Movie Review ~ Home Again

The Facts:

Synopsis: Life for a single mom in Los Angeles takes an unexpected turn when she allows three young guys to move in with her.

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Pico Alexander, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Lake Bell

Director: Hallie Meyers-Shyer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Reese Witherspoon looks like ‘meh’ on the poster for Home Again and after seeing it you may understand why. Maybe it’s the fact that this A-lister is stuck in a B-movie with C-list stars. Perhaps it’s because the direction from first-timer Hallie Meyers-Shyer is as amateurish as her script. Or it could be that the movie is just pure white-washed piffle, meant to go down easy and float from your consciousness the moment you get to your car. Whatever the reason may be, this is one you can easily take a pass on.

At 97 minutes, Home Again has the look, feel, and structure of three episodes of a Netflix series that Witherspoon somehow wandered into. Filmed mostly on one set (Witherspoon’s homey California dwelling) under lights so bright you can often see make-up lines on the actors faces, it feels lo-fi and out of place on the big screen. Aside from Witherspoon and Candice Bergen as her movie-star mom, none of the supporting cast feels like they’re ready for this undertaking and that makes the entire production continually strain to prove its purpose for existing.

Separated from her music mogul husband who has remained on the East Coast, Alice (Witherspoon, Hot Pursuit) is a mom to two girls adjusting to life as a 40-year-old back at the Los Angeles manse of her late father. A famous film director, her pop must have left her quite a fortune because the house sports furnishings straight out of a Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware catalog. Out to celebrate her birthday with friends she winds up taking young Harry (Pico Alexander, A Most Violent Year) home for a night cut short by his sour stomach. The next morning she finds that not only did Harry come home with her but so did his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff, Paper Towns) and their friend George (Jon Rudnitsky).

Surprisingly, Bergen comes up with the idea of her daughter providing lodging for the cash-strapped trio who are in CA to pitch a film to a famous producer. Soon the guys are bonding with Alice’s tykes while Harry and Alice awkwardly maneuver around their growing fondness for one another. When Alice’s estranged husband Austin (Michael Sheen, Passengers) shows up ready to re-join his family it throws the newly found harmony out of sych. There’s also a barely there B-story of Alice working for a high-strung socialite (Lake Bell, Million Dollar Arm, wearing an array of loony mumus) that provides Witherspoon the opportunity to flex her comedic muscles when she gets sloshed and tells off her nightmare boss.

That Meyers-Shyer wrote and directed a movie like this isn’t entirely unexpected, after all she’s the daughter of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers who together and separately have given us films like Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, It’s Complicated, The Holiday, The Intern, and Something’s Gotta Give. It’s that the movie is such a pale imitation of what her parents have all but perfected (much to my chagrin)…the white-woman fantasy. I’ve said it about films from Nancy Meyers in the past and I’m going to say it here for Home Again…how this movie could be made with barely any minorities is kinda atrocious. There are scenes in set in Los Angeles clubs, restaurants, and offices yet aside from one horribly stereotypical Indian motel worker there are zero people of color who have speaking roles, let alone appear in the movie at all. Alice doesn’t have any black friends? Her kids don’t attend school with any observed minorities? The movie is soaked in white privilege at its most yuck-o and I find it a bit embarrassing Witherspoon didn’t notice it.

Speaking of Witherspoon, watching the movie you’ll wonder how this Oscar-winning actress who has shown a keen knack for choosing the right properties for herself in the past few years wound up in this backwards facing vehicle. She labors almost victoriously with some inane dialogue and nearly convinces us she’s falling for the charmless Alexander as her young beau. Alexander, for his part, is completely miscast here and watching him in scenes with Witherspoon or Bergen is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Rudnitsky has some appeal in a goofy way yet the movie explore his possible fondness for Alice and subsequent jealously of Harry while Wolff instigates the most audience pleasing moment of the film.

I don’t think I’m that off base feeling that Home Again would seem like a better fit as a streaming series. There are enough subplots to cover several episodes and the basic premise could have some legs had Meyers-Shyer sharpened her script, developed her characters, and surrounded Witherspoon with a better ensemble. As presented, Home Again is a movie free of consequence for everyone and absent a rounded conclusion.

Movie Review ~ Passengers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne

Director: Morton Tyldum

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: It’s hard to believe it now, but just a few short months ago there were whispers in Hollywood that Passengers, this sci-fi romance starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, might be a late-breaking entry up for award consideration.  Now it’s clear that those “insiders” were people stumping for Sony because while it isn’t quite the train wreck most people will tell you it is, it’s certainly a disappointment when you consider the people behind it.

This is one of those “looked good on paper” sort of affairs.  Two of the hottest stars (literally and box-office-y) working in Hollywood right now team up with an Oscar nominated director for a big-budget two-hander set aboard a spaceship traveling to a new world.  While I can admit the concept driving the action is fairly intriguing, it’s a bit of a puzzlement as to why many big names have been orbiting around the pedestrian script from Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) for some time.  Revolutionary material this is not and in many ways it’s a big step backward for at least one of its stars.

According to Passengers, in the future it will be possible to survive on different planets and Earth will see a sizable number of its inhabitants emigrate to a new solar system.  Sure, it will take over a hundred years, you’ll never see your loved ones again, and if you can’t afford the ticket you’ll be little more than an indentured servant for the span of your life…but what an adventure! As the movie opens, a meteor shower damages the massive ship and causes one of the transport pods to trigger an early wake-up call for Jim (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World).

Noticing he’s the only one up and about, Jim learns of the pod malfunction and that he’s still 90 years from his destination with no way to get back to sleep.  He spends his days exploring the ship, practicing his free-throw, mastering a Dance Dance Revolution-style video game, and commiserating with an android bartender (Michael Sheen, Admission).  After a year, though, Jim is lonely and that’s when he catches sight of Aurora (Lawrence, Joy), a sleeping passenger he gets to know through her introductory videos prepared pre-flight.

Keeping spoilers at bay, I’ll just say that Aurora is roused as well and bonds with Jim in and out of the bedroom.  For a while, things are in breezy rom-com territory before reality sets in when Jim has to come clean about a Big Secret that threatens his relationship with Aurora and the other passengers as well.  Maybe another passenger wakes up and maybe there’s a recognizable star that shows up for literally 12 seconds near the very end but that’s for me to know and you to find out…if you want.

Passengers plays well, fueled by the chemistry between Pratt and Lawrence.  The only problem is the chemistry is more brother-sister than boyfriend-girlfriend and that’s just the tip of the creepy iceberg when all is said and done.  Director Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) tries to sidestep some fundamental moral dilemmas of the characters by distracting audiences with plenty of skin from his leads (Pratt’s two rump shots elicited quite the murmur of approval from the guests at my screening) and forcing us to see what a perfect match the two are.

Things really go awry in the last 1/3 when Passengers morphs into an effects heavy action film.  Lawrence is reduced to a damsel in distress, a far cry from the take charge women of steel she’s been playing (and receiving Oscar nominations for) recently.  Pratt fares better, only because the blue-collar guy he’s playing isn’t too far outside of his wheelhouse.  I kept wanting Sheen to play a bigger role in the action and come out from behind the bar or do something (anything) that would keep the film from being so earthbound and ordinary.

While its nowhere near the level of sophistication it should be, Passengers isn’t a complete turkey.  Aside from the appeal of Pratt/Lawrence, there’s some fine effects work but one too many slow camera pans of the ship inside and out.  When the characters stare into the vast blackness of space tethered by a single rope as they float, I got a little spooked/excited at what could happen if they broke free from their safety net.  Same goes for the movie – it never breaks free from its constraints.

The Silver Bullet ~ Passengers

passengers

Synopsis: A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 90 years early.

Release Date:  December 21, 2016

Thoughts: It’s okay if you watch this first trailer for Passengers and feel like you’ve been to this space rodeo before.  Peppered with hints of Gravity and The Martian with a little old (Sunday) school Adam and Eve business, our initial look at the late December release feels promising.  I mean, two hotter than Hades A-list stars with their choice of scripts wouldn’t sign up for this without it having some thrust, right?  I’m counting on blind faith that Chris Pratt (Jurassic World) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) have chosen wisely.  Under the direction of Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) from a Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) script that’s been orbiting Hollywood stars since 2007, Passengers could pure rocket fuel at the box office if these heavy hitters bring their A game.  As for me…it’s set in space so…I’m in.

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 ~ 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 ~ Admission

admission

The Facts:

Synopsis: A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.

Stars: Tina Fey, Paul Rudd, Nat Wolff, Lily Tomlin, Michael Sheen, Wallace Shawn, Gloria Reuben

Director: Paul Weitz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  The ads for Admission might make you think this is a true blue comedy and with bona-fide funny stars Fey and Rudd in the mix you could be forgiven if you go into the movie with the wrong expectations.  I read several reviews that trounced the film for not having enough laughs considering the people involved and that’s not entirely fair because Admission is more of a dramedy than your typical comedy and shouldn’t be judged on the same laugh-o-meter as, say, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.  Actually, strike that…even with a smaller amount of laughs Admission has at least 70% more chuckles than that recent bomb.

Anyway, what Admission does right is allowing Fey and Rudd to bring their own flair to the film and that’s when it tends to work the best.  Though it’s about fifteen minutes too long and winds up leaving the audience a bit unfulfilled, there’s a decent amount of good material that gives the movie some heft. 

Perhaps she’s been playing Liz Lemon on TV’s 30 Rock too long or it could be that she’s ever the tiniest bit overexposed, but Fey has an uphill battle here that never really works out like it should.  She’s a Princeton admission counselor that’s as by the book as they come.  Her life is perfectly simple in its planning and assembly…that is until in the span of a few days she gets dumped by her wimp boyfriend (Sheen, looking uncomfortably rumpled) and informed by Rudd’s alternative school teacher that a prospective Princeton student may be the child she gave up for adoption 18 years prior. 

The set-up is nothing new and the skilled audience member will see what parts of Fey’s ordered life will be thrown into turmoil by her recent string of revelations long before the movie chooses to upend them.  With a film as predictable as this, it’s important to have the right type of actors in the mix to make it palatable and that’s where director Weitz (Being Flynn, In Good Company, About a Boy) scores some points.

Though Fey can’t totally shed her recognizable persona, she has a few interesting moments in early scenes as she’s interacting with potential applicants that take shape before her as she’s reading their application stats.  There’s no denying Fey has the charm and wit to make a film work but perhaps if Admission had been less scenes with her running into her ex and a few more that dealt with her own fractured relationship with her mother (a scene stealing Tomlin) a better film, and consequently performance, may have emerged.

It also doesn’t help that Rudd’s role winds up feeling extraneous in the grand scheme of things. Though there’s a misguided attempt to create chemistry between the actors I would have preferred his role to have been smaller or played by someone other than Rudd (who otherwise bounces back nicely from December’s  truly awful This is 40) to help shift the focus back onto Fey’s character.  Every time the movie diverts to show some of the problems with Rudd’s character, I longed for it to relate more to what was going on in Fey’s plotline.

In the end I wasn’t crazy about the direction the movie took, feeling that it robbed Fey’s character of some dignity and the audience from a real resolution.  There’ s a Hollywood resolution firmly in place that in hindsight probably was pre-destined, but it’s frustrating to see some very good talent working with slightly mediocre material.  Even though it’s handsomely made, put Admission on the waitlist until you can watch it in the comfort of your own home and give it your own final grade.

The Silver Bullet ~ Admission

admission

Synopsis: A Princeton admissions officer who is up for a major promotion takes a professional risk after she meets a college-bound alternative school kid who just might be the son she gave up years ago in a secret adoption.

Release Date:  March 8, 2013

Thoughts: I’m going to preface this by saying that I love Tina Fey and Paul Rudd.  Both are engaging, creative actors who have helped put a squeaky shine on many a dull film.  That being said, I’m ready for both actors to go outside of their comfort zone.  With Fey’s 30 Rock in its final season and Rudd’s career doing just fine, how about the two actors try for something a bit unexpected…just to feel the waters.  I felt the same way with the Fey/Steve Carrell collaboration of Date Night…two actors that could do this kind of role in their sleep and whose presence in an unremarkable looking movie just smells of easy money.  Director Paul Weitz has a nice track record and I’m sure this will be perfectly entertaining – but I do want to see Fey and Rudd step it up a bit.