The Silver Bullet ~ The Post

 

Synopsis: A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between journalist and government. Inspired by true events.

Release Date: December 22, 2017 (limited) January 12, 2018 (wide)

Thoughts: At the Oscars last year, buzz began to build around a rumored collaboration between Hollywood’s most favorite people. Director Steven Spielberg (Lincoln), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), & Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks) would team up to tell the story of the Pentagon Papers.  Over the next weeks and months, we would get a tidbit here and there but The Post has flown quietly under the radar.  Until now.  I’m sure a number of Oscar hopefuls woke up this morning to see the new trailer for The Post and felt their hearts sink a little bit because it looks like this obvious Oscar bait is going to snag quite a lot of attention.  With an honest-to-goodness all-star cast of A-Listers and well-respected character actors in supporting roles, this looks like a slam-dunk.  If Spielberg can keep this one trucking along (please let it come in under 2.25 hours!) there’s a chance The Post will be headline news during Award Season.

The Silver Bullet ~ Call Me by Your Name

Synopsis: Summer of 1983, Northern Italy. An American-Italian is enamored by an American student who comes to study and live with his family. Together they share an unforgettable summer full of music, food, and romance that will forever change them.

Release Date: November 24, 2017

Thoughts: With a screenplay from James Ivory (The Remains of the Day, Howard’s End, A Room with a View) and directed by Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), Call Me by Your Name is a title that could be one to keep your eye on as we transition from the summer slate to the Oscar hopeful season.  Based on the 2007 novel by André Aciman and taking place over one gauzy summer in Italy, there are some strong themes of love and self-discovery clearly present in this first trailer.  It’s always interesting to see how a tender story like this will play out for audiences in the wide-release arena, but then again movies like Call My by Your Name aren’t exactly made for mass consumption.  Starring Armie Hammer (The Lone Ranger), Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), and Timothée Chalamet (Love the Coopers), call me very intrigued with this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Shape of Water

Synopsis: An other-worldly fairy tale, set against the backdrop of Cold War era America circa 1963.

Release Date:  December 8, 2017

Thoughts: This just shows you how much I’ve been paying attention.  I mean, I had no idea that The Shape of Water was even a thing much less that Guillermo del Toro (Pacific Rim) was behind the whole affair.  That being said, now that I’m aware of it I’m looking forward to it.  As usual, del Toro’s stories feel like dark fairy tales that push back at pre-conceived notions of darkness and light.  So as fans of the auteur we know it will be different and we know it will look great…but will audiences take a chance on a hard-to-pin-down flick like this?  I know I will, but del Toro’s track record has been spotty with attracting a crowd…which is too bad because he’s one of the very best filmmakers working today.  Starring Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine), Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Michael Shannon (Midnight Special), and Michael Stuhlbarg (Doctor Strange), The Shape of Water surfaces just in time for the holidays.

Movie Review ~ Miss Sloane

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

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

Director: John Madden

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review ~ Doctor Strange

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, Benedict Wong

Director: Scott Derrickson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Can I let you in on a little secret?  Every time I hear the phrase ‘space time continuum’ in a movie I start to look for the nearest exit.  After years of taking in sci-fi movies that zig zag and fold back on themselves (like Interstellar and Inception) I’m at the point where any talk of the butterfly effect, messing with the natural order, or the aforementioned space time continuum means that naptime is imminent for The MN Movie Man.

I make this admission at the start of my review of Doctor Strange so you know that though I went in with mid-range expectations for Marvel’s latest superhero origin story (as 2nd tier as the Doctor Strange character may be), the moment the talk turned to time travel my internal timer started its countdown to impatience.  Here’s a film with a lot of heavy hitters and some big ideas that can never corral them all into being on the same page at the same time. What made previous Marvel films work so well (aside from Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and Ant-Man) was a meeting of the minds where effects and character lived in entertaining harmony.

Shades of the first Iron Man haunt the first quarter of the movie as we meet a brilliant but uncouth surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) known for his steady hand and icy heart.  A terrible car crash (never text and drive, ok?) leaves him scarred and shaky but just as cool and distant to those that care for him.  Exhausting his options medically he hears of a possible miracle cure near Kathmandu and it’s there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck) who opens a new world of possibilities.

As he regains his strength and explores the untapped regions of his consciousness, Strange becomes wrapped up in a plot orchestrated by a nasty villain (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, who has a PhD in playing bad guys) and his crew of disciples wearing some fierce drag make-up to, what else?, destroy humanity.  Leaping from Hong Kong to London to New York, Strange makes a pit stop to get some medical attention from a former colleague and love interest (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight) before being chased through a kaleidoscopic parallel universe where the world gets turned literally upside down and inside out.

If you’re like me and are literally physically exhausted by movies that are all flash and special effects spectacle, you’ll get the same bad taste in your mouth from Marvel’s newest piece in their larger cinematic puzzle.  The best parts of Doctor Strange are also the most taxing on the brainwaves and when you add a 3D presentation on top of it all it’s time for the theaters should pass out free barf bags.  I don’t get queasy in movies but almost from the start I was nervously wondering where I would toss my cookies if I was forced to flee.

Yeah, the effects are impressive (and pleasantly colorful) when it counts but too often give off the stink of third level craftsmanship.  That goes for the script as well with McAdams’ character being so tragically underwritten they couldn’t even find a place for her to show up in the last 40 minutes.  Swinton seems to be having a crazy ball as a bald headed mystic (sketched in the comics as an elderly Asian man…oy) but Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) looks like he wants to cry for the majority of his screen time.  It’s only in the closing credits (it’s a Marvel movie, you know you need to stay to the end, right?) that we see what may have attracted him to the role.

That brings us to Cumberbatch who is merely serviceable in the title role.  Sitting here I can’t think who would have been better but the character is so onerous in his bravado that Cumberbatch has no room to wiggle around in.  Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) doesn’t do him any favors by allowing a cape to steal the scenes it shares with Cumberbatch…yes you read the right, Cumberbatch gets upstaged by an article of clothing.

If credit should go to something, it should be to the entire cast for giving it the good old college try with some very silly material.  Cumberbatch and his gang have a way of conjuring portals to hop continents by doing a modified “wax on” sort of motion and around the 100th time this action is performed I had to let a laugh escape.  The sight of all these characters making something out of nothing draws some obvious parallels to the Oscar nominees playing them.  Destined to be one of the films you’ll beg to skip if doing a Marvel marathon down the road, Doctor Strange wheezes when it should whallop.

The Silver Bullet ~ Arrival

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Synopsis: Taking place after alien crafts land around the world, an expert linguist is recruited by the military to determine whether they come in peace or are a threat.

Release Date: November 11, 2016

Thoughts: At first glance, Arrival looks like any other of the hundreds of like-themed films detailing alien invasion and a race against time to figure out how to communicate with them.  Dating back to the campy films of the 1950s all the way up to modern turns like Contact in 1997, this theme seems so played out…so why do I get the feeling that Arrival is going to be different?  Maybe because it’s helmed by Denis Villeneuve who, in movie after movie like Prisoners, Enemy, and Sicario, impresses?  Or maybe because it’s headlined by a strong cast including Amy Adams (American Hustle), Jeremy Renner (The Bourne Legacy), and Forrest Whitaker (Southpaw).  This one has apparently crept up under the radar for it’s fall, um, arrival, and now that we have our first look it’s ascending high on my anticipated list for this autumn.

Movie Review ~ Trumbo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren

Director: Jay Roach

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Though it’s not a great movie, Trumbo has been enthusiastically received by the lords and ladies of Tinseletown and I think I know why.  There’s nothing Hollywood loves so much as a good redemption story…especially one that it’s involved with.  Any chance they have to pat themselves on the back is taken with glee, even if it’s involving a dark stain on its history that never should have happened in the first place.

Playing like a made for TV movie that could have aired on HBO (where director Jay Roach has seen several of his political projects find great acclaim over the last decade), Trumbo is a hammy take on the years when numerous Hollywood players were put on the blacklist thanks to the McCarthy hearings.  Thought to be Communists in a time of great fear of the unknown, friends turned on friends and the mere mention of affiliation with the Communist parties saw careers, not to mention lives, destroyed.

Already explored in countless films/documentaries over the years (including a fictionalized take like 1991’s also mediocre Guilty by Suspicion), the way that Trumbo could have set itself apart was not playing like a standard biopic of one man’s downfall.  Yet it falls prey to every convention, every plot trap, every pothole that you can think of.  It may be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t go beyond the surface.

What elevates the film is the presence of several star players.  Helen Mirren and John Goodman have some solid screen time and make the most of it.  Mirren (Hitchcock) is Hedda Hopper, the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist with a poison pen for anyone that crosses her.  Mirren’s demeanor changes on a dime when challenged and the actress balances that sweet/sour persona with ease.  Goodman (Flight) is also notable as the hot-headed small-time studio exec that isn’t one to be pushed around.  And before Diane Lane (Man of Steel) fades into the background as her role becomes mere wallpaper, she’s a strong matriarch in a family that’s struggling.

These three performances can’t save the picture, though, mostly because they aren’t the leading player.  I’ve long struggled with Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Rock of Ages) onscreen, feeling that he’s never as good as people think he is and certainly lacking the charisma that made his Breaking Bad character such a legend.  He’s off the mark here for most of the picture, cartoonishly impersonating Dalton Trumbo’s voice and mannerisms that suggest he’s older than he really is.  It’s only when the character actually ages that the performance matches up.

Worst of the bunch is Louis C.K., completely out of his league as a disgraced writer dealt even more devastating blows as he falls from favor.  The comedian seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and with his dialogue, never convincing us that he’s to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor.  It’s a woefully poor performance, and put up against the roster of other strong cast members it just can’t be considered on the same level.

As a biopic, I guess Trumbo earns marks for its draft of events.  It’s workmanlike in its execution and the production design is pleasing.  Still, I kept waiting for the film to be better, to say something extraordinary…instead of just playing by the rules.  Aside from Mirren, Goodman, and Lane…it’s a fairly insignificant telling of a painful part of history.

The Silver Bullet ~ Steve Jobs

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Synopsis: Set backstage at three iconic product launches and ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac, the film takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution to paint an intimate portrait of the brilliant man at its epicenter.

Release Date:  October 9, 2015

Thoughts: Less than two years after another biopic of the late Apple wunderkind was released, another look into the life of Steve Jobs is coming our way.  After the cool reception and workmanlike effort of Jobs, I was wondering if we actually needed another film on the same life so soon.  Turns out, we did.

The first trailer for Steve Jobs is out and looks like something to get, if not excited by, then overly interested in.  Directed by Danny Boyle (Trance) from a script penned by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), the film is comprised of just three scenes set at the unveiling of key products that Jobs had a hand in creating.  A bold structure to be sure but it’s different enough than the earlier film that any comparison will hopefully just be on who did the better interpretation of several key characters.  Though Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) was set to reteam with his The Beach director Boyle, another film (Revenant) took him from the project.  Replacing him is Michael Fassbender (Prometheus) and he looks like a better fit anyway…and let’s not forget Kate Winslet (Divergent), Seth Rogen (The Guilt Trip), and Sorkin favorite Jeff Daniels (Arachnophobia) are part of the team as well.

Movie Review ~ Blue Jasmine

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A life crisis causes a socialite to head to San Francisco, where she reconnects with her sister.

Stars: Alec Baldwin, Cate Blanchett, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K., Andrew Dice Clay, Sally Hawkins, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

Director: Woody Allen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: I was pretty sure I was going to like Blue Jasmine for the mere fact that I didn’t enjoy Woody Allen’s previous film, 2012’s To Rome with Love.  Let me explain.  Like the Cohen Brothers, I tend to respond well to Allen’s projects about half the time because even a filmmaker as prolific as Allen tends to deliver a few snoozers along the way.  So after winning an Oscar for writing 2011’s Midnight in Paris it wasn’t a huge shock that I found To Rome with Love lacking.  Thankfully, Allen has returned stateside (the movie is set in San Francisco and New York City) for his latest work and it’s an absolute winner on every level.

A movie with shades of Tennessee Williams as filtered through Allen’s efficient dialogue, Blue Jasmine finds Allen on the tippy-top of his game with an assembled cast that is both surprising and surprisingly effective. 

I chuckled a bit when I saw that notorious comic Andrew Dice Clay was turning up in a supporting role but the comedian acquits himself nicely with a role that appears was written specifically for him.  Another comedian, Louis C.K., has a brief but enjoyable turn in a part that most surely would have been played by Allen himself were the director a few decades younger.  I normally find Alec Baldwin (Rock of Ages) to be an actor that colors his acting with broader strokes than necessary but here we find the actor at his most restrained and believable.  It felt like Baldwin took the time to craft this tricky character (only seen in flashbacks) from the ground up rather than pulling a performance from his wheelhouse to repurpose.

Sally Hawkins convincingly doffs her UK accent for an US one of indeterminate location (one minor quibble I did have was that everyone on the West Coast seemed to have an East Coast accent and vice versa) as she takes on a familiar role to anyone that is acquainted with Allen’s long list of family dramas.  She’s the put-upon sister that rolls with the punches and perhaps allows herself to be more of a punching bag than the audience would like.  Still, there’s a prideful dignity in the way she handles new changes in her life that contrasts nicely with Cate Blanchett as her acerbic sister.

Ah yes…Cate Blanchett.  If there’s any doubt remaining that Blanchett is one of the best actresses of her generation, it will be put to rest with her performance here.  We’ve seen these types of cluelessly delusional characters before (most recently in the awful Kristen Wiig film Girl Most Likely) and know that it takes a special kind of actress to take someone so unlovable and allow them to be loved for their faults.

Moving into her sister’s modest San Francisco apartment after her Ponzi-scheming husband loses their great fortune, Blanchett’s Jasmine is forced to start over again and get used to a much less lavish way of living.  She hilariously tries to school her sister on luxury living, starts taking community college computer classes, fends off the attention of an amorous employer, and attracts the attention of a suitor (Peter Sarsgaard, Robot & Frank) who might just be her savior.  In less skilled hands these vignettes could only be played for laughs and while many of these situations provide great humor they are all tinged with more than a little sadness.  Sadness for the past that can’t be replayed and for the future that is frighteningly unknown.

More than ever, I noticed the attention to detail in Blue Jasmine.  Allen’s films always have a nice sheen to them but this one just glows…whether it is in the vistas of California or the Park Avenue lavishness of Blanchett’s former life.  I especially loved Sonia Grande’s costume design…Blanchett has very little worldly possessions left and that includes her clothes.  Attentive viewers will notice she wears different combinations of the same half dozen articles of clothing she has…and manages to make each outfit look unique.  It’s a small touch that speaks volumes about the resourcefulness of the character…and also her need to make her outwardly put-together appearance cover up her inner turmoil.

Blanchett is rarely off screen and that’s fine and dandy.  In fact, it’s when she’s not the center of attention that the movie loses a little bit of air…which would probably please her character greatly.  The performance is razor sharp and the actress is in tune with everything going on around her – that’s thanks to Blanchett’s great instincts and the way that Allen has etched out her journey.  The film flies by and arrives at its conclusion with a certain grace not found in many mainstream movies today.  The ends that need to be tied off are complete but there’s more than a few loose strands that haunted me even now writing this review. 

This is a film that will surely land those involved in prime positions when award season comes around.  Blanchett is richly deserving of an Oscar nomination as is Allen’s wonderful script and direction.  The picture itself should find its way to the Oscar list of Best Picture nominees so it’s safe to say that this is a must-see.  It’s damn good.

The Silver Bullet ~ Blue Jasmine

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Synopsis: A life crisis causes a woman to head to San Francisco, where she reconnects with her sister.

Release Date: July 26, 2013

Thoughts: You’ve got to hand it Woody Allen.  Arguably the most prolific filmmaker working today, Woody has managed to write and direct one film each year for the last several decades and it’s a credit to his eye and ear that he continues to create interesting pieces.  That’s not to say his annual deliveries are all gems because the large majority of them I find to be harmless but exceedingly slight baubles.  Nevertheless,  every now and then he knocks it out of the park.  After winning an Oscar for Midnight in Paris two years ago he stumbled with the miscast and ho-hum From Rome with Love.  This year he’s back in the US for Blue Jasmine and if the trailer is any indication audiences are in for a nice change of pace.  Cate Blanchett looks award-worthy as does Sally Hawkins as her put-upon sister.  Don’t judge a Woody Allen movie by its trailer though because if history is any indication there’s more to this set-up than meets the eye.