Synopsis: Penniless and orphaned in London at twelve, four years later Estella runs wild through the city streets with her best friends and partners-in-(petty)-crime. When a chance encounter vaults Estella into the world of the rich and famous, however, she begins to question the existence she’s built for herself in London and wonders whether she might, indeed, be destined for more after all.
Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jamie Demetriou, John McCrea, Abraham Popoola
Director: Craig Gillespie
Running Length: 134 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: As a lifelong fan of all things Disney, I must admit a certain coolness toward the canine adventures found in 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians. Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, the animated film has remained a popular title for the studio, despite having one of the most blatantly vicious villains. A live-action remake in 1996 was just the juicy bit of rawhide star Glenn Close could sink her teeth into playing that very villainess, Cruella de Vil. So though the character still wanted puppies to make a Dalmatian coat of her own, Close’s performance somehow made Cruella less frightening and instead amped the camp. The less said about the ill-advised 2000 sequel, the better, and you really don’t want a deep dive into the disastrous 2009 musical with its eye on Broadway that premiered in my hometown but closed on the road before the real dogs in the show had a chance to grow up and age out.
Where to go from there? The remake had been done, the musicalization was donzo, but with Cruella still getting a fairly good reception whenever she turned up in Disney theme park shows or in television on the Disney-owned ABC’s Once Upon a Time it was clear audiences were somewhat keen to see her show up at the party. After the success of Maleficent and its sequel, how about running old de Vil through the origin story factory and see what pops out? To me, this sounded like an idea for the birds, not the dogs. While Maleficient’s journey toward cursing a princess to eternal slumber might lend itself to a bit of Disney magic, where was the fun in finding out how a skunk-haired meanie developed her admiration for fur and luxury canine couture? Not even bringing on I, Tonyadirector Craig Gillespie or two Oscar winning Emmas felt like it would do the trick.
Well, like a style guru who must capitulate that a checkerboard print does indeed work for all seasons, I have to say that Cruella is an absolute delight and one of Walt Disney Studios most confidently unique offerings in recent memory. To take a villain many lovers of Disney’s animated oeuvre outright despise is a bold move to begin with, but to give her the kind of genesis the writers have (granted, it took five of them) is a wonder in and of itself. Add to that a cast of actors that sparkle at rest and shine in action and you’re off to the races with a film that operates at full tilt for much of it’s 134-minute run time.
An older Cruella narrates her early years when she was called Estella and Cruella was merely the name for her dark side that came out when she felt threatened or got into mischief. Though she tries her best, Estella can’t always keep her bad side from taking over and that’s why she and her mother have to leave another school in a small village outside London and head back to the city, but not before a late-night stop at an imposing manor hosting a costume ball. Here is where Estella takes her first steps toward life on her own and how she winds up roaming the streets of London alone, eventually meeting young pickpocket street urchins Jasper and Horace who welcome her into their makeshift home.
Years later the gang is grown-up but still at it, though Estella (Emma Stone, The Favourite) longs for a life that stimulates her passion for fashion. Though some fancy footwork Jasper (Joel Fry, In the Earth) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, Songbird) get her in the front door for an elite department store that sells clothes by The Baroness (Emma Thompson, Late Night), London’s most chic designer. True, it’s a janitorial job…but it’s something. A series of right time/right place events occur, leading Estella and The Baroness to cross paths with Estella eventually joining her fashion house as their youngest designer with cutting edge ideas. However, as she quickly learns, the demanding job comes with a price…and a very wicked boss. Soon, an old friend Estella had locked away comes roaring back and this time Cruella isn’t going to play second fiddle to her better self.
One need only look at the screenwriters for Cruella and a lot of what transpires in the film begins to make sense. Writer Aline Brosh McKenna is best known for adapting The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 and there are quite a number of parallels between Cruella and that blockbuster. There’s more than a little of that Miranda Priestly bite from Prada in Thompson’s The Baroness, though Thompson is handed even more rapid-fire one-liners and small bits of physicality that drive home her sting. Make certain of this, Miranda Priestly is no match for The Baroness. Then you have Steve Zissis, a long-time friend and collaborator with the Duplass brothers who are known for their quirky approach to filmmaking and fleshing out characters. That’s evident in the supporting characters of Cruella, with a number of the secondary players far more developed than they normally would be in these types of films. That’s how Fry, Hauser, and even Mark Strong (Shazam!) as the stoic right-hand man for The Baroness are able to sneak in and steal some small moments here and there. Finally, Kelly Marcell worked with Thompson in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks so she knows how to write caustic one-liners for the actress and also bravely adapted the screenplay for 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey. This experience no doubt helps with a little of that duality found in the Estella/Cruella scenes, chiefly near the film’s finale when Stone gets quite the scene that would be an 11 o’clock number if it was set to music.
Speaking of Stone, while I’ve found the actress successful in fits and spurts over the years (I still don’t agree with that Best Actress Oscar win, though, sorry!) she’s a fabulous choice to bring this classic personality to live-action life. In her early scenes, she’s appropriately green and goofball but the more she learns of the game she has to play to get ahead, the faster she comes into focus with self-confidence. I was nervous when her adult Cruella side first appeared because the shift is admittedly jarring, and Stone’s interpretation of Cruella’s upper-crust purr is more broad comedy than the sophisticatedly arch tones the rest of the film has been playing with. Anything would be jostling next to Thompson though, who plays the role so brittle you expect her to crack into shards to shred anyone in her wake at any moment. In a more creative climate, this kind of role would win Thompson an award, but the character is probably too soulless to be rewarded.
Knowing it was well over two hours going in, I tried to find places where director Gillespie might have trimmed things up, but I’m at a loss to say what could go that wouldn’t do damage to other structural parts of the story. While it has a fairly large climax halfway through, the energy of the movie never dips. Besides, with a driving score by Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk), wonderful production design from Fiona Crombie (Macbeth), and stunning costumes courtesy of 2-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road), there’s little reason to ever be bored – there is always something to take in. I’d have liked to see a little less digital work in the outdoor scenes but seeing that much of Cruella was filmed on a soundstage, this was obviously unavoidable.
Parents, take note that Cruella rated PG-13 and it’s for a reason. I’d wager it’s one of the darkest films ever released under the Walt Disney Studios logo (i.e., not Touchstone, Hollywood Films, etc) but I’m glad nothing seemed to be truly, uh, neutered. The darker parts are meant for a more mature child, likely the ones already watching Disney Channel works that have a similar feel, like The Descendants. If you’re one of those people that get hung up on the “dog coat” of it all, try to remember this is Disney we’re talking about. It’s important going in to try your best to separate this movie from the 1956 film and its remake, don’t put this one in the doghouse on principle alone. If you do, you’re going to mess a heck of a fun ride. This is a highly enjoyable endeavor, well worth the cost of renting it for a family night on Disney+ with Premier Access.
Synopsis: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.
Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The last two films from director Yorgos Lanthimos were definitely an acquired taste. The absurdist comedy The Lobster was an unlikely groundswell art-house hit in 2015 and was followed by the pitch black (and deeply deeply depressing) family drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Both films were co-scripted by Lanthimos and challenged audiences in ways that went beyond the simple pushing of taboo boundaries, penetrating under your skin and giving you a nagging itch for days after. Thankfully, The Favourite, isn’t as emotionally draining as those previous efforts but it does retain Lanthimos’s particular affinity for seeing the world through an off-kilter gaze.
Set in England during the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, The Favourite drops us into the mix at a time when, unbeknownst to Anne, landowners were facing an unimaginable tax increase by the monarchy to pay for the war efforts. Sidelined by painful gout, Anne (Olivia Colman, Murder on the Orient Express) effectively handed over her political affairs to her confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) who has her own shady behind the scenes dealings. Though she is loyal to her queen, Sarah has gotten comfortable in her role as de facto ruler, often making decisions and seemingly effecting rules based on her own interests rather than what would be the best option for the throne of England.
Arriving to disrupt this arrangement is Abigail (Emma Stone, Aloha), Sarah’s penniless and disgraced cousin. Abigail has come to Anne’s estate to grovel at Sarah’s hem for a job but has schemes up her sleeve much like her cousin. Quickly rising through the ranks and catching Anne’s attention, Abigail begins to pose a threat to the plum set-up Sarah has for herself. So begins a catty fight between the two women for Anne’s affections…much to Anne’s increasing delight. At the same time, Abigail is pursed by a rival member of Parliament (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) seeking her help in ousting Sarah from her hold on Anne and romances a baron (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) who can expedite her ascension back into respected society.
Though screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are relative unknowns, their script for The Favourite has been bouncing around in Lanthimos’s stable for nearly a decade while he waited to secure financing for the period picture. I’m glad it took them so long to make the film because he’s assembled a remarkable gallery of players in front of the camera and behind the scenes that gives The Favourite a sumptuous sheen and elevates it from its more soap opera-y tendencies. It’s a bawdy film with several eye popping twists and often hysterically funny with razor sharp exchanges between Abigail and Sarah – none of it would have worked unless everyone involved wasn’t totally committed to the material.
The trio of ladies that make up the leads are sublime. Though Stone is likely the biggest star in the group and might have the strongest arc, she wound up on the lesser side of the scale for me only because it felt like she was actively trying too hard to shoehorn herself into the period setting. Colman is a riot as Anne, showing equal parts the vulnerability of a queen balancing a painful affliction and long-standing sorrow for numerous children she’s lost with the nastiness of a monarch that knows exactly how far her power reaches and how to wield it. The sweet balance between Stone and Colman is Weisz giving one of her all time best performances in a career that has had many great ones. While Sarah seems at first to be going in one direction, Weisz peels back several layers to show a different lady underneath we maybe hadn’t considered…and who might still be bad but could be the lesser of two, possibly three, evils at the end of the day.
The costumes from Sandy Powell (The Wolf of Wall Street) are gorgeous, the production design by Fiona Crombie (Macbeth) is luxurious, and the cinematography courtesy of Robbie Ryan (Philomena) has all the elements of a period drama but with modern strokes that keep the eyes always interested. All help to strike the right mood in a film Lanthimos has divided into multiple parts, like a best-selling page-turner you can’t put down. Like Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite isn’t quite the history lesson you think it’s going to be when you sit down but it’s an incredibly entertaining and (best of all) surprising film that’s easily one of the most accomplished films of the year.
Synopsis: A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.
Release Date: December 16, 2016
Thoughts: It’s hard enough to find an original musical idea on Broadway these days, let alone in Hollywood. So director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has a lot riding on it…good thing it has a lot going for it too. Chazelle (who made a big ‘ole splash with Whiplash in 2014) has cast Ryan Gosling (The Big Short) and Emma Stone (Aloha) as his leads and the two are so effortlessly (and maybe relentlessly) charming that I already feel like I’m buying what they’re singing about. The song featured in this teaser didn’t exactly set my ears on fire but the brief glimpses of story and setting hint at a nice mix of styles. Arriving in December and targeting those Oscar voters who can’t resist a triple threat, La La Land hopes to hit some pretty high notes to ring in the new year.
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.
I just wasn’t prepared for July. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a wave of cinematic excursions that made my head spin. So many movies were released that it was hard to keep track from week to week what was arriving and what was still waiting for its release date. As you can see below, I had a lot of catching-up to do
The month began with the disappointment of Terminator Genisys. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger but it for sure wasn’t the muddled misfire that was supposed to reboot this franchise. Badly cast with shoddy special effects, this was supposed to be the beginning of something but should likely be the end (though it did do well overseas so we may yet get another one of these in a few years).
A few summers back I lamented how bad the original Magic Mike was. Trading eye candy entertainment for any semblance of watchable narrative, it was another dud (for me) from Steven Soderbergh. So you’d understand why I wasn’t keen on Magic Mike XXL because I felt we’d already been there done that. Much to my delight, the sequel was much better than its predecessor, maintaining the fun frivolity of the world of male strippers while injecting some personality into the proceedings. Quite possible the biggest surprise of the summer for me.
I learned a lot from the wise documentary Amy, chronicling the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the singer with the bluesy voice and broken butterfly backstory. She had a lot to overcome and the film made a compelling argument that she would still be here today had she had a better support system.
Though I loved the Minions in the Despicable Me films, I didn’t care for their solo outing with its half-baked story and less that inspired vocal work. It felt like a quick cash-grab and it looks like it accomplished its goal. Hopefully next time they’ll come back with a better story and more convincing actors.
The found footage horror movie had its death knell with The Gallows, a brainless exercise in tedium peppered with cheap scares and lousy acting. Could have (and should have) been much better.
Now we approach a stretch where I checked out for a bit – but I’m atoning for it now with these mini-reviews.
Movie Review ~ Batkid Begins The Facts: Synopsis: On one day, in one city, the world comes together to grant one 5-year-old cancer patient his wish. Batkid Begins looks at the ‘why’ of this flash phenomenon. Stars: Miles Scott Director: Dana Nachman Rated: PG Running Length: 87 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: Can I admit something to you and not have you hate me? When I first saw the media frenzy around this back in 2013 I remember rolling my eyes are the saccharine nature of the whole endeavor. Why would an entire city be brought to a screeching halt because of one kid’s wish to be Batman for a day? Well, the documentary Batkid Begins showed me why and by the end I was feeling like a lout for my initial feelings and wiping away the happy tears the film easily brings forth from the viewer. Following the planning and execution by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a 5 year old leukemia survivor the day of his dreams, viewers get a glimpse at what goes into even the smallest wish granted by the organization. While it at times comes off like a big advertisement, it’s heart is most certainly in the right place and I found myself getting choked up with each good deed and promise fulfilled by a host of people involved in making the day come off without a hitch. An audience-pleasing winner.
Movie Review ~ The Overnight The Facts: Synopsis: A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on. Stars: Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godrèche Director: Patrick Brice Rated: R Running Length: 79 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: There and gone in an instant, The Overnight is a film better suited for home viewing anyway. A couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) new to the area meet Jason Schwartzman at a local playground where both of their children are playing. Their kids have hit it off so Schwartzmann invites the family over for more fun, but when the kids go to bed Schwartzman and his wife Judith Godrèche have more interesting games to play for the unsuspecting couple. Saying more would spoil the fun but it’s an adults only evening with oodles of twists and turns as both couples bare their secrets (and their bodies) before the night is over. Already famous for its full frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (sorry, both are wearing prosthetics), at 79 minutes the movie is short but does start to feel long in the middle section. It helps immensely that all four actors are competent and comfortable with the material…the story doesn’t hold back and neither do they.
Movie Review ~ Ant-Man The Facts: Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world. Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, David Dastmalchian, T.I. , Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Gregg Turkington, Abby Ryder Fortson Director: Peyton Reed Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 117 minutes TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: Early troubles with the start of production with Ant-Man and some seriously questionable teasers/trailers didn’t get me very excited for this mid-summer superhero movie. I think Marvel was hoping that Ant-Man would score along the lines of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxybut it’s sadly missing the humor that made Guardians so much fun. It’s not a total wash though because for every 10 minutes of standard origin-story developments, there’s a solid 5 minutes of exciting action sequences to wake audiences up from their slumber. I know that with an origin story you need to cover a lot of ground and Ant-Man, to its additional credit, doesn’t waste much time in getting to the goods…but it’s a cheap-o undertaking and one that feels like a second-string entry in Marvel’s blockbuster universe. Paul Rudd makes for a surprisingly solid action lead as does Corey Stoll as Rudd’s nemesis, but Evangeline Lilly labors too much under her severe wig (that seems to change lengths multiple times, in the middle of scenes) and isn’t a good enough actress to carry some weighty responsibilities. A decent entry as far as Marvel films go…but I’m not clamoring for a sequel any time soon.
Movie Review ~ Irrational Man The Facts: Synopsis: A tormented philosophy professor finds a will to live when he commits an existential act. Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg Director: Woody Allen Rated: R Running Length: 96 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6/10) Review: It happens every year and every year you never quite know what to expect. I’m speaking, of course, of the annual Woody Allen release and like many of the directors works, it’s a hit or miss affair. I’m constantly in awe that Allen has churned out a film a year (sometimes two a year) for the last three decades and even the really bad ones aren’t as terrible as the other dreck dumped on us during the summer. Last year Magic in the Moonlight was dismissed as too slight even for Allen but I enjoyed its frothy charm…something that was missing from the more serious-minded Irrational Man. As a boozy professor that gets into hot water in his New England college town, Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps the wrong choice because the actor plagues himself far too much for Allen’s light material. At least co-star Emma Stone helps keep Phoenix from the quicksand of his own creation but she can’t be in every scene and it’s when Phoenix is on his own that the film goes slack. Then there’s Parker Posey who I’m becoming convinced is simply not of this earth and doesn’t try to hide it anymore. Bizarre line readings and the tendency to let her mouth hang open are only the tip of Posey’s strange acting iceberg. Very much in line with the dark humor of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man should hold your interest for a time but it’s quickie ending feels like Allen was ready to move on to his next film rather than put a period at the end things.
Movie Review ~ Trainwreck The Facts: Synopsis: Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy. Stars: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, LeBron James, Method Man Director: Judd Apatow Rated: R Running Length: 125 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: One of the true success stories of the summer has to have been Amy Schumer, not so much for writing and starring in Trainwreck but the collective impact she’s had on the comedy scene. Unapologetic in her crassness and wise in her observations, Schumer is a comic moving like a shooting star and it’s nice to report that I think she’s a pretty decent actress as well. As much as I enjoy Schumer I was nervous that she was attaching herself to director Judd Apatow because Apatow, as we all know, has a way of turning in muddled work. Unfortunately, Apatow’s influence led the film to be about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be and ultimately overstaying its welcome. I don’t care what anyone says about the appearance of LeBron James as a bona fide supporting player, his entire storyline should have been excised and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all. The problems get worse because Apatow likes to cast non-actors in his film and put in cameos when you least expect it…to the detriment of the flow of the narrative. He stumbles badly in several places here but is saved by Schumer and Bill Hader as the opposites attract duo that confidently lead the film. Special mention must, again, be made to Tilda Swinton for disappearing within her role as Schumer’s glam yet grim boss. Worth it for Schumer, Swinton, and Hader…but watch it at home so you can fast forward through the slow Apatow-ish parts.
Movie Review ~ Mr. Holmes The Facts: Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman. Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Philip Davis, Milo Parker Director: Bill Condon Rated: PG Running Length: 104 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: In reality, I probably should have given Mr. Holmes a more thorough review than I’m about to give here…but I have a feeling I’ll have a chance to discuss it more over the next few months because if all is right with the world Ian McKellen will find himself nominated in a few Best Actor categories during the end of the year awards round-up. McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes living in the country, attended to by a no-nonsense housekeeper (Laura Linney) and entertained by her young son. There’s actually three Holmes on display here as the present Holmes recalls two previous cases he was involved with that had an impact on his life. With a smart script from Jeffrey Hatcher adapted from a popular novel, it’s directed with a mellow grandeur by Bill Condon. Condon and McKellen scored before with the fascinating Gods and Monsters and here’s hoping they go the distance with this one too. An interesting tidbit, at one point Holmes ventures out to see a Sherlock Holmes movie…and the actor playing Holmes on screen (Nicholas Rowe) played the detective in 1986’s fun frolic Young Sherlock Holmes.
Movie Review ~ Paper Towns The Facts: Synopsis: A young man and his friends embark upon the road trip of their lives to find the missing girl next door. Stars: Nat Wolff, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith Director: Jake Schreir Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 109 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: After The Fault in Our Stars became a runaway hit last summer movie studios were looking for the next big alt-teen romance that could lure YA audiences away from summer action flicks. Turns out they didn’t have to look far because Paper Towns was adapted from the novel by the same author as The Fault in Our Stars. While Paper Towns doesn’t center around a disease that threatens to tear our lovebirds apart, it has its own mystery about it as Nat Wolff goes looking for his recently vanished neighbor (Cara Delevingne) that he’s been enamored with (or more like fascinated by) since they were children. Following the clues she seemingly left for him, Wolff and his friends embark on a journey of discovery where they Learn Life Lessons. The film kept my interest for most of the running length and it’s only in the final passages when all is explained does it feel a little like a letdown. Still, there’s a smart air of riskiness that elevates the film and more often than not it lands on the good side of taking that risky step.
Movie Review ~ Pixels The Facts: Synopsis: When aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth in the form of the video games. Stars: Adam Sandler, Brian Cox, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad Director: Chris Columbus Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 105 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: A movie where everyone involved should hang their head in shame. There’s actually some semblance of a good idea here with aliens attacking earth with classic arcade games but unfortunately it gets trampled by Adam Sandler’s lazy acting, Kevin James bad acting, and Josh Gad’s awful everything. Michelle Monaghan looks positively embarrassed to be sharing scenes (especially romantic ones) with Sandler and only Peter Dinklage comes out relatively unscathed in a campy, mullet wearing performance. For fans of ‘80s nostalgia there are some pleasant diversions as video game characters pop up in (supposedly) comical ways and I think that director Chirs Columbus really did give the material a chance to be something interesting…but Sandler and his crew suck the life out of everything and are so devoid of any vested interest that you wonder why you should care at all either.
Movie Review ~ Southpaw The Facts: Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track. Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Clare Foley, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Naomie Harris Director: Antoine Fuqua Rated: R Running Length: 123 minutes TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: By now, we know that Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart actor. With role after role from Prisoners to Nightcrawler to End of Watch we’ve seen that he’s up for most any challenge and likes to dive deep into his roles. So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to this tale of redemption concerning a famous boxer at the top of his game dealt a series of terrible blows (in more ways than one) and his eventual path back to himself. What is surprising is that while the performances are very good you can’t get away from the fact that the story feels recycled and originally intended for a different set of lower string stars. I’m always on the fence regarding Forest Whitaker but as the wise boxing manager that grudgingly comes to Gyllenhaal’s aid, the actor reminds us why he so deserved his Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland. Also turning in a great performance in Rachel McAdams (The Vow) as Gyllenhaal’s high school sweetheart, mother of his daughter, and the only one that seems to have his best interest at heart.
Southpaw was also at the center of some controversy that arose this summer about movie trailers that give away too much of the film. If you have seen the trailer for Southpaw you know what I’m talking about…if you haven’t, please go into the movie blind. I had a faint idea what the spoiler was and even that made the first ¼ of the film much less involving. Worth it for the performances but gets knocked out by an also-ran plot.
Movie Review ~ Samba The Facts: Synopsis: Samba migrated to France ten years ago from Senegal, and has since been plugging away at various lowly jobs. Alice is a senior executive who has recently undergone a burn-out. Both struggle to get out of their dead-end lives. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers, while Alice tries to get her life back on track until fate draws them together. Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo Director: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano Rated: R Running Length: 118 minutes TMMM Score: (5.5/10) Review: Of all the movies I’m talking about in this wrap-up this is one I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard of. And you couldn’t be blamed because this barely made a blip on the usually forgiving art-house circuit. From the star and directors of 2012’s dynamite The Intouchables comes this story of an immigrant man living in France who crosses paths with a burned out executive when the man is discovered to be an illegal alien. Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t have that much chemistry but in a weird way it works for the oddball romance that develops over the course of the film. I never could get a real feel if the movie was a comedy, drama, or something in between…and neither could most of the people involved. Slightly recommended but only if the plot or stars appeal to you.
That almost did it for July…but there was still one weekend to go! Moving up several months from its planned December release, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise had its brains in the right place but at times forgot to bring its brawn. I still prefer Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation but as long as star Tom Cruise keeps making these films interesting I’ll keep accepting future missions. Here’s hoping he brings along Rebecca Ferguson again because finally there is a female that is every bit a match to Cruise’s daring agent.
I wasn’t sold at all when I heard that Warner Brothers was planning on remaking National Lampoon’s Vacation but as time went on I heard more that it was more of a sequel than a reboot (resequel?) and I started coming around to the idea of a new Vacation. I enjoyed Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the hapless couple traveling cross-country with their children…but audiences and most critics didn’t. It wasn’t a great movie and was probably too crude to be part of your Vacation marathons…but I have to say the worst part about it was when original stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo showed up. Still, I’m hoping it made enough money to warrant a holiday themed sequel. In any event…it’s a damn sight better than European Vacation.
Wow – July didn’t skimp on variety, did it? Arguably the hottest month for releases, it carried over the promise of May and June and laid a path for August to do quite well…but could it top the three months that came before it?
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.
Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.
Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.
Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.
Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.
Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…
Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd The Facts: Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor. Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge Director: Thomas Vinterberg Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 119 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.
Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.
The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.
Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.
I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.
May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.
A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.
Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him
Stars: Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray
Review: One of the more interesting e-mails to emerge from the Sony data breach in 2014 were private conversations between top studio execs bemoaning how bad Cameron Crowe’s latest dramedy was. You can read the story here but I’ll summarize and say that from the moment the film was first screened (under its original clunker of a title Deep Tiki) it was contending with bad audience reactions and a filmmaker that didn’t seem to want to change anything. In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.
Originally planned for a Christmas 2014 release but moved to May to allow for writer/director Crowe (We Bought a Zoo) to tweak his film, the final product is maybe the hammiest thing to hit Hawaii since SPAM became an island favorite food. Considering the reliable track record of the A-List talent involved I can only blame Crowe’s inability to make sense of his own script which in turn leaves his actors totally adrift, trying to create something out of nothing.
There’s really three films happening at once and if you believe what you read, a healthy chunk has been sliced out of Crowe’s original plot (excising whole characters and a subplot involving island mysticism) and what’s left is 105 minutes of incoherent scenes with incongruous characters. The marketing will have you believe Aloha centers around a love triangle between Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), his ex Rachel McAdams (The Vow), and Air-Force upstart Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) but in reality McAdams appears in about fifteen minutes and the love story between Cooper and Stone is awkwardly shoehorned in apparently for the sake of Crowe’s carefully chosen film soundtrack.
Crowe originally set the film up with Ben Stiller in Cooper’s role and Reese Witherspoon in Stone’s and after the two actors (wisely) left, he didn’t bother to tailor the script for his new stars. Stone’s entire performance feels like an impersonation of the type of square-jawed task master that Witherspoon would have flourished in. Stone is an actress with definite charisma but it’s absent without leave here, robbing the Oscar nominee of chances to show the dramatic range we know she has. I suspect, again, that this has to do with Crowe’s editing after the fact…he’s done Stone no favors the way he cut her role.
While I don’t feel like McAdams has quite the range of Stone she’s well cast as Cooper’s long lost love that fell quickly into the arms of a pilot (John Krasinski, Promised Land, who probably could have thrived in Cooper’s role) after Cooper chose work over her. Trouble is, she’s such a non-presence in the movie that when she does pop up we don’t quite remember why she’s important…until she reveals a Big Secret that you’ll see coming a mile away.
While Cooper knocked my socks off in American Sniper, he fumbles badly here and comes off unlikable…a problem when the entire film depends on a redemption that is never fully explained or earned. Twisted up in Crowe’s baffling plot that involves assisting a megalomaniac millionaire (a badly badly miscast Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson) in manipulating native Hawaiians out of their land so he can launch a satellite into space (I’m not kidding), Cooper can’t find his way out of the mess and starts to phone it in pretty quickly.
Since it’s been in the news so much as its release date drew near, I feel I must mention the accusations that in terms of casting the film eschews native Hawaiians for the “pretty” actors from Hollywood. It’s not a claim that’s unfounded, sadly. Relegating native Hawaiians only to roles seen as obstacles is a bad misstep…made more embarrassing by Stone’s tanned blonde character telling everyone she comes in contact with she’s ¼ Hawaiian…as if that somehow fills a quota. It’s not totally white-washed ala any Nancy Meyers movie (for shame!) but there’s a definite lack of racially diverse casting at play…and that’s quite unfortunate.
It’s fitting that Crowe favors shots of people looking backward over their shoulders because it’s hard to believe that the writer/director of such true blue classics like Jerry Maguire and Say Anything… could have developed such a tin ear for dialogue. There are a few classic Crowe turns of phrase but the random bon mots can’t save the film from being an absolute disaster and a huge chore to sit through. In typical Crowe fashion the film is stuffed to the brim with music (some from composers Jónsi & Alex are quite pleasing) so much so that the soundtrack credits go on for a full minute in the end…if you make it that far.
Depressingly bad, Aloha will be another in a long line of failures from Crowe…and considering he’s only directed eight feature films that’s not a great track record. Who knows what would have happened if Crowe was able to release the film he originally shot and maybe one day we’ll see his version of Aloha…but until that time comes this is one Hawaiian vacation you should decline.
Synopsis: On a small town college campus, a philosophy professor in existential crisis gives his life new purpose when he enters into a relationship with his student.
Release Date: July 24, 2015
Thoughts: As sure as blockbuster movies come out each summer, so does the latest offering from director Woody Allen (who last appeared onscreen in Fading Gigolo). While Irrational Man doesn’t look as serious as Blue Jasmineor as frothy as Magic in the Moonlight, the modern-day comedic romance looks like an Allen vehicle through and through. Starring new muse Emma Stone (Aloha, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Joaquin Phoenix (Inherent Vice, an actor long overdue with taking himself less seriously) it’s doubtful this will emerge as a new Allen classic but there’s enough witty banter and piqued interest from this trailer to please any Allen aficionado.
Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him.
Release Date: May 29, 2015
Thoughts: Had I not known before seeing this first look at Aloha who wrote and directed it, I can honestly say that I would have said to myself “Wow, this looks like a Cameron Crowe film…” and that says something about the type of movie Crowe is known for making. For his eighth film (and first in four years after the disappointing We Bought a Zoo), Crowe appears to have returned to the type of storytelling that first put him on the map. In the first trailer for Aloha you can tell that he’s created real people, not some focus-group tested summary of average humans. And what about that cast? Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Emma Stone () are Oscar nominated red hot A-Listers with stars in an unparalleled ascent, joined by the likes of Rachel McAdams (The Vow), John Krasinksi (Big Miracle), Alec Baldwin (Still Alice), and the always interesting (if eternally grumpy) Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom). Originally referred to as The Untitled Hawaii Project, then Deep Tiki (shudder to think!) before blessedly settling into its current Hawaiian moniker, this could easily wind up in the saccharine melodrama bin…but I get the feeling Crowe has a warm welcome waiting for audiences.
Review: If Magic in the Moonlight had been made by anyone other than Woody Allen I think I would have scored it lower because ultimately the movie is very simple, inconsequential, light entertainment that once seen quickly evaporates like a summer breeze as you exit the theater. Still, it’s an Allen film through and through so I find myself giving the prolific director a great deal of slack because while it may not be as layered with dramatic nuance as 2013’s Blue Jasmine, it does find the director working comfortably in his element.
The period comedy set in the 20s is as light-hearted as they come, with a plot that feels straight out of a thin paperback novel that itself is part of a larger series of adventures. An English magician (Colin Firth, Devil’s Knot) in Berlin, performing under the un-PC moniker Wei Ling Soo, is tempted to the French Riviera by a colleague (Simon McBurney) to help prove a young psychic (Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man 2) is a fake. The psychic has convinced a wealthy woman (Jacki Weaver, Stoker) of her gifts and caught the eye of her ukulele playing love struck son (Hamish Linklater) while staying at their gossamer villa with her mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and conducting the odd séance in between high tea and scones. Into the mix comes the doubtful magician and before you know it, he too is wrapped up under her spell…but is it all just an elaborate ruse?
Going down like a chilled glass of champagne, Magic in the Moonlight is mostly bubbles, only going flat in the far reaches of its last act when the charm starts to wear off. Explanations always ruin an illusion so the more the characters talk, the less interesting they all become. Still, it takes a while to get to that place so it’s best to put your feet up and let Allen’s comedy wash over you.
As Allen (Radio Days, Fading Gigolo) nears his fiftieth feature film, it’s truly amazing how he’s able to churn out a movie year after year. True, they may not all be winners but he’s moving away from his pattern of having solid gold with every third film. Yes, Magic in the Moonlight lacks the depth of Blue Jasmine but who really cares? The two films couldn’t be more different, just as Blue Jasmine was different from the film that it followed (To Rome With Love). Allen’s filmmaking style is instantly recognizable and goes by the old adage that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it so production design, costumes, and musical cues are all keeping with Allen’s eye for detail.
Already working on her next Allen film set for release in 2015, Stone may be Allen’s new muse (replacing Scarlett Johansson) and her crisp delivery meshes well with Allen’s dialogue. Though her possible romance with Firth seemed a little too May-December for my tastes, the two actors chum it up well in their scenes together, with Firth thankfully unwinding a bit from his more serious roles as of late. As Firth’s aunt, Eileen Atkins (Beautiful Creatures) gets some nice zingers in and seems to be enjoying herself quite a lot.
It’s a bauble of a film that serves as nice counterprogramming for those exhausted from a summer of explosions, aliens, lizards, and transforming robots. Yeah, it’s easily forgotten but it could be just the laid-back kind of entertainment you’re looking for.
Synopsis: A romantic comedy about an Englishman brought in to help unmask a possible swindle. Personal and professional complications ensue.
Release Date: July 25, 2014
Thoughts: My thoughts and feelings about writer/director Woody Allen’s personal troubles aside, it’s hard to deny that he had a most impressive 2013 with the slam-dunk of Blue Jasmine. Not only was Cate Blanchett’s performance of the Oscar she was awarded, Allen’s script (a veiled re-working of A Streetcar Named Desire) was sparkling and en pointe. Now Allen (who is in front of the camera on the recently released Fading Gigolo) takes a page from Noel Coward in the Blithe Spirit-y comedy Magic in the Moonlight which seems to be the traditional lightweight comedy he typically follows a more dramatic film with. Emma Stone (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) and Colin Firth (Paddington) seem right at home with the period and while it’s true that any bad movie can be made more interesting with a well-cut trailer, I have my eye on this one as a late summer refresher.