Movie Review ~ Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A loving mom becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Her leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig, Billy Crudup, Judy Greer, Emma Nelson, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  I want to take this very public forum to officially chastise myself for not finishing Maria Semple’s popular bestseller Where’d You Go, Bernadette before the movie opened.  Though the release date for the film was delayed twice, I just never got around to completing what I heard was a fun read.  I literally carried the book around in my bag for months and it still was passed over in favor of other fiction I had on my list to get to.  Blame summer going too fast, blame a busy schedule, but definitely blame me for not getting my butt in gear.

I’m wondering if I had finished the book what I would think of the film version that’s finally seeing the light of day after the aforementioned release date shifts.  Some in Hollywood viewed this as a sign the movie was in trouble but others looked at its Oscar-nominated director, its Oscar-winning star, and the adaptation of the still popular novel as a slam dunk for a late summer sleeper hit, like Crazy Rich Asians was in about the same spot last year.  While I can’t say for sure if fans of the novel will be pleased, I can say that while the film isn’t an outright misfire and has a few spirited moments, it’s suffering from a curious lack of purpose, a feeling echoed by the titular character.

From the half of the book that I did read, the film seems to hew closely to Semple’s examination of Bernadette Fox (Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine) a middle-aged mother living with her successful husband Elgin (Billy Crudup, Jackie) and teenage daughter Bee (Emma Nelson) in a dilapidated reform school on the outskirts of Seattle.  Unlike most mothers that have children at Bee’s prestigious school, Bernadette doesn’t have time for the PTA or social activities but instead prefers to stay in her home away from the outside world.  Her daughter is her best friend and her husband is her ally but not her confidant. Her only real connection is through Manjula, her assistant in India that is delegated much of the household planning.

When Bee reminds her parents they promised her she could have anything she wanted if she maintained her grades at school, she chooses a trip to Antarctica, which sets into motion a series of events that will change the Fox family forever.  Socially awkward Bernadette is terrified of the thought of leaving the comfort of home, bringing back memories of her life before Bee came along when she was a sought after architect whose brilliant designs made her a top name in the business.  Disappearing from her career after a highly publicized debacle, a meeting with a former colleague (Laurence Fishburne, Last Flag Flying) opens up the wounds from the past right around the same time the family is about to leave for their trip.  What happens next is a journey of self-discovery not only for Bernadette but for the entire Fox clan…and disappointingly it’s not exactly the amusing mystery you think it’s going to be.

I find it fascinating that director Richard Linklater was attracted to this project.  Though Linklater has shown up in different genres over the years, most recently with the genius Boyhood in 2014 to the all-out fun of Everybody Wants Some! in 2016, he feels like an odd fit for a movie about a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis.  The special charm the director has in eliciting the unexpected isn’t found here, even from the usually reliable Blanchett who can’t ever decide if she’s playing high drama or marginal camp.  It’s a quirky movie and I appreciated that it embraced some of its weirdness…but it didn’t go far enough in my book.  A key ingredient is just not there and it feels like the movie is held back because of it, never truly finding its footing, though it does feature several rather swell sequences.

At 103 minutes, I’m wondering if Semple’s comedic meditation on a woman feeling constrained and fleeing into the most unexpected of remote hiding places might have worked better with a little more heft to it.  Why not have it be a four or five episode mini-series on HBO or some streaming service that could have let Linklater and Blanchett breathe a bit more?  It doesn’t feel like a project that needed to be a feature film in any way.  There are enough supporting characters like Kristin Wiig’s (The Skeleton Twins) tightly-wound mom that can’t stand Bernadette, the strange appearance of Judy Greer (Halloween) feels like much of her performance was left on the cutting room floor, or any number of the small cameos from Linklater’s friends would have provide plentiful material to justify extra time.  Instead of going deeper in with Bernadette and her family, we only skim the surface and that doesn’t make for a satisfying meal.  What is there feels curtailed and constrained…Bee and Bernadette are supposedly close yet there are some major life events from Bernadette’s life Bee doesn’t know about?

Where the film does have strong points in calling out the struggles people feel at certain points in their life when they know they have so much going for them but can’t overcome some obstacle, be it real or imaginary.  They have the kindling and matches but can’t make the fire.  Bernadette knows she has a creative mind that is wasting away in her rundown manse but fear of repeating her past mistakes is keeping her locked away in the prison she’s made for herself.  There’s some good reflection of that very real feeling on display and for that, I give the movie much credit.  If only that clear message wasn’t surrounded by so many hazy tangents.

31 Days to Scare ~ The Thing (1982) {Trailer}

Synopsis: A twelve-man research team stationed in Antarctica finds an alien being that has fallen from the sky and has been buried for over 100,000 years.

Release Date: June 25th, 1982

Thoughts: It’s often nice not only to look back at classic films but also to check out their previews. Dig too far back (say to the ‘50s or ‘60s) and you’re likely to get the whole movie spoiled for you but there was a nice pocket of time in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s when the art of crafting a slick teaser was at its peak.  1979’s Alien will remain my all time favorite teaser but this one for 1982’s The Thing is high up on my list as well.  A remake of The Thing from Another World that was actually improved upon by director John Carpenter, the arctic-set The Thing was surprisingly released in early summer.  It’s holds up exceedingly well all these years later and is considered one of my old stand-bys if I want to pop in a scary sure-thing.  Along with its snazzy Drew Struzan poster (check out the Struzan doc Drew: The Man Behind the Poster for the story of how it came to be), the promotional machine for The Thing was firing on all cylinders.

 

Want another teaser for The Thing?  Here’s an even earlier one!

Movie Review ~ Lee Daniels’ The Butler

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The Facts:

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

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

Director: Lee Daniels

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Pacific Rim

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The Facts:

Synopsis: As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.

Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Clifton Collins, Jr., Burn Gorman, Larry Joe Campbell, Brad William Henke, Diego Klattenhoff

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: So here’s a movie that had the potential to be a lot better than what it turned out to be. Director Guillermo del Toro has demonstrated over the course of his career that he’s a filmmaker truly interested in the heartbeat of a film.  Though his works have always been visually arresting and skillfully created (hello Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos, and both Hellboy movies), he’s not afraid to take the time to let the underneath of it all show through.

Pacific Rim gets the trusted del Toro formula half right with some of the most impressively eye-popping visual effects you’re likely to see in theaters now.  Add to that a production design that is realistic but not overly fussy and you have a movie that would be a slam-dunk…if you watched it on mute.  The problem with Pacific Rim is that it has no heart, no brains, and leaves the viewer feeling as hollow as the mighty mechanical titans that are created to fight creatures from the depths of the ocean.

Credit should be given to screenwriters del Toro and Travis Beacham for devising a clever spin on the earth vs aliens formula that has been revisited by pictures big and small for over half a century.  The lengthy prologue of Pacific Rim brings us up to speed on the last decade of war that broke out when a seismic shift in the middle of the ocean unleashed terrifying creatures that go on to wreak havoc around the world.  Huge in size, our modern weapons were no match for their power so the world leaders created jaegers, battle bots that could stand tall enough to look these monsters in the eye and taken them down with a vast array of weaponry.

How these are operated from within by two humans is best explained by the film itself (it’s kinda a bunch of hooey) but soon these jaeger pilots are seen as rock stars until the creatures begin to adapt and render the program nearly obsolete after a tragedy calls into question their effectiveness.  Flashing forward several years, the program is re-started when a substantial threat of major invasion is predicted.

Idea-wise, the film is a winner.  Even writing about it here I had a small rush of excitement because it sounds like there is so much that a talented director like del Toro can do with it.  And del Toro delivers the visuals with awesome results.  The battle sequences (especially when viewed in IMAX 3D) are nearly overwhelming in their scope, size, and bravura.  Even though much of these sequences take place at night and in the rain you’ll be able to follow each powerful battle royale between machine and monster.

Unfortunately, the dialogue that strings these passages together and most of the  plot developments are bargain basement material with little to no surprise about what’s going to happen next.  Even a post credits scene is one you’ll be able to see coming if you are familiar with del Toro and his favorite actor to use (no spoilers here!)

It’s also a shockingly bad film for acting.  Let’s start with the best of the middling performances.  Idris Elba (Prometheus) is a solid actor tasked weak material.  I’m still waiting for Elba to be given the kind of role that will rocket him to the fame that he has the talent for.  As the jaeger program director he has little to do but growl when questioned and deliver a sound byte ready inspirational speech near the end that feels like a revised version of the what Bill Pullman rambled on about in Independence Day.

The rest of the international cast is a hodge podge that run the gamut from bland to sour.  You simply couldn’t ask for a more vanilla leading man than Charlie Hunnam, an actor with zero going on behind his eyes.  Paired with Rinko Kikuchi (a far cry from her Oscar nominated turn in Babel) the two are asked to create chemistry that not even the folks at MIT could assist in creating.  Both actors provide some truly embarrassing performances and you have to wonder what on earth del Toro saw in them to cast them as the leads in such an important studio picture.  As arguing scientists, Charlie Day (who comes off like the love child of Bobcat Goldthwait and Rick Moranis) and Burn Gorman seem like they’ve time traveled out of a sci-fi spoof of this film from the future.

Lousy performances aside, this is one film that will be best enjoyed in a theater when you can be totally immersed in the world that del Toro has created.  I can’t say the movie will work as well for home viewing so if you can overlook the disappointingly ordinary execution of a smart set-up and nearly an entire cast of poor performances you should try this one out when it gets to your bargain cinema.

The Silver Bullet ~ Machete Kills

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Synopsis: The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space

Release Date:  September 13, 2013

Thoughts: Though 2010’s Machete was far from a blockbuster, director Robert Rodriguez is bringing the character back that was first introduced in a faux trailer attached to his Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.  I found the first film to be typical Rodriguez: messy, over-the-top, and exactly the kind of film that it was advertised to be.  This sequel looks to be more of the same with craggy faced Danny Trejo being surrounded by busty babes (including Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, and Lady Gaga in her film debut) and lots and lots of weapons of physical destruction.  Its grimy feel fits right into the throwback movement that Rodriguez and Tarantino have such an affinity for so expect another small win for the loopy duo.

Movie Review ~ West of Memphis

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three

Stars: Jason Baldwin, Damien Wayne Echols, Jessie Misskelley

Director: Amy Berg

Rated: R

Running Length: 147 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The story of the West Memphis Three has already been covered extensively in three made-for-television feature length documentaries (the excellent Paradise Lost films) and in numerous online articles, specials, and books.  So what could the new documentary West of Memphis tell us that we don’t already know?  The answer: quite a lot and not enough.

I don’t want to say that I felt West of Memphis was a Cliffs Notes version of the Paradise Lost films with an extra material at the end but that’s a feeling I did have while screening the two and a half hour investigation into the crime that has plagued a small Arkansas community for nearly two decades.  Overall, it’s an arresting piece of entertainment that strikes all the right notes that make true crime films so fascinating.   Unlike the presentational nature of the other films though, this one seems more tell and less show…like its directing us to come to a certain conclusion based on its own agenda.

After three young boys are murdered and left in a watery grave a modern day witch hunt is enacted and three teens are jailed for the crime.  Two are sentenced to life in prison and one is sent to death row and had the case not received such national attention that very well could have been the end of the story.  However in the following years a lot of information comes to the surface that indicates the justice system failed these three accused boys serving time for a crime they very well likely had nothing to do with.  As more evidence is scrutinized with the latest technology, signs start to point away from the convicted and to family members that may have been involved.

What’s been so fascinating through the years is how the lives of everyone close to the case have taken such cinematic turns.  Death, forgiveness, and redemption are all on display in grand fashion – and even the best screenwriter couldn’t have come up with what actually happened in reality.

A swath of celebrities came to the aide of the West Memphis Three and the film is partly the product of Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh’s efforts to get involved and search for the truth with other famous faces like Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, and Johhny Depp.

Compiling new interviews with footage culled from decades of information and multiple sources, director Berg tends to jump around in timelines too often.  At one point, we’re in 2006 and then we’re in 2012 before circling back to 2005 and then landing in 2007.  It can be a bit disorienting when a through line of information is really desired.

Berg and the filmmakers clearly have their sights set on a suspect and aggressively present their case to we, the audience.  The television documentaries had suspects in mind as well…but there’s something about the way this feature film goes down a similar path that had me digging my heels in slightly. See, if the whole issue is that the West Memphis Three were wrongly seen as guilty until proven innocent, how fair is that for the film to want us to take that same approach with their #1 suspect?  Admittedly, the evidence is pretty strong but that could be a little bit of cinematic license.

No doubt about it, this case continues to haunt anyone that comes in contact with it.  Three boys were brutally murdered and that is a terrible crime…but as is the case in any crime there are collateral damage victims as well.  The film is strongest when it focuses on these victims and the least focused when it’s zeroing in on a suspect.

Hollywood isn’t done with this story yet.  Devil’s Knot, a film adaption of Mara Leveritt’s book on the crime, is due out later this year with star Reese Witherspoon playing the mother of one of the murdered children.  If you haven’t seen the Paradise Lost films and have an interest in true crime you must seek them out.  West of Memphis is also strongly worthy as an added addendum to those films.

The Silver Bullet ~ West of Memphis

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Synopsis: An examination of a failure of justice in the case against the West Memphis Three.

Release Date:  December 25, 2012

Thoughts: Though the case of the West Memphis Three has been well-documented in the three Paradise Lost films, West of Memphis presents another look into the devious child murders that rocked a small town and the witch hunt that saw three men on the cusp of adulthood and the wrong side of the tracks be targeted as the culprits.  Produced by Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, West of Memphis looks to be another strong documentary arriving in theaters just in time to provide strong true crime counter-programming to the usual holiday fare.  Sign me up.