Movie Review ~ Wonder Woman 1984

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in 1984 during the twilight years of the Cold War, the film follows Diana and her past love Steve Trevor as they face off against television huckster Maxwell Lord and archaeologist turned half-wildcat Barbara Minerva aka Cheetah.

Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Kristen Wiig, Pedro Pascal, Robin Wright, Connie Nielsen, Natasha Rothwell, Ravi Patel, Gabriella Wilde, Kristoffer Polaha, Amr Waked

Director: Patty Jenkins

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 151 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review:  Earlier in 2020 when theaters started to close and movie release dates began to be bumped, the first films discussed were the most immediately affected: the latest James Bond film No Time to Die, Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan, and Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Tenet.  Each film has followed their own path to getting in front of audiences, from sticking to a theatrical release at all costs to its own detriment or embracing the streaming/on demand option that is available to millions in more immediate platform providers.  Arguably, out of all the movies in 2020 that audiences, studio heads, and investors in the future have been looking to for a sign of what’s next is Wonder Woman 1984 and like its bold titular superheroine, it wound up being a leader for its peers.

Rather than just debut the movie in theaters and have a streaming date follow weeks later, or have the film premiere for a fee on demand first, Warner Brothers stopped giving the film a seemingly endless set of new release dates and decided to gift everyone the movie on Christmas Day via HBOMax as well as select theaters in areas where it was safe to open.  The new streaming service has launched this year to a good buzz with nice content and an even better supply of films so far that have bypassed a theatrical run due to the pandemic like the remake of The Witches, Let Them All Talk, and Superintelligence.  To further entice those wanting a more cinematic experience, Wonder Woman 1984 would be the first film on HBOMax to be released in 4K, and would also support Dolby Vision, Dolby Atmos, and HDR10.  So if your home theater is tricked out, you were going to get a great show.

Still…there was the question of the quality of the film, a much (and I do mean much) anticipated follow-up to 2017’s origin story of how the Amazonian princess (Gal Gadot, Furious 7) made her way from her home island of Themyscira to the battlefields of the first World War, fighting alongside Col. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, People Like Us).  Eventually joining the Justice League for more modern adventures (and being featured in two other DC films, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and 2017’s Justice League) she stands as a symbol of truth and is always “fighting for our rights…and the old red, white, and blue.”  Original director Patty Jenkins was wisely brought back, this time co-writing the script with Aquaman screenwriter Geoff Johns.  The result is a solid sequel that builds on the excellent groundwork set in the first film but struggles with focus and juggling two villains with only one proving to be effective.

I’m going to assume from this point on you’ve all seen the first film so we’ll discuss some key events that happened in that movie.  You’ve been warned on spoilers from that movie!

Jenkins begins her film with a true thrill, an extended pre-title sequence set on Themyscira showing the young Diana (Lilly Aspell, Holmes & Watson) going up against older Amazons on a grueling obstacle course race that takes them in, up, over, and under the beautiful isle.  Under the watchful eye of her mentor Antiope (Robin Wright, Blade Runner 2049) and mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen, Sea Fever), Diana learners an early lesson about truth above all else.  Jumping time periods from 1918 to 1984, Diana is now operating out of Washington D.C. working at the Smithsonian as an anthropologist when she isn’t taking long lunch breaks to solve crime and save lives as Wonder Woman.  The apprehension of a set of mall thieves (one of several well-orchestrated action set-pieces) winds up overlapping with her day job as items from the heist are actually antiques, one of which holds a special power that changes all who come in contact with it.

One of those people is Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette), a co-worker of Diana’s that largely goes unnoticed day in and day out.  Mousey and easy to push around, she begins to change once she makes a casual wish to be more like Diana and that’s when her world, appeal, and physicality start to change overnight…and soon not for the better.  Another individual that seeks the artifact is smarmy Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk), a pyramid scheme sham-artist about to go down in flames whose fortunes change after making a deadly pact with a force of unknown power.  Still mourning the loss of Steve, who sacrificed himself at the end of the first movie, Diana, too, becomes part of this when her innocent wish for him to return brings him back…kinda.  Everyone has been wondering how Jenkins was going to bring back Pine for this film after his character, well, died all those decades earlier but she and Johns have worked out a clever way for this to happen within the context of the story being told.

That’s pretty much all you need to know about Wonder Woman 1984 because it’s the gist of the set-up introduced in the first quarter of the movie, the rest is all how these characters react to the new powers they’re given or, in Diana’s case, the person she’s given back.  For Barbara and Max, the power becomes an intoxicating drug they need more of.  Max begins to be unable to hold back and it starts to manifest itself outwardly but for Barbara while the change is somewhat external, the majority of the alteration is to her internal confidence and prowess.  Unwilling to be manhandled, exploited, intimidated, or second-guessed, an animal emerges…and this is long before her eventual transformation into Wonder Woman’s famous rival, Cheetah.

For Diana and Steve, it’s a far more emotional journey and Jenkins allows Gadot and Pine to have these moments, much to the chagrin, I’m sure, of the many fanboys and fangirls that just want to see wall-to-wall action.  Yes, I would have loved to see Gadot show up one or two more times in the Wonder Woman get-up in that first hour (there’s a frighteningly long passage in the first 75 minutes where she’s tiara-less) but would I have sacrificed the nice moments generated by the two actors?  Not at all.  If Gadot and Pine weren’t so engaging, I might have said yes but both elevate their characters to something bigger than big-screen versions of comic book creations.  It also paves the way for one of the film’s most stunning moments for Gadot, a “never look back” sort of scene that demonstrates not only why she’s underestimated as an actress but why she’s made a fantastic Wonder Woman so far.  Still…a nice mixing of the two is a 4th of July ride for the two on an invisible jet plane through a mass of fireworks.  It’s a romantic interlude in an otherwise more action-oriented scene.

Wiig is another huge revelation, I’m glad to say.  Everyone is a fan of the actress for her comedic turns but I’ve struggled with her in more dramatic roles, finding them a bit on the sly and overly produced side.  Not so here.  I loved watching how her Barbara turns from being a wallflower (that maybe only thinks she’s a wallflower) to a full-fledged creature out for dominance.  She begins by wanting to be like Diana in terms of being noticed, but when she realizes that her wish came true and then some…she becomes addicted to the “then some” more than anything.  Emma Stone was rumored to be the first choice for the role but Wiig is such a better selection, it’s hard to consider anyone else playing it so well.

Then we come to the biggest problem with the film, Pascal as Max Lord.  In a role that should have been played by (and I would wager a guess was written for) Matthew McConaughey, Pascal is by far the weakest element of the movie and that becomes a huge detriment the more Lord shifts into a leading villain role throughout the overlong 151-minute run time.  Popular right now more than ever due to his role as The Mandalorian on Disney+, Pascal may have his fans from that series but he’s almost unwatchable here as he overacts and oversells Lord while others around him are operating at a different level.  Someone should have taken him aside and helped him make an adjustment because it just looks like he’s in a completely different kind of movie.  In the hands of a McConaughey or even a Jeremy Renner (if he wasn’t already tied to Marvel), Lord could have been a true foe for Diana but under Pascal’s watch he’s a complete annoyance more than anything.

True, some of the CGI near the end gets a little iffy, especially when Wonder Woman and Cheetah finally meet face to face but as is typical of a DC film, it’s a strikingly rendered bit of entertainment for the most part.  Plenty can be said about the plot holes around the logic surrounding the central artifact, not to mention inconsistences in its usage but isn’t that true of all superhero movies at some point?  I mean, let’s not even go there with Marvel and it’s various magic objects that do the impossible.  Yes, it may not hold up to a careful inspection and isn’t as unique as its predecessor but its still eons better than most of the other films released so far in the DC Extended Universe.  It has a distinct moral compass that it’s not afraid to be open about; messages about telling the truth to yourself and, if you are in a position of power, telling the truth to those you have the ability to communicate with seems pretty pointed and timely for today’s audiences.  I like that it has a point to it and also how it keeps its emotions close to the surface, allowing them to rise up when necessary.  Gadot gets several key moments to emote and they don’t feel forced, her sincerity is what continues to make her engaging.

You can bet that all eyes will be on HBOMax this Christmas to see Wonder Woman 1984 make its premiere on the service (and I’ll be watching it again sometime soon, I’m sure) and I’m not worried about the future opportunities to see the Amazonian princess on the screen.  Make sure to stick around for the first few minutes of the credits and clear out any annoying windows that pop up so you can see the full screen – there’s a brief mid-credit sequence that is not to be missed for anything.  As a long-time fan of Wonder Woman dating all the way back to that original Cathy Lee Crosby movie (yes, even that one!) I kind of lost my mind for a moment.  It’s just the capper on Jenkins understanding what makes the character so appealing and proving that she knows how to give fans what they want.  Another absolute winner.

The Silver Bullet ~ Wonder Woman 1984

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Synopsis: Fast forward to the 1980s as Wonder Woman’s next big screen adventure finds her facing an all-new foe: The Cheetah.

Release Date: June 5, 2020

Thoughts: THIS IS HOW YOU MAKE A TRAILER AND GET PEOPLE EXCITED!

Let’s face it, when Wonder Woman rolled into theaters in 2017 the odds weren’t exactly stacked in her favor thanks to the recent efforts from DC Studios.  Yet the film was an unimpeachable knockout, with smart direction from Patty Jenkins and led by Gal Gadot (Keeping Up with the Joneses) to critical, audience, and box office success.  True, subsequent DC films failed to build upon the good example Wonder Woman set so in summer of 2020 expectations are even higher for Wonder Woman 1984 to get things back on track.

From the looks of this trailer, we’re in for a rad delight with Jenkins and Gadot leaping ahead several decades to a story set in 1984 that finds Wonder Woman reunited with Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, A Wrinkle in Time) and dealing with super villains Barbara Minerva (aka Cheetah) (Kristin Wiig, Where’d You Go, Bernadette) and Max Lord (Pedro Pascal, If Beale Street Could Talk). The full plot is unknown but is it too much to hope they’ll take a page from Cheetah on the Prowl, the read-along book I had as a kid (see below)? 🙂 Everything about this preview is on point and gave me the kind of goosebump chills of excitement I used to feel when I was a teen waiting for the next ‘90s summer blockbuster.  Love the editing, love the music choice, already looking forward to Wonder Woman’s visit to an ’80s mall.  This just jumped to the top of my most anticipated list of 2020.

 

Movie Review ~ Where’d You Go, Bernadette

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The Facts
:

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.

Movie Review ~ Downsizing

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A social satire in which a guy realizes he would have a better life if he were to shrink himself.

Stars: Matt Damon, Christoph Waltz, Hong Chau, Jason Sudeikis, Kristen Wiig, Udo Kier, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris

Director: Alexander Payne

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a movie that doesn’t have ideas to share.  It’s becoming more and more common to describe big budget action films or insipid comedies as brainless and for me that would just be the worst if I were a filmmaker.  I’m impressed with films that clearly have a point of view and, even if the movie itself isn’t all that special, at least they can go down saying they gave it some semblance of a good shot.

Such is the case with Downsizing, the new film from talented director Alexander Payne (Nebraska, The Descendants) who has co-written an interesting satire that doesn’t have far to go but takes a long time getting there.  It’s not lacking in good performances, dedicated direction, or superior production design but what’s it’s really missing out on is a consistent playfulness that highlight its most memorable sequences.

Paul Safranek (Matt Damon, Promised Land) is an occupational therapist working for Omaha Steaks in the not too distant future.  Living with his wife (Kristin Wiig, The Martian) in their modest home they make ends meet but aren’t really going anywhere either of them have much vested interest in. They are, like so many of us, just coasting through life and waiting for the next shoe to drop.  Attending a reunion, they reconnect with Dave Johnson (Jason Sudekis, We’re the Millers) and his wife who have undergone a drastic medical procedure introduced as a way to reduce the global overpopulation and pollution concerns.

Through a process known as Downsizing, humans are being shrunk to five inches and living in communities around the world that are tailor-made to their new sizes.  In places like Leisureland, your life savings that once wouldn’t have covered more than a nice trip to Europe can now buy you a mansion, allowing you to live the life of luxury while eliminating the continued build-up of environmental effluence.  This irreversible process has been slow to catch on globally but those that go through it speak of its life changing benefits.

Energized by the possibility of a better life “going small”, the Safranek’s commit to becoming shrinky dinks and that’s when two things happen.  The first thing that takes place is a shift in the Safranek’s relationship neither of them saw coming, the second is that the movie almost instantly becomes less interesting.  That’s troubling because at this stage in the film we’re only about 1/3 of the way through and so it begins a slow march to the finish line…a very slow march.

It’s not all bad news, though, because there are some bright spots that pop up here and there.  Though he has a penchant for playing the same role over and over again, here two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained) is having a ball not playing the villian.  As Dusan, a playboy neighbor that befriends Paul, he feels at home with Payne and co-writer Jim Taylor’s dialogue…proving he doesn’t need a Tarantino script or lip-smacking guile to turn in a memorable performance.

Even with heavy hitters Damon and Waltz present and accounted for, the film belongs to break-out star Hong Chau (Inherent Vice) as Ngoc Lan Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who was put in prison for her political activism and downsized against her will.  A Waltz’s house-cleaner, Tran is no-nonsense and to the point, something that captivates Paul.  Finding himself in her debt, a relationship forms between the two that is both surprising and surprisingly sincere.  This connection carries the movie through the final act when Paul, Dusan, and Tran travel to the original downsized colony in advance of an announcement that will change all their lives forever.

There’s good stuff in nearly every frame of the movie and while I enjoyed the film for the most part during my initial viewing, the more I sit and dissect what it’s saying the less enamored of it I become.  Up for debate is the political correctness present in Chau’s portrayal of Tran but while some have called foul I’ve heard the actress talk about her approach and she stands behind her work.  As far as I’m concerned, if she’s OK with it, the discussion is finished.  More of a pain point for me is that the movie just isn’t as interesting as it wants us to believe it is.

The middle sections sags and drags and it’s thanks to Chau’s spirited performance that the movie recovers at all.  Payne isn’t afraid to shine a light on behavior or situations he finds eccentric, I just wish he had found a few more noteworthy turns to take on the odd-ball road trip he sets into motion.  Clocking in well over two hours, Downsizing should have reduced its running time along with its main characters.

The Silver Bullet ~ mother!

Synopsis: A couple’s relationship is tested when uninvited guests arrive at their home, disrupting their tranquil existence.

Release Date: September 15, 2017

Thoughts: Oh let’s just face facts, they had me at Michelle Pfeiffer. It’s always a special joy to see Pfeiffer (Grease 2) onscreen at any time and we’re fortunate that she’s popping up in so many places in 2017.  Before she boards Murder on the Orient Express in November, she’s going to be seen in Darren Aronofsky’s strange little thriller mother! (no capital letters for this guy!) this September.  This looks like it’s either going to be a nasty little nightmare that Aronofsky is so good at or a total mess which would be pretty unfortunate considering the stellar cast assembled.  I wince a bit at 27 year old Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle) married to 48 year old Javier Bardem (Skyfall) but let’s hope Aronofsky offers an explanation within the first reel.  Ed Harris (The Abyss) also stars but it’s Pfeiffer looking snazzy and sinister that seals this deal for me.

Movie Review ~ Sausage Party

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A sausage strives to discover the truth about his existence

Stars: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Salma Hayek, Edward Norton, David Krumholtz, Nick Kroll, Michael Cera, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Bill Hader, Anders Holm, Paul Rudd, Danny McBride

Director: Conrad Vernon, Greg Tiernan

Rated: R

Running Length: 89 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: The team behind Sausage Party are funny guys…no, really, they are.  The trouble is, they have trouble with starring in movies that are actually…y’know…funny.  At least to me.  Saying this animated R-rated raunch fest is from the team that made 2013’s This is the End didn’t exactly inspire me to be counting down the days to its release.  If anything, it made me dread the day I had to sit in a theater and listen to Seth Rogen play a foul-mouthed but well-meaning hot dog looking to become one with a bun voiced by Kristen Wiig.

Maybe it was a wise choice for the folks behind the Sausage Party screening to give everyone over 21 a free drink because when the movie started my belly was warm with a concoction called Meat Juice (Jägermeister, Grapefruit Juice, Orange Juice, Soda, and Lime…overall as gross as it sounds) and I was feeling a nice little buzz.  It weakened my defenses, I think, because not only did I laugh harder than I thought I would but I wound up enjoying it for all of its surreally filthy fun.

It doesn’t take long for the first F-bomb to be dropped as a grocery store and its products awake for another day in paradise. In a 4th of July display, a package of hot dogs sits next to a bag of buns and wiener Frank (Rogen, The Guilt Trip) waxes vulgar of what he’d like to do to bun Brenda (Wiig, Ghostbusters). Anatomical questions aside, you just have to go with the fact that these food products are horned up, crude, and disarmingly pleasant even when spouting nasty thoughts.  I mean, when the main villain is a douche (literally) you have to step back and remember that you signed up for this one and love it for all its gross out rough edges.

Written by Rogen and three of his collaborators, the film becomes a journey of food understanding its place in the great circle of life and taking a stand against the “gods” (humans) that aren’t coming in to save them but to devour them.  Trust me, it will make your look at everything from bubble gum to toilet paper in a different light.  You’ll still use them…but once you’ve seen a face on a used prophylactic you just can’t return to the real world unscathed.

Directors Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan have brought together a most impressive list of voice talent too.  In addition to Rogen & Wiig, there’s Salma Hayek (Savages), Edward Norton (The Grand Budapest Hotel), David Krumholtz (Hail, Caesar!), Nick Kroll (Vacation), Michael Cera, James Franco (Homefront), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), Craig Robinson (Get On Up), Bill Hader (Inside Out), Anders Holm (The Intern), Paul Rudd (Wanderlust), and Danny McBride (Aloha).

A good 10 minutes too long, the film, um, climaxes with an orgy so grotesquely dirty that it makes the one in Caligula look like a trip down the yellow brick road.  That bravado in going so low is what made me respect the film and its creators because it takes more than a rude mind to get to the places that this one does.  It goes without saying that if you’re a parent and you bring your child to this you are absolutely terrible but adults looking for a summer comedy that actually provides laughs have found a feast.

Movie Review ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Following a ghost invasion of Manhattan, paranormal enthusiasts Erin Gilbert and Abby Yates, nuclear engineer Jillian Holtzmann, and subway worker Patty Tolan band together to stop an otherworldly threat.

Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, , Chris Hemsworth, Cecily Strong, Andy Garcia, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams

Director: Paul Feig

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3.5/10)

Review: I feel like every review of this female-led reboot of Ghostbusters should start out with a few honest admissions just to make sure we’re all on a level playing field.  To admit a bias or pre-conceived notion is not only helpful in understanding where someone is coming from but it allows readers to trust that their friendly neighborhood movie critic is a straight-shooter.  So…here we go.

  1. I’m not a huge fan of the original Ghostbusters from 1985 and even less so of its goofy 1989 sequel. Watching the film again last year for its 30th anniversary, I was struck by how slow the it was.  Enlivened by, ahem, spirited performances from Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl) and Rick Moranis (Parenthood), it just didn’t have the same effect on me it did when I first saw it as a five-year old.
  2. I am a huge fan of Kristen Wiig (The Martian) and have even almost forgiven her for that dreadful 2013 entry Girl Most Likely, which happened to land on the top of my Worst of the Year List.
  3. Though she almost lost me for life with Tammy, I’m converting back to being pretty fond of Melissa McCarthy thanks to her stellar turn in Spy and holding back just enough in The Boss.
  4. In my book, Leslie Jones (Trainwreck) can do no wrong and I’m waiting for her to headline of movie of her own.
  5. Kate McKinnon (Sisters) is the unquestionable VIP of the current cast of Saturday Night Live and I perk up every time she appears on that show.
  6. I had zero qualms about this film, its cast, its trailers, or its marketing.  I was looking forward to it.
  7. I went in rooting for it, choosing to brush aside the early bad buzz as the slime fueled so-called “Ghost Bros” jumped to tear it down at every turn.

And the most honest admission of all…

  1. This is not a great film or even, sad to say, a very good film. Is it watchable?  Yeah, for the most part.  Is it funny? Sporadically but it flops more than it flies. It’s not the worst reboot we’ve seen but it may be the most disappointing because the potential was there for something great.  How the extremely talented roster of Wiig, McCarthy, Jones, and McKinnon wound up teaming on something so flat, awkward, and stupid is the biggest mystery of the summer.

While a pre-credit opening feels like a nice nod to the original film, it’s saddled with a heap of clunker jokes that don’t inspire any laughter, much less any kind of confidence in what’s to come. Wiig is back to playing her favorite character…Awkward Lady in Heels but this time she’s added a stylishly bad haircut with bangs to cap off the look.  Her tenure-seeking professor is reluctantly brought back into the paranormal antics of her former colleague played by McCarthy.  McCarthy is eerily restrained here, like she’s been given a tranquilizer that renders her potty mouth squeaky clean and her boisterous comedic timing nonexistent.  While she does manage to fit in a few funny bits of physical comedy, this is McCarthy is full pod-person mode.  When she stares down a ghost and says “Aw, shoot!” my heart broke a little for the actress I’m positive had a profanity-rific alternate take for the same scene.

McCarthy’s character has teamed up with an eccentric nuclear engineer (McKinnon) to continue her study of the supernatural and drags Wiig back into the mix when they discover a crop of ghost sightings that may be brought on by a sinister force.  McKinnon is full-on Looney Tunes and what she’s doing may be just odd enough to distract you from the larger problems of the script from The Heat collaborators Katie Dippold and Paul Feig, it winds up being a performance extracted from another movie all together.  It’s a shame because for her first stab at mainstream popularity Feig has allowed McKinnon too much room to play and the movie suffers greatly from it.

By the time Jones shows up as a subway worker with a knack for NYC history, it just seemed too little too late. Even though Jones gets the best moments of the movie (most of which you’ve already seen in the trailer) she, like McCarthy, feels held back by an invisible force field.  Perhaps these magnetic ladies just repelled when they were brought together because while the film had some impressively rendered special effects, there’s little magic or chemistry to be had.

Evidently scared of alienating its male ticket-buyers, Sony decided to plop Chris Hemsworth (Vacation) on the poster with the four leads and that’s a bit of a puzzlement.  While Hemsworth has a substantial role as the dumber than mud bit of receptionist eye candy, he’s barely required to do more than struggle through a series of painfully unfunny scenes and lead a host of extras to a badly cut dance sequence that plays over the end credits.  Hemsworth, bless his Australian heart, has absolutely no comic timing and it left me wondering if the role wasn’t written with Channing Tatum in mind.

It’s no spoiler to say that most of the cast from the ’85 film pop up at some point playing different roles, even the late Harold Ramis makes a blink and you’ll miss it appearance.  While these appearances trigger some nostalgia, the actors are plopped into roles that don’t seem respectfully tailored for them in the least.  It’s like they told director Feig when they could show up and just took whatever part was available that day.  Surprisingly, Annie Potts gets one of the biggest audience reactions while Bill Murray (Hyde Park on Hudson) makes a frightfully terrible presence in his two scenes.

Ghostbusters has taken a lot of early heat for what is perceived as male bashing.  True, every male in the film (living or dead) is portrayed as a combination of dumb and misogynistic, morally reprehensible slugs that just get in the way of these female Ghostbusters.  Hemsworth is seen as such a piece of meat it’s amazing he wasn’t covered in steak sauce.  So yeah, the men aren’t shown in the best of light but who cares?  Women are treated far worse in film and I guess some credit should go to Feig for making a career out of putting actresses in the power positions of his movies.

I can only imagine what this could have been had it not been so stripped of the kind of slam-dunk laughs that all parties involved could probably find in their sleep.  It was never going to be a profanity laced R-rated wonderment, not when there were kids to pander to and adults to not offend.  So instead of Feig and company truly rebooting the franchise and doing something new, this female Ghostbusters has just as many fart jokes, bad humor, and, for those that stay until the very end, a “God I hope they greenlight a sequel” desperation as any other male-driven studio film that gets released.

The Silver Bullet ~ Ghostbusters (2016)

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Synopsis: Thirty years after the original film took the world by storm, Ghostbusters is back and fully rebooted for a new generation.

Release Date: July 15, 2016

Thoughts: When 1989’s Ghostbusters II failed to materialize big bucks like its 1984 predecessor, plans for future Ghostbusters installments were put on hold.  An animated series or two and almost two decades later, Ghostbusters is revved up and ready to be rebooted.  Though I wasn’t too enamored with The Heat, the last time director Paul Feig, screenwriter Katie Dippold, and star Melissa McCarthy (Spy) teamed up, our first look at the all-female team of Ghostbusters looks fairly fun and quite promising.  Enlisting the stellar talents of Kristen Wiig (The Martian), Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones was a smart move so the comedy doesn’t rely solely on McCarthy’s pratfalls.  If all goes as planned, rumor has it that a second set of Ghostbusters will be involved in another series of films that run parallel and overlap with the gals…but let’s take one thing at a time, shall we?

Movie Review ~ Zoolander 2

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Derek and Hansel are modelling again when an opposing company attempts to take them out from the business.

Stars: Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penelope Cruz, Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Billy Zane, Fred Armisen, Christine Taylor, Cyrus Arnold, Justin Bieber, Kyle Mooney

Director: Ben Stiller

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I guess I just need to start this review by owning up to the hard truth that before doing my homework for Zoolander 2 by re-watching the original, I’d only seen Zoolander once, back on the day it opened three weeks after September 11 in 2001.  Arriving at time when audiences needed a brainless piece of fluff to distract them for a minor amount of time, the comedy was 89 minutes of funny, if perplexing, moments.  For each solid laugh there were a dozen groans and while it did a fair job skewering the easy target of male models and fashionistas, it never left a lasting impression on me.  In the years since it’s evolved into a bit of a cult hit (it did better business on video than it did in theaters), but I never felt the need to revisit it until the sequel came creaking along.

Now, no one is going to accuse director/writer/star Ben Stiller (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty) of missing the boat on cashing in on a sequel to a popular title from his canon.  With Meet the Parents, Madagascar, and Night of the Museum now trilogies, Stiller likely was running through his IMDb page and landed on Zoolander as the target of his next trip to the Stiller well (we should be thankful he didn’t set his sights on Starsky & Hutch or Dodgeball…oh wait, a sequel to Dodgeball is already in development).

A whopping 15 years after the original was released, Zoolander 2 is ready to strut its stuff on a catwalk near you and while overall it’s better made than its predecessor, it suffers from the same chronic forgetability.  Though Stiller and co-star Owen Wilson (Inherent Vice) look remarkably, um, “refreshed”, the jokes and comic foibles of the two dunderhead models start to feel musty halfway through the smorgasbord of cameo appearances and off-the-wall tangents.

A freak accident a decade ago sent former male model Derek Zoolander (Stiller) into exile in Northern New Jersey and split his family apart.  When he’s called out of retirement by Billy Zane bearing an invitation to model in Italy, Derek agrees as a way to show he can be a fit parent and provide for his son.  Meanwhile, Hansel (Wilson) has been hiding out in Malibu, ashamed of a disfigurement that ended his career.  He’s also visited by Zane with the same offer of redemption and in an attempt to find out who he really is, agrees to put his shallow pride to the side and take to the runway.  Soon after their arrival, Derek and Hansel are in the middle of a conspiracy within the fashion world involving a legend that’s part The Da Vinci Code and part acid trip which threatens to end their careers (and lives) for good.

Upping the ante from the original film, the cameos that Stiller has secured are plentiful.  Running the gamut from Susan Boyle to Anna Wintour, Stiller isn’t messing around when it comes to stacking the deck with famous faces even though it’s clear many of them filmed in front of a blue screen and were digitally input into the scenes.  Without question, the majority of the fun derived from revisiting Stiller’s brainless model is picking out the stars that pass through the frame.  And the film earned a full two stars from me in its opening moments when it blessedly offs an annoying pop star that definitely had it coming.

That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its moments, because it does have some sequences that are so absurd you can’t help but laugh at the insanity of it all.  To their credit, Stiller and fellow screenwriters Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller, and John Hamburg insert joke upon joke upon joke so if four are duds there’s sure to be one solid laugh coming right on their heels.  The film gets its best results with Will Ferrell (Daddy’s Home) reprising his role as a megalomaniac designer and Kristen Wiig (The Martian) made up to the high heavens as a European fashion maven modeled after Donatella Verasce.  When Ferrell and Wiig are involved, you just have to let the camera roll and they’ll do the work for you.  The biggest surprise of the film is how high Penelope Cruz flies.  The Oscar winner hasn’t been this free for years and she seems to relish the opportunity to play with broad strokes.

Yet overall the film feels as hollow as the fashion world itself.  It’s all fun on the surface and in the moment but it leaves no lasting impression on the viewer.  I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have an overall positive reaction during the screening, I laughed at the most absurd passages (be prepared to let Fred Armisen haunt your dreams as a…well…I shan’t spoil the remarkable vision for you) and enjoyed myself sporadically, but upon reflection it’s simply a well packaged bag of potato chips…more stale air than actual food.

Movie Review ~ The Martian

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. But Watney has survived and finds himself stranded and alone on the hostile planet. With only meager supplies, he must draw upon his ingenuity, wit and spirit to subsist and find a way to signal to Earth that he is alive.

Stars: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Pena, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis

Director: Ridley Scott

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 141 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: At 77, director Ridley Scott has directed films across seemingly all genres.  Starting with his first film, 1977’s war drama The Duellists to his breakout hit Alien two years later, it was clear that Scott had something going for him.  Not that there weren’t stumbles along the way (1985’s Legend, 1992’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise) but for the most part Scott has exceled in drama (1991’s Thelma & Louise), historical epic (2000’s Gladiator) and even the occasional bit of fluff (2006’s charming A Good Year).  Still, sci-fi is where Ridley Scott has felt most at home and be it the aforementioned Alien, 1982’s polarizing Blade Runner, or even his more polarizing sorta-Alien prequel Prometheus in 20012 he always (for me) delivers the goods.

So it’s with great pleasure that I report that not only is The Martian the best film I’ve seen yet in 2015 but it’s Scott’s most appealing work in years.  Based on the hit novel by Andy Weir that’s been well adapted by Drew Goddard (Cabin in the Woods), The Martian is one of those big crowd pleasing epics that audiences won’t see coming.  I’d imagine most people will turn up to see an outer-space action film starring Matt Damon (Interstellar) but what they’ll get instead is a full bodied, full blooded, blockbuster in the making that continues to impress with each passing twist.

I was worried that Weir’s first person narrative would be tough to adapt but Goddard has fleshed out not only our titular character but a host of his comrades along the way.  Now, characters that were intriguing on the page leap to life fully formed and ready to play a part in a rescue mission taking place several light years away.

Through a series of unfortunate events, astronaut Mark Watney is left for dead during an emergency evacuation of his team from their Mars outpost.  His captain (Jessica Chastian, Mama) and fellow teammates (Michael Pena, End of Watch; Kate Mara, Fantastic Four; Sebastian Stan, Captain America: The Winter Solider, and Aksel Hennie, Headhunters) have no choice but to save themselves after it appears that Watney has perished in a harsh Martian sandstorm.

But miraculously Watney has survived, though it can be argued that his current situation is little better than his presumed one.  While he has enough food to last a little over a year, the next spacecraft isn’t scheduled to return for another four so he has to put his botanist skills to the test to make his own food supply while staying alive in a small habitat that isn’t designed to last as long as he’ll need it to be.

Back on Earth, a NASA authority figure (Jeff Daniels, Looper) has to deliver the bad news of a man dying on his watch but when a tech (Mackenzie Davis, That Awkward Moment) notices some satellite images that suggest someone is still alive on Mars, he teams with the mission leader (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave) to devise a way to get Watney home.  This choice is mostly to rescue the stranded astronaut but also a tiny way to save face in the eyes of media scrutiny.

At nearly two and a half hours, your bladder may shudder in fear but make sure to go before the movie starts because you won’t want to risk missing a single second of the adventure this movie takes you on.  The running time flies by due in no small part to Scott’s skill as a director and Matt Damon’s bravura performance.  If we didn’t care about Watney or like Damon the film would have sunk faster than the other movies about Mars released in the past two decades (though I liked John Carter better than, well, everyone).

The Martian is a nice opportunity for Damon to show some nuance that sometimes feels lacking in his roles lately.  His is a powerful, mesmerizing performance and it should easily put him on the short list for Oscar recognition.  From Damon on down the cast is excellent.  I was wondering why Chastain would take such a ho-hum role, until a late in the game Hail Mary that I won’t spoil tells me exactly what attracted her to the part. Daniels is appropriately gruff, Ejiofor is galvanizing, and what a treat to see Kristin Wiig (The Skeleton Twins) as serious-minded media correspondent for NASA.  As the characters are introduced it felt like an abundance of riches and their presence makes the film that much more polished.

With the advancement of special effects it seems like anyone can make you believe that you’re in outer space floating weightless but there’s something truly incredible about the production design and visual effects on display here.  Seamlessly integrating green screen technology, it’s the first film in a long while where I couldn’t tell where the effect ended and reality began.  Couple that with Harry Gregson Williams’s gorgeously haunting score and exemplary cinematography by Dariusz Wolski and you have a film that’s a real stunner.

I can’t remember the last time I left a film so fully satisfied and, better yet, energized.  Rocketing to the top of Best Picture frontrunners, the film has all of the elements that could help it nab the top prize.  We’re pretty far off from the final nominees and the dramatic films seem to rise to the top of the pile but I’m going to be pulling for The Martian to find its way into the mix.  Don’t miss it and feel free to spring for the 3D too, the effect works well to give Mars a unique depth while letting computer read-outs pop out at you.  Seriously…not to be missed.