Movie Review ~ Game Night

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A group of friends who meet regularly for game nights find themselves trying to solve a murder mystery.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, Kylie Bunbury, Jesse Plemons, Danny Huston, Chelsea Peretti, Michael C. Hall, Kyle Chandler

Director: John Francis Daley, Jonathan Goldstein

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Game Night is one of those movies I refer to as a Goldilocks outing. It’s not really great but not really bad, it’s decently funny but isn’t chock full of laughs, it’s more creative than it should be but still oddly formulaic. In the end, it winds up being just right – very much what the doctor ordered for those looking forward to a harmlessly pleasant night out at cinemas.

Meeting and falling in love during a rousing round of bar trivia, Max (Jason Bateman, This is Where I Leave You) and Annie (Rachel McAdams, Passion) have settled into their suburban lifestyle, their ultracompetitive nature placated by a weekly game night with friends. Things are getting a bit staid, though, and when Max’s ultra-cool brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler, The Wolf of Wall Street) comes to town and offers to host game night in his new house, the group jumps at the chance to shake things up a bit.   Arriving for a night they think is coordinated by Brooks, they soon find themselves mixed up in the game Brooks orchestrated and real life danger, racing around town in pursuit of kidnappers while avoiding landing in the crosshairs of a deadly criminal.

Doesn’t sound like much of a comedy, right? Well, in the hands of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (who also directed the divisive update of Vacation) and screenwriter Mark Perez there are enough twists and turns to keep you guessing at what is part of the game and what actually is happening. Think 1997’s cool thriller The Game but not quite as clever. I have to say the movie kept my interest more than I thought it would considering it’s from “the guys that brought you Horrible Bosses.” That earlier film and its gross sequel upped the raunch factor that Game Night was wise to avoid replicating. There’s fairly little overly nasty humor here and what is present feels smartly placed as opposed to relying on cheap shocks for laughs. Sadly, one of the funniest gags involving an airplane engine was totally spoiled in the trailer.

Daley and Goldstein have assembled a crack cast that brings energy to the mix. Bateman is his usually Bateman-y self but with droll McAdams as his partner in crime there’s a nice balance between his snark and her sincerity. Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Sharon Horgan, Lamorne Morris, and Kylie Bunbury find some funny moments as Max and Annie’s friends that bring their own baggage along for the crazy ride while Jesse Plemons (The Master) is a riot as a former friend and weird police office neighbor the group has shunned. Plemons is so note perfectly odd that he quite nearly steals the show from his cast mates.

As with most movies with a mystery at its core, the film gets less interesting the more it reveals but then it pivots nicely by pulling the rug out from under you just when you think you’ve got things solved. It’s a silly film but more entertaining than you’d expect just from watching the trailers. Bound to please fans of the actors and creatives involved, the real winners of Game Night are movie-goers that check it out with their expectations set slightly lower.

Movie Review ~ Doctor Strange

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doctor_strange_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A former neurosurgeon embarks on a journey of healing only to be drawn into the world of the mystic arts.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Scott Adkins, Amy Landecker, Benedict Wong

Director: Scott Derrickson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Can I let you in on a little secret?  Every time I hear the phrase ‘space time continuum’ in a movie I start to look for the nearest exit.  After years of taking in sci-fi movies that zig zag and fold back on themselves (like Interstellar and Inception) I’m at the point where any talk of the butterfly effect, messing with the natural order, or the aforementioned space time continuum means that naptime is imminent for The MN Movie Man.

I make this admission at the start of my review of Doctor Strange so you know that though I went in with mid-range expectations for Marvel’s latest superhero origin story (as 2nd tier as the Doctor Strange character may be), the moment the talk turned to time travel my internal timer started its countdown to impatience.  Here’s a film with a lot of heavy hitters and some big ideas that can never corral them all into being on the same page at the same time. What made previous Marvel films work so well (aside from Thor, Thor: The Dark World, and Ant-Man) was a meeting of the minds where effects and character lived in entertaining harmony.

Shades of the first Iron Man haunt the first quarter of the movie as we meet a brilliant but uncouth surgeon (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game) known for his steady hand and icy heart.  A terrible car crash (never text and drive, ok?) leaves him scarred and shaky but just as cool and distant to those that care for him.  Exhausting his options medically he hears of a possible miracle cure near Kathmandu and it’s there he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton, Trainwreck) who opens a new world of possibilities.

As he regains his strength and explores the untapped regions of his consciousness, Strange becomes wrapped up in a plot orchestrated by a nasty villain (Mads Mikkelsen, Casino Royale, who has a PhD in playing bad guys) and his crew of disciples wearing some fierce drag make-up to, what else?, destroy humanity.  Leaping from Hong Kong to London to New York, Strange makes a pit stop to get some medical attention from a former colleague and love interest (Rachel McAdams, Spotlight) before being chased through a kaleidoscopic parallel universe where the world gets turned literally upside down and inside out.

If you’re like me and are literally physically exhausted by movies that are all flash and special effects spectacle, you’ll get the same bad taste in your mouth from Marvel’s newest piece in their larger cinematic puzzle.  The best parts of Doctor Strange are also the most taxing on the brainwaves and when you add a 3D presentation on top of it all it’s time for the theaters should pass out free barf bags.  I don’t get queasy in movies but almost from the start I was nervously wondering where I would toss my cookies if I was forced to flee.

Yeah, the effects are impressive (and pleasantly colorful) when it counts but too often give off the stink of third level craftsmanship.  That goes for the script as well with McAdams’ character being so tragically underwritten they couldn’t even find a place for her to show up in the last 40 minutes.  Swinton seems to be having a crazy ball as a bald headed mystic (sketched in the comics as an elderly Asian man…oy) but Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) looks like he wants to cry for the majority of his screen time.  It’s only in the closing credits (it’s a Marvel movie, you know you need to stay to the end, right?) that we see what may have attracted him to the role.

That brings us to Cumberbatch who is merely serviceable in the title role.  Sitting here I can’t think who would have been better but the character is so onerous in his bravado that Cumberbatch has no room to wiggle around in.  Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) doesn’t do him any favors by allowing a cape to steal the scenes it shares with Cumberbatch…yes you read the right, Cumberbatch gets upstaged by an article of clothing.

If credit should go to something, it should be to the entire cast for giving it the good old college try with some very silly material.  Cumberbatch and his gang have a way of conjuring portals to hop continents by doing a modified “wax on” sort of motion and around the 100th time this action is performed I had to let a laugh escape.  The sight of all these characters making something out of nothing draws some obvious parallels to the Oscar nominees playing them.  Destined to be one of the films you’ll beg to skip if doing a Marvel marathon down the road, Doctor Strange wheezes when it should whallop.

Movie Review ~ Spotlight

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup

Director: Tom McCarthy

Rated: R

Running Length: 128 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: More than anything, Spotlight reminds us what true journalism used to look like.  In this day and age of up to the minute coverage that often relies on conjecture, I think we as a public have forgotten what it meant to do your homework, cite your sources, and deliver honest news.  Sensationalism may have sold more papers but it wasn’t the driving force behind most true-blue journalists.

That’s the overall message I took away from writer/director Tom McCarthy’s slow burn look into the investigative unit of the Boston Globe (the Spotlight team) that first uncovered the molestation scandal within the Boston Archdiocese.  Setting into motion a global outcry for justice, the members of the squad took their time in gathering information, pounding the pavement, asking the tough questions, and documenting the horrifying answers.

Drawing justified comparisons to All the President’s Men and filled with several genuinely troubling passages where shocking admissions of guilt are made as off the cuff remakrs, there’s nothing salacious on display.  If anything, audiences may start to pull their hair out that Spotlight didn’t come forward with their evidence sooner…but to jump the gun before all the facts had been hammered out would have left them open to doubt when there was little to be had.  They put their careers on the line to tell this story the right way and in doing so they likely saved lives.

Singling out any one person doesn’t feel fair because Spotlight is the very definition of an ensemble film.  McCarthy has cast his movie well starting with Michael Keaton (RoboCop) as the team lead that ultimately makes the call when they bring their findings forward.  Mark Ruffalo (Thanks for Sharing) is the impassioned champion of the down-trodden that wants to push forward even though his journalistic side tells him Keaton’s path is the right one.  Rachel McAdams (The Vow) underplays her role so much that the actress basically disappears inside herself while Liev Schrieber (Fading Gigolo) crackles as the editor-in-chief that prods Spotlight to keep going.

The film isn’t flashy or overly sentimental so as a whole it’s not as ingrained in my memory like other films I’ve seen in 2015.  It does have several moments, though, that are hauntingly present when anyone brings up the film.  It’s easy to see why it’s been heralded as one of the best films of 2015, it’s old-fashioned in construct and forward thinking it its execution.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (July)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHasta

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAY TUNED FOR AUGUST

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE!

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstar

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!

The Silver Bullet ~ Spotlight

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Synopsis: The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Release Date: November 6, 2015

Thoughts: A drama that looks to be along the lines of All The President’s Men, Spotlight is a glimpse into the investigation by the Boston Globe that wound up exposing a now-famous cover-up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. This material could have been delivered in any number of cinematic ways and has been covered in one way or another in documentaries already…but director Tom McCarthy has assembled some top-tier talent for this dramatization. Oscar nominees Michael Keaton (Minions), Mark Ruffalo (Thanks for Sharing), and Stanley Tucci (Jack the Giant Slayer) join Rachel McAdams (The Vow) and Liev Schreiber (Fading Gigolo) as journalists seeking to uncover the truth and dealing with the landslide of backlash. It’s an important story to tell and I’m hoping that the roster of stars on board bodes well for its overall success.

 

Movie Review ~ Aloha

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Rachel McAdams, Emma Stone, John Krasinski, Danny McBride, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray

Director: Cameron Crowe

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 105 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: One of the more interesting e-mails to emerge from the Sony data breach in 2014 were private conversations between top studio execs bemoaning how bad Cameron Crowe’s latest dramedy was.  You can read the story here but I’ll summarize and say that from the moment the film was first screened (under its original clunker of a title Deep Tiki) it was contending with bad audience reactions and a filmmaker that didn’t seem to want to change anything.  In other words, a disaster waiting to happen.

Originally planned for a Christmas 2014 release but moved to May to allow for writer/director Crowe (We Bought a Zoo) to tweak his film, the final product is maybe the hammiest thing to hit Hawaii since SPAM became an island favorite food.  Considering the reliable track record of the A-List talent involved I can only blame Crowe’s inability to make sense of his own script which in turn leaves his actors totally adrift, trying to create something out of nothing.

There’s really three films happening at once and if you believe what you read, a healthy chunk has been sliced out of Crowe’s original plot (excising whole characters and a subplot involving island mysticism) and what’s left is 105 minutes of incoherent scenes with incongruous characters.  The marketing will have you believe Aloha centers around a love triangle between Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook), his ex Rachel McAdams (The Vow), and Air-Force upstart Emma Stone (Magic in the Moonlight) but in reality McAdams appears in about fifteen minutes and the love story between Cooper and Stone is awkwardly shoehorned in apparently for the sake of Crowe’s carefully chosen film soundtrack.

Crowe originally set the film up with Ben Stiller in Cooper’s role and Reese Witherspoon in Stone’s and after the two actors (wisely) left, he didn’t bother to tailor the script for his new stars.  Stone’s entire performance feels like an impersonation of the type of square-jawed task master that Witherspoon would have flourished in.  Stone is an actress with definite charisma but it’s absent without leave here, robbing the Oscar nominee of chances to show the dramatic range we know she has.  I suspect, again, that this has to do with Crowe’s editing after the fact…he’s done Stone no favors the way he cut her role.

While I don’t feel like McAdams has quite the range of Stone she’s well cast as Cooper’s long lost love that fell quickly into the arms of a pilot (John Krasinski, Promised Land, who probably could have thrived in Cooper’s role) after Cooper chose work over her.  Trouble is, she’s such a non-presence in the movie that when she does pop up we don’t quite remember why she’s important…until she reveals a Big Secret that you’ll see coming a mile away.

While Cooper knocked my socks off in American Sniper, he fumbles badly here and comes off unlikable…a problem when the entire film depends on a redemption that is never fully explained or earned.  Twisted up in Crowe’s baffling plot that involves assisting a megalomaniac millionaire (a badly badly miscast Bill Murray, Hyde Park on Hudson) in manipulating native Hawaiians out of their land so he can launch a satellite into space (I’m not kidding), Cooper can’t find his way out of the mess and starts to phone it in pretty quickly.

Since it’s been in the news so much as its release date drew near, I feel I must mention the accusations that in terms of casting the film eschews native Hawaiians for the “pretty” actors from Hollywood.  It’s not a claim that’s unfounded, sadly.  Relegating native Hawaiians only to roles seen as obstacles is a bad misstep…made more embarrassing by Stone’s tanned blonde character telling everyone she comes in contact with she’s ¼ Hawaiian…as if that somehow fills a quota.  It’s not totally white-washed ala any Nancy Meyers movie (for shame!) but there’s a definite lack of racially diverse casting at play…and that’s quite unfortunate.

It’s fitting that Crowe favors shots of people looking backward over their shoulders because it’s hard to believe that the writer/director of such true blue classics like Jerry Maguire and Say Anything… could have developed such a tin ear for dialogue.  There are a few classic Crowe turns of phrase but the random bon mots can’t save the film from being an absolute disaster and a huge chore to sit through.  In typical Crowe fashion the film is stuffed to the brim with music (some from composers Jónsi & Alex are quite pleasing) so much so that the soundtrack credits go on for a full minute in the end…if you make it that far.

Depressingly bad, Aloha will be another in a long line of failures from Crowe…and considering he’s only directed eight feature films that’s not a great track record.  Who knows what would have happened if Crowe was able to release the film he originally shot and maybe one day we’ll see his version of Aloha…but until that time comes this is one Hawaiian vacation you should decline.

The Silver Bullet ~ Aloha

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Synopsis: A celebrated military contractor returns to the site of his greatest career triumphs and re-connects with a long-ago love while unexpectedly falling for the hard-charging Air Force watchdog assigned to him.

Release Date: May 29, 2015

Thoughts: Had I not known before seeing this first look at Aloha who wrote and directed it, I can honestly say that I would have said to myself “Wow, this looks like a Cameron Crowe film…” and that says something about the type of movie Crowe is known for making. For his eighth film (and first in four years after the disappointing We Bought a Zoo), Crowe appears to have returned to the type of storytelling that first put him on the map.  In the first trailer for Aloha you can tell that he’s created real people, not some focus-group tested summary of average humans. And what about that cast? Bradley Cooper (American Sniper) and Emma Stone () are Oscar nominated red hot A-Listers with stars in an unparalleled ascent, joined by the likes of Rachel McAdams (The Vow), John Krasinksi (Big Miracle), Alec Baldwin (Still Alice), and the always interesting (if eternally grumpy) Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom). Originally referred to as The Untitled Hawaii Project, then Deep Tiki (shudder to think!) before blessedly settling into its current Hawaiian moniker, this could easily wind up in the saccharine melodrama bin…but I get the feeling Crowe has a warm welcome waiting for audiences.           

Movie Review ~ About Time

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At the age of 21, Tim discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Tom Hollander, Margot Robbie, Lydia Wilson, Lindsay Duncan

Director: Richard Curtis

Rated: R

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: The majority of the films that writer/director Richard Curtis has been involved with have required a few viewings before I was able to make up my mind whether I liked them or not.  As the writer of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and both movies in the Bridget Jones franchise Curtis displayed a cheeky and very British charm that he extended into his directorial debut: Love, Actually.  For his third (and reportedly final) time sitting in the director’s chair, he’s delivered one of his most well-rounded and deeply felt flights of fancy.

I get the feeling that About Time is the product of two ideas that wound up being molded into one crisp film, the romance angle is something that Curtis could probably do in his sleep but it’s the time-travel element that makes the movie truly unique.  In adding in that fantasy element, Curtis has allowed the film to break free of the romance flick clichés and chart its own path, becoming less about finding true love but in valuing the love right in front of us.

Love-lorn Tim (Domhnall Gleeson, Anna Karenina) narrates the film from a time and place we’re not quite sure of, he clearly knows how this will all end but doesn’t hint at what’s to unspool over the next two hours.  We meet his family, eccentric in their own right but not quite as daffy as some of the other loons Curtis has scripted through the years.  Dad (Bill Nighy, The World’s End), Mom (Lindsay Duncan), sis Kit Kat (Lydia Wilson) and Uncle D (Richard Cordery) all live in blissful harmony in a home nestled by the sea outside of London.

When Tim’s dad spills a family secret (all of the men in the family have the ability to travel through time) Tim does what any young man would…uses it to manipulate a situation to impress girls.  Setting his sights first on a visiting friend of his sister’s (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street), he learns over one lazy summer that maybe not even time travel could solve some of his woes.

Though the film is billed as a love story between Tim and American Mary (Rachel McAdams, The Vow, Passion), there’s a lot more to recommend as the movie twists and turns down its path showing the consequences of Tim’s actions or lack thereof.  Though leaping through time has its advantages, there are drawbacks that will alter the course of Tim’s life and everyone he loves…leading to a three hanky finale that brims with the situational warmth that Curtis wields so slyly.  The film crept up on me to be quite touching, and I predict many audiences will feel the same way.

Gleeson is a wonderful, affable lead that provides exactly the kind of shaggy dog charisma the role would have been lacking without.  He even brings out the best in McAdams who can sometimes feel like she’s giving a McPerformance – that is, something highly processed and not all together good for you.  Her defenses are down here and she’s grounded nicely by her costar and the convincing screenplay.  Nighy is always up for a devil-may-care performance but he tightens up his usual loosey goosey act to surprisingly affecting results.  As is the norm, Curtis has a knack for his strong casting of not only the leads but his various supporting roles.  Whether they are onscreen for the whole movie or just a passerby, there’s always an interesting face you want to know more about.

Fans of romantic dramadies would be advised to make the time to catch this in the theater because there’s a certain warmth that lends itself well to seeing the movie on the big screen.  Even if these types of films normally aren’t your bag, About Time is a worthwhile watch thanks to a script with real heart and performances to match.

Movie Review ~ Passion

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The rivalry between the manipulative boss of an advertising agency and her talented protégée escalates from stealing credit to public humiliation to murder.

Stars: Rachel McAdams, Noomi Rapace, Karoline Herfurth, Paul Anderson

Director: Brian De Palma

Rated: R

Running Length: 102 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  In the’ 70s and early 80s there was one American director that could be counted on to bring a daring style to his films.  With a distinct European flair with more than a fair dollop of Hitchcock inventiveness, Brian De Palma had the market cornered on darkly twisty features from Sisters to Carrie to Blow Out to The Fury.  I personally think 1980’s Dressed to Kill is a true genre masterpiece and the director never saw the kind of success like he did in this era.

So when word got out that De Palma was again exploring a dark side with a remake of the 2010 French film Crime d’amour I was intrigued to see if this Passion project would help the director reclaim some of the fame he’s had a substantial hand in frittering away.  Depressingly ungainly and ultimately awful, Passion is less of a comeback and more a death knell for a director I continue to have great admiration for.

Where did this movie go wrong?  It would be nice to have somewhere else to throw some blame but as director and screenwriter it’s De Palma that must shoulder it all.  The casting is way off, the camera work surprisingly flat, and the plot is a mash-up of the worst bits of the mystery genre.  Worst of all…it’s dull.  I can forgive most anything in a film but being tedious is something I can’t stand for.  It’s over an hour and a half of false starts and dead ends, with roadblocks thrown in to further stymie any energy the cast tries to work up.

Not that the cast is working very hard.  Rachel McAdams merely conjures up a more adult version of Regina George, the queen bee meanie she played to success in Mean Girls.  With her blonde hair and impressive closet of fashion forward costumes, McAdams may look the part of the femme fatale that De Palma so loves to film but the actress lacks fundamental depth.  Her character is hungry for success yet McAdams never shows true darkness beneath her porcelain veneer – we’re led to believe she’s a sexual fetishist but either McAdams didn’t want to go the extra mile to make this quirk fully realized or De Palma didn’t ask her to and the result is a toothless villain.

I want to like Noomi Rapace so much but she’s making it extremely difficult with her choices.  Though I liked her work in Prometheus, in March’s Dead Man Down, her fragile butterfly demeanor failed her…as it does here.  This is the original girl with the dragon tattoo so we know what she’s capable of…but she’s totally checked out in a performance that leaves her and the audience dazed and confused.  With her cooing child-like voice and blank, expressionless face, she always looks like she just woke up from a long nap.

Even if McAdams and Rapace were up to the challenge, De Palma’s script is full of clichéd dialogue and developments that don’t make sense in terms of small things like, oh, time, logic, common sense.  The actresses have several hysterically earnest dramatic exchanges that only show the weaknesses in De Palma’s lame and tragically tame script.  There’s a love triangle that forms the central crux of the story but a lack of chemistry between McAdams, Rapace and the atrociously unappealing Paul Anderson makes it a bust.  The big twist of the film happens too late to win back the audience and even then De Palma wastes an opportunity to turn the plot on its ear and go a different direction.  Instead, the movie winds up exactly where you think it will with zero surprises along the way.

Though De Palma’s famous use of split-screen is employed here in a mildly successful manner, it only makes you think back to his previous work that capitalized on strong themes, a sense of urgency, and the energy of both cast and crew.  In Passion, the entire film looks like it was made under the influence of sleeping pills…a tragedy when De Palma’s films used to keep us up at night.

Skip it.

Forget about it.

Pretend this movie never happened.