Movie Review ~ Christopher Robin


The Facts
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Synopsis: A working-class family man, Christopher Robin, encounters his childhood friend Winnie-the-Pooh, who helps him to rediscover the joys of life.

Stars: Ewan McGregor, Hayley Atwell, Bronte Carmichael, Mark Gatiss, Jim Cummings, Chris O’Dowd, Brad Garrett, Toby Jones, Nick Mohammed, Peter Capaldi, Sophie Okonedo

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: A year ago, this Winnie-the-Pooh fan was excited to learn of two upcoming projects. One promised to go deeper into the life of the author A.A. Milne and the other from Walt Disney Studios would bring the famous bear and his friends to life in a live-action/CGI hybrid. Both films had serious potential considering the beloved material and high nostalgia factor. Well…fool me once (Goodbye Christopher Robin), shame on you. Fool me twice (Christopher Robin), shame on me.

Whereas 2017’s Goodbye Christopher Robin was a manipulative mess of a biography, Christopher Robin is a dreary miss that clings too tightly to its wistful moments. The movie is constructed to have you biting your lip and furtively wiping away tears at very specific points but it tries too hard to get you to go that sad place. Maybe I’ve turned into a monster in my old age but I resisted and outright resented the way the film went about its business.

Opening with young Christopher Robin attending a going-away party in the Hundred Acre Wood thrown by his animal friends, we learn he’s off to boarding school and will be leaving his friends far behind. Thus begins a rather long prologue where the lad becomes a man (Ewan McGregor, Beauty and the Beast) and eventually a war veteran. He’s now working for a luggage manufacturer with a wife (Hayley Atwell, Cinderella) and young daughter (Bronte Carmichael, Darkest Hour) he rarely spends time with. It’s a familiar sketch of a child that grows up and forgets what it’s like to conjure the kind of make believe fun that fueled a rich imagination. I mean, we all saw Hook, right?

With his family away for a weekend, Christopher is supposed to be working through the logistics of making cost-saving budget cuts at his job when he meets up with Winnie-the-Pooh. Pooh can’t find his friends but found his way through a magic door that connects the Hundred Acre Wood to the outside world. Christopher follows Pooh back through the door and begins a sentimental journey through his past that connects him back to the likes of Tigger, Piglet, and Eeyore.

Director Marc Forster has been hit or miss in my book for a while. I enjoyed World War Z, am slowly coming around to his James Bond entry Quantum of Solace, and last year’s All I See Is You was pretty underrated in my book. He’s had a diverse range of tones/genres which I respect but there’s this curious heaviness he adds to Christopher Robin that feels wrong. Even though it makes a last ditch effort to zing up the action in the last 20 minutes, the majority of the movie is too somber for young children and far too slow for older kids. Adults are advised to bring a pillow.

The marginal good news is the period film looks amazing and the characters (much closer in design to Milne’s vision) are brought to impressive life through CGI. Whatever crazy subliminal product messages Disney put in the film worked because I left wanting to get a set of the updated Pooh and co. for my very own. The action blends seamlessly with the live actors and McGregor gets a gold star for making me believe he’s interacting with a stuffed bear. The film doesn’t try to hide the fact these animals can talk, nicely avoiding at least one tired plot device hurdle of stories such as this.

With bits and pieces culled from better movies about growing up too soon (add Peter Pan and Mary Poppins to the list while you’re at it), Christopher Robin is a disappointing entry in Disney’s attempt at giving its characters a live-action treatment. The film scores high in production value and is often saved by its CGI creations but it’s too tangled in its gloomy plot and obvious attempts at wringing tears out of you to be more than a summer bummer misfire.

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 ~ Avengers: Age of Ultron

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Linda Cardellini, Mark Ruffalo, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Claudia Kim

Director: Joss Whedon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Here’s the thing that I like most about a good smörgåsbord – there’s something for everyone. Hot food, cold food, deserts, salads…it’s all at your fingertips and you can have as much or as little as you like. When presented with so many options, the whole experience can be somewhat overwhelming…but once you’ve had the chance to survey the selections and try out some choice cuts, you usually wind up walking away feeling a sense of fulfillment.

If any movie of 2015 (or any film in recent memory, actually) can be likened to a smörgåsbord it most certainly is this hugely anticipated follow up to 2012’s The Avengers. Offering bigger thrills and higher stakes, it’s a gargantuan film that redefines the term blockbuster. Still, I have to be honest and say that while it’s an all-together overpowering outing from the get-go, it took me a good twenty minutes to acclimate myself to writer/director Joss Whedon’s awe-inspiring sequel.

Starting up in the middle of the kind of go-big-or-go-home battle usually reserved for the latter half of other would-be blockbusters (the first of five jumbo battle royales featured in the 2.5 hour film), there’s no time wasted in re-introducing our friendly group of superheroes. Most of the crusaders have solidly led the way in their own films (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) while others have turned in noble supporting turns (Black Widow, Hawkeye, War Machine) in the same movies. Grouped together on screen, as The Avengers proved so impressively well, they can defeat schemes of world domination while rattling off Whedon’s quip-heavy banter.

Whedon knows his way around a clever turn of phrase but there’s a limit to how much witty repartee can be tossed at the audience before it begins to feel a little too astute for its own good. There seems to be an overly earnest need to kick things off on the right foot by giving us the greatest hits of Tony Stark, the master of delivering a one-liner, while storming the eastern European castle featured in the beginning battle. It’s just all a little much for this reviewer…but luckily Whedon and crew achieve a nice balance of fun and furious action in a plot that has a lot going on but never feels overstuffed.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron works in pieces as a stand-alone film, it will really pay off for the wise viewer that has already seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Several familiar faces from these films pop up and, as was the case in the The Avengers, it’s nice to see how many cross over characters play a part in the action without it all feeling like a ComicCon version of The Love Boat.

What’s the plot you ask? Best to let you find that out yourself so as not to spoil some of Whedon’s more elaborate set-ups. What I can relay is that it involves a villainous bit of Stark created Artificial Intelligence named Ultron spectacularly voiced by James Spader (Mannequin) managing to inject humanity with a devious sarcasm into this completely CGI role – it’s hard to imagine anyone else giving voice to the destructive machine with such flair. Ultron has big plans for The Avengers and the world as a whole from the moment he comes online with the help of a familiar piece of sought-after power. Aided by a pair of powerful twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen…both featured in last summer’s Godzilla) and a host of bad robots, Ultron keeps the hits coming right up until the grandest of grand finales of any large-scale action film I can recall. The only way it could have been bigger is if the theater set off fireworks at the end.

Returning to the fray are Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), Paul Bettany (Mortdecai), and Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) and it’s worth noting that everyone seems happy to have their moment in the sun and then let their colleagues have their time to shine too.

Marvel is just on an unstoppable roll now and with the next Captain America film due in 2016, the next Thor film due in 2017, and the two part Avengers finale arriving in the two years after that there’s a whole lot more ground to cover. Let’s not forget the other Marvel films on the big and small screen that will surely play a part in future development deals.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon’s swan song in the director’s chair and he’s followed up an adrenaline blast of a first film with a layered and just as entertaining sequel that pushes ideas and characters forward. Make sure to see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound (the 3D is optional…I wouldn’t think it’s a requirement) to truly max out your Avengers experience.

Movie Review ~ Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.

Stars: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Georges St-Pierre, Hayley Atwell, Toby Jones, Emily VanCamp

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 138 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Though it made the kind of money that would make most studio heads drool as they dreamt of summer homes and winter cabins, Captain America: The First Avenger was the second lowest grossing Marvel film released to date. That’s too bad because it’s probably one of my favorite entries thanks to its old school tone and the strength in which it stands on its own two feet. After joining the crew in The Avengers and popping up for a brief cameo in Thor: The Dark World, Captain America is back in his fourth appearance on the big screen and he’s better than ever.

Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger all were designed to set the stage for the mega-wattage hero orgy known as Marvel’s The Avengers. That gathering of multiple blockbuster figures appropriately blew the roof off the box office and was one of the best superhero films in history. Following the success of The Avengers, Marvel moved into Phase II of their series by releasing Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, and now this sequel to the 2011 film as offshoot Guardians of the Galaxy preps for an August release and as Avengers: Age of Ultron continues to film with plans to release in 2015.

After being thawed out after a long nap in ice, 1940’s hero Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, The Iceman) is still adjusting to the modern era and a world with a different ideal than the one he’d left behind. While there are multiple references to previous (and future) Marvel franchise characters, like the recent Iron Man and Thor adventures this film is squarely Captain America’s to do whatever he wishes. Though at times you may wonder why Tony Stark doesn’t fly in to lend a helping hand, I liked that the films are allowed to stand on their own strong cast of characters and adventures.

Like the previous installment, Captain America: The Winter Soldier has an appealing story to launch its next chapter with. Touching on the age of spy technology that we find ourselves in, the plot of the film has Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Her, with a performance as stoic as her haircut) racing to stop plans to use S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own creations to wipe out citizens that may be a threat in the future…all the while avoiding corruption from within. Oh, and there’s also the matter of a steel armed assassin (the titular character) that wants them dead.

I’ll admit the film took a tad longer than I would have liked to grab me thanks to a been-there, done-that kind of prologue that impresses on a visual scale but suffers in comparison to the type of action sequences we’ve seen in previous films. No matter, once Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Django Unchained) engages in a rip-roaring and bullet-ridden car chase you’ll forget about the iffy opening and get swept up in the adventure.

With a nice bag of tricks and more than a few twists to keep fans engaged, Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes good use of its lengthy running time by tapping into that Marvel magic of mythology that makes sense even though its patently ridiculous. Directors Anthony & Joe Russo (don’t be scared off when I tell you their previous film was the odious comedy You, Me, & Dupree in 2006) keep things moving thanks to a solid screenplay from returning writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and all the bells and whistles top of the line visual effects can bring.

Evans clearly spent every waking moment in the gym for the last several years because he’s reaching Hulk-like muscle proportions; nevertheless that same relatable all-American charm remains his biggest selling point. Johansson’s icy butt-kicker is no Girl Friday sidekick, though I wonder if she’ll ever have the same impossible to mess up hairstyle in consecutive movies. With Tommy Lee Jones not returning for this sequel (since his character was from the 40’s and this is new millennium all the way), there was an opening for another craggy faced grumpy looking Oscar winner and Robert Redford (All is Lost) fits the bill nicely. Though he isn’t required to do all that much, his presence lends a certain gravitas to his character. I’d tell you about a few more people in the film (like Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain, as a veteran that becomes an ally), but that would be spoiling some nice surprises.

As this is a Marvel film, make sure to stay through the entire end credit sequence. While there is an exciting major reveal several minutes into the cool closing credits, at the very end of the film you’ll find a short morsel that smoothes over a rough patch from earlier in the movie.

If the first film didn’t catch fire like other Marvel entries, I’m hoping that Avengers fever is high enough to get audiences to try out this second round with Captain America. It’s terrific popcorn entertainment and gives you a taste of summer blockbuster even as the cold weather clings to so much of our country.

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Down From the Shelf ~ Captain America: The First Avenger

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending USA ideals.

Stars: Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell, Sebastian Stan, Dominic Cooper, Toby Jones, Neal McDonough, Derek Luke, Stanley Tucci

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When Captain America: The First Avenger came out, I was feeling all together ho-hum about the Marvel franchise so far. Full disclosure, I was more of a DC Comics fan growing up and the Avengers universe was a bit of a foreign entity to me. That being said, I always had an appreciation for Captain America…even allowing myself to like (just a little!) the disastrous 1990 failed attempt to bring the character back to the big screen.

In July of 2011, audiences had already met Iron Man (twice!) and Thor and while I liked the initial Tony Stark adventure way more than I liked the muddled snoozer centered on the Norse warrior, I wasn’t totally sold that Captain America would live up to my expectations. So it was a nice surprise to find that not only was Captain America: The First Avenger a hugely entertaining film but that it achieved this by relying on an old-fashioned style of filmmaking that put the characters first and the special effects second.

Beginning in the present with the discovery of a familiar calling card, the film jumps back in time to the early 40’s when America was in the early stages of World War II. Looking for a few good soldiers, the US recruited an entire generation of men and women to serve their country overseas. Longing to be of service to Uncle Sam, scrawny Steve Rogers (a digitally wimp-ized Chris Evans) can’t make it past the medical exam after half a dozen attempts. His passion catches the eye of a German scientist (Stanley Tucci, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) and Rogers is soon in basic training as a candidate to create a new soldier.

Under the watchful eye of a grumpy Colonel (Tommy Lee Jones, Lincoln) and pretty but tough Peggy Carter (dynamite Hayley Atwell), it isn’t long before Rogers is beefed up and buffed out thanks to a procedure concocted by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper, Need for Speed, as Iron Man’s pappy) that makes him a freedom fighting machine. As much a piece of pro-America propaganda as was produced in the same time period, Captain America: The First Avenger occupies the rest of its run length with Rogers weathering the good and bad of his newfound power and a deadly battle with the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, Cloud Atlas) a nasty Nazi with a typically nasty Nazi plot for world domination.

With his all-American looks, Evans (The Iceman) is the perfect figure to play such an all-American hero…even though the effect to make him look small at the beginning of the film is kinda goofy. Though he had to be convinced more than once to take the role, he’s the right man for the job. Weaving is appropriately frightening as the red-faced terror and Jones hrumphs with the best of them. I still feel that Atwell’s plucky heroine is the best female character to date in the Marvel franchise…here’ s hoping the rumored television series based on her Agent Carter comes to life.

A worthy origin story, the film reminded me a lot of The Rocketeer, Disney’s notorious 1991 flop that coincidentally was also directed by Joe Johnston. I liked The Rocketeer, flaws and all, and Johnston seems to be trying to redeem himself in the eyes of comic book aficionados everywhere. Unlike Iron Man and Thor, I never felt like Captain America: The First Avenger existed only to bridge the gap to the film that would become The Avengers a year later in 2012. It does supply the last bit of info before that movie arrived but is still enjoyed on its own merit.

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The Silver Bullet ~ Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Synopsis: Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and teams up with Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, to battle a powerful yet shadowy enemy in present-day Washington, D.C.

Release Date: April 4, 2014

Thoughts: I was a big fan of the 2011 film that introduced Captain America into the Marvel universe.  A long time favorite hero of those that follow the comics, the movie delivered robust action and had an incredibly likable lead in Chris Evans…not to mention the best female character to date in any Marvel film (that’d be Hayley Atwell as Agent Peggy Carter).  After joining forces with his fellow superheroes in The Avengers, Captain America gets his own sequel but Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Hitchcock) is along for the ride.  Even with Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World coming up in November, I’m perhaps a tad more excited for the adventure this film has to offer.