Movie Review ~ Soul

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, June Squibb

Director: Pete Docter

Co-Director: Kemp Powers

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I recently was watching some programming on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and it included clips from 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar’s first full length feature film.  It was a landmark in the movie business, the first entirely computer-animated feature and it opened so many doors for artists and creative energy to flow over the next twenty-five years.  It’s strange to look back at that revelatory movie (that still holds up well today, I might add) and see how far the medium has grown.  Now the animation borders on prehistoric in terms of composition and the ability to capture life-life expression and scenery.  It’s easier than ever to lose yourself in a Pixar film, which is a huge help with stories that are aiming for emotional connections like Onward from earlier in 2020.  (Doesn’t it feel like that movie came out two years ago after all we’ve been through?)

Pixar levels up, amazingly, once more with their latest release and it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point when I tell you that Soul finds a way into your heart in the most unique ways.  Bumped from its June theatrical release to a hoped-for November bow in theaters before Disney threw in the towel and decided to put their efforts behind a holiday release on Disney+, Soul is wisely debuting Christmas Day when families can gather in harmony for a moving viewing experience.  Though it deals with topics that are deeper and often less tangible than other Pixar productions and parents should get ready to unpack the movie with their younger children after (or during), Soul finds Pixar pushing the boundaries of storytelling to a far more inquisitive and almost metaphysical plane.

Continuing their trend of tweaking their studio logo to fit the film it precedes, Disney allows Soul to re-orchestrate their opening fanfare, helping to set the tone as we meet middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy) hoping to inspire his inner-city students in the short amount of time he has them each day.  A jazz musician at his core ever since his late father taught him to love the style when he was the same age as his students, he picks up the occasional side gigs but never achieved the level of his success that matched his talent.  When he’s offered a full-time teaching job that would provide stability, not to mention would also please his firm but caring mother (Phylicia Rashad, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey), a self-made woman that owns her own tailoring shop), Joe struggles with choosing some permanence in his life over the possibility that something may happen down the road.

Then, a call from a former student (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove) offers a chance to fill in for the quartet that plays with jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and it could be the opportunity that changes everything.  A head held high and open manhole cover with a perilous drop ends that dream, though, and Joe’s soul is taken from his body and set on a course to the Great Beyond.  Now in the form of an aqua colored sprite that has Joe’s identifiable hat and glasses, Joe escapes from his final journey and winds up in the Great Before as an unlikely mentor to a soul yet to be born.  Helping this soul (Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) find their purpose by examining his own lived life becomes Joe’s ticket back to Earth and a reunion with his body.

Sounds like the full movie, right?  Ah…but this is from those ever-imaginative minds at Pixar and the outline above only covers the first 1/3 of Soul.  Oscar-winning writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and his co-director Kemp Powers make Joe’s journey to the Great Before and his time there one of interesting discovery where origins of personality are found and motivations for a full life are started.  It’s a fascinating conversation for the movie to have with its audience and one that I’m sure will stay on your mind after; fantasy though this may be there’s some truth to thinking about what moves us and keeps us on track.  I didn’t even mention a hippie-dippie tie-dyed pirate character (Graham Norton) that’s very much alive on Earth but found his way into the Great Before by going into what we call “The Zone” or a chubby feline that plays an important role in the latter half of the movie.

It’s when the movie advances past Joe and his mentee getting to know one another in the Great Before that Soul earns its stripes for ingenuity and starts to close its grasp around your tear ducts, readying to squeeze.  It always amazes me the level of detail the writers and designers at Pixar can drill down to in each sequence.  There are comedic bits included here that would take forever to work out in live-action and even then may not come out correctly.  Yet they’re razor sharp here without a second of extra space for a laugh to go on for too long or too short.  Further, the action is complicated but easy to follow even with all the bells and whistles they’ve put on it.  That’s excellent filmmaking no matter what the medium it’s being made in.  It’s amplified by the score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Waves) which gives the film an ample pulse and runs in a nice parallel to the jazz compositions provided by Jon Batiste, the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Then there’s the way Docter, Powers, and the crew can make a simple moment, a small line, or a brief glance have huge emotional weight when you least expect it.  The realism of the animation at times helps this immeasurably.  There were honestly moments when I forgot it was animated, like Joe on a park bench watching the twirling seeds of maple trees fall or walking into a neighborhood barber shop.  You feel like you have to blink several times to adjust your eyes back to the animation.  There are several emotional high points within but the most effective one is instrument and dialogue free, and I won’t spoil where it is, but when you start to feel your eyes heat up, your cheeks flush, and the goosebumps ripple…you’ll know you’ve arrived.  As the first African American co-director in Pixar’s history (who will also be well-represented in end-of-the-year awards with One Night in Miami for Amazon), Powers brings some much-needed balanced narrative to the traditionally more vanilla Pixar brand of moviemaking.  Coupled with Docter’s trademark brand of tapping into what is going to pluck your increasingly fragile heartstrings and you have an inspired collaboration.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that a film about a jazz-musician’s soul figuring out their true spark of purpose set to a largely high-top horn heavy jazz score would be a tough sell but Soul emerges of one of Pixar’s mighty best, standing among an already impressive roster of top titles.  The voice cast is stellar (Foxx is the least Jamie Foxx he’s ever been and that’s a great thing) and it’s filled with jokes simple enough for small(er) children to laugh at and a number of quite hysterical one-liners (and appearances) involving historical philosophers and do-gooders that adults will get a belly laugh or four out of.  Despite the warning that parents might have to be prepared for some questions about death and what happens after we die, not to mention the film toying with the sticky-subject of the ability to come back after you die, for everyone else this is exactly the way you want your Pixar films to be: creative, moving, magical, funny, and thoughtful.  One of the very best of the year.

Movie Review ~ Just Mercy


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian, who is sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There’s always a dilemma in missing an early screening of a movie and waiting to see it after it is released to general audiences.  I had the opportunity to see Just Mercy back in October at the Twin Cities Film Festival and again in late December for a press screening but wasn’t able to attend either showing due to other commitments. This was a disappointment because I had been looking forward to this high-profile studio film starring rising A-Lister Michael B. Jordan and Academy Award winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson in a true-life legal drama.  With buzz out of initial festival screenings that it could be a crowd-pleasing awards favorite, I wanted to be able to see it early, yes, but also with a packed house to get their reaction as well.

So, I couldn’t have that group experience, though I don’t think Just Mercy is meant to be one of those roof-raising stand up and applaud your noble defense attorney movies in the first place. Though it could be unfairly compared to a TV movie of the week because of its familiar story line of ambitious attorney battles Goliath bigoted legal system, it’s the small gentle touches that make it special.  You get a sense it’s wrong emerging from Destin Daniel Cretton’s fourth feature feeling entertained because there is nothing fun about its racially charged subject or the picture it paints about the conviction rates of the past, present and future.  It’s a somber and sobering look at the life of one man at the beginning of his journey in the fight for social justice and the individuals that had an impact on setting him on his path.

Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Jordan, Creed) turns down offers from bigger (i.e. better paying) firms in better ports of call in favor of moving to Alabama to defend inmates wrongly convicted of crimes.  Inspired by an early meeting with a death row inmate he formed a connection with while he was still a law student, he starts the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Larson, Captain Marvel).  Seeking to provide a pro-bono defense for death row inmates who may not have received a fair trial due to their social class or ethnic background, Stevenson and Ansley come up against communities that sees them as nothing more than trying to free murders and rapists.  They face opposition from the start.  No one will rent them space for their office, Ansley receives bomb threats at her house, Stevenson is targeted by the local police and, in so many words, told to keep out of their business.

Marketing for Just Mercy would suggest that all of Stevenson’s time is devoted to working on overturning the conviction of Walter McMillian (Foxx, Django Unchained) who was accused of killing a teenage girl and given the death penalty despite a mountain of evidence proving he was innocent but that is a bit deceiving.  While it’s true that the bulk of the film revolves around the relationship that forms between the two men, there’s a significant amount of time spent with inmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) a veteran with PTSD on death row that also comes under Stevenson’s banner.  Both men have an impact on the lawyer Stevenson becomes and especially the time he spends with Richardson informs how Stevenson approaches the numerous setbacks he faces in the McMillian trial.  As Stevenson digs deeper in the McMIllian case, it opens the old wounds of a community that used the McMillian conviction as a Band-Aid to heal after the violent murder and aren’t willing to look at any evidence suggesting McMillian was innocent.

As this is based on a true story, the outcome of everything is right there for you to see if you choose to spoil things for yourself before going in, but I’d advise staving off that knowledge if possible.  I went in knowing nothing and it added to the tension of not being able to predict what would happen next and if justice would be served after being denied for so long.  The answers aren’t always what we want or how we expect to receive them but overall there’s a strength in Cretton’s script, though at 137 minutes the film is slightly circuitous in its path to get there.  What I can say is that the events in the film had a lasting impact on the lives of everyone involved and the work continues to this day — be sure to stay until the credits are fully rolling to be brought up to date with where things are presently.

Continuing to show he’s going to be one of the next generation of Movie Stars (the capital and M and S are purposeful), Jordan can come across as overly earnest as Stevenson but it’s exactly the right approach for the recent grad having his eyes opened to the certain realities.  He’s not naïve enough to think justice is always blind or that everyone is treated the same but watching his spirit get a bit broken during a cruel strip search his first-time visiting McMillian in jail is hard to watch.  With McMillian, Foxx has his best role in years and should have had an Oscar nomination to show for it.  The resolution to his situation and a body bereft of hope is evident when Stevenson first meets him, and Foxx creates a nice kind of magic letting the hope seep back into his person when the tides seem to turn in his direction.  Both men have an electric chemistry with Foxx the actor taking a fatherly role over Jordan — I can’t say for sure but it feels like the two got along like gangbusters and it shows onscreen.  Though their characters struggled to trust at first, the beauty found behind the walls eventually broken down is extraordinary.

Having worked with Cretton several times now, I’m surprised Larson didn’t have more to do.  She’s determined and confident as Ansley but goes missing for long stretches only to appear again to give Stevenson a pep talk or be a sounding board – so it winds up feeling like a utilitarian role rather than a pivotal one.  In some ways, I thought Morgan’s troubled death row veteran outshone Foxx.  He’s honestly the heart of the film and he’s got a whopper of a showcase that will easily get him work for the next several years.  Every film needs a villain or villain-adjacent and while it’s hard to cast the legal system into one person, Rafe Spall (Prometheus) as the stubborn District Attorney refusing to see the evidence presented to him fits the bill just fine.  Some may find Tim Blake Nelson (Angel Has Fallen) as a key witness to be slightly on the broad side but considering that Nelson had to add a speech disability that distorts his face, I found it to be an effective performance.   I also couldn’t write this review and not mention the enormous contribution of Karan Kendrick (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and her solid turn as McMillian’s devoted wife who rallies her community behind Stevenson and her spouse.  There’s more to the role than simple love and support and Kendrick makes the most of her few scenes.

Plenty of movies have been made about the failure of our justice system to serve the men and women that can’t afford the kind of defense that would prove their innocence and plenty more will be made in the future.  Each has it’s own story of lines being crossed and motivations that are less than noble winning out over the quest for the truth.  All are worthy stories to tell because maybe it will prevent one more person from being wrongfully convicted of a crime.  Just Mercy may not have set out to change the way lawyers work with their clients, prosecutors pursue a conviction, juries weigh the facts, or judges deliver sentencing but it does highlight there is still work to be done to get it right.

Movie Review ~ Annie (2014)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A foster kid, who lives with her mean foster mom, sees her life change when business tycoon and New York mayoral candidate Will Stacks makes a thinly-veiled campaign move and takes her in.

Stars:  Quvenzhané Wallis, Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz, Bobby Cannavale,Rose Byrne, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, David Zayas, Stephanie Kurtzuba

Director: Will Gluck

Rated: PG

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  I think it’s part of the job of a movie critic to do their best to remove any personal bias before entering into any film, trying to take what they are seeing for face value and reporting back how that experience felt to them.  I have to admit that going into this re-imagined take on the Broadway musical Annie I carried with me some baggage I’ve been dragging around since the project was first announced several years ago.

So OK, perhaps the 1982 film version wasn’t the box office success studios had hoped.  At the time, it was critically drubbed, mostly due to the ghastly amount of money spent on it which, to be fair, helped give the film an old-school big Big BIG feel with more orphans than you could shake a shtick at, huge city scapes that brought audiences convincingly back to the Great Depression, and a massive mansion with a singing and dancing staff ready to step-ball-change with every downbeat.

Full disclosure, Annie was the first film I ever saw in the theater and even as a two year old I cast a critical side eye at the musical tale of a scrappy orphan that evades crooks, rescues a dog, and wins the heart of the richest man in America in 127 minutes.  I actually didn’t make it through the whole film, opting to high-tail it out when my movie treats had disappeared.  Subsequent viewings over the years has endeared the film to me, particularly with Carol Burnett’s dynamite turn as the boozy Miss Hannigan and Ann Reinking as the leggy secretary to Albert Finney’s Oliver Warbucks.

An early preview of the film made the reboot (produced by Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith) look positively frightful and subsequent clips gave me a bad taste in my mouth.  I waited with a mixture of glee and dread for the screening to arrive and was prepared to revel in my disdain for what modern spins were put on Annie and trounce those involved for their association with it all.

Consider it a minor Christmas miracle that I left the screening with very little venom for the retooling and a sizable lump in my throat.  Though it’s far from perfect and misses the mark more often than it should, this 2014 Annie is neither the embarrassment I had feared nor the train wreck I had secretly hoped for.

Let’s start with the bad and that would be Cameron Diaz.  Though Sandra Bullock was the first choice for Miss Hannigan (now fashioned as a foster mom…the words “orphan” and “orphanage” are tantamount to four letter expletives here) when she declined Diaz (Sex Tape, The Other Woman) signed on and the results are less than successful.  Admittedly, I got a nice chuckle out of this Hannigan being a faded star former member of C+C Music Factory but would have loved to see the part cast with someone that can sing without the extensive use of auto-tune.

Speaking of auto-tune, I’m shocked that the vocal sweetening tool wasn’t given its own production credit because it comes to the aid of everyone that sings a note here.  Some need it more than others (Diaz and Rose Byrne) but its use is so extensive it sounds like your iPhone’s Siri is singing one of the tunes from composers Charles Strouse and Martin Charnin.  Some Strouse/Charnin songs remain intact but most have been modernized to varying degrees of success.  Three new tunes are all over the map, with only one solo for Annie having a modicum of overall value.

The film is so heavy on modern technology and product placement that it will be dated two hours after it’s released in much the same way we look back at early 90s films sporting technology that looks like it was created in the Dark Ages.  While the 1982 film was a period piece and could get away with having a timeless feel, this new millennium Annie will be out of date the moment the next Apple product is released.

On the good side, we have Quvenzhané Wallis (the youngest Best Actress nominee in history for her breathtaking turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild) as our spunky heroine.  In recent appearances, Wallis has been low energy and in an Adderall daze for her lyp-synched performances but it’s nice to report that in the actual film her spirit is infectious and her singing more than admirable.  The aforementioned new song written for her is a delight, performed with sweet honesty.  Her chemistry with businessman turned mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) is a chief saving grace of the film and the reason why you may find yourself wishing you’d brought a tissue with you by the time the finale rolls around.  Wallis actually makes Foxx tolerable, no small feat for an actor that never met a role he couldn’t preen and preside over.  Though saddled with a loser of a song and a lame humble beginnings history, Foxx looks like he’s having fun here.

Even if Byrne (This is Where I Leave You) receives some help in the singing department, she’s a nicely modern Grace…although I did miss the flair Reinking brought to the role in the 1982 version.  Special mention must also be made to Stephanie Kurtzuba (The Wolf of Wall Street) who steals scenes (and then promptly disappears) as a rough around the edges pencil pusher more excited than Annie is when both tour the awesome penthouse belonging to Stacks.  Too bad the role couldn’t have been packaged with Miss Hannigan and given over to Kurtzuba…I’ve a feeling it could have been a true star-making turn.

Director Will Gluck comes dangerously close to making a Stomp! film that happens to feature Annie tunes thanks to an opening sequence heavy on percussive elements found in the city leading into two songs featuring lots of clapping, foot stomping, and bucket pounding.  Eventually Gluck calms down and lets the actors and the script from Aline Brosh McKenna (We Bought a Zoo) do most of the work.

At the end of the day, did we need yet another version of Annie?  Probably not.  Even so, the masses of children at the screening I attended didn’t seem to mind any technical shortcomings or vocally assisted performances because they understood the message of a can-do attitude and family at the heart of the story.  Turns out maybe I was the one that needed to get that message more than anyone.

Movie Review ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends up a slew of supervillains against him, impacting on his life.

Stars: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane DeHaan, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidtz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti, Sally Field, B.J. Novak

Director: Marc Webb

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 142 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the arrival of this sequel to a 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man franchise, I’m still not at all sold that the world needed a re-imagining of the series so soon after the Sam Raimi trilogy of films released between 2002 and 2007. That being said, with a more forward moving plot and a collection of interesting characters, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 shows a marked improvement over the moody and overly emo blockbuster that arrived two years ago.

I find that the first entries in most superhero series are always tricky because it’s necessary to tell an origin story detailing how the central character (or characters) became the caped crusaders or men of steel we know them to be. Very few films have been successful in that regard, with 1978’s Superman being the gold standard of origin story films in my book.

The Amazing Spider-Man faced an uphill battle because in my mind it had to provide some rationale for why we needed to go back to square one with Peter Parker and his arachnid powers. It couldn’t make the case and though it made a truckload of cash for Sony/Marvel and had some impressive special effects, it was slow and housed an uninteresting villain that provided more yawns of boredom than gasps of excitement.

The sequel sets to out to right some of those wrongs but winds up overcompensating for its lackluster predecessor by stuffing so much into its first hour that audiences should buckle up for tonal whiplash. Returning director Marc Webb and screenwriters Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, People Like Us), Roberto Orci (Star Trek: Into Darkness), Jeff Pinkner have great difficulty finding their bearings in the further adventures of Peter Parker and it’s not until well into the second act of their film that they get into the groove.

Opening with a whiz-bang flashback prologue that shows what really happened to Peter Parker’s parents (Campbell Scott & Embeth Davidtz) after they mysteriously left him with Aunt May (Sally Field, Lincoln) and Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) we jump right into a present that finds Peter (Andrew Garfield, less troubled here but still a tad whiny) and Gwen (Emma Stone, bringing valuable sparkle to her role) trying to navigate their relationship. Haunted by a promise he made to her dying father, Peter struggles with honoring his word and the love he feels for Gwen.

At the same time and in true sequel fashion, more time is spent on introducing several new villains to the mix than with our hero. The first foe Spidey has to deal with is Electro (Jamie Foxx, Annie) who starts the film as a dopey nerd desperate for attention that finds himself at the business end of a tub of electric eels. Foxx plays these early scenes as such a simpleton it borders on insulting stereotype though he does manage to find good but hardly electrifying moments when he gains his evil powers.

Also appearing is Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan, Lawless, Chronicle) who, after the death of his father (Chris Cooper, August: Osage County) returns to manage Oscorp, the mega company that employs Gwen and seems to be the breeding ground for villains out to take over the world. Dying due to a genetic disease, Harry needs Spider-Man’s blood to save himself…a problem made more difficult when he discovers that Spidey is really his childhood friend Peter Parker. DeHaan and Garfield are both talented young actors, so it’s guffaw inducing to watch scenes that have them spouting douche-y dialogue with numerous “bro” and “dude” interjections.

There’s something to be said when the most interesting character has no superpowers at all. Showing once again why she’s such a value add to any film, Field makes the most of her limited screen time by creating a character designed to be the voice of reason but delivering her material with an honesty that seems out of place in a film otherwise populated with some fairly generic dialogue and plot developments.

Composer Hans Zimmer replaced James Horner and the resulting score creates an excitement the original was lacking. Aided by super producer Pharrell, Zimmer’s score is just as impressive as the special effects which are deployed in a spectacular fashion whether it’s in Spidey’s high flying opening pursuit of a gang of thugs or a final showdown with Electro at a power plant. T

he final third of the film is pure action, leading to a series of endings (there are at least three) that signal change is ahead for Parker and company. With a third entry on its way in 2016, there’s little doubt Spidey will spin his web for years to come and if this sequel is any indication, the series will continue to improve.

Movie Review ~ Rio 2

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The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s a jungle out there for Blu, Jewel and their three kids after they’re hurtled Rio de Janeiro to the wilds of the Amazon.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, will.i.am, Jemaine Clement, Tracy Morgan, George Lopez, Leslie Mann, Rodrigo Santoro, Jamie Foxx, Andy Garcia, Rita Moreno, Bruno Mars, Kristin Chenoweth

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Rated: G

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: I’m fighting against the grain and resisting the urge to heed the old adage that there comes a time to put away childish things. For me, that means not seeing every single animated film released in theaters. For a time, the market was on an even keel of producing one stellar film after another…until lesser studios took it upon themselves to insert themselves into the market, sullying it with cheap looking entries that shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as something coming from Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. See The Nut Job if you don’t believe me…or better yet, don’t.

I think we’re nudging into a new standard of animation and audiences are starting to convey that message with their money if you look at the diminishing returns on lackluster sequels (Monsters University) and the popularity of new specimens like The LEGO Movie. Also, you can’t just tack “in 3D” on to any old film because people don’t want to pay for something that won’t give them their money’s worth.

So where does that leave a sequel like Rio 2? A continuation of the story that started in 2011 right as the animation horizon was starting to shift, this is an overall workmanlike second chapter of a novel that wasn’t that original to begin with. It is, however, better than the first film and works a kind of magic that turns an entire cast of usually obnoxious performers into an appealing band of colorful characters by letting us only hear them, not see them.

It helped me in some small way to have watched the first Rio in the wee hours of the Saturday I caught an early morning screening of Rio 2. Picking up shortly after the first film ended, Blu (Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) and Jewel (Anne Hathaway, Les Miserables) are still in Rio with their three growing chirpers living the laid-back life that only animated birds could make acceptable. Originally thought to be the last group of blue macaws, when Blu’s owner (Leslie Mann, This is 40) finds a flock of macaws on an Amazon research trip the family packs up for a vacation to meet more of their kind.

Meanwhile, the now flightless Shakespearian bad bird from the first film (Jemaine Clement, Men in Black III) toils away the day as a pier side show attraction. A chance glimpse of Blu and Co. on the wing to the Amazon boils his bad blood and before you can say “extraneous subplot #1” he breaks free of the chains that bind him, taking a mute anteater and operatic poisonous frog (Kristin Chenoweth, Hit and Run) in his pursuit of revenge.

What Blu and Jewel find in the depths of the Amazon will feel mighty familiar and truth be told the entire film suffers from the same lack of originality that plagued the first one. Still, something about the earnestness of the performances, the tuneful music (I enjoyed Chenoweth’s goofy aria about Poisonous Love), and the eye-popping visuals won me over more than I thought it ever would.

Though the film does delve into more blatant themes of conservationism (ala Ferngully: The Last Rainforest), the message isn’t delivered with any real agenda so it remains benign. Returning director Carlos Saldanha keeps things moving even though the film stretches past 100 minutes, further making my point that no animated film should keep you in the theater for over an hour and a half. If there is to be a Rio 3, let’s hope the filmmakers push things forward so this pleasant series doesn’t turn into a turkey.

Down From the Shelf ~ Rio

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Blu, a domesticated macaw from small-town Minnesota, meets the fiercely independent Jewel, he takes off on an adventure to Rio de Janeiro with this bird of his dreams.

Stars: Anne Hathaway, Jesse Eisenberg, George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, Jemaine Clement, Leslie Mann, will.i.am, Jamie Foxx

Director: Carlos Saldanha

Rated: G

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I had some homework to do where Rio was concerned. Though there was a time when I wouldn’t say no to the next animated film that came down the pike, back in 2011 when Rio was released I was at my limit for colorful films featuring talking animals going on grand adventures…in 3D no less. I took a (brief) stand against what I thought was the enemy…the cash grabbing studio machine that seemed to pick the central species by way of dart board.

With the sequel coming out and on my schedule of screenings I realized that I had to get cracking with watching the original adventure featuring a blue macaw that travels from chilly Minnesota to balmy Rio de Janeiro. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg, Now You See Me) is the last male of his species and he’s escorted by his caring owner (Leslie Mann, This is 40) to be mated with feisty female Jewel (Anne Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises). Originally earning a PG for its mating conceit, rest assured this eventually got knocked back to the family friendly G it deserves.

For all the colorful scenes and pleasant musical numbers, Rio never really soars thanks to an also-ran plot filled with the standard baddies that aren’t so much out to hurt the birds as make a buck off of their beaks. Pursued not only by oafish swindlers that want to sell the birds to exotic pet stores but a puffy blow-hard bird (Jermaine Clement, Muppets Most Wanted) that comes off a little too much like Scar from The Lion King, Blu and Jewel team up with a host of other feathered friends and one dog to reunite with Blu’s owner…all during Rio’s annual Carnaval.

I get the feeling the movie probably played better on the big screen and with the addition of 3D to give some depth to the overwhelming amount of color and tropical city lushness on display. Longer than it has to be (does any animated movie need to be longer than 80 minutes?), there are occasional fun moments mostly tied to Sergio Mendes’s musical score and non-obnoxious performances from normally obnoxious talent like George Lopez, Tracy Morgan, will.i.am, & Jamie Foxx.

All in all, Rio is a harmless flight of fancy that has enough going on to distract the kids while the adults sitting through it may find themselves tapping their toes to the bossa nova beats. Not a must see, but not a total waste of time or effort.

The Silver Bullet ~ Annie (2014)

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Synopsis
: Wealthy businessman Benjamin Stacks comes to the aid of a young girl living in an orphanage run by the tyrannical Miss Hannigan.

Release Date:  December 19, 2014

Thoughts:  I’m not totally opposed to remakes, reboots, reinventions, what have you…but I want them to have some sort of point of view.  I’ve been dreading seeing the first trailer for a modern day version of the Broadway musical that opened in 1977 and was already made into a film in 1982 and it turns out I wasn’t wrong to live in fear.  It looks absolutely dreadful, a wise-cracking and sassy version of a story that once had a lot of heart.  I never knew what was so bad about the original film which was raked over the coals by critics and considered a bit of a flop, so perhaps I’m holding that movie too close in my memory.  With new songs from Jay-Z, it was originally planned as a vehicle for Willow Smith (because, of course, her parents are producing it) with a script from Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks).  Thompson’s script looks to be a distant memory now that the new Annie is Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Oliver Warbucks, sorry, Benjamin Stacks (ugh) is none other than Jamie Foxx (White House Down) who chews scenery almost as bad as he chews food.  Though Rose Byrne (Insidious, The Place Beyond the Pines) seems like a nice choice for Grace, one look at Cameron Diaz (What to Expect When You’re Expecting) glammed up as the boozy Miss Hannigan and I knew it was all downhill from there.   I’m sure this will make a killing at the box office…but good golly…I hope it’s somewhat better than the trailer makes it look.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Synopsis: Peter Parker runs the gauntlet as the mysterious company Oscorp sends a slew of supervillains up against him.

Release Date:  May 2, 2014

Thoughts: While I wasn’t married to the idea of Tobey Maguire being the one and only Spider-Man forever and ever, I wasn’t convinced in 2012 that Sony needed to reboot our webbed hero with The Amazing Spider-Man.  The film, while impressive visually, was missing that special spark that all lasting superhero films need to stand the test of time.  History has shown that some franchise films need to work out some bugs at first so I’m going to put faith in director Marc Webb and the creative time that this second go ‘round with Spidey hits the bullseye.  Adding rising star Dane DeHaan (Lawless, Chronicle, The Place Beyond the Pines), Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks), and Jamie Foxx (White House Down, Django Unchained) to the mix, this special New Year’s Eve preview is shorter and more compact than the longer trailer released a month ago, truly teasing the audience with images of the nasty baddies that await them when the film is released in May.

 

Movie Review ~ White House Down

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The Facts:

Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Stars: Channing Tatum, Jamie Foxx, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jason Clarke, Richard Jenkins, James Woods

Director: Roland Emmerich

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Hollywood’s quirky concept of rival studios producing dueling pictures with the same subject matter has been around for quite some time. There’s the battle of the lava flick with 1997’s Volcano and Dante’s Peak, dueling doomsday comet movies with 1998’s Armageddon and Deep Impact, and most recently two different takes on a fairy princess legend with 2012’s Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and The Huntsman.

One would think that being the first to the theater would signify a clear winner but it’s almost always the case that the second film edges out the competition.  That general rule is true again in 2013 which has provided your local cinema with two movies centered around the hostile takeover of 1600 Penn Avenue…better known as The White House.

March’s Olympus Has Fallen was a gratuitously violent and shabbily made film, feeling like it was shot in the same two hallways and offices with the furniture simply re-organized to suggest a new location.  It also boasted a forgettable villain and supporting performances that ranged from serviceable to hysterically awful (I’m looking at you Melissa Leo).  It felt like an extended version of the television series 24 without any of the surprise that that show seemed to have in spades.

So I was modestly hopeful that White House Down would be a better film…but as more television spots were released and a final too-long trailer was plopped before every summer movie thus far, I started wondering if I’d even make an effort to see the film at all.  It didn’t help that there’s something about the subject matter that doesn’t sit quite right with me – maybe it’s because I find The White House to be a true symbol of the United States of America and I’ve not taken any pleasure in seeing it destroyed in films over the years.

Well, I wound up seeing White House Down opening weekend and my first thought was that the movie was better than it had any right to be.    What you have here is a true blue crowd pleaser that wisely avoids the missteps of Olympus Has Fallen by keeping things moving at such a rapid pace that you barely have time to catch your breath or let your brain do any dissecting of the fairly ludicrous material.

Though I like a well thought out action flick as much as the next person, there’s something satisfying in just letting a movie like this wash over you without having to worry too much about dots being connected or lessons being learned.  This is a hard muscled thrill ride of a film and it’s thanks to the unusually focused efforts of director Roland Emmerich  (2012, Independence Day, Universal Soldier) and star Channing Tatum (Side Effects, The Vow, Magic Mike, Haywire, 21 Jump Street) that the movie comes off as pleasing as it does.

With a script from James Vanderbilt (The Amazing Spider-Man) that is really just a re-working of the original Die Hard, White House Down takes a good 40 minutes of its 131 minute length to set-up the characters and plot points that will be used throughout the film.  Foreshadowing is a lost art and while most movies have such obvious moments that will be referenced later in the film, there are a few sequences near the end of White House Down that you don’t even realize were set-up in a halfway decent way an hour or more earlier.  I respect films that can divert you like that without going for a cheap ploy and White House Down, while derivative, never feels overtly sly in its approach.

The synopsis above is pretty perfect in setting up the goings-on of the film and I’m going to refrain from saying any more, lest I give away some of the turns the movie takes on its journey.  There’s no super secret twist awaiting audiences but I did find it admirable Vanderbilt and Emmerich didn’t take the trail most traveled in the midst of all the gunfire and explosions.

A movie of this ilk could easily have recessed into R-rated territory and it’s notable that the PG-13 rating leaves the movie relatively bloodless but doesn’t totally cut itself off at the knees either.  People do die but it’s not nearly as excruciating to watch as the deaths in Olympus Has Fallen or even Air Force One, Harrison Ford’s 1997 president in peril film.

Try as I might, I can’t continue to deny that Channing Tatum isn’t coming into his own as a perfectly fine actor and proven action star.  Though the script lightly sketches his war veteran turned security detail muscle man, Tatum convincingly makes the character flesh and bone and not just because he’s put in charge of saving the president (Jamie Foxx, Django Unchained) but his estranged 11 year old daughter (Joey King, Oz the Great and Powerful).

Foxx is someone I can either take or leave but his President James Sawyer is a nice role for the Oscar winning actor.  There’s not a lot of room for Foxx to do anything but what’s asked of him and his Obama-lite take on the president is nothing to roll your eyes at.  This is a president that doesn’t suddenly learn how to use a gun and take on all forms of bad ass-ery…he evolves as the situation changes around him.  There’s some nice chemistry between Foxx and Tatum, something that helps the film along on more than one occasion.

Another actor that I sometimes have mixed feelings about is the lone female star, Maggie Gyllenhaal (The Dark Knight, Won’t Back Down), and she wound up being one of the main reasons I liked the film so much.  As a confident Secret Service agent that isn’t butch-ed up or written as a doormat, Gyllenhaal is commanding and a solid presence in the war room that becomes the nerve center in helping Tatum and Foxx make it out of the attack alive.

Also turning in fine work as a villainous mercenary is Jason Clarke (Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Lawless), Speaker of the House Richard Jenkins (Jack Reacher), and James Woods as the head of Secret Service detail assigned to protect the president.    Everyone else is merely filler comprised of character actors that probably bring their own military uniforms to the set with them.

Even with several well staged action sequences that take Tatum and Foxx on a tour of the White House grounds, the movie does start to feel the weight of its mission about 90 minutes in.  It’s yet another case of people making it out of danger but turning around and going back in to save someone the audience knows they shouldn’t.  The perfunctory ending is rushed…almost as if the last day of shooting arrived and the final ten pages were crammed into one.

For my money, the battle of the Presidential Palace has been won by White House Down thanks to some skilled work by players operating with a hefty budget and A-List talent.  It’s easy to see why the film could be written off quickly by audiences that didn’t care for Olympus Has Fallen but I’d suggest you give this one a go if you’re in the mood for something that goes down relatively easy with a nicely chiseled punch.

The Silver Bullet ~ White House Down

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Synopsis: While on a tour of the White House with his young daughter, a Capitol policeman springs into action to save his child and protect the president from a heavily armed group of paramilitary invaders.

Release Date:  June 28, 2013

Thoughts: Hot on the heels of February’s Olympus Has Fallen is White House Down, another action-thriller involving the hostile take-over of the residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C.  June’s White House Down is directed by Roland Emmerich who started off with the campy and enjoyable Universal Solider/Stargate one-two punch and has gradually gone the Michael Bay route of heading up pictures that were full of sound of fury and signifying nothing.  The presence of in-demand star Channing Tatum (Magic Mike, Side Effects, The Vow) can’t hurt the chances of this taking down the competition at the box office in its first weekend – but let’s see if the film has any substance to go along with the explosions.