The Silver Bullet ~ Top Gun: Maverick

Synopsis: A follow-up to the 1986 hit brings back Naval Aviator Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and will deal with the rise of unmanned drones and pilots becoming a thing of the past.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: Has it really been 33 years since Tom Cruise cemented his rising superstar status with the blockbuster release of Top Gun?  Inspiring countless imitators (including Cruise himself) and launching a million slow dances to the Oscar-winning theme song, the movie is firmly in our cultural lexicon and holds up quite nicely.  So you could hear some groans across the U.S. of A. when it was announced Cruise would be returning in the long rumored sequel.  For someone with as good as track record as Cruise has with starring in successful non-franchise fare, why occupy his time between Mission: Impossible sequels with another sequel to a previous role?  Teaming with his Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski and looping in an excellent roster of supporting players, from the looks of this first trailer for Top Gun: Maverick Cruise clearly knew what he was doing and I’m sorry I doubted him in the first place.  This sneak peak at the high-flying action film releasing almost 12 months from now stirs the kind of nostalgic summer excitement within me that doesn’t get a jolt that often.  Fingers crossed it’s more than just a retread of the original.

Movie Review ~ Alita: Battle Angel

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: An action-packed story of one young woman’s journey to discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world.

Stars: Rosa Salazar, Keean Johnson, Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Connelly, Mahershala Ali, Eiza Gonzalez

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The journey of Alita: Battle Angel to the screen has been an adventure almost three decades in the making. Originally a Japanese manga series created by Yukito Kishiro, it caught the attention of director James Cameron (The Abyss) and became one of those passion projects that followed the director over the ensuing years. With his attention focused on other films, documentary projects, pioneering technological advances in filmmaking, and talking about his Avatar sequels ad nauseum, Cameron eventually realized that he’d have to abdicate the director’s chair if the film were ever to get off the ground. That’s where director Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For) comes in and how we have arrived at this strange 2019 release.

It’s been several weeks since I’ve seen the film and I honestly can’t decide whether it’s glorious or garbage. I can fully see where the effects extravaganza will be overpowering and maybe even off-putting but at the same time there’s a piece of me that silently was cheering on the never-ending barrage of bizarre your ticket purchase will provide.  I can tell you this, I was never, not even for one minute, bored.  If the film community and audiences decide to pass judgment that Alita: Battle Angel is a failure, it will have gone out swinging because it doesn’t seem to be afraid to embrace its oddity.

Five hundred years in the future the Earth has suffered a series of cataclysmic events, culminating with “The Fall” which separated cities of the sky from the junk-laden wastelands on the ground. Only the most elite live in that last surviving sky city, Zalem, while the rest of Earth’s inhabitants scrape by a living where they can. Some have turned to bounty hunting to earn enough money to travel up up and away and there are certainly enough sundry individuals roaming the streets for people to make a buck or two eliminating dangerous threats.

Scouring a junkyard for spare parts to aid in his robotic repair practice, Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz, Big Eyes) finds the remnants of a female cyborg and rebuilds her, giving her the name Alita. When Alita (Rosa Salazar) comes back online and eventually falls in love with a local teenager (Keean Johnson), she begins to piece together her history as she discovers new strength and agility that seem to come naturally. At the same time, a killer is on the loose and Alita becomes a Hunter-Killer bounty hunter to track down who is harvesting people for their spare parts.  In doing so, she raises the ire of a punk bounty hunter (Ed Skrein, Deadpool) who doesn’t appreciate the competition from the supposed teenage girl.  When her mysterious past is revealed, it will put all who come in contact with her in danger as she’s revealed to be an important weapon and the only one that can stop the evil Nova (played in an uncredited cameo by an Oscar-nominated actor) from keeping bigger truths about Zalem from the public.

As you can probably tell, there’s a whole lot going on in the movie (I didn’t even bother to describe a sport called Motorball that figures heavily into the action) and Cameron’s script (co-written by Laeta Kalogridis, Terminator Genisys) is his usual mish-mash of overly syrupy dialogue intermixed with made-up jargon. Usually, this works against the film but here the script manages to serve things quite well as it prompts numerous set-ups for eye-popping special effects (see it in IMAX 3D, if possible) and nicely crafts a new world for our characters to explore.

Rodriguez has always had a way with making his films rock and roll even on a minuscule budget but here he’s given the keys to the bank vault and has cleaned out the coffers. It’s all rather lovely to look at, especially in an underwater sequence when Alita finds a crashed spaceship that holds a clue to her origins. Where things don’t go quite as swimmingly are in the character arcs, with several A-list actors left to fend for themselves with roles that are underwritten and underdeveloped. Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly (Only the Brave) and Mahershala Ali (Green Book) treat the material as high art, which leads to their performances taking on a camp factor that is surely unintentional. Salazar, digitized in post-production, turns in the most realistic performance – there were times I actually forgot she was an animation.

Not being familiar with the source material, I can’t say how close Cameron and Kalogridis stuck to the original story but there’s a definite energy injected throughout that’s hard to deny. It may be overstuffed and too effects-heavy but there’s an admirable bit of workmanship that has gone into the look of the film, even if the more dramatic pieces don’t quite gel correctly. This being a Cameron property, there’s a romance subplot that isn’t fully satisfying and Rodriguez has tacked on maybe two finales too many, but it ends on a high enough note that I’m curious to see if another installment might get the go-ahead now that Disney owns 20th Century Fox and could benefit from this property with international appeal.

Movie Review ~ Only the Brave

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters risk everything to protect a town from a historic wildfire.

Stars: Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Kitsch, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Andie MacDowell, Ben Hardy

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: It’s a good idea to go into Only the Brave without having seeing the trailer or knowing much about the true story that serves as the basis for the film. I say that because that’s how I found my way to the movie and I’m not sure I would have been as rapt as I was if I knew how it all turned out. Instead of being too informed as to what I was seeing, I was able to sit back and let this tale of heroism unfold without any pre-conceived notions. In a time when most movies arrive with spoiler-heavy fanfare, I took the viewing of Only the Brave as a rare opportunity to really experience the movie I was watching.

My grandfather was a firefighter for the city of Minneapolis so I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for any movie/tv show that featured these courageous men and women running toward the flames as others were running away. Based on Sean Flynn’s 2013 article in GQ magazine, Only the Brave chronicles the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots founded in 2008 in Prescott, Arizona. The first half of the movie shows how this scrappy and at times unconventional crew established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Led by hothead Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice, never better) and mentored by town fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, who finds time to sing as well!), the merry band of firemen had egos as big as their heart and formed a bond of brotherhood that couldn’t be broken.

Entering into the established crew is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now) a troubled kid just out of prison trying to get on the straight and narrow now that he has a new daughter to take care of. Struggling to find his place, Marsh takes him under his wing and soon he’s cutting his own path as a valued member of the group. He even makes nice with a former adversary (Taylor Kitcsch, John Carter) and the two men form a bromance that is a cornerstone of the picture.  Another strong bond on display is between Marsh and his equally headstrong wife (Jennifer Connelly, Winter’s Tale, in an award-worthy performance). The married couple bicker and reconcile often throughout the film, both wanting to better themselves but not understanding how to bring their partner along in stride. Brolin and Connelly have some of the year’s best chemistry, accurately portraying a complex relationship with unexpected layers that keep getting peeled away throughout the movie.

Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) and screenwriters Ken Nolan (Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) pay great homage to the town and crew that are featured in their picture. As they go from town to town saving homes and landmark trees from wildfires that put them in harm’s way, a camaraderie develops not only between the men onscreen but with the audience watching their adventures. Stock up on your napkins before the movie starts because this one has moments that might make even the hardest tough guy shed a few manly tears.

Movie Review ~ Noah

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A man is chosen by God to undertake a momentous mission of rescue before an apocalyptic flood destroys the world.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins, Logan Lerman, Nick Nolte

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: With the recent religious releases Son of God and God is Not Dead! doing surprisingly good box office business, I’m sure the studio heads at Paramount were breathing a tad easier as the release date for Noah crept ever closer. Buzz had been that the execs weren’t very confident in director Darren Aronofsky’s cut of the film so they screened several of their own versions to audiences to gauge their reaction. In the end the director’s cut won out, leaving me to wonder how bad the other edited versions were.

Honestly, I don’t think it matters much which version ended up being released because the whole film is such a meaty hunk of expired baloney that it may not have been salvageable in any form.

It’s hard to know exactly how to take Aronofsky’s Noah. Most people plunking down coin to see the epic will be expecting a re-telling of the Old Testament story about a man, an ark, and lots of animals trotting up two by two to avoid a massive flood that will wipe out civilization. What these people won’t be expecting, however, is a bloody and violent film featuring formerly A-list stars playing infuriatingly stubborn people that you wouldn’t want to spend 40 minutes on a boat with, let alone 40 days in torrential rain.

After a brief opening that covers the first few passages of the Bible, the film goes its own way by introducing mystical snake skins and stone creatures that one minute want to destroy man and the next are helping Noah and his brood build the ark. Looking like castoffs from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, these iff-ily rendered creatures supposedly are fallen angels encased in rock after they landed on earth in a fiery storm.

The threat of the destruction of civilization isn’t enough, though, so Aronofsky and co-screenwriter Ari Handel throw in another villain of the human kind in the form of a descendent of Cain. More extraneously inconsequential than interesting and played by the gruff Ray Winstone (Snow White and the Huntsman) as if his life depended on it, the character falls into high camp early on when we see his flowing locks of blonde hair that would make Rapunzel drool.

With about 50 minutes of actual material to work with, the film is stretched to a punishing 139 minutes by including lots of grandiose speechifying from nearly every main character…almost as if they had it in their contracts to be given their moment to shine. So we get lots of introspective musings and preachy pontificating on man’s inhumanity to man. Not wholly or outwardly religious, the film tries to make the issue of a wicked society not so much a Biblical idea but a atheistic one.

I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky’s work for a while now, though the only film of his I can bring myself to revisit is Black Swan, his brilliant psychological drama from 2010 that won Natalie Portman an Oscar. That film was a hallucinatory and riveting journey into madness and though Aronofsky tries to get inside the head of Noah in a similar fashion, it doesn’t the same effect.

Though he may have made a good Noah on paper, Russell Crowe (Man of Steel) seems so out of touch with the kind of roles he should be playing that it’s becoming pretty fascinating to see the jobs he’s taking on. For my money, he should have played Winstone’s part and let someone like Michael Fassbender or Christian Bale (both were offered the role and declined) have the role. Aronofsky has imagined Noah as so devout to his Creator that he is willing to do horrible things…and something about Crowe’s wild-eyed approach comes across more zealot than pious.

Co-starring with Crowe for the second time in 2014 (the first being February’s lame-o Winter’s Tale), Jennifer Connelly makes some headway with her underwritten role, though it comes late in the game with an impassioned speech that leaves her face awash with tears and snot. With her hair never much out of place and her teeth gleaming white (Noah’s family clearly had a good dental plan), Connelly brings a kind of precision to the role that works in her favor.

Another pair of co-stars re-united, The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Leerman are part of the Noah pack and while it’s appreciated that Watson continues to stretch her wings outside of the Harry Potter franchise, this role seems to get away from her. As the only other major female in the film, she delivers every important speech Connelly can’t be present to give herself.

Then there’s Anthony Hopkins (Hitchcock), getting an early start on his yearly cinematic appearance in the “grizzled old man” role…this time playing Methuselah, Noah’s grandfather. I’m not sure Hopkins even reads his scripts anymore before signing on to a film because the Oscar winning actor has little to do but pass along useful information when needed. The animal stars of the show are entirely CGI and factor in very little to the overall scheme of things.

Visually, the film looks great in typical Aronofsky fashion. Shot in Iceland, the cinematography from Matthew Libatique (Iron Man 2) is stunning and is aided by a strong sound design layered nicely in with Clint Mansell’s (Stoker) rich score. Of particular interest is a five minute sequence halfway through the film where Crowe narrates the Genesis story, brought to life in stunning fashion. I’d recommend seeing the film (eventually when you can fast-forward it) for that segment alone.

So what’s my problem with the film? I’m not a Bible thumper or Sunday School devotee that had to have everything in perfect order and sticking to just the facts, jack. No, I’d have been totally on board with the film Aronofsky was trying to make…if I could just grasp what film that was. Though the filmmakers can suggest all day long that their goal was to keep the film non time-specific, the costume design suggests post-apolopytic, not B.C. chic.

For as visually and aurally pleasing as the movie most certainly is, the perils depicted are incredibly unpleasant to sit through. The last 20 minutes are particularly rough going and even for this habitual watch checker, I started feeling like time was going backward rather than inching closer to the end credits.

Had this film been called, say, Bernard or Jethro I think I would have been able to take it with a finer grain of salt. Slapping Noah on the film and then turning the story into a Middle Earth meets Waterworld soggy epic robs the film of its voice and robs the audience of $10. I still like Aronofsky and applaud him for having the balls to do what he’s done here…but I feel like I want to throw the Good Book at him.

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Movie Review ~ Winter’s Tale

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A burglar falls for an heiress as she dies in his arms. When he learns that he has the gift of reincarnation, he sets out to save her

Stars: Colin Farrell, Jessica Brown Findlay, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Eva Marie Saint, Russell Crowe, Ripley Sobo, Mckayla Twiggs

Director: Akiva Goldsman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Oscar nominated director Martin Scorsese (Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street, Cape Fear) isn’t known to shy away from many projects.  This is a man, after all, that took a novel like Shutter Island which was considered to be impossible to adapt for the screen and made a perfectly good (if strikingly literal) thriller out of it.  So you should pay attention when you hear that Scorsese flirted briefly with bringing Winter’s Tale, Mark Helperin’s 1983 fantasy novel, to life only to abandon the project because he couldn’t figure out a way to make it work.

The project then fell into the hands of Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind who took on the work as a passion project.  Laboring for years to have his screenplay produced, he finally found himself in the director’s chair surrounding by a fairly impressive cast and a celebrated production team.  How, then, can the final product be so remarkably terrible?

Well…I’ll direct you back to Mr. Scorsese who had the correct premonition that this time jumping epic love story wasn’t destined to be captured on film.  It existed best in the yellowing pages of paperback copies of Helperin’s novel stuffed away on bookshelves waiting for their owners to thumb through them in the doldrums of these wintery months.

My experience with the book is limited, having paged through it a few times over the years but never being sucked in by its storied charms.  It’s essentially a bit of romantic whimsy with prose that helped inspire some imagination of the people, places, and flights of fancy Helperin laid out.  I can’t speak to how close Goldsman’s adaptation sticks to the source but I know that something was absolutely lost in translation.

Opening with a prologue filmed in lovely sepia tones by cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (Killer Joe, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Jack Reacher), the story begins in the late 19th century with Polish immigrants denied entrance to America who wind up lowering their infant son in a model boat in the hopes that the harsh waters will see him safely to the shores of New York.  Ah…the American Dream!  Flash forward years later and the orphaned boy is now Peter Lake (Colin Farrell, Saving Mr. Banks, Dead Man Down), a burglar on the wrong side of gangster and former father figure Pearly Soames (Russell Crowe, Les Miserables, Man of Steel) ready to make an escape out of the city.

Before he can reach the city limits, however, he happens to make one last burglary in the stately Penn home where he meets Beverly (Jessica Brown-Findlay, Downton Abbey), a doomed beauty suffering from consumption with a fever so bad she sleeps on the wintery roof to keep her temperature down.  Love blooms (not naturally because Farrell and Brown-Findlay have precious little chemistry) and soon Peter and Beverly are overcome with passion that leads to a bad end.  Oh…did I mention the film has angels, demons, flying horses, and mythical prophecies?  Well…there’s that too.

I’m giving you more of the plot than I normally would because it helps set the stage for the next act of the film which takes such a peculiar leap forward that you wonder if you aren’t watching a three part mini-series that forgot to include the second installment.  So much of the film takes place in establishing the past that next to no time is left to explore anything in present day New York.  The third act is comprised then of extraordinary coincidences, unexplained lapses in continuity, and half-developed characters (like the one poor Jennifer Connelly is stuck with) culminating in a cornball ending more laughable than the emotionally resonant one the filmmakers intended.

Farrell makes for an engaging lead, though his lack of chemistry with his leading lady and the oddity of his American born/raised character having a perfect Irish accent leaves more of a lasting impression than any good will his commitment earns him.  Crowe is particularly terrible here with his awful leprechaun-y brogue…his scenes with a surprise cameo (and equally atrocious) star is sure to haunt him in years to come.  Brown-Findlay doesn’t leave much of an impression aside from the realization that her narration of the film is better than her onscreen performance.  William Hurt (The Host), Connelly (who will also do time with Crowe soon in Noah), and Eva Marie Saint (make sure to do the math of her screen age when she shows up and see if you cry foul) round out the players.

Running close to two hours I will say that as banal as the film is, it managed to move along with a nice clip.  Goldsman rallies the production design to create a handsome looking film (even with one of the worst Hans Zimmer scores ever) though he lets the whole schmaltzy mess get away from him almost from the start.  If you’re thinking of catching this with a loved one, I’d suggest taking a walk around the block holding hands instead.

The Silver Bullet ~ Noah

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Synopsis: The Biblical Noah suffers visions of an apocalyptic deluge and takes measures to protect his family from the coming flood.

Release Date:  March 28. 2014

Thoughts: I’ve yet to meet a Darren Aronofsky flick that hasn’t divided audiences and his take on the epic tale of Noah and the Ark is sure to have its fair share of haters.  Quite long in development, the film reunites some former costars like Russell Crowe (Les Misérables) and Jennifer Connelly (Winter’s Tale) who appeared together in 2001’s A Beautiful Mind.  After playing opposite each other romantically in 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) and Logan Lerman are now cast as siblings. Cinematically, this looks mighty impressive with strong detailed special effects and early hints of the director’s trademark obsessive attention to everything on screen.  Who knows exactly what version of the Noah tale will be told (rumor has it that it probably takes place in the past but could very well take place in the future) but if I know Aronofsky it will be a bold and committed affair. 

Interesting to note that this is the first of two high profile Hollywood projects with a Biblical slant being released in 2014.  In Decemember 2014, director Ridley Scott (Prometheus) releases Exodus starring Christian Bale (The Dark Knight) as Moses with some supporting work from Sigourney Weaver (Abduction) and Joel Edgerton (The Great Gatsby).

The Silver Bullet ~ Winter’s Tale

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Synopsis: Set in a mythic New York City and spanning more than a century, Winter’s Tale is a story of miracles, crossed destinies, and the age-old battle between good and evil.

Release Date:  February 14, 2014

Thoughts: Silly me, I thought this was going to be a film adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic play.  Looking at the cast list before seeing the trailer I thought Warner Brothers had assembled an impressive line-up to tackle the Bard’s romance…but knowing that it’s really an adaptation of a fantasy novel from 30 years ago makes me sorta nervous.  Directed by Oscar winning screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, Winter’s Tale joins a crowded Valentine’s Day line-up but this is probably the one film that boasts the most A-list cast members such as Colin Farrell (Total Recall, Dead Man Down), Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt (Altered States, The Doctor, The Host), and Russell Crowe (Les Misérables).  I have a feeling the movie may be a tough sell given its time-hopping narrative but it could be a moody romance for those looking for something with more substance than your average romantic comedy.