Movie Review ~ The Fabelmans

The Facts:

Synopsis: Growing up in post-World War II era Arizona, from age seven to eighteen, young Sammy Fabelman aspires to become a film director as he reaches adolescence. But he soon discovers a shattering secret about his dysfunctional family and explores how the power of films can help him see the truth.
Stars: Gabriel LaBelle, Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Judd Hirsch, Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Julia Butters, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East
Director: Steven Spielberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 151 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review:  Let’s get this straight. To me, Steven Spielberg is the most outstanding director of all time. Stop right there. I don’t want you to get out your well-worn movie journals or pull up your bookmarked film history pages that point to other celebrated directors whose films helped shape cinema as we know it today. For this guy right here (I stopped typing and pointed to myself), Spielberg is just the #1; thank you, and goodnight. It’s not just the JAWS of it all (the best movie ever made, you’re welcome), but his career has taken him through many different genres and styles. His constant need to innovate and create has kept him at the forefront of film and made him a game-changer. We flock to see his movies in the theater because he makes them for that theatrical experience. He made the best film of last year, West Side Story, fulfilling his long-held desire to make a musical, and some argue it surpassed the Oscar-winning original.

It’s a shame West Side Story didn’t repeat that acclaim at the box office and with awards, but it was, to me, a culmination of his work up until that point. The cinematography, score, screenwriting, technical elements, and directing all came together into one cohesive unit to create that modern masterpiece. What could follow that? The answer is arriving in theaters in time for Thanksgiving, and it’s The Fabelmans, a sometimes loosely autobiographical and often strikingly accurate portrayal of Spielberg’s life growing up and his family’s influence, specifically his mother. There’s already a lot of churn that the film will earn Spielberg his third Best Director Oscar (his last was 1999’s Saving Private Ryan) and that it’s currently the one to beat for Best Picture. But…is it?

You’re talking to a hardcore Spielberg fan here. Someone that will fondly bring up 1989’s Always in the same conversation as 2002’s Minority Report and who thinks 1991’s Hook continues to be overlooked all these years later. So, take it from this fan when I tell you that as moving and laudable as The Fabelmans is, there’s something oddly formal about it that also kept me about ten paces away from it. Part of that emotional lengthening is wrapped up in the very plot of the film. Still, it goes beyond that to a more significant issue with the screenplay (co-written with Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner) and its structure which is episodic as the years go by yet strangely frozen in time.

Spielberg opens his movie with young Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord) having to be talked into a theater playing 1952’s The Greatest Show on Earth by his beleaguered parents. He’s at an age where theatrical movies are still intangible, he fears the big images about to tower before him. After, on the drive home, the wide-eyed boy has been changed for the better and sets out to recreate the film’s famous train crash with his Hanukkah gifts of toy train cars that form a large locomotive. That’s not enough; mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, Venom: Let There Be Carnage) recognizes that. So, she borrows her husband Burt’s camera and lets Sammy film the crash so he can watch it repeatedly. And a filmmaker was born.

As Sammy grows up (eventually played for most of the film by Gabriel LaBelle, The Predator), he and his camera witness a tidal wave of change in the people and places around him. Family dynamics that went over his head as a child can now be replayed and reexamined frame by frame, driving a wedge between Sammy and his parents as a pair and individually. He trusts his mother to care for them but can’t reconcile a betrayal that goes unspoken, and he laments that his father (Paul Dano, The Batman) has blinders on for more than just what his children take an interest in. Joining a new suburban high school only intensifies his feeling of being an outsider, made more apparent when he’s targeted by bigots and begins dating an ultra-Christian girl that can’t keep her hands off him.

There’s a lot of movie to go around in The Fabelmans, so you can understand how audiences feel like they’ve walked away richly rewarded with various dynamic scenes and performances. And Spielberg’s eye for detail and knowledge of technique put the film on a completely different plane of existence. It’s beautiful to look at, and the production design should win the Oscar now and be done with it. Newcomer LaBelle is a true discovery as Sammy, taking us through complex emotional arcs without much set-up from Kushner or Spielberg’s script. No one is incredibly well served by some of the dialogue, which never sounds like anyone other than a Pulitzer Prize winner wrote it. There’s one scene between Sammy and his younger sister Reggie (Julia Butters, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood) that sounds like a conversation between two Central Park intellectuals on their way to a be-in. While it works better for Judd Hirsch’s (Ordinary People) hysterical cameo and some of Dano’s excellent work, Kusher’s phrasing doesn’t sound right coming out of teens/youngsters, and they occupy much of the latter half of the film.

The end of the finale credits for West Side Story had a simple message, “For Dad,” and it does not surprise The Fabelmans ends with a similar message to Spielberg’s mother. Williams is playing the cinematic realization of Spielberg’s mother, so a gentle touch is granted the character, even when confronted with behavior that may get a more dramatic hand if the story hadn’t been so personal. The extent of Mitzi’s close friendship with Burt’s co-worker Bennie (Seth Rogen, Sausage Party) is hinted at, but Spielberg stops short of clarifying or speculating too much. In many ways, that’s admirable. A son wants to honor his mother by telling her story but doesn’t want to create trouble in the telling. Williams is on board with this and gives Mitzi that inner glow that radiates into her castmates. It’s not the slam-dunk award-winning role I was hoping for, so her competition need not worry, but it’s yet another sign Williams will be one of our lasting talents.

I’ve sat with the film for a few weeks now and hoped I’d want to see it again immediately, but it hasn’t hit me yet. There’s not a Spielberg film out there I wouldn’t watch again (actually, sorry, Bridge of Spies is a pass), and I’m sure I’ll meet up with The Fabelmans again, and I hope next time I’ll come away feeling closer to them than I did the first time. For now, you go on ahead and see if you get along with them better than I did.

Movie Review ~ The Batman

The Facts:

Synopsis: In his second year of fighting crime, Batman uncovers corruption in Gotham City that connects to his own family while facing a serial killer known as The Riddler.
Stars: Robert Pattinson, Zoë Kravitz, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Peter Sarsgaard, Andy Serkis, Colin Farrell, Barry Keoghan
Director: Matt Reeves
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 175 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review:  Across the Marvel Universe/Multiverse and throughout the DC Extended Universe, there is an enormity of strong beings, big and small, that have been integral parts of many childhood fandom origin stories. It could be through comics, video games, TV shows, or any of the numerous movies made over time. There seemed to be a set image for heroes and heroines with slight variance for a while. Over time, the vision of these crime fighters has evolved as our world has changed. Other institutions may be frustratingly stuck in a cycle of sameness, but for all the countless comic book installments we get seemingly every month in theaters, at least there are options for those looking to see themselves represented up on the big screen.

I realize I’m writing this preamble at the start of a review of another film about a white superhero. Yet it’s important to note that what The Batman represents is a significant step forward for the DC Extended Universe due to the folks involved taking a considerate step back to look at the world as a whole. In doing so, they’ve allowed the unpleasant fester of the underbelly to surface in a way that comes across as more balanced an approach than what we saw in 2019’s Joker. In that film, it felt like it sought to identify and, by coincidence, laud support to a faction that didn’t need to be given strength. Some of those same ideas bubble up in The Batman, but they’ve worked within the fantasy framework model that essentially separates Gotham City’s reality from our everyday life.

For director Matt Reeves (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) and his co-writer Peter Craig (Bad Boys for Life), Gotham City is much darker than any previous incarnation we’ve seen. Barely skating by in his re-election bid, the current mayor presides over a city littered with crime and assault. Only a masked vigilante called The Batman has made an impact, emerging from the shadows to strike down those that would interfere with the good people of Gotham. The crude signal bearing his symbol created by James Gordon (Jeffrey Wright, No Time to Die) that illuminates the night sky is both a call to action and a warning to crooks that vengeance is coming for them.

Of course, the tortured man behind the mask is Bruce Wayne (Robert Pattinson, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), a wealthy orphan still haunted by the murders of his mother and father years earlier. Donning his cowl and body armor outfitted with an array of ingenious, practical gadgets and weapons, Bruce funnels his rage at his inability to save his parents into his speed at disarming criminals by any means necessary. In his second year as Batman, he already bears the body bruises and scars that reflect he’s just a man underneath it all and doesn’t possess the same type of superpowers other famous city sentinels do. Assisted by Alfred Pennyworth (Andy Serkis, Black Panther), Bruce’s life is lived primarily out of the public’s view, despite his family obligations as head of his father’s company and philanthropy.

Someone else has been keeping an eye on the city and developed a plan to make people pay for their part of a high-stakes scandal years in the making and longer in the cover-up. Planting a series of deadly clues left for Batman, The Riddler (Paul Dano, 12 Years a Slave) begins laying traps for Gotham’s upstanding citizens, all tied to an event that started long ago and continues to infect the daily workings of city business to this day. Instead of simply exposing the truths and trusting justice or a court of public opinion to do their job, The Riddler takes it upon himself to escalate these shocking reveals by staging astonishing displays of his reach and capabilities as Batman, and the authorities stand by, helpless.

Somewhat amazingly, while this detailed detective story is happening, Reeves and Craig manage to work in another fully-formed B plot involving local gangster Carmine Falcone (John Turturro, Gloria Bell) and the patrons of a popular nightclub he likes to visit. Managed by Oswald Cobblepot, nicknamed The Penguin (Colin Farrell, Voyagers), who might be conducting illicit business, it isn’t long before Batman ties The Riddler’s plot together with the Falcone/Penguin operation. Of course, Batman isn’t the only one looking into Falcone’s business. Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz, Mad Max: Fury Road) is also slinking around in a catsuit and knit cap cut out just perfectly to look like a nouveau Gotham feline. The more clues received as to who the next victim is, the more intriguing the mystery gets, and soon Batman realizes that the next target might be someone extremely close to him. Someone staring back at him in the mirror when he takes off his mask.

That’s all I should mention about the film’s developments that run just shy of three hours…the same running length as The Godfather. I know; I saw both movies in the theater over several days. It should be noted that both movies may be three hours but neither feel like it. Reeves and Craig have carefully put their plot together but shaving off the best parts of a gumshoe mystery and blending in elements of Seven and braiding in a bit of Blade Runner for good measure. There’s an actual puzzle to be solved; clues are deliberately withheld so as not to allow you to get too far ahead of the action. I appreciated being led gently along this way, not dragged forth by force. It will enable you to relax and enjoy meeting these characters, letting them form fully in front of you.

It’s an unenviable task to take on Bruce Wayne/Batman, but I genuinely thought Pattison was excellent in the role. That sullen, distracted gaze that made all those fans swoon in the Twilight series is put to even better use here, and he’s a sounder actor now as well, which makes it all the more entertaining to watch. Saying he’s better suited up and hooded as Batman might sound like a dig, but it’s the truth; there’s a strength and a confidence that’s hard to pull off when you’re under all these layers. However, Pattinson doesn’t let that weigh him down. It certainly doesn’t hold him back from finding the chemistry with Kravitz’s Kyle character; though Kravitz is so skillfully playing the role as a femme fatale open book, it would be hard not to generate some spark with her to see what would happen if a flame took. 

If Dano is maybe just playing another variation of his psychotic doughy creep role (I won’t say what other movie that is, no spoiler!), give him credit for conveying a lot of that scary energy through a frightening mask. Like the movie itself, my main criticism is that Dano’s third act isn’t nearly as strong as his first two, but up until then, it’s a chilling bit of work. As ever, Turturro and Wright are dependable in their more seasoned roles as opposite sides of the law coin. Reeves has made several other exciting casting decisions for his more minor roles, using actors such as Peter Sarsgaard (The Guilty) as Gotham’s District Attorney, Alex Ferns (Wrath of Man) as the current police Commissioner, Con O’Neill (The Way of the Wind) as the troublesome Chief of Police, and Jayme Lawson (The Woman King) playing the challenger for the mayoral seat. 

In all honesty, though, everyone takes a backseat to Farrell whenever he is onscreen. In some ways, I was glad I knew it was Farrell underneath all that make-up, but on the other hand, it would have been fun to be surprised. I’m only mentioning it because it’s not been kept under wraps, so it isn’t considered a spoiler. You’ll be amazed at the work Mike Marino did to make the trim Irish Farrell look like an overweight, balding Jersey boy with bad skin. It’s an unbelievable transformation, and there’s not a frame where I even spotted a hint of Farrell’s natural features. On top of all that, Farrell is excellent in the role, managing to be both funny and the type of Penguin you could see yourself finding ways to cheer on. No one will beat Danny DeVito’s Penguin (or Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, for the matter) in Batman Returns, but this is a solid take on the villain.

With a fantastic production design from James Chinlund (The Lion King) and costumes from Oscar-nominated Jacqueline Durran (Cyrano), it’s the A-team behind the camera as well. I’d hope March isn’t too early to put cinematographer Greig Fraser’s (Dune) name into the hat for awards consideration at next year’s Oscars for the breathtaking shots he delivers. The topper is Michael Giacchino’s (Star Trek) dazzling score that gives you everything from the most haunting hint of Morricone to the slinky curve of John Barry at peak James Bond. The soundtrack for The Batman indeed might be Giacchino’s masterwork. I’ll be looking forward to hearing orchestras around the world play these tracks.

Ultimately, this is a high-water mark not just for a Batman movie but for the genre itself. It’s a superhero noir that bursts out of the gate with a brooding style and a moody tone it justifies with a complex plot that’s part pulpy mob flick and part hard-boiled detective yarn. Less origin story for Bruce Wayne and more of an engrossing look at how Gotham’s best and darkest first crossed paths, The Batman is a massive achievement for all involved in front of and behind the camera

 

Movie Review ~ The Guilty (2021)

1

The Facts:

Synopsis: A demoted police officer assigned to a call dispatch desk is conflicted when he receives an emergency phone call from a kidnapped woman.

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Riley Keough, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano, Bill Burr, Gillian Zinser, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Christina Vidal

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  American remakes of foreign films are a strange beast indeed, especially when the original is one you still are recommending to people when the English version is released for a wide audience.  That’s the dilemma I face when a film like The Guilty arrives for its limited theatrical run and streaming debut on Netflix.  Here’s a smart, compact, film from the slick streaming service by a popular director (Antoine Fuqua) with an enhanced screenplay courtesy of an in-demand writer known for their pot-boilers (True Detective’s Nic Pizzolatto) and starring a red-hot actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) who always attracts attention in any project he attaches himself to.  Sounds like a no-brainer, right?  Of course. The tiny wrinkle is that they’ve remade a 2018 film from Denmark still going strong (on Hulu) and while the 2021 has all the right players, does it improve the game?

At a 911 call center, LAPD officer Joe Baylor (Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) is nearing the end of his shift as the wildfires in the Hollywood Hills rages on nearby.  Relegated to a desk job as he waits on a trial for something we’ll learn more about as the 91 minutes tick away, Joe is a hot-tempered live wire…not a perfect match for the charged atmosphere he’s working in.  In between phone calls to his estranged wife, he receives a call from a teary woman (Riley Keough, The Lodge) who appears to be talking to a small child.  Eventually realizing the call to a “child” is a ruse to whomever she is with, Joe confirms the woman has been kidnapped and launches into a one-man mission to save her and reunite her with her children.

To say more of the film might give away one or two of the twists and turns present in the original and thankfully retained here.  It’s nice to see that Pizzolatto has kept a hold of much of the solid structure installed by original screenwriters Emil Nygaard Albertsen & Gustav Möller, adding small tweaks for its transport to America along the way.  Adding in the pressure of the California fires ups the ante for making Joe such a man on a solo mission, because much of the force is busy attending to that devastation and danger. 

Where you have to look at remakes is how they diverge from the initial film and then make your comparisons and as strong as the team is on the 2021 take, it can’t quite make it over the bar set so high by the 2018 Danish thriller.  The beauty of the previous film is that it was so simple a set-up which made the events unfolding so breathless and terrible all at once.  Here, everything is just awful all around so things start at level 10 and just have nowhere to go.  Fuqua and Pizzolatto remade The Magnificent Seven and, while no classic or in danger of besting the original, it had some fun moments of ingenuity that boosted a few of the characters in interesting ways.  Pizzolatto isn’t as successful here with the way they’ve added physical burdens to Baylor to go along with the emotional weight he’s carrying inside.  This is especially true in a strangely self-indulgent coda, not present in 2018, that stretches on far too long and is meant to turn our attention from the story to Gyllenhaal’s performance…and that doesn’t feel right.  It feels show pony chic and it cheapens the mood. 

The Guilty would actually have made a wonderful audiobook or podcast experience since so much of it is just Gyllenhaal onscreen talking to disembodied voices.  Keep your ears open and see if you can put some voices with the famous faces of actors and comedians that pop up throughout.  By all means, do yourself a favor and watch both films to compare but I’d still give my overall greenlight to the 2018 entry which does a better job with portraying the inner turmoil going on below the surface of the emergency operator and the way that his intervention might wind up doing more harm than good.

Movie Review ~ Swiss Army Man

swiss_army_man_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A hopeless man stranded in the wilderness befriends a dead body and together they go on a surreal journey to get home.

Stars: Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe, Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Director: Daniel Kwan, Daniel Scheinert

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: Bound to be remembered as “that movie where Daniel Radcliffe played a farting corpse” than for all its inherent creativity, I’ve actually been suggesting Swiss Army Man to people with that same flatulent logline.  This is the type of movie that doesn’t have much of an impact when released in theaters but is bound to find its audience through streaming and home rentals.  Starring Paul Dano (Prisoners) and Radcliffe (What If), the flight of fancy with a morbid streak is a never predictable tiny gem that shines nicely once you get past some hard edges.

Dano stars as a man who opens the film literally at the end of his rope.  An island castaway with no hope for survival, he’s about to take proactive action on his fate before nature does when he sees the body of a young man (Radcliffe) wash ashore.  Using the gaseous corpse as a jet-ski (stay with me here), Dano hitches a ride on the body thus beginning his quest to find a way home.  This leads to an adventure through the wild and showcases the relationship between the living and the dead, finally arriving at a poignant conclusion that feels well-earned.  Co-starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a fantasy girl from Dano’s past, Swiss Army Man is an elaborately designed film that shows how far directors Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert (aka The Daniels) can go with a small budget.  Worth letting ‘er rip and taking a chance on.

Movie Review ~ Youth

youth_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A retired orchestra conductor is on holiday with his daughter and his film director best friend in the Alps when he receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform for Prince Philip’s birthday.

Stars: Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, Paul Dano, Jane Fonda

Director: Paolo Sorrentino

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Watching Youth late one night with three other people, by the time it was over I was the only one awake so right off the bat I’ll let you know that just like director Paolo Sorrentino’s previous film (2013’s The Great Beauty, an Oscar winner for Best Foreign Film), his follow-up isn’t going to be for everyone.  Youth is a commitment to take in and even those concentrating hard may not walk away with much from the proceedings.  Easy to hate, hard to love…like most good movies should be.

Taking place over several days at a European health spa, Youth follows a retired conductor (Michael Caine, Interstellar) and fading director (Harvey Keitel, The Grand Budapest Hotel) making their annual pilgrimage for some rest and rejuvenation.  Caine’s character has just been asked by the Royal Palace to conduct a song he composed for his late wife, a song he hasn’t been able to approach since her death.  Keitel’s director is holed up with writers trying to figure out how to work his latest film after a series of failed flops.

Into the mix comes Caine’s daughter (Rachel Weisz, Oz the Great and Powerful) arriving as her marriage is falling apart and a young actor (Paul Dano, Prisoners) taking a brief hiatus while preparing for his next big role.  The film is a series of overly talky scenes that tend to come off as new-agey tripe but somehow managed to continually captivate me.  The film and its characters never seem to go where you think they will, making for a curiously fascinating two-hour excursion into some out-there territory.

It’s the performances that trump Sorrentino’s considerable style (still heavily influenced by Fellini).  Caine is almost impish over the course of the film and Keitel’s shows a vulnerability he hasn’t been able to achieve in some time.  Before the last few years, Dano has always struck me as a shapeless lump on film but he’s starting to actively take form before our eyes…his character here has a transformation that’s, to put it mildly, shocking.  Weisz has a humdinger of a monologue delivered in one-take…reminding us why she’s an Oscar winner.

Speaking of Oscar winners, there’s big buzz that Jane Fonda (This is Where I Leave You) will snag a nomination for her work here, and I’m still not quite sure whether I agree with it or not.  As Keitel’s leading lady, she is onscreen for less than seven minutes but makes quite the impression in that small amount of time.  It’s either a gaudy camp excursion or an elegantly sad triumph but darn it all if I can’t decide what it ultimately is.  One thing is clear though, Fonda is lampooning her own celebrity in some way and because of that, it’s a zinger of a scene.

As in The Great Beauty, Sorrentino shows a flair for style and music…though it’s not always refined.  Some scenes are deliberately obtuse and characters pass by without explanation…but the more you try to make sense of it the less likely you are to let the movie simply exist in its form.  I loved the opening set to “You Got the Love” from Candi Stanton (performed with airy verve by The Retrosettes) and a later scene involving Keitel encountering a host of previous actresses is pretty fun.

It’s not going to be for everyone…I’m not even sure if I see it again I’d feel the same way about it.  But my first impression of Youth was that I enjoyed its fresh feeling.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (June)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHastaWe 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.

June

If May was the month that studios dipped their toe in the summer waters, June was a time when they waded in up to their waists. The first weekend in June saw three high-profile releases, each catering to different audiences to mixed results.

After last summer’s disaster Tammy (my worst film of 2014) I was mighty suspicious of Spy, Melissa McCarthy and director Paul Feig’s action comedy. After having such success with Bridesmaids the duo reteamed for the underwhelming The Heat so it was a 50/50 shot at how well Spy would do. Lucky for us, it was McCarthy’s best performance to date and by far her most enjoyable film as a solo star. A great, game supporting cast helped make this highly entertaining.

I never watched HBO’s Entourage but felt like I knew what I was getting myself into when catching the big screen outing for the California guys navigating their way through Hollywood and a bevy of beautiful women. It was pretty on par with my expectations but I wasn’t lost in the wilderness with its plot. It was nicely made and an adequate diversion for the time I spent in the theater.

Scary films are usually left for early in the year or around Halloween but several studios were willing to gamble that audiences were ready to be spooked in the summer. First up this season was the third entry in a diminishing franchise:

                                                   Movie Review ~ Insidious: Chapter 3
insidious_chapter_three_ver6The Facts
:
Synopsis: A prequel set before the haunting of the Lambert family that reveals how gifted psychic Elise Rainier reluctantly agrees to use her ability to contact the dead in order to help a teenage girl who has been targeted by a dangerous supernatural entity.
Stars: Lin Shaye, Stefanie Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Leigh Whannell, Angus Sampson, Hayley Kiyoko
Director: Leigh Whannell
Rated: PG-13
Running Length:  97 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: I’ll say this for the third chapter of the Insidious franchise…it’s a lot better than the meandering second outing which strayed a tad too far away from its original mythology. A prequel to the two films, Chapter 3 focuses on a motherless girl that becomes the target of a pretty nasty specter of evil. It’s all fairly standard stuff but not quite as chilling as it thinks it is. The performances sat well with me and I loved that Lin Shaye, an actress that’s been in the biz for quite some time, was brought front and center because she ably carries the picture. I think it’s time to close the book on these films, and it didn’t go out as a total embarrassment…but it could have been handled better.

For some time now, the film I’d been most looking forward to was Jurassic World and on June 12 the film was released to thunderous acclaim from audiences and critics. It quickly broke box office records around the world and squashed any fears that the franchise had run its course. I loved it and happily saw it a second time in 3D IMAX, enjoying it even more on a repeat viewing. Now the wait begins for the next one…and I’m intrigued to see where it’s going next!

Halfway into June two dramas were released to good reviews but audiences didn’t quite seem to find them and I can only hope that they’ll find more success when they become more available via streaming services or rentals.

                                        Movie Review ~ Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
me_and_earl_and_the_dying_girlThe Facts
:
Synopsis: High schooler Greg, who spends most of his time making parodies of classic movies with his co-worker Earl, finds his outlook forever altered after befriending a classmate who has just been diagnosed with cancer.
Stars: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Connie Britton, Molly Shannon, Nick Offerman, Jon Bernthal, Bobb’E J. Thompson
Director: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 105 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I hardly expected to well up with tears at a movie from the director of the remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown and several episodes of American Horror Story. But I did. Eschewing the gauzy mawkishness of the disease of the week melodrama, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is a creative tear jerker that will make your mascara run…but maybe for not the reasons you expect. It’s almost worth the price of admission to see the titles of the parodies of classic films that are produced by our lead characters…but there’s much more to love about this sweet, knowing film that had a tender heart around its rough edges. Very much worth your time.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Love & Mercy
love_and_mercyThe Facts
:
Synopsis: In the 1960s, Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson struggles with emerging psychosis as he attempts to craft his avant-garde pop masterpiece. In the 1980s, he is a broken, confused man under the 24-hour watch of shady therapist Dr. Eugene Landy.
Stars: John Cusack, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Elizabeth Banks
Director: Bill Pohlad
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 121 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: I almost let this one slip of out theaters before catching it and I’m so glad I did. It’s one of the best biopics (music or otherwise) that I’ve seen and features uniformly excellent performances…and this is an especially big accomplishment considering I’m not a fan of the three of the four lead actors. I normally find Paul Dano to be a bit like a marshmallow, puffy and flavorless but he presents a deeply nuanced portrait of Brian Wilson, the Beach Boy that suffered from mental illness and madness for most of his life. His brilliance is expertly captured by Dano, less so by John Cusack as the elder Wilson that enters into a relationship with a car saleswoman (Elizabeth Banks) while being treated by a therapist (Paul Giamatti) with questionable morals. Banks is great as always and whatever annoyances Cusack, Giamatti, and Dano have provided in the past are forgiven in director Carl Pohlad’s riveting look into the mind of a troubled man.

Now that I think about it, June was a month with movies that gave my tear ducts a run for their money…never more so than the one two punch of Pixar’s latest and greatest.

Before Inside Out even started, I was wiping my cheeks thanks to their moving short Lava. Entirely set to the music of the Hawaiian islands, it’s a heartfelt tribute to love, dreams, and destiny. I bought the song from iTunes and yes, was moved to tears just listening to the beautiful melody again.

                                                         Movie Review ~ Inside Out

inside_out_ver13The Facts:
Synopsis: After young Riley is uprooted from her Midwest life and moved to San Francisco, her emotions – Joy, Fear, Anger, Disgust and Sadness – conflict on how best to navigate a new city, house and school.
Stars: Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Phyllis Smith, Diane Lane, Kyle MacLachlan
Director: Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen
Rated: PG
Running Length: 94 minutes
Trailer Review: Here
TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Stumbling a bit in recent years by focusing more on sequels instead of original material, the genius minds at Pixar came back in full force with Inside Out, their little lesson to audiences young and old that having emotions and showing them is natural…and a good thing. It’s difficult to present a message like that in a way that will speak to young children as well as the adults in the room but by George they did it. Growing up isn’t easy and feeling the loss of childhood is painful, but the gentle hand guiding the film helps us come to terms with those emotions in the best and brightest way. The waterworks started early and kept on going through the credits. A lovely film.

STAY TUNED FOR JULY & AUGUST!

CHECK OUT MAY!

 

Movie Review ~ 12 Years a Slave

twelve_years_a_slave

The Facts:

Synopsis: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: How do you say that you loved a movie that’s about the horrors of slavery and not sound like a backwards monster?  That’s the question I’ve been pondering weeks after seeing the truly remarkable 12 Years a Slave and perhaps why it’s taken me a little longer to move forward with a review of the movie.  No doubt about it, this is one of the finest films of 2013 and its handsome production design, score, cinematography, and almost flawless pacing make it a triumph on a technical level too.  Still…the subject is so horrifying that it’s thrown me for a loop how to praise it respectfully.

An adaptation of the 1853 novel by Solomon Northrup, 12 Years a Slave is a chronicle Northrup’s abduction from Washington D.C. in 1841 and how he winds up in slavery on several southern plantations.  Though he was born a free man in New York City, Northrup’s rights are discredited and he endures over a decade of life as a slave.  How Northrup survives to write his tale shows a fortitude of the human soul that’s at the heart of this powerful work from director Steve McQueen (no, not that one…the one that directed Shame and Hunger).

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the name you’ll want to familiarize yourself with because you’ll be hearing it at the top of the awards buzz as the end of the year draws near.  A familiar actor with a diverse background of roles, Ejiofor takes the reins of the film ably and leads a starry cast of A-List actors…but make no mistake, this is Ejiofor’s movie all the way.  With a wise earthiness that gives humanity to his oppressed character, Ejiofor delivers a performance of dignity and thoughtfulness that makes the movie even more electric.

Ejiofor is just but one of a long list of impressive performances in 12 Years a Slave…so impressive that it wouldn’t be hard to imagine Ejiofor not being the only winner come Oscar night.  Making a powerhouse film debut is Lupita Nyong’o as Patsy, a slave Solomon meets when he comes to live on the plantation run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus).  Nyong’o’s role is ever so tricky and she’ll knock your socks off the way she handles several of the cruelest scenes the film has to offer.  Fassbender too is monumentally effective as the evil owner that delights in working his slaves throughout the day and whipping them when they don’t meet his criteria of daily success.  This is McQueen’s third collaboration with Fassbender and while Fassbender’s work in Shame and Hunger were strong, they pale in comparison to how he navigates into the truly unforgivable places Epps has to venture.

Among the other impressive actors are Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek: Into Darkness) as the first plantation owner Solomon encounters and the one that does the best he can for him even as he struggles with his morality, Adepero Oduye is heartbreaking in her brief turn as a slave separated from her children, and Alfre Woodard is positively dynamite in her cameo.  The only actor striking an off note here is the biggest star of all…producer Brad Pitt (World War Z) who shows up late in the film in the kind of role that probably should have gone to someone else when you consider how it factors into the overall scope of Solomon’s tale.

Yet the reason why the film hits you at such a deep level is the way that McQueen never lets anyone (good or bad) come off as merely “acting”…the characters all feel like real people because they are played with a commitment that was essential.  As evil as the most wicked person is in the film (that’d be either Fassbender, Mud‘s Sarah Paulson as Epps cruel wife, or Paul Dano, even more frightening here than he was in Prisoners) McQueen never lets us forget that these are people with their own set of beliefs and are acting upon them as they feel is right.  We, the audience, know that slavery is wrong but it would have been too easy to craft these characters as simply soulless…that they are following what they were brought up to know gets the message home loud and clear that the root of the evil lies in the history, not the present.

Though the agony of slavery has been captured before in films such as Steven Spielberg’s 1997 Amistad, the landmark mini-series Roots, and yes…even Django Unchained there’s a different feel to McQueen’s work on 12 Years a Slave that sets it apart from the rest.  It’s such a well-made, worthy film that I’m hoping audiences and Oscar voters aren’t turned off by the themes and horrific violence (there’s a whipping scene that I wound up having to avert my eyes for).  To miss the movie would be missing a film that I believe will stand the test of time.

Movie Review ~ Prisoners

prisoners_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, David Dastmalchian

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: When I reviewed the first trailer for Prisoners back in June I was mad.  I had reached my breaking point for trailers pushing the three minute mark that seemed to show the entire film, freely giving away plot twists and turns that I so enjoy discovering when I’m watching the entire film.  Seeing the trailer often before films these last few months I would always turn to my seat mate and say “They showed the ENTIRE movie!”…even when I was seeing a film solo.

Then I started reading more about the movie as it started to be screened at various film festivals and heard that there was more to this crime drama than the trailer was letting on.  As the film gathered steam (and award recognition) I began to hope that the buzz was true and Prisoners, with its impressive cast and dark plot details, was more than met the eye.  Could there be any secrets left unturned?

The answer was a resounding yes and Prisoners has now hurdled to the top of my Best of 2013 List (don’t worry, The Way Way Back…you are still going strong as my favorite film but you’re a different movie than Prisoners).  It’s not only one of the best, most satisfyingly intense films of the year but one of best crime dramas of the last decade…taking a place on the shelf next to L.A. Confidential and Zodiac.

The set-up of the film is exactly how the trailer opens, two young girls go missing on a drizzly Thanksgiving day in a modest suburban development.  While their families are lounging around suffering the effects of a filling turkey feast, someone has infiltrated this quiet neighborhood and now the girls have vanished.  These early scenes are played by the actors so casually and unassuming that we instantly know the relationship these neighbors have formed.  As the realization that the girls are missing grows, the film begins its vice grip on the audience, applying only light pressure as we watch Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables, The Wolverine), Maria Bello (Abduction), Viola Davis (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Terrance Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) begin their search as concerned parents before giving way to frantically tearing through the neighborhood to find their children.

The next character to be introduced is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) as he’s brought in to investigate a Winnebago that was seen in the vicinity, now ominously parked at a rest stop.  Inside is Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper, Being Flynn), who looks like the perfect suspect with his slightly off personality and big “I’m a creep” glasses.  Trouble is, with no girls found and no evidence in the Winnebago Alex is soon released back into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo, Oblivion, Olympus Has Fallen) only to be taken himself by Jackman’s survivalist father that isn’t satisfied with what the police have done to find the girls.

Now that’s about as much as the trailer shows you and it’s as much of the plot that I’m going to give away…because all of this happens in the first 40 minutes of the 2 ½ hour film…I know because I checked my watch wondering what would take up the remainder of the film.  Well, the turns the film takes and the secrets that are slowly revealed are explored fully, making Prisoners one of the rare films that gets more interesting the more you know about what’s going on.

More than anything, the film raises some questions about justice and how far we’ll go to get the answers that we want…which could make us no better than the criminals that are out there.  It’s not the most revolutionary question to ask an audience but the delivery is so skilled, detailed, and profound that it’s a punch to the gut when you consider the very real situation on hand in Prisoners.

The vice that keeps applying more pressure to the audience is given greater strength by a full battery of actors that push off any pre-conceived notions we have of them and let true characters shine through.  Jackman is always a dependable presence but he goes deeper with his tormented father than he ever has before, showing the blood and pain that hides below his exterior.  Davis and Howard work well both in tandem and solo as their characters have a moral bridge to cross that they may regret going over.  Bello is probably the least successful in her draft of the character, not ever being fully convincing as Jackman’s suddenly fragile wife.  Her performance has guts, true, but it left me wanting more.

For my money, the film belongs to Gyllenhaal.  After End of Watch, I wasn’t sure I could me more impressed with his work but he raises the bar on his own career with a nuanced and deeply etched detective that hates to be wrong and beats himself up for missing obvious clues.  Gyllenhaal fills his character with quirks and ticks that aren’t ever really explained and never go into “performance” mode.  He’s an actor that builds his character from the ground up and he’s made the wise choice to put a back-story in that only he knows and lets the audience try to figure out what makes him tick.  It’s a brilliant, haunting performance.

The whole film is a haunting experience, actually, and that’s thanks to not only the cast but director Denis Villeneuve excellent pace in handling Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) dense script.  Guzikowski has only written three scripts and is clearly someone to pay attention to.  Making maybe even more of an impact that the direction or script is the brilliant cinematography of Roger Deakins (Skyfall), giving the film even more complexity.  Though the film is largely shot in the grey gloom of winter, Deakins comes up with some incredibly vivid images that highlight the terror and the hidden darkness that plagues these two families, the detective that is desperate for clues, and an evil that’s not revealed in full until the final moments.

I know films of this nature can be hard for some people to take and if you’re one of those people I’m sure you’ll make the decision on your own if putting yourself through this intense experience is worth it.  I found the film to be practically flawless, achieving success on every level without making sacrifices.  There were genuine surprises that made me gasp and a denouement that felt justly earned…it’s not the punishing experience that so many of these films tend to drift toward but instead it emerges as a rewarding piece of filmmaking that will easily land the movie in prime awards consideration.

The Silver Bullet ~ Prisoners

movies-prisoners-poster-2

Synopsis: A Boston man kidnaps the person he suspects is behind the disappearance of his young daughter and her best friend.

Release Date:  September 20, 2013

Thoughts: Here’s the thing…the premise of Prisoners suggests a halfway decent flick that could provide some great opportunities if everything lines up like it should.  The problem I have so far with Prisoners is that the trailer gives away more than a few key plot points, leaving the viewer to wonder why they need to see the finished product.  With a starry cast that includes Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables), Jake Gyllenhaal (End of Watch), Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures), and Melissa Leo (Oblivion) and Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve making his English language debut this might be a modest hit…but man, think of what the movie could have been had you not known where it was headed!