Synopsis: A werewolf loose in Los Angeles changes the lives of three young adults who, after being mauled by the beast, learn to kill it to avoid becoming werewolves themselves. Stars: Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, Joshua Jackson, Milo Ventimiglia, Judy Greer, Mýa, Shannon Elizabeth, Portia de Rossi, Kristina Anapau, Solar, Derek Mears, Nick Offerman Director: Wes Craven Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 97 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: Perhaps I’m getting more nostalgic in my old age, but I’ve developed a fondness for revisiting several films from my high school and college years that proved formative. Steering clear of the true childhood classics from the ‘80s, I’ve focused instead on those late ‘90s to mid-‘00s features that launched (or sunk) numerous Hollywood careers. What has surprised me most about these trips down movie theater memory lane is not the films that have held up nicely but the titles that improved through the years. Some have gone from good to excellent, while others have moved in my mind from “bad” to “what took me so long to rewatch this?”
Today’s example is Cursed, a werewolf movie with a Scream-vibe released in 2005. Cursed isn’t a great movie; it’s been altered and chopped up too much from its original version, damaging the intended vision of director Wes Craven (Summer of Fear) and his production team. It is, however, so much better than I had remembered it and absolutely not the dumpster fire it was classified as when it was initially released. Based on an original screenplay by Kevin Williamson (The Faculty), the script went through numerous rewrites by various other screenwriters. Hence, it’s hard to figure out to whom the final product should be attributed. Some might argue Miramax/Dimension Films producer Harvey Weinstein shaped the version released in theaters because he ordered so many changes during the over two years of production the crew endured.
Yes, that’s right. Over two years were spent once filming began before the troubled production finally made it to theaters. In that time, cast members were changed, storylines were cut/modified, and the special effects team was let go. What audiences saw in theaters reflected that mess, and my recollections were of a film that wanted to get to the kills faster and faster. It made little sense, with characters appearing and disappearing without much explanation. We’ll likely never see that originally filmed version that tested either poorly or well (depending on who you talk to), but instead, we have a director’s cut which aims to restore some narrative order to the film. In this reassembled package, something more in line with a movie Craven and Williamson would have collaborated on finally emerges. While it isn’t a showstopper on their resume, it has some excellent sequences.
Becky and Jenny (Shannon Elizabeth and singer Mýa) are at a carnival in Los Angeles and are warned by a psychic (Portia de Rossi) that one of them is in danger and to beware of a beast they know. Shortly after, Ellie, a young professional (Christina Ricci, Mermaids), and her younger brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra) get into a car wreck with Becky on a deserted stretch of road in the Hollywood hills. As the siblings try to help Becky, they watch as she is attacked by an unseen creature that they are both scratched by. The next day, brother and sister exhibit strange behavior, such as an advanced sense of smell and lightning-fast reflexes.
Doing some old-fashioned detective work at the library, it becomes clear to Jimmy that the creature they encountered was a werewolf, and now he and his sister are becoming similar beasts. As the werewolf continues to attack friends of Ellie and Jimmy, there is an urgency to find out who the monster is and their plan in choosing their victims. The list of potential suspects is long, and who in their circle of friends they can trust is shrinking rapidly.
You can see why Dimension Films were so key in making Cursed a variation of their popular Scream franchise, which had petered out right around the time Williamson turned in his original script for this werewolf whodunit. Substituting out a flesh and blood serial killer for a hairy werewolf taking a bite out of a group of young adults in Hollywood was a good way for the studio to keep a proven business formula going without continually tapping the same well of characters. Early test screenings provoked discussions that led to suggested changes that major players disagreed with, and that’s when the tinkering started to set the movie on its eventual collision course with post-production hell.
While Cursed is undeniably silly at times (the reshot scenes are unfortunate, look at poor Eisenberg’s hideous wig in the newer footage) and major cringe at others (a subplot about Jimmy’s rumored gay leanings and how it plays out is beyond dated), it offers more than a few classic Craven passages that get the blood pumping. That original car wreck is well-staged, ending with a horrific image only available in the director’s cut. The centerpiece is Mýa’s lengthy chase scene through a parking garage where the creature pursues her. This scene is edited masterfully and a real nail-biter.
Cursed is a case of ‘your mileage may vary’ on how well another viewer might receive it. I found a rewatch of it seventeen years after it was released to poor reviews and lackluster box office, an eye-opener to how decent a film it is. Maybe it’s because I know how much worse it could have been or know that a truly poor edit of Craven’s film is out there, but the Director’s Cut is the only way to see this film. When searching for it, you’ll see the sanitized version if you see a PG-13 rating. Hold out for the unrated version (or buy it here from Scream Factory), and you’ll be pleasantly surprised…and a little scared!
Synopsis: Determined to ensure Superman’s ultimate sacrifice was not in vain, Bruce Wayne aligns forces with Diana Prince with plans to recruit a team of metahumans to protect the world from an approaching threat of catastrophic proportions.
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ezra Miller, Ray Fisher, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Ciarán Hinds, Amber Heard, Joe Morton, Ray Porter, Jesse Eisenberg
Director: Zack Snyder
Running Length: 242 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: Has there ever been a more bizarre and divisive situation of nerdom than the one surrounding the twisted tale of Zack Snyder’s Justice League? By his own request, the director was replaced during the final weeks of production on the 2017 release (including editing and reshoots) so he could deal with the emotional recovery of the death of his daughter. It was the right choice for Snyder but it left the film in the hands of Joss Whedon, the Marvel marvel who couldn’t find the same tone Snyder was going for and leaned into a more studio and populous theater friendly piece that didn’t serve the darker storyline that was imagined. Not unexpectedly, though the film was ultimately credited to Snyder it bore little resemblance to his original vision and was hampered by many of Whedon’s trademarks, down to cringy bits of humor that didn’t work and a stupefying amount of bad special effects.
With Warner Brothers and the DC Universe riding high off the phenomenal success of Wonder Woman released earlier that year, the dismal failure (and tepid reception) of Justice League put a nail in the coffin for Henry Cavill’s Superman and encouraged Ben Affleck to exit a solo Batman project that was in the works. It also derailed a planned film for The Flash and bumped the Wonder Woman sequel out, not to mention leading to some troubling accusations from co-star Ray Fisher on how the studio treated him after voicing concerns about unprofessionalism on set. All in all…a big mess. While a subsequent Aquaman film performed well and looked encouraging for Jason Momoa’s future as a box office star, Wonder Woman 1984’s bow in late 2020 was met with true vitriol (all very unfair in my eyes) so the shaky ground remained.
While all of this was going on, though, a strange groundswell was starting that began almost as a joke but started to catch on before turning into a full-blown movement by comic book and franchise fans. This was of course the birth of the # phenomenon and it was hard to avoid the #ReleaseTheSnyderCut pandemonium that took over Twitter. Everyone knew that Snyder had expressed some displeasure that his vision wasn’t seen through to the end and that so much of what he shot wasn’t included or scenes he had wanted to shoot weren’t shot at all. What people were clamoring for was to see Warner Brothers to hand the movie back to Snyder and let him re-edit the movie into the “Snyder Cut”… which is not exactly unheard of. They’ve done it before with 1980’s Superman II, replacing director Richard Donner before filming was over but releasing his (not as good) version decades later. Director’s cuts are fairly standard for releases now but there was something about this particular movie that kept both sides tight-lipped, with Warner Brothers even claiming at one point that there would definitely be no Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Here we are, though, and HBOMax is releasing a four-hour cut of Snyder’s reassembled film that aligns with his original plan. Running a full two hours longer than the 2017 release, Snyder used material that Whedon chose not to go with and also shot quite a lot (a lot!) of new footage – so much so that this feels almost like a remake of the film everyone thumbs down-ed four years ago. We all know that longer doesn’t equal better but in the case of Zack Snyder’s Justice League, it most certainly does. My original review of Justice League pointed out that the film’s introductions to the new characters felt rushed and not a lot of the movie felt cohesive due to the streamlined runtime. With four hours to work with, Snyder is able to give each character their due and then some, providing more than enough character building to have the head spinning finale actually mean something this time around.
By and large, the story is mostly the same. After burying Superman at the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck, Live by Night) begins to assemble a team of other individuals with superpowers while Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot, Ralph Breaks the Internet) returns to her civilian life with the occasional crime fighting break now and again. Batman has a sense that a darkness is coming and the need for a team of united strength is important and it’s only after Wonder Woman gets a desperate sign from her homeland with the key to a hidden message that she joins him in the recruitment process. Together, they seek out Aquaman (Momoa, The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part) who has remained a mystery man in the waters off Iceland, The Flash (Ezra Miller, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) a kind-hearted social outcast that can run faster than the speed of light, and Cyborg (Fisher) a former high school football player saved from death by his scientist father (Joe Morton, Godzilla: King of the Monsters) now struggling to adjust to his altered appearance and overwhelming technological access.
Their combined powers will be needed to defeat Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciarán Hinds, Closed Circuit) a ghastly beast that has arrived on earth searching for three boxes that, when united, will call forth a dangerous entity that will destroy Earth. As he travels around the globe gathering the pieces of the puzzle from clans that have an impact on Wonder Woman and Aquaman, the group realizes that the box possesses multiple powers. (Yes, you’re correct in thinking this is all hokey pokey stuff and it’s just as absurd as it was the first time around…but with more time to add in context and backstory, it goes down just a little easier.) In addition to vanquishing all life, the “unity” can also restore it and bring the dead back to existence. A fairly good tool to have when you’re down one superhero and know where he’s buried…
Like I said before, everything about Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is just…more. There’s more story, more action, more blood (when people get thrown against walls, their heads tend to explode quite messily), and more gritty language than what you’ve come to expect. It isn’t anything gratuitous and only adds to the all-encompassing feeling that Snyder has returned to the film. I couldn’t shake off the feeling while watching it that it was the kind of event entertainment that back in the day networks would have shown once a year and the entire family would watch as a group. Could the film have been trimmed down a bit – absolutely – but I was fairly enraptured with it all from the moment it started until it ended. It may run 240ish minutes but it definitely doesn’t feel that long.
Not to say there weren’t some clunkier moments along the way. At times, when the action dips you start to try to pick out which scenes were new and which ones were previously shot and it’s fairly obvious by tracking Affleck’s face which switched between expertly chiseled and comfortably fuller throughout. Several scenes were clearly filmed on a soundstage that doesn’t match the rich detail of the other production design so one moment you’re with Diana as she’s traveling through a cave, Indiana Jones-style, and the next you’re watching a random actress silently acting out an overly cliché scene that’s there to show Cyborg’s softer side. There’s more than a handful of effects which come off like a video game or Saturday morning animation than the polished inspired moments they could be.
Speaking of the effects and visuals, aside from the occasional sketchy etching a great effort has clearly been made to right some terrible wrongs seen in the original, namely the horrible job done on Cavill’s (Enola Holmes) face to digitally remove a mustache he had while filming reshoots. Either those scenes were jettisoned completely, or the hundreds of digital techs credited at the end had their work cut out for them because by and large the movie looks sharp and excellent. A number of action sequences have been restored and they haven’t been carelessly re-inserted – they’ve all been smoothly incorporated into the rest of the movie. An early sequence of Wonder Woman stopping a bank robbery/bombing has been elongated and made it far more intense, visceral, and displays more of Wonder Woman’s abilities. I went back and watched the same scene from the original and its so watered down and brief that it barely registers as a bout of action for the heroine. Now it’s suspenseful and doesn’t feel like it minimizes the superhero or the plot.
Divided into six parts and an epilogue (which has about three or four endings within and several whopper surprises), Zack Snyder’s Justice League, is big big BIG and doesn’t quit until it’s good and ready to. Its release renders the previous version totally obsolete in my book and this will be the only Justice League that I’ll recognize for future rewatches because it appears to tell a full story with a better overall picture of where these characters are headed. Or were headed. Last time I checked Cavill and Affleck were out and a new Batman movie is due out soon with Robert Pattinson in what looks to be the darkest take on the Caped Crusader yet. Who knows what will come of this group for future outings but we do know that another Aquaman is swimming into production and due in 2022, the same year as The Flash movie which is rumored to have Affleck in it as well. Despite those off-the-mark reviews for the recent sequel, a third Wonder Woman film has thankfully been greenlit. Perhaps we’ll get a Cavill appearance in one of those films…or maybe Snyder will benefit from another Twitter grassroots campaign and a Justice League II will come to pass. No matter what, Snyder’s vision is finally out there and whether you were a strong supporter of this cut being released or think the studio caving to fan demand is the most terrible thing ever (um, why?) this a film that demands some attention and a little admiration as well. It’s goes for the brass ring with bold gusto.
Synopsis: Hoping to find the perfect place to live, a couple travel to a suburban neighborhood in which all the houses look identical. But when they try to leave the labyrinth-like development, each road mysteriously takes them back to where they started.
Review: There’s a great show on Netflix that I’m sure you’ve heard of: Black Mirror. It’s a nice little analysis of the dark side of advances in technology and while the creators have found interesting ways to drop slight ways that episodes are tied together, they are by and large stand alone tales that are often disturbing and eerily prescient. Watching the overlong and overstated Vivarium, I kept thinking back to the efficient way that Black Mirror (or even old shows like The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits) were able to condense their thoughts and ideas into a concise statement rather than ramble on with little to say above and beyond their logline. I get a sense that writer/director Lorcan Finnegan and his co-writer Garret Shanley had a good nugget for an episode of a TV show here but unwisely were advised to expand on it and make it feature-length. The result is a film that begins intriguing but quickly turns tedious.
Young couple Gemma (Imogen Poots, Green Room) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour) are looking to buy their first house together and have heard about a new development nearby that might be good to get an early jump on. A robotic but benign salesperson (Jonathan Aris, All the Money in the World) lists the benefits of the manufactured community but feels it’s better just to show them around the neighborhood instead so they follow him, not paying any real attention to where they are headed. When the salesperson disappears halfway through the tour and they can’t seem to find their way back to the main road, they are forced to spend the night in the model home…the first of many, it turns out. Unable to leave the neighborhood and eventually trapped within their own hell house, the couple tries to escape by any and all means necessary.
At 97 minutes, Finnegan and Shanley only have so much room (and characters) to throw at audiences and sadly the usually reliable Poots can’t shoulder the entire movie on her own. Eisenberg is his typical low-key milquetoast, prone to fits of anger when provoked but mostly an uninteresting presence. So it falls to Poots to keep us tuned in and there’s just not enough going on in the neighborhood to make us want to stick around. If it were only 45-50 minutes, I could see this being a tighter and more engaging watch that wouldn’t allow us time to check out watches. Add in the appearance of a character prone to a deafening primal screech when they don’t get their way and you have the recipe for a movie that gets its eviction notice long before the credits roll.
Review: With the rousing success of Wonder Woman this summer, you had high(er) hopes for Justice League too, didn’t you? After the gloominess of Man of Steel, the critical drubbing lobbed at Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and the just plain awful debut of the Suicide Squad, the first solo outing of the Amazon princess made a huge splash with a snazzy film that signaled the floundering DC Universe might be getting back on track. Alas, it was not meant to be because five short months later Justice League arrives with a huge thud, halting any momentum Wonder Woman had kicked off.
The problems are evident from the beginning. It should be noted that original director Zack Snyder had to be replaced shortly after filming ended while the movie was in post-production due to a family crisis. Joss Whedon (The Avengers) was brought it to touch up the script, and handle reshoots. Huge mistake. Whedon did good work with his involvement in the Marvel Universe but his humor doesn’t translate to the DC world that’s far darker and leaves itself less open for flights of fancy. His attempts to inject jokey humor crash and burn, especially seeing that they are awkwardly inserted into sequences already filmed by Snyder.
Another elephant in the room to discuss is Henry Cavill (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), or, more to the point, Cavill’s mustache. After wrapping his scenes for Justice League, Cavill had grown a mustache to film a role in the next Mission: Impossible film and when he was called back for reshoots Paramount wouldn’t allow him to shave it. So he filmed his new scenes with facial hair that was then digitally removed…badly. Cavill comes off looking like a creepy puppet, with the bottom half of his face strangely not in communion with the upper. He’s in the first shot of the movie and it’s a jarring image that sets the tone for the rest of this schizo outing.
The first half of the film is occupied by a bewildering series of episodic vignettes where we meet characters that the movie treats us as if we already know but in reality have never seen before. We’re plopped right into the stories of Aquaman (Jason Momoa), The Flash (Ezra Miller, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher) without much in the way of introduction or origin, almost like these were clips from a previous entry that was never released. We’re supposed to know and care about these characters instantly, but their arrivals are treated with such little fanfare it’s hard to warm up to any of them. Miller winds up being the most intriguing; his loner character is secretly desperate for friends and is brought into the fold by Batman (Ben Affleck, Gone Girl, checking out so much I can see why he’s trying to get excused from The Batman, a planned solo shot for the Caped Crusader) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot, Keeping Up with the Joneses).
What I always enjoyed about the previous incarnations of Batman and Superman was how they were up against villains that seemed somewhat plausible…at least for a comic-book foe. From the Penguin to Lex Luthor, the heroes were battling adversaries that sought awesome power, not ones that already had other-worldly talents. The villain in Justice League is Steppenwolf, a poorly rendered CGI baddie voiced by Ciarán Hinds (Frozen) that’s as generic as they come. This is a bad guy that might have worked better as a Marvel rival but definitely not one the Justice League should be working to thwart. Steppenwolf is on the hunt for three Mother Boxes that form a trinity that can, snooze, give him power over all earth. Yawn, boring, wake me when it’s over.
Poor Wonder Woman. That’s what I kept thinking throughout Justice League. Gadot looks miserable having to carry this film, it’s clear the plot was tweaked at some point to give her character more to do and capitalize on the success of Wonder Woman. Her ascension to co-lead comes at the sacrifice of a bunch of familiar faces that get sidelined. Diane Lane (Inside Out) and Connie Nielsen pop up in brief cameos as the mothers of Superman and Wonder Woman, J.K. Simmons (The Snowman) doesn’t even have to glue down his toupee, and Amy Adams (Her) wears multiple bad wigs but does get the most unintentionally funny line of dialogue in the film: “I’m no longer Lois Lane, dedicated reporter”.
The effects of the hand-off between Snyder and Whedon really sink the film in its last ¼, when the Justice League works together to stave off Steppenwolf before he can unite the Mother Boxes. There are a few decent action sequences but they’re so darkly lit it all becomes a blur, especially when you add in Steppenwolf’s drone warriors that fly around in a head-spinning frenzy like wasps. It’s a blessing the movie is as short as it is, but it still feels pretty long when the content is as forgettable as this. You keep wanting to find something, anything to root for but no one seems interested in being memorable in any way shape or form. It’s like everyone was forced into making this and are waiting for their final scene to be shot.
There’s a post-credit scene that does nothing to get you excited for the future, it feels like it was shot last week with the actors involved under duress. Based on his performance here, I shudder to think about Momoa’s Aquaman film coming in 2018, wish that Wonder Woman 2 wasn’t two years away, and am intrigued at a chance to get more info on The Flash in 2020’s Flashpoint. At this point, whatever the creative team behind these DC films are doing, it’s not working. Not only do audiences deserve better, but so do the actors locked into contracts for future films.
Synopsis: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.
Release Date: November 17, 2017
Thoughts: With Wonder Woman becoming the top-earning movie at the summer box office, the producers behind the DC Comics franchise are riding a wave of positivity right now. Let’s hope they can keep that goodwill going strong as the November release of Justice League draws near. I didn’t mind Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice nearly as much as my colleagues did but the unrelenting darkness of this franchise has kept it from truly taking off. Wonder Woman was a nice reminder of what these films could be while director Zac Snyder deals with a family tragedy, Avengers mastermind Joss Whedon was brought in to oversee postproduction so I’m hoping Whedon can bring a little Marvel spark to the DC Universe. This extended look at Justice League gives a few more clues for audiences to decipher and one cliffhanger that already has the internet abuzz.
Synopsis: The Four Horsemen resurface and are forcibly recruited by a tech genius to pull off their most impossible heist yet.
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, David Washofsky, Tsai Chin, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman
Director: Jon M. Chu
Running Length: 129 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: I’m just as surprised as you are that 2013’s Now You See Me did well enough to warrant a sequel seeing that I left my screening frustrated at its cheats and wholly averse to its attempts to charm. Still, someone thought it was smart move to assemble the old crew again three years down the line and aside from a new female in the mix, not much has changed about the film or my opinion of the series as a whole. What could have been a slick summer mea culpa sequel is just another time-wasting sleight of hand. It’s not that we can see what the actors and filmmakers have up their sleeves, it’s that we don’t care in the first place.
If you haven’t seen the first film you’re going to get some spoilers so if you don’t mind having the final twist of the original spoiled for you keep reading.
In the years since the Four Horseman took down a wealthy mogul (Michael Caine, JAWS: The Revenge) and a shady secret spiller (Morgan Freeman, Lucy) they’ve kept a fairly low profile. Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg, American Ultra), Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson, Triple 9), and Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, Warm Bodies) haven’t gone far though and as they’re readying another elaborate trick to expose a cell-phone hacking scam they’re joined by Lula (newcomer Lizzy Caplan, Bachelorette, replacing Isla Fisher as the lone lady in the bunch) who was recruited by their leader, FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Marc Ruffalo, Spotlight). A mole in the FBI agency, Rhodes has been leading his colleagues on multiple wild goose chases, until it all catches up to him and his Horsemen when the tables are turned and they’re split up.
The Horsemen wind up in China, face to face with elvish Daniel Radcliffe (What If) who has grown a beard to show he’s not Harry Potter any longer. There’s some jibber jabber about an all-powerful computer chip Radcliffe wants and a rather lengthy sequence where the Horsemen break into a high security company to retrieve said chip. Hiding the wafer thin treasure on a playing card, director Jon M. Chu (Jem and the Holograms) takes, no kidding, nearly five minutes showing the Horsemen passing the card between each other to avoid being caught by guards that are frisking them. It’s an exhausting passage of time that isn’t nearly as impressive as anyone involved thinks it is.
Meanwhile, Rhodes has to bust Freeman’s character out of jail because only he knows who’s behind the mystery. A personal vendetta between the two men quickly resurfaces and becomes a focal point for several head-scratching plot twists down the road. When the Horsemen and Rhodes are reunited, the final truth of who the man behind it all is and though the mystery is ostensibly solved, there’s still a good forty-five minutes left. It’s in these forty-five minutes that I officially checked out as it’s just a series of parlor trick moments that are less than magical.
As I’ve said before, magic tricks onscreen just don’t work for me because there’s no sense of disbelief one can reasonably hold. When magic is done live and in person, it can be an impressive experience because you learn to not trust your eyes. On film, when I see a trick being performed in the middle of multiple edits and angles I’m just wondering how many takes and lighting set-ups it took to get it to look right. It just doesn’t work for me. At all.
Performances here are in line with the broad script. God love him, Ruffalo acts the hell out of his role and for that I thank him. If only his co-stars had found a way to do the same. Eisenberg is as nebbish and stilted as ever, Franco is disarming but not given much to do, Caplan starts off with spunk but gradually gets reduced to ninth banana, Radcliffe as usual is having way more fun than we are, and Caine and Freeman are just there to cash their checks (at least Freeman is required to both stand up and walk in this film…unlike London Has Fallen). And poor Harrelson pulls double duty as Merritt and his offensively fey twin.
Capping off with another finale that throws some random turns in at the very end, Now You See Me 2 is slickly made and moves fast but is superficially bland and all together hollow.
We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.
I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.
So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.
Traditionally, August is the month when the wind-down begins. It never has any of the big tent pole pictures featured earlier in the summer and it can be a time when studios try to burn off some troubled pictures or try to skillfully position a sleeper hit. This August for sure had its share of high and low points, much like the summer that it capped off. I was still in frolic mode so didn’t get to as many reviews as I had wanted but sitting here now, in still sunny September, it’s time to review the movies I missed!
Movie Review ~ Shaun the Sheep Movie The Facts: Synopsis: When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, he gets a little more action than he bargained for. A mix up with the Farmer, a caravan and a very steep hill lead them all to the Big City and it’s up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home. Stars: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak Rated: PG Running Length: 85 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: I’m not saying that the U.S. doesn’t churn out a fine slate of family friendly films…but there’s a certain aura around the British imports that seem to work time and time again. Like Paddington earlier this year, Shaun the Sheep Movie was an unexpected delight, 85 minutes of smart comedy that’s deep enough for adults to not need a lobotomy to enjoy and zany enough to keep the attention of young tykes. Remarkable when you consider there’s not any dialogue in the movie aside from some rumbles and grumbles from human and animal characters, it’s a big screen adventure adapted from a popular television show. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprisingly entertained and quite impressed by the stop-motion animation. The film didn’t have great marketing so it slipped by most people but if it’s at your bargain movie theater, pack those kids up in your minivan and get to it…or treat yourself to a solo show.
Movie Review ~ Dark Places The Facts: Synopsis: Libby Day was only seven years old when her family was brutally murdered in their rural Kansas farmhouse. Twenty-five years later, she agrees to revisit the crime and uncovers the wrenching truths that led up to that tragic night. Stars: Charlize Theron, Drea de Matteo, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Tye Sheridan, Shannon Kook Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner Rated: R Running Length: 113 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: With the huge success of Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girland seeing how fast the movie rights were snapped up, it’s only natural that her other two other books would take a similar path. Dark Places is the first of these to hit theaters (Sharp Objects is arriving as a television movie) and it shows one of two things, either the third time was the charm for Flynn or something was lost in translation. Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book but I’m inclined to think that it’s the fault of the screenwriter because there are so many hazardous movie mistakes only a Hollywood writer could make. Though the mystery of a decades old killing spree coming back to haunt the sole survivor is initially intriguing, it quickly dissolves into a sticky mess that makes less sense the more secrets are revealed. It also doesn’t help that it’s badly miscast, with the usually impressive Charlize Theron relying on her ever-present trucker hat to do most of the acting for her…or maybe to hide her embarrassment at being looped into this turkey. Though it boasts a cast that typically gets the job done, no one quite seems to know what they’re doing…as if they hadn’t read the book before undertaking their scenes. The only worthwhile performance is Christina Hendricks as Theron’s murdered mom, bringing some dignity to a role that, as written, doesn’t earn it.
Movie Review ~ Fantastic Four The Facts: Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy. Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey Director: Josh Trank Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 100 minutes TMMM Score: (4/10) Review: Well, what can I saw bout the Fantastic Four that hasn’t been said (loudly) already? Is it a lousy movie? Yeah, probably. Could it have been better? After two attempts to bring these characters to the big screen I’m not sure we’ll ever get a decent adaptation. What went so wrong? If you believe the outspoken director, it was studio interference that took his movie from a rich origin story to an overstuffed thundercloud of action movie clichés and fairly terrible special effects. If you are to believe the studio, it was that director Josh Trank (who debuted with the surprise hit Chronicle) disconnected from the material, a development that was costing time and money. Watching the film with this knowledge you can see the moment that something went awry. Because the thing is, the first 20-30 minutes of Fantastic Four is quite good, sensitive even. It’s a slow start and, let’s face it, audiences these days don’t want a slow start. They want their action and they want it now. The studio was happy to oblige and when it becomes a standard summer superhero movie my interest took a nosedive and it became a waiting game of the good guys defeating the bad guys so I could go home. I think the colossal outcry from fans and critics was a little on the dramatic side, even for a superhero film, but it’s not wholly unwarranted.
Movie Review ~ Ricki and the Flash The Facts: Synopsis: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family. Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield Director: Jonathan Demme Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 102 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: So we’ve all long agreed to the fact that Meryl Streep can do no wrong. You can love her for it or hate her for it, but she never fails to impressive me with each new role she takes on. From starring in The Iron Lady to taking a supporting role (cameo, really) in The Homesman, Streep seems to take a role if it speaks to her, no matter the size or commitment. It’s not hard to see why she was attracted to the rough rocker Ricki with her tattoos and braided hair, here was another opportunity for Streep to strip away the classical actress aura and go barefoot into the wild. She’s ably aided by Diablo Cody’s middling script, Jonathan Demme’s careful direction, and a supporting cast that don’t just play second fiddle to Streep’s lead guitar. I think there’s one too many musical numbers allowed to play longer than they should and Cody’s dialogue doesn’t have the snap that it used to. The whole thing is worth it though for a stellar scene between Streep and Audra McDonald, the new wife of Streep’s ex-husband. A sparring match spoken with calm and some care, the two women have an electricity between them that the film needed more of. It falls apart swiftly in its second half, but it’s not a totally out of tune affair.
Movie Review ~ The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The Facts: Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons. Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant Director: Guy Ritchie Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 116 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: I never watched the television series on which this cool-as-can-be spy movie was based on but I’m pretty sure there weren’t the same amount of homoerotic jokes during the weekly adventures of Solo and Kuryakin. While I feel that director Guy Ritchie relied a bit too heavily on his similar experience at the helm of two Sherlock Holmes films, he brings his A game to this big screen adaption, sparing no expense when it came to production design. And that’s a good thing because though it’s never truly predictable, the plot is pretty thin. So it’s up to Ritchie and his cast to sell the film and they are more than up for the challenge. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is perfectly cast as the smooth Solo and he’s well matched with Armie Hammer’s (Mirror Mirror) simmering Kuryakin. The two trade barbs rich with double entendre while protecting Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) from falling into the hands of a sinister villainess (the scene stealing Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gastby). The film looks and sounds amazing, here’s hoping costume designer Joanna Johnston gets an Oscar nomination for her impeccable suits and stunning dresses.
Movie Review ~ End of the Tour The Facts: Synopsis: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner Director: James Ponsoldt Rated: R Running Length: 106 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: I never thought I’d say the words “potential Oscar nominee Jason Segel” in a work of non-fiction…but then again I didn’t think two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill was possible either and look what happened there. Yes, Segel’s work as tormented writer David Foster Wallace is worthy of acclaim as the actor digs deep within and bypasses his comedic instincts to find the truth of the man behind the epic novel Infinite Jest. Jesse Eisenberg (who also pops up in American Ultra) turns in strong work as well, though he’s really just a prop for Segel to react off of. Their five day road trip interview for Rolling Stone is the basis for the movie and it leads the men and the audience into interesting territory. It’s a movie you watch once, appreciate, then file away as something you can recommend to people and feel like you’ve done them a favor. One thing that must be said…Eisenberg needs to learn how to smoke a cigarette. Here and in American Ultra he looks a child does when they are mimicking their parent. Many things about Eisenberg annoy me and this is just another thing to add to the list.
Movie Review ~ The Diary of a Teenage Girl The Facts: Synopsis: A teen artist living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Stars: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig Director: Marielle Heller Rated: R Running Length: 102 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: It’s nice to go into a movie with only a basic logline and a list of the actors featured. I didn’t know what to expect from The Diary of a Teenage Girl but whatever I thought, the movie surprised me in the best ways. The story of a young girl’s sexual awakening in San Francisco is gloriously set in the mid ‘70s, an era of freedom and discovery. While some may be off put by the relationship between an older man and an underage girl (star-in-the-making Bel Powley is older than she looks, thankfully), they’d be missing the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based. It’s a frank flick that frequently finds its actors in the buff but doesn’t feel gratuitous because these characters are coming into themselves, marveling at a new experience they never knew existed. I appreciated that the film pulled no punches in showing nudity and discussing sexual situations and director Marielle Heller shows respect for all people involved. It’s a bold film with animated sequences, a killer soundtrack, and splendid performances.
The dog days of summer brought three other notable releases to theaters, though I’m guessing by the poor box office returns of two of them that the studios (and actors) wish the films had just quietly gone away.
I hadn’t heard a thing about American Ultra until two weeks before it was due to arrive, strange considering it starred Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. The two aren’t serious box office draws but they do have a fanbase that might have helped build more buzz for the stoner comedy. Not that it would have made the film any better because at its best it was a mildly diverting mix of comedy and gratuitous violence and at its worst it was a merely the thing you watched because you’d seen everything else at the theater and wanted some time in the air conditioning. It’s bad when you don’t know what the movie is about, but it’s worse when it feels like the filmmakers don’t have a clue either.
I’ve gone on record as no fan of director Noah Baumbach and very on the fence for actress Greta Gerwig so I wasn’t at all looking forward to their latest collaboration, Mistress America. Once again, the universe has a way of loving to see me humbled and I emerged from the screening not only in a damn fine mood but the desire to see it again. That rarely happens with any movie, let alone a Baumbach/Gerwig joint so that should tell you something about the quality of this movie that is firmly in a New York state of mind. Sure, it has its share of problems but they don’t ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment the film brings.
Finally, there’s the sad, sad case of We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron’s latest attempt to be a serious dramatic actor. While I think it’s Efron’s best dramatic performance to date and didn’t totally hate the film, audiences sure did and it became the third biggest box office failure of all time…pretty stunning considering how many other bad movies have been released and made at least a few million during its opening weekend. I think the film got a bum rap and just was released at the wrong time, but it should hopefully send a message to Efron that he needs to spend some time figuring out exactly where his place is in Hollywood because he is, like his character here, totally lost.
Synopsis: A stoner – who is in fact a government agent – is marked as a liability and targeted for extermination. But he’s too well-trained and too high for them to handle.
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jesse Eisenberg, Connie Britton, Topher Grace, Bill Pullman, John Leguizamo, Walton Goggins, Tony Hale
Director: Nima Nourizadeh
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (4.20/10)
Review: It’s hard to know where to start with a movie like American Ultra because the film itself is all over the map and hard to follow. Woe be to the individual that opts to wait in the concession line for that vat of overpriced popcorn and misses the first few minutes of the movie…but then again it doesn’t really matter because there’s precious little to encourage you to carve time out of your late summer movie-going schedule for this half-baked stoner action comedy spy flick.
Screenwriter Max Landis’ last big screen effort was the surprisingly slick Chronicle but he trips here with a mulligan stew of ideas and jokes that never gel into a satisfying meal. I actually can imagine that Landis turned in a worthy, readable, screenplay that just didn’t translate well as it made its way on camera. The central plot of a government agent/experiment suffering from memory loss living life as a stoner mini-mart worker in a dead end West Virginia town called into action when a rogue CIA sector marks him for death doesn’t have the stench of an also-ran and maybe could have worked (whew…I’m winded after that description…let me take a breath). But in the hands of director Nima Nourizadeh it suffers from cinematic inertia and a curious lack of any committed tone…not to mention a whole host of casting problems.
I continue to fail to see the appeal of Jesse Eisenberg (Now You See Me). He seems only able to play one type of role, a mumbly meek milquetoast and while the film attempts to counteract that with the character’s deadly force training it can’t escape the fact that Eisenberg is terribly miscast in a role he seems uncomfortable in and too old for. Put him in a dime-store wig with a part that keeps changing sides at random and a lumpy flannel and the ho-hum make-under is complete.
Lucky for Eisenberg he has a game co-star in Kristen Stewart (Still Alice), rejoining her Adventureland co-star and saving his butt in every scene (again). Stewart feels much more at ease with her role, Eisenberg’s sweet girlfriend that supports his slacker ways and actually loves him in spite of it all. As the film progresses, we see there’s more to Stewart’s character than we originally were led to believe, allowing the actress some good moments to continue to prove she’s able to play more than a moony vampire lover.
As much as I love Connie Britton (This is Where I Leave You) I find that once again she’s used incorrectly as a top CIA operative with ties to the experimental program Eisenberg was once a part of. Not surprising, she’s the third actress signed to the role after Uma Thurman and Sharon Stone dropped out. Britton can play a steel voiced authority figure no problem but in chunky boots and wool ensemble she always feels like she’s pretending to be a CIA agent rather than really embodying the role.
At least Britton fares better than Topher Grace (Interstellar) who has managed to remain ageless over the years, even though his eyes are seeming to bug out more than ever. The worst example of miscasting, Grace parades around as a snobby CIA agent that opposes Britton wearing twice as much rouge as her and not looking remotely aware of it. Every line reading rings false and he acts without conviction or motivation in a series of scenes that look like deleted skits from the MTV Movie Awards.
In fact, from the astoundingly cheap looking sets, the overall appearance of the movie feels like a late night talk show sketch that runs too long. The lighting is either brilliantly bold (as in a black-light set action sequence where Stewart and Eisenberg’s teeth glow as bright as the whites of their eyes) or murky and flat. Several action scenes look like they were culled from the 11th or 12th take based on the exhausted look of the actors and worst of all the film has nothing really solid to say when it reaches its conclusion. An animated sequence over the end credits is perhaps the most creative thing about the film…but that too is spoiled by an obnoxious score that sonically seems meant to induce dry heaves.
Amidst bloody violence there are some all too brief flashes of what the film could have been, a subversively smart action thriller with a dark comedy slant…but that would have required more effort from the director not to mention a major cast overhaul.
Synopsis: Fearing the actions of a god-like Super Hero left unchecked, Gotham City’s own formidable, forceful vigilante takes on Metropolis’ most revered, modern-day savior, while the world wrestles with what sort of hero it really needs
Release Date: March 25, 2016
Thoughts: As I mentioned in my review of the first teaser for Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice I wasn’t a huge fan of Man of Steel and was pretty reticent that we needed another Batman entry so soon after Christopher Nolan’s quite satisfying trilogy wrapped up. Well, an extended trailer released at the 2015 Comic-Con convention in San Diego has got my attention and while I’m still iffy on this sequel to a sub-par Superman reboot there’s a growing kernel of anticipation for this one that I can’t totally ignore. Like the recent preview for Suicide Squad, I was a little taken aback that the trailer was so long but while it shows audiences what they can expect from the March 2016 release, thankfully not every plot development has been laid out for us. Give it a look…I think, like me, you’ll like what you see.
Synopsis: On the heels of the worldwide success of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder is bringing together the two greatest Super Heroes of all time – Batman and Superman for the first time on the big screen.
Release Date: March 25, 2016
Thoughts: I still think 1979’s Superman: The Movie is one of the best all around “comic-book” origin movies to be made and I was more than willing to give director Zack Snyder’s reboot a fair chance. After all, look what Christopher Nolan did with his reinvention of Batman in three films about the caped crusader. Sadly, Superman’s return in 2013 was a glum bummer, and a movie that took way too long to come out (how can a new Star Wars movie be filmed and come out in a little over a year but Snyder takes almost three years for his meal to cook?). Disappointments aside, the film made good on its franchise starter nature at the box office yet it’s a little surprising that Warner Brothers decided that the sequel should merge its flying superhero with The Dark Knight – the poor guy was enjoying a well-deserved retirement. Feeling the heat from Marvel’s unstoppable films, I’m sure that DC Comics was more than happy to bring their Justice League dreams to light…why else would this Superman sequel feature not only the Man of Steel and Batman but Wonder Woman and Aquaman as well? I hope the film isn’t merely a bridge to a bigger idea, but from the looks of this impressive teaser Snyder may be borrowing a page from Nolan and going ultra-dark.