Movie Review ~ Chi-Raq

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I can’t remember the last Spike Lee movie I saw…I’m ashamed to admit that I kind of gave up on the director about a decade ago after a series of heavy-handed offerings that got bogged down in their own messages.  And I hadn’t even heard about Chi-Raq until a screening popped up on my list so I stayed away from any previews, put away my pre-conceived notions of the director’s past work, and knowing only that it was Lee’s update to Lysistrata by Aristophanes, I let the film speak for itself.

And speak it does…with a strong, loud, clear voice.  It’s Lee’s voice and it’s familiar in its tone and delivery, but wrapped in a timely package about guns, violence, diversity, and peace.  Lee has brought forth his most focused film in quite some time and while it has its interminable sections, there are moments of sheer brilliance that’s as good as anything else I saw in 2015.

In Chicago, violence is at an all-time high. People are gunned down on the streets, in their homes…the innocent and the guilty are indistinguishable. Into this mix we meet Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, giving a star-making performance), the girlfriend of rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who has had it with the violence always right outside of her doorstep.  Moving in with a neighbor hardened by violence in her past (Angela Bassett), her eyes are opened to the power she holds to help effect change in her neighborhood.

After a child is gunned down in broad daylight, Lysistrata and her girlfriends band together to attempt to force their males to put down the weapons and make peace.  How do they do it?  Well, those familiar with Lysistrata will know but for newcomers, I’ll let that be something you discover on your own.  It proves to be a method that brings international attention to the war on street violence, a happening that moves Lysistrata to the front lines of the battlefield.

Lee expertly brings Lysistrata forward to the new millennium and has created a movie arriving when gun violence is at an all-time high and questions about police action and neighborhood activism is front page news.  Using Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) as a hilarious Greek chorus, Lee gets his message across in a more commercial way but its nonetheless powerful in how it’s received.

There are some parts of Chi-Raq that bristle with firepower and moments that seem to stretch on forever, thankfully in the end there’s more that crackles than strains and the end result is a movie that’s important to see with a message imperative to heed.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (June)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHastaWe 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.

June

If May was the month that studios dipped their toe in the summer waters, June was a time when they waded in up to their waists. The first weekend in June saw three high-profile releases, each catering to different audiences to mixed results.

After last summer’s disaster Tammy (my worst film of 2014) I was mighty suspicious of Spy, Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig’s action comedy. After having such success with Bridesmaids the duo reteamed for the underwhelming The Heat so it was a 50/50 shot at how well Spy would do. Lucky for us, it was McCarthy’s best performance to date and by far her most enjoyable film as a solo star. A great, game supporting cast helped make this highly entertaining.

I never watched HBO’s Entourage but felt like I knew what I was getting myself into when catching the big screen outing for the California guys navigating their way through Hollywood and a bevy of beautiful women. It was pretty on par with my expectations but I wasn’t lost in the wilderness with its plot. It was nicely made and an adequate diversion for the time I spent in the theater.

Scary films are usually left for early in the year or around Halloween but several studios were willing to gamble that audiences were ready to be spooked in the summer. First up this season was the third entry in a diminishing franchise:

                                                   Movie Review ~ Insidious: Chapter 3
insidious_chapter_three_ver6The Facts
:
Synopsis: A prequel set before the haunting of the Lambert family that reveals how gifted psychic Elise Rainier reluctantly agrees to use her ability to contact the dead in order to help a teenage girl who has been targeted by a dangerous supernatural entity.
Stars: Lin Shaye, Stefanie Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Hayley Kiyoko
Director: Leigh Whannell
Rated: PG-13
Running Length:  97 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I’ll say this for the third chapter of the Insidious franchise…it’s a lot better than the meandering second outing which strayed a tad too far away from its original mythology. A prequel to the two films, Chapter 3 focuses on a motherless girl that becomes the target of a pretty nasty specter of evil. It’s all fairly standard stuff but not quite as chilling as it thinks it is. The performances sat well with me and I loved that Lin Shaye, an actress that’s been in the biz for quite some time, was brought front and center because she ably carries the picture. I think it’s time to close the book on these films, and it didn’t go out as a total embarrassment…but it could have been handled better.

For some time now, the film I’d been most looking forward to was Jurassic World and on June 12 the film was released to thunderous acclaim from audiences and critics. It quickly broke box office records around the world and squashed any fears that the franchise had run its course. I loved it and happily saw it a second time in 3D IMAX, enjoying it even more on a repeat viewing. Now the wait begins for the next one…and I’m intrigued to see where it’s going next!

Halfway into June two dramas were released to good reviews but audiences didn’t quite seem to find them and I can only hope that they’ll find more success when they become more available via streaming services or rentals.

                                        Movie Review ~ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
me_and_earl_and_the_dying_girlThe Facts
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Synopsis: High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
Stars: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, Bobb’E J. Thompson
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I hardly expected to well up with tears at a movie from the director of the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown and several episodes of American Horror Story. But I did. Eschewing the gauzy mawkishness of the disease of the week melodrama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a creative tear jerker that will make your mascara run…but maybe for not the reasons you expect. It’s almost worth the price of admission to see the titles of the parodies of classic films that are produced by our lead characters…but there’s much more to love about this sweet, knowing film that had a tender heart around its rough edges. Very much worth your time.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Love & Mercy
love_and_mercyThe Facts
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Synopsis: In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
Stars: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Bill Pohlad
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I almost let this one slip of out theaters before catching it and I’m so glad I did. It’s one of the best biopics (music or otherwise) that I’ve seen and features uniformly excellent performances…and this is an especially big accomplishment considering I’m not a fan of the three of the four lead actors. I normally find Paul Dano to be a bit like a marshmallow, puffy and flavorless but he presents a deeply nuanced portrait of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy that suffered from mental illness and madness for most of his life. His brilliance is expertly captured by Dano, less so by John Cusack as the elder Wilson that enters into a relationship with a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) while being treated by a therapist (Paul Giamatti) with questionable morals. Banks is great as always and whatever annoyances Cusack, Giamatti, and Dano have provided in the past are forgiven in director Carl Pohlad’s riveting look into the mind of a troubled man.

Now that I think about it, June was a month with movies that gave my tear ducts a run for their money…never more so than the one two punch of Pixar’s latest and greatest.

Before Inside Out even started, I was wiping my cheeks thanks to their moving short Lava. Entirely set to the music of the Hawaiian islands, it’s a heartfelt tribute to love, dreams, and destiny. I bought the song from iTunes and yes, was moved to tears just listening to the beautiful melody again.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Inside Out

inside_out_ver13The Facts:
Synopsis: After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
Stars: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 94 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Stumbling a bit in recent years by focusing more on sequels instead of original material, the genius minds at Pixar came back in full force with Inside Out, their little lesson to audiences young and old that having emotions and showing them is natural…and a good thing. It’s difficult to present a message like that in a way that will speak to young children as well as the adults in the room but by George they did it. Growing up isn’t easy and feeling the loss of childhood is painful, but the gentle hand guiding the film helps us come to terms with those emotions in the best and brightest way. The waterworks started early and kept on going through the credits. A lovely film.

STAY TUNED FOR JULY & AUGUST!

CHECK OUT MAY!

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Maps to the Stars

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Synopsis: A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.

Release Date: TBA 2014

Thoughts: How it is possible that Julianne Moore hasn’t taken home an Oscar yet?  Though rewarded with a handful of nominations over the years, she’s lost out on all of the big wins and I think it’s time we fixed that, don’t you?  Director David Cronenberg (The Dead Zone) does too and he’s offered Moore a real barnstormer of a role as a self-absorbed actress with a shot at the big time.  Moore (Carrie) took home the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival and if early buzz it to be believed, we’ll see a lot more of the flame haired star when awards season rolls around in a few months.  Co-starring John Cusack (The Raven), Robert Pattinson (The Rover), Sarah Gadon (Enemy, What If), Mia Wasikowska (Stoker) the movie itself looks like your typical Cronenberg head trip…but more always helps things come into focus.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grand Piano

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Synopsis: Moments before his comeback performance, a concert pianist who suffers from stage fright discovers a deadly note written on his music sheet.

Release Date:  March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Taking more than a few choice notes from the likes of Hitchcock and De Palma (Passion), I’m hoping that Grand Piano is better than it looks.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a taut thriller set in a confined space where our lead had to figure out a way to escape death without tipping off the killer but I’m not sure if Elijah Wood has that everyman quality that made Cary Grant and James Stewart so appealing.  The trailer also makes the mistake of giving away the identity of protagonist which could be a risky move if there are no more surprises in store.  Arriving On Demand before a theatrical release, this is one that may go down easier from the comfort of your own couch.

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As Cecil Gaines serves eight presidents during his tenure as a butler at the White House, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, and other major events affect this man’s life, family, and American society.

Stars: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Mariah Carey, John Cusack, Jane Fonda, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard, Minka Kelly, Lenny Kravitz, James Marsden, David Oyelowo, Alex Pettyfer, Vanessa Redgrave, Alan Rickman, Liev Schreiber, Robin Williams

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Let’s get something out of the way right off the bat.  Here’s what a lot of the reviews for this work of historical fiction aren’t telling you – it’s not a very good movie.  I’m not quite sure why so many are reluctant to admit that but after seeing the movie maybe you will have your own opinion as to why.  While Lee Daniels’ The Butler is filled with an impressive array of award-winning talent, the film itself is a Forrest Gump-ish mish-mash of coincidence that winds up squandering opportunities for real watercooler discussion material in favor of shoe-horning in more brushes with historical figures.

Inspired by a real life White House butler who served eight presidents, screenwriter Danny Strong and director Lee Daniels go their own way and fashion Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker, The Last Stand), his wife Gloria (Winfrey), and their two sons Louis (David Oyelowo , Jack Reacher) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley) into figures they can move through history into situations that suit the overall scope of the film in retelling key moments in the Civil Rights Movement.

The reason to see the film is Whitaker and, for the incredibly curious, Oprah Winfrey.  Whitaker takes Strong’s history 101 kitchen sink script and runs with it, creating a man of impressive worth with a powerful story to tell.  It’s too bad that his story and the story of his family are merely a device for the movie to manipulate as the years go by.  As written by Strong, Louis is present at every major pivotal moment in Civil Rights history and each president has a moment of solidarity with Cecil.  Where Forrest Gump could play off these coincidences as accidental and therefore instilled a sliver of believability, here it just seems like the poorly constructed maneuver it actually is.

Absent from the silver screen since 1998’s misfire Beloved, Winfrey makes the most out of a bad situation (and at least two abysmal costumes) and seizes each moment that allows her to emote.  With a laid-back, casual acting style, Winfrey may not win any awards for the role (and really, she shouldn’t) but it’s respectable work that you can tell she fought for.  I just wish she was in a better film because as her debut performance in 1986’s The Color Purple showed us, she’s a more than capable actress.

Rounding out the trio of leads, Oyelowo has the trickiest of the roles because his plot line is the most far-fetched and least fleshed out.  Starting off as a peaceful protester in his Southern college town during the beginning of the race riots, he soon joins the Freedom Riders only to be swept up into the violence of the early days of the Black Panther movement.  Oyelowo and his girlfriend (gorgeous Yaya Alafia) take on not only Ruth E. Carter’s impressive array of period costumes but handle their historical movements with skilled dedication.

Playing presidents and others to largely successful results is a starry line-up that runs the gamut from spot on (Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as The Reagans, Liev Schreiber as LBJ) to the “Okay, if you say so” (John Cusack as Richard Nixon).  Broadway vets Coleman Domingo and Adriane Lenox also turn in well-rounded supporting performances.

Cinematographer Andrew Dunn favors a gauzy look which gives the film a humid fuzz that didn’t work for me.  It creates a swampy feel whenever we aren’t at the White House and as the years go by and some questionable old age make-up is applied to our actors, the movie feels deliberately out of focus.  The score by newcomer Rodrigo Leão sounds like a re-working of The West Wing theme and is neither memorable or telling of the talents of the composer.

The movie unspools like clockwork with pretty much every event foreshadowed in an earlier scene.  It’s so workmanlike and designed for mass consumption that I’m actually surprised director Daniels wanted to be a part of it.  Directing the hard-hitting Precious and the lurid The Paperboy, Daniels seems to like to take his audiences on a journey but here he’s merely a passenger like the rest of us.  Originally intended as a project for Spike Lee, the movie feels more convenient than timely…the kind of film viewers can see and pat themselves on the back afterward.

Aimed squarely at gaining Oscar nominations, the film made headlines before it was even released when Warner Brothers sued distributor The Weinstein Company over the title.  It seems like Warner Brothers had a short film in its vaults from 1916 also called The Butler that they didn’t want the public to confuse with this work from 2013.  The comprise was to include the director’s name in front of the title…something I’m sure Lee Daniels had no trouble with.  That anyone would confuse the two movies is a mystery to me because I’m sure the earlier film didn’t have a scene with LBJ on the toilet barking out orders.

That the film winds up with some small measure of success is thanks to the performances of Whitaker, Winfrey, and Oyelowo with work that rises above Strong’s less than profound script.  It’s not a great film but it’s not boring or a total write-off.  If anything, I left the screening wanting to know more about the real characters and situations the movie touches on.  In the end, any film that brings up the discussion on the evolution of Civil Rights (however ham-fisted the discussion is scripted) in our country earns a qualified recommendation.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

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Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.

Mid-Day Mini ~ The Grifters

The Facts:

Synopsis: A small-time conman has torn loyalties between his estranged mother and new girlfriend–both of whom are high-stakes grifters with their own angles to play.

Stars: Anjelica Huston, John Cusack, Annette Bening, Pat Hingle

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  In 1990 Angelica Huston played two very bad women.  In The Witches, Huston was delightfully over the top as the Grand High Witch that can’t stand children and while she doesn’t play a witch in The Grifters, her lack of a moral compass is just as chilling.  The performance rightfully earned her an Oscar nomination alongside Best Supporting Actress nominee Annette Bening in the movie that really put her on the map.  They are the mother and girlfriend of a two-bit con artist played well by John Cusack in this dark comedy noir by UK director Stephen Frears.  The three actors work some interesting cons along the way, with Bening in particular using her considerable assets to almost walk away with the movie.  Still, anytime Huston is on screen she rules the roost with her platinum hair and scheming plans.  With Donald E. Westlake adapting the slick film from a novel by Jim Thompson, this is a treasure chest of double crosses, dead bodies, and one very scary sack of oranges.