Movie Review ~ Nocebo

The Facts:

Synopsis: A fashion designer suffers from a mysterious illness that confounds her doctors and frustrates her husband – until help arrives in the form of a Filipino nanny who uses traditional folk healing to reveal a horrifying truth.
Stars: Eva Green, Mark Strong, Chai Fonacier, Billie Gadsdon
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Rated: NR
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  A lament I’ve plunked out here quite often is the downfall of the mid-range thrillers that were so easy to churn out in the late ‘80s through the mid-2000s.  Produced on a modest budget with dependable actors, these were popcorn-chomping date night fare that was good for a weekend or two in theaters before heating up the video store shelves months later.  With the advent of streaming services and more franchise-based entertainment, these one-shot efforts were pushed to the side when studios focused all their time and money on making their blockbusters break the bank.  It’s a bummer because we’ve seen in recent years filmmakers and screenwriters that know their damsel in distress from their woman fights back scenario and their nightmare stalkers from their killer nannies. 

The new Irish-Filipino psychological thriller Nocebo is just that kind of easy-to-digest thriller that you can imagine would play as well in 1997, starring Kim Basinger as it does in 2022 with Eva Green (Cracks) in the lead.  Directed by Lorcan Finnegan (Vivarium) from a script by Garret Shanley, it’s solid entertainment that may have shocks up its sleeve but has more on its mind than cheap tricks and sordid plot details.  Nocebo has a rather intriguing thread to follow along with, and it rewards those who stick close and will keep its secrets until the end.

Children’s fashion designer Christine (Green) has a good thing going with a busy life in Ireland.  Her home is desirable, her husband Felix (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) is successful in his own business, and her daughter Roberta “Bobs” (Billie Gadson, Cruella) is at that pre-adolescent phase where she’s coming into her own.  On the eve of her latest launch at a tony shopping center, a mysterious phone call brings terrible news that we won’t know the full details until later.  At the same time, a ghostly mutt appears riddled with ticks in the pristine shop, and one winds up burrowing into Christine’s neck.  It’s the start of months of debilitating sickness and night terrors for Christine, leaving her incapacitated and unable to work.

When she does decide to muster all her strength and rise above the illness her doctors can’t pinpoint, she finds that she still doesn’t yet have the stamina.  A knock on the door reveals Diana (Chai Fonacier), sent from the agency at Christine’s request (she can’t remember calling, but…her memory has been spotty), who quickly takes control of the household and Christine’s well-being.  Tossing out the mountain of medications prescribed by her doctors in favor of remedies she’s brought from her homeland, Diana can help Christine into health.  Her husband isn’t convinced Diana is the saint she wants them to think she is, and the more they rely on her, the stronger her influence becomes. 

Finnegan and Shanley expertly keep Diana’s secrets hidden just out of sight for much of Nocebo’s swift running time, almost until the final scene when all is revealed.  It’s a satisfying response to the questions we’ve been jotting down throughout.  Helping to sell it is the terrific performance of Fonacier as a maybe villain with her side of the story to tell before the night is through.  It may become apparent what’s happening and why early on.  Still, try to keep the advanced puzzler in your mind at bay and enjoy how it all develops. I promise there’s something interesting happening that has some decent stakes for everyone involved.  When you’re working with a small cast like this, and they are giving it their dazzling all (Green, as usual, approaches Christine in an atypical fashion), it’s exciting to witness.

Movie Review ~ TÁR

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the international world of Western classical music, an exceptionally detailed portrait of a Promethean artist eventually hoisted on her own petard
Stars: Cate Blanchett, Noémie Merlant, Nina Hoss, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong
Director: Todd Field
Rated: R
Running Length: 158 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: The power is in the approach. Knowing Tár was created by writer/director Todd Field for Cate Blanchett helps to clear away all of the discussions going in and analysis after the fact centered around phrases that begin “If Tár were told from a male perspective,” or “Had Tár been played as a male.” Homing in on Field’s intent to tell and expressly communicate this perspective gives weight to his film, making it unique among his contemporaries. Further, it elevates the work Blanchett and her costars are doing.

It’s essential to keep this in mind when considering a viewing of Tár because it’s not one to be taken lightly. A commitment to focus on the words, sounds, and textures brought forth by the production will produce the maximum return for the viewer. I can understand why there’s been such a concerted effort to get critics into theaters to see it on the most iant screen possible, too. Like the top blockbuster, this is Cinema (yes, that’s with a capital “C”) but one that throws you for a loop in different ways than you could imagine.

The moment we enter the world of the film, it’s very good to be Lydia Tár. The first-ever female chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, she’s an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony-winning composer (one of the select few living EGOTs), author, teacher, shrewd businesswoman, and connoisseur of the finer things in life. She’s also an ego-driven narcissist who indulges in affairs with younger women while her partner looks the other way back home in Germany. Stringing along a devoted protégé with promises of a shot at becoming her assistant conductor, she’s not-so-secretly unwilling to let other women down the path she blazed.

As she prepares the Berlin musicians to record a final piece by Mahler during a period of heightened stress, her personal and professional life collides and begins to crumble. Accusations of impropriety, forever embedded in the public consciousness after the #MeToo movement, begin to follow her and eat away at the glass castle she’s formed around an empire that hasn’t come without tremendous sacrifice. Genius turns to obsession, and control becomes an unwieldy creature she can’t tame or keep time with.

If I’m being sincere, I found Tár to be hard to access for much of its first hour, and I started to worry that all of the good notices I’d heard had been the result of group festival fever. I’ll love Blanchett in whatever she does, but there’s a robotic emptiness to Lydia Tár at the beginning caught me off guard. Field runs the closing credits at the start of the film, purposely highlighting the art and artists involved first. That’s close to four minutes of blackness followed by an exposition of Lydia’s career backstory, delivered via an onstage interview with Adam Gopnick (the real one) from the New Yorker. Feeling more recitative than performative, Blanchett’s Tár was going to be a tough nut to crack.

After sitting with the movie long after it ended, you realize how intentional all of this is, how Lydia has given these same answers countless times, been asked about similar sources of inspiration, or her career trajectory. Reserving her personal life as her own, she saves the warmth and varied intonation of her speaking for those she deems worthy. As viewers, we know this because we see it over the next two hours. It’s in her tender moments with Sharon (Nina Hoss, The Contractor) and their daughter (Mila Bogojevic). It’s the small kindness she offers as a reward to assistant Francesca (Noémie Merlant, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), and it’s in the flirtatious edge she imparts toward a new cellist (Sophie Kauer) that becomes a distraction and consequence on every other relationship she’s juggling.

Unsurprisingly, Blanchett (Nightmare Alley) is magnificent, and the role is another feather she can add to a cap ready to take flight by this point. The film reaches its peak slightly before she does, so we’re left to enjoy the afterburn of her work almost as an extended epilogue. Few actresses could hold onto an audience in this way, and it’s a credit to Blanchett that she does. As towering as Blanchett is, Hoss contributes mesmerizing work as her better half. It’s a quiet performance that’s scant on dialogue, but Hoss does so much with her silent expressions that an entire conversation often happens between the two actresses absent of speech.

At close to three hours, Tár is a bundle-up and hunker-down experience that is rewarding for more than just the art house crowd or those with a subscription to the symphony. It’s for anyone that has followed the political landscape of the last five years and is invested in future change. Eagle-eyed viewers will also spot several visual cues Field and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister (Antlers) have included. Tiny slivers of fractions of glances that let you inside Lydia’s mind. I’ll see the film again for that alone to catch what I missed.

Movie Review ~ Cruella

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: Penniless and orphaned in London at twelve, four years later Estella runs wild through the city streets with her best friends and partners-in-(petty)-crime. When a chance encounter vaults Estella into the world of the rich and famous, however, she begins to question the existence she’s built for herself in London and wonders whether she might, indeed, be destined for more after all.

Stars: Emma Stone, Emma Thompson, Mark Strong, Joel Fry, Paul Walter Hauser, Emily Beecham, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Jamie Demetriou, John McCrea, Abraham Popoola

Director: Craig Gillespie

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: As a lifelong fan of all things Disney, I must admit a certain coolness toward the canine adventures found in 1961’s One Hundred and One Dalmatians.  Based on the 1956 novel by Dodie Smith, the animated film has remained a popular title for the studio, despite having one of the most blatantly vicious villains.  A live-action remake in 1996 was just the juicy bit of rawhide star Glenn Close could sink her teeth into playing that very villainess, Cruella de Vil. So though the character still wanted puppies to make a Dalmatian coat of her own, Close’s performance somehow made Cruella less frightening and instead amped the camp.  The less said about the ill-advised 2000 sequel, the better, and you really don’t want a deep dive into the disastrous 2009 musical with its eye on Broadway that premiered in my hometown but closed on the road before the real dogs in the show had a chance to grow up and age out.

Where to go from there?  The remake had been done, the musicalization was donzo, but with Cruella still getting a fairly good reception whenever she turned up in Disney theme park shows or in television on the Disney-owned ABC’s Once Upon a Time it was clear audiences were somewhat keen to see her show up at the party.  After the success of Maleficent and its sequel, how about running old de Vil through the origin story factory and see what pops out?  To me, this sounded like an idea for the birds, not the dogs.  While Maleficient’s journey toward cursing a princess to eternal slumber might lend itself to a bit of Disney magic, where was the fun in finding out how a skunk-haired meanie developed her admiration for fur and luxury canine couture?  Not even bringing on I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie or two Oscar winning Emmas felt like it would do the trick.

Well, like a style guru who must capitulate that a checkerboard print does indeed work for all seasons, I have to say that Cruella is an absolute delight and one of Walt Disney Studios most confidently unique offerings in recent memory.  To take a villain many lovers of Disney’s animated oeuvre outright despise is a bold move to begin with, but to give her the kind of genesis the writers have (granted, it took five of them) is a wonder in and of itself.  Add to that a cast of actors that sparkle at rest and shine in action and you’re off to the races with a film that operates at full tilt for much of it’s 134-minute run time. 

An older Cruella narrates her early years when she was called Estella and Cruella was merely the name for her dark side that came out when she felt threatened or got into mischief.  Though she tries her best, Estella can’t always keep her bad side from taking over and that’s why she and her mother have to leave another school in a small village outside London and head back to the city, but not before a late-night stop at an imposing manor hosting a costume ball.  Here is where Estella takes her first steps toward life on her own and how she winds up roaming the streets of London alone, eventually meeting young pickpocket street urchins Jasper and Horace who welcome her into their makeshift home.

Years later the gang is grown-up but still at it, though Estella (Emma Stone, The Favourite) longs for a life that stimulates her passion for fashion.  Though some fancy footwork Jasper (Joel Fry, In the Earth) and Horace (Paul Walter Hauser, Songbird) get her in the front door for an elite department store that sells clothes by The Baroness (Emma Thompson, Late Night), London’s most chic designer.  True, it’s a janitorial job…but it’s something.  A series of right time/right place events occur, leading Estella and The Baroness to cross paths with Estella eventually joining her fashion house as their youngest designer with cutting edge ideas.  However, as she quickly learns, the demanding job comes with a price…and a very wicked boss.  Soon, an old friend Estella had locked away comes roaring back and this time Cruella isn’t going to play second fiddle to her better self. 

One need only look at the screenwriters for Cruella and a lot of what transpires in the film begins to make sense.  Writer Aline Brosh McKenna is best known for adapting The Devil Wears Prada in 2006 and there are quite a number of parallels between Cruella and that blockbuster.  There’s more than a little of that Miranda Priestly bite from Prada in Thompson’s The Baroness, though Thompson is handed even more rapid-fire one-liners and small bits of physicality that drive home her sting.  Make certain of this, Miranda Priestly is no match for The Baroness.  Then you have Steve Zissis, a long-time friend and collaborator with the Duplass brothers who are known for their quirky approach to filmmaking and fleshing out characters.  That’s evident in the supporting characters of Cruella, with a number of the secondary players far more developed than they normally would be in these types of films.  That’s how Fry, Hauser, and even Mark Strong (Shazam!) as the stoic right-hand man for The Baroness are able to sneak in and steal some small moments here and there.  Finally, Kelly Marcell worked with Thompson in 2013’s Saving Mr. Banks so she knows how to write caustic one-liners for the actress and also bravely adapted the screenplay for 2015’s Fifty Shades of Grey.  This experience no doubt helps with a little of that duality found in the Estella/Cruella scenes, chiefly near the film’s finale when Stone gets quite the scene that would be an 11 o’clock number if it was set to music.

Speaking of Stone, while I’ve found the actress successful in fits and spurts over the years (I still don’t agree with that Best Actress Oscar win, though, sorry!) she’s a fabulous choice to bring this classic personality to live-action life.  In her early scenes, she’s appropriately green and goofball but the more she learns of the game she has to play to get ahead, the faster she comes into focus with self-confidence.  I was nervous when her adult Cruella side first appeared because the shift is admittedly jarring, and Stone’s interpretation of Cruella’s upper-crust purr is more broad comedy than the sophisticatedly arch tones the rest of the film has been playing with.  Anything would be jostling next to Thompson though, who plays the role so brittle you expect her to crack into shards to shred anyone in her wake at any moment.  In a more creative climate, this kind of role would win Thompson an award, but the character is probably too soulless to be rewarded.

Knowing it was well over two hours going in, I tried to find places where director Gillespie might have trimmed things up, but I’m at a loss to say what could go that wouldn’t do damage to other structural parts of the story.  While it has a fairly large climax halfway through, the energy of the movie never dips.  Besides, with a driving score by Nicholas Britell (If Beale Street Could Talk), wonderful production design from Fiona Crombie (Macbeth), and stunning costumes courtesy of 2-time Oscar winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max: Fury Road), there’s little reason to ever be bored – there is always something to take in.  I’d have liked to see a little less digital work in the outdoor scenes but seeing that much of Cruella was filmed on a soundstage, this was obviously unavoidable.

Parents, take note that Cruella rated PG-13 and it’s for a reason.  I’d wager it’s one of the darkest films ever released under the Walt Disney Studios logo (i.e., not Touchstone, Hollywood Films, etc) but I’m glad nothing seemed to be truly, uh, neutered.  The darker parts are meant for a more mature child, likely the ones already watching Disney Channel works that have a similar feel, like The Descendants.  If you’re one of those people that get hung up on the “dog coat” of it all, try to remember this is Disney we’re talking about.  It’s important going in to try your best to separate this movie from the 1956 film and its remake, don’t put this one in the doghouse on principle alone.  If you do, you’re going to mess a heck of a fun ride. This is a highly enjoyable endeavor, well worth the cost of renting it for a family night on Disney+ with Premier Access.

Movie Review ~ 1917

3


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two young British privates during the First World War are given an impossible mission: deliver a message deep in enemy territory that will stop 1,600 men, and one of the soldier’s brothers, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Stars: Dean-Charles Chapman, George MacKay, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch

Director: Sam Mendes

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: As we come to the end of the second decade of the 21st century, many have been looking back at the past ten years in movies and musing on how the medium has evolved.  Could we have predicted ten years ago that a service that used to deliver DVDs by mail would become a heavy-hitter film studio producing movies that are becoming more and more friendly with Oscar?  Would we know that the biggest hits in the end-of-the-year box office tally would be dominated by franchise pictures and the mid-budgeted flicks that kept theaters packed in the ’90s would largely be wiped out?  Even the way we watch movies has changed from having to physically go to the video store to nowadays when we can view thousands of choices at the press of a button.   What hasn’t changed is the process of getting out of your house, battling traffic, and sitting shoulder to shoulder with others to have a shared experience of movie-going.  Sure, the seats are reserved now and more comfortable (and heated!) than your chairs at home but there’s no comparison to being in a cinema seeing a movie on the big screen.

Films about the first World War aren’t as common as those set in WWII (like 2019’s Midway), Vietnam (2015’s documentary Last Days in Vietnam), or in more recent wars that still play a large part in our daily news headlines.  The Peter Jackson-produced documentary They Shall Not Grow Old was a staggering piece of filmmaking using real footage from the first World War but for me it wasn’t able to overcome some narrative challenges that were almost unavoidable considering the approach.  That’s why the imminent arrival of movie like 1917 is so exciting to me.  Here’s a large scale war film that, overdone as the genre may be, strives to be something unique and not just because of its well-publicized “one-shot” cinematography.

By 1917, the “war to end all wars” had been going on for four years and had claimed thousands of casualties.  Shortly after the German armies had retreated from their trenches in France, officials received intel the German drawback from their enemies was a well-set trap and now a British battalion of over 1,500 men was walking straight into an ambush.  Two soldiers, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman, Blinded by the Light) and Schofield (George MacKay, How I Live Now) are called up and tasked with delivering news of this ensnarement to the front lines before men are sent to a slaughter they are unaware of.  Though the stakes are already sky high for the British forces, the importance of success is even greater for Blake because his brother is in the company that will be sent out on the attack first, facing certain death.  The two young men set off on a breathless mission through enemy territory that will bring them up through idyllic countryside that masks hidden dangers and enemy-built trenches designed to slow their progress.

Based partly on the recollections of his grandfather, director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) co-wrote 1917 with Krysty Wilson-Cairns and the two have crafted a corker of a war movie that hits the ground running and doesn’t offer much reprieve over 119 minutes.  That forward motion is largely a direct result of Mendes working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Blade Runner 2049) to shoot the entirety of the picture as if it was one long interrupted take.  Without these obvious moments of cuts, the effect on a viewer is something akin to a relentless rollercoaster with moments of flattened cruising that are small respites to harrowing drops and spins.  It’s clear there are moments when Deakins had to cut to use a different camera but aside from a few obvious splices they are hidden so well you’d have to be focused solely on finding these moments to really see them.

Utilizing state-of-the-art technique, “how’d they do that” camera moves, and lighting nighttime scenes to increase their intensity tenfold, it could have been easy for the movie to become all about this trickery but thankfully everyone involved doesn’t let the technology overshadow the story.  Mendes helps this along with the casting of Chapman and especially MacKay as the young men on a mission who risk their lives to get their message into the right hands.  Chapman’s bravado at the outset hides the fear of arriving too late to save his brother while the more world-weary MacKay has his eyes further opened as he encounters civilians and other troops along the way.  The two aren’t totally familiar faces to audiences and that works to the advantage of the immediacy and “anything can happen” created by their mission.  The inclusion of more known names/faces such as Mark Strong (Shazam!), Andrew Scott (Victor Frankenstein), Richard Madden (Rocketman), Colin Firth (Magic in the Moonlight), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch) could be seen as a distraction but all play their roles succinctly without much preening for the camera.

This is really a boffo film that knocked my socks off.  I’m not usually so enamored of movies about the war but there’s something in the humanity on display from Mendes and Wilson-Cairns that moved me on a whole other level.  Aside from the jaw-dropping filming from Deakins that is truly incredible (if he doesn’t win the Oscar this year, I’d be stunned) there is rarely a frame that feels out of place or extraneous.  While some war movies can drag on and be a punishing sit, 1917 uses its running time wisely by never letting the characters (or the audience) rest too much.  As I watched the film I became conscious that I was holding my breath for a few reasons.  First off, the tension created was so spot-on and could only be achieved by a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing.  The second is that I didn’t want this spell to be broken and for Mendes and his team to make a misstep.  Thankfully, I believe Mendes achieved the mission he set out for and 1917 is one of the very best movies of the year.

The Silver Bullet ~ 1917



Synopsis
: Two young British soldiers during the First World War, are given an impossible mission: deliver a message, deep in enemy territory, that will stop their own men, and Blake’s own brother, from walking straight into a deadly trap.

Release Date:  December 25, 2019

Thoughts: Every year around this time it becomes pretty clear who the Oscar front runners are and the pundits start to put their ballots together with ballpoint pen.  There’s always those last slots they keep open, though, for the movies that don’t screen until very late in the season and that’s where a movie like 1917 will play a big factor.  Last time I checked, no one had seen this World War I film from Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (Skyfall) yet and that’s fairly unheard of in mid-November.  That creates a bit of an electric excitement because there’s hope this could be a game changer and knock a few sure things off their paths to Oscar gold.  Paired again with the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (who finally won an Academy Award for Blade Runner 2049) and supposedly shot to look like it was filmed in one continuous take, Mendes appears to have something fairly mighty on his hands and history buffs are hoping 1917 can succeed where another anticipated war film like 2017’s Dunkirk couldn’t and snag some top prizes come year end.

Movie Review ~ Shazam!

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: We all have a superhero inside us, it just takes a bit of magic to bring it out. In Billy Batson’s case, by shouting out one word – SHAZAM! – this streetwise 14-year-old foster kid can turn into the adult superhero Shazam.

Stars: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Grace Fulton, Faithe Herman, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans, Adam Brody, Djimon Hounsou

Director: David F. Sandberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Those poor souls over at Warner Brothers/DC Comics were likely looking at 2019 and feeling crestfallen at their prospects. With three highly anticipated Marvel films set for release and their Wonder Woman sequel pushed back to 2020, it must have felt like any hopes of getting another foothold in their franchise ladder weren’t going to happen. I’m not sure how much faith they had in Shazam! at the outset but they should have pumped this one up a bit more than they did. Sure, I saw the preview more times than I needed to before other films but going into the movie I wasn’t expecting anything vastly different than the soulless offerings they’ve been churning out in the past decade.

Thankfully, it seems like they may have stumbled onto something good.

Foster kid Billy Baston (Asher Angel) has found himself on the wrong side of the law for the last time when he is apprehended after obtaining information from a police database. He’d been attempting to find his mother after they were separated when he was a toddler and hasn’t given up hope that she’s out there and is looking for him as well. Taken in by another foster family that already boasts a diverse line-up of kids in similar family situations, Billy bides his time until he can run away again to continue his search.

When he’s mysteriously brought to the temple of an aging Wizard (Djimon Hounsou, Serenity) tasked with guarding the seven deadly sins, he absorbs the fading Wizard’s magic and turns into a buff superhero (Zachary Levi, Thor: The Dark World) anytime he says the Wizard’s name: Shazam. Unware of the extent of his newfound powers, Billy has the mind of a teenager in the body of a mature adult and at first doesn’t exactly use his upgrades for good. Though he runs through some trials of his abilities with his foster brother (Jack Dylan Grazer, IT), he starts to be the kind of hero that’s only looking out for himself instead of assisting others.

He’s put to the ultimate test when Sivana (Mark Strong, The Imitation Game) enters the picture. Obsessed with finding the temple of the Seven Wizards that he too visited as a young child, the grown man eventually makes his way back to the hidden dwelling and frees the sins from their prison. Now being used as their vessel for evil, Sivana sets his sights on taking the Wizard’s power from Shazam (who has become something of a local Philadelphia celebrity) and eliminating everyone he loves.

If there’s one thing that’s been sorely missing from the DC slate of superhero movies it’s a sense of humor and finally the stiff suits at the studio backed up and let wiser talents guide this process – and it’s largely successful. Though the previous credits for screenwriters Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and Darren Lemke (Goosebumps) might not have suggested they’d be the right choices to bring Bill Parker and C.C. Beck’s superhero to the big screen, Shazam! is a welcome change of pace from the darker-hued adventure films the studio has been greenlighting. Adding director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) was another inspired choice as he’s nicely able to balance the lighter/more comedic elements of the plot with the darker edges supplied by Sivana.

Sandberg has cast the film well starting with Levi as our hero that becomes more than the sum of his bulging muscles and caped suit. Seeing that he’s actually a teen given awesome powers, Levi might overplay the sarcasm and wise-cracks a bit early on but it provides him a place to jump off from as he grows into a more responsible hero and a more understanding teenager. He has a nice rapport with Grazer and his other foster siblings, adding some layers to a character that could easily have been pretty one-dimensional. The villain role doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch for Strong at this point and while he’s perfectly fine in the part it would have been nice to see it played by someone a little less expected. It’s just too easy for Strong to slide into these wicked characters by now.

While it’s a good 10-15 minutes too long, spending unearned time with Sivana and following Levi through perhaps a few too many blunders, Sandberg and the screenwriters manage to introduce a late breaking twist that I found pretty delightful and nicely inclusive. Buoyed by strong performances by the child actors (a rarity these days) and a nice dose of humor and creativity, Shazam! is a fun right turn from the careening curve DC studios couldn’t pull out of.

Movie Review ~ Miss Sloane

2

miss_sloane
The Facts
:

Synopsis: In the world of political power-brokers, Sloane takes on the most powerful opponent of her career and will do whatever is required to win.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Mark Strong, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alison Pill, Jake Lacy, Sam Waterston, John Lithgow

Director: John Madden

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Miss Sloane is a timely political drama that has a stacked deck in its cinematic favor.  An Oscar nominated director and multi-award winning actors have been brought together with mostly good, but never great, results.  While that may sound like the movie overall is a disappointment considering the pedigree in front of and behind the camera, it has enough energy to rise above the scenes that enervate its forward motion.

Jessica Chastain (The Martian) plays the titular character, a sought-after D.C. lobbyist as ruthless in her pursuit of winning as she is about making sure her flame red hair is always tucked neatly behind one ear.  (At one point, I doubted she had two ears since we never saw the other).  As the film opens, Sloane is about to go before a congressional hearing to defend herself over accusations of impropriety, charges that could, if convicted, carry a lengthy term in prison.  Showing how the sleep-averse Sloane got into her current hot seat is what occupies most of the picture, tracing her path from a plum job at a high powered conservative lobbying firm to a grassroots boutique agency opposing a gun bill.

The parallels to David and Goliath are evident as Sloane and her recruits take on the big boys who begin to care more about derailing her than they do about pushing through their political agenda.  Sloane isn’t afraid to go up against her former employers, even if they already may know exactly what her next unscrupulous move will be.  Brief forays into high tech spy surveillance (what’s being done with cockroaches might make a PETA supporter reconsider squashing them on sight) and peeks into the upper pill popping Sloane’s personal affairs via clandestine meetings with a kindly gigolo (Jake Lacy, Love the Coopers) thankfully break up the heavier moments with stale political rhetoric being recited expertly by Chastain and the rest of the cast.

The script from first-timer Jonathan Perera is very of the moment, even if it plays like the pilot of a new HBO series.  If you listen carefully, the entirety of the twists the film has in store are given away by one character within the first ten minutes but it’s buried so well by Perera that you don’t notice it until you’re walking to your car.  Director John Madden (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) maneuvers his actors well and keeps the film moving at a nice clip but at 132 minutes there’s probably a good ten to fifteen minutes that could be jettisoned in favor of a tighter running time.  While some may accuse the film of cheating in its final act, I’ll again point to Perera outright telling us what’s going to happen and then delivering on it.

As much as I like Chastian, I have to say that for the first twenty minutes of Miss Sloane I wasn’t sure what the hell she was doing.  Showing a ballbuster temperament on the surface without going very deep, I got worried that Chastain was using this as an exercise in overacting instead of layering in her performance.  Eventually, though, the actress tuned in and that’s when the film really starts to zip along.  Like the best complex characters, there’s not a lot of backstory given to how Sloane came to be how she is and that makes her one of the more interesting characters to show up in film this year.  The race for a Best Actress nomination is a tight one and Chastain might just find herself as one of the five nominees.

Supporting Chastain is Mark Strong (Zero Dark Thirty) as Sloane’s boss at her new firm and Sam Waterson (The Man in the Moon) as her previous employer who sets his sights on destroying her completely.  Waterston may have more hair on his eyebrows than Strong has on his whole body but Strong easily bests Waterston performance-wise by underplaying expertly.  You can’t totally fault Waterston, though, because the first half of the film finds many characters shouting at each other…guess no one in Washington knows how to use their inside voices.  Though I’m a fan of Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), his terribly old-school New Yawhk accent only made me detest his already detestable character more.  Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast) and moon faced Alison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) are the lone prominent female roles and both are afforded showcasing scenes.  As the head of the congressional committee cross examining Sloane, John Lithgow (Interstellar) is his usual blustery self.

At the center of Miss Sloane is a debate over gun control that continues to be a hot button issue in this increasingly political climate.  Even as a work of fiction, Miss Sloane makes some interesting points about the current state of affairs regarding the NRA and the landscape of big business in our nation’s capital.  In setting out to tell this story, Perera and the cast aptly keep the conversation going without letting the movie be solely about that important issue.

An intelligent, well-read picture, Miss Sloane may be overstuffed and take some time to let its actress find her way but it winds up being a pleasing film with good intentions.  If it had been made as the first episode for a cable series, I’d be setting my DVR to record future episodes.

Movie Review ~ The Imitation Game

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The Facts:

Synopsis: English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Allen Leech, Mark Strong, Charles Dance, Matthew Goode, Matthew Beard, Rory Kinnear

Director: Morten Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 114 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  As I said in my review of the trailer for The Imitation Game, I worry that star Benedict Cumberbatch is getting ever so slightly overexposed.  From his on the spectrum performance in the BBC television series Sherlock to his sinewy performances in August: Osage County, Star Trek: Into Darkness, and 12 Years a Slave all the way to his sinister voice work in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies the actor seems to be everywhere nowadays.

With the arrival of The Imitation Game, we should all brace ourselves for more Cumberbatch in the years to come because it’s his performance here that should really put him on the map, not to mention guarantee his first trip to the Academy Awards.  Though the character could be a distant cousin to his Sherlock, Cumberbatch’s performance as mathematician turned code-breaker Alan Turing is a fully realized flesh and blood wonder, one not afraid to take aloof to the next level yet still managing to keep an audience engaged.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of the film because it’s so multi-layered that you’re better served letting the well-scripted film do the telling for you.  Adapted from the Andrew Hodges novel by young screenwriter Graham Moore, The Imitation Game benefits from Moore’s youth in its execution.  While the material is never dumbed down, it’s related to us through dialogue from someone that clearly has an ear for how to convey complex code talk and wartime business to the masses.

Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (who helmed the bloody good Headhunters) keeps everything moving at a nice clip from the get-go.  We meet a post-war Turing being investigated by the police who look back into his life for clues to a current crime.  Through these passages we learn of Turings involvement with cracking the Enigma code during WWII along with a group of carefully selected scholars (including Stoker’s Matthew Goode and Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech).  From this group a love interest appears (Keira Knightley, Anna Karenina) and instead of feeling shoehorned in, Moore creates a dynamic relationship between Turing and this woman…a relationship that opens up another set of secrets Turing is trying to hide.

Straddling the past and present and multiple covert secrets (both kept and uncovered) is no easy game but all involved score high points for its unqualified success.  While maybe not an edge-of-your-seat thriller, it’s absolutely one that will command you to lean forward and look harder at what’s underneath it all.  An assured film, to be sure.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Imitation Game

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Synopsis: English mathematician and logician, Alan Turing, helps crack the Enigma code during World War II.

Release Date: November 21, 2014

Thoughts:  If you’ve had your ear to the awards circuit ground you’d be hearing lots of rumblings about The Imitation Game, a twisty true life thriller that winds through the shadows of code breaking during World War II. I’m a bit worried that star Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness, August: Osage County) is reaching a level of overexposure that could backfire against him in the years to come but for now I’ll give him a pass as he has a way of choosing roles that play to his strengths. Joined by Keira Knightley (having a good year in Begin Again and Laggies) and Matthew Goode (Stoker), it’s apparently a film with the kind of good buzz that needs no code breaker to decipher.

The Silver Bullet ~ Before I Go To Sleep

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Synopsis: A woman wakes up every day, remembering nothing as a result of a traumatic accident in her past. One day, new terrifying truths emerge that force her to question everyone around her.

Release Date: September 12, 2014

Release Date: October 31, 2014

Thoughts: Were it not for co-star Colin Firth dropping out as the voice of the holiday release Paddington, Before I Go to Sleep would be the third movie the actor appeared in with Nicole Kidman in less than a year. After teaming on The Railway Man, Kidman (Stoker) and Firth (Magic in the Moonlight) are featured in this thriller adapted from a novel that feels like the female answer to Memento. As much as I love a good suspense film, too much of the preview hints at the twists and turns in store for audiences, never a good sign for a genre that benefits from genuine surprise. Still…even though she makes some strange choices in projects I can’t help but enjoy Kidman and no one does wide-eyed terror/confusion quite like she does.