Movie Review ~ The Humans

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Erik Blake has gathered three generations of his Pennsylvania family to celebrate Thanksgiving at his daughter’s apartment in lower Manhattan. As darkness falls outside and eerie things start to go bump in the night, the group’s deepest fears are laid bare.

Stars: Richard Jenkins, Jayne Houdyshell, Steven Yeun, Beanie Feldstein, Amy Schumer, June Squibb

Director: Stephen Karam

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  I admit it, I admit it.  When I saw the national touring cast of The Humans perform this tiny intimate (read: quiet) show at our cavernous local theater I fell completely asleep before the one act play was half over.  It’s not my proudest moment but writer Stephen Karam’s dialogue just lulled me to sleep, and I would have slept a lot longer if the staging hadn’t included a rather alarming sound which jolted me up.  Widely acclaimed off-Broadway before moving to the Great White Way, The Humans took Broadway by storm and snatched up several key Tony Awards before it closed and then went on tour.  I know the tour struggled for business and it’s not hard to see why.  Karam’s play is meant to be seen in an intimate setting where you don’t have to lean quite so far in to hear what each person is saying.

Karam adapts and directs his play (a Pulitzer Prize finalist) in A24’s new film The Humans and at the outset I was hesitant about going back to it seeing that the last time I got involved with the family drama contained within I had a nice nap while doing so.  The first twenty minutes didn’t do anything to assuage my original thoughts. Karam’s tendency to favor natural sound and filming the actors so far back that you can’t read their lips if you can’t hear them begins as alienating but eventually transitions into something your brain adjusts to.  Once it does, it’s like a key has opened up a window and welcomed you into Karam’s Thanksgiving-set story revolving around one family and their surprisingly revealing gathering.

The two-level Chinatown apartment of Brigid (Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart) and her boyfriend Richard (Steven Yeun, Minari) is where the Blake family gathers to celebrate the holiday, though the sparsely furnished and barely lit dwelling isn’t exactly inviting.  While the couple’s furniture has yet to arrive thanks to a delay with their moving truck, they’ve done their best to make Brigid’s parents, sister, and grandmother feel welcome with what little comforts they do have.  Still, there’s a tension that hangs in the air at the outset and it’s more than the usual family dynamics which often come to a head during the festive months of the year. 

Maybe it’s because grandmother Momo’s (June Squibb, Palm Springs) dementia has continued to advance, requiring Brigid’s mom Deirdre (Jayne Houdyshell, Little Women) to devote more of her time to the care of her mother-in-law.  Perhaps it’s Aimee (Amy Schumer, Trainwreck) and her recent breakup or persistent health issues.  Erik’s (Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water) aloofness to much of the clear strife going on in front of him is another issue that requires resolution and it’s not hard to read between the lines in Karam’s script that Erik is the character with the most broken pieces to fix and is being held together by the thinnest of protective layers.  When and how these dysfunctions flare up arrive in unexpected ways with solutions that don’t necessarily leave audiences with the answers they are used to getting.

It’s one of the strong selling points of The Humans that it stays so true to its stage counterpart…and a reason why it may be a tough nut to crack for many viewers.  It’s so stage-bound that you do feel as if you’re watching a filmed version of a live play at times, a feeling that isn’t helped by one (masterfully constructed) shot which pulls back to show the multi-level set as if we were in the balcony of a theater watching the show. 

Directorially, Karam isn’t quite a strong as the script he provided so it’s a good thing he has cast the film so exceedingly well.  Jenkins, Squibb, and Yeun are wonderful in their roles and Feldstein continues to show a talent for portraying complicated characters that aren’t afraid to be abrasive.  The vulnerability in Schumer’s solid performance will surprise a good many of her naysayers but it’s Houdyshell’s show, and you can easily see why she won a Tony for the same role on Broadway.  Karam likes long takes and that’s perfect for several of Houdyshell’s scenes that require a range of emotions to play out in real time.  While Deirdre isn’t always a pleasant person to be around, I left the film wanting to know far more about her than any other character and that’s a sure sign Houdyshell has done her job on an exemplary level.

I think The Humans is a tad too reserved to break into the noisier races this year and that’s unfortunate because Houdyshell should absolutely get noticed for her work, as should production designer David Gropman (Life of Pi) and cinematographer Lol Crawley (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) for their focused efforts on making Karam’s world come to life so seamlessly from stage to screen.  It takes a while to get its engines up to speed but when it does there are some fascinating characters created, with issues ready to be digested along with your own Thanksgiving meal.

Movie Review ~ Palmer

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After 12 years in prison, a former high school football star returns home to put his life back together—and forms an unlikely bond with an outcast boy from a troubled home.

Stars: Justin Timberlake, Ryder Allen, Juno Temple, Alisha Wainwright, June Squibb, Dean Winters, Wynn Everett

Director: Fisher Stevens

Rated: R

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When it comes to making the transition from music to movies, looking over the history of Hollywood in the last half century it’s clear that the women have far outshone the men when it comes to getting accolades for their performances.  Stars like Bette Midler, Cher, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Lopez, Mariah Carey, and Lady Gaga have all starred in critically acclaimed feature films and four of these ladies have even netted multiple Oscar nominations to prove it wasn’t a fluke.  The men haven’t had it quite as easy and audiences just are not nearly as accepting of the gentlemen pop stars dropping their well-honed images to take on polarizing parts.  A number of attempts in recent years (curiously mostly country stars) have simply tried to stick in their comfort zone, which is almost worse because they’ve painted themselves in a safe corner with no movement allowed.

If there’s an exception to this rule it has to be Justin Timberlake but up until now, the one-time *NSYNC star that got his start on the Mickey Mouse Club alongside former flame Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, has only found mediocre returns on even his best performances.  While he’s chosen good filmmakers to work with and been cast in prestige pictures, his roles haven’t quite fit him, or he hasn’t taken them to the level he could have.  Something has been out of alignment in nearly every feature he’s been a part of, like some diabolical voodoo curse by one of the Backstreet Boys to keep him from having it all.  I just looked over his list of credits on IMDb and it’s true, Timberlake consistently has either a good performance in a bad movie or a so-so showing in a good feature.

Apparently, whatever dark cloud was hanging over Timberlake has lifted because he’s venturing into the acting arena again with Palmer, a new film streaming on Apple TV+ starting January 29th.  Not only is the Fisher Stevens-directed film surprisingly excellent with a sweet heart but it hands Timberlake his best role to date.  Perhaps it’s because the singer-actor had recently become a father (and just became one for a second time) or maybe it was just finally the right part at the right time, but it showcases Timberlake at his most open and vulnerable, demonstrating great range without ever overselling the delicate nuances of drama found in Cheryl Guerriero’s sought-after script. It’s well known that Guerriero’s screenplay for Palmer was included on the 2016 Black List as one of the best un-produced scripts in Hollywood.  Nowadays, enough bad movies have been made of those supposedly excellent scripts but back then, that still meant something, and the Palmer script was obviously one of the good eggs in the Black List basket.  Guerriero’s voice is strong and comes through demonstrating a natural ear for realistic dialogue that could be maudlin and hokey to some outside of the township setting the film takes place in but rings right in the ear of the viewer all the same.

Returning to his small Louisiana hometown to live with his grandmother Vivian (June Squibb, Palm Springs) who raised him, Eddie Palmer (Timberlake, Wonder Wheel) is seen as a pariah by the townspeople thanks to his 12-year prison sentence for aggravated burglary.  While the question of his committing the crime on his own is a bit up in the air throughout the film (it’s suggested he took the rap for his more affluent friends), there’s little question he likely was headed in that direction anyway.  A one-time popular football player that apparently had a bit of an arrogant streak, his friends have stayed local and may have grown up in age but not in overall maturity.  They’re all in the middle of their lives with wives and children while Eddie hasn’t even had the chance to begin.  Tough love Vivian makes Eddie follow rules while living in her house and that includes going to church and helping her with tasks, including helping her care for Sam (Ryder Allen), the young boy living in a camper with his addict mom in the vacant lot next to Vivian’s house.  When Sam’s mom Shelly (Juno Temple, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil) splits for a bender, she abandons her son with Vivian, often for weeks at a time.

It’s during one of these extended absences that life changes for Eddie and he really gets to know Sam better, noticing how different he is from the other boys.  Preferring more feminine looks to wear to school and often adorned with barrettes in his mop of hair, Sam is the definition of young confidence. As is usually the case, instead of recognizing this beam of good-natured sunshine for the joy it is, those those can’t accept someone for being “other” feel threatened by his very existence.  Sam’s sensitive but not impractical and he’s lucky to have support from Vivian, Shelly, and his teacher Maggie (Alisha Wainwright) who all allow him to be whatever he chooses to be.  So he watches television shows about fairy princesses instead of Transformers and dreams of one day being able to join their ranks.  Eddie, on the other hand, isn’t as easily swayed and observes how Sam is treated in class by poorly raised bullies when he finds a job working as a janitor for the local elementary school.

The script developments in the latter half of Palmer aren’t all together unexpected but they are handled in the form of such refreshingly direct conversations that even if the scenes begin predictable, they don’t end that way.  At some point, someone is going to confront the elephant in the room and not let the issue sit until there is resolution through other means.  In so many movies the plot hinges on topics that could be discussed and dealt with were it not for the general unwillingness of people to have these tough exchanges.  Perhaps Guerriero has drawn on some of her own life lessons but she seems to be of the “let’s deal with it and move on” school of living and it creates an electricity around the characters in Palmer that can’t help but make them spring to life.  It does result in some hard to watch scenes of neglect and abuse so while Stevens doesn’t shy away from showing these tough moments he handles them with a gentle hand knowing there is a kind of light around the corner for most of the characters.

I find it so fascinating that Timberlake was drawn to this script and this character in particular.  It’s so far afield from what he’s done in the past and I think its deeper themes will go a long way in opening further dialogue for families that watch the movie together.  There’s little of Timberlake the actor to be found here, he blends into the character seamlessly and you don’t see the Super Bowl performer or teen heartthrob all grown up.  His natural chemistry creates a great connection between himself and Allen and the two form a believable bond as a quasi-father-son combo.  He’s never had a son, the other has never had a father and both conveniently and comfortably fill that blank space in ways that satisfy more than they could have imagined.  I also really appreciated Wainwright’s empowered character, a take-charge teacher that advocates for her students and checks up on them when she feels something isn’t right.  She gets a little broad at times, but Temple has an absolute killer scene near the end that I swear if Apple TV+ sent out a screening link to every Oscar voter on 1/29 she’d wind up a nominee this year.

This one caught me by total surprise.  I didn’t expect to find as much value in Palmer as I did and wouldn’t have guessed it would have the kind of lasting impression it has had on me since I saw it.  Some of the performances, Timberlake, Temple, Allen, have been on my mind quite a lot and probably enough so that I’ll watch it again.  Here’s hoping Timberlake continues to find scripts like this that allow him to uncover characters like Eddie Palmer.  Flawed but redeemable, he’s a man that just wants to start over again.  His opportunity doesn’t come in the exact package he would have guessed, but once he stops and looks at the value instead of the debt it could bring his world-view changes.  It’s a good lesson for us all.  Especially now.

Movie Review ~ Soul

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A musician who has lost his passion for music is transported out of his body and must find his way back with the help of an infant soul learning about herself.

Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Richard Ayoade, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove, Alice Braga, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, June Squibb

Director: Pete Docter

Co-Director: Kemp Powers

Rated: PG

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  I recently was watching some programming on Disney’s streaming service Disney+ and it included clips from 1995’s Toy Story, Pixar’s first full length feature film.  It was a landmark in the movie business, the first entirely computer-animated feature and it opened so many doors for artists and creative energy to flow over the next twenty-five years.  It’s strange to look back at that revelatory movie (that still holds up well today, I might add) and see how far the medium has grown.  Now the animation borders on prehistoric in terms of composition and the ability to capture life-life expression and scenery.  It’s easier than ever to lose yourself in a Pixar film, which is a huge help with stories that are aiming for emotional connections like Onward from earlier in 2020.  (Doesn’t it feel like that movie came out two years ago after all we’ve been through?)

Pixar levels up, amazingly, once more with their latest release and it shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point when I tell you that Soul finds a way into your heart in the most unique ways.  Bumped from its June theatrical release to a hoped-for November bow in theaters before Disney threw in the towel and decided to put their efforts behind a holiday release on Disney+, Soul is wisely debuting Christmas Day when families can gather in harmony for a moving viewing experience.  Though it deals with topics that are deeper and often less tangible than other Pixar productions and parents should get ready to unpack the movie with their younger children after (or during), Soul finds Pixar pushing the boundaries of storytelling to a far more inquisitive and almost metaphysical plane.

Continuing their trend of tweaking their studio logo to fit the film it precedes, Disney allows Soul to re-orchestrate their opening fanfare, helping to set the tone as we meet middle-school band teacher Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx, Just Mercy) hoping to inspire his inner-city students in the short amount of time he has them each day.  A jazz musician at his core ever since his late father taught him to love the style when he was the same age as his students, he picks up the occasional side gigs but never achieved the level of his success that matched his talent.  When he’s offered a full-time teaching job that would provide stability, not to mention would also please his firm but caring mother (Phylicia Rashad, Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey), a self-made woman that owns her own tailoring shop), Joe struggles with choosing some permanence in his life over the possibility that something may happen down the road.

Then, a call from a former student (Ahmir-Khalib Thompson aka Questlove) offers a chance to fill in for the quartet that plays with jazz saxophonist Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett, Black Panther) and it could be the opportunity that changes everything.  A head held high and open manhole cover with a perilous drop ends that dream, though, and Joe’s soul is taken from his body and set on a course to the Great Beyond.  Now in the form of an aqua colored sprite that has Joe’s identifiable hat and glasses, Joe escapes from his final journey and winds up in the Great Before as an unlikely mentor to a soul yet to be born.  Helping this soul (Tina Fey, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot) find their purpose by examining his own lived life becomes Joe’s ticket back to Earth and a reunion with his body.

Sounds like the full movie, right?  Ah…but this is from those ever-imaginative minds at Pixar and the outline above only covers the first 1/3 of Soul.  Oscar-winning writer/director Pete Docter (Inside Out) and his co-director Kemp Powers make Joe’s journey to the Great Before and his time there one of interesting discovery where origins of personality are found and motivations for a full life are started.  It’s a fascinating conversation for the movie to have with its audience and one that I’m sure will stay on your mind after; fantasy though this may be there’s some truth to thinking about what moves us and keeps us on track.  I didn’t even mention a hippie-dippie tie-dyed pirate character (Graham Norton) that’s very much alive on Earth but found his way into the Great Before by going into what we call “The Zone” or a chubby feline that plays an important role in the latter half of the movie.

It’s when the movie advances past Joe and his mentee getting to know one another in the Great Before that Soul earns its stripes for ingenuity and starts to close its grasp around your tear ducts, readying to squeeze.  It always amazes me the level of detail the writers and designers at Pixar can drill down to in each sequence.  There are comedic bits included here that would take forever to work out in live-action and even then may not come out correctly.  Yet they’re razor sharp here without a second of extra space for a laugh to go on for too long or too short.  Further, the action is complicated but easy to follow even with all the bells and whistles they’ve put on it.  That’s excellent filmmaking no matter what the medium it’s being made in.  It’s amplified by the score from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Waves) which gives the film an ample pulse and runs in a nice parallel to the jazz compositions provided by Jon Batiste, the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

Then there’s the way Docter, Powers, and the crew can make a simple moment, a small line, or a brief glance have huge emotional weight when you least expect it.  The realism of the animation at times helps this immeasurably.  There were honestly moments when I forgot it was animated, like Joe on a park bench watching the twirling seeds of maple trees fall or walking into a neighborhood barber shop.  You feel like you have to blink several times to adjust your eyes back to the animation.  There are several emotional high points within but the most effective one is instrument and dialogue free, and I won’t spoil where it is, but when you start to feel your eyes heat up, your cheeks flush, and the goosebumps ripple…you’ll know you’ve arrived.  As the first African American co-director in Pixar’s history (who will also be well-represented in end-of-the-year awards with One Night in Miami for Amazon), Powers brings some much-needed balanced narrative to the traditionally more vanilla Pixar brand of moviemaking.  Coupled with Docter’s trademark brand of tapping into what is going to pluck your increasingly fragile heartstrings and you have an inspired collaboration.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a miracle that a film about a jazz-musician’s soul figuring out their true spark of purpose set to a largely high-top horn heavy jazz score would be a tough sell but Soul emerges of one of Pixar’s mighty best, standing among an already impressive roster of top titles.  The voice cast is stellar (Foxx is the least Jamie Foxx he’s ever been and that’s a great thing) and it’s filled with jokes simple enough for small(er) children to laugh at and a number of quite hysterical one-liners (and appearances) involving historical philosophers and do-gooders that adults will get a belly laugh or four out of.  Despite the warning that parents might have to be prepared for some questions about death and what happens after we die, not to mention the film toying with the sticky-subject of the ability to come back after you die, for everyone else this is exactly the way you want your Pixar films to be: creative, moving, magical, funny, and thoughtful.  One of the very best of the year.

The Silver Bullet ~ Table 19

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Synopsis: Ex-maid of honor Eloise – having been relieved of her duties after being unceremoniously dumped by the best man via text- decides to attend the wedding anyway only to find herself seated with 5 “random” guests at the dreaded Table 19.

Release Date: January 20, 2017

Thoughts: I seem to have attended more weddings in the past two years than I have in my entire lifetime and have enjoyed each one of them.  Not only were they unique individual celebrations but I’ve been lucky enough to be seated at some fun tables and have met new friends. This first look at Table 19 introduces us to some characters that feel the burn of the high-number table assignment and decide to do something about it. Seems I’m eternally on the fence with Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2) but I’ll trek through mountains of toulle and tasteless wedding cake to see anything Lisa Kudrow (The Girl on the Train) is in. This seems to be one of those indie films picked up for a song hoping to be a sleeper hit, but I’ll walk down the aisle with it if there’s more funny stuff not shown in the trailer.

Movie Review ~ Love the Coopers

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When four generations of the Cooper clan come together for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, a series of unexpected visitors and unlikely events turn the night upside down, leading them all toward a surprising rediscovery of family bonds and the spirit of the holiday

Stars: Alan Arkin, John Goodman, Ed Helms, Diane Keaton, Jake Lacy, Anthony Mackie, Amanda Seyfried, June Squibb, Marisa Tomei, Olivia Wilde

Director: Jessie Nelson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 107 minutes

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Hold on a sec, allow me to get into full Ebenezer Scrooge mode because have I got a whopper of a turkey for you. Normally, I truly feel like the last two months of the year are, as the song says, the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time to reunite with family, practice being ok with giving instead of receiving, and hauling out classic holiday films made more enjoyable on snowy days and chilly nights. Arriving like a lump of coal in a moldy old fruitcake, Love the Coopers is not only the worst holiday film in recent memory but one of the worst offerings of 2015. Yes, I’m counting the endless TV movies featuring a department store Santa Claus helping an exasperated female executive find love with a burly man we all know is perfect for her.

Picture a movie where every single character is miserable. They don’t like their family, they can’t stand their friends, they basically hate their lives. Now imagine its set during Christmas and filled with every lame joke in the holiday handbook, from family secrets spilling out during a disastrous dinner table scene to irascible old fogies that turn wise when the movie needs a moral.

Screenwriter Steven Rogers (who, after viewing his credits on IMDb, seems to specialize in saccharine nonsensical dramedies) sketches the film as an ensemble affair with multiple storylines playing out (more like wearing out) during one jam packed day.

There’s Eleanor (Olivia Wilde, The Lazarus Effect), who’d rather hang out at the airport bar than head home, befriending a military man (Jake Lacy, Carol, the only bright spot in the movie) before convincing him to come home with her and pretend to be her boyfriend. Ruby (Amanda Seyfried, Lovelace), a diner waitress that feels a kinship with the cantankerous old coot (Alan Arkin, Indian Summer) that frequents her section. Hank (Ed Helms, Vacation) is trying to find a way to tell his estranged wife (Alex Borstein, A Million Ways to Die in the West) that he’s lost his job and can’t afford to buy presents for their kids. Emma (Marisa Tomei, Trainwreck) is a kleptomaniac taken on the longest drive in the history of ever by a policeman with a Big Secret (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain).

Then we have Diane Keaton (And So It Goes) and John Goodman (Argo) as the heads of the family who can’t seem to get out of the rut they’ve been wallowing in for years. Keaton seems resigned to live in the shadow of a career that’s left her in the dust and Goodman must have needed the money to buy clothes in light of his recent weight loss. Oh…and I can’t leave out June Squibb (Nebraska, in a role I’m sure Betty White turned down) as a forgetful aunt that’s just a set-up for various sight gags and fart jokes. There’s also a narrator to the film, a device employed not only as an opportunity for a famous comedian to provide a voice for but to be a part of a twist reveal that most awake audience members will figure out early on.

The last film director Jessie Nelson released was I Am Sam in 2001 and it’s painfully obvious the dormant decade between the two films wasn’t spent in a graduate film school seeing that the film is an awkward mix of false emotional peaks and ill-conceived bits of comedy that makes the running length feel neverending. The tipping point for me was a dreadful family sing-a-long with Helms and Arkin strumming away at their guitars without the vaguest hint of knowing irony. Another particularly painful passage was the aforementioned police car ride where Tomei tries to psychoanalyze stoic cop Mackie, leading to a left-field admission that’s not only offensive but downright tacky.

Love the Coopers seems destined to be that awful holiday entertainment that that one good friend of yours (hopefully not a loved one) claims to be their ‘favorite’ film and forces you to watch with them. Take my advice and resist the urge to bask in the glow of doing something kind for others and think only of yourself…and stay far away from this stinker.

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
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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 ~ I’ll See You in My Dreams

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A widow and former songstress discovers that life can begin anew at any age

Stars: Blythe Danner, Mary Kay Place, Martin Starr, Sam Elliot, June Squibb, Reid Scott, Malik Akerman, Rhea Perlman

Director: Brett Haley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Screening movies can be an interesting experiment in timing. Between seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road (two gigantic movies in scope and sound) I caught a preview of the quiet drama I’ll See You in My Dreams. The title alone lulled me into a slight slumber and I’ll admit to being this close to “resting my eyes” on several occasions…but I’ll admit that by the time the credits rolles I found the film to be a nice change of pace from the current cinematic offerings and features a lovely star turn from its leading lady.

I’ve always liked Blythe Danner and appreciated that in her later years she’s not merely known as “Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mom” but had continued to find roles that showcase her well. I met Danner in New York nearly a decade ago after her stellar performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and was struck not only by her dynamic onstage presence but how radiantly beautiful she was up close and personal (something I can’t say for some actors I’ve met over the years).

The film is nearly a one-woman show as Danner (The Lucky One) anchors every scene of the movie she’s in (which is every one of ‘em) whether sharing it with one or more members of its pleasant supporting cast or going it solo playing a long-time widow retired to Florida. Though she doesn’t live in one of the numerous retirement communities the state has to offer, she still makes it out to the weekly bridge game held at a local senior palace with her spry friends played by Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill), June Squibb (Nebraska), and Rhea Perlman (The Sessions).

Focusing on two burgeoning relationships: a friendship with her pool boy (Martin Starr, This Is the End), and a romance with a newly arrived hunk (Sam Elliot, Draft Day) the movie develops at its own pace and takes its time to highlight the feelings both men stir in Danner’s independent character. A strength in the screenplay from Bret Haley (who also directs) and Marc Basch is that they’ve crafted Danner’s widow not as someone lacking something in her later years but excited at the prospect that a new adventure she never expected may be awaiting her.

Truly, it’s a piffle of a movie and feels perhaps too small for a big screen but it’s wonderfully acted and conveyed with a sensitivity toward those in their golden years that know it gets greater later. Even a phony-feeling section where Danner and her pals toke up on medical marijuana gets a pass from this citic because the four ladies play it with such verve. A truly special scene finds Danner and Starr in a barely populated karaoke bar where Danner delivers a tender rendition “Cry Me a River”.

So far this summer the movies have been appropriately gonzo but unexpectedly overwhelming which has led to a decided fatigue even before the previews have ended. If you’re looking for a respite from the flash, give I’ll See You in My Dreams your time instead.

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

Movie Review ~ Nebraska

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, Stacy Keach, June Squibb, Bob Odenkirk

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  If one were to look at through the seven films that Alexander Payne has directed, one could conclude that the director loves a good road trip.  Four of his films (Sideways, About Schmidt, The Descendants, and now Nebraska) deal with the central characters making some sort of journey from their home to a destination not totally familiar.  It’s through this trek that they discover new truths about themselves and the people that surround them.

You’d think that after three films this trope would get old but Payne once again demonstrates dexterity as a film craftsman that helps keep Nebraska on a focused course.  He’s not alone in his success, though, thanks to stark black and white cinematography from Phedon Papamichael.  Papamichael’s luscious lensing of the dense tropical locations of The Descendants is countered quite nicely with the way he turns his camera onto the vast open expanses of the Midwest.

Skilled directing and excellent cinematography aside, a movie this delicate has to have the right cast to convey its message and Payne has assembled another ensemble that works in harmony with Bob Nelson’s script to create an array of broken (and hilarious characters).

Center stage is veteran actor Bruce Dern who delivers a career high performance in an already richly celebrated resume of films from the last four decades.  He’s Woody Grant, an alcoholic of creaking bones and wispy hair that could be either drifting into senility or simply not caring what he remembers any more.  When he receives a letter in the mail from a Publishers Clearing House-like compay letting him know he’s a millionaire, he becomes fixated on getting to Nebraska to claim his prize and buy that truck he always wanted.

Much to the chagrin of his brusque wife Kate (June Squibb, About Schmidt), his stereo salesman son David (Will Forte) agrees to pack up his car and take his dad those many miles…because Woody has already tried to walk there on more than one occasion.  During the road trip there’s your typical father/son bonding but a stop in Woody’s hometown for a visit with old family, friends, and friendly enemies threatens to derail the journey altogether.

What Payne does so well is find new ways of exposing family secrets in a way that doesn’t feel trite or forced.  There’s a definite history of the Grant family in this rural rest stop where they find themselves and anyone that’s come from a small town will get a good laugh out of the way that news spreads fast amongst even the most out of touch townspeople.  The funniest moments (and Nebraska has quite a few) spring from the most mundane goings on and that’s the beauty of the discoveries Payne offers up.

Even at nearly two hours, the film doesn’t have a lot of slack moments.  You’d think that once Woody and David get off the road and basically wander around this quiet town that there’d be one or two moments where the film would lose some steam but in fact it only gets more interesting as its then that we truly learn more about Woody’s past and how his character influenced how he formed and raised his own family.

Deeply funny with a hint of a somber future, Nebraska still is one of the more entertaining films I’ve seen this year.  Curmudgeonly Dern and the irascible Squibb are sure-fire Oscar nominees but special mention should also go to Forte for stretching his dramatic chops far beyond the confines of his previous post-Saturday Night Live opportunities.  Hitch your wagon to this cross-country comedy and enjoy the ride.

The Silver Bullet ~ Nebraska

nebraska

Synopsis: An aging, booze-addled father makes the trip from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son in order to claim a million dollar Mega Sweepstakes Marketing prize.

Release Date:  November 15, 2013

Thoughts: As a fan of the majority of director Alexander Payne’s work (including my favorite film of 2011, The Descendants), I’m eagerly awaiting his latest piece which won lead actor Bruce Dern the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.  Filmed in glorious black and white, this road trip dramedy looks spiked with Payne’s observant style and wry wit.  It should be interesting to see how Will Forte fares as Dern’s exasperated son, especially considering that up until now he hasn’t had much of a chance to show off any dramatic chops.  This is high on my list of films to see. 

Oh…and I am always excited when I see a director use a retro film logo (David Fincher and Steven Soderbergh also like pulling these out before their films)