The Silver Bullet ~ Top Gun: Maverick

Synopsis: A follow-up to the 1986 hit brings back Naval Aviator Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and will deal with the rise of unmanned drones and pilots becoming a thing of the past.

Release Date: June 26, 2020

Thoughts: Has it really been 33 years since Tom Cruise cemented his rising superstar status with the blockbuster release of Top Gun?  Inspiring countless imitators (including Cruise himself) and launching a million slow dances to the Oscar-winning theme song, the movie is firmly in our cultural lexicon and holds up quite nicely.  So you could hear some groans across the U.S. of A. when it was announced Cruise would be returning in the long rumored sequel.  For someone with as good as track record as Cruise has with starring in successful non-franchise fare, why occupy his time between Mission: Impossible sequels with another sequel to a previous role?  Teaming with his Oblivion director Joseph Kosinski and looping in an excellent roster of supporting players, from the looks of this first trailer for Top Gun: Maverick Cruise clearly knew what he was doing and I’m sorry I doubted him in the first place.  This sneak peak at the high-flying action film releasing almost 12 months from now stirs the kind of nostalgic summer excitement within me that doesn’t get a jolt that often.  Fingers crossed it’s more than just a retread of the original.

Movie Review ~ Only the Brave

The Facts:

Synopsis: Based on the true story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a group of elite firefighters risk everything to protect a town from a historic wildfire.

Stars: Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Jeff Bridges, Taylor Kitsch, Miles Teller, James Badge Dale, Andie MacDowell, Ben Hardy

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: It’s a good idea to go into Only the Brave without having seeing the trailer or knowing much about the true story that serves as the basis for the film. I say that because that’s how I found my way to the movie and I’m not sure I would have been as rapt as I was if I knew how it all turned out. Instead of being too informed as to what I was seeing, I was able to sit back and let this tale of heroism unfold without any pre-conceived notions. In a time when most movies arrive with spoiler-heavy fanfare, I took the viewing of Only the Brave as a rare opportunity to really experience the movie I was watching.

My grandfather was a firefighter for the city of Minneapolis so I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for any movie/tv show that featured these courageous men and women running toward the flames as others were running away. Based on Sean Flynn’s 2013 article in GQ magazine, Only the Brave chronicles the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots founded in 2008 in Prescott, Arizona. The first half of the movie shows how this scrappy and at times unconventional crew established themselves as a force to be reckoned with. Led by hothead Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice, never better) and mentored by town fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, Iron Man, who finds time to sing as well!), the merry band of firemen had egos as big as their heart and formed a bond of brotherhood that couldn’t be broken.

Entering into the established crew is Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now) a troubled kid just out of prison trying to get on the straight and narrow now that he has a new daughter to take care of. Struggling to find his place, Marsh takes him under his wing and soon he’s cutting his own path as a valued member of the group. He even makes nice with a former adversary (Taylor Kitcsch, John Carter) and the two men form a bromance that is a cornerstone of the picture.  Another strong bond on display is between Marsh and his equally headstrong wife (Jennifer Connelly, Winter’s Tale, in an award-worthy performance). The married couple bicker and reconcile often throughout the film, both wanting to better themselves but not understanding how to bring their partner along in stride. Brolin and Connelly have some of the year’s best chemistry, accurately portraying a complex relationship with unexpected layers that keep getting peeled away throughout the movie.

Director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) and screenwriters Ken Nolan (Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) pay great homage to the town and crew that are featured in their picture. As they go from town to town saving homes and landmark trees from wildfires that put them in harm’s way, a camaraderie develops not only between the men onscreen but with the audience watching their adventures. Stock up on your napkins before the movie starts because this one has moments that might make even the hardest tough guy shed a few manly tears.

Movie Review ~ The Divergent Series: Allegiant

divergent_series_allegiant_ver4
The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the earth-shattering revelations of Insurgent, Tris must escape with Four beyond the wall that encircles Chicago to finally discover the shocking truth of what lies behind it.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Naomi Watts, Jeff Daniels, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Keiynan Lonsdale, Jonny Weston, Mekhi Phifer, Daniel Dae Kim, Nadia Hilker, Bill Skarsgård

Director: Robert Schwentke

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  When Divergent was released in 2014, the hope was that it would be Summit Entertainment’s answer to The Hunger Games gauntlet thrown down by Lionsgate, a rival studio.  It wasn’t.  Actually, Divergent was so airless that when its sequel (Insurgent) rolled out a year later I didn’t even bother to see it.  What’s the point of continuing on with a series if the audience doesn’t really care about characters played by actors that don’t seem to care themselves about anything more than their paychecks and the perks of an international press tour.

In preparing for Allegiant, I went back and re-watched Divergent to see if my original feelings held up.  Boy, did they ever.  I still find Divergent to be a major bore, peppered with blank performances, spotty special effects, and a plot so convolutedly serpentine that it winds up feeling like it’s being made up on the fly and not adapted from the first in a series of bestsellers by Veronica Roth.  I continue to have a major problem with the violence towards women, grimacing each time the film finds our heroine getting beaten about the head and face by a male peer.

Since I’m never one to skimp on my homework, I gave Insurgent an overdue spin and to my surprise found it more than marginally better than its predecessor.  It’s still hopelessly devoid of point and general interest but with a new director (Robert Schwentke) and better special effects, the overall feeling of the series as a whole was that it was finding its footing (though I don’t feel like a series should ever need to take an entire first chapter to work out the kinks).

So going into Allegiant I was ready to see it improve upon the previous entry.  With the same director returning along with its cast made up of representatives of young Hollywood supported by several Oscar nominated/winning veterans there was surely hope to be had.

Wrong.  So very wrong.

First off is that Allegiant continues the unfortunate trend of studios with dollar-signs in their eyes and opting to split the final installment into two movies.  It worked for Harry Potter, it kinda worked for Twilight, and it definitely worked for The Hunger Games…but Allegiant is not destined to be put into any marginally successfully category because it’s actually the worst entry yet.  Instead of besting Insurgent, it falls far behind Divergent thanks to uninspired performances, downright lousy special effects, and the cold hard truth that the whole series is not about anything.

If you haven’t seen Insurgent yet, you best stop reading now because it’s impossible to discuss this one without letting a few spoilers slide by.

Jeanine is dead.  And Kate Winslet must have been so happy she wasn’t contractually obligated (like Ashley Judd seems to be) to appear in installments after her character was shot down by Evelyn (Naomi Watts, The Impossible, acting like her life depended on it in a brunette wig).  The message received at the end of Insurgent suggests that outside the wall that surrounds Chicago is a population waiting for the divergents to appear.  With the faction system breaking down and naysayers unlawfully executed, it’s more important than ever to scale the massive wall and hope that what’s outside is better than what’s inside.

When her brother (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) is lined up to be next on the chopping block, Tris (Shailene Woodley, The Descendants) and Four (Theo James) escape with him and their friends (Zoe Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road, and Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, and Maggie Q), literally walking up the wall through an electrified fence.  Before going over the wall, the screenwriters trim the escapees by one in a most unceremonious fashion…losing one of the more interesting characters is a bummer for us but good for them because they’re spared from what happens next.

Outside the wall is a wasteland, a fleshy red landscape irrigated by a red rain.  Why?  The film never says…probably because it just looks good and goes with the costume design. Salvation comes when the group is rescued and brought to what used to be Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, though it’s been redesigned to look like the first pass of architectural model by a grade school student with no eye for functionality.  Ruled by David (Jeff Daniels, The Martian, with sad eyes that tells us he can see his career fading) who’s focused on separating the “pure” from the “damaged”, a divide arises between Tris and her friends that will call into question their, um, allegiance.

To say more would be giving the wafer thin plot more time than it deserves.  It’s just a bridge between Insurgent and 2017’s Ascendant so really what’s the point of catching this one in the theaters?  It’s a waste of time and everyone onboard seems to know it.  Schwentke is coasting in his director’s chair…so much so that he decided to jump ship and not come back to finish the series.  The special effects look like they were from a computer game you’d play between commercial breaks of a new episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and the acting is absolutely dreadful.

Woodley has been someone I’ve kept an eye on for a while now but instead of getting more acclimated to her heroine role, she seems more uncomfortable than ever.  A solid dramatic actress she may be but an action star she’s not and never will be.  With her huge saucer eyes and dirty blond bob, she doesn’t even look the part.  James fares better as her love interest and brawn of the group, but the two have precious chemistry to suggest that we should care whether they wind up together or not.  Watts, Daniels, and Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) feign attentiveness while Teller hams it up with one-liners that rarely drew much of a reaction from the nearly 500 audience members I saw this with.  And I can’t even go there with the dreadful extras that have been assembled.  All of them look like they’ve been recruited from a pep rally in a juvenile detention center.

As I was leaving the theater I was walking behind a major fan of the series that was shaking her head and exclaiming that the filmmakers totally ruined the series with this one…so you don’t just have to take my non-fan word for it that Allegiant is a lousy waste of space.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (August)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHasta
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.

August

Traditionally, August is the month when the wind-down begins.  It never has any of the big tent pole pictures featured earlier in the summer and it can be a time when studios try to burn off some troubled pictures or try to skillfully position a sleeper hit. This August for sure had its share of high and low points, much like the summer that it capped off.  I was still in frolic mode so didn’t get to as many reviews as I had wanted but sitting here now, in still sunny September, it’s time to review the movies I missed!

                                                Movie Review ~ Shaun the Sheep Movie
shaun_the_sheep_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, he gets a little more action than he bargained for. A mix up with the Farmer, a caravan and a very steep hill lead them all to the Big City and it’s up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home.
Stars: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate
Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak
Rated: PG
Running Length: 85 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: I’m not saying that the U.S. doesn’t churn out a fine slate of family friendly films…but there’s a certain aura around the British imports that seem to work time and time again.  Like Paddington earlier this year, Shaun the Sheep Movie was an unexpected delight, 85 minutes of smart comedy that’s deep enough for adults to not need a lobotomy to enjoy and zany enough to keep the attention of young tykes.  Remarkable when you consider there’s not any dialogue in the movie aside from some rumbles and grumbles from human and animal characters, it’s a big screen adventure adapted from a popular television show.  I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprisingly entertained and quite impressed by the stop-motion animation.  The film didn’t have great marketing so it slipped by most people but if it’s at your bargain movie theater, pack those kids up in your minivan and get to it…or treat yourself to a solo show.

 

                                                            Movie Review ~ Dark Places
dark_placesThe Facts
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Synopsis: Libby Day was only seven years old when her family was brutally murdered in their rural Kansas farmhouse. Twenty-five years later, she agrees to revisit the crime and uncovers the wrenching truths that led up to that tragic night.
Stars: Charlize Theron, Drea de Matteo, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Tye Sheridan, Shannon Kook
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Rated: R
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: With the huge success of Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girl and seeing how fast the movie rights were snapped up, it’s only natural that her other two other books would take a similar path.  Dark Places is the first of these to hit theaters (Sharp Objects is arriving as a television movie) and it shows one of two things, either the third time was the charm for Flynn or something was lost in translation.  Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book but I’m inclined to think that it’s the fault of the screenwriter because there are so many hazardous movie mistakes only a Hollywood writer could make.  Though the mystery of a decades old killing spree coming back to haunt the sole survivor is initially intriguing, it quickly dissolves into a sticky mess that makes less sense the more secrets are revealed.  It also doesn’t help that it’s badly miscast, with the usually impressive Charlize Theron relying on her ever-present trucker hat to do most of the acting for her…or maybe to hide her embarrassment at being looped into this turkey.  Though it boasts a cast that typically gets the job done, no one quite seems to know what they’re doing…as if they hadn’t read the book before undertaking their scenes.  The only worthwhile performance is Christina Hendricks as Theron’s murdered mom, bringing some dignity to a role that, as written, doesn’t earn it.

 

                                                           Movie Review ~ Fantastic Four
fantastic_four_ver3The Facts
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Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy.
Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey
Director: Josh Trank
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 100 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: Well, what can I saw bout the Fantastic Four that hasn’t been said (loudly) already?  Is it a lousy movie? Yeah, probably. Could it have been better? After two attempts to bring these characters to the big screen I’m not sure we’ll ever get a decent adaptation. What went so wrong? If you believe the outspoken director, it was studio interference that took his movie from a rich origin story to an overstuffed thundercloud of action movie clichés and fairly terrible special effects.  If you are to believe the studio, it was that director Josh Trank (who debuted with the surprise hit Chronicle) disconnected from the material, a development that was costing time and money.  Watching the film with this knowledge you can see the moment that something went awry.  Because the thing is, the first 20-30 minutes of Fantastic Four is quite good, sensitive even.  It’s a slow start and, let’s face it, audiences these days don’t want a slow start.  They want their action and they want it now. The studio was happy to oblige and when it becomes a standard summer superhero movie my interest took a nosedive and it became a waiting game of the good guys defeating the bad guys so I could go home.  I think the colossal outcry from fans and critics was a little on the dramatic side, even for a superhero film, but it’s not wholly unwarranted.

 

                                                           Movie Review ~ Ricki and the Flash
ricki_and_the_flashThe Facts
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Synopsis: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family.
Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield
Director: Jonathan Demme
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 102 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: So we’ve all long agreed to the fact that Meryl Streep can do no wrong.  You can love her for it or hate her for it, but she never fails to impressive me with each new role she takes on.  From starring in The Iron Lady to taking a supporting role (cameo, really) in The Homesman, Streep seems to take a role if it speaks to her, no matter the size or commitment.  It’s not hard to see why she was attracted to the rough rocker Ricki with her tattoos and braided hair, here was another opportunity for Streep to strip away the classical actress aura and go barefoot into the wild.  She’s ably aided by Diablo Cody’s middling script, Jonathan Demme’s careful direction, and a supporting cast that don’t just play second fiddle to Streep’s lead guitar. I think there’s one too many musical numbers allowed to play longer than they should and Cody’s dialogue doesn’t have the snap that it used to.  The whole thing is worth it though for a stellar scene between Streep and Audra McDonald, the new wife of Streep’s ex-husband.  A sparring match spoken with calm and some care, the two women have an electricity between them that the film needed more of.  It falls apart swiftly in its second half, but it’s not a totally out of tune affair.

 

                                             Movie Review ~ The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
man_from_uncle_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons.
Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant
Director: Guy Ritchie
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 116 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: I never watched the television series on which this cool-as-can-be spy movie was based on but I’m pretty sure there weren’t the same amount of homoerotic jokes during the weekly adventures of Solo and Kuryakin.  While I feel that director Guy Ritchie relied a bit too heavily on his similar experience at the helm of two Sherlock Holmes films, he brings his A game to this big screen adaption, sparing no expense when it came to production design.  And that’s a good thing because though it’s never truly predictable, the plot is pretty thin.  So it’s up to Ritchie and his cast to sell the film and they are more than up for the challenge.  Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is perfectly cast as the smooth Solo and he’s well matched with Armie Hammer’s (Mirror Mirror) simmering Kuryakin.  The two trade barbs rich with double entendre while protecting Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) from falling into the hands of a sinister villainess (the scene stealing Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gastby).  The film looks and sounds amazing, here’s hoping costume designer Joanna Johnston gets an Oscar nomination for her impeccable suits and stunning dresses.

 

                                                         Movie Review ~ End of the Tour
end_of_the_tourThe Facts
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Synopsis: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner
Director: James Ponsoldt
Rated: R
Running Length: 106 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I never thought I’d say the words “potential Oscar nominee Jason Segel” in a work of non-fiction…but then again I didn’t think two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill was possible either and look what happened there.  Yes, Segel’s work as tormented writer David Foster Wallace is worthy of acclaim as the actor digs deep within and bypasses his comedic instincts to find the truth of the man behind the epic novel Infinite Jest.  Jesse Eisenberg (who also pops up in American Ultra) turns in strong work as well, though he’s really just a prop for Segel to react off of.  Their five day road trip interview for Rolling Stone is the basis for the movie and it leads the men and the audience into interesting territory.  It’s a movie you watch once, appreciate, then file away as something you can recommend to people and feel like you’ve done them a favor.  One thing that must be said…Eisenberg needs to learn how to smoke a cigarette.  Here and in American Ultra he looks a child does when they are mimicking their parent.  Many things about Eisenberg annoy me and this is just another thing to add to the list.

                                             Movie Review ~ The Diary of a Teenage Girl
diary_of_a_teenage_girl_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: A teen artist living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend.
Stars: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig
Director: Marielle Heller
Rated: R
Running Length: 102 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: It’s nice to go into a movie with only a basic logline and a list of the actors featured.  I didn’t know what to expect from The Diary of a Teenage Girl but whatever I thought, the movie surprised me in the best ways.  The story of a young girl’s sexual awakening in San Francisco is gloriously set in the mid ‘70s, an era of freedom and discovery.  While some may be off put by the relationship between an older man and an underage girl (star-in-the-making Bel Powley is older than she looks, thankfully), they’d be missing the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based.  It’s a frank flick that frequently finds its actors in the buff but doesn’t feel gratuitous because these characters are coming into themselves, marveling at a new experience they never knew existed.  I appreciated that the film pulled no punches in showing nudity and discussing sexual situations and director Marielle Heller shows respect for all people involved.  It’s a bold film with animated sequences, a killer soundtrack, and splendid performances.

The dog days of summer brought three other notable releases to theaters, though I’m guessing by the poor box office returns of two of them that the studios (and actors) wish the films had just quietly gone away.

I hadn’t heard a thing about American Ultra until two weeks before it was due to arrive, strange considering it starred Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg.  The two aren’t serious box office draws but they do have a fanbase that might have helped build more buzz for the stoner comedy.  Not that it would have made the film any better because at its best it was a mildly diverting mix of comedy and gratuitous violence and at its worst it was a merely the thing you watched because you’d seen everything else at the theater and wanted some time in the air conditioning.  It’s bad when you don’t know what the movie is about, but it’s worse when it feels like the filmmakers don’t have a clue either.

I’ve gone on record as no fan of director Noah Baumbach and very on the fence for actress Greta Gerwig so I wasn’t at all looking forward to their latest collaboration, Mistress America.  Once again, the universe has a way of loving to see me humbled and I emerged from the screening not only in a damn fine mood but the desire to see it again.  That rarely happens with any movie, let alone a Baumbach/Gerwig joint so that should tell you something about the quality of this movie that is firmly in a New York state of mind.  Sure, it has its share of problems but they don’t ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment the film brings.

Finally, there’s the sad, sad case of We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron’s latest attempt to be a serious dramatic actor.  While I think it’s Efron’s best dramatic performance to date and didn’t totally hate the film, audiences sure did and it became the third biggest box office failure of all time…pretty stunning considering how many other bad movies have been released and made at least a few million during its opening weekend.  I think the film got a bum rap and just was released at the wrong time, but it should hopefully send a message to Efron that he needs to spend some time figuring out exactly where his place is in Hollywood because he is, like his character here, totally lost.

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT!  THE SUMMER OF 2015!

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE & JULY

The Silver Bullet ~ Whiplash

Miles-Teller-and-J.K.-Simmons-in-Whiplash._home_top_story

Synopsis: A young musician struggles to make it as a top jazz drummer.

Release Date: October 10, 2014

Thoughts: If early awards buzz is to be believed (and in this PR heavy brave new internet world every trumpeted performance should be taken with a grain of Kosher salt) then Whiplash is going to be a movie audiences will want to add to their Oscar shortlist.  Actually, it’s supporting actor J.K. Simmons (Labor Day) who might want to make sure his tuxedo fits because his performance as a driven music teacher coming down hard on a young drummer (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, That Awkward Moment) is earning raves across the board.  With Simmons reprising his role from a 2013 short of the same name, this represents a rare case of a short film being expanded into feature length.  Another film I’m greatly looking forward to this year, Whiplash could be 2014’s little indie that could.

Movie Review ~ Divergent

divergent_ver8

The Facts:

Synopsis: In a world divided by factions based on virtues, Tris learns she’s Divergent and won’t fit in. When she discovers a plot to destroy Divergents, Tris and the mysterious Four must find out what makes Divergents dangerous before it’s too late.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ashley Judd, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoё Kravitz, Miles Teller, Tony Goldwyn, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Mekhi Phifer, Kate Winslet

Director: Neil Burger

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 139 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I knew from the early previews of Divergent that it was going to be derivative of several other films released in the past few years.  And hey, I get it, studios have been scouring the bookshelves of young adults for the next big thing and Veronica Roth’s bestselling trio of futuristic novels was a tantalizing treat that could capture males and females in that prime target market studios gnash their teeth for.

Trouble is, the film that’s been made out of Roth’s first novel winds up being so cobbled together from other, better, books/films that by the end of the numbing 139 minute running length audiences may feel like they’ve been barreled over by this Frankenstein of a film.  Considering the caliber of the cast and the impressively mammoth production design, that’s pretty depressing because had director Neil Burger and screenwriters Vanessa Taylor and Evan Daugherty trimmed some of the fat, a true franchise starter could have emerged.

You know the drill… a futuristic society that appears utopian really hides dystopian tendencies that threaten the lives of everyone.  The good are really bad and those considered bad are really good.  The opening narration from Beatrice (the usually stellar but oddly uncomfortable Shailene Woodley, The Spectacular Now, The Descendants) lets us know this world is divided into five factions and the time draws near for her to choose which group she wants to belong to.  Does she stay with the good Samaritan faction her parents (Ashley Judd and Tony Goldwyn) raised her in, does she go with the one a never fully realized loopy test assigns her to, or does she choose her own path?

Without spoiling too much, Beatrice (soon to be just Tris, if you’re nasty) finds herself in a tribe that will challenge everything she knows to be true while putting her life at risk from the very people she thinks are her friends.  It’s a tricky set-up and the exposition of such is handled well…but it all seems to be in service to future films not yet greenlit.  That leaves newcomers to Roth’s world in a paint-by-the-numbers environment where everyone is exactly who they appear to be, though the film would have you think its throwing you off the scent at every corner.

Like Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games and its sequel, Tris is a symbol of heroism for young girls/women but unfortunately lacks the overall growth that made Everdeen such a relatable character that could cross gender lines.  Tris never seems to overcome her weaknesses and hang-ups, not helped by Woodley’s awkward approach.  I’m a big fan of Woodley and can’t quite decide if it’s her performance that I didn’t care for or the milquetoast character she’s bravely tackling.

Alarming in its violence, especially toward women, I never could figure out what kind of film Divergent was aiming for.  Equal parts Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, it never breaks away from the pack to blaze its own trail.  Though a huge bulk of the film centers around Tris being brutally trained by faction leadership, there’s never a decisive moment when Tris takes her life into her own hands.  Though the make-up team ably shows the bruises and effects of her training, Woodley’s flowing locks seem straight out of a Pantene ad.

Rounding out the cast are Theo James, a Franco family look alike that is a surprisingly strong leading man for Woodley, Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher) as a tattooed ruffian keen on taking Tris down, Miles Teller (That Awkward Moment) as a classroom foe, and Ansel Elgort (Carrie) as Tris’s brother who makes an equally tough decision on his future.

Then there’s Kate Winslet (Labor Day) and here’s where I’m treading lightly.  You see, I’m a huge Winslet fan so saying anything bad about her is tantamount to breaking my own heart.  However, in her first attempt at villainy I found her wanting.  As a politicized blonde ice queen she’s not benign enough to share the bad with others and she’s never evil enough to justify our needing to see her taken down spectacularly.  I don’t think it’s necessarily her fault but Winslet has the star power to tailor the role to her talents.  Go bad or go home, I say.  Pregnant while filming, she’s almost always shown with a large notebook in front of her stomach and one close-up scene clearly is a reshoot with her hair and make-up not matching shots before and after.

As the intended start to a major franchise, Divergent doesn’t make the case for a sequel.  When the film was winding toward its conclusion, I realized that I had no investment in what happens next.  If the second book is adapted into a film, I’m hoping for a new team behind the scenes that will help move the film into an event that leaves audiences excited.  The cast is ready and willing…now the material just needs to be there.

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Movie Review ~ That Awkward Moment

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Three best friends find themselves where we’ve all been – at that confusing moment in every dating relationship when you have to decide “So…where is this going?”

Stars: Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis, Jessica Lucas

Director: Tom Gormican

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4.5/10)

Review:  I can imagine writer/director Tom Gormican sitting at home late one night and happening upon an early episode of Sex and the City.  Perhaps he caught one of those episodes with its four stars getting into some sexual pretzel involving relationships and that scary four letter word spelled L-O-V-E.  Over brunch at a swanky Manhattan eatery they would talk about all things bedroom related while never stopping to ask, “How’s your mom doing?” before strolling away to their tony loft apartments.

At this point Gormican could have thought to himself, “Hey, guys do that TOO!” and just took several episodes of the popular HBO show and reworked them, replacing Sarah Jessica Parker with Zac Efron, Kim Cattrall with Miles Teller, and Kristin Davis with Michael B. Jordan (sorry Cynthia Nixon, no dude parallel for you!) to provide the male’s eye view of romance in modern day New York.

That’s all well and good and more power to the filmmakers for following a proven model but yikes if the film isn’t terribly shallow and not nearly as insightful or entertaining as it thinks it is.  Even the meteoric charm of the three leads can’t keep the thin film afloat, though Gormican and company do try to distract you with plenty of shots of Efron nearly nude and nobly clearing the way for two females to shine.

Efron (Neighbors, The Lucky One), Teller (The Spectacular Now), and Jordan (Fruitvale Station) are twentysomethings moving through New York City in the ways that only a film would allow…with fantastically gigantic apartments and jobs that don’t require them to be there much of the time.  Efron and Teller work for a publisher and Jordan is a doctor with a marriage on the rocks.  Single and mingle-ing Efron and Teller make a pact with Jordan not to get into a relationship so all three can play the field.  Trouble is Efron and Teller find love quickly while Jordan, a hopeless romantic, keeps going back to a wife (Jessica Lucas, The Evil Dead) that can’t decide if it’s really over.

Efron’s job affords him the kind of stunning NYC apartment that would make the cast of Friends salivate (especially when you consider that Jordan and his lawyer wife live in a place one quarter the size) and his wardrobe of layers upon layers of sweaters, button-ups, and scarves gets the point across that he’s always warm.

While this role feels more age appropriate than what Efron’s been stretching for lately, it still tries to cast him as a cad…a charming cad to be sure…but a cad even so.  This seems to go against what Efron winds up playing so in the end we don’t understand in the least who this guy really is.  Though the unconventional beauty of Imogen Poots catches his eye, for some reason he can’t resist (probably because the script says he has to) doing things that are incredibly disappointing.  In fact, the film hinges on a decision Efron makes that’s so cruelly unforgivable and out of character that I don’t feel he ever fully recovers by the time the credits roll.

This turning point started to really bother me because up until then the movie could have been written off as well-intentioned but slightly off the mark.  That’s also when everyone else in the picture lost their damn minds and started saying, doing, and feeling things that were out of left field.   I choose not to believe that people are so shallow as to negate the emotions of those they claimed to care for so it became increasingly harder to accept that Gormican’s script could have led them down such a cooly mean-spirited road.  It’s a disservice to the talent onscreen to sell them that short.

Poots and Mackenzie Davis are honestly the real reasons to see the film.  Both come pretty close to walking away with their scenes…mostly because Gormican avoids making them stereotypes and the actresses bring a relatable believability to the screen.  And for all the shenanigans they get into, our lead trio do have a chemistry that’s hard to create, though it’s never clear how they became friends in the first place.

Fine for a rental when the day gets rainy but not necessary to trek though winter weather to see in the theater, That Awkward Moment has its fair share of charm but lacks the depth vital to truly make its moment memorable.

The Silver Bullet ~ That Awkward Moment

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that_awkward_moment

Synopsis: Three best friends find themselves where we’ve all been – at that confusing moment in every dating relationship when you have to decide “So…where is this going?”

Release Date:  January 31, 2014

Thoughts: Though Zac Efron is the biggest name of the three leads of That Awkward Moment, 2013 was pretty good to the other two stars of the film.  Michael B. Jordan may be on his way to end of the year award ceremonies after his strong turn as the doomed central figure in Fruitvale Station and Miles Teller headlined the most honest teen romance film in a decade in The Spectacular Now.  It’s nice to see Efron continue to gravitate to more adult fare (until the crude comedy Neighbors comes out in June) and if the right balance is struck between boorish comedy and keenly observed insight into romance among millennials this might be a nice sleeper surprise.

Movie Review ~ The Spectacular Now

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The Facts:

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

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

Director: James Ponsoldt

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silver Bullet ~ The Spectacular Now

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

Release Date: August 2, 2013 

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