Movie Review ~ Beauty and the Beast (2017)


The Facts
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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

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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

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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

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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

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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!

Movie Review ~ Thanks for Sharing

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A romantic comedy that brings together three disparate characters who are learning to face a challenging and often confusing world as they struggle together against a common demon: sex addiction.

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Joely Richardson, Patrick Fugit, Josh Gad, Alecia Moore

Director: Stuart Blumberg

Rated: R

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: I was supposed to attend a screening of Thanks for Sharing with a friend visiting from out of town.  Plans changed at the last minute so I found myself in the theater alone for an early morning look at this dramedy and for the first 45 minutes, I was disappointed that I was there solo.  You see, I thought my friend was missing out on a chance to see a breezy and engaging look into the lives of several members of a support group for sex addiction.  It wasn’t long after that first quarter hour, though, that I began to realize my friend was the lucky one in this equation.

It’s around the halfway point that the film becomes aimless and worst of all, charmless.  The congenial air that writer/director Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right) pumps into the first half is deflated by a second act that gets bogged down in trivial emotions and obnoxious performances.  What’s left must be seen as an unbalanced cinematic outing, one that never reclaims the promise of independence that arrived at the outset.

So what went wrong, exactly?

The success story here is the charming courtship of recovering sex addict Mark Ruffalo (Marvel’s The Avengers, Now You See Me) and cancer survivor Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man 3).  She’s dealt with death, recovered, and doesn’t want to spend her time worrying about a mate that has serious hang-ups.  Ruffalo sees that that poses a problem for their future so forgets to mention the meetings he attends and why he may not want to go all the way on the first date.  Instead of this turning into another “Big Secret I Can’t Tell” frustrating plot device, Blumberg deals with it rather succinctly and lets this adult relationship go through its peaks and valleys naturally.  Ruffalo is one of the most underrated actors, respected though he is, and his contribution to this film is invaluable.  Paltrow, too, succeeds in role where we feel she’s letting her guard down and really being the amiable person she appears to be.

Good work also comes from Tim Robbins (The Shawshank Redemption), Joely Richardson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Patrick Fugit (We Bought a Zoo) as a family of addicts/enablers cautiously finding new footing and trying to forgive the past.  Though Robbins tends to speak in dime store self-help book talk, the actor brings a certain gravitas to the dialogue that makes it ring true.

The problem couple here is a greatly miscast Alecia Moore (aka Pink) and the ever-annoying Josh Gad.  Moore is a gifted musician and songwriter and it’s probably best she stick to music because her acting isn’t convincing in the least, watching her struggle through some serious scenes isn’t very fun.  Gad’s man-child shtick was old the minute he used it in Love & Other Drugs and though he’s had good showings in 2013 with The Internship and jOBS, he’s back in Jack Black-wannabe form here.

I’d say the problem lies less with Blumberg’s script, contrived and conventional as it is, but in its ensemble structure.  The best kinds of ensemble pictures (e.g. any Robert Altman film) succeed because every character is interesting/appealing in some way or another.  If we don’t like peeking in the lives of the people featured in overlapping stories, there’s room for the audience to start to distance themselves from the ensemble as a whole.

Thanks, but no Thanks.

Movie Review ~ jOBS

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of Steve Jobs’ ascension from college dropout into one of the most revered creative entrepreneurs of the 20th century.

Stars: Ashton Kutcher, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Gad, Lukas Haas, J.K. Simmons, Matthew Modine

Director: Joshua Michael Stern

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  If this biopic of the late founder of Apple had been produced as a television movie for HBO I have a feeling that it would have fared a little better.  As it is, this big-screen examination of the life and career of Steve Jobs feels strangely small as it struggles against bigger ideas…in Apple speak, it’s a iPod Shuffle that wants to be an iPad.

Last week I reviewed Lovelace, another slight biopic that seemed more interested in dramatizing situations that were public knowledge rather than getting under the skin of its central character.   So instead of presenting a story that’s equal parts character study and history lesson, jOBS seems content to portray the head honcho of Apple as a prick (which is totally fine because most everyone agrees it was more or less true) but never gives us a glimpse into how his life brought him to that place.  In 2010’s similarly-themed The Social Network, we learned just as much about the life of founder Mark Zuckerberg as we did about his path to leading Facebook into history.   There’s precious little of that insight here…the movie simply tells us Jobs knew the right people, created something innovative, and continued to refashion himself and his company as the years went on.  Rinse, wash, repeat.

Though jOBS works well enough to hold the viewers interest most of the time, there’s a trivial blandness to the proceedings that the movie and performances never can seem to shake.  Lacking a true oneness between the source subject and the events of his life, the performances are middle of the road with no one really standing out.  That turns out to be a problem for its star who can’t complete the climb in transitioning Jobs from a hippie college student to a steely mogul that succumbed to cancer in 2011.  Ashton Kutcher’s boyishness gets in the way of truly succeeding in the role and instead of having the reserved character lash out from fear of failure; it only comes off as unfounded petulance.  Though Kutcher nails the shuffling gait and hushed line delivery (I swear,78% of the entire dialogue in jOBS is spoken in a near-whisper), he just isn’t able to tie the two ends of this famed life together and the result is only half convincing.

Surrounding Kutcher is a fraternity of dependable actors like Lukas Haas as a college friend of Jobs and Dermot Mulroney (Stoker, Copycat), J.K. Simmons, and Matthew Modine as Apple execs that wind up getting in the way of the plans Jobs has for the future of the company he founded.  I normally don’t care for Josh Gad (The Internship, Thanks for Sharing) but his performance as Steve Wozniak is one of his better big screen turns though it’s frustrating that the script by first-time screenwriter Matt Whitely gives Gad not one but two closely timed big monologues that essentially say the exact same thing.

Director Joshua Michael Stern’s last film was 2008’s Swing Vote and he’s a surprisingly little known choice for a project with a topic as well-known as jOBS.  The film isn’t a mega-budget spectacle but it looks fine for its humble origins and the money was carefully spent on making the last three decades look especially believable without making a left turn into parody.

Perhaps reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs would be a better primer for those interested in learning more about what made this notoriously private man the way he was.  If you’re heading into jOBS thinking you’ll learn more the man who helped create the iPhone, you’ll be disappointed.  Those who prefer their late-summer films non-challenging and moderately entertaining might get a bit more out of this.