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 ~ 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 Avengers: Age of Ultron

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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.

Release Date:  May 1, 2015

Thoughts:  Summer 2014 isn’t quite a distant memory yet (though with the paltry offerings it very well should be) but audiences are already looking toward the treasures that 2015 has to offer.  First on most every “must-see” list is this sequel to the super-duper big time hit of 2012 Marvel’s The Avengers which sees the whole gang in front of behind the camera reunited to drum up some more box office gold for Walt Disney and Marvel Studios.  Like The Dark Knight, I wonder if the bar has been raised so far that the sequel won’t be able to reach the same heights…but never count dependable writer/director Joss Whedon out because it’s clear he knows what he’s doing.  The countdown to May 2015 has officially begun with this nifty little tease at what deadly force The Avengers are about to face…I know I’ll have that dang Pinocchio tune in my head for days now.

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.

Down From the Shelf ~ Endless Love (1981)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A high school student’s love for a 15-year-old girl is thwarted by circumstance and accident.

Stars: Brooke Shields, Martin Hewitt, Shirley Knight, Don Murray, Richard Kiley, Beatrice Straight, Tom Cruise, James Spader, Ian Ziering

Director: Franco Zeffirelli

Rated: R

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: I wanted to turn off Endless Love about eight times…I know it was eight times because the feeling to flee reached its tipping point at regular fifteen minute intervals.  At a mind-numbing two hours, this drama from 1981 directed by Franco Zeffirelli was critically reviled but a head-scratcher of a box office hit.

Adapted (loosely) from Scott Spencer’s 1979 novel, this honest-to-god turkey is now best remembered for the Oscar nominated title song and its presence in movie trivia as the screen debut of Tom Cruise. Cruise appears on screen for all of three minutes as a teenage arsonist in the kind of short shorts that are only excused because early 80’s fashion really didn’t know any better.  Still, the jean cutoffs worn by Cruise are the least offensive thing in this tawdry tale of young love.

The film opens with a teenage love affair between a 15 year old (Brooke Shields) and a 17 year old (Martin Hewitt) in full swing.  The son of a typical suburban couple (Richard Kiley and Beatrice Straight), he’s considered part of Sheilds’ family too (headed by Don Murray and Shirley Knight)…by all accounts there seems to be peace in the world.  Then Hewitt and Shields decide to go all the way one night by a crackling fireplace and Knight catches them…but instead of breaking them apart she gazes lasciviously at their naked intertwined figures in the kind of way that you just know things are going to change.

Though Zeffirelli tries to give the passion between Hewitt and Shields the same kind of heat he infused into his 1968 take on Romeo and Juliet, he’s stymied by neither star having the charisma or chemistry to ignite any sort of spark.  Shields is lovely, no question, but her acting leaves much to be desired whereas Hewitt navigates some appalling dialogue and plot developments while being tasked with showing the most flesh (his tiny buns get nearly as much screen time as Knight’s various flowing mumus).  When the two kiss, it’s akin to a child pushing Barbie and Ken’s faces together…just a smushing of lips and not much else.

For some reason not fully explained, when sex is introduced it suddenly makes Hewitt persona non grata in the life of his girlfriend and their relationship hits the skids.  The rest of the film follows Hewitt as he tries to get her back over several years, with a few ridiculously timed tangents explored along the way.

Most embarrassing about this film is the way that well respected (and in some cases Oscar winning!) actors like Knight, Murray, Kiley, and Straight slum it up in such a seedy exercise.  All four say the lines and go through the motions but Straight especially looks sickened to be participating here.

The production design is evocative of gauzy 80’s Summer’s Eve commercials, creating pretty pictures with zero depth to them.  It’s a laborious affair to get through and a blast from the past you’ll wish you can blast into space.  I saw this after I saw the remake…and trust me when I say that this movie makes the so-so remake look like The Bridge on the River Kwai in comparison.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Lincoln

Synopsis: As the Civil War nears its end, President Abraham Lincoln clashes with members of his cabinet over the issue of abolishing slavery

Release Date:  November 16, 2012

Thoughts: Steven Spielberg is one of those directors who seem to churn out movies with the greatest of ease.  Almost under the radar, he plans and plots his productions so the actual act of filming them is nearly secondary.  The long in the works Lincoln is finally readying for its November release and it looks to be another winning notch in Spielberg’s well-worn cinematic belt.  Daniel Day-Lewis looked great in the promo shots and looks/sounds better in the trailer.  Being born on Lincoln’s birthday always made me feel a little closer to Honest Abe — after seeing him hunt vampires in the murky Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter I’m ready to experience his story told by a whole crew of master craftspeople.  The Oscar gauntlet has been thrown down by Spielberg and Lincoln…can’t wait for November.