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 ~ The D Train

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The head of a high school reunion committee travels to Los Angeles to track down the most popular guy from his graduating class and convince him to go to the reunion.

Stars: James Marsden, Jack Black, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike White, Kathryn Hahn, Henry Zebrowski, Kyle Bornheimer, Adria Tennor, Russell Posner

Director: Andrew Mogel, Jarrad Paul

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I used to be a movie-goer that loved to see previews of coming attractions sometimes more than the feature presentations themselves.  I’d consider being late to a movie if even one preview had unspooled…but over time the fifteen minutes worth of trailers took their toll on me and I was exhausted before the movie even began.  A nice part of being a critic and seeing screenings of films in advance is quite often there won’t be any previews before a movie…cutting down on my exasperated saturation of seeing the same teaser over and over and over again.

I mention this right away in my review of The D Train because it was one of those rare flicks I went into without ever having seen a preview or reading much about it.  All I knew was that it starred Jack Black (Bernie), James Marsden (Robot & Frank), and Kathryn Hahn (Bad Words) and that was good enough for me.  While not the biggest Jack Black fan in existence (his shtick having long since worn out its welcome on me in the mid-2000s) I’ve come to appreciate that the actor has taken some risks at this stage in his career.

The D Train is another risk that’s paid off not only for Black but Marsden too.  While not graced with the most profound character arcs thanks to writer/director Andrew Mogel & Jarrad Paul’s almost fully formed script, the two actors deliver surprisingly effective performances that are even-keeled and grounded even with some unexpected twists and turns that pop up.

Black plays another middle-aged everyman but this time the actor makes his Average Joe a human being and not some overgrown man-child.  The head (more figurehead) of his high-school reunion committee, Black works for a non-descript boss (Jeffrey Tambor, The Hangover Part III) at a non-descript job in a non-descript office that isn’t even wired for high-speed internet.  Though he has a loving, high-school sweetheart wife (Hahn) and kids he’s flatlining and knows it.

That all changes when he catches a commercial late at night featuring a high-school classmate (Marsden) that moved to LA shortly after graduating.  Hatching a plan to up the reunion attendance and at the same time becoming a local hero by convincing the “star” classmate to attend the reunion, Black travels to California to reconnect with an old pal that can’t remember him.

Up to this point, Mogel and Paul have kept things pretty standard fare.  Even a hackneyed scheme for Black to get his company to pay for his trip out west seems like something out of an ‘80s comedy checklist.  When Black arrives in LA, though, things take an unexpected turn that I wouldn’t dream of giving away.  Needless to say, it instantly ups the ante of Black and Marsden’s comedic stock and elevates the picture from being just another screw-up-makes-good farce.

That’s not to say it’s totally smooth sailing from then on out.  There’s more than a few slow sections in the third act of the film and the resolution seems a bit too pat considering all the carefully placed turns that came before; however at the end of the day I was more impressed with the comedy than I thought I would be.  There’s a certain sweetness to it and Black makes for a charmingly hapless sad sack dealing with a lot of feelings he hadn’t planned on exploring.  Marsden is one of the gamest actors out there, willing to play against type and trade on his looks if the part calls for it.  Make no mistake, though, the actor is always 100% aware of what he’s doing, which at times means you can see him stretching to be acknowledged for coloring outside the lines.  While she’s become known for being a gifted comic actress, Hahn has dramatic chops to counter the laughs and those are put to good use here as well.

With its retro synth score and overall old school ambiance, The D Train would be a film I’d think ‘80s maestro John Hughes would have given his stamp of approval to.  In a season getting stuffed with big budget action lollapaloozas and high concept studio comedies, you’re encouraged to hop on the indie goodness of The D Train.

The Silver Bullet ~ Walk of Shame

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Synopsis: A reporter’s dream of becoming a news anchor is compromised after a one-night stand leaves her stranded in downtown L.A. without a phone, car, ID or money – and only 8 hours to make it to the most important job interview of her life.

Release Date:  April 25, 2014

Thoughts: I’ll let you in on a little secret…Elizabeth Banks is a secret weapon.  I can recall more than a few movies featuring Banks that I haven’t cared for (like What to Expect When You’re Expecting) but am hard pressed to think of a performance of hers I haven’t liked.  She was wasn’t overpowered by her daffy outfits in The Hunger Games and its sequel, showed off some range in People Like Us, and donned a producers cap for Pitch Perfect.  Though the poster for April’s Walk of Shame is a ghastly mess, the trailer shows Banks comfortably in her comedic element…giving me hope that this R Rated comedy (co-starring the dependable James Marsden, Robot & Frank) will give Banks another chance to shine.

The Silver Bullet ~ Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues

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Synopsis: With the 70s behind him, San Diego’s top rated newsman, Ron Burgundy, returns to take New York’s first 24-hour news channel by storm.

Release Date:  December 20, 2013

Thoughts: Well, the second trailer for the sequel to 2004’s Anchorman has arrived and, like the first preview, I’m left cold.  Though I know the first film has achieved a high position on the list of cult favorites over the years, I’ve never been a big fan of what’s essentially an overlong comedy routine from Will Ferrell and his gang.  Now I think all of these men are funny individually but I’ve yet to be swayed that as a group they’re the laugh riot they think they are.  I barely cracked a smile during this…and that doesn’t bode well for my enjoyment of the finished product.  I realize I’m in the minority here and Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is poised to be a huge holiday box-office hit, but man-child humor has to work extra hard to get a laugh out of me and so far I’m unimpressed.

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

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Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.

Movie Review ~ Robot & Frank

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the near future, an ex-jewel thief receives a gift from his son: a robot butler programmed to look after him. But soon the two companions try their luck as a heist team.

Stars: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard,

Director: Jake Schreier

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review

It really is the quiet ones that sneak up on you.  From the preview of Robot & Frank, I was guessing that the film itself would be a blip on my radar in the grand movie-going scheme of things.  Good buzz propelled me to see it opening weekend and I’m so glad I did.  Now, I have more time to spread the word about the film and encourage others to take it in as well.  What on the surface appears to be a Driving Miss Daisy-esque film with a cranky old-timer rebelling against the services forced upon him by his offspring is really a rare film of integrity and surprising heart.

Set in the near future but looking quite similar to the world we live in today, the film opens with Frank (Langella) and his daily routine.  With his rumpled attire and his set-in-his-way gait, we quickly pick up that he lives alone and likes it.  He spends his days in the upper NYC hamlet he calls home trudging into town to flirt with the librarian (Sarandon) and shoplifiting some items from a local store.  Gradually we learn that Frank’s become more forgetful lately and shows early signs of Alzheimer’s. 

That’s when Robot comes into his life courtesy of his son (Marsden) but against the wishes of his human rights minded daughter (Tyler).  Programmed to keep him active and healthy, Frank resists the Robot until naturally he can’t any longer.  It’s only when Robot accidentally gets a five finger discount on something that retired cat burglar Frank starts to feel like his old self again. 

That’s more of a plot description than I normally like to give but it’s key to have that groundwork for what’s to come next.  The film doesn’t so much change gears as it just chooses a different fork in the road that we didn’t notice originally.  The symbolism of a man losing his memory working with a robot who can easily be reformatted is not lost on the viewer or Frank.  As acceptance of the future starts to set in for all of our characters a new, more poignant film is revealed that’s quite impressive. 

I’ve always found Langella to be a bit inaccessible as an actor as he is mostly cast in aloof roles.  In Robot & Frank, this coolness works in his favor.  Frank (the character) sees what’s happening to him and begins to pull away from the world either out of fear or pride and it’s only when he starts to regain his old spirit that he warms.  It’s one of Langella’s best performances, understated and nuanced and played to perfection.

Marsden and Tyler also do strong work as his children who approach their father’s declining health from different points of view.  Marsden plays a family man who is trying to be there for his kids like his dad wasn’t there for him.  Moving into the role of caregiver, he brings Robot to his dad not as a way to remove burden from him, but as a way to give some peace of mind.  Tyler’s character strongly opposes the use of advanced technology and struggles to do right by her dad while still providing him the same care Robot does.  Both actors have great familial chemistry with Langella and each other.

I could go on and on about my continued admiration for Sarandon in every role she touches.  Already scoring strong in 2012 with her sensitive work in Jeff Who Lives At Home, she too turns a secondary character into one with a lot of heart and authenticity.  As her past is revealed slowly throughout the film I marveled at the way she took control of her seemingly innocuous librarian and made her flesh and blood.  Langella and Sarandon are pros and you’ll know what I mean after you see the film.

In the pivotal role of Robot, first time director Schreier wisely chose to eschew any CGI work by using an actress (Rachel Ma) to portray Robot onscreen and cast Sarsgaard as the robot’s calming voice.  In his soothing delivery, there are echoes of HAL2000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey but that’s where the similarities end.  Both performers are key to the success of the interactions onscreen between Frank and Robot with Ma making the movements believable and Sarsgaard holding steady as the stolid marvel.

An unobtrusive but lingering score by Francis and the Lights and beautifully detailed cinematography by Mathew J. Lloyd all work in conjunction with Schreier’s touching direction of Christopher Ford’s script.  There’s a lot to say about progress, memory, aging, and family and it’s all delivered in a manner that never feels false.  It could have been easy to make the future world look more tech-heavy but instead the lower budget may have worked in its favor with only a few slight upgrades to items you’ll believe will have advanced that far in the next decade.

At only 89 minutes, the film feels like an early Christmas gift that’s waiting to be unwrapped.  Thanks to spot-on performances and a delicate third act, I was so impressed with what I was seeing onscreen.  Like The Intouchables before it, this is one of the most moving films I’ve seen in 2012 and recommend it highly.

Movie Review ~ Bachelorette

The Facts:

Synopsis: Three friends are asked to be bridesmaids at a wedding of a woman they used to ridicule back in high school.

Stars: Kirsten Dunst, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, James Marsden, Adam Scott, Rebel Wilson, Kyle Bornheimer

Director: Leslye Headland

Rated: R

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:   Oh Bridesmaids, what hath you wrought?  The 2011 mega hit made a big buzz because it was a film written by women, starring women, not just for women, and exceedingly funny.  First shrugged off as a female answer to the rowdy popularity of The Hangover, it quickly separated itself from the pack of imitators by matching that film laugh for laugh (often beating it).  Being released the same summer as the inferior The Hangover: Part II, Bridesmaids was one of the most talked about films of the year…deservedly so.

A year later comes another movie that draws obvious comparisons to Bridesmaids in tone, structure, and even casting (Wilson appears in both films but in different roles).  Bachelorette was written and directed by Headland who adapted it from her stage play and it’s not hard to see why the material would have worked well as a live performance.  Ribald humor, male strippers, and catty asides probably provided some nice laughs but having not seen the piece I can’t say how many characters/situations were added/embellished for the big screen treatment.

Providing a few nice laughs, Bachelorette unfortunately gets sunk in its multiple excesses of girls behaving badly.  None of the three leads are crafted as particularly likable characters so it’s tough to get invested in their shenanigans as they prove to be awful bridesmaids and lousy friends.  Without many/any redeemable qualities the women become exhausting cartoons and that creates a rift with the viewer.

It takes a rare performer to make an unlikable character involving and sadly Dunst is far from up to the task.  As the head honcho bridesmaid, it’s never clear why she’s friends with the bride (Wilson, operating in a far less quirky vibe than she has in Bridesmaids, What to Expect When You’re Expecting, and the upcoming Pitch Perfect) or why she’s so dang angry.  Dunst just doesn’t have the timing, skill, or commitment for comedy and she’s in way over her head before the film is even half over.

Caplan and Fisher have demonstrated a knack for comedy in the past but here they are each playing such stereotypical roles that you know where they’re going to end up long before they do.  I’ve a feeling that Caplan will regret playing such a snidely clueless doormat and Fisher will wish she hadn’t played yet another total idiot but both actresses at least roll up their sleeves and dig into their parts which is more than Dunst can say. 

Like Bridesmaids, the men operate merely as pawns for the women to chew their scenery with.  It’s too bad that the talented guys aren’t called on to do more than move the show along without much functionality but Scott, Marsden, and especially Bornheimer do the best with what they have.

Headlund makes her directing debut here and perhaps a more experienced director could have taken her paper-thin script and made something of it.  As it stands, there’s not much style on display and the cinematography by Doug Emmett leaves much to be desired.  It’s nearly a point and shoot affair and one wonders if Headlund couldn’t envision her script outside of a confined stage-like setting.

It’s clear from the get-go that this movie got made simply because of the plot description in the hopes of another success with female audiences.  It’s not a total wash of a film, let’s be clear.  It’s just a glossy copycat film that is trying to capitalize on the success of a hit film without having to really acknowledge that fact.

Having been released On Demand before debuting in the theaters Bachelorette has been a surprise hit, moving to the top of the charts…becoming the first film to do so without first being released in theaters.  That may bode well for the film down the road when it’s released in early September…or it may signify that it’s destined to be a Ladies Night In experience.