The Silver Bullet ~ It (2017)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FnCdOQsX5kc

Synopsis: In a small town of Derry, Maine, seven children come face to face with life problems, bullies and a monster that takes the shape of a clown called Pennywise.

Release Date:  September 8, 2017

Thoughts: Back in the day when adaptations of novels were all the rage on network television (RIP: The Mini-Series), I remember looking forward to the 1990 multi-night experience of watching Stephen King’s It.  Quickly becoming a popular nightmare calling card for clowns everywhere, the series was a smash but hasn’t exactly held up on repeated viewings.  Watching it just a few years ago, I was struck by just how far fond nostalgia can take you.  It was just…not great.

Flash forward 27 years and after numerous false starts and various directors, a big screen version of King’s classic is floating into your local cinema.  King’s novel bounces between the past and the present and rumor is that this film is only going to be focused on the story taking place in the past.  I’d always found that the most interesting part of the tale anyway and appreciate the filmmakers not biting off more than they can chew.

We all know that any crap movie can be edited to look like a winner but I’m hoping that It is truly as scary good as it looks.  Directed by Andy Muschietti (who helmed the nifty Mama), King has already given his blessing to the final product – an early stamp of approval from an important source.

Movie Review ~ The Conjuring 2

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lorraine and Ed Warren travel to north London to help a single mother raising four children alone in a house plagued by malicious spirits.

Stars: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Frances O’Connor, Madison Wolfe, Lauren Esposito, Patrick McAuley, Benjamin Haigh, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Simon Delaney, Franka Potente, Simon McBurney

Director: James Wan

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  Is it as good as the first?  That’s the question you really came here for, right?  Any sequel to the 2013 fright delight The Conjuring had an uphill battle from the get go and everyone onboard The Conjuring 2 knows it.  Instead of fast-tracking the sequel for the very next year, director James Wan (Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) and screenwriters Chad Hayes and Carey Hayes took their time in crafting their follow-up based again on the casefiles of paranormal pariahs The Warrens.  While it doesn’t quite creep its way past the original it rests comfortably in the spooky shadow of its predecessor.

Like the original, the pre-credit sequence of The Conjuring 2 finds the audience in the middle of one of Ed and Lorraine Warren’s famous cases.  This one is going to mighty familiar to fans of a certain series of films involving a haunted house in upstate New York…and it’s a clever way to sneak another franchise in without simply rehashing its oft-told tale. It’s during a séance that Lorriane sees a vision that will haunt her (and us) for the next 130 minutes as the Warrens travel to London where another family needs their help.

The structure of the film is entirely familiar as its nearly the same set-up as the first: Normal family experiences strange happenings that they ignore for a while until they need assistance from the Warren ghostbusting squad.  Hey, if it ain’t broke or boring, why fix it.

The family in fear this time around is a working class single mother and her four children barely getting by. Their council house is spacious but grimy with water-stained walls, peeling paint, and crumbling plaster. Don’t forget the creepy basement half flooded with rainwater that of course is the setting for one of Wan’s deviously scary sequences.  With the haunting mostly centered around a pre-teen girl (Madison Wolfe, Trumbo, displaying an iron-will resolve and ghostly eyes), the media soon seizes the sensational new story of the family, which catches the eye of the church who give their old pals the Warrens a call.

Even more than the first one, The Conjuring 2 stresses the religious angle of the Warrens assistance.  Employed by the church to investigate/debunk possessions and hauntings, the Warrens are God-fearing people that believe their talents are meant to be in service to the church. They’re not Bible beating snake charmers but they do take their roles very seriously…and so do the actors portraying them.

I still find Patrick Wilson (Prometheus) a bit on the bland side but he’s fleshed out a bit more this time around, mostly because he’s part of a terrifying vision Lorraine is trying to decipher before it’s too late.  Vera Farmiga (The Judge) is again the star of the show here, displaying the deepest of sincerity even when she’s speaking some of the hokier lines that populate the final third of the film.

Most horror films, especially sequels, don’t take much time in re-establishing returning characters, let alone any new ones but Wan and the Hayes brothers indulge a bit too much in the over-development of the people at play. How else to explain an extended sequence where Ed strums a guitar and has an Elvis sing-along with the family they’re helping while Lorraine looks on moon-faced and starry eyed?  It’s a strange sequence that doesn’t add much to the thrust of the picture but gives Broadway-vet Wilson a chance to show off his singing skills.  Still, I’ll always take fully realized characters fighting evil instead of fratboy airheads that get sliced and diced alongside their bimbo babe girlfriends.

What do a freaky as hell nun, a crusty old geezer, a storybook ghoul, and an overstuffed leather chair have in common?  They’re all tools that Wan uses quite effectively to scare the ever lovin’ daylights out of audiences and for the most part he succeeds.  Once again with interesting camera angles helping to keep viewers off balance, Wan brings on the gooseflesh early and keeps those bumps raised for much of the film. The big scares come during scenes that already have you on the edge of your seat and I saw quite a few heads bopping up over seats when Wan hit with the big whammy’s.  The scares don’t come cheap, though, and it builds to an effective climax which manages to send you off into the night shuddering.

The Warrens have huge casefiles and I can see more films coming from Wan/Wilson/Farmiga. I’m for sure onboard for more if all involved stick with it and keep true to the root scares that feel so good. With a  sequel to the spin-off Annabelle arriving next year, they have some time to think things through but on the next outing I hope things can be tightened up a bit.

Movie Review ~ Me Before You

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

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

Director: Thea Sharrock

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 110 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Silver Bullet ~ Lights Out (2016)

lights_out

Synopsis: A woman is haunted by a creature that only appears when the lights go out.

Release Date:  July 22, 2016

Thoughts: Boy, horror maestro James Wan (The Conjuring, Insidious, Insidious: Chapter 2) sure wants to keep your summer scary.  A month after the release of Wan’s The Conjuring 2 comes Lights Out, a Wan-produced feature length adaptation of a scary as all get out short film. I know that any trailer editor worth their salt can make even the lamest of fright flicks seem like a Grand Guignol spectacle of shrieks, but this first look at Lights Out sent a nice layer of shivers up and down my spine.  Starring Teresa Palmer (The Choice), Maria Bello (Prisoners), and Billy Burke (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), this one could be a nice bit of mid-summer frightening fun.

Movie Review ~ Creed

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The Facts:

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

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

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hasta La Vista…Summer (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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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!

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Vacation

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Rusty Griswold takes his own family on a road trip to “Walley World” in order to spice things up with his wife and reconnect with his sons.

Stars: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Chris Hemsworth, Chevy Chase

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Like the memories of a long-ago family road trip, watching the National Lampoon’s Vacation movies have a special place in my mind.  I’ll never forget hearing my dad howl with laughter watching Chevy Chase strap a dead body to his car in the original Vacation from 1983.  I also remember my parents fumbling with the VCR remote to fast forward through some of the racier parts of 1985’s European Vacation.  And I can’t count how many memories are associated with the multiple annual viewings of 1989’s Christmas Vacation. Vegas Vacation from 1997?  Eh, I think I saw it on an airplane once…and I won’t even deign to watch the 2003 TV Movie Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure.

So you have to understand that I approached this reboot/sequel of the Vacation franchise with a side eye glance and full on arched eyebrows.  While the franchise didn’t have a spotless track record I didn’t want another inferior sequel to sully the good times of the past.  Gradually, I started to come around once the casting came together and several funnier-than-they-should-have-been previews were released.  Still…what’s to say that all the funny bits weren’t crammed into the trailers just to get unsuspecting butts in seats?

Well, the summer Vacation of 2015 is a nice throwback to the one that started it all and while many of the funny bits were tipped off in early trailers, I’m pleased to report that most of these jokes are taken a step further in the finished product and it has a healthy amount of raucous material heretofore yet unseen.

Is the ride clear of bumps?  Oh goodness no.  Thankfully, the film is so packed with gags (and a few gag worthy moments) that these rough patches are cleared in time for a better joke to land.

Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms, We’re the Millers, another in a long line of actors that have played the character, something the film delightful acknowledges) is, like his dad, a hard-working family man that just wants to eek out the best kind of life for his wife and two sons.  Working as a pilot in a bargain airline, he looks forward to the family togetherness of a yearly summer cabin retreat.  This year is going to be different, though.  Noticing a lack of excitement in the same old routine and feeling nostalgic for his family trips, he ditches the cabin idea and invests in a tricked out rental car to carry his tribe to Walley World…the destination of the first film that paved the comedic way for all trips to come.

Rusty’s wife (Christina Applegate, a good straight-man, er, woman, to Helms’s dopey simpleton) wished for a Paris trip for two but goes along with her husband’s plans in hopes of reigniting a spark in their marriage.  Their sons are post-pubescent Skyler Gisondo (Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb), a hopeless romantic, and pre-pubescent Steele Stebbins, a foul-mouthed nightmare that lives to torture his older brother.  All three would rather be anywhere else than road-tripping it across the country with the good natured head of their family.

As in the original, the road to Walley World isn’t an easy one and the Griswolds encounter a host of comedic roadblocks along the way…from hazardous waste ponds to a drunken sorority charity event to a detour to meet up with Rusty’s sister Audrey (Leslie Mann, The Other Woman) and her bo-hunk husband (Chris Hemsworth, Cabin in the Woods, who gets the best visual joke with the most, um, girth).   There are nice nods to the first film that I won’t spoil here and while it starts to run out of steam near the finale the ride up to that point has been more memorable than you’d care to admit.

Ironically, the worst part of this new Vacation are the two holdovers from all of the previous films…Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo.  Popping up late in the game to offer some unnecessary words of wisdom, it’s a sequence that was included with the best of intentions but comes off as superfluous, especially considering that this film seeks to establish itself on its own four wheels.  It doesn’t help that Chase looks like he took one too many extra scoops of mashed potatoes and D’Angelo’s plastic surgeon went a little wild with the Botox.

Directors and co-writers John Francis Daley & Jonathan M. Goldstein (The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) start things off with a laugh in a fun (if low-brow) credit sequence and keep things light, there’s no villain of the film and the only problems that pop up are of the Griswold’s own making.  Helms and Applegate are terrific comedians and don’t oversell the material – here’s hoping this Vacation is well received to get a holiday sequel on the books.

 

Movie Review ~ The Gallows

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The Facts:

Synopsis: 20 years after a horrific accident during a small town school play, students at the school resurrect the failed show in a misguided attempt to honor the anniversary of the tragedy – but soon discover that some things are better left alone.

Stars: Cassidy Gifford, Ryan Shoos, Reese Mishler, Pfeifer Brown

Director: Travis Cluff, Chris Lofling

Rated: R

Running Length: 81 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review:  Unlike most of my critic colleagues I haven’t been able to fully ring the death bell for the found footage horror genre that reached its critical mass about five years ago.  Made on the cheap with the ability to make a profit based on its open weekend haul alone, it’s not hard to see why these types of films produce big dollar signs in the eyes of movie studios that don’t have to spend a lot to get something big in return.  It’s clear though that the found footage fad is down to its dying breath (see The Devil Inside, Paranormal Activity 4, and Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones for proof), and The Gallows is the most recent example of its drawn out death rattle.

I was a theater nerd in high school so hearing that The Gallows concerned the spirit of student killed in a tragic onstage accident that returns for some vengeance I was amused and interested.  Talk to any actor that’s spent time onstage and they’ll tell you about ghostly occurrences they’ve witnessed or legendary tales of the unexpected that have been passed own from one actor to another.  There’s gold in them there ghost stories and I half expected co-writers/directors Travis Cluff & Chris Lofling to produce a scary bit of gold in a genre that’s pretty much all lumps of coal.

Sadly, ‘twas not to be and The Gallows is one of those forgettable blips on the summer movie scene, a shot-in-the-dark bit of counterprogramming that substitutes loud sonic jolts for honest scares and manages to waste a whole lot of narrative potential.  Actually, the biggest mistake from the filmmakers was making this a found footage film in the first place.  Yes, the handheld camera/phone bits may have added to the overall sense of dread and contributed to the dizzying delirium of getting lost in the underbelly of a high school theater but had it gone the traditional route I think the scares would have been an easier sell.

It’s been 20 years since a student was accidentally hung during a performance of “The Gallows” and, surprisingly, for the anniversary the school board has approved a recreation of the show.  The majority of the filming is from the perspective of Ryan (Ryan Shoos) as an obnoxious (that’s putting it mildly) class clown that’s joking his way through his required Theater 101 course with his best friend Reese.  Reese (Reese Mishler, a young Tom Cruise doppelgänger) has the leading role opposite Pfeifer but is unsure of his lines or his talent.  When Ryan convinces Reese that the only way out of embarrassing himself is to break into the school after dark and destroy the set, a night of terror awaits as the guys get locked into the school along with Pfeifer and Ryan’s girlfriend Cassidy (Cassidy Gifford, the daughter of Kathie Lee and Frank) and begin to be stalked by an unseen presence.

Many of the scenes seem to be improvised, an unwise decision because the four actors don’t have the confidence to move the story along with only a bare-bones concept of what’s happening next.  The dialogue is forced, phony, and crammed with endless bits of obvious exposition only present because Cluff and Lofling have no other way of indicating what’s happening.  At one point, another camera is introduced and the same sequence is repeated twice from different lenses…but they don’t match up with one another.

The film is crass with its stereotypes of jocks/populars vs. theater nerds/outcasts.  The more popular students are tanned, toned, and beautiful with the theater folk are geeky, oversized, and forgettable.   This is a school where theater practice happens during the day and students wear their costumes in the halls…though why the actors in the play were wearing Elizabethan costumes for a play set in colonial times is anyone’s guess.

Gifford and Mishler are relatively impressive in their performances while the aforementioned Shoos suffers from playing a character that’s so grating you’re praying for the moment he gets strung up (not saying he does or doesn’t…but I was ready and willing to let him go).  Pfeifer Brown (yes, the actors share the same names with their characters) ably screams her way through the finale that ratchets up the tension with a few impressive spooks but it’s too little, too late.  Even a nice head-spinner of an epilogue can’t acquit the rest of the film from its shortcomings.

The Gallows might make for nice viewing at cast parties down the road but don’t make much of an effort to catch this one during its brief run in theaters.

The Silver Bullet ~ Creed

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

Release Date:  November 25, 2015

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