The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qsg0fku78o

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts: Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, OMG, Amazing, Laura Dern, December Get Here Soon!, Why are you still reading my thoughts…watch the first teaser trailer now!

The Silver Bullet ~ Wilson

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Synopsis: A lonely, neurotic and hilariously honest middle-aged man reunites with his estranged wife and meets his teenage daughter for the first time.

Release Date: March 24, 2017

Thoughts: Though MN has been the setting for several notable Hollywood releases, it’s been a while since we’ve had a locally shot project to look forward to…especially one with such a strong cast. Adapted from the graphic novel by Daniel Clowes and directed by Craig Johnson (The Skeleton Twins), Woody Harrelson (Now You See Me 2) stars as the titular character who reunites with his ex-wife (Laura Dern, Smooth Talk) to visit the daughter she put up for adoption years earlier.  Harrelson and Dern on their own would pique my interest but the two stars together in a movie shot in my hometown featuring a host of familiar local faces?  Sign me up to get to know Wilson better. 

Down From the Shelf ~ Jurassic Park III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A decidedly odd couple with ulterior motives convince Dr. Alan Grant to go to Isla Sorna (the second InGen dinosaur lab.), resulting in an unexpected landing…and unexpected new inhabitants on the island.

Stars: Sam Neill, William H. Macy, Téa Leoni, Alessandro Nivola, Trevor Morgan, Michael Jeter, Laura Dern

Director: Joe Johnston

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It took four years for Steven Spielberg to direct a sequel to 1993’s Jurassic Park and with the problematic reception of The Lost World: Jurassic Park in 1997, the award-winning director was understandably cool to the thought about returning behind the camera for the third entry in 2011. Instead, Spielberg gave his old pal Joe Johnston (Captain America: The First Avenger) the chance to direct and while the end result was a marked improvement over his lugubrious sequel, Jurassic Park III has its own set of problems to contend with.

Paleontologist Alan Grant (Sam Neil, The Vow, making a welcome return to the series) is facing budget cuts and a scientific community more interested in his adventures at Jurassic Park than the research he’s devoted his life too. When a wealthy couple want to hire him and his assistant (Alessandro Nivola, American Hustle) to guide them on a sight-seeing trip over Isla Sorna (Site B featured in The Lost World: Jurassic Park), he reluctantly agrees as a way to make ends meet. Nevermind that series fans will know that Grant never set foot on Isla Sorna (Jurassic Park took place on Isla Nublar)…it’s a detail explained later but not very well. A crash landing is only the start to the bad luck Grant and company encounter as they try to survive an island with dinosaurs that have run amok and double-crossing members of their party.

At a trim 92 minutes (including credits) the film doesn’t take much time to breathe (or to think) and it’s probably best if you follow suit. Between some fairly terrible CGI dinosaurs and animatronic models that look like they were plucked out of your local science museum, the quality of the effects took a tumble here.  Odd colored dinosaurs look like they have graffiti on them and the raptors have mohawks…punk rock raptors? A big bad dino has a head that looks so fake you wonder if Johnston wasn’t making a spoof of the original film instead of a continuation of that story.

Performance-wise, only Neil (and a brief cameo from Laura Dern, The Master) have any real sense of urgency. Everyone else seems to be present to chew the scenery or be chewed on. Particularly bad is Téa Leoni who takes one too many pratfalls and apparently gets several haircuts during the 24 hours they are stranded on the island. Leoni also has an annoying way of running through the forest screaming and waving her arms and legs like she’s on fire, leading me to wonder if someone ever bothered to tell her she wasn’t in a comedy.

It’s not as boring as The Lost World; Jurassic Park but it’s far sillier. Depending on your mood, that could be either a good thing or a very bad thing. Watching it again recently I rolled my eyes a lot but didn’t have the outright disdain for it that I had when it was originally released. The script (with a contribution from Alexander Payne, Nebraska) feels like a tired third entry in a successful franchise, nothing more and nothing less. Its lackluster performance at the box office signaled the closing of this beleaguered park, a wise move if nothing of substance could be produced.

 

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Wild

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Synopsis: A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe.

Release Date: December 5, 2014

Thoughts: Remember that time that Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line?  Yeah…that seems like a distant memory now.  Though I still feel Witherspoon was led to the podium by a campaign based on charm rather than an award winning performance (Felicity Huffman should have been honored for Transamerica that particular year), she’s proved more often than not that she’s a smart cookie of an actress.  Paired with Jean-Marc Vallée who led not one but two actors to Oscar victory in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club and working with a script by Nick Hornby (About a Boy) based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild could be the movie that brings Witherspoon (This Means War, Mud) back into the top tier of Hollywood’s A-List.  Don’t expect some wimpy outdoor version of Eat, Pray, Love either…the trailer indicates Wild will be a raw journey for all involved.  That alone makes it worth looking forward to.

Movie Review ~ The Fault in Our Stars

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Lotte Verbeek, Emily Peachey 

Director: Josh Boone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: After reading several early rapturous reviews of John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars I, like all my good bandwagon hopping peers, snapped up a hardcover copy to say I owned it and then let it sit on the shelf where it gained a fine layer of dust.  When it was announced in 2013 that the film version of the novel was hitting theaters in 2014 I dusted off the book and carried it around with me with the best of reading intentions…only to see it make its way back onto the shelf, unread.

Suddenly, it’s 2014, I’m seeing the film in a week, and my guilty procrastinating personality kicks into high gear and I finally crack open the book.  The rest is history…the kind of superior reading experience that maybe I was always destined to have.  Green’s novel, told from the matter-of-fact perspective of a girl dying of lung cancer, was a humorous, heart-string tugger that never felt sorry for itself or resorted to cliché to keep its audience tearing through the pages.  In the novel, love is found between protagonist Hazel and charming Augustus at the very worst time…when death is standing at the door.

Too many films adapted from popular novels suffer by comparison because they either fail to capture what made the action on the page so special or change too much so the product is unrecognizable to fans.  That’s not the case here, thankfully, so while it does retain some of the more problematic passages that made the novel perfectly imperfect, its devotion to being faithful made me respect it even more.

I can’t say for sure, but had I not known while reading that Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) was playing the lead I think I would have always imagined her in the role. As it is, after seeing Woodley’s sensitive take on the character I can’t imagine any actress out there today could have done the role justice as well as she does here.  As in the novel, Woodley’s Hazel is strong yet vulnerable, direct but caring, and wise well beyond her young years.  When she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort, last seen playing Woodley’s brother in Divergent) in a cancer support group, she finds a kindred spirit that shows her she’s got a lot of living left to do…and wants to live it with her.

Director Josh Boone teams with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber in bringing this sentimental tear-jerker to audiences without letting the film with such a melancholy subject feel too heavy.  The beats are all in the right place and the film enjoys a good hour of splendid magic before veering (like the novel) into a subplot that (like the novel) just didn’t work for me.  To say what this tangent is would be to betray what happens later in the film so I’ll merely say home is where the heart is.

As far as differences between the novel and the film, most are too small to report back on.  Even though the flash-forward opening moments of the movie had me on edge, it wasn’t the deal breaker it could have been in less devoted hands and thankfully, Boone and co. have figured out a way to smooth over (not change) the ending to be more cinematically sound.  As Hazel’s dad, Sam Trammell isn’t as weepy as the novel implies, bringing a welcome stoicism absent on the page that makes him more equal partners with his wife and daughter.  It’s hard to believe there was a time I wasn’t a fan of Laura Dern, never really warming to her performances.  However Dern (Smooth Talk, The Master, Jurassic Park) delivers moving work here as Hazel’s mom, further cementing my admiration for her talent.

Woodley and Elgort have chemistry for days, something the movie would have been D.O.A. without.  Largely thanks to Woodley’s earthy presentation of a dying girl and Elgort’s laid-back approach to a devil may care boy The Fault in Our Stars becomes more than a disease of the week three hanky weeper.  A well made film crafted by people who obviously cared about the book quite a lot, there’s little fault to be found here.  A nice bit of counter-programming for audiences already weary with effects heavy blockbusters.

 

In Praise of Teasers ~ Jurassic Park (1993)

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I have a serious problem with movie trailers lately.  It seems like nearly every preview that’s released is about 2:30 minutes long and gives away almost every aspect of the movie, acting more like a Cliff Notes version of the movie being advertised rather than something to entice an audience into coming back and seeing the full product.

In this day and age where all aspects of a movie are fairly well known before an inch of footage is seen the subtlety of a well crafted “teaser” trailer is totally gone…and I miss it…I miss it a lot. So I decided to go back to some of the teaser trailers I fondly remember and, in a way, reintroduce them. Whether the actual movie was good or bad is neither here nor there…but pay attention to how each of these teasers work in their own special way to grab the attention of movie-goers.

Jurassic Park (1993)

Here’s my favorite kind of teaser: one that shows no actual footage from the movie itself.  I had all but forgotten this ad for 1993’s Jurassic Park, a clever intro to audiences not only that the movie was coming their way but in how the dinosaurs would be coming back to life in the first place. Though the movie did take ample time to explain the process, having the teaser give some info up front that there was some science behind it all couldn’t have hurt.

Now that the movie has spawned two (inferior) sequels, had an IMAX 3D re-release of its own, and is readying for an all-new adventure (Jurassic World) in 2015 it’s nice to be able to look back and see how Steven Spielberg’s groundbreaking adventure first caught the eye of moviegoers.

Miss my other teaser reviews this week?

Check out my musings on Alien, Misery, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Showgirls!

Movie Review ~ Jurassic Park 3D

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The Facts:

Synopsis: During a preview tour, a theme park suffers a major power breakdown that allows its cloned dinosaur exhibits to run amok.

Stars: Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Jeff Goldblum, Richard Attenborough, Bob Peck, Martin Ferrero, Joseph Mazzello, Ariana Richards, Samuel L. Jackson, BD Wong, Wayne Knight

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review:  It’s hard to believe that Jurassic Park is celebrating its 20th Anniversary this  year – I still remember like it was yesterday seeing one of the first showings at the Edina Theater and going back a few more times that weekend to see the dino action, bringing my friends along to see their reaction.  I saw the film a total of 10 times that summer and have revisited it dozens in the years since but I still was a little leery of the movie being re-released in 3D and IMAX to celebrate two decades of T-Rex and Raptor filled scares.  The film was so entertaining to begin with; did it really need 3D/IMAX to increase the entertainment value?

The answer is “no” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t greatly enjoy seeing the film digitally restored with booming sound and a carefully thought out 3D conversion overseen by its director.  You see, Jurassic Park is such an old-fashioned thrill ride of a film that it could be played backwards and still give you a big bang for your buck…though the term “popcorn film” was coined years before it’s one of the best ways to describe the experience.

Most people are probably already familiar with the plot involving a theme park in the South Pacific home to cloned dinosaurs.  What looks to be a huge advancement in science and consumer marketing turns deadly as the aggressive dinos break free during a tropical storm…much to the terror of a small group of men, women, and children that have stopped in for a visit.

What works about the film (wide-eyed wonder, excellent action sequences, state-of-the-art visuals) still works and what was once iffy (the film has a tendency to feel overwhelming in its scope) feels corrected by seeing the movie again on the big screen.  Though I still feel that the movie is less concerned with its calculated leaps in narrative than it is about dropping the jaws of their audience, there’s no denying that the movie has lost little even after countless viewings.

I was struck at how solid Neill was in his lead role as conflicted Paleontologist Dr Alan Grant.  Though the role could have gone to a real name star (Harrison Ford), Spielberg made the right choice by choosing the understated Neill to really ground the film.  While I’ve grown to like Dern (check her out in The Master and especially Smooth Talk), I do still cringe a bit at her overzealous line readings delivered with a lilt that sends a shiver up my spine.  Goldblum’s kooky theorist goes down easier than it did back in the day thanks to our exposure to similar actors like Johnny Depp who have probably would have played the role if it were made today.  Oscar winning director Attenborough (A Chorus Line) hits the right notes as the man behind the park, wisely toned down by screenwriter David Koepp from his evil genius characterization in Michal Crichton’s source novel.  Mazzalo and Richards performances have retained their mostly pleasant early 90’s feel though the efforts of both feel a bit light when surrounded by such impressive special effects.  Jackson, Wong, Peck, and Ferrero are nice supporting players while Knight’s performance feels the most stuck in the past.

The Oscar winning effects still look incredible and the various thrill sequences that had you on the edge of your seat will make you climb right over it as you witness a T-Rex attack that feels more up close and personal than ever.  The 3D is used sparingly but to great effect as the textures and depth of the park are increased, giving the film some needed strength in its slightly slower middle third.

Looking back it’s amazing to think that Spielberg directed Jurassic Park and his Oscar winning Schindler’s List in the same year…two enormously popular films for very different reasons.  It only speaks to his talents as a director that he could produce such tonally different movies yet keep the undeniable Spielberg touch intact.

Only in theaters for a few weeks, there’s every reason to get your tickets to Jurassic Park whether it’s your first or thirty-first time you’ve seen it.  The surprises are still there, the unexpected scares are present, and you may even find yourself getting that warm fuzzy feeling of retuning to something that reminds you of one great summer and one great film.

Mid-Day Mini ~ Smooth Talk

SmoothTalk

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” by Joyce Carol Oates, this film chronicles 15-year-old Connie Wyatt’s sexual awakening in the Northern California suburbs.

Stars: Treat Williams, Laura Dern, Mary Kay Place, Levon Helm, Margaret Welsh, Elizabeth Berridge

Director: Joyce Chopra

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  In the mid 90’s I went through a period of really hating Laura Dern.  There was something about her gait, her delivery of a line, her bird-like features that really rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t take her seriously or sit through one of her films without feeling rumpled.  Then the strength of her work in recent years (including a remarkable performance in HBO’s just canceled Enlightened and memorable supporting roles in movies like The Master and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio) made me change my mind, encouraging me to seek out some of her earlier work.  Now, I’m enraptured.

That’s how I happened upon Smooth Talk, a true hidden gem of a picture that kept me on the edge of my seat thanks to a star performance by Dern as a California teenager flirting with danger over the course of one hot summer.  Based on a story by Joyce Carol Oates, the film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1986 Sundance Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why.  With direction from Chopra and a Spartan script courtesy of Tom Cole what begins as a familiar look into teen angst in the mid 80’s turns into…well…I don’t want to spoil it for you.  The film is surprising in its turns but never feels like it’s exploiting our lead character or the audience as it unwinds its careful yarn that may remind you a bit of Little Red Riding Hood.

Dern is astonishing here, navigating some tricky material that couldn’t have been easy to play.  She’s supported well by Williams as a mysterious stranger that sets his sights on Dern and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill) as her mother that holds her to a different standard than her other daughter.  It’s an effective film for a lot of reasons, not the least is its look into a loss of innocence from multiple points of view.

This plays on television quite often so keep your eye out for this one – it’s rare to find a film so assured and unexpected.

Movie Review ~ The Master

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Writer-director Anderson has given cinema several very fine films over the course of his career.  Wild and epic, all of his films have a lot of high-level ideas and concepts to them which can make them fun discussion movies when the lights come up.  A case could be made that most of these films involve some sort of fatherly figure and the relationship they have with someone they see as their child. In his little seen and underrated Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall played a wise figure that takes nobody John C. Reilly under his wing and provides tutelage in the world of gambling.  Boogie Nights finds the porn producer inhabited by Burt Reynolds guiding protégé Mark Walhberg to becoming a star.  Magnolia, There Must Be Blood, and even the dreadful Punch-Drunk Love all find similar situations.

It’s more of the same with Anderson’s newest work, The Master, as it documents the bond formed by a loner veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) brought into the fold of The Cause by its founder  Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).  As Quell gets in deeper with Dodd and his family (including Adams as his wife), he’s tested greatly physically and mentally until like all Anderson films something inevitably has to give.

There’s some mighty fine acting happening in The Master and it is clear why Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar for his work.  The troubling thing for me is that he’s nominated as a Supporting Actor when he really is a co-lead with the also-nominated Phoenix.  (The same thing happened with lead actor Christoph Waltz snagging a Supporting Actor nomination for Django Unchained).  Sure, Phoenix is the character the film revolves around but Hoffman has just as much responsibility in the grand scheme of things.

Hoffman can sometimes make me weary as the characters he takes are quite passive but in The Master he delivers a career high performance with a conviction and underlying deceit.  He elevates nearly every scene he’s in and does it with an assured ease.  It’s clear that Hoffman and Anderson worked in tandem to create this character and it’s a fine example of the symbiosis between an actor’s craft and the written word.

As the troubled Quell, Phoenix is back on the screen after a hiatus from acting that saw the actor go through a truly weird metamorphosis.  Phoenix still maintains his unfortunate trait of mumbling through his dialogue and even if it is a character choice that works better with this character than others, it does create an invisible barrier between his performance and the others onscreen. 

Anderson’s last film was working with the infamously committed Daniel Day-Lewis and Phoenix is much the same type of method actor.  What sets the two actors apart is that Phoenix’s commitment seems unplanned rather than spontaneous and before you say what’s the difference – there is one.  Day-Lewis may make his choices in the moment and feed off of others but you know that he’s so invested in the character that even the most unexpected moments come from an understanding of the work itself. On the other hand, Phoenix has more than a few scenes in the movie that feel as if they are in service to him rather than the movie. Still, Phoenix and Hoffman have two dynamite scenes that are so good they dwarf everything and everyone else in the film.

I feel like I’ve seen Adams doing this kind of work for a while now.  It’s clear that Adams is an actress with ingenuity and strength but I’m not seeing what the big is with her performance here.  For my money it’s not a memorable enough performance to warrant the Supporting Actress nomination she received.  I kept waiting for that one scene that would truly blow me away – even if a few moments started up that mountain the peak was never reached in a satisfying way. 

Much has been made about the film being a thinly veiled insight into the rise in popularity of Scientology and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the movement started by L. Ron Hubbard and The Master’s movement, The Cause.  Not being overly familiar with Scientology I have to say that even if that’s what The Cause is getting at it’s not the central focus of the film.  The people at the heart of the matter are what the movie is focused on.

As is the case of all Anderson’s films, this one overstays its welcome.  I thought the film was winding up with a nice coda, only to witness an extra 10 minutes that did nothing to make the film better than where it could have stopped.  It’s strange that some directors don’t know when to close up shop and go home and Anderson’s The Master (along with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) winds up being that friend at the party you were happy to see arrive but now just wish would go home so you can sleep.