Movie Review ~ Swiss Army Man

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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

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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
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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
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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

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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

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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

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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!