Movie Review ~ Serenity (2019)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The mysterious past of a fishing boat captain comes back to haunt him, when his ex-wife tracks him down with a desperate plea for help, ensnaring his life in a new reality that may not be all that it seems.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Diane Lane, Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, Jeremy Strong

Director: Steven Knight

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: When you’ve been following movies as long as I have, you tend you get a feel for when a stinker is approaching. Take Serenity as a prime example. Here you have a movie headlined by two Oscar winners featuring an additional two Oscar nominees in supporting roles written and directed by another Oscar nominated filmmaker arriving in cinemas with no promotion and no buzz. Even more curious is that it’s being released the same week Oscar nominations were announced, typically a popular weekend for audiences to catch up on films going for the gold. This is a movie everyone, including the fledgling studio that produced it, is clearly hoping will go away quietly.

Set on a small island community where the days are hot and the nights wet, the film opens with a heavy dose of overbaked Hemmingway finding fishing captain Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey, Magic Mike) obsessing over a monster tuna that continually evades him. Audiences prepped for a steamy thriller by the previews are in for an off-kilter start as tuna talk takes up a good twenty minutes at the offset with McConaughey jabbering on about this fish to his first mate (Djimon Hounsou, The Legend of Tarzan), the town floozy (Diane Lane, Man of Steel), and anyone else within earshot. It’s not until a blonde bombshell from his past (Anne Hathaway, The Intern) enters the picture that the cash strapped Dill gets lured away from the titan tuna and hooked into a murder plot that leads to several large twists.

Written and directed by Steven Knight, who earned an Oscar nomination for 2002’s Dirty Pretty Things and was responsible for the hackneyed script for 2018’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, the crux of Serenity hinges on a plot twist so bonkers that when I figured out it was coming I was almost begging for it not to be true. Even though it makes the film harder to review, I won’t spoil it for you. The twist comes from such a strange place and is at times so outright bizarre that I could see it almost working had Knight fully committed to it from the beginning. When it’s revealed around the halfway mark it just doesn’t hold up if you carefully replay the first part of the movie back in your mind.

That’s not to say Serenity might not have been a moderately enjoyable bit of C-movie trash had it been released as a Netflix original film with a lesser lauded cast. There’s something about the gathering of this caliber of talent that instantly elevates the movie to a higher level of prestige and, in doing so, invites a closer scrutiny of everyone involved. If the film starred Chris Pine and Mila Kunis in place of McConaughey and Hathaway, for example, I don’t think we’d be running the film through the same wringer. Knight’s script is heavy to the point of Mel Brooks spoofing on noir symbolism (though admittedly there’s a reason for that) and he’s given everyone at least one doozy of a line they have to deliver with a straight face. Example, from Hathaway: “You gave me this ring and said, ‘With this stupid ring, I thee wed, baby’…I memorized that.” Really? She memorized that? I mean, it’s not Shakespeare but…

Thinking about the performances after the fact, I’m wondering if only one actor knew about the twist. How else to explain the disconnect between what we know as an audience and what is being happening on screen. McConaughey plays things so deadly serious that you can’t help but laugh at his misguided intensity at the most minor of emotions. His reaction to catching a fish is pretty much in line with deciding whether or not to kill Hathaway’s abusive husband (a snarling Jason Clarke, All I See Is You). He’s either drunkenly stumbling around the island or cliff jumping naked into a deep blue vision quest. Some may find it worth the price of admission just for the gratuitous shots of McConaughey’s rump, which I think gets more screen time than Diane Lane.

Hathaway doesn’t seem like much of a femme fatale in my book and though she admirably goes for it here, I prefer her taking on bad girl roles that have a sly wink to them (think Oceans 8) instead of the cold calculation of her character here. I often wondered why Lane wasn’t playing this part instead – she seemed like a better fit for the role. As the lone voice of reason in an increasingly crazed cast of characters, Hounsou does what he can with his thankless role and Jeremy Strong (The Judge) kept my attention as a mysterious man following McConaughey’s every move.

Sometimes a movie is so bad I feel like recommending it just so we can have that shared experience of saying we survived it together. Right now, with the way our country is going and the amount of problems we’re facing…adding Serenity to that list seems irresponsible. It’s a movie you absolutely should avoid at all costs and skip over when it inevitably pops up on your streaming service in a month or so. Everyone involved is capable of better – even the title needed more thought.

Movie Review ~ The Big Short

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four outsiders in the world of high-finance who predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s decide to take on the big banks for their lack of foresight and greed.

Stars: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Tracy Letts, John Magaro, Jeremy Strong, Byron Mann, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Want to do something nice for your stockbroker this holiday weekend?  Ask them to accompany you to a screening of The Big Short, pay their way in, and then when it’s over ask them to explain the film to you.  Yes, this true story of the bursting of the housing market bubble is a dense watch and would benefit from studying a textbook beforehand…but at the same times it’s a riotously funny and routinely ribald comedy more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Though I’m not normally a fan of director Adam McKay (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), he’s turned in his most timely and mature work to date, juggling multiple storylines and characters over several years without ever losing the thread of what a tremendous disaster this downfall was to the economy.  Adapted by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph from the book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is big on market-savvy terms, facts, and figures but short on overall time to explain everything along the way.

Following four distinct sets of characters of various stature that overlap throughout the years, it’s a movie you have to buckle up and into from the beginning.  I was worried early on that I was going to wind up emerging as a true dumb dumb, never truly grasping the enormity of the situation or how things got as bad as it did.  Thankfully, McKay’s script had the foresight to predict this and employs a clever means to explain things in terms that the average Joe (me!) can understand.  I won’t spoil some of this surprisingly adept tactics for you, but I will say that it involves celebrities playing themselves breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to us.

McKay was lucky to gather the high-caliber cast he did.  It’s mostly a boys club here with the likes of Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace), and Brad Pitt (World War Z) taking on roles of those involved to varying degrees of seeing a problem on the horizon and then deliberately setting up the market to fail so they can profit.  Moral quandaries are few with only Carell standing up for the littler guy, gaining a conscience that stands him apart from his cut-throat colleagues.

In the supporting department, Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is appreciated as always as Carell’s wife and even the usually campy Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) channels her natural tendency to overplay things into a dandy of a cameo as a Wall Street player conducting a meeting from behind some Mr. Magoo-ish optometrist shades.  Strong turns from Rafe Spall (Prometheus), Hamish Linklater (Magic in the Moonlight), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) round out a uniformly strong ensemble.

Though it deals with events that led to the ruin of many (mostly middle to lower class households), the film is surprisingly engaging and entertaining.  It feels like the movie that The Wolf of Wall Street thought it was behind all of the showboating performances and excessive running time.  The Big Short is still too long at 130 minutes but unlike Wolf, it gives the audience someone (anyone) to relate to.

The market is slowly building itself up again but if the final moments of the film are any indication, this is a problem that isn’t totally vanquished…making the movie ultimately a cautionary tale of unfettered greed and unregulated ambition.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Big Short

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Synopsis: When four outsiders saw what the big banks, media and government refused to, the global collapse of the economy, they had an idea: The Big Short. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of modern banking where they must question everyone and everything.

Release Date: December 11, 2015

Thoughts: It’s an interesting move that Paramount Pictures decided to release this heavy hitter smack dab in the midst of a busy holiday movie season. That means they think they have a winner on their hands in this true-life tale, a bit of counterprogramming to the more obvious Oscar bait flicks that are being readied for the end of the year. If I’m being honest (and I always am), I’m a bit exhausted with these corporate level endeavors about the failure of big business. Like the wearying The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short isn’t lacking in star-power thanks to producer and star Brad Pitt (World War Z) looping in the likes of Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace). Still, I desperately hope it has a snap, purpose, and isn’t just another showcase for big stars saying big things about big problems.

 

 

Movie Review ~ The Judge

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shephard, Billy Bob Thornton, Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, Sarah Lancaster, Grace Zabriskie, Denis O’Hare

Director: David Dobkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: I can imagine the script for The Judge came together by accident.  Perhaps a pair of screenwriters were both walking around a local coffee shop with two scripts, one was about a big city lawyer defending his estranged father on a murder charge and the other was about a hot-shot attorney who retreats home after discovering his wife was cheating on him.  Maybe the two writers stumbled into one another, sending their loose-leafed scripts up in the air in a flurry of white paper and when they picked themselves up they couldn’t discern what pages belonged to which script so they decided to just combine them and sell the unified work as The Judge.

I mean, that’s one theory right?  And it’s a lot more acceptable than knowing full well and good that The Judge was no accident, made with purpose. No amount of revisionist history can save this film from being one of the worst motion pictures in my recent memory, squandering the talents of its able-bodied cast for 141 of the most ghastly minutes you’ll spend in a theater this year.

Reminding me a lot of the equally awkward This Is Where I Leave You, The Judge miraculously ups the unpleasantness factor by offering not one moment that feels genuine; at least This Is Where I Leave You had a few redeeming qualities about it …and was forty minutes shorter.

Seeing early trailers, I thought The Judge held some promise considering the pairing of two Roberts in a courtroom drama.  Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3) seemed like the perfect actor to be matched with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies, The Paper) and sparks were expected to fly.  I’m not sure any combination of actors could have risen above the tone-deaf script that veers schizophrenically from comedy to drama, never succeeding in either arena.

Returning to his all-American hometown after his mother’s unexpected death, legal eagle Hank (Downey Jr., looking disturbingly skeletal…where’s the full faced lad from Less than Zero?) clashes with his father (Duvall), a respected town judge.  As he reconnects with his brothers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Jeremy Strong) and an old flame (Vera Farmiga, The Conjuring, totally wasted though she’s miscast in the first place), he’s drawn deeper into the unresolved past with his dad after the judge is arrested on suspicion of murder and put on trail by a vengeful prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton, wearing a Colonel Sanders wig and flashing his receding gum line every chance he gets).

Now I’m not going to deny that there’s a good idea somewhere in the plot and perhaps if director David Dobkin wasn’t so interested in wringing the ever loving emotional life out of every single scene then The Judge may have fared better overall, serving as a minor distraction for Downey Jr. between his Marvel superhero commitments.

Nearing the end of this folly, I turned to my companion and exclaimed “There are so many emotions in this movie!” and it’s the God’s honest truth.  No emotional well is left undrained by Dobkin and co. as they move us through self-serving scene after self-serving scene.  I began to wonder if the entire movie wasn’t some elaborate prank where every acting clip shown on the Oscars wasn’t recreated in one film. There are courtroom confessions, tender moments bizarrely played out in front of masses of people, tough good-byes, difficult hellos, old wounds reopened, and healing apologies delivered as one single tear rolls down a cheek.  It’s all simply too much.

It’s an ugly film too. When the backdrops aren’t horribly digitally inserted the film takes place in houses, bars, and courtrooms that have “natural” light coming through the windows by way of 1000 watt search lights, suggesting cinematographer Janusz Kaminski (Lincoln) has shot the movie like a Christopher Nolan directed episode of Judge Judy.

Culminating in a borderline offensive finale that wears its manipulation as a badge of honor, I can’t recommend enough steering clear of this mish-mash of a missed opportunity.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Judge

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Synopsis: Big city lawyer Hank Palmer returns to his childhood home where his father, the town’s judge, is suspected of murder. Hank sets out to discover the truth and, along the way, reconnects with his estranged family.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’ve seen the poster and the trailer for The Judge several times now, I still fight with telling myself that it’s not the latest adaptation of a John Grisham thriller…not that the preview doesn’t suggest something similar to Grisham’s sweaty courtroom dramas that were all the rage in the mid-90s. With a nicely meaty role, star Robert Downey Jr. (The Avengers) ,may have found a nice antidote to the Iron Man/Sherlock Holmes track he’s been on for the last few years. Paired with Oscar winner Robert Duvall (Tender Mercies), I’m looking forward to seeing the two generationally different actors work alongside one another.

Movie Review ~ Zero Dark Thirty

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of the decade-long hunt for al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden after the September 2001 attacks, and his death at the hands of the Navy S.E.A.L. Team 6 in May, 2011.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, Joel Edgerton, Jennifer Ehle, Jeremy Strong, Kyle Chandler, Edgar Ramirez, Mark Strong

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Rated: R

Running Length: 157 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Ever since September 11, 2001 there has been a dark cloud over our country as we continue to rebuild our body, minds, and spirit after the devastating attack on our freedom.  Over a decade later, we’re a more aware society, less likely to go through our lives with blinders on having been forced to wake up that real evil does exist in our world.  The man responsible for the attacks was public enemy number one, a sign and signal for evil and his death in May of 2011 at the hands of a Navy S.E.A.L. team allowed a small exhale from a country that had been holding its breath for ten years.

How this man was killed and how he was located is the subject of Zero Dark Thirty, a film that has arrived with a fair share of controversy and end of the year award recognition.  It’s an intelligent movie for adults that asks its audience to snap to attention and come along for a real life manhunt as it teeters between globe-hopping intrigue, government double talk, and questions on the price of justice.

The film rests on the very capable shoulders of Chastain (who won a Golden Globe for her work and is nominated for an Oscar and SAG Award as well) as CIA analyst Maya that becomes obsessed with her decade long search for the man known as UBL (Usama bin Laden).  Like a bumper car, with every dead end she reaches she changes course without losing sight of what’s at stake.  As the years go by and multiple set-backs (some of them deadly) occur, Maya uses considerable intelligence to piece together the puzzle until everything falls into place in a fashion that doesn’t feel too forced or too cinematic to be believable. 

Oscar winning director Bigelow teams again with her The Hurt Locker collaborator Mark Boal to direct his well researched script with a strong arm.  Bigelow has never shied away from making what many would consider “male” films and with Zero Dark Thirty she again doesn’t make the film about gender roles but focuses on the subject at hand.  It would have been easy to inject some misogynistic scenes to further burden Maya with not only doing her job but proving she’s worthy of it in the first place.  Bigelow keeps the nearly three hour movie trucking along until an outstanding finale shot in near real time as the team of S.E.A.L.’s descended upon the compound where they will eventually eliminate one of the biggest threats ever in the war on terror.

I admit I didn’t read too much about this strike on UBL’s compound when it happened so was surprised at some of the details that were new to me.  I, like many, assumed that it was a blitz of bullets that was over quickly but the film takes us through every second of these 20 some odd minutes with painstaking tension.  Aided by Alexandre Desplat’s eerie music, I’m not sure I breathed much in the final thirty minutes of the movie…it’s hard to say it was “entertaining” but my attention was raptly devout to what Bigelow and cinematographer Greig Fraser put together.

The film has taken a lot of hits for its sequences showing the various torture methods used by our intelligence agents to extract information on the location of UBL.  To leave these scenes out would be inaccurate and the director herself said it best that “depiction is not endorsement”.  Torture happened, we know it did and we all have to have our own internal discussions on how far is too far – to fault the movie for these scenes would be doing a disservice to the story it’s highlighting.

Along with Chastain there are strong performances from Clarke (Lawless) and Ehle as colleagues of Maya…both of whom could have easily landed on nomination list in the Best Supporting Oscar category.  It’s mostly Chastain’s show and she executes her role with an assurance that never feels false.  It’s a restrained, intelligent portrayal of a restrained, intelligent woman that believes in her heart she is the one that must be responsible for finding this man. 

Zero Dark Thirty refers to the very dark hour before dawn – a metaphor not lost on audiences for the extreme darkness that was felt by many before the man responsible for it was wiped out.  It didn’t back bring the lives that were lost on that day or in the war that has been raging on for a decade but, speaking for myself, the elimination of UBL offered a small glimmer of hope that justice had been done.  How we came to that point is a very debatable issue but Zero Dark Thirty is a fascinating and involving film that makes the conversation timeless.

Movie Review ~ Robot & Frank

The Facts:

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

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

Director: Jake Schreier

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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