Movie Review ~ Operation Finale


The Facts
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Synopsis: Years after World War II, a team of secret agents are brought together to track down Adolf Eichmann, the infamous Nazi architect of the Holocaust.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Ben Kingsley, Mélanie Laurent, Haley Lu Richardson, Nick Kroll, Joe Alwyn

Director: Chris Weitz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: With the prevalence of movie previews giving away major plot points I tend to stay away from them all together so I can go in as blind as possible. In the case of Operation Finale, I wound up going in double blind because not only did I manage to bypass seeing any trailers for the film but also my last flirtation with a WWII history class was more than decade ago. Now, truth be told, I could have done without the history lesson from a scholar before the screening who spoiled the entire plot and its, ahem, finale, but it was my bad for not remembering such an important moment in history.

This historical drama centers on Israeli intelligence officers plotting to capture former SS Officer Adolf Eichmann who has been found in Buenos Aires in 1960. Among the Mossand agents are Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac, Annihilation), a man haunted by the loss of his sister and her children during the Holocaust. After a failed mission in Austria in 1954, Malkin has been on the outs with his commanding officer who sees him as a shoot first and ask questions later kinda army man. Selected alongside other agents with their own personal stake in the game to travel to Argentina and extract Eichmann, Malkin will have to place his own feelings of vengeance aside and protect the man that was responsible for orchestrating The Final Solution.

Director Chris Weitz (A Better Life) has amassed an interesting career as a writer/director. For me, he’ll always be associated with the raunchy teen comedy American Pie so every time I see his name that’s all I think of. His previous films have run the gamut from entertaining to enervating so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from his efforts here. Working with a script from Matthew Orton, Weitz largely stays out of the way of his esteemed cast and let’s them do the heavy lifting. While it’s a well-made picture to be sure, it sometimes wearily creaks along like the Hollywood machine film it is. That’s not a (total) knock on anyone or anything involved with Operation Finale, just an observation that the film knows its place in the box office food chain.

Also serving as a producer, Isaac gets under the skin of Malkin and effectively creates a layered performance that goes far beyond the backstory the screenplay briefly fleshes out. Kept awake at night by painful musings on how his sister may have met her fate, he’s joined this mission not only to capture the man who was tangentially responsible for her death but to exorcise his own personal demons that won’t go away. Isaac and Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb) go toe-to-toe in several gripping scenes that feel immediate…like we’re in the room with them. If you told me Operation Finale started as a play I wouldn’t have second guessed you – the scenes between the two men are easily the highlight of the film.

Speaking of Kingsley, it’s interesting to see him play a very different side to the WWII coin after his work in Schindler’s List. While you may need to squint you eyes a bit to buy the 74 year-old actor is supposed to be playing 56 year-old Eichmann, you’ll want to cover them during flashbacks when the filmmakers use iffy CGI to make him appear 20 years younger. Kingsley is a master of the blank faced reaction and it’s used to frustratingly perfect results as Malkin and his crew attempt to get Eichmann to sign a document saying he’s willing to be transported to Israel and stand trial for his crimes.

Weitz populates the film with a strong cast of supporting characters, from Mélanie Laurent (Now You See Me) as Malkin’s former flame employed as a physician to keep Eichmann alive to Nick Kroll (Sausage Party) bringing some appropriate humor to the film as a fellow Mossad agent. The international cast blend seamlessly with their American colleagues and there’s little trouble tracking who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. Special points go to two-time Oscar-winner Alexandre Desplat’s (The Shape of Water) nicely pitched score that aids in the intrigue of the spy shenanigans.

Everything about this movie feels unexpected in a good way. The performances are engaging, the direction taut, the writing solid, and the production overall is handsome. It suffers from being ever so slightly too slick (blame Hollywood) and for its rushed ending that seems to skip over some more interesting beats. Still, for a late summer movie this is a nice surprise of a quality film, a attention-grabbing precursor to a busy fall season.

Movie Review ~ Tomb Raider (2018)


The Facts
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Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I’m more of a Mario guy so I don’t pledge allegiance to Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series of games that originally spawned two movies starring Angeline Jolie in 2001 and 2003. That’s important to note because while most fans of the video game didn’t care for the Jolie adventures I found them to be pleasant (if slight) diversions and a noble attempt to introduce a strong female into the male-dominated halls of gamer heroes. With Jolie declining to continue, the series sputtered out until a recent reinvention of the game got Hollywood interested in further adventures of Lara Croft.

Enter recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who beat out a host of fresh faced ladies for the role of feisty Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider. With direction from Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who first made a splash with his 2015 film The Wave and scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons (fairly new names on the screenwriting scene) the results of this new take on an old premise are decidedly mixed. While the first half of the film lays some nice groundwork in re-introducing audiences to our heroine, there’s precious little in the way of overall payoff during the last hour of action.

Vikander’s Croft is less self-assured than Jolie’s previous incarnation and that makes for a nice entry point to her world. Vikander’s impressive abs actually appear onscreen before she does when she’s found sparring in a London gym and getting her butt whupped. Mountain biking her way around town working for a delivery service, she proves she’s one of the guys early on during a spirited race through the city streets that leads to trouble with the law. That’s when Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour) appears as Croft’s guardian and she’s none too pleased with her ward’s antics.

After her globe-hopping employer disappeared, Miller was left to take care of his young daughter and the vast family estate and business that bears his name. Long declared dead, the memory of Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter) lives on in his daughter who still can’t fully accept he’s gone. When it comes time to sign over the company to her, Lara discovers a clue that sends her on an adventure around the world to an uninhabited island in Japan that supposedly holds the remains of a Queen who brought death to all she touched that was buried alive and forgotten.

Once Lara makes it to the island, the myth of this evil royal turns out to be the most interesting thing the film has going for it. I was more invested in seeing her remains unearthed than I was in watching Lara outwit Japanese street thugs or escape the clutches of a deranged treasure hunter (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). While Uthaug puts Vikander into many perilous predicaments, many of these are so CGI and stunt double heavy that it felt like the film was moving through levels of a video game instead of building any kind of cinematic momentum.

While Vikander makes for a plucky lead, her Croft is almost completely devoid of any kind of personality to speak of. She’s clearly damaged by the absence of her father but aside from that we know as much about her at the end as we did at the start. Goggins has made a career out of playing these big toothed crazies so this doesn’t feel like much a stretch for him, his danger comes not from anything internally cracked but all external weapons that easily take down targets. Appearing only briefly, Scott Thomas seems to be waiting for a sequel script to arrive to give her something more to do (though the film makes a pretty giant leap at the end to keep her involved) while West finds his way back into the movie through predictable means.

I kind of knew what Tomb Raider was going to be when I went in but honestly I was hoping it would be a little more intelligent. Lara and her dad shared a love of puzzles so the assumption would be that we’d see her solving some clues to his whereabouts along the way…but Lara tends to solve all of these riddles and clever traps in her mind. We, the audience, never see the inner workings of that thought process so it becomes dull viewing when we aren’t let in on the secret. Even a finale inside a tomb has oodles of opportunities to bring some fun obstacles to overcome, ala The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that sadly never come to be.

The framework is clearly laid for future installments of this new Tomb Raider franchise and I’d be up for more of Vikander if the plot was firmed up a bit and more fun was injected into the mix. This first outing, while sporadically entertaining, felt too paint-by-numbers to be considered much more than a middling popcorn feature.

Movie Review ~ The Magnificent Seven (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Seven gun men in the old west gradually come together to help a poor village against savage thieves.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Matt Bomer, Billy Slaughter, Vinnie Jones, Peter Sarsgaard

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: I have two things to admit right off the bat. I’ve never seen the original The Magnificent Seven from 1960 or, worse yet, Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the movie that inspired both films and countless other knockoff Westerns throughout the years. The second admission is that I’ve been wanting Oscar winner Denzel Washington (Flight) to lighten up a bit already…all of his movies are so serious, so steely, so tortured inside that it has me almost dreading every new film he’s headlining even though he’s one of our great working actors today. While Washington doesn’t quite achieve tranquility during the course of this remake, the actor does show some signs of a sense of humor in between the gunfire and exploding dynamite sticks.

The prologue sets the stage. It’s the 1870s and the town of Rose Creek has a problem whose name is Bartholomew Bogue (a typically ratty Peter Sarsgaard, Lovelace). Determined to buy up all the land in the area for 1/10 of what it’s worth, Bogue has staked his claim on Rose Creek and dares anyone to stand his way. Protected by a crooked town sheriff, Bogue and his army of gunslingers draws a line in the sand for the townsfolk; accept his low offer to purchase their plots of earth or suffer deadly consequences. Before the credits even begin, Bogue has struck down several strong-willed citizens (including an actor listed in the opening credits after he’s been killed) and prepares to return in three weeks to start rounding up and kicking out.

Rose Creek needs a savior, that’s why Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett, The Girl on the Train) offers bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Washington) all the town has to offer in exchange for his protection. Taking her up on her proposition partly because he empathizes with her and partly to exorcise his own personal demons, he recognizes he can’t go up against Bogue alone and recruits a sextet of men as he makes his way back to Rose Creek. First up is wise talking gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World), as good with a gun as he is with a deck of cards. Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke, Boyhood) a longtime friend of Chisolm and former army sharpshooter now making a living off of managing the duels of the deadly Billy Rocks (Byung Hun Lee, I Saw the Devil). Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Cake), a Mexican criminal on Chisolm’s wanted list is given a reprieve if he pitches in while Comanche Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier) makes nice with Chisolm by chowing down on the heart of a freshly killed animal. Finally, we have Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio, Sinister) a soft spoken bear of a man that proves a dangerous person to underestimate.

Look, there’s a formula here and it’s shown to have worked for more than a century. Find someone that needs help, gather a rag-tag group of would-be heroes, and then let them loose in a fiery blaze of glory. It helps The Magnificent Seven that the heroes would likely be the bad guys of another movie but find themselves put to better use doing good. Working together they arm the town and stage some Home Alone-style booby traps that are a, ahem, blast.

At 132 minutes, it’s a long film but I found myself responding to it more than I thought I would. I love a good Western and while this won’t be remembered as any kind of classic I found it engaging and entertaining, two things we’ve had a serious lack of in 2016. It takes it’s time and maybe moseys when it should be sprinting but I didn’t seem to mind it and I think it’s largely due to the cast.

Director Antoine Fuqua (Olympus Has Fallen) teams up with Washington for the third time and clearly the two men have worked together enough to develop their own rhythm. Fuqua nudges Washington ever so slightly out of his run of stone-faced champion and gets the actor to feel his inner cowboy. Pratt’s role isn’t quite as challenging, largely being an extension of the good ole boy he’s played before. Hawke, too, turns in a performance that I wasn’t quite expecting. Robicheaux has some ticks and tricks that Hawke takes and runs with…much like D’Onofrio does with his odd, child-like lumberjack of a man. As the lone female, Bennett more than holds her own, stopping just short of going full on Linda Hamilton/Terminator 2 mode as the film reaches its pinnacle.

Pure popcorn entertainment with some great shots of canyons and dust bowls set to a purposeful score by the late James Horner, The Magnificent Seven doesn’t rise to the level of greatness its title implies. Still, there are far worse ways to spend your time at the movies and the cast makes it worth your while.

Movie Review ~ Me Before You

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A girl in a small town forms an unlikely bond with a recently-paralyzed man she’s taking care of.

Stars: Sam Claflin, Emilia Clarke, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, Matthew Lewis, Vanessa Kirby, Stephen Peacocke, Brendan Coyle, Janet McTeer

Director: Thea Sharrock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: I’m not averse to shedding a tear or two at a movie if the mood strikes me.  I’ve been known to get all misty for outright tearjerkers (Steel Magnolias, Terms of Endearment) and well up for joy/happiness (Lava, The Way Way BackJurassic World…yes…it happened), a little water around the eyes never hurt anyone.  Still, you have to earn my tears and when a movie like Me Before You aims for the tear ducts and winds up conking me upside the head instead, I tend to be less than forgiving.

JoJo Moyes’ two hanky novel has been adapted by the author herself into a two-hour snoozer that features two ostensibly engaging stars that can’t manage to make a connection with themselves or its target audience. Sure, on the way out of the theater I saw people dabbing their teary eyes (using Kleenex that came in a box branded with the movie poster…the one truly clever detail of the experience) but they just as easily could have been wiping away an eye bogey from the nap they just woke from.

Saucer-eyed Emilia Clarke (Terminator Genisys) is Lou, a cheerful working class pixie in town on the outskirts of London. Stuck at home helping to support her family by working odd jobs, she’s just lost employment at a local café when she’s sent by a temp agency to care for a quadriplegic at the stately Traynor house. Well, it’s not so much a house as it is a castle at the center of town.  Something about her spunky attitude convinces Camilla (Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs) to hire her on the spot and soon enough Lou is face to face with Camilla’s son, Will (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2).

Injured in a rainy accident on a London street, Will is confined to a wheelchair without the use of most of his limbs and wouldn’t you know it, he’s not entirely happy about his new situation.  So we have this cheerful but poor girl meeting a handsome but broken prince in a castle and you’d think that the fairy tale sparks would fly and a whimsical romance would develop that cures all the woes before reaching a happy ending, right?  Not so my friends.

Now I can’t deny there’s something oddly watchable about Clarke but what it boils down to is that her performance is comprised mostly of puzzled blinks, nervous gulps, and strained smiles. Lou is a Free Spirit, something the filmmakers never fail to remind us of with each new set of off the wall shoes, zany tights, and granny chic outfits she turns up in. It’s not hard to see why Will finds her ray of sunshine aura a bit much to take at first, I certainly understood his antipathy toward her.  When they inevitably fall in love, it feels false and merely a story development rather than any real feeling that’s been believably developed.

For his part, Claflin is far more successful as the former devil may care party guy that water skied like a madman now in a wheelchair prison from which there is no escape. Claflin takes the role seriously, perhaps a bit too seriously, but ultimately his commitment gives the film its only true authenticity as we watch Will struggle with sickness and setbacks. As he sees his former flame marry his best friend, the pain he hides feels relatable and understandable which makes it all the more unfortunate that he can’t find a way to develop chemistry with his leading lady.

First time director Thea Sharrock comes from the theater world and it shows with much of the film feeling stagey and confined to simply constructed scenes with rarely more than two characters interacting at once. The views of the countryside are gorgeous and I guess it’s a technically well-made picture, but one that’s unfortunately missing an emotional center and a willingness to see things through. Characters are introduced only to disappear for long stretches of time and a late in the run game changer is only danced around instead of confronted head-on.  Here was a chance to say something about life and the power of choice but Sharrock and Moyes are more interested in flying the lovers off to exotic locales as Lou tries to show Will that his current state doesn’t mean he can’t enjoy life to its fullest.

And then we get back to where we started…tears.  By the time it gets to the moments where the tears should fall I felt like the movie made a desperate plea to wring water from a stone after so many ramshackle constructs along the way. I found the final fifteen minutes and especially the epilogue quite irritating, placing a Mr. Smiley sticker over moments that deserved to be more composed and thoughtful.

Moyes has already published a sequel and depending on how well this movie fares in the wake of so many recent and future summer blockbusters, if there is another opportunity to drop in on these characters I hope it can be a more honest visit.

Movie Review ~ Creed

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Back in July when I posted my thoughts on the preview for Creed I made an admission…that I’d only seen the first and fifth Rocky films.  It was a tough thing to say, not because the other Rocky films were classics but being The MN Movie Man, I just should have had those locked down years ago.  In my trailer review I also mentioned that before Creed was released I would go back and catch up…but alas, I only made it as far as buying the Rocky collection on BluRay.  So, like the books made into movies that I never finished before the release date arrived, I went into Creed only knowing a brief history of the boxing franchise that inspired it.

As most reviews will state, Creed is really Rocky 7 masquerading under a different name.  And that’s an OK thing because like the titular character, it needed to stand on its own and succeed on its own merits.  And succeed it does.  You won’t believe it, but let me assure you that this drama is an undisputed winner filled with knockout performances, dynamite filmmaking, and enough electrifyingly crowd pleasing sequences to keep the lights on in small city for months.

This is first and foremost a story about fathers/father figures/mentors, and the sons/young men that look up to them.  A pre-credits scene shows a teenage Adonis Johnson fighting his way through a stay in a juvenile correctional facility.  The illegitimate son of world famous boxer Apollo Creed, he’s a ward of the state when Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) pays him a visit.  Interested in the boy her late husband never knew, she takes him in and provides for him while keeping him on the right path…and away from the sport that she believes killed her husband.

Flash forward a decade to an adult Adonis (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) fighting in a Tijuana boxing ring before heading back to his 9-5 job, his boss and Mary Ann none the wiser.  Turning down a promotion in favor of making a go as a professional boxer without Mary Ann’s support, Adonis finds his way to Philadelphia intending to track down the famous friend of his late father.

Of course, the man is Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables 3) and at first he’s not interested in returning to his boxing roots, preferring a quiet life running his restaurant and paying visits to the graves of his late wife and best friend.  But Adonis is persistent and eventually the men are working together toward getting Adonis prepped for a big time fight with a towering rival…leading, as all of these movies do, to a showdown finale that ends the film on an emotional uppercut.

There’s a formula to any sports related film and Creed isn’t unique in its overall construction.  It’s the execution of said formula that makes the film work like gangbusters.  On one side of the ring we have Adonis desperate to prove something not only to himself but his father’s memory.  On the other side we have a faded fighter that sees a younger version of his friend (and himself) unaware of the effects the boxing life will have on his body and the sacrifices he’ll be making.

Director Ryan Coogler reteams with his Fruitvale Station star Jordan and has written a thoughtful extension of the Rocky franchise that honors Stallone’s original creation while crafting a new underdog hero story that’s more than just another entry in a long line of sequels.  Not only does Coogler break down the sport to make it less about jabs and blocks, he shows the commitment it takes to be the best of the best.  You really come to understand a boxer’s life, swollen eyes, bruised bones and all that goes with it.  Each punch lands with such force that by the end it’s possible you could forget you’re just watching a movie — I found that several times I had to fight the urge to stand up and cheer along with the film extras.

Whenever a romantic subplot is introduced in a sports centered picture, it can sometimes feel shoe-horned in but Coogler has given Adonis (and the film) an equal partner in Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Selma).  A singer with her own struggles, the film takes its time in showing their courtship…a courtship that winds up as tenderly authentic as the boxing scenes are brutally realistic.  Jordan and Thompson have excellent chemistry and you’ll be rooting for their relationship as much as you’ll root for Adonis to deliver a knockout blow to his final opponent.

Though Coogler’s use of real athletes more than a little stiff in the acting department can take you out of the picture, it somehow winds up lending a strange authenticity to the film.  Jordan trained so much for his role that the line between real fighter and actor is a thin one indeed, shown to great effect in one continuous take that seemingly lasts for three minutes.  Taking you from the locker room to the ring and through several rounds of a fight, the camera never cuts or stops moving — it’s a thrilling sequence, expertly accomplished by Maryse Alberti (already represented in 2015 with The Visit and Freeheld).  Alberti’s camerawork is so strong that I think you could watch the movie with the sound off and still be bowled over.  With the sound off, though, you’ll miss Ludwig Göransson’s (We’re The Millers) stirring score.  Interlacing the famous Rocky theme with unexpected an unexpectedly effective instrumentals, the music only adds to the excitement on top of Alberti’s visuals.  When Göransson’s perfectly timed reworked Rocky theme is introduced, just try to keep those goosebumps at bay.

Jordan’s star continues to rise and he’s delivered an award-caliber performance here, along with Stallone doing his best work in three decades.  Both men, along with Coogler and the picture itself, should be recognized by the Academy when they announce the Oscar nominations in January.  Based on the previews, I figured I would like Creed but I never thought it would be as moving and inspiring as it is.  Audiences are in for a true TKO with this one.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

The Silver Bullet ~ Creed

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Synopsis: The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Creed, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Release Date:  November 25, 2015

Thoughts:  I’ve only seen the first Rocky.  OK.  Now that I have that secret off my chest can we move forward as friends?  Here’s the first look at a spin-off that’s several decades in the making…and it looks like it could be a heavyweight champ this season.  Rising star Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) reteams with his Fruitvale Station director for this new chapter of the Rocky franchise that focuses on the son of Rocky Balboa’s friend/competition Apollo Creed.  Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables 3) directed and starred in many of the Rocky sequels and I’ve a feeling that had he also taking directing chores here, the film might not come across with as warm a welcome.  Looks like I have some catching up to do before this gets released in November…

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist III

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Carol Anne is staying with relatives in a high-rise building and the supernatural forces that have haunted her previously follow her there.

Stars: Heather O’Rourke, Zelda Rubinstein, Tom Skerritt, Nancy Allen, Lara Flynn-Boyle

Director: Gary Sherman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: The best thing that can be said about Poltergeist III is that at least it’s better than its predecessor…though the bar was set so low by Poltergeist II: The Other Side that that’s not saying much.  The third sequel to one of my all-time favorite films had a troubled production and limped onto the screen amidst a cloud of doom.  Still, it has one or two interesting sequences and is more than competently made…but fails to deliver on anywhere near the same level at Poltergeist.

Young Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) has been sent to live with her aunt (Nancy Allen, Carrie) in a new high-rise apartment building in Chicago.  She’s there to attend a school for the gifted but it’s clear that it’s maybe more to give her beleaguered family some distance from the girl that attracts ghosts…and most likely because JoBeth Williams and Craig T. Nelson wanted nothing to do with the movie.  Her aunt lives with her new husband (Tom Skerritt, Steel Magnolias) and stepdaughter (Lara Flynn-Boyle) in a gloriously late ‘80s mirrored apartment…a perk of his job as one of the developers of the building.

It’s not exactly clear how it happens but somehow the vengeful spirit of Reverend Kane wasn’t totally vanquished in the previous film and has tracked Carol Anne down with the intent to finally take her to the other side.  This traveling ghost takes a page from the shark in JAWS: The Revenge and travels out of his comfort zone to lay claim to the girl that got away.  Over the course of an evening, Carol Anne and her family are hunted by Kane and his minions of spirts throughout the building, from the parking garage to the swimming pool.

Now I firmly believe that a good movie could have been made of the material here…but director Gary Sherman was either too limited by the paltry budget or his imagination to deliver a worthy film that wound up putting the final nail in the Poltergeist coffin.  Not that he was helped by the numerous maladies that seemed to plague the film…chief being the tragic death of O’Rourke before the film was finished.

Performances are all over the board here with Skerritt and Allen showing up for their paychecks (though Allen seems to have fun with how alarmingly insensitive she is to her niece) and O’Rourke improving slightly on her dreadful previous performance as Carol Anne.  It’s nice to see Flynn-Boyle’s first screen appearance but stormy weather arises when Zelda Rubinstein shows up to preside over a master class of bad acting.

A film that’s literally just smoke and mirrors, it’s a shame that Poltergeist III couldn’t make something of material that should have worked better than it did.  With multiple deaths associated with the series that came to be known as the Poltergeist Curse, it’s no wonder the studio took one look at the finished project and anemic box office returns and decided to call it quits on future installments.

 

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist II: The Other Side

poltergeist_ii

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Freeling family has a new house, but their troubles with supernatural forces don’t seem to be over.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Zelda Rubinstein, Julian Beck, Will Sampson, Geraldine Fitzgerald

Director: Brian Gibson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: It’s no secret that the mid ‘80s produced a bad case of sequelits in most major studios and after 1982’s Poltergeist scared the pants of audiences throughout the summer it didn’t take a genius to see that a sequel would be on its way.  Released in May of 1986, Poltergeist II: The Other Side is one of the worst sequels ever and while it doesn’t tarnish the memory of its predecessor it sure gives it the good college try.

It’s been one year since the Freeling family encountered some nasty goings-on in their storybook like tract-house in suburban California.  Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood), Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), Robbie (Oliver Robins), and Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) are living with Diane’s mother (Geraldine Fitzgerald) while they find a place to live.  In the original film there was a third child and she’s never mentioned…at all.  Tragically, the young girl that played the role was murdered shortly after the film was released, the first to die in what was later called the Poltergeist curse.  I get that they didn’t want to recast the role but to not mention her at all was very strange.

Anyway, our feisty medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) has enlisted the help of an Indian shaman (Will Sampson) to help dig through the remains of the original Freeling home to discover secrets of the bodies that were buried under the development.  She uncovers the skeletons of a religious cult that died with their leader, Reverend Kane (Julian Beck, the second actor to die, this time before the movie was even released).  Somehow the spirit of Kane is released and again targets Carol Anne…hilarity, sorry, hysteria ensues.

It’s been rumored that Poltergeist II: The Other Side went through some major cuts in the editing room and it shows.  At a scant 91 minutes, the film doesn’t have the luxury of the slow burn that made the first film so enormously enjoyable. It’s a very get in and get out affair with a special effects heavy third act that inspires more snoozing than shrieking.

Especially disappointing is how bad the performances are here.  Nelson and Williams seem like they’re serving community service, but I’d be mad too if I had to pretend to vomit up a gigantic animatronic tequila worm like Nelson does in one particularly nasty scene.  Robins was never an especially, um, gifted child star and when he’s attacked by his braces you may be rooting for the metal to win.  The angelic O’Rourke was a tiny six year old in Poltergeist and her performance felt spontaneous and without guile…but in the four years between films she must have enrolled in too many child acting classes because she stinks.  While I loved Rubinstein’s unexpected charisma in the first film, her Razzie Award nomination for the sequel was absolutely deserved.

The worst thing about Poltergeist II: The Other Side is not that it’s a cheap money grab for fans of the original…it’s that it’s so very boring.  Though loaded with decent effects and benefiting from Jerry Goldsmith’s haunting score, it barely holds your interest for even seconds at a time.  It’s a silly mess that doesn’t even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the landmark film it followed.

Down From the Shelf ~ Poltergeist (1982)

poltergeist_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: As a family moves into their new home, they notice strange events that mostly affect their young daughter.

Stars: JoBeth Williams, Craig T. Nelson, Heather O’Rourke, Oliver Robins, Dominique Dunne, Beatrice Straight, Zelda Rubinstein, Richard Lawson, James Karen

Director: Tobe Hooper

Rated: PG

Running Length: 114 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  How sweet it is to feel the tingle that goes up your spine when you’re sitting down watching a truly satisfying horror film…there’s just no other feeling like it.  Horror films have come and gone over the years, each one a more cannibalistic example of mindless copies of something original.  But try as they might, no haunted house ghost tale can hold a candle to classics like 1963’s The Haunting and 1982’s Poltergeist.  Both films are handsome, classy productions that aren’t cheap scarefests and each delight in playing (or rather, preying) on the things that scare you.

Poltergeist is one of my favorite films of all time because it fits into several categories at once (like the best horror films do…see JAWS as an example).  It’s a drama, a mystery, a midnight movie freak out, a paranormal thriller, and a period piece all centered on one suburban Regan-era family out to live the good life in a new home development that holds its share of buried secrets.

Life for the Freeling family is pretty typical of the time period.  Dad Steve (Craig T. Nelson, Silkwood) is a sales agent for the residential development where he lives with his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams, The Big Chill), and three children (Dominique Dunne, Oliver Robins, Heather O’Rourke).  The kids go to school, the mom cleans the house, sports are watched on the television over the weekend, and the biggest problem they face is worrying about the new pool they’re putting in the backyard.

Strange things begin to happen, though, seemingly out of the blue.  Little Carol Anne (O’Rourke) starts to talk to the television and the “TV people” that want to play with her.  A scary tree and ominously stormy nights keeps young Robbie (Robins) from getting a peaceful slumber.  Not to mention the kitchen chairs that stack themselves and some strange gravitational pull that moves things across the room at an alarming pace.  It all culminates in the film’s first big scare and before you know it, Carol Anne has vanished yet her presence and voice remain in the house.

What happens next involves a team of paranormal investigators (lead by Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight) and one tiny medium (Zelda Rubinstein) as they attempt to help the Freelings find their daughter and rid their house of the titular entity that for some reason has targeted them for trouble.

Directed by Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and written/produced by Stephen Spielberg (Lincoln), the film is a welcome blend of the eye-popping scares that Hooper was famous for capturing under the watchful hand of Spielberg’s sensitive script.  I’ll admit that there’s a part in the film which always causes me to tear up a bit…how often do you find that in a film that literally tosses skeletons and rotting flesh at the screen?

What’s so wonderful about Poltergeist is that even though it spawned two disappointing sequels, inspired three decades worth of copycats, and is clearly a film from the early ‘80s it manages to remain timeless and timely.  The scares continue to work like gangbusters and no matter how many times I’ve seen it I never manage to lose interest in the story being told.