Movie Review ~ Semper Fi


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A police officer who serves in the Marine Corps Reserves is faced with an ethical dilemma when it comes to helping his brother in prison.

Stars: Jai Courtney, Finn Wittrock, Nat Wolff, Beau Knapp, Leighton Meester, Arturo Castro

Director: Henry Alex Rubin

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Coming from a large city, I’ve always found myself drawn to movies about small towns and the people that live there.  I’m used to the noise and the constant motion, so much so that when I do find myself in a tiny township the peacefulness found there can almost make me a little too restless.  As a child, I would tire easily anytime I traveled to my mom’s hometown in the southern part of our state because I had to exert so much energy to entertain myself.  Now, I value that slower pace and understand better the appreciation for, I can’t believe I’m saying this, the land.

A slower pace is something I noticed right off the bat in Semper Fi, a drama opening in limited release this weekend and also available steaming/on demand.  Setting his movie back in 2005 in a NY town bordering Canada, writer/director Henry Alex Rubin adopts a rhythm early on the film where conversation drives the movie forward, not necessarily action.  Cutting his teeth working as a second-unit director with James Mangold before moving on to direct the acclaimed documentary Murderball and the vastly undervalued Disconnect, I was familiar with Rubin’s favored approach to character driven dramas.

Four life-long friends and members of the Marine reserves are enjoying a night of bowling at the start of the film and Rubin introduces them by, of all things, their bowling balls.  Cal (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner) is a police office in town and the unspoken leader of the group alongside ladies man Jaeger (Finn Wittrock, Judy), the hard-working and loyal Snowball (Arturo Castro, Snatched), and Milk (Beau Knapp, The Finest Hours), a family man walking the straight and narrow.  Tagging along is Cal’s half-brother, Oyster (Nat Wolff, The Fault in Our Stars), a screw-up they all take turns playing big brother to if Cal isn’t available.  There’s an instant rapport established between the men so that we believe they’ve known each other all their lives and we’ve just happened to drop in on an ordinary night for them.

The time we spend getting to know them is brief because the men are soon to receive their orders to serve in the war on the other side of the world.  This means leaving their friends and family, some of them for the first time.  The men are about to ship out to Iraq when Oyster gets into a drunken brawl.  Fleeing the scene, he’s eventually picked up and turned in by Cal who is only trying to protect him from further harm.  Winding up in prison for manslaughter based on shaky testimony, he’s serving his sentence as the men head overseas on an eight month deployment.  During this time, Oyster suffers under the watch of vicious guards while the four friends experience their own hardship on the battlefield, coming home heroes but paying a price for their efforts.

The first 1/3 of the film where we are introduced to the guys is your standard bro-tastic passage where the characters are quickly defined and Rubin leaves it to his talented cast to fill in the gaps along the way.  To their credit, all five men take up the challenge nicely with Castro and Knapp delivering the most interesting performances in probably the smallest roles.  Courtney, Wittrock, and Wolff all have showier parts but it’s the quieter moments and decisions that are made in the final 1/3 of the film that made Castro and Knapp stand out for me. I do wish, though, that the one female character that’s given anything to do (Leighton Meester, The Judge) was written with a bit more depth. The middle section where the men return home wasn’t presented in the same PTSD tortured way I’ve grown accustomed to seeing and I was thankful for that.  The men return to a town that hasn’t changed much, and that proves disappointing to them.

I wasn’t quite sure what kind of movie Semper Fi was going to be even at the 60 minute mark and once Rubin landed on a final destination the movie starts to pick up steam.  Though a change in tone does come out of left field (from a different movie all together, if I’m being honest) it at least snapped my attention back into focus and held me there until a rather perfunctory ending.  It’s almost as if Rubin didn’t want to fully leave the quiet of this small NY town so he just turned the camera off…I get it but the movie calls out for something a little more solid to round off some sketchy edges.  There’s some hint of deeper family trauma with Cal and Oyster but it’s only touched on briefly and never fully resolved, it’s almost as if Cal’s actions later in the movie are a substitute for a large discussion he needs to have with his younger sibling.

There are so few dramas out there that show vulnerable side to men and while Semper Fi doesn’t mine the depths of the range of emotions it could have, it does provide some nice moments for its talented cast.  I think it makes a mistake in dovetailing toward a more genre-specific film near the end that it didn’t need to be, adding some useless plot contrivances that cheapens some of what came before.  It’s still a worthy endeavor and interesting watch, but there’s a part of me that wonders what another draft of the screenplay would have looked like with a different third act.  Rubin is on to something here, but it doesn’t totally come together.

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 ~ Grandma

grandma

The Facts:

Synopsis: A teenager facing an unplanned pregnancy seeks help from her acerbic grandmother, a woman who is long estranged from her daughter.

Stars: Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner, Sam Elliott, Judy Greer, Marcia Gay Harden, Lauren Tom, Elizabeth Peña, Colleen Camp, John Cho, Nat Wolff, Laverne Cox, Sarah Burns, Judy Geeson, Mo Aboul-Zelof

Director: Paul Weitz

Rated: R

Running Length: 79 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Were it not such a competitive year in the Best Actress Oscar race, Lily Tomlin may have become the 13th EGOT.  Winning the grand slam of show business means that you’ve received an Emmy, Grammy, Tony, and Oscar and Tomlin is but an EGT at the present time. Though her performance in Grandma gives the comic actress the kind of star turn chance to shine that comes along rarely for actors/actresses of any age, I fear that it will be overshadowed by performances with more commercial appeal.

Not to say that there isn’t a place for this dark comedy or Tomlin’s performance in end of the year accolades but at a scant 79 minutes the film feels like an extended short film rather than a fully produced three act structured piece.  Writer/director Paul Weitz (Being Flynn) breaks the film into six chapters, seemingly editing around potential commercial breaks as we follow one eventful day for an acerbic septuagenarian and her teenage granddaughter.

A folksy poet still not over the death of her long-time lover a year prior, the film opens on Elle (Tomlin, Admission, another Weitz film) breaking up with her much younger onetime fan-now-girlfriend (Judy Greer, Jurassic World and every other movie in 2015) in a most hurtful way.  She’s barely showered post-breakup when her 18-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner, The Perks of Being a Wallflower) shows up needing money to pay for an abortion.  Without the available funds to help (she’s long since decided to live off the grid, cutting up her credits cards), she instead offers to track down the money by any means necessary.

That leaves the film open to explore many routes to the same destination.  The careless baby daddy (Nat Woff, Paper Towns) is solicited for money and given a harsh lesson in respecting your elders at the same time while former friends (the late Elisabeth Peña and the overrated Laverne Cox) of Elle’s are asked to make good on debts. Finally, a trip to see a mysterious man (Sam Elliott, I’ll See You in My Dreams) from Elle’s past leads to the film’s most emotionally charged sequence.  By the time we get to meet Sage’s mom and Elle’s estranged daughter (a tightly wound Marcia Gay Harden, Fifty Shades of Grey) we’ve come along on a darkly humorous journey filled with a fair share of emotional truths.

Wearing her own clothes, driving her own car, and playing a (I think) less emotionally stagnant version of herself, Tomlin breezes through the movie with a tough charm and fragile core that belies her hardened exterior.  While her scenes with Greer lack a certain kind of chemistry, the sparks fly in her interactions with Elliott.  Elliott remains one of our great underrated actors and he’s damn good here as a man burned by Elle in the past for reasons I won’t divulge.  Garner is appropriately defiant as the teenager who knows she can’t care for a baby and Harden takes a character introduced as a sweaty harpy and manages to caress it into something deeper.

Running shorter than a visit with your own grandparents, the movie actually feels longer than it is.  That’s not always a bad thing but there are some unexpected dips in momentum that stymie what could have been a film with a bit more pep.  Still, any chance for Tomlin to get some time as a long overdue leading lady (her first leading role in 27 years!) is fine by me.  She may not make it to full EGOT status, but after great success with her Netflix show and now this, her 2015 was filled with numerous wins.

Movie Review ~ The Intern

1

intern

The Facts:

Synopsis: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin.

Stars: Robert De Niro, Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway,Rene Russo, Anders Holm, Adam DeVine, Andrew Rannells,Linda Lavin, Christina Scherer, Celia Weston, JoJo Kushner,Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, Nat Wolff

Director: Nancy Meyers

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 121 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Let’s start this review off by going the full disclosure route and saying that I’m not a huge fan of the movies that Nancy Meyers started to make after splitting with her husband, Charles Shyer.  Together, the two were responsible for films like Private Benjamin, Baby Boom, Irreconcilable Differences, and the remake of Father of the Bride and its sequel (let’s skip over their clunker I Love Trouble).  As a standalone writer/director, Meyers has been responsible for a trio of films often described as white-women fantasies: The Holiday, Something’s Gotta Give, and, most recently, It’s Complicated.  All three of these have had dynamite casts with strong female leads…but they all seemed to take place in an alternate universe where every surface is spotless, every arm is covered in taupe cashmere, and no problem can’t be solved over a glass of white whine, oops…wine.  It’s escapist entertainment, I get it, but they’re carb-free meals for this critic that craves some starch.

So I came to The Intern with some pre-conceived notions of how it would all play out.  In all honesty the film came at the right time for me and caught me in the perfect mood, it’s a guilt free bit of whimsy that wasn’t as interminable as previous Meyers outings.  Bouncing around in development hell for quite some time, it was originally imagined as a vehicle for Tina Fey and though the high-powered career woman intended for her has had a few years shaved off, it’s not hard to see how Fey would have fit into the central character now played by Anne Hathaway.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Opening with the kind of “let me bring you up to speed” monologue that Meyers excels in, Robert De Niro’s (Silver Linings Playbook) Ben details how he came to be applying for a senior internship at About the Fit.   A widower, after 40 years in working his 9-5 job the retired Ben has traveled the world, doted on his grandkids, learned a few new languages, and now doesn’t quite know what to do next.  A chance glance at an ad tacked outside his local grocery gets him in the door at the fashion start-up.

Clearly overqualified for the job, he’s matched with none other than the founder (Hathaway) of the company who, in true Driving Miss Daisy fashion, tells him he’s not needed or really wanted.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that the two will be at odds on the outset before becoming a cohesive unit so let’s focus more on where the film turns up some unexpected delights.

The good news starts at the top with De Niro and Hathaway (Interstellar) clocking in surprisingly charming performances.  De Niro doesn’t seem to be very discerning in his role selections as of late but he’s a good fit with the kindly elder who isn’t merely there to offer sage advice but to lend a hand as well as a shoulder to his young boss.  Hathaway too is downright delightful as Jules (because, of course that’s her name) and I couldn’t help but feel like the character was a more seasoned version of the one she played in The Devil Wears Prada.

Echoing Baby Boom, the main question The Intern seems to be asking is ‘Can women have it all?’  Can they have the high paying job, can they run a business, can they stand on their own two feet and still manage to keep a stable family life?  Jules’ husband (Anders Holm) is a stay-at-home dad, parenting their girl while his wife is working and Meyers illustrates often the sacrifices both are making to keep up with the daily grind.

The problem is that the question doesn’t seem to be as relevant as it was back in the late 80s and for a film set in the new millennium it feels a bit backward in its thinking.  Yes, we know that wage equality between males and females still has a long way to go and that the roles of wives and husbands have had some fluidity in the past decade.  But are we really saying that women have to choose between the two?  Alarmingly, Meyers puts her female lead to that test several times and it’s proof of Hathaway’s charisma that she’s able to overcome that dinosaur of a notion and still maintain some semblance of professionalism.

Making our way down the cast list, things get a bit rocky.  Rene Russo (Nightcrawler) is always a welcome presence and since Meyers can’t clothe Hathaway in her favorite cream colors, Russo is the model for an array of perfectly ivory and billowy beige ensembles.  She’s the company masseuse that takes a liking to De Niro and while that relationship is only explored when the movie remembers to do so, it’s a welcome reminder that age-appropriate couplings are alive and well in Meyers’ world.

It’s never quite clear what Andrew Rannells (Bachelorette) actually does at the company (is he a co-founder? is he co-owner?) but he disappears halfway through the film so it’s quite possible he was Jules’s imaginary friend.  Linda Lavin, looking positively mummified, pops up all too briefly to try and get De Niro in the sack and a trio of bro-ish, dumb-ish, co-workers of De Niro (lead by the always annoying Adam DeVine, Pitch Perfect, Pitch Perfect 2) seem to have been crafted for an ill-advised foray into slapstick comedy that occupies a labored fifteen minutes in the middle of the film.  Holm strikes out big time as the benign husband that may not be quite as content to play second fiddle as he appears to be.  Reading his lines as if he’s making fun of their supposed sincerity, he’s the one thundercloud in an otherwise sunny film.

I’ll admit that even though it has its faults, The Intern was more pleasant than it had any right to be.  It’s lead by two strong performances and, while Meyers doesn’t seem to have anything new to say about the state of affairs in business, she has produced a crisp apple of a film, tart when it has to be and juicy when called for.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (July)

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.

JulyI just wasn’t prepared for July. It hit me like a ton of bricks, a wave of cinematic excursions that made my head spin. So many movies were released that it was hard to keep track from week to week what was arriving and what was still waiting for its release date. As you can see below, I had a lot of catching-up to do

The month began with the disappointment of Terminator Genisys. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting from the return of Arnold Schwarzenegger but it for sure wasn’t the muddled misfire that was supposed to reboot this franchise. Badly cast with shoddy special effects, this was supposed to be the beginning of something but should likely be the end (though it did do well overseas so we may yet get another one of these in a few years).

A few summers back I lamented how bad the original Magic Mike was. Trading eye candy entertainment for any semblance of watchable narrative, it was another dud (for me) from Steven Soderbergh. So you’d understand why I wasn’t keen on Magic Mike XXL because I felt we’d already been there done that. Much to my delight, the sequel was much better than its predecessor, maintaining the fun frivolity of the world of male strippers while injecting some personality into the proceedings. Quite possible the biggest surprise of the summer for me.

I learned a lot from the wise documentary Amy, chronicling the rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, the singer with the bluesy voice and broken butterfly backstory. She had a lot to overcome and the film made a compelling argument that she would still be here today had she had a better support system.

Though I loved the Minions in the Despicable Me films, I didn’t care for their solo outing with its half-baked story and less that inspired vocal work. It felt like a quick cash-grab and it looks like it accomplished its goal. Hopefully next time they’ll come back with a better story and more convincing actors.

The found footage horror movie had its death knell with The Gallows, a brainless exercise in tedium peppered with cheap scares and lousy acting. Could have (and should have) been much better.

Now we approach a stretch where I checked out for a bit – but I’m atoning for it now with these mini-reviews.

                                                        Movie Review ~ Batkid Begins
batkid_begins_the_wish_heard_around_the_world_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: On one day, in one city, the world comes together to grant one 5-year-old cancer patient his wish. Batkid Begins looks at the ‘why’ of this flash phenomenon.
Stars: Miles Scott
Director: Dana Nachman
Rated: PG
Running Length: 87 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Can I admit something to you and not have you hate me?  When I first saw the media frenzy around this back in 2013 I remember rolling my eyes are the saccharine nature of the whole endeavor.  Why would an entire city be brought to a screeching halt because of one kid’s wish to be Batman for a day?  Well, the documentary Batkid Begins showed me why and by the end I was feeling like a lout for my initial feelings and wiping away the happy tears the film easily brings forth from the viewer.  Following the planning and execution by the Make-A-Wish Foundation to give a 5 year old leukemia survivor the day of his dreams, viewers get a glimpse at what goes into even the smallest wish granted by the organization.  While it at times comes off like a big advertisement, it’s heart is most certainly in the right place and I found myself getting choked up with each good deed and promise fulfilled by a host of people involved in making the day come off without a hitch. An audience-pleasing winner.

                                                        Movie Review ~ The Overnight
overnight_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: A family “playdate” becomes increasingly interesting as the night goes on.
Stars: Adam Scott, Jason Schwartzman, Taylor Schilling, Judith Godrèche
Director: Patrick Brice
Rated: R
Running Length: 79 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There and gone in an instant, The Overnight is a film better suited for home viewing anyway.  A couple (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) new to the area meet Jason Schwartzman at a local playground where both of their children are playing.  Their kids have hit it off so Schwartzmann invites the family over for more fun, but when the kids go to bed Schwartzman and his wife Judith Godrèche have more interesting games to play for the unsuspecting couple.  Saying more would spoil the fun but it’s an adults only evening with oodles of twists and turns as both couples bare their secrets (and their bodies) before the night is over.  Already famous for its full frontal shots of Schwartzman and Scott (sorry, both are wearing prosthetics), at 79 minutes the movie is short but does start to feel long in the middle section.  It helps immensely that all four actors are competent and comfortable with the material…the story doesn’t hold back and neither do they.

                                                              Movie Review ~ Ant-Man
ant_man_ver3The Facts
:
Synopsis: Armed with a super-suit with the astonishing ability to shrink in scale but increase in strength, con-man Scott Lang must embrace his inner hero and help his mentor, Dr. Hank Pym, plan and pull off a heist that will save the world.
Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Michael Pena, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, David Dastmalchian, T.I. , Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, Martin Donovan, Wood Harris, John Slattery, Gregg Turkington, Abby Ryder Fortson
Director: Peyton Reed
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 117 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: Early troubles with the start of production with Ant-Man and some seriously questionable teasers/trailers didn’t get me very excited for this mid-summer superhero movie.  I think Marvel was hoping that Ant-Man would score along the lines of last summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy but it’s sadly missing the humor that made Guardians so much fun.  It’s not a total wash though because for every 10 minutes of standard origin-story developments, there’s a solid 5 minutes of exciting action sequences to wake audiences up from their slumber.  I know that with an origin story you need to cover a lot of ground and Ant-Man, to its additional credit, doesn’t waste much time in getting to the goods…but it’s a cheap-o undertaking and one that feels like a second-string entry in Marvel’s blockbuster universe.  Paul Rudd makes for a surprisingly solid action lead as does Corey Stoll as Rudd’s nemesis, but Evangeline Lilly labors too much under her severe wig (that seems to change lengths multiple times, in the middle of scenes) and isn’t a good enough actress to carry some weighty responsibilities.  A decent entry as far as Marvel films go…but I’m not clamoring for a sequel any time soon.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Irrational Man
irrational_manThe Facts
:
Synopsis: A tormented philosophy professor finds a will to live when he commits an existential act.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley, Betsy Aidem, Ethan Phillips, Sophie von Haselberg
Director: Woody Allen
Rated: R
Running Length: 96 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: It happens every year and every year you never quite know what to expect.  I’m speaking, of course, of the annual Woody Allen release and like many of the directors works, it’s a hit or miss affair.  I’m constantly in awe that Allen has churned out a film a year (sometimes two a year) for the last three decades and even the really bad ones aren’t as terrible as the other dreck dumped on us during the summer.  Last year Magic in the Moonlight was dismissed as too slight even for Allen but I enjoyed its frothy charm…something that was missing from the more serious-minded Irrational Man.  As a boozy professor that gets into hot water in his New England college town, Joaquin Phoenix was perhaps the wrong choice because the actor plagues himself far too much for Allen’s light material. At least co-star Emma Stone helps keep Phoenix from the quicksand of his own creation but she can’t be in every scene and it’s when Phoenix is on his own that the film goes slack.  Then there’s Parker Posey who I’m becoming convinced is simply not of this earth and doesn’t try to hide it anymore.  Bizarre line readings and the tendency to let her mouth hang open are only the tip of Posey’s strange acting iceberg. Very much in line with the dark humor of Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, Irrational Man should hold your interest for a time but it’s quickie ending feels like Allen was ready to move on to his next film rather than put a period at the end things.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Trainwreck
trainwreckThe Facts
:
Synopsis: Having thought that monogamy was never possible, a commitment-phobic career woman may have to face her fears when she meets a good guy.
Stars: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Brie Larson, Mike Birbiglia, Colin Quinn, Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John Cena, Vanessa Bayer, Jon Glaser, LeBron James, Method Man
Director: Judd Apatow
Rated: R
Running Length: 125 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: One of the true success stories of the summer has to have been Amy Schumer, not so much for writing and starring in Trainwreck but the collective impact she’s had on the comedy scene.  Unapologetic in her crassness and wise in her observations, Schumer is a comic moving like a shooting star and it’s nice to report that I think she’s a pretty decent actress as well. As much as I enjoy Schumer I was nervous that she was attaching herself to director Judd Apatow because Apatow, as we all know, has a way of turning in muddled work.  Unfortunately, Apatow’s influence led the film to be about 20 minutes longer than it needed to be and ultimately overstaying its welcome.  I don’t care what anyone says about the appearance of LeBron James as a bona fide supporting player, his entire storyline should have been excised and the film wouldn’t have suffered at all.  The problems get worse because Apatow likes to cast non-actors in his film and put in cameos when you least expect it…to the detriment of the flow of the narrative.  He stumbles badly in several places here but is saved by Schumer and Bill Hader as the opposites attract duo that confidently lead the film.  Special mention must, again, be made to Tilda Swinton for disappearing within her role as Schumer’s glam yet grim boss.  Worth it for Schumer, Swinton, and Hader…but watch it at home so you can fast forward through the slow Apatow-ish parts.

                                                           Movie Review ~ Mr. Holmes
mr_holmes_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: An aged, retired Sherlock Holmes looks back on his life, and grapples with an unsolved case involving a beautiful woman.
Stars: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, Hiroyuki Sanada, Roger Allam, Frances de la Tour, Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, Philip Davis, Milo Parker
Director: Bill Condon
Rated: PG
Running Length: 104 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review:  In reality, I probably should have given Mr. Holmes a more thorough review than I’m about to give here…but I have a feeling I’ll have a chance to discuss it more over the next few months because if all is right with the world Ian McKellen will find himself nominated in a few Best Actor categories during the end of the year awards round-up.  McKellen plays an aged Sherlock Holmes living in the country, attended to by a no-nonsense housekeeper (Laura Linney) and entertained by her young son. There’s actually three Holmes on display here as the present Holmes recalls two previous cases he was involved with that had an impact on his life.  With a smart script from Jeffrey Hatcher adapted from a popular novel, it’s directed with a mellow grandeur by Bill Condon.  Condon and McKellen scored before with the fascinating Gods and Monsters and here’s hoping they go the distance with this one too.  An interesting tidbit, at one point Holmes ventures out to see a Sherlock Holmes movie…and the actor playing Holmes on screen (Nicholas Rowe) played the detective in 1986’s fun frolic Young Sherlock Holmes.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Paper Towns
paper_townsThe Facts
:
Synopsis: A young man and his friends embark upon the road trip of their lives to find the missing girl next door.
Stars: Nat Wolff, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Cara Delevingne, Justice Smith
Director: Jake Schreir
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 109 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  After The Fault in Our Stars became a runaway hit last summer movie studios were looking for the next big alt-teen romance that could lure YA audiences away from summer action flicks.  Turns out they didn’t have to look far because Paper Towns was adapted from the novel by the same author as The Fault in Our Stars.  While Paper Towns doesn’t center around a disease that threatens to tear our lovebirds apart, it has its own mystery about it as Nat Wolff goes looking for his recently vanished neighbor (Cara Delevingne) that he’s been enamored with (or more like fascinated by) since they were children.  Following the clues she seemingly left for him, Wolff and his friends embark on a journey of discovery where they Learn Life Lessons.  The film kept my interest for most of the running length and it’s only in the final passages when all is explained does it feel a little like a letdown.  Still, there’s a smart air of riskiness that elevates the film and more often than not it lands on the good side of taking that risky step.

 

                                                                 Movie Review ~ Pixels
pixelsThe Facts
:
Synopsis: When aliens misinterpret video feeds of classic arcade games as a declaration of war, they attack the Earth in the form of the video games.
Stars: Adam Sandler, Brian Cox, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Josh Gad
Director: Chris Columbus
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: A movie where everyone involved should hang their head in shame.  There’s actually some semblance of a good idea here with aliens attacking earth with classic arcade games but unfortunately it gets trampled by Adam Sandler’s lazy acting, Kevin James bad acting, and Josh Gad’s awful everything.  Michelle Monaghan looks positively embarrassed to be sharing scenes (especially romantic ones) with Sandler and only Peter Dinklage comes out relatively unscathed in a campy, mullet wearing performance.  For fans of ‘80s nostalgia there are some pleasant diversions as video game characters pop up in (supposedly) comical ways and I think that director Chirs Columbus really did give the material a chance to be something interesting…but Sandler and his crew suck the life out of everything and are so devoid of any vested interest that you wonder why you should care at all either.

                                                            Movie Review ~ Southpaw
southpaw_ver2The Facts
:
Synopsis: Boxer Billy Hope turns to trainer Tick Willis to help him get his life back on track.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Clare Foley, Miguel Gomez, Victor Ortiz, Rita Ora, Naomie Harris
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Rated: R
Running Length: 123 minutes
TMMM Score: (6.5/10)
Review: By now, we know that Jake Gyllenhaal is a smart actor.  With role after role from Prisoners to Nightcrawler to End of Watch we’ve seen that he’s up for most any challenge and likes to dive deep into his roles.  So it’s not surprising that he was drawn to this tale of redemption concerning a famous boxer at the top of his game dealt a series of terrible blows (in more ways than one) and his eventual path back to himself. What is surprising is that while the performances are very good you can’t get away from the fact that the story feels recycled and originally intended for a different set of lower string stars.  I’m always on the fence regarding Forest Whitaker but as the wise boxing manager that grudgingly comes to Gyllenhaal’s aid, the actor reminds us why he so deserved his Best Actor Oscar for The Last King of Scotland.  Also turning in a great performance in Rachel McAdams (The Vow) as Gyllenhaal’s high school sweetheart, mother of his daughter, and the only one that seems to have his best interest at heart.

Southpaw was also at the center of some controversy that arose this summer about movie trailers that give away too much of the film.  If you have seen the trailer for Southpaw you know what I’m talking about…if you haven’t, please go into the movie blind.  I had a faint idea what the spoiler was and even that made the first ¼ of the film much less involving.  Worth it for the performances but gets knocked out by an also-ran plot.

                                                              Movie Review ~ Samba
samba_ver7The Facts
:
Synopsis: Samba migrated to France ten years ago from Senegal, and has since been plugging away at various lowly jobs. Alice is a senior executive who has recently undergone a burn-out. Both struggle to get out of their dead-end lives. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers, while Alice tries to get her life back on track until fate draws them together.
Stars: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim, Izia Higelin, Isaka Sawadogo
Director: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
Rated: R
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (5.5/10)
Review: Of all the movies I’m talking about in this wrap-up this is one I’d bet dollars to donuts that you’ve never heard of.  And you couldn’t be blamed because this barely made a blip on the usually forgiving art-house circuit.  From the star and directors of 2012’s dynamite The Intouchables comes this story of an immigrant man living in France who crosses paths with a burned out executive when the man is discovered to be an illegal alien.  Omar Sy (Jurassic World) and Charlotte Gainsbourg don’t have that much chemistry but in a weird way it works for the oddball romance that develops over the course of the film.  I never could get a real feel if the movie was a comedy, drama, or something in between…and neither could most of the people involved.  Slightly recommended but only if the plot or stars appeal to you.

That almost did it for July…but there was still one weekend to go!  Moving up several months from its planned December release, the fifth installment of the Mission: Impossible franchise had its brains in the right place but at times forgot to bring its brawn.  I still prefer Ghost Protocol to Rogue Nation but as long as star Tom Cruise keeps making these films interesting I’ll keep accepting future missions. Here’s hoping he brings along Rebecca Ferguson again because finally there is a female that is every bit a match to Cruise’s daring agent.

I wasn’t sold at all when I heard that Warner Brothers was planning on remaking National Lampoon’s Vacation but as time went on I heard more that it was more of a sequel than a reboot (resequel?) and I started coming around to the idea of a new Vacation.  I enjoyed Ed Helms and Christina Applegate as the hapless couple traveling cross-country with their children…but audiences and most critics didn’t.  It wasn’t a great movie and was probably too crude to be part of your Vacation marathons…but I have to say the worst part about it was when original stars Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo showed up.  Still, I’m hoping it made enough money to warrant a holiday themed sequel.  In any event…it’s a damn sight better than European Vacation.

Wow – July didn’t skimp on variety, did it?  Arguably the hottest month for releases, it carried over the promise of May and June and laid a path for August to do quite well…but could it top the three months that came before it?

STAY TUNED FOR AUGUST

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE!

The Silver Bullet ~ The Intern

intern

Synopsis: 70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker has discovered that retirement isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Seizing an opportunity to get back in the game, he becomes a senior intern at an online fashion site, founded and run by Jules Ostin.

Release Date: September 25, 2015

Thoughts: I resisted doing a write-up of The Intern for several months now because my parents always told me if you can’t say something nice don’t say it at all.  Then I remembered that this blog was designed to cast a critical eye on all things film so why not just go for it?  Ok? Here we go.

I do not like Nancy Meyers.  I don’t like her directing and I don’t like her writing.  “But Joe”, you say, “what about The HolidaySomething’s Gotta GiveIt’s Complicated?”  I’ve seen them, I’ve enjoyed them…but I don’t feel good about it afterward because Meyers seems only able to represent the privileged white woman’s point of view. Her films are awash in taupe and cream…the same color as the skin of all of her characters.  The lack of diversity in her films is shocking and it’s baffling to me no one has called her on it in a public form yet.

So I approach her new film with a great deal of angst.  It looks like another white-washed affair full of life lessons and jokes only a Wellesley grad would appreciate and one that should be watched while sipping white wine and munching on celery stalks.  Taking on a role once occupied by Tina Fey and then Reese Witherspoon, Anne Hathaway (Interstellar) seems right at home, as does Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook) who hasn’t made a truly discerning film decision in almost a decade.

I’ll see it…but Nancy Meyers…I’ve got your number.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grandma

grandma

Synopsis: Self-described misanthrope Elle Reid has her protective bubble burst when her 18-year-old granddaughter, Sage, shows up needing help.

Release Date: August 21, 2015

Thoughts:  It’s been a good year for Lily Tomlin.  She recently scored another Emmy nomination for her work in the Netflix series Grace and Frankie and while I felt that the Netflix show had some serious problems, Tomlin’s aging hippie helped to make the series more palatable.

Even better news is that advanced buzz on her performance in Grandma has been great…though it does creep me out that some critics have called it a “career-capping performance”…yeesh…she’s not dead yet people!  Directed by Paul Weitz (Admission, Being Flynn) and co-starring Julia Garner (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Judy Greer (Jurassic World), Sam Elliott (I’ll See You in My Dreams) and Marcia Gay Harden (Fifty Shades of Grey) this road-trip dramedy could find Tomlin attending the Oscars in addition to the Emmys.

 

Movie Review ~ The Fault in Our Stars

fault_in_our_stars

The Facts:

Synopsis: Hazel and Gus are two teenagers who share an acerbic wit, a disdain for the conventional, and a love that sweeps them on a journey.

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort, Willem Dafoe, Nat Wolff, Laura Dern, Sam Trammell, Mike Birbiglia, Lotte Verbeek, Emily Peachey 

Director: Josh Boone

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 125 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: After reading several early rapturous reviews of John Green’s 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars I, like all my good bandwagon hopping peers, snapped up a hardcover copy to say I owned it and then let it sit on the shelf where it gained a fine layer of dust.  When it was announced in 2013 that the film version of the novel was hitting theaters in 2014 I dusted off the book and carried it around with me with the best of reading intentions…only to see it make its way back onto the shelf, unread.

Suddenly, it’s 2014, I’m seeing the film in a week, and my guilty procrastinating personality kicks into high gear and I finally crack open the book.  The rest is history…the kind of superior reading experience that maybe I was always destined to have.  Green’s novel, told from the matter-of-fact perspective of a girl dying of lung cancer, was a humorous, heart-string tugger that never felt sorry for itself or resorted to cliché to keep its audience tearing through the pages.  In the novel, love is found between protagonist Hazel and charming Augustus at the very worst time…when death is standing at the door.

Too many films adapted from popular novels suffer by comparison because they either fail to capture what made the action on the page so special or change too much so the product is unrecognizable to fans.  That’s not the case here, thankfully, so while it does retain some of the more problematic passages that made the novel perfectly imperfect, its devotion to being faithful made me respect it even more.

I can’t say for sure, but had I not known while reading that Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) was playing the lead I think I would have always imagined her in the role. As it is, after seeing Woodley’s sensitive take on the character I can’t imagine any actress out there today could have done the role justice as well as she does here.  As in the novel, Woodley’s Hazel is strong yet vulnerable, direct but caring, and wise well beyond her young years.  When she meets Augustus (Ansel Elgort, last seen playing Woodley’s brother in Divergent) in a cancer support group, she finds a kindred spirit that shows her she’s got a lot of living left to do…and wants to live it with her.

Director Josh Boone teams with screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber in bringing this sentimental tear-jerker to audiences without letting the film with such a melancholy subject feel too heavy.  The beats are all in the right place and the film enjoys a good hour of splendid magic before veering (like the novel) into a subplot that (like the novel) just didn’t work for me.  To say what this tangent is would be to betray what happens later in the film so I’ll merely say home is where the heart is.

As far as differences between the novel and the film, most are too small to report back on.  Even though the flash-forward opening moments of the movie had me on edge, it wasn’t the deal breaker it could have been in less devoted hands and thankfully, Boone and co. have figured out a way to smooth over (not change) the ending to be more cinematically sound.  As Hazel’s dad, Sam Trammell isn’t as weepy as the novel implies, bringing a welcome stoicism absent on the page that makes him more equal partners with his wife and daughter.  It’s hard to believe there was a time I wasn’t a fan of Laura Dern, never really warming to her performances.  However Dern (Smooth Talk, The Master, Jurassic Park) delivers moving work here as Hazel’s mom, further cementing my admiration for her talent.

Woodley and Elgort have chemistry for days, something the movie would have been D.O.A. without.  Largely thanks to Woodley’s earthy presentation of a dying girl and Elgort’s laid-back approach to a devil may care boy The Fault in Our Stars becomes more than a disease of the week three hanky weeper.  A well made film crafted by people who obviously cared about the book quite a lot, there’s little fault to be found here.  A nice bit of counter-programming for audiences already weary with effects heavy blockbusters.

 

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.