Movie Review ~ Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A look at the history of the American comedy publication and production company, National Lampoon, from its beginning in the 1970s to 2010, featuring rare and never-before-seen footage.

Stars: Chevy Chase, Kevin Bacon, Al Jean, Billy Bob Thornton, Ivan Reitman, John Landis, Judd Apatow, P.J. O’Rourke

Director: Douglas Tirola

Rated: R

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Though I’ve watched quite a few of the big screen offerings boasting the name National Lampoon, I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen the bawdy, rule-challenging magazine that started it all. Those in the same boat as me will be well served to devote some time to Douglas Tirola’s Lampoon love letter Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon because it gathers nearly every living member that was a major contributor to the magazine and films, detailing how the magazine rose to record high circulation before crashing and burning near the turn of the century.

The ground-breaking publication had a 28 year run starting in 1970, born as an offshoot of sorts to the Harvard Lampoon, a chaste satire magazine that I’m pretty sure didn’t feature as many bare breasts as its wicked cousin. Attracting some of the best and brightest in young comedic talent, the magazine grew to phenomenal popularity in pop culture and found its players turning up on a radio shows, stage plays, and, eventually movies.

The timing seems right for this documentary, coming on the heels of the numerous retrospectives that surrounded the 40th Anniversary of Saturday Night Live. Looking at the members of the National Lampoon that were eventually lured away to form the original cast of SNL, you get an even greater sense as to where they cut their satiric teeth before achieving the national spotlight every Saturday night.

It’s a fairly straight-forward documentary with good sound bites presented by people with names we recognize more for their behind the scenes contribution than anything onscreen. Though they are now older and (maybe) wiser, the wealth of timeworn photos show that in their heyday these people partied hard and produced a ribald humor magazine that was a counter-culture phenom of its time. It’s hard to know if such a thing could happen in this day and age, making the National Lampoon a time capsule of sorts for how things (and people) (and humor) used to be.

The Silver Bullet ~ Iris

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Synopsis: A documentary about fashion icon Iris Apfel from legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles.

Release Date:  TBD 2015

Thoughts: Renowned documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles passed away in early March, but not without leaving audiences with one final work.  Though Albert, along with his brother David (who passed away in 1987) are best known for their jaw-dropping cult doc Grey Gardens, they were responsible for dozens of other fascinating biopics from features to short subjects.  Showing some of the same wry New York wit that was on display so lovingly in Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me, fashion maven Iris Apfel first popped up in the 2013 doc Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s and she moves center stage for Maysles’ peek behind the style.  Looks like an appealing watch, made more intriguing by it being the swan song for a legendary documentarian.

The Silver Bullet ~ White Bird in a Blizzard

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Synopsis: In 1988, a teenage girl’s life is thrown into chaos when her mother disappears.

Release Date:  September 25, 2014

Thoughts: Star Shailene Woodley has been on a roll ever since making an impressive bid for stardom opposite George Clooney in The Descendants.  In 2014 alone she’s been an action star (in the otherwise forgettable Divergent), broke YA hearts (as a cancer teen in The Fault in Our Stars) and now takes on another dramatic role in Gregg Araki’s coming of age tale White Bird in a Blizzard.  With Araki’s history of putting the squeaky clean youth of Hollywood through his adult blender, expect Woodley to mine new ground and bare all (literally) as a teen affected by the disappearance of her unbalanced mother (Eva Green, Cracks) in the late 80s. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Honeymoon

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Synopsis: Young newlyweds struggle as their honeymoon spirals mysteriously into chaos.

Release Date: September 12, 2014

Thoughts: This low budget indie out of England probably won’t play in many theaters around the country and your best bet will be to catch this OnDemand or when it arrives at Redbox/Netflix.  I can’t vouch for how good this Honeymoon will be, but the makings are there for a tidy bundle of scares in the woods for our nubile couple hoping to celebrate their nuptials in seclusion.  I’m digging the poster and the early footage seen in the trailer and as a lover of these types of horror films, I’m hoping to love, honor, and obey this one in sickness and in health.

The Silver Bullet ~ Life Itself

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Synopsis: A documentary film that recounts the inspiring and entertaining life of world-renowned film critic and social commentator Roger Ebert.

Release Date: July 4, 2014

Thoughts: Gulp, I got a little teary just watching the trailer for this documentary of Pulitzer Prize winning film critic Roger Ebert. Inspired by (and taking the title from) Ebert’s must-read autobiography, Life Itself will probably be required viewing for any casual movie fan and for sure anyone that claims to be a movie critic. Though I didn’t always agree with Ebert’s reviews, I often found myself checking in on what he thought if I was on the fence – a practice I still follow to this day for older movies. Even through his famous clashes with Gene Siskel, I have always respected his style and his willingness to take every movie for face value and report back on his experience. Losing him was a huge blow for film criticism and this documentary looks as reverential as it has every right to be.

Movie Review ~ Europa Report

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An international crew of astronauts undertakes a privately funded mission to search for life on Jupiter’s fourth largest moon.

Stars: Michael Nyqvist, Sharlto Copley, Embeth Davidtz, Daniel Wu, Christian Camargo, Karolina Wydra, Anamaria Marinca

Director: Sebastian Cordero

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For all the big budget sturm und drang blockbusters coming out of Hollywood nowadays, it’s nice to be reminded that good films can still be made on smaller budgets.  Now, we all know that an indie comedy or drama could be produced for next to nothing but what about a science fiction film taking place in a galaxy far from earth?

That’s the first question I had when I saw the preview for Europa Report, director Sebastian Cordero’s thoughtfully meditative sci-fi morsel, back in early 2013.  I’d recently come off of a run of impressive space set features (like the exquisitely designed and audience dividing Alien prequel Prometheus) so even though my interest was piqued my eyebrow was raised in a most questioning manner.

Ten minutes into the film and I knew Cordero had a winner on his hands, a film with the dramatic thrust of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the hidden unknown of The Abyss, and the threat of danger of the aforementioned Prometheus.  Though small in scope the film is an impressive achievement considering the budget was less than 10 million dollars, didn’t boast any big name stars, and was released during the busy summer months when films like Iron Man 3 and Fast & Furious 6 were ruling the charts.

The set-up is mostly hum-drum with a crew of six traveling to a moon of Jupiter to investigate any signs of life.  As these missions often go, the crew encounters as many troubles getting there as they do when they arrive including damaged equipment, sensory deprivation, in-fighting, and arguing over who drank the last serving of Tang (OK, that last one doesn’t happen but I can’t imagine after a year in space something similar wouldn’t occur).

What makes the film come to life is how Cordero works with his resources to make his movie not just another C-grade space set adventure.  There’s a consideration for savvy moviegoers who don’t necessarily want their sci-fi with lasers and slimy slimeballs but would appreciate an esoteric space journey that has mysteries of its own.  Revealing more would damage the impact so let’s just say not everyone onboard gets a chance to marvel at Jupiter’s vistas with their colleagues.

A gathering of international actors like Sharlto Copley (Open Grave, Elysium), Michael Nyqvist (Disconnect, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), Embeth Davidtz (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Amazing Spider-Man), and others gives the film a believably United Nations feel with each actor making the most out of their finely drawn characterizations.

When it starts to deal less with the unknown and more of the known the film loses a bit of its built up steam but the majority of its trim 90 minutes keeps you invested in the mission and the fates of the crew.  The production design is rich, whether the audience is watching the actors on earth, in their shuttle, or venturing out into the black darkness and it’s compounded nicely by just right special effects from several VFX studios (Phosphene, Method Studios, Look Effects, Perception, Quadratic Digital).

This is a film with a brain and one that may turn off those looking for a more action-packed outer space adventure (for that, make sure to see Gravity in 3D) instead of a smaller, slower-paced film that takes its time arriving at the final destination.

After a small release in theaters and OnDemand, Europa Report is available on most streaming services.  It’s one you’ll want to add to your queue if you like your sci-fi without a bunch of spiny aliens gnashing their gooey teeth at Sigourney Weaver (which, incidentally, I’m always a fan of).

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The Silver Bullet ~ Grand Piano

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Synopsis: Moments before his comeback performance, a concert pianist who suffers from stage fright discovers a deadly note written on his music sheet.

Release Date:  March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Taking more than a few choice notes from the likes of Hitchcock and De Palma (Passion), I’m hoping that Grand Piano is better than it looks.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a taut thriller set in a confined space where our lead had to figure out a way to escape death without tipping off the killer but I’m not sure if Elijah Wood has that everyman quality that made Cary Grant and James Stewart so appealing.  The trailer also makes the mistake of giving away the identity of protagonist which could be a risky move if there are no more surprises in store.  Arriving On Demand before a theatrical release, this is one that may go down easier from the comfort of your own couch.

Movie Review ~ How I Live Now {Twin Cities Film Festival}

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An American girl sent to the English countryside to stay with relatives finds herself fighting for her survival as the UK turns into a violent military state.

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Tom Holland, George MacKay, Anna Chancellor, Harley Bird

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The more movies I take in the less surprised I seem to be.  When you think about it, isn’t everything just a variation on the same several plot points across a limited amount of genre categories?  That’s why when I catch a movie that surprises me, I tend to sit up a little straighter in my seat and find that I’m willing to give myself over a little more to it.

I didn’t know what to expect from How I Live Now before I saw it at the 2013 Twin Cities Film Festival.  I had read a little about it and knew that it was adapted from a YA novel penned by Meg Rosoff but I deliberately skipped watching the trailer and generally avoided anything that might give away too much, lest I go in with certain expectations that wouldn’t, couldn’t be met.  When you’re as in to movies as I am, this lack of knowledge can sometimes be a huge gift and it’s probably the reason I wound up liking the movie as much as I did.

Though she started out 2013 in a blah adaptation of another popular YA novel (The Host – for which my negative review inspired an unhappy fan to say they wanted to punch me in the face), Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan comes back swinging here with a performance unafraid to be unlikable.  She’s a temperamental (read: bitchy) American girl visiting her aunt and cousins in their quaint English countryside estate when nuclear war breaks out in major cities around the world.

That’s about all you’ll need to know before seeing where How I Live Now takes this character and charts her experiences as she struggles to come to grips that her life will never be the same.  Where the first half of the film has the audience reeling at how bitter Ronan’s character is (we get the sense that her widowed father shipped her away for some peace and quiet), the second half turns the tables and easily wins the viewer back to Ronan’s side.

There’s nice support from a largely unknown and young cast who handle the harrowing material very well.  I liked Tom Holland’s performance in 2012’s The Impossible and he does equally strong work here as Ronan’s sensitive younger cousin. George MacKay rises above his characters questionable relationship with Ronan and tiny Harley Bird survives several scary scenes where her character is in grave danger.

The movie struggles with some tonal shifts that may be a little hard for people to roll with.  One moment it’s a dark comedy, the next a survivalist tale before switching to human drama and then into a dewey (and kind eeeewy) romance.  Even so, there was something about how director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) keeps everything afloat and slightly off balance that had me modestly mesmerized.  I wasn’t sure how the movie would end or if I’d even be happy with the resolution but thankfully the wrap-up makes sense as it aligns with everything that came before it.

You probably missed this one during its brief run in theaters but if you happen to be browsing your local Blockbuster (whoops!) I mean, your local Redbox or Netflix queue this one might be a more than pleasant surprise.  After all, it’s always the movies you are least expecting that find a way to sneak up on you.

31 Days to Scare – I Saw the Devil (Akmareul boatda)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When his pregnant fiancée becomes the latest victim of a serial killer, a secret agent blurs the line between good and evil in his pursuit of revenge.

Stars: Lee Byung-hyun, Choi Min-sik, Oh San-ha, Kim Yoon-seo

Director: Kim Jee-woon

Rated: R

Running Length: 141 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:

Review:  Not for the faint of heart or weak of spirit, the 2010 Korean film I Saw the Devil is a button-pushing, stomach-churning descent into the shadows of revenge.

A bold and badass film from director Kim Jee-woon (The Last Stand), I wasn’t quite sure what to expect after reading some favorable reviews that contained warnings of the extreme violence within the 141 minute running time and nightmare-inducing scenes of torture.  Opening with a truly chilling scene involving a stranded female motorist and a seemingly good Samaritan that stops to help, it isn’t long before Jee-woon steers his ship through the heart of darkness and true evil by introducing us to the depraved madman (Choi Min-sik in a monumentally effective performance) that kills the pregnant fiancée of a Korean special agent (Byung-hyun Lee, Red 2).  Min-sik’s method of disposing of his victims culminates in scenes that will have you white knuckling it, daring yourself to keep your eyes open.

Had this been made in Hollywood there would surely have been the inclination to make the film about something more than the agent’s cold, bloody revenge and delirious pursuit of a killer,  but Jee-woon wisely strips away any excess fat and lets the movie build on its own merits of cinematic style and committed performances.

It’s the kind of film that will stick with you long after the final, devastating dénouement is made, leaving more innocent bystanders affected.  Not to be missed but do pay attention to the caveat of severe carnage and violence towards seemingly every woman that shows up on screen.

 

Movie Review ~ Blackfish

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity

Stars: Tilikum, Samantha Berg, Dave Duffus, Dean Gomersall

Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 83 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Like many kids who grew up in the 80’s and 90’s I made a trip to Florida for my own Disney Adventure with a side trip to Sea World and a front row, spash-zone seat for the Shamu show.  I screamed in delight as the majestic fish leaped and dove, spraying water all over my family and left the park with a stuffed animal as a reminder of the day.  I keep that happy memory with me even after seeing Blackfish, a documentary that uses the story of one whale in captivity to present a larger cautionary tale of the dangers of life in captivity.

The center of the movie is Tilikum, a male orca that was captured off the shores of Iceland at just three years old and brought to a small seapark in Canada.  When a young trainer drowns after falling into the orcas pool, the park is shut down and the whale was moved to Sea World in Orlando.  The ensuing years saw the orca become a favorite of the trainers but who occasionally shows a dark side as well.  Leading up to the highly publicized death of a respected trainer, Blackfish charts Tilikum’s behavior as seen through the eyes of former Sea World staff that worked with him.

Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film is set-up like an edge-of-your-seat thriller and makes wise use of archival footage from the whale being caught as well as home video material of Tilikum’s interactions with Sea World staff.  The film is clearly slanted to the side of not keeping animals in captivity and instead of merely launching a Greenpeace-y argument on the subject Cowperthwaite uses her resources and interviewees to make the case for her.

A solid documentary with an abundance of information and impassioned interview subjects that come off as well-informed, if slightly biased, Free Willy this movie is not.  Ultimately, the question always being asked is any animal truly better off in captivity?  In the case of orcas, family-oriented and long-living, the answer is unquestionably no.