Movie Review ~ Sing 2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Buster Moon and his friends must persuade reclusive rock star Clay Calloway to join them for the opening of a new show.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Taron Egerton, Bobby Cannavale, Tori Kelly, Nick Kroll, Halsey, Letitia Wright, Bono, Jennifer Saunders, Chelsea Peretti, Nick Offerman

Director: Garth Jennings

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: As animated films have developed into more sophisticated works over the last two decades, they’ve been praised for their efforts to include their adult audiences in on the fun just as much as their target audience.  The feeling from the studios seemed to be, “why not engage the grown-ups taking these kids to our movie at the same time.  It will likely attract more ticket-buyers who won’t mind taking their small ones to a particular title instead of the more mature content they might drag them to instead.”  (Truly, anything to keep an adult from bringing anyone under 14 into an R-Rated movie is absolutely fine by me!)  This attitude toward inclusion of all ages has led to a boon in business and writing that is more finely tuned, something I appreciated.

Lately, however, I’ve noticed that unspoken truce between studios and adults has waned more than a little bit and a number of animated films have become little more than ninety-minute noise machines, swirls of color that pass by without leaving any lasting impression on the viewer.  At least the reviewer that has a driver’s license, votes, and pays taxes.  I know I’m not the target audience for a movie like Sing 2 so ultimately all that matters is what a youngster comes out of the film feeling.  In that light, take my review as thoughts for the adults that may be considering this title over another to watch with their kids or even a solo trip based on their film preferences….because if you ask a child what they think about Sing 2 after all 112 minutes are up (yes, nearly two hours long), they’ll give it a guaranteed thumbs up. 

It’s been a minute since Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Serenity) rebuilt his decaying theater, saved by a kindly patron (Jennifer Saunders, Isn’t It Romantic) who witnessed the talent from a motley crew of animals with various hang-ups who participated in a singing competition.  Still selling out crowds, Moon wants to take the show to the next level, but a visit from a talent agent speaking on behalf of tycoon Jimmy Crystal (Bobby Cannavale, Annie) tells them they aren’t up to snuff.  Undeterred, Moon gathers his top talent (including Reese Witherspoon, Mud, as a mother pig with confidence issues) and heads to meet Crystal in person and in the process winds up pitching an over the top show starring a reclusive singer (Bono) without having the faintest idea of how to pull it all off. 

It’s simple to see how writer/director Garth Jennings plans to connect the dots from the start, so the best you can do is wait to see which songs Jennings chooses to use.  As in the first one, the voices on display from the cast are surprisingly strong from actors that aren’t (or weren’t at the time of the original) known for their singing.  Taron Egerton (Rocketman) performs a powerhouse version of Coldplays “A Sky Full of Stars” while Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow) makes a loud entrance with “Heads Will Roll” by the Yeah Yeah Yeah’s.  Bono’s presence means a good supply of U2 songs are touched on and the band contributes an original song that isn’t half bad.  The bummer is that so many of these singing moments are brief snippets of songs.  Coming out so soon after West Side Story and tick, tick…BOOM! when we basked in the glow of full-scale musical numbers, this feels like a Cliff Notes version of what a musical should be.

I imagine the first film is one a number of parents will have on as background noise to keep their kids occupied while they wrap their presents, and it might be wise to wait until Sing 2 is available next Christmas to do the same.  It’s not worth the time (or cash) to travel to the theater for that family event, not when there are other titles with better lessons out there (Encanto springs quickly to mind, available soon on Disney+) hitting stronger notes.

Movie Review ~ A Wrinkle in Time (2018)

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The Facts:

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.

Stars: Oprah Winfrey, Mindy Kaling, Reese Witherspoon, Storm Reid, Gugu Mbatha Raw, Chris Pine, Zach Galifianakis, Andre Holland, Levi Miller, Deric McCabe, Bellamy Young, Rowan Blanchard, Will McCormack, Michael Pena

Director: Ava DuVernay

Rated: PG

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It was always going to be possible for any adaption of Madeleine L’Engle’s classic 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time to get bungled on its way to the big screen. The deep ideas, meditational themes, and introspective characters didn’t exactly lend themselves to a sure-fire project that could easily be translated from page to film. I grew up with this book and it’s one of the few I’ve gone back to several times over the years. I’ve seen the previous television movie adaptation, performed in it onstage, and seen other theatrical productions over the years. So, full disclosure, this one was close to my heart.

When Walt Disney Studios acquired the rights to the novel and brought on red-hot director Ava DuVernay (Selma) to guide its development, my interest was piqued and my hopes raised. When DuVernay went on to assemble a cast of A-List stars there was another jolt of confidence brought on by the names and faces of actors that had previously chosen their projects wisely. Then a much-hyped debut of the first trailer got me thinking that the magic of A Wrinkle in Time would indeed survive and thrive.

So imagine how deflating it was to sit in an IMAX theater and watch what should have been a slam-dunk miss the mark entirely. Like, completely. Now I know that I may hold the source material as perhaps a tad more precious than I should, which would make any attempt to bring it to life an impossible bar to overcome. No, I actually went in with eyes wide open and arms outstretched ready to be transported off the ground only to be depressingly earthbound throughout.

Several years after her scientist father mysteriously disappears, Meg Murray (Storm Reid) is still struggling to adjust to his absence. Her mother (Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Beauty and the Beast) and younger brother Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe) offer support but Meg has descended into a funk that’s robbed her of self-confidence and her spark. That all changes with the late-night appearance of flighty and flame-haired Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon, Home Again) who is the first arrival in the trio of ladies that will bring Meg, Charles Wallace, and Meg’s school friend Calvin (Levi Miller, Pan) on an adventure across time and space.

Joined by Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling, Inside Out) who only speaks in quotes and the grand Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) the children explore Uriel, a world far distant from their own. There the Mrs’ reveal to the children that the universe as they know it is coming under siege from a being they call The IT which is an embodiment of evil. After a visit to The Happy Medium (Zach Galifianakis, Muppets Most Wanted) the kids must travel alone to the peculiar realm of Camazotz where they will come face to face with their fears, relying on their inner strength to battle the forces of darkness.

While the script from Jennifer Lee (Zootopia) and Jeff Stockwell remains fairly faithful to L’Engle’s novel, it fails to bring forth any wonderment or magic in the proceedings. A novel with themes of rebellion against societal norms and overcoming struggle with finding one’s own originality winds up being an overly talky self-help seminar that’s dreadfully dull. As a strong advocate for social change and equality, you can see why the tenets of the book had long held an appeal for DuVernay but she surprisingly struggles mightily with keeping her film afloat.

While she’s found a nice discovery in the bold Reid who turns in a confident performance, the rest of DuVernay’s troupe is largely made up of miscasting. Winfrey feels like she’s playing a version of herself, a wise, level-headed sage that speaks in new age-y proverbs and spends the first half of the movie 50 times the size of any other character. Witherspoon is badly out of place in the space-y role that Kaling would have been an infinitely better fit for. Kaling instead is relegated to reciting eye-rolling quotes including a downright groan-worthy one from Lin-Manuel Miranda near the film’s conclusion. Galifianakis is a woeful low-point and poor Michael Pena (End of Watch) is stuck playing a red-eyed denizen of Camazotz. As written, Calvin has even less to do with the action than in the book but Miller has a sweetly platonic chemistry with Reid that works nicely. As Meg’s missing dad Chris Pine (The Finest Hours) may wear the cardigan of a scientist studying time travel but he won’t convince you otherwise he’s cracked a science book in the last decade.

For a movie from this family-friendly studio and adorned with a hefty-budget, the filmmakers seem to not understand who exactly the movie is for. It could have been pitched to mid-teens just fine but there’s so many silly elements and goofy developments that it feels like a wide net was cast. When Witherspoon turns into what looks to be a fantastic piece of flying lettuce and takes the kids for a ride through a field of humming flowers, you may wonder if any focus groups were even brought in to steer this one back on course.

A Wrinkle in Time spawned several sequels involving Meg and her friends but if this labored effort is any indication of the thematic future of the series, I hope significant time is spent smoothing out the wrinkles of the lessons learned here. Every person involved with this picture is capable of so much more than what was delivered – the first real disappointment of 2018.

Movie Review ~ Home Again

The Facts:

Synopsis: Life for a single mom in Los Angeles takes an unexpected turn when she allows three young guys to move in with her.

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Pico Alexander, Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky, Michael Sheen, Candice Bergen, Lake Bell

Director: Hallie Meyers-Shyer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Reese Witherspoon looks like ‘meh’ on the poster for Home Again and after seeing it you may understand why. Maybe it’s the fact that this A-lister is stuck in a B-movie with C-list stars. Perhaps it’s because the direction from first-timer Hallie Meyers-Shyer is as amateurish as her script. Or it could be that the movie is just pure white-washed piffle, meant to go down easy and float from your consciousness the moment you get to your car. Whatever the reason may be, this is one you can easily take a pass on.

At 97 minutes, Home Again has the look, feel, and structure of three episodes of a Netflix series that Witherspoon somehow wandered into. Filmed mostly on one set (Witherspoon’s homey California dwelling) under lights so bright you can often see make-up lines on the actors faces, it feels lo-fi and out of place on the big screen. Aside from Witherspoon and Candice Bergen as her movie-star mom, none of the supporting cast feels like they’re ready for this undertaking and that makes the entire production continually strain to prove its purpose for existing.

Separated from her music mogul husband who has remained on the East Coast, Alice (Witherspoon, Hot Pursuit) is a mom to two girls adjusting to life as a 40-year-old back at the Los Angeles manse of her late father. A famous film director, her pop must have left her quite a fortune because the house sports furnishings straight out of a Pottery Barn/Restoration Hardware catalog. Out to celebrate her birthday with friends she winds up taking young Harry (Pico Alexander, A Most Violent Year) home for a night cut short by his sour stomach. The next morning she finds that not only did Harry come home with her but so did his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff, Paper Towns) and their friend George (Jon Rudnitsky).

Surprisingly, Bergen comes up with the idea of her daughter providing lodging for the cash-strapped trio who are in CA to pitch a film to a famous producer. Soon the guys are bonding with Alice’s tykes while Harry and Alice awkwardly maneuver around their growing fondness for one another. When Alice’s estranged husband Austin (Michael Sheen, Passengers) shows up ready to re-join his family it throws the newly found harmony out of sych. There’s also a barely there B-story of Alice working for a high-strung socialite (Lake Bell, Million Dollar Arm, wearing an array of loony mumus) that provides Witherspoon the opportunity to flex her comedic muscles when she gets sloshed and tells off her nightmare boss.

That Meyers-Shyer wrote and directed a movie like this isn’t entirely unexpected, after all she’s the daughter of Charles Shyer and Nancy Meyers who together and separately have given us films like Baby Boom, Father of the Bride, It’s Complicated, The Holiday, The Intern, and Something’s Gotta Give. It’s that the movie is such a pale imitation of what her parents have all but perfected (much to my chagrin)…the white-woman fantasy. I’ve said it about films from Nancy Meyers in the past and I’m going to say it here for Home Again…how this movie could be made with barely any minorities is kinda atrocious. There are scenes in set in Los Angeles clubs, restaurants, and offices yet aside from one horribly stereotypical Indian motel worker there are zero people of color who have speaking roles, let alone appear in the movie at all. Alice doesn’t have any black friends? Her kids don’t attend school with any observed minorities? The movie is soaked in white privilege at its most yuck-o and I find it a bit embarrassing Witherspoon didn’t notice it.

Speaking of Witherspoon, watching the movie you’ll wonder how this Oscar-winning actress who has shown a keen knack for choosing the right properties for herself in the past few years wound up in this backwards facing vehicle. She labors almost victoriously with some inane dialogue and nearly convinces us she’s falling for the charmless Alexander as her young beau. Alexander, for his part, is completely miscast here and watching him in scenes with Witherspoon or Bergen is like watching a car crash in slow motion. Rudnitsky has some appeal in a goofy way yet the movie explore his possible fondness for Alice and subsequent jealously of Harry while Wolff instigates the most audience pleasing moment of the film.

I don’t think I’m that off base feeling that Home Again would seem like a better fit as a streaming series. There are enough subplots to cover several episodes and the basic premise could have some legs had Meyers-Shyer sharpened her script, developed her characters, and surrounded Witherspoon with a better ensemble. As presented, Home Again is a movie free of consequence for everyone and absent a rounded conclusion.

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
:
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.