Movie Review ~ Last Christmas


The Facts
:

Synopsis: When Kate, a cynical Christmas store worker who has been continuously unlucky, keeps running into an overly cheerful man and begins to fall for him, her life takes an unexpected turn.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Henry Golding, Michelle Yeoh, Emma Thompson, Lydia Leonard, Boris Isakovic, Rebecca Root

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: A few months back, the Hallmark Channel announced it had smashed their own record for original seasonal films by offering up a whopping 40 holiday movies that would arrive between October and December.  Now, I’m not above spending a day (or two, or three) in front of the television partaking in their programming while wrapping presents or trimming the tree because they tend to be films that don’t require a ton of commitment.  There’s a specific guidebook to the way these little larks are crafted where you know going in that the woman who moves back to her hometown to (insert save family business or refurbish inherited money pit) and falls for the local (insert widower, handyman, or widowed handyman) will wind up happy and fulfilled.  I got a similar feeling of familiarity while watching Last Christmas but the difference here was that I couldn’t watch this one in my pajamas.

What’s surprising about Last Christmas is just how many talented individuals are involved with what is a fairly standard-fare offering from a major studio.  Inspired by and taking its name from the 1984 song from Wham! written by George Michael (when was the last time you saw a movie credited to a song?), the film was developed by Emma Thompson and her husband Greg Wise, with Thompson going on to write the screenplay with performance artist Bryony Kimmings. While it’s exactly the type of mid-budget romantic comedy I’ve often bemoaned the lack of in theaters, it’s often decidedly slight but makes up for that with strong, quirky performances that commit fully to the material that doesn’t always rise to meet them in the middle.  Thompson and Kimmings have a knack with introducing a few out of left field characters and ideas but just as soon as they’re established they drop them for something different.

Working as an elf at a Christmas store in London’s Covent Garden selling tacky ornaments, Kate (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) couch hops amongst her friends instead of living at home with her immigrant parents (Thompson, Late Night and Boris Isakovic).  Wearing out her welcome quickly because she tends to act like a human wrecking ball, she has dreams of becoming a musical theater performer but only half-heartedly purses it.  She’s more into late nights and a free wheeling attitude, though this being a PG-13 film the worst we see Kate is with tousled hair and streaked eyeliner.  After a health scare a year ago, her family and boss (Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians) urge her to be kinder to herself but it doesn’t deter Kate from continuing with an unhealthy lifestyle.

That all changes when she spots Tom (Henry Golding, A Simple Favor) outside the shop and strikes up a conversation with him.  A man almost too happy-go-lucky but with an air of mystery about him, Kate’s intrigued by Tom but can’t quite put her finger on why.  As they get to know each other better, he inspires her in small ways to treat herself with a little more consideration, which leads to Kate finding new passions she can focus on.  Several subplots emerge, though none are truly fleshed out by director Paul Feig (Spy) and that’s a disappointment because it feels there are ample opportunities to give a few of the minor characters more of a boost.  In the past, Feig has excelled with making stars of of supporting players and while the cast is an appealing mix of different looks, they aren’t fully tapped to step into the spotlight.  Instead, too many machinations are put into place in order for Thompson and Kimmings to get to a pivotal turning point in the movie that some will see coming from a mile away.  I get why that wrinkle is there but it’s such a minor point you can almost see where the filmmakers tried to parse it down and switch the attention elsewhere after the movie was shot — maybe I’m off base but it sure seems like they did.

Though popular from her time on Game of Thrones, I’m still not quite on the Clarke train yet, but Last Christmas helped get me closer to buying a ticket.  She’s a bit more grounded here than her last romantic outing (Me Before You) and you can see the change her character goes through from the start of the movie to the end.  Plus, she shows off a sweet singing voice chirping through a few George Michael tunes (the singer’s music is used almost exclusively throughout) and acquitting herself nicely doing so.  Golding continues to charm, even if his character is a bit of an enigma most of the time.  Thompson gave herself a nice role as Kate’s Yugoslavian mother still worried the KGB is looking for her and Yeoh is a lot of fun as Kate’s spiky boss.  Her strangely funny romance with a German man is so odd and inconsequential to the movie as a whole, I was surprised it made the final cut even if it was fairly amusing.

This is making it sound like Last Christmas is a tough movie to sit through and it’s not – it’s more enjoyable than I’m making it out to be.  While watching the movie, I was quite taken by it’s brisk pace and ability to bounce forward without getting too tangled in plot developments that would drag other similar movies down.  The script eliminates the usual entanglements often present in romantic comedies and clears the way for Kate to be center stage.  It helps that Clarke is at her most likable and that she’s not such a disaster we don’t want to see her pick herself up and succeed.  It’s a very timely movie as well, with newsworthy discussions of Brexit of all things coming into play (albeit briefly) and using that as another way for Kate to connect not just with her family but with other people in her city.  It’s a bit shoehorned in and a rather obvious statement moment, but it’s valuable nonetheless.  The only thing that truly bothered me is that Feig didn’t know how the end the movie.  There’s at least one scene too many at the end, maybe two depending on how tidy you like your edges when a movie wraps up.

Like those schmaltzy Hallmark movies, Last Christmas is arriving well ahead of the Christmas rush in order to beat the crowded boon of films vying for your attention as we head into a busy December.  It’s a smart move because there’s not a whole lot else like it out there right now.  At times it gets to feel like it’s moving through a checklist of people and situations required to be in these movies but somehow I went along with it without much fuss.  I recognize the movie can often be like one of those gaudy ornaments Kate is selling (and of which I own a few of).  You know it’s not the greatest, the prettiest, or the most expensive but you still like to look at it for what it means to you.  You’ll definitely put it on your tree…but maybe it will go closer to the bottom or toward the back.  I don’t think it’s destined to be a new Christmas classic but neither are any of those Hallmark movies that come out every year.

The Silver Bullet ~ Last Christmas



Synopsis
: A young woman, who has been continuously unlucky, accepts a job as a department store elf during the holidays. When Kate meets Tom on the job, her life takes a turn.

Release Date: November 8, 2019

Thoughts: There are certainly many reasons why Last Christmas checks off a number of boxes on my list.  There’s its holiday theme, its London setting, the involvement of director Paul Feig (Spy), not to mention it’s written by Oscar-winner Emma Thompson (Late Night) who also has a co-starring role.  Feig’s casting of his A Simple Favor star Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) is a nice bonus and I’ll never turn my nose up at a movie that proudly touts that it is “featuring the music of George Michael”.  However…I’m not totally sold on it…at least not yet.  Why?  I’m just not on the Emilia Clarke train yet.  Though she’s gained a lot of press for her work on Game of Thrones as well as nabbed starring roles in Me Before You, Terminator: Genisys, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, I’ve yet to be convinced she’s the next big thing.  Perhaps this will be the holiday romance to convince me.

Movie Review ~ Solo: A Star Wars Story


The Facts
:

Synopsis: During an adventure into a dark criminal underworld, Han Solo meets his future copilot Chewbacca and encounters Lando Calrissian years before joining the Rebellion.

Stars: Alden Ehrenreich, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Joonas Suotamo, Michael K. Williams, Ian Kenny, Warwick Davis, Clint Howard, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau

Director: Ron Howard

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I was one of the few people that didn’t latch on to 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Most thought it was one of the best (!!) entries in the Star Wars universe but I found it to be a cash-grabbing, gap-filling, problematic undertaking that brought to lax life characters and situations we had heard about in the original trilogy of films. It just didn’t go anywhere for me because it had nowhere to go. We knew what was going to happen so, like Titanic, audiences were waiting around for a couple of hours for the ship to sink.

Like Rogue One, Solo: A Star Wars Story reaches back into galactic history to the origins of Han Solo, the character first portrayed by Harrison Ford. Unfortunately, the same problems of storytelling and purpose existed for me while watching Solo, which, though a marked improvement in pace and plot over Rogue One, still had me struggling with the question of “Why?” Even for a slightly-more-than-casual-fan of the Star Wars series like myself, I kept wondering when the story would take a surprising turn or stake its claim as the original tale it claims to be. Despite some stray sparks of ingenuity, Solo winds up being another strange miss by Lucasfilm that finds itself yet again playing it safe with its cash cow franchise.

Bursting into action before the title is even on the screen, the problems I had with Solo also started pretty early on. For one thing, the cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) is so dark that I half-believed something to be wrong with the projection. Large stretches of the movie are so dim that facial features are fuzzy and action sequences feel like they were filmed inside a dank warehouse that forgot to pay their electric bill. Introduced to wannabe pilot Han (Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) as he wriggles out of a sticky situation with his band of criminals on Corellia, taking his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke, Terminator Genisys) along with him. In the first of several well-staged space chases, Han and Qi’ra attempt to evade capture with Han’s flying skills put to the test. Though Han escapes the planet, Qi’ra isn’t so lucky. Pledging to return to save her, Han joins the Imperial flight academy and gains his last name in the process. Flash forward three years to find Han has been kicked out of the academy and is now a grunt on the ground doing battle.

It’s in the wages of war that the resourceful Han buddies up with a cadre of thieves led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson, Now You See Me 2) and Val (Thandie Newton) but not before almost being torn apart by a muddy Wookie named Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Befriending the hairy beast, Han and Chewie join Tobias and Val on a mission that sets the stage for a whole new world of trouble and adventure. Along the way Han plays cards with the charming Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover, The Martian) in the hopes of winning his prized ship the Millennium Falcon, avoids a band of mysterious space pirates, and runs afoul of Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, Avengers: Infinity War) who has a familiar face from Han’s past in his employ. Then there’s Han’s first experience with the Kessel Run, a hyperspace route known for its treacherous tendencies that plays a factor in Han’s later years.

It’s well known that Solo had a bumpy go of it during its production. Original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired when filming was nearly complete and producers brought in Oscar winner Ron Howard (Splash!) to oversee the rest of the process and film additional scenes. There were also rumors certain stars had to work with an acting coach to beef up their likability factor. Strangely, this isn’t unusual for this franchise; in several of the recent Star Wars films (and Rogue One), the director was replaced at some point during filming or just prior to getting underway. Lord/Miller are known for their comedies (21 Jump Street) and Howard couldn’t be any different in style as a director – it’s a credit to the film that you can’t always tell where the Lord/Miller material ended and the Howard contributions began.

Where the film falls flat is in the dull script by Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan. Lawrence has a long history with this series, dating back to writing The Empire Strikes Back while Jon is the newbie yet neither bring the type of history or fresh voice that feels necessary. It’s the same dusty triple cross heist tale we’ve seen done before and far better. Only Glover’s memorable Lando and especially Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Goodbye Christopher Robin) as Lando’s wry droid L3 create any real excitement. Both Glover and Waller-Bridge are known for their writing so one wonders what this film could have been had producers colored outside the lines a bit more.

As he has shown in previous roles and especially in Hail, Caesar!, Ehrenreich is an easy-going presence and it’s not hard to see why he was sought out for the role. Strangely, it’s Ehrenreich that was supposed to have needed additional help to increase his matinee-idol appeal and I’m also guessing Clarke benefited greatly from Howard’s more nuanced work with actors. Harrelson is doing his usual grizzled shtick while Bettany feels like he’s played this role multiple times before. The less said about Jon Favreau (Iron Man) voicing a CGI member of Beckett’s group, the better. Bonus points if you spot other key figures from the Star Wars universe who aren’t always playing the characters they are most known for.

I’m sure hardcore fans will find a lot to enjoy here as there are many tidbits discussed in later films that are introduced (yes, you’ll find out how Han gets his blaster) and which likely will cause a ripple of knowing laugher in well-versed crowds. There is a strange abundance of annoying periphery players and it says something when the star of the movie isn’t even one of the Top 3 interesting characters of the film. Personally, I wish the film had reached a bit farther back in Han’s tale instead of starting so late in his game but that would likely be a whole movie unto itself. Aside from a scant few twists and one major head-scratching appearance near the end there’s little here in his first real adventure that hasn’t been seen before.

Movie Review ~ Me Before You

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A girl in a small town forms an unlikely bond with a recently-paralyzed man she’s taking care of.

Stars: Sam Claflin, Emilia Clarke, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, Matthew Lewis, Vanessa Kirby, Stephen Peacocke, Brendan Coyle, Janet McTeer

Director: Thea Sharrock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I’m not averse to shedding a tear or two at a movie if the mood strikes me.  I’ve been known to get all misty for outright tearjerkers (Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment) and well up for joy/happiness (Lava, The Way Way BackJurassic World…yes…it happened), a little water around the eyes never hurt anyone.  Still, you have to earn my tears and when a movie like Me Before You aims for the tear ducts and winds up conking me upside the head instead, I tend to be less than forgiving.

JoJo Moyes’ two hanky novel has been adapted by the author herself into a two-hour snoozer that features two ostensibly engaging stars that can’t manage to make a connection with themselves or its target audience. Sure, on the way out of the theater I saw people dabbing their teary eyes (using Kleenex that came in a box branded with the movie poster…the one truly clever detail of the experience) but they just as easily could have been wiping away an eye bogey from the nap they just woke from.

Saucer-eyed Emilia Clarke (Terminator Genisys) is Lou, a cheerful working class pixie in town on the outskirts of London. Stuck at home helping to support her family by working odd jobs, she’s just lost employment at a local café when she’s sent by a temp agency to care for a quadriplegic at the stately Traynor house. Well, it’s not so much a house as it is a castle at the center of town.  Something about her spunky attitude convinces Camilla (Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs) to hire her on the spot and soon enough Lou is face to face with Camilla’s son, Will (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2).

Injured in a rainy accident on a London street, Will is confined to a wheelchair without the use of most of his limbs and wouldn’t you know it, he’s not entirely happy about his new situation.  So we have this cheerful but poor girl meeting a handsome but broken prince in a castle and you’d think that the fairy tale sparks would fly and a whimsical romance would develop that cures all the woes before reaching a happy ending, right?  Not so my friends.

Now I can’t deny there’s something oddly watchable about Clarke but what it boils down to is that her performance is comprised mostly of puzzled blinks, nervous gulps, and strained smiles. Lou is a Free Spirit, something the filmmakers never fail to remind us of with each new set of off the wall shoes, zany tights, and granny chic outfits she turns up in. It’s not hard to see why Will finds her ray of sunshine aura a bit much to take at first, I certainly understood his antipathy toward her.  When they inevitably fall in love, it feels false and merely a story development rather than any real feeling that’s been believably developed.

For his part, Claflin is far more successful as the former devil may care party guy that water skied like a madman now in a wheelchair prison from which there is no escape. Claflin takes the role seriously, perhaps a bit too seriously, but ultimately his commitment gives the film its only true authenticity as we watch Will struggle with sickness and setbacks. As he sees his former flame marry his best friend, the pain he hides feels relatable and understandable which makes it all the more unfortunate that he can’t find a way to develop chemistry with his leading lady.

First time director Thea Sharrock comes from the theater world and it shows with much of the film feeling stagey and confined to simply constructed scenes with rarely more than two characters interacting at once. The views of the countryside are gorgeous and I guess it’s a technically well-made picture, but one that’s unfortunately missing an emotional center and a willingness to see things through. Characters are introduced only to disappear for long stretches of time and a late in the run game changer is only danced around instead of confronted head-on.  Here was a chance to say something about life and the power of choice but Sharrock and Moyes are more interested in flying the lovers off to exotic locales as Lou tries to show Will that his current state doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy life to its fullest.

And then we get back to where we started…tears.  By the time it gets to the moments where the tears should fall I felt like the movie made a desperate plea to wring water from a stone after so many ramshackle constructs along the way. I found the final fifteen minutes and especially the epilogue quite irritating, placing a Mr. Smiley sticker over moments that deserved to be more composed and thoughtful.

Moyes has already published a sequel and depending on how well this movie fares in the wake of so many recent and future summer blockbusters, if there is another opportunity to drop in on these characters I hope it can be a more honest visit.

Movie Review ~ Terminator Genisys

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The Facts:

Synopsis: John Connor sends Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah Connor, but when he arrives in 1984, nothing is as he expected it to be.

Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jason Clarke, Jai Courtney, Matt Smith, Emilia Clarke, Byung-hun Lee, J.K. Simmons, Sandrine Holt, Dayo Okeniyi, Michael Gladis, Courtney B. Vance

Director: Alan Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: So far, the summer of 2015 has proved fertile ground for highly anticipated blockbuster sequels.  From May’s Avengers: Age of Ultron & Mad Max: Fury Road to June’s record-breaking Jurassic World and Ted 2 audiences have willingly plunked down their dough to revisit old friends.  Well, July is here and a chilly wind has disrupted the warm paradise…and it’s called Terminator Genisys.

The Terminator franchise is a great example of a movie studio unwilling to quit while it’s ahead.  Released in 1984, James Cameron’s The Terminator was a sleeper hit that officially introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger (Kindergarten Cop) has an action star.  Seven years later Cameron had a golden idea for a sequel, resulting in the groundbreaking Terminator 2: Judgment Day.  That film was a forward thinking epic on the grandest of scales, effectively saving the summer movie event from the comic-book mayhem it was turning into.  Cameron’s director’s cut of the film remains one of my favorite films of all time, perfectly continuing the story he created and wrapping things up beautifully.

Unwillingly to leave well enough alone, Warner Brothers moved forward with a third film in 2003 and a fourth in 2009.  Neither were much to write home about because they were designed to be cash grabs for a studio that seemed to lack an original idea.  Admittedly, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines isn’t awful but it’s far more appealing than the gloomy Terminator Salvation…still, both films exist only for profit and nothing more.

So here we are, 31 years after the original with the fifth film in the Terminator universe and it’s easily the most troubling one of them all.  I held out a little hope for the movie at the outset because it seemed to be going for a clever revisionist reboot vibe, with scenes from the 1984 film recreated with a fine eye for detail.  Good intentions are quickly overtaken by uninspired action sequences that introduce a host of new faces playing familiar characters.

In the future where machines have taken over the world and are exterminating mankind, Kyle Reese (a flat Jai Courtney, Jack Reacher) is an impassioned devotee to resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke, Lawless, looking alarmingly like the puppet from the Saw films).  How impassioned is he? Well, let’s just say that when Reese finds out later that he’s actually Connor’s father you can see that Reese’s dreams of sipping mai-tais with Connor on a beach disappearing right before his sorrowful eyes.  When the opportunity arises for a mission back to 1984 to save Connor’s legendary mother, Reese volunteers and the rest is history…or the future…doesn’t really matter.

Back in 1984, things aren’t exactly like we remember them (the film reminded me a lot of Back to the Future Part II) and instead of finding a helpless Sarah Connor, Reese meets up with a determined heroine that has her own Terminator (Schwarzenegger) in her protection detail.  Emilia Clarke may have a Linda Hamilton look to her but the comparisons stop there.  Clarke is, like her co-stars, not a strong enough actor to carry this type of character to the end and therefore scenes displaying her unyielding stance at fighting for survival don’t land like they should.

Not surprisingly, only Schwarzenegger scores with any regularity.  He’s perfected this character over several cinematic endeavors (and one exciting theme park ride) so this is all old hat to him. A chance for the elder Schwarzenegger to fight with a recreation of his 1984 persona is a pleasant sequence but an all too brief foray into ingenuity by screenwriters Patrick Lussier & Laeta Kalorgridis.

Director Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) has several large action sequences up his sleeve and while they deliver the requisite thrills, they seem like they’re cut scenes from a movie far removed from the Terminator universe.  Mostly, the film is a paint by the numbers exercise in too much exposition backed up with surprisingly weak special effects.

The worst thing about the movie is how much of it has been spoiled by the marketing team.  I won’t confirm or deny what people are thinking but you only need to look at the poster or watch one of the many spoiler-heavy trailers to get an idea of what’s going on in the film and preview nearly all of the pivotal moments the film tries to spring on you.  A very shameful showing by the marketing people at the studio.

A poorly executed sci-fi adventure that loses itself in its own pretzel twists of time, there’s little to like or recommend here…it’s a chipped tombstone for the series.

The Silver Bullet ~ Terminator Genisys

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Synopsis: The year is 2029. John Connor, leader of the resistance continues the war against the machines. At the Los Angeles offensive, John’s fears of the unknown future begin to emerge when TECOM spies reveal a new plot by SkyNet that will attack him from both fronts; past and future, and will ultimately change warfare forever.

Release Date:  July 1, 2015

Thoughts: I recently went back and re-watched the first three Terminator films and for a franchise that’s been around for 30 years, I was impressed how well the futuristic films have held up…well, that third entry has some serious problems and let’s not even go there with McG’s Terminator: Salvation. (I also visited the Terminator 3D ride at Universal Studios in September which, though amusingly dated, featured some of the most wowza 3D effects I’ve ever seen.)

With Paramount hitting the ever popular “re-boot” button that seems to be all the rage, the killing machine first introduced in James Cameron’s 1984 original is making a return to the big screen now that Arnold Schwarzenegger (The Last Stand) was willing to don that leather jacket once more.  Our first teaser for the summer 2015 flick looks like a splicing of the skeleton from the original low-budget entry and the effects marvel of the 1991 follow-up.  I’m interested to see where it’s all heading and with fresh faced cast members Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby), Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher), and Emilia Clarke preparing for battle under Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) the hopes are high that the Terminator is back…for good.