Movie Review ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

 

The Facts:

Synopsis: A lavish train ride unfolds into a stylish & suspenseful mystery. From the novel by Agatha Christie, Murder on the Orient Express tells of thirteen stranded strangers & one man’s race to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman, Judi Dench, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Lucy Boynton, Sir Derek Jacobi, Josh Gad, Penelope Cruz, Sergei Polunin, Willem Dafoe

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: In my limited experience with Amtrak, I’ve come to the conclusion travel by train through the Midwest can be the most exciting way to be bored. There’s a rush of fun and thrill to board, find your seat, and sit back as the chugging engine moves you past the fields of wheat and country roads. Then that first half hour is over and you realize you have seven more to go until you reach your destination. I’ll admit that there were times when I wish there was something more exciting to do aside from looking forward to your time in the dining car. Not saying that murder would be a welcome addition to riding the rails but…it could spice things up a bit.

Maybe that’s why I was always such a fan of Agatha Christie’s sparkling 1934 novel, Murder on the Orient Express and its various incarnations on film and television over the years. I have a particular fondness for Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film that featured Albert Finney as Christie’s famed moustachioed detective, Hercule Poirot. Though too young for the role and padded enough to make him look like a Belgian Humpty Dumpty, Finney won me over (even if Christie didn’t care for him) and the ensemble cast of A-listers made solving the mystery Christie cooked up that much more fun. Poirot has ridden the Orient Express again in two more adaptations for television but he’s back onscreen under the guidance of director/star Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and the results are similarly old-fashioned and quite fun.

Many are going to have a problem with the relative cool tone of the film and it’s aloof star player. This is a movie that unspools slowly and with precision, taking care to present grand elegance instead of common luxury and nuanced performances in place of star cameos. I’m not saying it all works but, for me, it was the ride I was hoping for.

On his way back to London to help with a case, Poirot finds himself on the famed Orient Express on a three day journey back from Istanbul. The train is unusually crowded at this late winter date so all compartments are occupied. En route, Poirot’s careful eye sees an unusual familiarity between two supposed strangers (Daisy Ridley, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr.) and a sadness in a deeply religious missionary (Penelope Cruz, Zoolander 2).  He spots a divide in the working relationship between an art dealer (Johnny Depp, Tusk) and his two employees (Derek Jacobi, Cinderella, and Josh Gad, Beauty & the Beast) and observes a brusque chill from a Russian Princess (Judi Dench, Skyfall) traveling with her maid (Olivia Colman, Hyde Park on Hudson).  There’s also a strange German doctor (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) and a brash man-eater (Michelle Pfeiffer, mother!) keeping him occupied and, at the very least, entertained.

It’s when the train derails in the middle of the night and one of the passengers ends up dead that Poirot’s brief bid for rest gets interrupted. There’s a killer onboard and the longer Poirot interrogates each passenger the more he begins to realize there are multiple suspects with the same motivation.  Can he detect who done the deed before the rescue crews arrive and the train makes its way to its final stop?  The solution to this one is a corker and those who know it won’t be surprised but Branagh and company want you to remember it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters.

This is a handsome looking film and Branagh has captured it nicely in 65mm, preserving the lushness of the setting and maintaining the classic grain of a celluloid experience while keeping things crisp. The landscapes are almost entirely CGI (didn’t think Dench was going to get snowbound in the middle of nowhere did you?) but the period details are all practical and perfect.  Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (Thor)works with Branagh to find interesting angles, such as the discovery of the body filmed from above which makes the audience feel like we’re watching rats in a maze.  There are nice long takes as the camera moves throughout the train and everyone is framed to look their absolute best.

Branagh will likely catch some heat for making the thrust of the film rely a bit too much on him. The magic of the previous movie was how well balanced Finney was with the rest of the actors; Ingrid Bergman even won an Oscar for her small role which is played here by Cruz.  The interrogation scenes felt more intimate and personal there whereas under Branagh’s watch the interviews are brief and blunt.  There’s a crime from the past that mysteriously links everyone on board and because it weighs so heavily into the solution there could have been better steps taken by screenwriter Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) to lay the groundwork throughout the first ¾ of the film.

I didn’t mind Branagh’s screen time, nor did I think twice about his crazy facial hair or thick Belgian accent. I liked his persnickety ways and it plays nicely off the rest of the cast who are allowed to be a bit more broad.  The film ends with a hint that we might get more Poirot (Death on the Nile, from the sound of it) and I’d be up for another adventure with Branagh.  Dench, as always, makes the most out of her role, easily nailing all of her character’s grand snooty comebacks.  Gad and Depp are usually pain points for me but they play a good game here, both actors are restrained without feeling constrained.  Ridely, Odom Jr., and Cruz might be far less memorable than previous actors that have played these roles but they acquit themselves nicely the more we get to know them.  Lovely Pfeiffer is having a grand time playing a loudmouth widow, she looks gorgeous and Branagh even got her to sing a lullaby over the closing credits.  Pfeiffer has a sweet, if thin, voice but it works for the song and the character.

I always enjoyed watching the original film during the winter months on a cold day. It’s good timing this new version is coming out just as the temperature is dropping and snow is on the horizon.  It’s a perfect film for a lazy day or sophisticated night out.  The deliberate pace and overall conservation of energy might bore audiences that just paid to see the brain smashing Thor: Ragnorok last weekend, but I’d encourage you to book passage on Murder on the Orient Express for another type of adventure.

The Silver Bullet ~ Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Synopsis: A lavish train ride through Europe quickly unfolds into the thrilling mystery of thirteen strangers stranded on a train, where everyone’s a suspect. One man must race against time to solve the puzzle before the murderer strikes again.

Release Date: November 10, 2017

Thoughts: Oh boy does this one look fun.  Based on Agatha Christie’s twist-filled 1934 novel, audiences have traveled on the Orient Express already in a BBC adaptation and the 1974 star-studded spectacle which remains one of my all time favorite films.  I admit I grimaced a bit when I heard a new version was in the works but as the cast came together for director/star Kenneth Branagh’s remake I began to soften a little.  This first trailer hints at the high level of class the filmmakers are employing for this murder mystery and though I’m guessing movie-goers may chuckle a bit at Branagh’s grandiose Poirot mustache I’d be willing to bet they’ll be intrigued enough to hop on board when it’s released in November. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer (Grease 2), Judi Dench (Skyfall), Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows), Penelope Cruz (Zoolander 2), Daisy Ridley (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Willem Dafoe (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and, regrettably, Josh Gad (Frozen)

Movie Review ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An adaptation of the Disney fairy tale about a monstrous-looking prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Stars: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Sir Ian McKellen, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Luke Evans, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Dan Stevens, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, Hattie Morahan

Director: Bill Condon

Rated: PG

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10, 7.5 on a second viewing)

Review: Let’s start with the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: I had to see this live-action version of Beauty and the Beast twice before I felt I could really give it a fair shake.  I had been so looking forward to seeing Disney’s classic tale come to life that I perhaps went in with expectations dialed too high, spending much of the first screening feeling a bit, well, let-down.  Not that the production design wasn’t glorious (it is), not that the music wasn’t stirring (Alan Menken’s score still dazzles), and not that the actors giving flesh and bone life to characters crafted in animation studios weren’t up to the task (they are…mostly), but there was something that just didn’t hit my ‘Thrill Me’ button.  Seeing it again two weeks later in 3D accompanied by rich Dolby Atmos sound, I found some magic that wasn’t there before…but many of the problems remained.

Let’s go back to 1991 when Disney hand-drawn animation reached its full renaissance and true zenith with the release of Beauty and the Beast.  A dynamite blockbuster and instant classic, it also became the first animated film to be nominated for Best Picture (other nominees that year? Bugsy, JFK, The Prince of Tides, and the winner The Silence of the Lambs) a title it held for 18 years until the list of nominees was expanded and Pixar’s Up nabbed a nom.  Disney recognized it had a property that could have a life beyond the silver screen and soon Beauty and the Beast became a highly popular and endlessly profitable Broadway musical.  With countless releases on video, DVD, BluRay and a 2012 re-release in 3D, the film is easily Disney’s bread and butter.  It’s no wonder, then, that with the popularity of Disney’s recent slate of live-action adaptations of their classic animated films (Maleficent, Cinderella, The Jungle Book), Beauty and the Beast is swooping back into theaters in a lavish new production.

You know the story, right?  Snooty, spoiled prince angers old beggar woman that’s really an enchantress in disguise.  Prince is turned into a beast and his staff are turned into various objects until the prince/beast learns to love and be loved in return.  Enter headstrong and misunderstood Belle who winds up imprisoned by the Beast but warms his cold heart.  The rest is fairy tale history.

My biggest issue with 2017’s BatB (let’s shorten it, shall we?) is its length.  The original film was a solid 84 minutes with very little in the way of excess plot, characters, or showiness but this film is 129 minutes and feels longer than it had to be.  That’s due to some baffling additions in plot and characters that feel like distractions from the action instead of support for the story.

Take Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) and Stanley Tucci (Spotlight) as the castle entertainment turned into a wardrobe and a cadenza, respectively.  McDonald’s character isn’t new but the role is beefed up to ridiculous proportions, seemingly only to have an excuse to showcase McDonald’s glorious soprano.  Tucci’s piano man adds nothing to the plot and winds up taking time away from established characters Cogsworth (Sir Ian McKellen, The Wolverine, crazily underused) and Lumiere (Scotsman Ewan McGregor, A Million Ways to Die in the West, nearly nailing a French accent).  Emma Thompson’s (Saving Mr. Banks) is no Angela Lansbury but, even though an obvious choice, her warm-hearted Mrs. Potts gets the job done, delivering a sweet interpretation of the title tune.

Screenwriter Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) has made the curious decision to provide a backstory for Belle and her father that involves Paris, a windmill, and the Black Plague.  While it may give more dimension to the character in general, it takes up too much time and again feels like it was added to introduce one of Menken’s new songs.

Ah…the songs.  Three songs from original musical written by Menken and the late Howard Ashman were nominated for an Oscar and hearing them again with a full orchestra it’s not hard to see (or hear) why.  ‘Belle’ is still an energetic introduction not only to our heroine but to her “poor provincial town” as well.  I missed some of the eccentric townsfolk Disney animators dreamed up, they’ve been replaced by bland-ish niceties that strangely seem more sinister than their hand-drawn inspirations ever did.  ‘Be Our Guest’ remains the star centerpiece with McGregor and an entire Crate and Barrel’s worth of kitchen fare going Busby Berkley when serving dinner.  I’ve heard ‘Beauty and the Beas’t a zillion times in a million different versions but it never fails to choke me up with its grand music but tender lyrics.  Surprisingly, the songs Menken and Tim Rice wrote for the Broadway musical are jettisoned for lesser carbon copies.  I can’t quite understand why the Beast’s knock-out Act 1 closing number ‘If I Can’t Love Her’ was replaced by ‘Evermore’ which says nearly the exact same thing.  So, too, for ‘Days in the Sun’, taking the place of ‘Human Again’ without much justification.  The only semi-winner in the bunch is ‘How Can a Moment Last Forever’, sung by Emma Watson and Kevin Kline in the movie and Celine Dion over the closing credits.  It’s a clear bid for an Oscar nomination and never count Menken out to sneak in and win the prize.

Director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) has never had the lightest touch and it shows in several frenetically edited numbers that cut away when they should be pulling back and showing the choreography.  It’s interesting that the best staged number (‘Be Our Guest’) is the one largely done with CGI and not the otherwise exuberant opening number or villain Gaston’s big boastful number set in a beer hall.  I was worried that the enchanted objects would look odd and they most certainly do.  It takes a good fifteen minutes to adjust to these computer creations which are blended seamlessly into the live-action pieces.  The castle design is gorgeous and the film looks like it spent every nickel of its sizable budget.

In the title roles, Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) and Emma Watson (Noah) are just dandy but don’t truly possess the ‘It” factor that would make them feel like the only possible choices.  Watson’s got a good demeanor and knows exactly who Belle is, but her singing voice is AutoTuned to an almost comical level and I so missed hearing the soaring vocals of Paige O’Hara.  Though Stevens feels slightly too old next to Watson (giving further fodder to the whole Stockholm Syndrome debate that’s followed the tale since it’s origins), he manages to create an actual character within the constraints of his motion-captured Beast creation.  He’s got a nice singing voice too.

The best of the non-professionals is Luke Evans (The Raven) as Gaston.  Though he isn’t the ‘size of a barge’ as his character indicates in song, he’s a nicely nasty villain cut-off at the knees by the independent Belle and her protective father (Kevin Kline, The Big Chill).  He’s got a rich voice and makes each of his scenes and interactions count, I like that he didn’t try to excuse Gaston’s actions or show any redeeming qualities that might make us feel sorry for him.  Then there’s Josh Gad (The Wedding Ringer), an actor I just don’t get.  I liked him in Frozen when he was heard and not seen but as Gaston’s sidekick Lefou he’s easily the most grating presence in the film.  Condon gives Gad far too much slack to modernize his character through shamelessly mugging while lip-synching terribly and though his affections for Gaston are plain as day, the “exclusive gay moment” being buzzed about is a blink and you’ll miss it beat most won’t even recognize.

There’s no doubt this is going to make Disney another trillion dollars at the box office and in clever tie-ins but for me this was the least successful live-action update so far.  It wants to have it both ways; being reverential to the original one moment and not quite as precious to it in another.  Condon wraps it up with a terrible final edit that only made me angrier the second time I saw it. Rated PG, it rides the line of being too long for little kids and pretty scary when you throw in two fairly terrifying wolf attacks.  It’s much darker than the animated film so parents should think twice before taking the tots to this – popping in the original would be my suggestion.

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017) – Trailer 2

beauty_and_the_beast_ver2

Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: No, YOU teared up when you were watching this look at Beauty and the Beast…ok…I did too.  One of Disney’s most beloved animated fairy tales comes to live action life from director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) in 2017 and it looks like, well, a beauty.  We all know the story so even seeing some spoilerific scenes doesn’t deter me from counting down the days until this one gets released.  Boasting an impressive cast with Emma Watson (The Bling Ring), Kevin Kline (The Big Chill), Emma Thompson (Beautiful Creatures), Sir Ian McKellen (X: Men – Days of Future Past), Josh Gad (Frozen), Luke Evans (The Raven), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games), and Ewan McGregor (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) all signing and dancing up a storm, anticipation is high for Beauty and the Beast to be another jewel in Disney’s recent slate of live action remakes of their cartoon classics.

View the teaser trailer here: Beauty and the Beast – Teaser Trailer

The Silver Bullet ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Beauty-and-the-Beast-2017-logo-beauty-and-the-beast-2017-38814471-1360-572

Synopsis: An adaptation of the classic fairy-tale about a monstrous prince and a young woman who fall in love.

Release Date: March 17, 2017

Thoughts: Gosh darn it, there’s no denying that Disney is sure on a winning streak with re-purposing their animated fairy-tale canon as live action films. After the winning success of 2015’s Cinderella and the eye-popping visuals of The Jungle Book, Disney is unleashing the big guns in 2017 with their production of Beauty and the Beast.  Already well represented in the flesh in a Broadway show and touring companies around the world, the stars are aligning for this to be one beauty of a movie. This first teaser gave me legit goosebumps, mostly due to the creative use of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman’s haunting score and the briefest of first looks at Emma Watson (The Bling Ring) as Belle and the voices of Ian McKellen (The Wolverine) and Ewan McGregor (August: Osage County) as Cogsworth and Lumiere, respectively.  In future trailers I’m sure we’ll see more of Dan Stevens (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) as Beast, Luke Evans (Dracula Untold) as Gaston, Audra McDonald (Ricki and the Flash) as Garderobe, Emma Thompson (Saving Mr. Banks) as Mrs. Potts, and Kevin Kline (The Big Chill) as Maurice.  Directed by Bill Condon (Mr. Holmes), I’m praying it’s light on gimmicky CGI and retains the heart that made the animated film such an instant classic.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (July)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHasta

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.

JulyI just wasn’t prepared for July. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a wave of cinematic excursions that made my head spin. So many movies were released that it was hard to keep track from week to week what was arriving and what was still waiting for its release date. As you can see below, I had a lot of catching-up to do

The month began with the disappointment of Terminator Genisys. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger but it for sure wasn’t the muddled misfire that was supposed to reboot this franchise. Badly cast with shoddy special effects, this was supposed to be the beginning of something but should likely be the end (though it did do well overseas so we may yet get another one of these in a few years).

A few summers back I lamented how bad the original Magic Mike was. Trading eye candy entertainment for any semblance of watchable narrative, it was another dud (for me) from Steven Soderbergh. So you’d understand why I wasn’t keen on Magic Mike XXL because I felt we’d already been there done that. Much to my delight, the sequel was much better than its predecessor, maintaining the fun frivolity of the world of male strippers while injecting some personality into the proceedings. Quite possible the biggest surprise of the summer for me.

I learned a lot from the wise documentary Amy, chronicling the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the singer with the bluesy voice and broken butterfly backstory. She had a lot to overcome and the film made a compelling argument that she would still be here today had she had a better support system.

Though I loved the Minions in the Despicable Me films, I didn’t care for their solo outing with its half-baked story and less that inspired vocal work. It felt like a quick cash-grab and it looks like it accomplished its goal. Hopefully next time they’ll come back with a better story and more convincing actors.

The found footage horror movie had its death knell with The Gallows, a brainless exercise in tedium peppered with cheap scares and lousy acting. Could have (and should have) been much better.

Now we approach a stretch where I checked out for a bit – but I’m atoning for it now with these mini-reviews.

                                                        Movie Review ~ Batkid Begins
batkid_begins_the_wish_heard_around_the_world_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: On one day, in one city, the world comes together to grant one 5-year-old cancer patient his wish. Batkid Begins looks at the ‘why’ of this flash phenomenon.
Stars: Miles Scott
Director: Dana Nachman
Rated: PG
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Can I admit something to you and not have you hate me?  When I first saw the media frenzy around this back in 2013 I remember rolling my eyes are the saccharine nature of the whole endeavor.  Why would an entire city be brought to a screeching halt because of one kid’s wish to be Batman for a day?  Well, the documentary Batkid Begins showed me why and by the end I was feeling like a lout for my initial feelings and wiping away the happy tears the film easily brings forth from the viewer.  Following the planning and execution by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a 5 year old leukemia survivor the day of his dreams, viewers get a glimpse at what goes into even the smallest wish granted by the organization.  While it at times comes off like a big advertisement, it’s heart is most certainly in the right place and I found myself getting choked up with each good deed and promise fulfilled by a host of people involved in making the day come off without a hitch. An audience-pleasing winner.

                                                        Movie Review ~ The Overnight
overnight_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on.
Stars: Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godrèche
Director: Patrick Brice
Rated: R
Running Length: 79 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There and gone in an instant, The Overnight is a film better suited for home viewing anyway.  A couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) new to the area meet Jason Schwartzman at a local playground where both of their children are playing.  Their kids have hit it off so Schwartzmann invites the family over for more fun, but when the kids go to bed Schwartzman and his wife Judith Godrèche have more interesting games to play for the unsuspecting couple.  Saying more would spoil the fun but it’s an adults only evening with oodles of twists and turns as both couples bare their secrets (and their bodies) before the night is over.  Already famous for its full frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (sorry, both are wearing prosthetics), at 79 minutes the movie is short but does start to feel long in the middle section.  It helps immensely that all four actors are competent and comfortable with the material…the story doesn’t hold back and neither do they.

                                                              Movie Review ~ Ant-Man
ant_man_ver3The Facts
:
Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world.
Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, David Dastmalchian, T.I. , Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Gregg Turkington, Abby Ryder Fortson
Director: Peyton Reed
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Early troubles with the start of production with Ant-Man and some seriously questionable teasers/trailers didn’t get me very excited for this mid-summer superhero movie.  I think Marvel was hoping that Ant-Man would score along the lines of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy but it’s sadly missing the humor that made Guardians so much fun.  It’s not a total wash though because for every 10 minutes of standard origin-story developments, there’s a solid 5 minutes of exciting action sequences to wake audiences up from their slumber.  I know that with an origin story you need to cover a lot of ground and Ant-Man, to its additional credit, doesn’t waste much time in getting to the goods…but it’s a cheap-o undertaking and one that feels like a second-string entry in Marvel’s blockbuster universe.  Paul Rudd makes for a surprisingly solid action lead as does Corey Stoll as Rudd’s nemesis, but Evangeline Lilly labors too much under her severe wig (that seems to change lengths multiple times, in the middle of scenes) and isn’t a good enough actress to carry some weighty responsibilities.  A decent entry as far as Marvel films go…but I’m not clamoring for a sequel any time soon.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Irrational Man
irrational_manThe Facts
:
Synopsis: A tormented philosophy professor finds a will to live when he commits an existential act.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: It happens every year and every year you never quite know what to expect.  I’m speaking, of course, of the annual Woody Allen release and like many of the directors works, it’s a hit or miss affair.  I’m constantly in awe that Allen has churned out a film a year (sometimes two a year) for the last three decades and even the really bad ones aren’t as terrible as the other dreck dumped on us during the summer.  Last year Magic in the Moonlight was dismissed as too slight even for Allen but I enjoyed its frothy charm…something that was missing from the more serious-minded Irrational Man.  As a boozy professor that gets into hot water in his New England college town, Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps the wrong choice because the actor plagues himself far too much for Allen’s light material. At least co-star Emma Stone helps keep Phoenix from the quicksand of his own creation but she can’t be in every scene and it’s when Phoenix is on his own that the film goes slack.  Then there’s Parker Posey who I’m becoming convinced is simply not of this earth and doesn’t try to hide it anymore.  Bizarre line readings and the tendency to let her mouth hang open are only the tip of Posey’s strange acting iceberg. Very much in line with the dark humor of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man should hold your interest for a time but it’s quickie ending feels like Allen was ready to move on to his next film rather than put a period at the end things.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Trainwreck
trainwreckThe Facts
:
Synopsis: Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy.
Stars: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, LeBron James, Method Man
Director: Judd Apatow
Rated: R
Running Length: 125 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: One of the true success stories of the summer has to have been Amy Schumer, not so much for writing and starring in Trainwreck but the collective impact she’s had on the comedy scene.  Unapologetic in her crassness and wise in her observations, Schumer is a comic moving like a shooting star and it’s nice to report that I think she’s a pretty decent actress as well. As much as I enjoy Schumer I was nervous that she was attaching herself to director Judd Apatow because Apatow, as we all know, has a way of turning in muddled work.  Unfortunately, Apatow’s influence led the film to be about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be and ultimately overstaying its welcome.  I don’t care what anyone says about the appearance of LeBron James as a bona fide supporting player, his entire storyline should have been excised and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all.  The problems get worse because Apatow likes to cast non-actors in his film and put in cameos when you least expect it…to the detriment of the flow of the narrative.  He stumbles badly in several places here but is saved by Schumer and Bill Hader as the opposites attract duo that confidently lead the film.  Special mention must, again, be made to Tilda Swinton for disappearing within her role as Schumer’s glam yet grim boss.  Worth it for Schumer, Swinton, and Hader…but watch it at home so you can fast forward through the slow Apatow-ish parts.

                                                           Movie Review ~ Mr. Holmes
mr_holmes_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.
Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Philip Davis, Milo Parker
Director: Bill Condon
Rated: PG
Running Length: 104 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In reality, I probably should have given Mr. Holmes a more thorough review than I’m about to give here…but I have a feeling I’ll have a chance to discuss it more over the next few months because if all is right with the world Ian McKellen will find himself nominated in a few Best Actor categories during the end of the year awards round-up.  McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes living in the country, attended to by a no-nonsense housekeeper (Laura Linney) and entertained by her young son. There’s actually three Holmes on display here as the present Holmes recalls two previous cases he was involved with that had an impact on his life.  With a smart script from Jeffrey Hatcher adapted from a popular novel, it’s directed with a mellow grandeur by Bill Condon.  Condon and McKellen scored before with the fascinating Gods and Monsters and here’s hoping they go the distance with this one too.  An interesting tidbit, at one point Holmes ventures out to see a Sherlock Holmes movie…and the actor playing Holmes on screen (Nicholas Rowe) played the detective in 1986’s fun frolic Young Sherlock Holmes.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Paper Towns
paper_townsThe Facts
:
Synopsis: A young man and his friends embark upon the road trip of their lives to find the missing girl next door.
Stars: Nat Wolff, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith
Director: Jake Schreir
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  After The Fault in Our Stars became a runaway hit last summer movie studios were looking for the next big alt-teen romance that could lure YA audiences away from summer action flicks.  Turns out they didn’t have to look far because Paper Towns was adapted from the novel by the same author as The Fault in Our Stars.  While Paper Towns doesn’t center around a disease that threatens to tear our lovebirds apart, it has its own mystery about it as Nat Wolff goes looking for his recently vanished neighbor (Cara Delevingne) that he’s been enamored with (or more like fascinated by) since they were children.  Following the clues she seemingly left for him, Wolff and his friends embark on a journey of discovery where they Learn Life Lessons.  The film kept my interest for most of the running length and it’s only in the final passages when all is explained does it feel a little like a letdown.  Still, there’s a smart air of riskiness that elevates the film and more often than not it lands on the good side of taking that risky step.

 

                                                                 Movie Review ~ Pixels
pixelsThe Facts
:
Synopsis: When aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth in the form of the video games.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Brian Cox, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad
Director: Chris Columbus
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: A movie where everyone involved should hang their head in shame.  There’s actually some semblance of a good idea here with aliens attacking earth with classic arcade games but unfortunately it gets trampled by Adam Sandler’s lazy acting, Kevin James bad acting, and Josh Gad’s awful everything.  Michelle Monaghan looks positively embarrassed to be sharing scenes (especially romantic ones) with Sandler and only Peter Dinklage comes out relatively unscathed in a campy, mullet wearing performance.  For fans of ‘80s nostalgia there are some pleasant diversions as video game characters pop up in (supposedly) comical ways and I think that director Chirs Columbus really did give the material a chance to be something interesting…but Sandler and his crew suck the life out of everything and are so devoid of any vested interest that you wonder why you should care at all either.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Southpaw
southpaw_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Clare Foley, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Naomie Harris
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Rated: R
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: By now, we know that Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart actor.  With role after role from Prisoners to Nightcrawler to End of Watch we’ve seen that he’s up for most any challenge and likes to dive deep into his roles.  So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to this tale of redemption concerning a famous boxer at the top of his game dealt a series of terrible blows (in more ways than one) and his eventual path back to himself. What is surprising is that while the performances are very good you can’t get away from the fact that the story feels recycled and originally intended for a different set of lower string stars.  I’m always on the fence regarding Forest Whitaker but as the wise boxing manager that grudgingly comes to Gyllenhaal’s aid, the actor reminds us why he so deserved his Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland.  Also turning in a great performance in Rachel McAdams (The Vow) as Gyllenhaal’s high school sweetheart, mother of his daughter, and the only one that seems to have his best interest at heart.

Southpaw was also at the center of some controversy that arose this summer about movie trailers that give away too much of the film.  If you have seen the trailer for Southpaw you know what I’m talking about…if you haven’t, please go into the movie blind.  I had a faint idea what the spoiler was and even that made the first ¼ of the film much less involving.  Worth it for the performances but gets knocked out by an also-ran plot.

                                                              Movie Review ~ Samba
samba_ver7The Facts
:
Synopsis: Samba migrated to France ten years ago from Senegal, and has since been plugging away at various lowly jobs. Alice is a senior executive who has recently undergone a burn-out. Both struggle to get out of their dead-end lives. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers, while Alice tries to get her life back on track until fate draws them together.
Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo
Director: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: Of all the movies I’m talking about in this wrap-up this is one I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard of.  And you couldn’t be blamed because this barely made a blip on the usually forgiving art-house circuit.  From the star and directors of 2012’s dynamite The Intouchables comes this story of an immigrant man living in France who crosses paths with a burned out executive when the man is discovered to be an illegal alien.  Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t have that much chemistry but in a weird way it works for the oddball romance that develops over the course of the film.  I never could get a real feel if the movie was a comedy, drama, or something in between…and neither could most of the people involved.  Slightly recommended but only if the plot or stars appeal to you.

That almost did it for July…but there was still one weekend to go!  Moving up several months from its planned December release, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise had its brains in the right place but at times forgot to bring its brawn.  I still prefer Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation but as long as star Tom Cruise keeps making these films interesting I’ll keep accepting future missions. Here’s hoping he brings along Rebecca Ferguson again because finally there is a female that is every bit a match to Cruise’s daring agent.

I wasn’t sold at all when I heard that Warner Brothers was planning on remaking National Lampoon’s Vacation but as time went on I heard more that it was more of a sequel than a reboot (resequel?) and I started coming around to the idea of a new Vacation.  I enjoyed Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the hapless couple traveling cross-country with their children…but audiences and most critics didn’t.  It wasn’t a great movie and was probably too crude to be part of your Vacation marathons…but I have to say the worst part about it was when original stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo showed up.  Still, I’m hoping it made enough money to warrant a holiday themed sequel.  In any event…it’s a damn sight better than European Vacation.

Wow – July didn’t skimp on variety, did it?  Arguably the hottest month for releases, it carried over the promise of May and June and laid a path for August to do quite well…but could it top the three months that came before it?

STAY TUNED FOR AUGUST

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE!

Movie Review ~ The Wedding Ringer

1

wedding_ringer

The Facts:

Synopsis: Two weeks shy of his wedding, a socially awkward guy enters into a charade by hiring the owner of a company that provides best men for grooms in need.

Stars: Josh Gad, Kevin Hart, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting, Cloris Leachman, Jenifer Lewis,  Olivia Thirlby, Mimi Rogers, Ken Howard

Director: Jeremy Garelick

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review: I suppose it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement to say that this new Kevin Hart and Josh Gad comedy isn’t nearly as bad as it looks.  The kind of raunchy bro-fest film a critic dreads an impending screening of, I wasn’t prepared to enjoy it as much as I did.

Well, enjoy is maybe too strong of a word…let’s go with tolerate.  What we have here is a C-grade script given the B-movie treatment thanks in no small part to an A-list star.  Yes, I’m finally giving Hart (Ride Along) his due because the role was tailor made for his talents and the comedian delivers the least annoying performances of his skyrocketing career.

In an opening scene before the studio logo is even displayed (interesting choice), we meet roly poly Doug (Gad, Frozen, Thanks for Sharing) as he goes down a list of casual male acquaintances in the hunt for a best man for his nuptials to Gretchen (Cuoco-Sweeting) less than two weeks away.  Moving around in his youth left him no time to make real friends so here he finds himself about to get married with no family to speak of and without any groomsmen.

Enter Jimmy (Hart), who runs a company that provides his best man services for a price.  Doug hires Jimmy to be his stand-up guy and Jimmy organizes a group of groomsmen that, as Doug puts it, “look like the cast of The Goonies grew up and became rapists.”  From there it’s a ribald mix of frat boy humor involving peanut butter on genitals, a rowdy old vs. young game of muddy tackle football, and in the film’s most hilarious sequence, a grandmother (Cloris Leachman, The Croods) in flames.

Don’t worry if all this raises some major flags in your movie-ometer…it’s certainly no prize of a film.  The basic premise is ludicrous and the movie hammers home the kind of clichéd gender stereotypes usually reserved for in-class demonstrations illustrating how far we’ve come as a society (Men don’t cry! Women have feelings!), and a romantic subplot for Hart seems to be there only because they found an actress as short as Hart is.  Even so, I found myself engaged by Hart’s energy (he’s less screechy and ADD-ish here than ever) and entertained by the proceedings though I knew I had no real right to.

It’s important to note that the usually exasperating Gad is toned down here.  Even if the actor is subjected to one too many injuries to the face or crotch, Gad doesn’t let the role morph into one big fat joke.  I’ve never watched Cuoco-Sweeting on The Big Bang Theory so can’t speak much to her historically but let’s just say her work here screams “TV Actress On The Big Screen”.

Not great, not awful, but pleasing when it stays away from the vulgar and gross out teen boy shenanigans that form its core, The Wedding Ringer doesn’t aspire to be anything more than what it is…and that worked just fine for me.

Movie Review ~ Wish I Was Here

2

wish_i_was_here_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Aidan Bloom is a 35-year-old man who finds himself at major crossroads, which forces him to examine his life, his career, and his family.

Stars: Zach Braff, Kate Hudson, Mandy Patinkin, Josh Gad, Joey King, Pierce Gagnon

Director: Zach Braff

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  I’m nothing if not entirely honest in my film likes and dislikes so back in May when I reviewed the trailer for Zach Braff’s Kickstater-funded (sorta) dramedy I let the cat out of the bag that Braff’s critical darling of a directorial debut (2004’s Garden State) wasn’t my cup of tea.  It’s true that I’ve only seen that film once and probably owe it to myself to try it again to see if a more world-weary version of me responds better to Braff’s overly angsty exploration of twenty something (im)maturity.  Then again, after seeing his sophomore picture, I’m not sure I really need to.

Though While You Were Here is a totally different story, it’s filled with similar characters to his previous effort that lead a perfectly fine life but seem to only focus on what’s missing…and proceed to talk about it for two hours.  I’d liken the film to an overly tired toddler…vacillating between happy and sad but mostly just populated with the sound of whining.

Co-writer and director Braff (Oz, The Great and Powerful) plays a mid thirties out of work actor living with his wife (Kate Hudson, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) and children (Joey King, White House Down and Pierce Gagnon, Looper) in a California home he’s too busy to put much time into.  Right off the bat the film feels like a cheese grater on sunburned skin as Braff and family pithily argue over the breakfast table about a jumbo swear jar that will factor into events later in the picture.

When Braff’s father (Mandy Patinkin, The Doctor) selfishly can’t continue to uphold his agreement to pay tuition for his grandchildren to attend an Orthodox private school because he’s, oh, dying, Braff is treated to a wake-up call that he needs to focus less on his dreams in order to support his family financially and emotionally.  Thus begins a series of scenes featuring the aimless father home schooling his children, first in a make-shift classroom in their den and then, when that doesn’t work, by taking them into the schoolroom of life including, but not limited to, a desert camping trip and making them read poems while they fix up their ramshackle house.

Braff and his co-writer/brother Adam have filled their script with so many clichéd moments that one wonders if they weren’t attempting a farce of some sort.  This type of melodramatic dreck had a place in the early 2000’s when sappy pontificating was de rigueur in young filmmakers but now its lack of justified sincerity is mostly just aggravating.  Famously funded initially by 3 million dollars worth of contributions on Kickstarter before a major film financier kicked in an extra 7 million bucks (causing a bit of a dust-up around why Braff resorted to Kickstarter in the first place) I wonder if anyone would have donated their hard earned money had they read the script.

If Braff’s script fails him, he’s equally off the mark in his acting.  With hair in a constant state of weed whacker mess (obviously no money was devoted to combs or Chap-stik for his alarmingly chapped lips), he moves through the film with a tightly puckered look suggesting he’s just tasted a Mega Sour Warhead.  Though Patinkin is usually king of melodramatic line readings, he isn’t able to eek out even a passing interest in his obtuse father figure…even when he’s on his death bed.  I can’t for the life of me get the appeal of Josh Gad (Frozen) who plays another version of the slacker socks-with-sandals comedic relief character he’s unfortunately called on too often to replicate.  His entire contribution could have been excised from the proceedings, saving the film 20 minutes and the audience a grossly superlative storyline involving Comic-Con and sex with furrys.

Only Hudson as Braff’s put-upon wife and King as his daughter coming into her own deserve praise for their performances, if only for the fact that they manage to make some awfully trite material seem valuable.  Hudson suffers through an unnecessary subplot involving a co-worker talking to her as his penis and several embarrassingly awkward romantic scenes with Braff to speak some truth to her hospitalized father-in-law.  King sheds some tears and shears her locks, valiantly rising above Braff’s heavy handed attempts to hold her down.

It’s a film where every scene seems to end with a declarative statement followed by the opening acoustic guitar strains of an indie rock song.  The soundtrack to Garden State was a phenomenon all its own and it becomes clear as the film and its songs play on that Braff was trying to recreate his entire experience from a decade ago.  Problem is, film has moved on while Braff has stayed put.  Wish I Was Here?  Yeah, Mr. Braff, we wish you were here too.

The Silver Bullet ~ Wish I Was Here

wish_i_was_here

Synopsis: Aidan Bloom is a struggling actor, father and husband trying to home school his two children when his father can no longer afford to pay for private education. Through teaching them about life his way, Aidan gradually discovers some of the parts of himself he couldn’t find.

Release Date: July 25, 2014

Thoughts: Though I’m sure this will damage my overall cred, I was decidedly ho-hum about Zach Braff’s (Oz the Great and Powerful) freshman directorial effort, the critically praised Garden State. A decade later found Braff famously launching a Kickstarter campaign to help finance his follow-up, Wish I Was Here. Family dramas are a dime a dozen but I’m curious to see if Braff’s writing has matured over the years because the first preview for Wish I Was Here caught my interest. Featuring Kate Hudson (The Reluctant Fundamentalist), Josh Gad (Frozen), Ashley Greene (The Apparition), and Joey King (White House Down) and set for later this summer, it remains to be seen if you’ll wish you were somewhere else.

Movie Review ~ Frozen

2

frozen_ver6

Synopsis: Fearless optimist Anna teams up with Kristoff in an epic journey, encountering Everest-like conditions, and a hilarious snowman named Olaf in a race to find Anna’s sister Elsa, whose icy powers have trapped the kingdom in eternal winter.

Stars: Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Jonathan Groff, Josh Gad, Santino Fontana, Alan Tudyk, Maia Wilson, Ciarán Hinds, Edie McClurg

Director: Chris Buck, Jennifer Lee

Rated: PG

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Perhaps it’s the kid that still bounces around within me, but I still get a little twinge of excitement every time a new Disney film is about to open. Though I’ve long since given up hope that the hand drawn animation of the late 80’s/early 90’s age of Disney films will ever truly make a comeback, I find myself remaining interested in what projects the studio is working on.

The latest output from the House of Mouse is a wintery musical (very) loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen, refashioned as a tale of sisterly bonds and the embracing of our own individuality.  Featuring a welcome return to the musical roots of the Golden Age of the studio, Frozen boasts some very appealing tunes by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez heartily sung by a roster of Broadway actors that help to keep the movie afloat during several slow stretches.

After their royal parents are lost at sea, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell, Hit and Run) are left to rule the Nordic land of Arendelle. The sisters rarely speak due to a childhood accident involving Elsa’s powers to turn anything she touches to ice.  With the help of some magical trolls, the royal parents and Elsa decide to keep her away from Anna, adjusting her memory so that no harm can come to Elsa or the villagers that may not understand her powers.

This separation has come at a price, though, because Anna doesn’t understand why her sister has cut her off.  That all changes when Elsa comes of age to inherit the throne and accidentally unleashes a massive winter freeze on the sunny village and hills of Arendelle.  With Elsa fleeing to a wintery castle of her own creation, Anna treks after her to bring her sister home and end the chill of a winter without end.

Bell gives Anna just the right amount of pluck and spunk, not to mention a clarion singing voice that is a nice fit to the various musical styles of the Lopez/Anderson-Lopez score.  There’s some classic Disney princess-ey whimsy going on here and Bell skips right along with it.  Whether she’s dealing with a handsome prince (Santino Fontana, also lending strong singing chops) or bumping heads while climbing a mountain with the local (and now unemployed) ice delivery man (Jonathan Groff), Bell keeps Anna in good spirits and great voice.

While Menzel brings her Broadway belt with her for the Act 1 power ballad “Let it Go”, there’s something about her voice that doesn’t match up with the character that’s been animated for her.  The booming timbre and slightly raspy tones sound great on the CD but strangely feel awkward and out of place when you see it onscreen.  It’s a disappointing wrinkle and the fault lies with the concept animation, not in Menzel’s performance.

I’m not a huge fan of Josh Gad (Thanks for Sharing, jOBS, The Internship) but I have to say that this is probably the most I’ve enjoyed him in anything so far.  As charmingly daft snowman Olaf, Gad pretty much walks away with the movie thanks to his stellar timing and easy-going approach to what could have been a much sillier role.  There’s a welcome tenderness to this particular character that gives the movie extra oomph.

While the 3D animation is, as usual, crisp and intriguing I found myself less interested in it than I have in previous efforts like Tangled.  As pleasing as the voices are and as soothing as the snowflake heavy animation is, it all feels vaguely familiar…and not as original as I wanted it to be.  On the other hand, there’s something to be said about the magic of a Disney film and how it can somehow overcome its shortcomings.  Though initially pleased but not overwhelmed by the film, I find myself humming the tunes and thinking about the characters…and that’s nice when you consider how rare animated musicals are nowadays.

A special note, Frozen is preceded by a brand new neat-o Mickey Mouse animated short that gives a nice nod to the black and white cartoon origins of Disney before breaking through (literally) to a more modern day feel.  Don’t be late…and stay through the end credits of Frozen too!