Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

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.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Age of Ultron

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Tony Stark tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, things go awry and it is up to the Avengers to stop the villainous Ultron from enacting his terrible plans.

Stars: Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr., Linda Cardellini, Mark Ruffalo, Andy Serkis, Thomas Kretschmann, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Stellan Skarsgård, Scarlett Johansson, Julie Delpy, Idris Elba, Cobie Smulders, Hayley Atwell, Chris Hemsworth, James Spader, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Claudia Kim

Director: Joss Whedon

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Here’s the thing that I like most about a good smörgåsbord – there’s something for everyone. Hot food, cold food, deserts, salads…it’s all at your fingertips and you can have as much or as little as you like. When presented with so many options, the whole experience can be somewhat overwhelming…but once you’ve had the chance to survey the selections and try out some choice cuts, you usually wind up walking away feeling a sense of fulfillment.

If any movie of 2015 (or any film in recent memory, actually) can be likened to a smörgåsbord it most certainly is this hugely anticipated follow up to 2012’s The Avengers. Offering bigger thrills and higher stakes, it’s a gargantuan film that redefines the term blockbuster. Still, I have to be honest and say that while it’s an all-together overpowering outing from the get-go, it took me a good twenty minutes to acclimate myself to writer/director Joss Whedon’s awe-inspiring sequel.

Starting up in the middle of the kind of go-big-or-go-home battle usually reserved for the latter half of other would-be blockbusters (the first of five jumbo battle royales featured in the 2.5 hour film), there’s no time wasted in re-introducing our friendly group of superheroes. Most of the crusaders have solidly led the way in their own films (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) while others have turned in noble supporting turns (Black Widow, Hawkeye, War Machine) in the same movies. Grouped together on screen, as The Avengers proved so impressively well, they can defeat schemes of world domination while rattling off Whedon’s quip-heavy banter.

Whedon knows his way around a clever turn of phrase but there’s a limit to how much witty repartee can be tossed at the audience before it begins to feel a little too astute for its own good. There seems to be an overly earnest need to kick things off on the right foot by giving us the greatest hits of Tony Stark, the master of delivering a one-liner, while storming the eastern European castle featured in the beginning battle. It’s just all a little much for this reviewer…but luckily Whedon and crew achieve a nice balance of fun and furious action in a plot that has a lot going on but never feels overstuffed.

While Avengers: Age of Ultron works in pieces as a stand-alone film, it will really pay off for the wise viewer that has already seen Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Several familiar faces from these films pop up and, as was the case in the The Avengers, it’s nice to see how many cross over characters play a part in the action without it all feeling like a ComicCon version of The Love Boat.

What’s the plot you ask? Best to let you find that out yourself so as not to spoil some of Whedon’s more elaborate set-ups. What I can relay is that it involves a villainous bit of Stark created Artificial Intelligence named Ultron spectacularly voiced by James Spader (Mannequin) managing to inject humanity with a devious sarcasm into this completely CGI role – it’s hard to imagine anyone else giving voice to the destructive machine with such flair. Ultron has big plans for The Avengers and the world as a whole from the moment he comes online with the help of a familiar piece of sought-after power. Aided by a pair of powerful twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen…both featured in last summer’s Godzilla) and a host of bad robots, Ultron keeps the hits coming right up until the grandest of grand finales of any large-scale action film I can recall. The only way it could have been bigger is if the theater set off fireworks at the end.

Returning to the fray are Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), Paul Bettany (Mortdecai), and Samuel L. Jackson (RoboCop) and it’s worth noting that everyone seems happy to have their moment in the sun and then let their colleagues have their time to shine too.

Marvel is just on an unstoppable roll now and with the next Captain America film due in 2016, the next Thor film due in 2017, and the two part Avengers finale arriving in the two years after that there’s a whole lot more ground to cover. Let’s not forget the other Marvel films on the big and small screen that will surely play a part in future development deals.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon’s swan song in the director’s chair and he’s followed up an adrenaline blast of a first film with a layered and just as entertaining sequel that pushes ideas and characters forward. Make sure to see it on the biggest screen possible with the best sound (the 3D is optional…I wouldn’t think it’s a requirement) to truly max out your Avengers experience.

Movie Review ~ Before Midnight

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The Facts
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Synopsis: We meet Jesse and Celine nine years on in Greece. Almost two decades have passed since their first meeting on that train bound for Vienna.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Well here we are…20 years after Before Sunrise was released and 9 years after its sequel added a new chapter to the story of Jesse and Celine.  Though Before Sunrise ended with no real plans for a sequel, the final moments of Before Sunset could be seen as having more room to continue the story should stars Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, and director Richard Linklater (Bernie) want to return down the road.  Turns out that the supposed final chapter was a decade away…and worth the wait.

The two that first met on a train and spent a night in Vienna only to meet up again in Paris are now married with twin girls.  Vacationing in Greece, the film opens as Hawke (The Purge, Sinister) takes his young son from his first marriage to the airport, sending him home to NYC and his mother after a summer with his dad.  Waiting outside is Celine (Delpy) and the film really kicks into gear on the ride home from the airport in a masterful scene done in nearly one long take capturing a conversation between Jesse and Celine.

By now, Delpy and Hawke must have formed an invisible bond that allows dialogue to flow without any hesitation.  Though the dialogue and filming technique may suggest the script was improvised, it’s been said that the opposite was true.  Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater were strict with what they wrote and held each other accountable for the dialogue.  You’d never know it the way Delpy and Hawke deliver their lines…like two people having a conversation in the most naturalistic of styles.

Though I was worried that more secondary characters than ever are introduced in the first half of the film, I was pleased that their presence gave way to such focused dialogue on marriage, love, and relationships.  In different hands the words may have sounded grandiose and lugubrious, more interested in making people sound smart instead of honest…but it all works in a really majestic sort of way.

Unlike the awful This is 40, Before Midnight is able to show the complexities of marriage in a truthful and observant manner.  Jesse and Celine find themselves at a believable crossroads about their future and how Delpy, Hawke, and Linklater work their way toward a final painfully honest and brilliantly executed scene should be richly rewarded.  You rarely get the kind of satisfaction from an ongoing series as you do in Before Midnight.

I watched all three of the Before films in one sitting and I have to say…I highly recommend it.  It’s interesting that Hawke mentions in Before Sunrise what life may be like in 10, 20, years…and then to actually see the actors 10, 20 years later is remarkable.   A fitting conclusion to the story of Jesse and Celine…at least until the next film which I hope comes our way in another 10 years.

Movie Review ~ Before Sunset

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Nine years after Jesse and Celine first met, they encounter each other again on the French leg of Jesse’s book tour.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 80 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  I wanted to see Before Sunset when it was released in 2004 but being the completist that I am and not having seen Before Sunrise, I had to take a pass until I was caught up. The years went by and I never did get to see Before Sunrise until recently…and I was lucky to have this sequel on hand so I could go right from one movie to another.

When Before Sunrise was made I’m not sure any of the people involved even considered that a sequel might be in the cards so it was interesting that stars Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke (The Purge), and director Richard Linklater (Bernie) didn’t feel the story of Celine and Jesse was over and brought the two back together again, nine years later.

Moving the action from a night in Vienna to an afternoon in Paris, this installment finds Jesse (Hawke) on the final stop on his book tour where Celine (Delpy) finds him giving an interview in a bookstore.  His flight back to the US is leaving in a few hours but the two decide to go out for coffee which leads to another chat fest in and around various Paris locales.

Everyone involved has matured in the nine years since the first film was released.  Linklater grew as a filmmaker so he’s able to give the actors enough room to take on long interrupted takes which only serves to enhance to spontaneity of dialogue…that was in fact rigorously scripted and earned Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay.

The actors have come a long way as well, Delpy in particular.  Gone is the overly fussy actress from the first film and present is a more confident leading lady…perhaps because she’d mastered English more assuredly this time around.  Hawke is no stranger to long monologues or extended dialogue scenes given extensive stage experience.  While Hawke looks about 20 years older in this film, his easy going gift for gab again makes Delpy look even better.

A full 20 minutes shorter than the first film, there’s still a lot of dense material to be had…all of it there to serve the story and free from any flowery exposition that would have read false.  While Celine and Jesse work on writing a new chapter to their tale, audiences are once again swept away thanks to a collective understanding of the intricacies of relationships.  A wise, worthy to be seen film.

Movie Review ~ Before Sunrise

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young man and woman meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together.

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I remember when Before Sunrise was released on VHS in 1995.  I was working at Mr. Movies and the one copy we received couldn’t stay on the shelves long enough for me to see what all the fuss was about.  When the film cooled off a bit I was able to take it home and give it a look-see because I was trying to expand my film knowledge outside of the latest action flick from Sylvester Stallone.

Well…I’d like to say I watched Richard Linklater’s film the whole way through but in reality I turned it off about ten minutes in.  I wasn’t engaged, I wasn’t moved, and I wasn’t able to appreciate the simplicity of the structure that Linklater (Bernie) and co-writer Kim Krizan had provided.  I’ve actually tried to watch the film several times over the years but still couldn’t quite get it to stick, stopping each attempt around the same time.

It took my urge to see every Oscar nominated film to get me to circle back to Before Sunrise after all these years.  With the latest installment (Before Midnight) being nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, I knew that to complete my task I’d need to man up and give Before Sunrise another fair shake…and this time it finally got its hooks into me.

While most audiences (like 1995 me) would rather stay home than see a film centered on two people walking around Vienna doing little more than talking about their lives, those that do take the leap will find great rewards.  What struck me so much about the film is that for as dialogue heavy as it is, it’s remarkably lithe and less heavy than you’d think.

Most of the credit has to go to stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke (Sinister) who are able to take Linklater and Krizan’s script and make it feel like they’re coming up with the words on the spot.  It’s well-known that Delpy and Hawke helped mold the script and especially Delpy was dissatisfied no credit was given to the actors for what they brought to the finished product.

Hawke is the one that really shines here, though, with Delpy at times feeling like she’s not entirely sure of the words that are coming out of her mouth.  As the two wander around town they meet a few characters that contribute to the plot but aren’t intrusive enough to feel shoe-horned in.  The conversations are generous and interesting with each actor having several moments to shine.

Between a little dip of energy near the end and the aforementioned habit of Delpy feeling a tad out of sorts it’s not a perfect film, however, and I think it runs just ever so slightly on the long side.  Still, it’s heads and tails above most romance films of that era that weren’t equitable in their doling out of smart dialogue to their stars.  Before Sunrise gives both actors their fair share of finely nuanced details, creating a charm hard to duplicate.

Oscar Predictions 2014

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Hello!

Well, though I always find it difficult to nail down my Oscar selections pre-nomination day because I feel like I’m somehow cosmically jinxing  potential favorites, I’m taking part in The 2014 Oscar Contest over at Film Actually because…well…it’s just the right thing to do 🙂

This being a contest and all I threw in a few dark horse candidates and left out some bigger names just to keep it interesting.  I don’t necessarily think there will be 10 nominees for Best Picture but ultimately I couldn’t make up my mind on which ones to remove from my list…

I hope there are a few surprises tomorrow morning, though….even if it means I lose a few points in the contest 🙂

Below are my predictions for who will go to bed tomorrow night an Oscar nominee…

BEST PICTURE
12 Years a Slave
American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
Gravity
Her
Nebraska
Philomena
Saving Mr. Banks
The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuarón, Gravity
Spike Jonze, Her
Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave
Alexander Payne, Nebraska
David O. Russell, American Hustle

BEST ACTOR
Bruce Dern, Nebraska
Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave
Tom Hanks, Captain Phillips
Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club
Robert Redford, All is Lost

BEST ACTRESS
Amy Adams, American Hustle
Cate Blanchett, Blue Jasmine
Sandra Bullock, Gravity
Judi Dench, Philomena
Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Barkhad Abdi, Captain Phillips
Daniel Brühl, Rush
Michael Fassbender, 12 Years a Slave
James Gandolfini, Enough Said
Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Sally Hawkins, Blue Jasmine
Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle
Lupita Nyong’o, 12 Years a Slave
June Squibb, Nebraska
Julia Roberts, August: Osage County

BEST EDITING
Jay Cassidy, Crispin Struthers, American Hustle
Joe Walker, 12 Years a Slave
Christopher Rouse, Captain Phillips
Alfonso Cuarón, Mark Sanger, Gravity
Jeff Buchanan, Eric Zumbrunnen, Her

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Woody Allen, Blue Jasmine
David O. Russell and Eric Singer, American Hustle
Joel & Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
Spike Jonze, Her
Bob Nelson, Nebraska

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
John Ridley, 12 Years a Slave
Tracy Letts, August: Osage County
Julie Delpy, Ethan Hawke, Richard Linklater, Before Midnight
Steve Coogan, Jeff Pope, Philomena
Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
The Broken Circle Breakdown, Belgium
The Hunt, Denmark
The Grandmaster, Hong Kong
The Great Beauty, Italy
The Notebook, Hungary

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Sean Bobbitt, 12 Years a Slave
Emmanuel Lubezki, Gravity
Bruno Delbonnel, Inside Llewyn Davis
Phedon Papamichael, Nebraska
Roger Deakins, Prisoners

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Adam Stochausen & Alice Baker, 12 Years a Slave
Judy Becker & Heather Loeffler, American Hustle
Catherine Martin & Beverly Dunn, The Great Gatsby
Jess Gonchor & Susan Bode, Inside Llewyn Davis
Michael Corenblith & Susan Benjamin, Saving Mr. Banks

BEST SOUND MIXING
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST SOUND EDITING
All is Lost
Captain Phillips
Gravity
Lone Survivor
Rush

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Catherine Martin, The Great Gatsby
Patricia Norris, 12 Years a Slave
Daniel Orlandi, Saving Mr. Banks
Michael Wilkinson, American Hustle
Mary Zophres, Inside Llewyn Davis

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Alex Ebert, All is Lost
Thomas Newman, Saving Mr. Banks
Steven Price, Gravity
John Williams, The Book Thief
Hans Zimmer, 12 Years a Slave

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing
The Crash Reel
Stories We Tell

The Square

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Croods
Despicable Me 2

Frozen
Monsters University
The Wind Rises

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Gravity
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Iron Man 3
Pacific Rim
Star Trek: Into Darkness

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
American Hustle
Dallas Buyers Club
The Lone Ranger


BEST ORIGINAL SONG
“Amen”, All is Lost
“Let It Go”, Frozen
“The Moon Song”, Her
“Ordinary Love”, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom
“Young & Beautiful”, The Great Gatsby