The Silver Bullet ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

Synopsis: After the disappearance of her scientist father, three peculiar beings send Meg, her brother, and her friend to space in order to find him.

Release Date: March 9, 2018

Thoughts: Madeleine L’Engle’s celebrated 1963 novel has been on my bookshelf for years and holds a special place in my heart.  I’ve seen high school productions of it (and been in one myself) and made it through most of a 2003 made for television film that couldn’t capture the energy of its source material.  Now comes a new adaptation from one of the writers of Frozen directed by one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.  Ava DuVernay (Selma) has assembled a dynamite A-List cast and, from the look of things in this first teaser, a damn fine film.  Starring Oprah Winfrey (Lee Daniels’ The Butler), Reese Witherspoon (This Means War), Mindy Kaling (This is the End), Chris Pine (Into the Woods), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty & the Beast), newcomer Storm Reid, and Zach Galifianakis (Keeping Up with the Joneses) as The Happy Medium, this is one page to screen adaptation I’m welcoming with open arms.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

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

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

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

May

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!

Movie Review ~ Hot Pursuit

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An uptight and by-the-book cop tries to protect the outgoing widow of a drug boss as they race through Texas pursued by crooked cops and murderous gunmen.

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, John Carroll Lynch, Richard T. Jones, Rob Kazinsky

Director: Anne Fletcher

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Maybe it’s because I had such low expectations going into Hot Pursuit that I wound up digging it more than I likely should have…or maybe it’s just that this kind of cliché-ridden road trip farce arrived at the perfect time when I needed a laugh. Either way, though early reviews have panned this female-driven comedy for being bird-brained and for failing to be nothing more than its one-joke premise there’s more than a little gold to be found among the coal.

Let me say that in all honesty there’s little in Hot Pursuit you haven’t seen done before (and better) in similar films. TV writers David Feeney and John Quaintance make the jump to the silver screen in a very TV-minded script with attempts for laughs every few minutes and episodic scenarios that all seem to be variations on the same joke. Thin character development and a lack of overall surprise handicap the movie, as does Anne Fletcher’s (The Guilt Trip) hands-off direction that suggests a style favoring sidling up to the chess pieces instead of moving them with purpose.

What keeps the film from descending immediately into agonizing awfulness is the off-the-chart chemistry of its leading ladies. Reese Witherspoon (Wild, Inherent Vice) and Sofia Vergara (The Three Stooges, Fading Gigolo) have the kind of lightening in a bottle charisma with each other that help each tired joke land sans thud and allow audiences to remain engaged for its trim 87 minute running time. The best part about this pairing is that the actresses are allowed to play on their strengths, rather than resort to them. Does that make sense? Let me see if I can explain.

Vergara is a spicy Latina sexpot and she plays it to the hilt, but the comedy isn’t purely visual and the actress shows some different layers that I wasn’t expecting. True, most of her role is delivered via the shouting method and she couldn’t be more stereotypical but it’s less offensive than it could have been and frequently funnier than her role on TV’s Modern Family.

She’s matched well with Witherspoon playing a tightly wound cop previously benched for an accident involving a Taser gun and the mayor’s son. She’s called into action when the FBI needs her to help transport Vergara and her husband who are set to testify against a drug kingpin. Clearly, things go awry and the two ladies bicker over 24 hours as they avoid killers for hire that don’t want them to arrive in time for Vergara to give her testimony.

After making a name for herself with feather-light comedies, Witherspoon picked up an Oscar and hasn’t really set foot back into the wacky comedy genre since. Some will say she’s slumming it here but Witherspoon is no dummy and knows exactly the kind of performance she’s giving here. Wearing a variety of costumes (including one drag get-up that produced a nice belly-laugh) the actress seems to be having a ball being partnered with Vegara and, unlike the tedious 2013 female buddy film The Heat, the audience is invited to share in the fun as well.

That’s another difference between Hot Pursuit and The Heat. I hated the pairing of Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock because the script forced Bullock into a straight-man role that the actress wasn’t comfortable with. She struggled with truly owning the ribald comedy and the film was a disappointment because of that. In Hot Purusit, however, Vergara and Witherspoon are in total understanding about the jobs that they have to do. Sure the laughs are cheap…but they’re laughs all the same.

Ending with one of the funniest end credit sequences since 22 Jump Street, I’ve the feeling that the way critics are trashing Hot Pursuit will mean it will sail quickly through theaters but I’d urge you to give it a try. Even if this may not be wholly original or free from a been-there-done-that feeling I liked it quite a lot and I’d welcome another cinematic collaboration for its stars.

Movie Review ~ Inherent Vice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix,Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newson, Maya Rudolph

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 148 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Looking back at the experience (and what an “experience” it was) of my recent screening of Inherent Vice I’m reminded of that one time I was in an airplane for 10+ hours traveling from Greece to Minnesota.  At certain points of the turbulent flight I thought I wasn’t going to make it and mentally said my good-byes to everyone I loved while a single tear fell down my face.  Then the plane landed, I was able to exit the airliner, and I went about my life.

Inherent Vice isn’t 10 hours long (but it sure feels like it) but unlike my trip to Greece, you won’t leave a showing of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel with a miniature replica of the Acropolis for your troubles.

Pynchon’s loopy novels have long been thought to be unadaptable for cinematic endeavors and Anderson’s screenplay proves why over and over again.  It’s an obtuse, awkward, non-engaging film with so many layers it could be described as an onion dipped in PCP…which doesn’t necessarily signify a bad film, mind you.  No, the worst offense of Inherent Vice is that it’s shockingly, maddeningly boring.

Set in the Manson crazed days of 1970’s Los Angeles, the film follows schlumpy PI ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, HerParenthood) through a case that hits close to home but opens up a Pandora’s Box of trouble.  Asked by former flame Shasta (Robot & Frank’s Katherine Waterston, the victim of a humiliating sex scene late in the proceedings) to take a look into the shady intentions of the wife of her current lover (Eric Roberts, Lovelace), Sportello dives headfirst into a plot involving murder, kidnapping, extortion, drugs, and sex.

Now, sounds like fun, right?  Perhaps…but my friends, it’ all in the execution and though Anderson knows how to produce a film with multiple storylines (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) things are rocky from the get-go.  Though I was initially intrigued by a pre-credit noir-ish sequence that finds Shasta visiting a sleepy Sportello and asking for his help the film lost me before fifteen minutes were up.  Even with the occasional foray into explicit hilarity such as Sportello’s visit to a massage parlor that boasts a menu of services that I can’t reprint here the majority of the film is a rough slough.

Reteaming with The Master star Phoenix, Anderson should have stuck with the original choice for the role….Robert Downey, Jr.  Though Downey was deemed “too old” for the part, Phoenix looks gruesomely ancient thanks to unkempt sideburns, permanently greasy hair, and unshaven scruff.  While Phoenix has a field day with the role, lounging through several drug induced sequences and slurring his words like was the Meryl Streep of lazy r’s, he’s only pleasing himself (and Anderson) as the haphazardly effective private eye.

The film’s labyrinthine plot may be interesting in hindsight but it’s so dense and unconcerned with our interest that I wondered if this shouldn’t have been a home movie for Anderson and Phoenix to watch huddled together with a bowl of popcorn on Oscar night.  Pynchon’s novel is chock full of wacky names and comic turns but onscreen it feels too goofy for its own good.  Josh Brolin (Oldboy), Reese Witherspoon (Mud), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and Benicio Del Toro (Savages) all show up as part of the caper at hand with only Brolin and Witherspoon in on whatever joke Anderson was attempting to convey.  Also of note is Joanna Newsom’s earthy performance as an acquaintance of Sportello, though I started to question if she was a figment of his imagination or not.

Let’s put a pin in showering Anderson with love simply because he started out so strongly.  I feel like it’s almost a sin for a cinephile to deride Anderson’s work but viewing a film like Magnolia side-by-side with Inherent Vice reveals a filmmaker that has given in to self-indulgence and forgotten that films are made for audiences (even discerning ones, though nearly a dozen at my screening didn’t stay for the whole picture).  It doesn’t have to be a simple, easy to digest, pallid work…but it does have to have a pulse.

The Silver Bullet ~ Inherent Vice

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Synopsis: In Los Angeles in 1970, drug-fueled detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

Release Date:  January 9, 2015

Thoughts: I didn’t like The Master. There, I said it and I’m not sorry I did. I thought it was bloated and too cuckoo for words. Not that it wasn’t a handsomely made film featuring great performances (however un-Oscar nomination worthy a few of them were…) and there’s little doubt that director Paul Thomas Anderson knows exactly what he’s doing behind the camera. Learning a lot from his mentor Robert Altman, Anderson may have his greatest tribute yet to the late master filmmaker with Inherent Vice, a 70s set detective story where Anderson can really go to town with his tripped out inclinations. Reuniting with Joaquin Phoenix (Her), looking to turn in another in a long line of loopy roles, Anderson’s newest project looks fun, fresh, and less meditative (read: snooze inducing) than his last picture.

The Silver Bullet ~ Wild

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Synopsis: A chronicle of one woman’s 1,100-mile solo hike undertaken as a way to recover from a recent catastrophe.

Release Date: December 5, 2014

Thoughts: Remember that time that Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar for Walk the Line?  Yeah…that seems like a distant memory now.  Though I still feel Witherspoon was led to the podium by a campaign based on charm rather than an award winning performance (Felicity Huffman should have been honored for Transamerica that particular year), she’s proved more often than not that she’s a smart cookie of an actress.  Paired with Jean-Marc Vallée who led not one but two actors to Oscar victory in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club and working with a script by Nick Hornby (About a Boy) based on Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild could be the movie that brings Witherspoon (This Means War, Mud) back into the top tier of Hollywood’s A-List.  Don’t expect some wimpy outdoor version of Eat, Pray, Love either…the trailer indicates Wild will be a raw journey for all involved.  That alone makes it worth looking forward to.

The Silver Bullet ~ Devil’s Knot

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Synopsis: The savage murders of three young children sparks a controversial trial of three teenagers accused of killing the kids as part of a satanic ritual.

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: Aside from a Broadway musical, I’m not sure if any visual art hasn’t taken a stab at the crime saga surrounding the West Memphis Three.  After the three landmark Paradise Lost documentaries and one recent feature documentary (West of Memphis) the story has now been adapted into a film starring two Oscar winners under the direction of an Oscar nominated director.  So why doesn’t the first trailer for the big screen treatment of Mara Leveritt’s well-researched investigative novel land better?

For me, it’s because I feel it’s all been done before using the real life players that have been involved in the tragedy.  We’ve seen the faces of the murdered children and the three young boys that were targeted as their killers.  We’ve followed their families, seen the pain of loss, and the gnawing feeling that the real person or persons responsible remain unpunished.  Can good actors like Reese Witherspoon (This Means War, Mud) and Colin Firth (Arthur Newman) get across that same emotion?

Originally positioned as an awards contender, after some early screenings the buzz is considerably lower and who knows how large of a release this will even get.  That’s too bad because this has a fantastic cast…however I think they’re simply stuck in a re-telling of events we’re familiar with.

MIFF Movie Review ~ Mud

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Two teenage boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker

Director: Jeff Nichols

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 130 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Owing a lot to similar coming-of-age tales like Stand By Me, The War, and even Whistle Down the Wind, Mud is director Nichols third film and follow-up to his critically hailed feature of 2011, Take Shelter.  What Nichols has crafted for his latest movie is an involving tale that mixes a few genres into its pot, puts the top on, and then waits for it to boil over.  While it simmers for a while and eventually ends up a satisfying if not quite hearty meal, Mud was a strong showing in the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival.

McConaughey has really been on a roll in the last few years.  After making a strong starring debut with A Time to Kill in 1996, he eventually sidelined into lighter fare that may have made money at the box office but didn’t season his acting chops any.  Then he started becoming involved with more independent features and that’s where he’s struck gold again.  Last year he made memorable appearances in Magic Mike (really the only good thing about the movie), Bernie, and Killer Joe.  Now he’s back in the leading man chair for Mud, playing the titular character…a man on the run that has a way with words.

Two boys find Mud living in a boat placed in a tree by flooding in the bayou and soon become involved with his plan to sweep the girl he loves (Witherspoon in a nicely muted small supporting role) off her feet and away to the gulf waters to avoid the law.  Mud paints a nicely romantic tale of forbidden love to the two boys but as the film develops we learn that everything isn’t as it seems and that some truths haven’t been acknowledged.

The film is told through the eyes of Ellis (Sheridan, in a well-layered performance) who seems to be on the same trajectory as Mud when it comes to falling for the wrong girl.  Barely a teen, he has eyes for an older woman and the pain of first love is handled by Sheridan and Nichols with care.  Paulson and McKinnon are nicely cast as Ellis’ parents, small-town folk adjusting to the reality of moving from their river home.

As you can see, there’s a lot of storyline to juggle and Nichols keeps everything flying for much of the film, only letting things dip when it feels natural.  Nichols once again is working with his Take Shelter star Shannon (Man of Steel) and resists casting him in several roles he may have been right for in favor of wisely utilizing him as the uncle to a friend of Ellis.

Mud is another nice departure for McConaughey – grubbed up with chipped teeth and greasy, tousled hair…he’s a fascinating character study that McConaughey seems to gobble up with aplomb.  As Mud starts to see the forest for the trees, we see the character at a crossroads rather than the actor making choices.  Nichols has given him a nice framework that McConaughey thrives in.

What I appreciated most about the film is the way that Nichols lets things happen in a naturalistic fashion.  It’s peppered with several edge of your seat moments…and not always for the reasons you’d expect.  If in the end the film sacrifices some of its earlier unexpected moments for a finale that feels too pat, it can be forgiven for the earlier noble attempts at something different.