Movie Review ~ South of Heaven

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The Facts:

Synopsis: After serving twelve years for armed robbery, Jimmy gets an early parole. Upon his release from prison, he vows to give Annie, his childhood love, now dying from cancer, the best year of her life. The best last year of her life. If only life were that simple.

Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Evangeline Lilly, Mike Colter, Shea Whigham

Director: Aharon Keshales

Rated: NR

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I don’t know about you, but it’s a little funny to me that the same weekend Jason Sudeikis closes out his second season playing the Emmy-winning title role of his multiple award lauded serio-comedy Ted Lasso, he’s also premiering a hard-nosed crime drama that at one point sees someone sliced in half.  That he pulls both off convincingly is a sure sign that Sudeikis is another SNL alum that was always meant for something more.  Up until now, Sudeikis has mostly thrived in comedic films but South of Heaven represents a gear shift that’s likely to feel jarring for many of his fans that have come to expect a lighthearted Sudeikis or, more recently, the Ted Lasso-y Sudeikis with a perennial good-nature we secretly all wish we could emulate more of.

The sunniness Sudeikis brings to that show on Apple TV+ is mostly cloudy in South of Heaven.  Right from the start when we see Jimmy Ray (Sudeikis, We’re the Millers) in front of a parole board being up front and honest that he should be released so he can spend as much time as he can with his terminally ill fiancé.  Yes, he committed a crime but it was a first offense and after 12 years, has his time been served?  He’s a middle-aged white guy so…of course he’s let out.  Waiting for him is Annie (Evangeline Lilly, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and with her pixie cut and glowing aura, she looks like she’s already practicing for her guardian angel gig she’s most certainly getting hired for.  The reunion between the two is sweet, bittersweet, and then ultimately tender as both realize how quickly they have to re-learn their old routines to maximize the time they have left with one another.

Not long after Jimmy Ray’s return, his rat-like parole officer (Shea Whigham, The Quarry, always on call when a weasely character is needed) makes sure Jimmy Ray knows that he’s under his thumb and even prompts him to get involved with under the table business on his behalf or risk being sent back to prison on trumped up charges he creates.  Unwilling to part from Annie again, Jimmy Ray agrees to retrieve a package for the parole officer and it’s on his way back that something happens which shifts the film from being one story to a different one in a similar vein.  It’s one of several adjustments director and co-screenwriter Aharon Keshales makes for the next 75 minutes which will keep the audiences on their toes, wondering where all of these tone shifts are going to lead.  Will they add up to beautiful music or is just all banging on a keyboard?

Working with fellow screenwriters Kai Mark and Navot Papushado, Keshales manages to make South of Heaven into that rare bird that refuses to stay in one place for too long but doesn’t feel too flighty at the same time.  The movie has about 5 endings as it nears its conclusion (and that was one too many for me) and with each progression to a new level the stakes are raised quite convincingly and, more importantly, with an entertainment value that works for nearly everyone involved. The only person it isn’t completely successful with is its leading man.

I’m not sure if it was Sudeikis now being so tied to the Ted Lasso of it all but it took a long time for me to lock into what he was doing here and go with it.  There was a dramatic side to him that he doesn’t wear totally convincingly in, oh, 78% of the movie and it’s only working with Lilly in some of the final scenes and in a climactic sequence near the end that it feels like the talented actor is working in a zone.  Yet you see the actor trying new things and new ideas as he journeys to get to that zone and you can’t fault someone that’s actively trying to make something work in what had to be a tight shooting schedule.  He’s got great support with, as mentioned, Lilly who is a real breath of fresh air here and Mike Colter (Girls Trip) as a soft-spoken crime boss that doesn’t like to have to ask for things twice.  I also got a kick out of seeing former C-movie action star Michael Paré as a mostly silent hired muscle for Colter, who isn’t too shabby in the bicep category himself.

If there’s one thing that might be problematic for viewers it’s that Keshales doesn’t seem to be able to settle on the mood of the film, shuffling the deck at random.  This tends to lessen the weight of heavier scenes and makes you wonder whether dialogue that is supposed to be dramatic is coming off just a tad phony.  In more than one scene, an actor is drawing from a deep well to convey emotion but the sincerity was so over emphasized that the effect is insincere.  Put all of these little moments in a line and it would result in an unconvincing watch but when they are peppered within the fabric of a film you can forgive it a little easier as a quirk the filmmaker is working through.

At this point, you have to be wondering what I’m even thinking about the film, right? It sounds like I’m down on it but I was way more into South of Heaven than I originally thought I would be, even when it overstays its welcome ambling toward one of its many endings.  For all its emotional ups and downs, I didn’t have a clear idea of where it was headed and that’s a refreshing feeling after sitting through countless tales that are sunk by predictability.  When it does get to its ending, it’s not what I expected (and probably not what I wanted) but I appreciated one final rug pull from a director that wasn’t afraid up until that point of shaking things up to keep the action interesting.

Movie Review ~ Booksmart


The Facts
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Synopsis: On the eve of their high school graduation, two academic superstars and best friends realize they should have worked less and played more. Determined not to fall short of their peers, the girls try to cram four years of fun into one night

Stars: Beanie Feldstein, Kaitlyn Dever, Jessica Williams, Will Forte, Jason Sudeikis, Lisa Kudrow, Mike O’Brien, Molly Gordon, Billie Lourd, Skyler Gisondo, Noah Galvin, Diana Silvers, Mason Gooding, Victoria Ruesga, Austin Crute, Eduardo Franco, Nico Hiraga

Director: Olivia Wilde

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: We’re right at the crest of the wave where the end of the school year is about to crash into full blown summer and there couldn’t be a better time for a movie like Booksmart to arrive in theaters.  True, being released in the midst of a bevy of bombastic blockbusters might make its chances of doing big business opening weekend a tad slim but this has sleeper hit/future cult classic/definite midnight screening written all over it.  It’s a movie meant to be discovered and then shared, not one you necessarily make an appointment to see.

I’d heard about the film for a while after it received a positive reception at March’s South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, TX and deliberately avoided watching the trailer or reading anything more about it until I saw it. This is one I wanted to come to on my own without any ideas on what it should be, or pre-conceived notions on what to expect.  The way we are inundated with information on content it’s hard to go in blind to something but thankfully, I was able to come to Booksmart with a blank slate.

So now, after all that talk of going into the movie with little knowledge, of course I’m going to ask you to read a review of what I think about it – makes total sense, right? Really, I won’t be offended if you stop now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.  Seriously – it’s AOK.  But come back!  Promise?

You’re back? Great!  Wasn’t it good?  I know, right?

It’s the last day of school and Molly (Beanie Feldstein, Lady Bird) is ending the school year on top.  She’s class president and set to go to an Ivy League school in the fall.  By keeping her nose to the grindstone and focusing on her studies she has achieved all of the goals she’s set and has her future planned out not only for her but for her best friend Amy (Kaitlyn Dever, Beautiful Boy).  We all either knew a Molly in high school or were a Molly so it isn’t hard to completely get this character – and the way she looks down on those that didn’t put the same effort forward in school, or at least the effort she’s deemed worthy.

When Molly finds out that several key people she originally had written off as destined to be losers for life are also moving on to luxe post-high school careers, she realizes she could have had fun all four years of high school and still made it big. Thus begins a quest for Molly and Amy to get their party on by any means necessary, leading them through a seemingly endless night of encounters with oddball characters and a journey of self-discovery before their graduation ceremony the next morning.

Much of Booksmart follows a typical trajectory of high school comedy that feels safe and familiar but the movie is as unpredictable as they come.  You have your stock characters that flow through (jock, tramp, brain, etc) but all are given a neat little bounce by screenwriters Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Katie Silberman (Isn’t it Romantic), and Susanna Fogel.  No one is quite who you expect them to be…and no one ends the film in quite the same way they start out.  Actress Olivia Wilde (The Lazarus Effect) makes her feature directing debut and shows a real knack for establishing a tone and a rhythm for Molly, Amy, and the strange people they find themselves hanging out with over the course of the evening.

Aside from introducing us to a host of interesting characters (and fresh-faced actors), the film is routinely laugh-out-loud funny as the girls find themselves in increasingly bizarre situations. These moments spring forth naturally and the comedy never feels forced, while there is a lot of physical humor there’s quite a bit of verbal banter that elicits laughs.  Audiences are used to being shown what’s funny but it’s rare for a movie to ask them to listen – you’d almost need to see it twice to get all the humor that is thrown in, though I don’t think it would be a hard sell to get people to screen this one a second time.

The movie wouldn’t work at all if the two leads hadn’t had the kind of chemistry they do. As much as romantic chemistry plays a part in convincing viewers that people are in love, chemistry between friends is almost harder to generate because it requires an intimacy that isn’t always physically shown but more emotionally present.  You buy that Feldstein and Dever would be friends in the movie and in real life and while Molly is the more alpha of the two, Amy is no shrinking violet at the end of the day.  We know from the start that Amy is a lesbian and the film wisely starts with the whole “coming out” story long since told – now she’s just finding her way and I appreciated that she was treated like everyone else in the movie looking for love and just as confused as the rest of them.

With so many memorable performances in the movie, from Billie Lourd’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) scene-stealing party girl to Skyler Gisondo (Vacation) as a try-hard looking to impress Molly, it seems wrong to single out just one actor but Feldstein is the true breakout star of Booksmart.  Ably holding her own against Bette Midler on the Broadway stage in Hello, Dolly! two years ago and proving a good foil for Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird (a role quite similar to Molly) in 2017, Feldstein finally steps fully into the spotlight and earns her place in the sun.  As much as Molly deserves to be taken down a notch or suffer through an embarrassing situation…if it weren’t for Feldstein’s irrepressible charm you’d be ready to push her off a cliff but instead you completely get where she’s coming from.

If we must talk negatives, I can drudge up a few. Personally, I wasn’t a fan of the soundtrack to this (sorry/not sorry) or an unnecessary subplot involving a teacher-student relationship and that’s what ultimately keeps the movie from being in the true upper echelon of high school comedies. Even that being said, Booksmart almost instantly earns a right to walk the hallowed halls of high school fame.  It’s fun, it’s riotously funny, and I enjoyed having absolutely no clue how it would end — that’s saying a lot for a genre comedy that’s been done many times before.

Movie Review ~ Downsizing

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.

Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie that doesn’t have ideas to share.  It’s becoming more and more common to describe big budget action films or insipid comedies as brainless and for me that would just be the worst if I were a filmmaker.  I’m impressed with films that clearly have a point of view and, even if the movie itself isn’t all that special, at least they can go down saying they gave it some semblance of a good shot.

Such is the case with Downsizing, the new film from talented director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) who has co-written an interesting satire that doesn’t have far to go but takes a long time getting there.  It’s not lacking in good performances, dedicated direction, or superior production design but what’s it’s really missing out on is a consistent playfulness that highlight its most memorable sequences.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, Promised Land) is an occupational therapist working for Omaha Steaks in the not too distant future.  Living with his wife (Kristin Wiig, The Martian) in their modest home they make ends meet but aren’t really going anywhere either of them have much vested interest in. They are, like so many of us, just coasting through life and waiting for the next shoe to drop.  Attending a reunion, they reconnect with Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis, We’re the Millers) and his wife who have undergone a drastic medical procedure introduced as a way to reduce the global overpopulation and pollution concerns.

Through a process known as Downsizing, humans are being shrunk to five inches and living in communities around the world that are tailor-made to their new sizes.  In places like Leisureland, your life savings that once wouldn’t have covered more than a nice trip to Europe can now buy you a mansion, allowing you to live the life of luxury while eliminating the continued build-up of environmental effluence.  This irreversible process has been slow to catch on globally but those that go through it speak of its life changing benefits.

Energized by the possibility of a better life “going small”, the Safranek’s commit to becoming shrinky dinks and that’s when two things happen.  The first thing that takes place is a shift in the Safranek’s relationship neither of them saw coming, the second is that the movie almost instantly becomes less interesting.  That’s troubling because at this stage in the film we’re only about 1/3 of the way through and so it begins a slow march to the finish line…a very slow march.

It’s not all bad news, though, because there are some bright spots that pop up here and there.  Though he has a penchant for playing the same role over and over again, here two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is having a ball not playing the villian.  As Dusan, a playboy neighbor that befriends Paul, he feels at home with Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s dialogue…proving he doesn’t need a Tarantino script or lip-smacking guile to turn in a memorable performance.

Even with heavy hitters Damon and Waltz present and accounted for, the film belongs to break-out star Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who was put in prison for her political activism and downsized against her will.  A Waltz’s house-cleaner, Tran is no-nonsense and to the point, something that captivates Paul.  Finding himself in her debt, a relationship forms between the two that is both surprising and surprisingly sincere.  This connection carries the movie through the final act when Paul, Dusan, and Tran travel to the original downsized colony in advance of an announcement that will change all their lives forever.

There’s good stuff in nearly every frame of the movie and while I enjoyed the film for the most part during my initial viewing, the more I sit and dissect what it’s saying the less enamored of it I become.  Up for debate is the political correctness present in Chau’s portrayal of Tran but while some have called foul I’ve heard the actress talk about her approach and she stands behind her work.  As far as I’m concerned, if she’s OK with it, the discussion is finished.  More of a pain point for me is that the movie just isn’t as interesting as it wants us to believe it is.

The middle sections sags and drags and it’s thanks to Chau’s spirited performance that the movie recovers at all.  Payne isn’t afraid to shine a light on behavior or situations he finds eccentric, I just wish he had found a few more noteworthy turns to take on the odd-ball road trip he sets into motion.  Clocking in well over two hours, Downsizing should have reduced its running time along with its main characters.

Movie Review ~ Mother’s Day

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three generations come together in the week leading up to Mother’s Day.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Kate Hudson, Julia Roberts, Jason Sudeikis, Britt Robertson, Timothy Olyphant, Hector Elizondo, Jack Whitehall

Director: Garry Marshall

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: At one point not too far into the two very long hours of Mother’s Day I became convinced the movie was created by space aliens branching out into the film industry. No, really. I mean, how else to explain away this stinker which is an utter black hole of laughs, common sense, and good taste? The third of director Garry Marshall’s ensemble movies comes after the equally stinky Valentine’s Day and the dead on arrival New Year’s Eve; one shudders at the thought of Bastille Day getting the greenlight in a few years.

I’m a fan of ensemble movies that weave together multiple storylines to show the cross currents of life for a group of people. Robert Altman did that to perfection in Short Cuts and I’ve always had a fondness for Willard Carroll’s surprisingly wise Playing by Heart. Marshall, on the other hand, is no Altman and aside from snagging two solid leading ladies to roll around in this slop fest he’s compiled a cast of questionable talent ranking high on the nepotism meter. Stick around for the credits, not just for bloopers much funnier than anything that came before it but to count how many Marshalls show up in the cast roster.

If the acting is overall dreadful, the script from Anya Kochoff-Romano, Matt Walker, & Tom Hines is a poo-ey potpourri of archaic lameness, saddling Oscar winner Julia Roberts (Secret in Their Eyes) with meeting the daughter (Britt Robertson, Tomorrowland) she gave up for a career and somehow making her seem like a “less-than”, and having poor Jennifer Aniston (Cake) play yet another divorcee with an ex-husband that’s married a younger woman worried about losing the affection of her kids to her barely legal replacement. Jason Sudekis (on his fourth outing with Aniston after We’re the Millers) is a widowed dad of two girls that’s shocked when his eldest daughter asks him to buy tampons…nevermind that their mom (played in an embarrassing cameo by someone that’s already had a pretty tough year on the marriage front) has been dead for nearly a year.  Did she just have a box from Costco that lasted that long? Let’s not forget Kate Hudson (The Reluctant Fundamentalist) being surprised by her backwards-thinking parents who blaze into town in a Winnebago, only to find one daughter (Sarah Chalke) is a lesbian and their other daughter has married a, wait for it, “towelhead”.

There’s no reality or time to speak of in Marshall’s fantasy-land where people can not only select, finance, and purchase expensive cars overnight but have personalized license plates made (at the all-night license plate store?) and don’t even get me started on how a character living in Las Vegas can fly to Atlanta in under an hour. Then there are the extravagant parties planned in the time it takes to boil water, the curated wedding that happens mere moments after a proposal, the appearance of Kate Hudson’s gigantic ear, and that famously terrible wig Roberts is sporting.

No doubt about it, this is one surreally awful film and likely (hopefully?) the last time Marshall will sit in a director’s chair. From the annoyingly bouncy soundtrack, obviously produced by someone who last picked out the tunes for a JC Penney’s in Tucson, to the outright gaffes that show how rushed this film was, I’m constantly reminded what a hack director Marshall is…when he does get a film right (Beaches, Pretty Woman) it almost seems like a mistake. The only mistake you can make here is seeing this…and I’ll say this right now: if you take your mom to this you’re a terrible child.

Movie Review ~ We’re the Millers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Jason Sudeikis, Emma Roberts, Nick Offerman, Kathryn Hahn, Will Poulter, Ed Helms

Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though the preview for We’re the Millers had some decent laughs in it, I was still sitting squarely on the fence when it came time to take in this cross country comedy.  If it was merely going to be a series of open road foibles then why couldn’t I just stay home and watch National Lampoon’s Vacation for the umpteenth time?  Then a strong desire to see a gleefully R-rated film overtook me and I found myself laughing more than I thought I would at a movie that’s better than it should be.

Making a strong showing in his years on Saturday Night Live, Jason Sudekis (The Campaign) hasn’t quite cracked the Hollywood code up to this point so I was surprised to see how confidentially he carried this film.  As a run-of-the-mill small time drug dealer, Sudekis has a believable charm that helps him navigate a very thin first act that finds him running afoul of a dorky drug kingpin (Ed Helms, The Hangover Part III) and being forced into smuggling drugs from Mexico back to Denver.  To do that, he enlists the help of a stripper (Jennifer Aniston, Wanderlust), a nebbish teen (Will Poulter), and a scrappy homeless girl (Emma Roberts).  As the Millers they make it easy into Mexico but, as is expected, find there’s a rough road ahead on the way back.

Look, this set-up isn’t going to blow your mind and if you can’t see where it’s all headed then you need to have your eyes examined.  What makes the film work on some mystical level is that it has its head in the right place and its heart following close behind.  Director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s last notable cinematic effort was nearly a decade ago with 2004’s odious Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story and this film is leaps and bounds better.  Dodgeball was a stinker because it didn’t know what to do with its crude and crass trump cards (it didn’t help that it was appallingly homophobic) but We’re the Millers seems to have the deck stacked in its favor.

So yes, the movie earns its R rating with f-bombs a plenty, tons of sexual innuendo and a bit of graphic nudity that actually gets the laughs so many films miss out on but it’s also enjoyably funny in a harmless way.  That’s thanks to chemistry between Sudekis and Aniston – chemistry that’s been sorely missing in other Aniston-led films.  Credit must also go to supporting performers like Kathryn Hahn (The Dictator) that at times threaten to steal the movie out from under our stars.  Hahn works her way through the script by Bob Fisher, Steve Faber, Sean Anders, and John Morris and makes some trivial material hysterically funny (make sure to stay through the end credits for more of Hahn’s genius).  Hot on her heels is Nick Offerman as her square husband that gradually reveals a kinky side.  Poulter and Roberts too fit in nicely with the more established comedic stars.

Sure, if you think too hard about it you’re going to find the film has its shortcomings (like how Aniston is a stripper in a club where conveniently no one gets naked) but they are small road blocks on an otherwise well-made and agreeable journey.  It’s not a movie I’d pay full price for but it’s worth the matinee rates or at least a rental down the road.

The Silver Bullet ~ We’re the Millers

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Synopsis: A veteran pot dealer creates a fake family as part of his plan to move a huge shipment of weed into the U.S. from Mexico.

Release Date:  August 9, 2013

Thoughts: Attempting to shed her Friends image yet again, Jennifer Aniston (Wanderlust) dives headfirst into this black comedy as a stripper that gets involved with a pot dealer, agreeing to pose as his wife along with two other phoney balonies that are to be their children.  Director Rawson Marshall Thurber has a great name but a spotty track record when it comes to successful movies so this could go either way.  Bonus points go for a trailer that has some nice laughs and a cast that I’m interested to see go all the way with this type of material.

The Silver Bullet ~ Epic

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Synopsis: A teenager finds herself transported to a deep forest setting where a battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil is taking place. She bands together with a rag-tag group characters in order to save their world — and ours.

Release Date:  May 24, 2013

Thoughts: This one reminds me of a Ferngully: The Last Rainforest for a new generation.  Like that early 90’s hand-drawn animated feature, Epic looks to be a nice film for the conservation-minded parents to take their kids to.  The really good children’s films have a message so subtle that you don’t even realize it’s being communicated and based on the trailer, Epic’s movie studio 20th Century Fox has done a nice job keeping the soapbox preaching low and kid-friendly engagement high.  Adding in some interesting voice talent (Steven Tyler, Beyoncé Knowles, Pitbull, Colin Farrell) never hurts either!

The Silver Bullet ~ Movie 43

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Synopsis: An ensemble comedy intertwining different tales.

Release Date:  January 25, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s a film I’ve been hearing about for a while now thanks to a word of mouth publicity campaign.  Though it reminds me a lot of the uneven semi-classic Kentucky Fried Movie, this particular entry sold me on the cast list alone.  You have Oscar nominated/winning females (Naomi Watts, Uma Thurman, Kate Winslet, Halle Berry) side by side with men that run the gamut from A-List (Hugh Jackman, Richard Gere) to has beens (sorry fellow MN Seann William Scott).  Many famous faces/names also wrote and directed the shorts so here’s hoping that the good stuff is great and the bad stuff is short.  I’ve laughed at this trailer (and its Not Safe For Work red band trailer here) and do anticipate liking this when it’s released later in January.