Movie Review ~ Birds of Prey

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.

Stars: Margot Robbie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Rosie Pérez, Chris Messina, Ewan McGregor, Ella Jay Basco, Ali Wong

Director: Cathy Yan

Rated: R

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: In the summer of 2016, hopes were high that Suicide Squad could help bring back the DC Universe from extinction after the disappointing reception of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, which was released earlier that year.  Seems that critics and audiences that had come to like the flashy spark of the Marvel Cinematic Universe weren’t grooving to the darker tones and turns DC was taking and while I personally thought BvS was far better than it got credit for, even I had to admit that the world needed to snap out of its mellow dankness.  Trouble was, the people behind Suicide Squad (and, likely, studio execs) course-corrected too much (largely after the fact) and delivered an awful tire-fire of a comic book movie…and made it PG-13 on top of it all.

If there was one thing that emerged victorious from the rubble of that failed effort (which is getting an overhaul reboot in 2021) it was Margot Robbie’s take on Harley Quinn, the Joker’s main-squeeze.  Robbie brought just the right amount of self-effacing fun and tongue-in-cheek cheekiness to the film, giving off the impression she was the only one who really understood what kind of movie she was in.  It definitely set the stage for her full-blown arrival to the big leagues the next year with her Oscar-nominated turn in I, Tonya followed by her regal showing for 2018’s Mary Queen of Scots.  After dominating 2019 with lauded parts in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and nabbing another Oscar nom for Bombshell, she’s back to make good on a deal that was sealed shortly after Suicide Squad opened to big business and stellar notices for her…a spin-off featuring Harley and a new group of female superheroes.

I admit, I first heard about this sequel while Suicide Squad was fairly fresh in my memory and I just wasn’t on board.  While I liked Robbie in the movie I didn’t find myself eager to revisit this take on Gotham City if it was going to be the same tone and annoying approach.  My dial wasn’t turned any more to the positive side when the full title was revealed: Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).  I mean…must we?  Thankfully, we aren’t required to use the full title when discussing the film so Birds of Prey this one will be forever more.  Even hearing some decent buzz from those that got an early look didn’t totally convince me.

Well…when I’m wrong I’ll say I’m wrong and I’m wrong…a little bit.  The first ten minutes of Birds of Prey is exactly the kind of obnoxious experience I feared it would be.  Crazy edits, arch characters, voice over narration that felt like it was written by a fourth grader.  Then, just as I was settling in for a rough ride the film, written by Christina Hodson and directed by Cathy Yan, suddenly came alive and decided to find its own voice and that’s when things started to get interesting.  Sure, it maintains most of the elements that make it easily identifiable as a comic book movie but it strips away anything (and anyone) extraneous and focuses simply on the characters.  Don’t worry, this isn’t a Taxi Driver-esque character-study like Joker but it hits many of the same beats…just with more flair.

Harley Quinn (Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street) has officially broken up with “Mr. J” and does so explosively (literally).  Without his protection she becomes a prime target for members of the Gotham City underworld that have been waiting to get back at her…but catching her is only half the battle.  Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor, Doctor Sleep) finds this out when he nabs Harley and is about to have his henchman Zsasz (Chris Messina, Live by Night) send her to that great circus in the sky until she sweet talks her way into a deal to get him a priceless diamond from a young  street-wise pickpocket (Ella Jay Basco) in police custody.  Finding that girl is a cinch for Harley (a police station breakout is a highlight of the film, one  many impressive action sequences) but she isn’t the only one with an interest in the teen.  There’s Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez, The Dead Don’t Die) a Gotham City detective working with Sionis’ driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get the jewel and save the urchin and the hooded Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) whose own vested interest crisscrosses with all involved.

Much like she did with her script for Bumblebee, Hodson injects the film with female empowerment without laying it on thick like you’ve seen it before.  Working in tandem with Yan’s smart visual eye, once Birds of Prey sheds its slimy opening layer and finds its own fun it never stops until the fireball of a finale set at a rundown boardwalk amusement park. Kudos to the production design here…a truly imaginative funhouse was created for the battle royale that closes the picture.  I also appreciated that while the film wasn’t restricted to a PG-13 rating, Yan doesn’t take her R and run with it either…this is a movie that has violence but uses it in wise and, dare I say, fun ways.

Having more time to dig into Harley, Robbie sharpens her rough edges a bit more and that’s sometimes fun, other times a bit grating.  Like I said, it gets better as the movie goes along but the character is inherently meant to be on the insufferable side…but what makes her such a great character is that you still like her even though she’s bad.  And Robbie gets both those sides of the character right.  If there’s one thing Robbie is good at, it’s knowing when to share the spotlight.  It’s the sign of a confident star (and make no doubt about it, Robbie is a bona fine A-list movie star) who can yield the stage to others so they can shine and shine they do.  Perez is in rare form as a dedicated detective who has played by the rules and watched others with less scruples pass her by.  Skilled at comedy, Perez isn’t often asked to be on the more dramatic side and she ably holds up her end of things.  Surprisingly, Winstead’s role is smaller than you’d think, with the Huntress not having much screen time until the final ¼ when her presence is all but required.  I enjoyed Basco’s modern taken on a wide-eyed Artful Dodger and you’re either going to love what McGregor is doing or be completely perplexed.  For me, I loved it in all its slithery nastiness.  I sort of get where Messina was going in his laid back approach to the knuckles and muscle sidekick but think his performance is more Suicide Squad territory.  The one to really look out for is Smollett-Bell who sings up a storm and kicks butt like a pro.  Appearing in film/TV since she was a child, this feels like Smollett-Bell’s true arrival to adult roles and she’s undeniably one of the best things about the film.

It’s already known Robbie will be back for the Suicide Squad reboot next year but we’ll have to wait and see what’s next for the rest of the Birds of Prey.  I think this first outing is absolutely worth the flight time and would welcome another adventure if the same team was brought together again.  It can’t be a coincidence that the most successful DC Comic movies have been female centered and directed by women, right?  With Wonder Woman being the spark that kept the lights on at the studio and this one impressing with its wild style, here’s hoping Wonder Woman 1984 shows everyone that we need to keep letting the women run this world.

Movie Review ~ Gemini Man


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An over-the-hill hitman faces off against a younger clone of himself.

Stars: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong, Linda Emond, Douglas Hodge

Director: Ang Lee

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  It isn’t uncommon for some movies to take a long time to get made.  Like, a loooong time.  Commonly referred to as development hell, a script can pass from studio to studio and be revised along the way as it is handed between directors and is attached to different stars.  Quite a few Hollywood blockbusters and even more infamous bombs have toiled along this tortured route and the stories around their creation are either the hard-won tales of success or the blueprint of abject failure.  Last year, we saw a success story with the third remake of A Star is Born which defied all odds and was a sensational retelling after gestating for nearly two decades. This year, another project that’s been in the works for twenty years is finally getting released…and strangely enough the lead (Will Smith) is the guy originally meant for A Star is Born when it was first developed.

You can do a quick Google search or look up the Wikipedia entry for Gemini Man and see all of the A-List stars and directors who have been mentioned as being involved with the film over the years.  To give you an idea of how far back we’re talking, Sean Connery was one of the box-office draws considered for the role at one time or another.  When the rights for the film were finally acquired by Tom Cruise’s production company in 2016 it was naturally assumed it would be for the white-hot actor to star in but instead he handed it over to Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), an exciting choice but a less-than-obvious one.  When Will Smith signed on, Gemini Man actually started coming together and, coupled with Lee’s glee in utilizing advanced filmmaking technology, we have a visually arresting but dramatically stilted action film.  It will definitely spike your adrenaline in the appropriate moments, just be prepared for some less than engaging dramatic shifts.

You’re advised to buckle up when the coming attractions are over because once the Paramount studios logo has faded and Gemini Man begins, there’s a lot of information thrown at you in short order.  Government assassin Henry Brogan (Will Smith, Aladdin) has decided to retire after 72 kills.  His aim isn’t quite on pointe anymore and the emotional toll is starting to wear him down.  Plus, he just wants a little R & R at his peaceful homestead nestled in Buttermilk Sound, GA. Side note: has there ever been a more enticing name of a location to want to retire to?   After meeting with an old friend with inside knowledge (Douglas Hodge, Joker), Brogan begins to suspect his last kill was a set-up and now he’s another loose end someone needs to trim. His dreams of serene sunsets as a retiree are dashed quickly as his suspicions are confirmed and he’s targeted by his former agency…and not just because they don’t want to pay extended benefits.

They’re dealing with a pro, though, and to take him down they’re going to need someone who can match him in every way.  Lucky for the agency there’s been a covert project underway for years outsourced to a black ops unit run by Clay Varis (Clive Owen, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets) operating under the codename Gemini and they’ve got a secret weapon ready for a test run.  This all leads to Brogan globe hopping with a plucky agent (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) and an gregarious ally (Benedict Wong, Doctor Strange) while trying to remain one step ahead of an unrelenting soldier that bears a striking resemblance to Brogan and seems to be able to anticipate his next move.  What’s the secret behind the Gemini program and how far into the organization has the conspiracy infiltrated?

It’s already been revealed that the soldier pursuing Brogan is his clone and what a bummer that is to have had that spoiled in advance.  I know that’s pretty much the entire idea the movie is marketed around but still, consider how much more interesting the film would have been if the identity of this unknown force was kept hidden just a little longer.  The filmmakers sure try to pretend we all hadn’t seen the trailer a hundred times already, attempting to build up suspense for a reveal that doesn’t quite pan out like they planned.  With Smith playing both roles and being de-aged to play his younger self, it works some of the time but more often than not looks creepy.  It’s as if Smith is entirely a CGI creation and not just his face.  The lips don’t always match what his mouth is saying and during some action sequences I swear there are times when Smith’s head is in one place and his face is in another.

Speaking of action sequences, this is the real reason to catch the movie on the biggest screen possible.  Three key bonkers scenes are the total highlight of the film.  A motorcycle chase through Cartagena is a caffeinated delight, culminating in one Will Smith literally beating up another one with a motorcycle.  An impressive fight is staged throughout the catacombs of Budapest and the finale is just the right length without pummeling us with too much gunfire.  It’s too bad this wasn’t screened for critics the way Lee had intended; the film was shot digitally at an extra-high frame rate of 120 fps, modified for 3D and I could see where the impact of some of scenes would have been raised if I’d seen it projected like the director wanted.  I’m probably not going to see this again in theaters so it was the one opportunity to impress me and seeing it projected flat on a 2D display wasn’t cutting it.

Sadly, there’s a lot of movie left over in between all the action and while it’s all beautifully shot by Dion Beebe (Mary Poppins Returns), it’s suffers from a too-serious dramatic performance from Smith.  Smith has long since proven he’s an actor that can headline a summer blockbuster as well as an awards contender but along the way he lost his ear for good dialogue and characters that didn’t aggravate.  He’s more easy-going here than he’s been in a long time but there’s still a desperate need to make what’s mostly a generic action flick more than what it is.  Everyone else seems to understand what level of movie they’re in but it’s like Smith thinks that with Lee directing him he has a shot at an Oscar if he emotes extra hard.  His action scenes are spectacular, his dramatic ones are tough to get through.

Twenty years is a long time for a movie to move through a production cycle and the results of Gemini Man are good but not great.  I was surely entertained for two hours and it’s nice to see Lee continue to surprise by showing there’s not a genre he can’t tackle with some measure of success.  I still wish a bit more of the twists had been held back early on but at least there was one genuine surprise that wasn’t hinted at in early previews.  If you’re going to see this in theaters, and you likely should, go see it the way the filmmaker intended and spring for the extra charge to see it in 3D HFR.  I have a feeling Lee will make it worth your while.

Movie Review ~ Swiss Army Man

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A hopeless man stranded in the wilderness befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home.

Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Director: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Bound to be remembered as “that movie where Daniel Radcliffe played a farting corpse” than for all its inherent creativity, I’ve actually been suggesting Swiss Army Man to people with that same flatulent logline.  This is the type of movie that doesn’t have much of an impact when released in theaters but is bound to find its audience through streaming and home rentals.  Starring Paul Dano (Prisoners) and Radcliffe (What If), the flight of fancy with a morbid streak is a never predictable tiny gem that shines nicely once you get past some hard edges.

Dano stars as a man who opens the film literally at the end of his rope.  An island castaway with no hope for survival, he’s about to take proactive action on his fate before nature does when he sees the body of a young man (Radcliffe) wash ashore.  Using the gaseous corpse as a jet-ski (stay with me here), Dano hitches a ride on the body thus beginning his quest to find a way home.  This leads to an adventure through the wild and showcases the relationship between the living and the dead, finally arriving at a poignant conclusion that feels well-earned.  Co-starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a fantasy girl from Dano’s past, Swiss Army Man is an elaborately designed film that shows how far directors Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert (aka The Daniels) can go with a small budget.  Worth letting ‘er rip and taking a chance on.

Movie Review ~ 10 Cloverfield Lane

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: After getting in a car accident, a woman is held in a shelter by two men, who claim the outside world is affected by a widespread chemical attack.

Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Boosted by a bold teaser trailer that left audiences riddled with questions, 2008’s Cloverfield was a fairly genius example of how the right marketing could create all the buzz that was needed to guarantee a healthy debut at the box office.  I mean, they didn’t even give the title of the film away…which drove audiences to fire up their Dell laptops and do some old fashioned sleuthin’ to find out more about the found footage flick. Was it a disaster movie? Was it a monster movie? No one really knew until the film was released…and was a bit of a dud in my book.  Undone by its hype, the hand-held filmmaking churned my stomach and lackluster plot developments frustrated way more than it frightened.

Fast forward to January of 2016 when Paramount revealed the trailer for 10 Cloverfield Lane…a mystery film that somehow managed to fly so far under the radar that even the most tapped in film fans were thrown for a loop.  In this day and age of spoiler heavy early reviews, I’d classify that as a not-so-minor miracle…so my first reaction was respect more than anything else.  Then I remembered how I felt going into Cloverfield and instantly started to lower my expectations so the buzz bar wouldn’t be raised too high.

So…before we go on…it’s next to impossible to talk about 10 Cloverfield Lane without going into certain details that may be considered minor spoilers. I’m going to do my best to keep it vague, but for those sensitive souls out there (you know who you are) tread carefully.

Ok?

Ready?

The first question you’ll want an answer to is wondering if this is indeed a sequel to Cloverfield.  Yes…and no.  I’d call it a sequel adjacent, related to events from the previous film but very much with its own story to tell.  This is both a good thing and a bad thing because the script was rewritten to fit into the same universe and it feels like it…especially in the third act when it becomes almost an entirely different film.  I’m getting ahead of myself though…

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, The Spectacular Now) is running away…from what we’re not sure.  It could be her heard but not seen boyfriend (listen closely and see if you can pick out his Oscar nominated voice) or it could be life in general…we don’t know and it ultimately doesn’t matter.  After being involved in a violent automobile accident, she wakes to find herself chained to a wall in an underground bunker presided over by Howard, a twitchy survivalist (John Goodman, Argo, Flight) that makes sure she knows he’s her savior.  There’s a wicked whiff of Misery at play in these early scenes as Michelle comes to terms with her good Samaritan (or captor?) and the rules he has for life under the ground.

Why are they holed up there you may ask?  Well if you believe Howard there’s been an attack that’s left the world above ground in a desolate state of fallout that will take years to bounce back from. Do you trust Howard, though?  That’s the question Michelle and another shelter mate Emmett (John Gallagher, Jr) are troubled by the more time they spend in confinement and the more discrepancies they find in Howard’s version of events.  And with that, I think we’re at a good place to stop and let you find out for yourself the truth behind it all.

Made for a fifth of the budget of Cloverfield, the $5-million-dollar movie is a handsomely produced bit of entertainment that has its fair share of genuine shocks and out of left field developments. My jaw dropped more than once at what transpires, creating a giddy sense of old school movie-going fun that few films seem interested in tapping into.  If there are a few hokey moments, there’s enough good will generated to forgive some sloppy storytelling and iffy effects (though none as dreadful as the ones you’ll find in London Has Fallen) that don’t mar much of the overall experience.

With only eight actors listed in the credits, the film simply wouldn’t have worked as well without its cast, namely Goodman, creepy-as-all-get-out without doing much more than giving Winstead a once-over with his eyes.  Winstead, nicely plucky as a heroine that isn’t perfectly formed into a cookie-cutter robot is interesting to watch and a viable actress to root for even if we can tell she has some hidden backstory that may make us like her less if the situation was different.

First time director Dan Trachtenberg keeps the film racing along (the first time I checked my watch was 95 minutes in) in a most agreeable way, aided by Bear McCreary’s (Europa Report) pounding score.  The first 15 or so minutes of the film are dialogue-free, leaving McCreary’s music to tell the story and ratchet up the suspense for the remainder of the running time.  The score is almost a character in and of itself.

My best advice for you would be to go into 10 Cloverfield Lane with as little information as possible…you’ve come to the end of this review so you’re already clued in a bit but trust that I’ve saved the twists and turns of the movie for you to enjoy on your own.  A far superior effort than Cloverfield (though, to be fair, they are two totally different pictures), 10 Cloverfield Lane is worth a stroll.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kill the Messenger

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, a reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California.

Release Date:  October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though it reeks of Jeremy Renner continuing his neverending quest for Oscar glory, there’s little doubt that the real life story serving as the basis for Kill the Messenger has potential to be a pivotal moment in his career.  Look, we all know that Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) can act with the best of them…but I feel the actor is taking himself a bit too seriously at this point.  Working with director Michael Cuesta to bring journalist Gary Webb’s life to the big screen, Renner makes a good impression in this first trailer…though it does feel like we’ve seen this exact same story told several times each decade .

Movie Review ~ The Spectacular Now

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical “nice girl.”

Stars: Miles Teller, Shailene Woodley, Brie Larson, Kyle Chandler, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Director: James Ponsoldt

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The best thing about seeing July’s The Bling Ring was getting to see the first preview of The Spectacular Now and ever since that time I’d been counting down the days until I’d be able to get my butt into the seat.  Harkening back to the early days of John Hughes (I’m talking Pretty in Pink era, not Curly Sue thank you very much) yet possessing a style and confidence all its own, The Spectacular Now may not have wound up being the perfect film of 2013 (that honor still goes to The Way, Way Back) but it makes it to the winner circle thanks to two incredible lead performances and director James Ponsoldt’s smart, attention-to-details direction.

Based on the novel by Tim Tharp and coming armed with an observant screenplay by (500) Days of Summer writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, there’s a lot to like within the 95 minute journey that The Spectacular Now takes viewers on.  “Like” may be just too…easy of a word.  “Relate to”, “empathize with”, “agree upon” could be the better way to say it because there seems to be something at the core of the movie and the lives of the people we meet that will speak to anyone regardless if you’ve been home schooled or passed through the walls of the famed “high school experience” so often put on celluloid.

What sets this movie apart from its contemporaries is how un-clichéd the story develops and how impressive it is that it manages to maintain this for all but a scintilla of time as it nears its conclusion.  Though it does rely on the oft-used voiceover narration/college essay as a framing device, I didn’t mind the commentary as much as I normally do because the narration makes sense in the context of the story being told.

High school charmer Sutter (Miles Teller, Rabbit Hole) is living the teenage dream.  He’s popular, has a great girlfriend, has a long leash of freedom from his mother (Jennifer Jason Leigh), and generally deals with each new life situation with a can-do spirit.  The trouble is, all of that positive energy and care for others is masking some inner conflict he’s not ready to deal with.  We’ve all had to face these moments when we look around to see that we may possess everything we could ever want yet are frightened to recognize that maybe having it all doesn’t equal happiness…or at least what we thought happiness was meant to be.

Sutter is also an alcoholic…a hard subject for a teen romance to deal with yet an important one to call out as it’s a growing problem in our schools.  In their small town, Sutter has no trouble finding liquor or going to work with a flask to freshen up what’s really being held in his Big Gulp.  As the movie begins, a misunderstanding has caused a rift between Sutter and his girlfriend (Brie Larson) and after a night of hard partying he wakes up on the lawn of a home on Aimee’s (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants)  paper route.

A classmate he’s never noticed, Sutter befriends Aimee and a relationship soon develops.  Is Sutter using Aimee as a rebound, as a way to get back at his girlfriend who has moved on, or does Aimee’s understanding and sensitivity to the pain she sees beneath his surface mean that Sutter can finally be seen and loved for who he truly is?  These are the very adult questions being asked in a movie that could be carelessly classified as just another trivial teen romance.

It’s Teller and Woodley’s dynamic chemistry together and apart that make the movie really ignite.  Teller fits the bill for his character but never lets Sutter drift into maudlin sentimentality just because he’s finding new corners of himself.  Woodley too shows an introspective maturity that far exceeds her years as she takes Aimee through first love to heartache and back again.  Though Aimee takes some selfless, hard turns that are tough to watch and may be frustrating to some, they all feel like they are coming from the right place and have an earthy truth that side-steps hitting a false note.

If anything, it’s the supporting characters that don’t live up to the performances of Teller and Woodley.  The young actors that portray other members of Sutter and Aimee’s social circle don’t come across with the same confidence and it’s not just how they’re written.  They seemed to be playing catch-up in a race that Teller and Woodley were always destined to win.  Leigh has a nice turn as Sutter’s sometimes distant mom and Kyle Chandler gets the job done as Sutter’s estranged father.

The movie trips a bit when it gets to these scenes with Sutter and his father because it appears the writing is on the wall as to the cycle that Sutter seems to be on.  Thankfully, the script is smart enough to take a flimsy contrivance and spin it into, if not gold, a solid silver of an ending.

With a few genuinely surprising elements, The Spectacular Now is absolutely a movie to seek out and soak in.  The lead performances are some of the best you’ll see all year from two rising stars and Ponsoldt is quickly establishing himself as a director with depth and a keen eye for casting.  Worth a serious look from viewers that don’t mind a little heartbreak at the hands of honest men and women.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Spectacular Now

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Synopsis: A hard-partying high school senior’s philosophy on life changes when he meets the not-so-typical “nice girl.”

Release Date: August 2, 2013 

Thoughts: Yet another reason why you should never be late for a movie…because you may wind up missing a preview like The Spectacular Now.  Like The Way, Way Back the preview suggests a film that feels fresh and bold with a strong cast of young talent that doesn’t wind up feeling like something we’ve seen before.  Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Shailene Woodly (a knockout in The Descendants) are the romantic leads in a cast that also includes Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler.  From the same writers as the dynamite (500) Days of Summer, I found a certain magic to the trailer…leading me to think/hope this could turn out to be a sleeper hit come August.