Movie Review ~ Dark Phoenix


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.

Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters

Director: Simon Kinberg

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 113 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.

I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.

Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.

When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.

Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.

It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.

Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday.  I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more.  Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school?  Might be a good idea.

I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance.  I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here.  There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise.  Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.

Movie Review ~ Tolkien


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Tolkien explores the formative years of the orphaned author as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.

Stars: Nicholas Hoult, Lily Collins, Colm Meaney, Craig Roberts, Anthony Boyle, Patrick Gibson, Genevieve O’Reilly, Laura Donnelly, Pam Ferris, Sir Derek Jacobi

Director: Dome Karukoski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 112 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: As biopics of famous authors have proved, finding a way to depict the life of someone so renowned for his or her storytelling can be a tricky game. One needs only to look at the curious flatness of Goodbye Christopher Robin, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Becoming Jane, or even as far back as 2003’s Syliva, to see that a screenwriter has their work cut out for them if they want to take on a well-known literary scribe. On name recognition alone, J.R.R. Tolkien is by far one of the bigger names to get the “this is your life” treatment on the big screen and for a man who was so closely associated with fantasy it’s rather pleasant to note his biopic is one that is most grounded in reality.

The life of Tolkien could easily have been covered as a multi-part mini-series on HBO, Netflix, or Amazon Prime (where they are getting ready to film their own series based on Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels) because the man certainly lived a life. Raised with his younger brother by a poor single mother who died when he was 12, he went to live in an upper-class boarding house that afforded him the opportunity to go to a good school and get into a prestigious university. Marrying his first love before serving in the war, he returned home to teach and began writing the novels that would be his legacy. These events even read like the plot of a movie we’ve all seen before and would seem to lend itself well to a similar treatment, which would have been just fine. Thankfully, the filmmakers took a different approach.

The movie centers on the friendship that develops between Tolkien (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) and three other young men he meets in school and remains close with as they go to college and join the war effort. At first an outcast from the boys in his class, Tolkien eventually finds they are really no different from him with their own set of personal problems in life and at home. Robert Gilson (Patrick Gibson, The Darkest Minds) is the headmaster’s son living in the heavy shadow of his emotionally withdrawn father, Christopher Wiseman (Tom Glynn-Carney, Dunkirk) struggles to make a name for himself as a musician, and Geoffrey Smith (Anthony Boyle, The Lost City of Z) is a sensitive poet who becomes Tolkien’s closest friend.

Screenwriters David Gleeson & Stephen Beresford (Pride) give us a light sketch of the early life of Tolkien and a brief dab of his post-War life but their film mostly focuses on his teenage years through his time at the Battle of the Somme. For director Dome Karukoski, this is more than enough meat to cook a fine feast that doesn’t rely on trickery (or much pre-knowledge of the author) to be fulfilling. While there are some interesting visual cues during Tolkien’s war experience that veer to the fantastical, such as seeing dragons in fire raids or ominous evils in plumes of smoke, Karukoski’s movie has its feet on the ground. I was bracing myself for the movie to feature hints along the way of how Tolkien came up with the stories and characters that would earn him a place in the history books. Thankfully, aside from a wise teacher that has a twinkle of Gandalf in his eye, there’s no crusty janitor at Oxford that could have inspired Gollum nor is there a squat gentleman at the local pub enjoying a fine meal who reminds us of Bilbo Baggins. No, the screenwriters and director have held back on being too on-the-nose with these elements and have conveyed instead how the books came out of the collective whole of Tolkien’s life up until the point he put pen to paper.

While it doesn’t exactly stretch his range, Hoult’s performance as Tolkien is admirable in its presentation because many general fans of the author likely aren’t too aware of the personal life of the man behind the majestic worlds he created. So there’s a bit of freedom for Hoult to make the role, more or less, his own. Whether he’s muddied up on the battlefields, in natty tweeds lounging around Oxford, or walking through the woods talking to trees, he always seems to be on the right track. As his sweetheart and eventual wife, Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) turns in her best performance to date by giving some decent nuance to a role that could easily have been tossed away as the “supportive spouse” part. Recognizing her limitations in society, Edith’s one night out with the boys turns from joy to sadness as she realizes that she’ll never (in her lifetime) be able to have the same privileges as the man she loves. If there’s anything that feels truncated in the film, it’s the love affair between Tolkien and Edith which is the first thing to take a backseat in favor of other plot points.

All three of Tolkien’s friends provide good supporting performances, namely Boyle as Tolkien’s best ally and the one he desperately tries to find during the war. Hoult and Boyle have some good scenes together, as does Holt with Genevieve O’Reilly (The Kid Who Would Be King) as Geoffrey’s mother who sadly comes to realize she doesn’t know her son as well as his friends do. In his few brief scenes, Sir Derek Jacobi (Tomb Raider) challenges Tolkien to push himself further as a writer/scholar and it’s not too hard to discern where the genesis of a certain white wizard came from. The only nitpick I have is that there’s a lot of dark-haired guys in the film and during some of the war scenes it was hard to keep track of who was who.

Arriving in the still massive wake of the Avengers: Endgame box-office juggernaut, I fear Tolkien might get lost in the mix because it’s not loud enough to attract much attention outside of fans of the author that know it’s coming. There was some buzz in the news a few weeks back when it came out that Tolkien’s family did not endorse the film, though they hadn’t even seen it at that time. While that may give you pause to see this film, it’s helpful to know that most biographies don’t have the support of the family and sometimes that allows the author of the work to, sure, take a few liberties with the material but also not be as beholden or precious to their subject. In the case of Tolkien, it’s clear everyone involved had a great respect for the late author (he died in 1971) and were invested in this tale of his first valued fellowship.

The Silver Bullet ~ Tolkien

Synopsis: Explores the formative years of the orphaned author J.R.R. Tolkien as he finds friendship, love and artistic inspiration among a group of fellow outcasts at school.

Release Date: May 10, 2019

Thoughts: I love a good biopic (emphasis on good) so there’s a certain spark of excitement generated by this first full trailer for Tolkien which seeks to give us a look at the life of the famed author before he wrote the novels that would captivate readers for generations.  Long before he sketched out Middle Earth, created Hobbits, dreamed up Gollum, and conjured Gandalf, Tolkien grew up in the shadow of war and eventually found himself entrenched in it.  I’m interested how the film will tie these experiences into his writing and already am liking the look and feel generated from what I’ve seen so far.  Starring Nicholas Hoult (The Favourite) and Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror), I’m keeping my fingers crossed Fox Searchlight does better with this author biography than they did with their A.A. Milne fiasco Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Movie Review ~ The Favourite


The Facts
:

Synopsis: In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne occupies the throne and her close friend, Lady Sarah, governs the country in her stead. When a new servant, Abigail, arrives, her charm endears her to Sarah.

Stars: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult, Mark Gatiss, Joe Alwyn

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Rated: R

Running Length: 119 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  The last two films from director Yorgos Lanthimos were definitely an acquired taste.  The absurdist comedy The Lobster was an unlikely groundswell art-house hit in 2015 and was followed by the pitch black (and deeply deeply depressing) family drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  Both films were co-scripted by Lanthimos and challenged audiences in ways that went beyond the simple pushing of taboo boundaries, penetrating under your skin and giving you a nagging itch for days after.  Thankfully, The Favourite, isn’t as emotionally draining as those previous efforts but it does retain Lanthimos’s particular affinity for seeing the world through an off-kilter gaze.

Set in England during the later years of Queen Anne’s reign, The Favourite drops us into the mix at a time when, unbeknownst to Anne, landowners were facing an unimaginable tax increase by the monarchy to pay for the war efforts.  Sidelined by painful gout, Anne (Olivia Colman, Murder on the Orient Express) effectively handed over her political affairs to her confidant Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) who has her own shady behind the scenes dealings.  Though she is loyal to her queen, Sarah has gotten comfortable in her role as de facto ruler, often making decisions and seemingly effecting rules based on her own interests rather than what would be the best option for the throne of England.

Arriving to disrupt this arrangement is Abigail (Emma Stone, Aloha), Sarah’s penniless and disgraced cousin.  Abigail has come to Anne’s estate to grovel at Sarah’s hem for a job but has schemes up her sleeve much like her cousin.  Quickly rising through the ranks and catching Anne’s attention, Abigail begins to pose a threat to the plum set-up Sarah has for herself.  So begins a catty fight between the two women for Anne’s affections…much to Anne’s increasing delight.  At the same time, Abigail is pursed by a rival member of Parliament (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies) seeking her help in ousting Sarah from her hold on Anne and romances a baron (Joe Alwyn, Boy Erased) who can expedite her ascension back into respected society.

Though screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara are relative unknowns, their script for The Favourite has been bouncing around in Lanthimos’s stable for nearly a decade while he waited to secure financing for the period picture.  I’m glad it took them so long to make the film because he’s assembled a remarkable gallery of players in front of the camera and behind the scenes that gives The Favourite a sumptuous sheen and elevates it from its more soap opera-y tendencies.  It’s a bawdy film with several eye popping twists and often hysterically funny with razor sharp exchanges between Abigail and Sarah – none of it would have worked unless everyone involved wasn’t totally committed to the material.

The trio of ladies that make up the leads are sublime.  Though Stone is likely the biggest star in the group and might have the strongest arc, she wound up on the lesser side of the scale for me only because it felt like she was actively trying too hard to shoehorn herself into the period setting.  Colman is a riot as Anne, showing equal parts the vulnerability of a queen balancing a painful affliction and long-standing sorrow for numerous children she’s lost with the nastiness of a monarch that knows exactly how far her power reaches and how to wield it.  The sweet balance between Stone and Colman is Weisz giving one of her all time best performances in a career that has had many great ones.  While Sarah seems at first to be going in one direction, Weisz peels back several layers to show a different lady underneath we maybe hadn’t considered…and who might still be bad but could be the lesser of two, possibly three, evils at the end of the day.

The costumes from Sandy Powell (The Wolf of Wall Street) are gorgeous, the production design by Fiona Crombie (Macbeth) is luxurious, and the cinematography courtesy of Robbie Ryan (Philomena) has all the elements of a period drama but with modern strokes that keep the eyes always interested.  All help to strike the right mood in a film Lanthimos has divided into multiple parts, like a best-selling page-turner you can’t put down.  Like Mary Queen of Scots, The Favourite isn’t quite the history lesson you think it’s going to be when you sit down but it’s an incredibly entertaining and (best of all) surprising film that’s easily one of the most accomplished films of the year.

 

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

xmen_apocalypse_ver19

The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.

The Silver Bullet ~ Equals

equals

Synopsis: A futuristic love story set in a world where emotions have been eradicated.

Release Date: TBD 2016

Thoughts: Director Drake Doremus gave us a wonderfully realized love story in 2011 with Like Crazy so I’m hoping that Equals is, well, equal to the class and sophistication of that earlier film.  I’m getting a real Gattaca and The Giver vibe from this first look at Equals and that’s not a bad thing at all.  It’s hard to tell from this true teaser what exactly will happen with the relationship between Nicholas Hoult (Jack the Giant Slayer, Mad Max: Fury Road) and Kristen Stewart (Still Alice) but it looks like their romance will be an uphill battle set against a monochromatic production design.  Though she’s always been a strong actress, Stewart continues to take roles that aim to rebrand herself after being so closely associated with the Twilight series of films. Let’s keep an eye on this one, shall we?

Hasta La Vista…Summer (August)

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

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

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

August

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT!  THE SUMMER OF 2015!

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE & JULY

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 ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, two rebels just might be able to restore order: Max, a man of action and of few words, and Furiosa, a woman of action who is looking to make it back to her childhood homeland.

Stars: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Megan Gale, Nicholas Hoult, John Howard, Nathan Jones, Zoe Kravitz, Richard Carter, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Jennifer Hagan, iOTA , Angus Sampson, Joy Smithers, Gillian Jones, Melissa Jaffer, Melita Jurisic

Director: George Miller

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here & Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  Forgive me, but it’s been three days since I caught Mad Max: Fury Road and I’m still a bit speechless but this giant juggernaut of a film.  It’s been 30 years since the last time Max Rockatansky raced across movie screens in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome and a full 36 years since the character was introduced in George Miller’s cult favorite Mad Max (the sequel Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior arrived in 1981).  Though Miller had tried to get a fourth entry off the ground with Mel Gibson in early 2003, an agreement over budget and filming couldn’t be reached and the idea was scrapped.  Interest was again stirred around 2012 and that brings us to the awesome power of Mad Max: Fury Road.

The 70 year old Miller has spent the time between Max movies directing an impressive variety of films from The Witches of Eastwick to Babe to Happy Feet…but more than a little Mad Max-ness was still kicking around for the director and it’s a joy to see what he’s produced here with a new star and a sky high budget that thankfully isn’t all tossed away on CGI effects.  What Miller does is nothing short of a modern miracle of cinema and one that positively shouldn’t have worked as well as it has.

What you have here is really a two hour long car chase film with only the occasional rest stop to relieve the tension.  Giving the middle finger to the traditional film structure, it’s clever and full throttle entertainment, not for the faint of heart or hearing.  Miller assumes you’re well versed in the Mad Max universe (and if you aren’t, what’s wrong with you?) and doesn’t waste a millisecond getting you acclimated to the current state of affairs.  From frame one you’re thrust back into the apocalyptic wasteland (the Namib Desert in Africa, standing in for the Outback which was too wet for filming) where Max (Tom Hardy, The Dark Knight Rises) calls home.  Captured by a gang of marauders and imprisoned as a human blood bag for sickly warriors, the future doesn’t look very good for our hero of few words.

Enter Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron, Snow White and the Huntsman, sporting a shaved head and bionic arm) a trusted disciple of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played the villain Toecutter from Mad Max) the ruler of the appropriately named Wasteland.  Immortan Joe is an evil dictator who enslaves women either to produce milk for his War Boys or breed new children to add to his royal family.  When Furiosa makes off with Immortan Joe’s prized Five Wives, a race ensues that puts several bands of very bad men on the hunt for Furiosa and her booty of women, water, and gasoline.

If we’re being honest, this is really Furiosa’s movie with Max along for the ride.  How he gets involved with Furiosa and her cargo is best left for you to find out but Miller has correctly given Max an equal that seeks the same justice he does.  I find it interesting that Mad Max: Fury Road has come under fire from men (of all people) that are upset a woman leads the way…claiming they were duped into thinking this was a “man’s movie”.  If you’ve seen any Mad Max film to date, you’d know that Max has always been a character that aids the disenfranchised and, somewhat begrudgingly, comes to their aid.

What sets Mad Max: Fury Road apart is that Furiosa largely doesn’t need Max’s help to get the job done.  Yes, he’s there to help her on multiple occasions but she’s got things under control, no doubt.  The fun of the film is watching Hardy and Theron lock horns, band together, and wreak havoc on all that get in their way.

Good support is offered from a bevy of interesting actors that pop up throughout the film.  Nicholas Hoult (X-Men: Days of Future Past) is whacked out as an amped up War Boy hot on the heels of Max and Furiosa that could become their greatest ally.   Zoe Kravitz (Divergent), Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and Riley Keough (Magic Mike), are three of the Five Wives that prove their value as Furiosa’s tanker clanks and clashes around canyons and sandstorms, trying to avoid the grasp of Immortan Joe and his crew that are accompanied, hysterically, by a convoy including six timpani banging War Boys and a mutant guitarist with an electric guitar that shoots fire.

It could be said that Miller doesn’t know when to quit and that’s a very, very good thing.  From the opening titles to the totally insane action sequences, there’s not a moment that doesn’t feel in motion and the effect is often so overwhelming you feel the need to close your eyes to get your bearings.  Then you remember that if you close your eyes you may miss something…and you solider through it.

For fans of the Mad Max films, there are nice touches here and there that reference the previous three films.  Nothing too apparent or instantly obvious, but trinkets there to reward those that have stuck with Miller and his gang over the years.  Each Mad Max film has been a standalone story and with Tom Hardy signing on for at least three more Max films you can bet that once Miller has had a chance to catch his breath, he’ll hit the ground running with another escapade for his legendary hero.  The bar has been set so very very high with Mad Max: Fury Road…but Miller knows how to surprise us.

Mad Max: Fury Road puts all other summer blockbusters to shame.  It’s gorgeously shot, ferociously edited (culled from a staggering 480 hours of footage), and thrillingly produced with an insane level of detail in the costume and make-up design.  A second viewing is almost required to catch all of the inventive design Miller and his crew have worked up.  Not to be missed…and if I were you I’d plan on seeing it twice.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mad Max: Fury Road (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: An apocalyptic story set in the furthest reaches of our planet, in a stark desert landscape where humanity is broken, and almost everyone is crazed fighting for the necessities of life

Release Date: May 15, 2015

Thoughts: So many trailers commit the cardinal sin of not being interesting enough to ensnare audiences into returning to see the final product…and then there are trailers like Mad Max: Fury Road. Like the first preview released in July, it’s clear that this will be one highly original futuristic film that takes no prisoners with its over the top theatricality. Providing more excitement and jaw-dropping moments in 2:30 than most films can muster at their feature length best, it’s a glorious reminder that movies can transport you to another world and thrill you with innovation. In short, Mad Max: Fury Road looks to be one bad ass sock-knocker-offer.   Directed by George Miller (who also helmed the original three Mad Max films) and starring Tom Hardy (The Dark Knight Rises), Charlize Theron (Prometheus), and Nicolas Hoult (Jack the Giant Slayer), I can’t wait to hit the road with this one.