Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

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.

May

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
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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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.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Pitch Perfect 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After a humiliating command performance at the Kennedy Center, the Barden Bellas enter an international competition that no American group has ever won in order to regain their status and right to perform.

Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Alexis Knapp, Brittany Snow, Adam DeVine, Hailee Steinfeld, Ester Dean, Kelley Jakle, Hana Mae Lee, Katey Sagal, Anna Camp, Skylar Astin, Keegan-Michael Key, Flula Borg, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen, Ben Platt

Director: Elizabeth Banks

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  What Pitch Perfect 2 has is a deadly case of sequelitis.  It’s a not-so-very-rare disease that most sequels succumb to and, sadly, it has no cure.  Now, it should be said that Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t deserve to be chucked in the hazardous materials bin with the likes of Poltergeist II: The Other Side and The Hangover Part III but it deserves a good spanking for taking the sweet surprise fun of the original and turning it into a off-key and slack feature length ad for a variety of advertisers.

What made 2012’s Pitch Perfect so, well, perfect was that no one involved was expecting much from the modestly budgeted comedy…least of all its studio.  When early test screenings scored high with audiences, Universal launched a smart ad campaign and released the film slowly allowing that good ‘ole word-of-mouth to drive people into the theater.  The film exploded and, thanks to its (mostly) charming cast and skilled mash-up of the musical and college comedy genres, became a bona fide repeat viewing go-to for old and young, male and female.

A sequel seemed like a no-brainer and, true to form, that’s exactly what we get.  Returning screenwriter Kay Cannon hasn’t done much to move our characters along; merely letting a few of them graduate school or to new planes of maturity doesn’t exactly qualify as improving a character arc.  Cannon’s screenplay gives the film no purpose and commits the deadly sin of gathering up all the laughs from the previous film and just repeating them, sometimes verbatim.  Laughs that worked in small doses back in 2012 are piled high and frequently fall flat because they feel so been-there-done-that.  Worse, even more time is given to Adam DeVine (who I referred to in my original review as a Jack Black-alike…and at this point DeVine should be paying Black a percentage of his earnings) who pops up all too frequently to stink up the joint.

A co-star and producer of Pitch Perfect, Elizabeth Banks (Man on a Ledge) steps behind the camera for the first time as the director and while that may seem like an inspired choice, Banks can’t seem to find a rhythm to the overly episodic nature of the film.  With its garish lighting and questionable use of color it looks like a badly produced industrial training video and unspools at an awkwardly motionless pace.  Continuity between the two films is non-existent (Anna Kendrick’s character originally sported a canvas of tattoos that she seemingly had removed in the last three years) and there just seems to be an overall forced energy in the film.

What does help to qualify the film as only a near miss in my book are several engaging performances and a loud and clear message of female empowerment and positivity.

While Pitch Perfect really centered on grumpy Beca (Kendrick, Into the Woods) falling in with the all-female a capella group at her new college, the sequel doesn’t have one central character and that works in its favor.  Now, it’s an ensemble comedy that mostly gives equal time to several of the Barden Bellas that are going through some “stuff” while the group struggles to regain its reputation after an incident labeled by the press as Muffgate (to explain it would give more time to this idiotic plot device than necessary).

The breakout star of the first film, Rebel Wilson (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), is of course given more to do here and that’s a decision that has qualified success.  Too often she’s a Rebel without a cause as the actress lazily mumbles through some improvised shtick that probably was better than what the script had her saying.  Returning Bellas like Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Hana Mae Lee are joined by freshman Hailee Steinfeld (The Homesman) and all deliver exactly what’s expected of them…which is very little.  As for the men, Skylar Astin and Ben Platt are barely utilized because the film has no real place for them or any real reason to add them into the mix.  Each time they pop up it feels extraneous and more unnecessary than ever before.  A time-waster of a side-story features Keegan-Michael Key as Beca’s boss…these scenes could have been subtitled The Sound of Silence because the comedian’s jokes land with a thud.

Forced to fight for their survival at the World Championship, the Bellas go up against Das Sound Machine, led by Flula Borg & Birgitte Hjort Sørensen.  Looking like the Eurotrash villains from a stage musical of Die Hard, the members of DSM are supposed to be forces to be reckoned with but, as is the case with an alarming amount of the musical numbers, next to none of the performances are very exciting.  It’s only in the finale (with a surreally bizarre cameo by Robin Roberts) that some sparks are ignited with a song composed by Sia and Sam Smith Hailee Steinfeld’s character.  In Pitch Perfect the music seemed to be justified and had a pulsating verve that got your toes tapping but the song choices for the sequel are pretty bewildering and not memorable in the least.

A centerpiece of the original was the Riff Off, a battle of the bands of sorts that tests the best of the best.  There’s a repeat of that (of course) here and it happens to be one of the more inspired bits in the film.  Watching the Bellas battling the likes of DSM, the Treblemakers, and one totally random group (the biggest spoiler of the movie…if someone tells you who it is, they aren’t your real friend) is where the most joy in this rather joyless sequel is found.

I recognize that I’ll probably be in a minority of those that failed to fall into the orbit of Pitch Perfect 2 (and hey, I liked Hot Pursuit so clearly I’m operating on a different playing field currently) but if this is the sequel fans were waiting for I’m glad it did its job.  I just happened to find it off-key and resting too much on its well-earned laurels.  When Pitch Perfect 3 comes out (and trust me, it will), can I make a suggestion that it’s a prequel?

Movie Review ~ The Homesman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto,Hilary Swank, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richte

Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  You haven’t seen bleak onscreen quite like you’ll see it in The Homesman, a drama with Western sensibilities.  Based on Glendon Swarthout 1988 novel and adapted by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, and star/director Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), the film ambles down a road to the unknown and is not for the wary.

It’s the mid-1800s in the Nebraska Territory and independent Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has come from New York City to lay claim to a land of her own.  The opening scenes show Cuddy as a hard-working woman of the land, but one that has a recognizable hint of sadness around the corners of her dirt streaked face. Unable to find a husband, she entertains suitors with food and entertainment like a black widow without any venom.

Volunteering to transport three women from the territory part of the way back to their homes, Cuddy sets out in a covered wagon across the desolate landscape of pioneer life…but not before getting a desperate claim jumper (Jones) to accompany her in return for a fee.  All three women have seemingly lost their minds due to the harsh conditions and maybe Cuddy is just doing the honorable thing by stepping up to take on a task that the men from the community won’t…or maybe she relates to them more than she cares to admit.  Either way, the journey holds surprising turns for all involved.

Though depressing and an overall stunningly somber film, The Homesman is finely crafted and possesses enough darkly comic gumption to take narrative turns that could upend a lesser work…though a particular game changing twist is dealt with so quickly that should you go to the bathroom and miss it you may think you’ve come back to a different movie all-together.

Jones and Swank have the perfect faces for this material, his showing the crags of a life lived from problem to problem and hers displaying a plaintive wish for a dream that she sees fading each morning she wakes up.  While Swank has two well-deserved Oscars in her possession, she has about a dozen other performances of note that may make you question her strength as an actress.  She redeems herself again here and I’m sad the work isn’t getting more attention at the end of the year.

If you’re waiting to open your Twizzlers until Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) shows up on screen you’ll be waiting a long time as the actress only pops up for a brief cameo late in the film.  Actually, everyone else in the film are really just there for a scene or two before drifting off into the dusty atmosphere of the journey Jones/Swank are on.

Worthy of a look if you’re in the right mood, even with its desolate subject matter The Homesman ends with a bang…a quiet bang…but a bang all the same.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Homesman

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Synopsis: A claim jumper and a pioneer woman team up to escort three insane women from Nebraska to Iowa.

Release Date: November 14, 2014

Thoughts: Packed with so many Oscar faves that it could double as sketch on Jimmy Kimmel, The Homesman is the type of award festival bait that could be hard to resist.  Though the Western genre landscape has been largely barren for quite some time, when one does hit its mark it usually lands square in the bull’s-eye.  Once again, early buzz has Hilary Swank moving to the front of the Best Actress race in a film not many people have heard of…whether she can nab her third trophy remains to be seen.  All the elements seem to be there, though, and working alongside the likes of Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln, also taking on writing and directing duties), Meryl Streep (August: Osage County), and James Spader (Mannequin) I’m very interested in seeing if The Homesman can deliver on some rather intriguing promise.

The Silver Bullet ~ 3 Days to Kill

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Synopsis: A dying Secret Service Agent trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter is offered an experimental drug that could save his life in exchange for one last assignment.

Release Date:  February 21, 2014

Thoughts: When I first saw the trailer for 3 Days to Kill I kept thinking what a great Liam Neeson impression Kevin Costner was doing.  Then I started to wonder if Neeson had turned this one down.  Then I thought about the plight of the Black rhinoceros.  Then the preview was over and I went on with my life.

It sort of makes sense that this looks like the kind of Euro-trashy action film that Neeson would have sunk his teeth into because both 3 Days to Kill and Neeson’s Taken films were written by Luc Besson (The Family), a director that favors style over any sort of substance.  The beginning of this trailer has a few good moments before forgetting totally what kind of film its trying to market itself as.  The once bankable Costner is clearly hoping for the kind of career renaissance Neeson enjoyed but taking his also-rans isn’t going to get the job done.

The Silver Bullet ~ Romeo & Juliet (2013)

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Synopsis: When the star-crossed lovers of two enemy families meet, forbidden love ensues.

Release Date:  October 11, 2013

Thoughts:  I suppose every generation needs its own adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic tale of love torn apart by conflict, right?  Though the storyline has been borrowed for many a film (most recently in the clever zom-com Warm Bodies), the last big-time screen appearance was in 1996 with Baz Lurhman’s love it or leave it Romeo + Juliet which catapulted Leonardo DiCaprio and its director to true cinematic stardom.  Will it do the same for either or both of the two young actors in this new adaptation by Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellows?  Released just in time for the back-to-school crowd to swoon over, this looks like a more faithful but no less stylish take on the Bard’s tragic masterpiece.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ender’s Game

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Synopsis: 70 years after a horrific alien war, an unusually gifted child is sent to an advanced military school in space to prepare for a future invasion.

Release Date:  November 1, 2013

Thoughts: With the success of The Hunger Games, movie studios went thumbing through their local Barnes and Noble to see what other series were out there that they could turn into the next big franchise.  Orson Scott Card’s young hero Ender Wiggin might be a nice answer to Katinss Everdeen and the first trailer for Ender’s Game hints at a film with high ambitions…and high stakes.  Nabbing a doggedly choosy Harrison Ford (42) to star was a big coup for director Gavin Hood and it’s never a bad thing to have Ben Kingsley (so enjoyable in Iron Man 3) and Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) on hand should you need some extra gravitas.  Will Ender’s Game be the beginning of something great…or will it be another non-starter?  The film’s distributor, Summit Entertainment, also produced The Hunger Games so the outlook is positive.