burrow in and gain trust, and the toll that double life takes on the psyche.  Starting off wanting the opportunity to succeed more than having much conviction for the job, Sarah eventually winds up in the wooded compound of the members of The East including Skarsgård (Disconnect) as charismatic leader Benji and Ellen Page (Juno) as cautious rebel Izzy.

It may not seem like it on a first viewing but Marling and Batmanglij have gone to great lengths to get all their ducks lined up in a row.  As the lines get blurred between what side is actually doing the most damage, Sarah sees a new challenge in adapting to the way of life the members of the group chose to live…eventually losing herself in the world she’s created.

The whole set-up isn’t anything truly original because we’ve seen these types of undercover movies dozens of times.  What makes The East so different is the way it chooses to present the material in scenes that feel fresh and don’t spell out what the motivations are of anyone involved.  Everyone seems to be hiding something and as soon as one secret is revealed a host of new questions emerge.  The movie has a nice rhythm, allowing the characters and the tension to grow as the story progresses – not everything works out like you think it will and several times I was pleasantly surprised as a new wrinkle was introduced.

If anything, the movie is recommended on the strength of one performance.  Patricia Clarkson.  The head of the security firm that assigns Sarah, Clarkson’s character is colored with one of the most crisply sinister edges in quite some time and that’s not something that is thanks only to the script.  I’ve been a fan of Clarkson for some time but her purring ice queen is truly something to behold.

Though The East may not pop to the top of your list during this busy summer movie season, do try and seek it out when it’s available for viewing at home in the fall.  There’s a real depth to the message and a skill in the delivery that’s rare to find nowadays.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ The East

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Synopsis: An operative for an elite private intelligence firm finds her priorities irrevocably changed after she is tasked with infiltrating an anarchist group known for executing covert attacks upon major corporations.

Release Date:  May 31, 2103

Thoughts:  Here’s an interesting one for you.  Writer/star Brit Marling has been slowly building a comfy career in indie Hollywood with high profile roles in lower profile films.  After a strong turn alongside Richard Gere in Arbitage, Marling re-teams with her Sound of My Voice director/collaborator Zal Batmanglij for this thriller focused on a woman that becomes immersed with a group out to expose eco problems within big corporations.  With an interesting support cast that includes Patricia Clarkson and  Alexander Skarsgård (Disconnect), Marling may have a breakthrough film on her hands.  Though the first preview made the film look a bit too pat, this second trailer indicates a taut little indie awaits us at the end of May.