Movie Review ~ The To Do List

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To-Do

The Facts:

Synopsis: Feeling pressured to become more sexually experienced before she goes to college, Brandy Clark makes a list of things to accomplish before hitting campus in the fall.

Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Johnny Simmons, Bill Hader, Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele, Rachel Bilson, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Donald Glover, Scott Porter, Andy Samberg, Connie Britton, Clark Gregg

Director: Maggie Carey

Rated: R

Running Length: 100 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Fret not, all of you out there that have lamented the death of the 80’s screwball sex farce for a picture is coming that should get you all misty for a cinematic time long since passed.  In the grand tradition of films like Joysticks, Hardbodies, The Last American Virgin and the more ribald sequels to American Pie, The To Do List is a decidedly slight coming of age story chock full of crude humor and kooky performances.  Like those earlier films, though, there are some troubles to be had as the one joke set-up reaches its climax long before our leading lady does.

In an interesting bit of genre gender bending, The To Do List exchanges a nerdy, awkward virginal male for a nerdy, awkward, virginal female that has spent her high school hot lunch days with her nose in books rather than the crotches of her classmates.  After graduating and before heading to Stanford, Brandy (Aubrey Plaza, Safety Not Guaranteed, Monsters University) has a summer job to look forward to and watching Beaches with her friends (Alia Shawkat, Sarah Steele).

This being a sex comedy, of course the film has to take place in the past (1993 never looked so perfectly embarrassing), Brandy’s job is at a struggling summer pool that operates in the shadow of a larger country club and her two friends are stock character non-virgins more than happy to educate our naïve star on what she has to look forward to in college.  Taking advice from her foul mouthed sister (Rachel Bilson), Brandy makes up a list of all the sins of the flesh that she wants to commit before September rolls around.  This “To Do List” is filled with a variety of popular terms out of the urban dictionary that aren’t fit to print in a review my mom will probably read.  As Brandy goes through her list –  ‘Wow…there are a lot of ‘jobs’ here”  – the audience laughs along with the knowing nostalgia of where we were the first time we found out what a ‘shocker’ actually was.

As Brandy makes her way through the list and through several boys at her work (including a perfectly pitched performance by Johnny Simmons as an ardent devotee of Brandy) her end goal is to lose her V-Card to studly lifeguard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter), a bleach blonde 90’s stud that “feels like Marky Mark looks”.  Some nice turns from Porter and Bill Hader as the washed out manager of the pool do land where they need to but poor Connie Britton and Clark Gregg (Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Marvel’s The Avengers) are underused as Brandy’s parental units…an understanding mom and uptight dad.  Britton and Gregg are talented enough to make their shoehorned in roles appealing but are ultimately stymied by an underwritten script.

Reportedly inspired by writer/director Maggie Carey (Hader’s wife) and her experiences before college, the movie is really just a series of the same punch lines over and  over again.  That works for a while but with a film that nearly reaches 105 minutes the laughs don’t come as often as they should and the lessons that will be learned are clear before the first reel is over

Though the dialogue is incredibly (and almost laughably) crude and there’s an abundance of bodily emissions that end up in the mouth of Plaza the film is surprisingly chaste.  The one thing that the 80’s film has on this entry is stars not quite famous enough to feel self-conscious about showing a little skin.  Even in the throes of passion everyone is covered up in the film but I’m not saying if the film had nudity it would have been more successful…just more in line with the old-school feel the more is obviously already going for.

For fans of these retro sex comedies, you’ll probably get more than a few laughs out of The To Do List but it’s a film that will probably play better on the small screen rather than in a cavernous theater where the laughs die quickly.  Though well acted by a more than game cast in an obviously low-budget production, the movie can only manage to get up to second base before losing stamina.

Movie Review ~ The Sapphires

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The Facts:

Synopsis: It’s 1968, and four young, talented Australian Aboriginal girls learn about love, friendship and war when their all girl group The Sapphires entertain the US troops in Vietnam.

Stars: Chris O’Dowd, Deborah Mailman, Jessica Mauboy, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell

Director: Wayne Blair

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Make no doubt about it; The Sapphires is a movie with a mission.  It’s a film that wants so badly to appease its audience and appeal to the masses that it sacrifices some chances to let a more honest story develop.  What the film does have is a healthy dose of charm that helps propel the movie to a viewing experience that’s nigh-joyful if not completely memorable as the days go by.

In 1968, three Aboriginal sisters from the Australian Outback team up with their cousin to form The Sapphires, a girl group managed by Dave Lovelace (O’Dowd, Bridesmaids).  Together, the five travel to Vietnam to perform for the troops, face old feuds, and discover themselves in a country torn apart by war.

A true life tale adapted from a stage play penned as a tribute to relatives of the author, The Sapphires transitions easily to the screen with the help of director Blair and screenwriter Tony Briggs.  Original cast member Mailman was a wise choice to bring along for the film version because she brings an earthy realness as the eldest sister that takes on a mother hen tough love role for the group.  There’s a barely there subplot about some family turmoil but the film excels when it’s focused on the rise of the group from singing in local bars to belting out R&B tunes of the day to soldiers on the front lines.

In addition to Mailman there’s fine work from Australian Idol finalist Mauboy as the youngest sister with the best voice and biggest attitude.  Tapsell is a hoot as the sister that never gets her way while Sebbens is less effective in an underwritten role.  That leaves O’Dowd who many critics credit with giving the film its best shot at mainstream appeal.  I don’t think O’Dowd is a noticeable enough star to pack ‘em in but his game performance is very appealing.  Like Bridesmaids, I think he benefits greatly from having a confident female in a leading role for him to play off of – I didn’t find much chemistry between O’Dowd and Mailman though the movie tries it damndest to create some sort of spark.

The musical numbers are staged well making the film not simply Dreamgirls Down Under and several moments create the kind of giddy excitement that doesn’t come around much in film these days.  Yet underneath it all is a manipulative presence suggesting the film is gung-ho about having its cake and eating it too.  It’s smaller budget make some of the Vietnam sequences look fairly fake and I liked the film most when it was exploring the origins of The Sapphires and utilizing some local color for a reality check.

The Sapphires swept the Australian version of the Oscars this year, winning 11 of its 12 nominations and becoming one of the biggest box office hits of the year.  While the film has struggled to find an audience outside of Australia, the Weinstein Company (who, as Miramax, had a nice run of Australian imports like Muriel’s Wedding in the mid 90’s) is throwing some cash behind it to see if it can catch fire here as well.  It’s an enjoyable film and one I wanted to root for but with its predictable contrivances it falls just shy of being the crowd-pleasing home run it so wants to be.  Going along with the baseball metaphor, let’s call this one a base hit…maybe a double if you factor in some strong performances.

Down From the Shelf ~ How to Survive a Plague

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of two coalitions — ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group) — whose activism and innovation turned AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable condition.

Stars: Peter Staley, Larry Kramer, Iris Long

Director: David France

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 120 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  This passionate documentary about how the AIDS crisis gave birth to a new form of activism isn’t the first film about the impact that HIV has had on our world to garner Oscar attention but it’s a strong addition to the historical record of how a disease labeled ‘Gay Cancer’ became a global issue that hit close to home for nearly everyone.

Using invaluable video records, documentarian David France brings the audience into the world of the early responders who demanded more information from a government that didn’t respond as fast or as well as they should.  From local politicians all the way up through the highest level of government, the call to action wasn’t heard until many people had died.

Two activist groups were front and center during these years and where the film really fires on all cylinders is charting the coming together of like-minded individuals and the eventual fracture that happened amongst them thanks to in-fighting and differences of approach taken to get the message out.  Both sides are impassioned in seeking answers and neither are wrong…the strength of the film lies in its middle of the road approach that lets the audience decide for themselves where they would figure into the mix.

As is typical of documentaries that deal with illness, many of the faces that we meet during the course of the film are no longer with us but they live on in the archive footage of their speeches at memorials, rallies, and backyard parties.  These men and women were ready to shout and scream until someone heard our cries for help.

Activism about the AIDS crisis continues even today and the film feels very current in its information – a new generation has grown up knowing what AIDS is and its effects on families and loved ones.  While the dark days of no information may be behind us, there’s still more work to do until a cure is found…and it’s inspiring to know that so many people fought so hard to educate the public.

A film with many moving moments, How to Survive a Plague gets to the heart of the matter early on and is perhaps just a little longer than it has to be.  Length is of little concern though since the subjects are so frustrating yet watchable.

Movie Review ~ Promised Land

promised_land

The Facts:

Synopsis: A salesman for a natural gas company experiences life-changing events after arriving in a small town, where his corporation wants to tap into the available resources

Stars: Matt Damon, John Krasinski, Frances McDormand, Rosemarie DeWitt, Scoot McNairy, Titus Welliver, Hal Holbrook

Director: Gus Van Sant

Rated: R

Running Length: 106 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  The ads for Promised Land make it seem like it’s a cross between Erin Brockovich and Silkwood — while there is a definite David vs. Goliath element to the plot, it turns out that the film is less interested in the business side of things and more focused in the subtle exploration of what constitutes the “right thing to do”.   In the end, the film is perhaps too subtle for its own good and ends up barely making a blip on the radar despite even keeled direction and strong performances.

Damon and McDormand are representatives for a natural gas company that is looking to lease precious farm land from a community sitting on top of a 150 million dollar payload.  Instead of going in as smarmy salespeople, the two seek to ingratiate themselves with the townspeople so they can make their pitch with ease.  It’s a tricky balancing act to perform; we aren’t sure if they believe what they’re saying/selling so it’s hard to know what to discredit.

We’re shown early on that the team of Damon/McDormand are at the top of their field, so it’s no surprise that any sort of problem with this particular town takes a while to become evident.  It’s the combination of an informed retiree (Holbrook) and the appearance of an environmentalist with a personal story to tell (Krasinski) that throws two very big wrenches in what should have been an open and shut sales trip.

I appreciated that the film kept the big city business element out of the picture – there’s very little involvement from the billion dollar company that has sent Damon and McDormand out to close the deal. Instead, we watch as the two continue to meet with their target audience to not only sell them on their plans but stand up to the claims that their mining procedures would eventually turn the soil and water toxic.

Damon and Krasinski wrote the screenplay from a story by David Eggers and the piece is very timely.  As we continue to deplete our natural resources and fight for oil overseas, there is the thought that we need to look within our own soil for a way to fuel our country.  As farming begins to disappear across the US, the leasing of land to natural gas companies may be the only way for families and communities to survive.  To its credit, the movie does make good points on both sides but because it never really takes a solid stand either way there is a feeling of neutrality that may leave some unsatisfied.

Reteaming with his Good Will Hunting director Van Sant, Damon delivers a nicely nuanced performance — though I found it hard to believe that it’s this particular town that opens his eyes to problems within his company.  A shoehorned semi-romance with a teacher (DeWitt) doesn’t seem to jive with the rest of the movie and the implied competition with Krasinski for her hand feels a bit too pat.  Speaking of Krasinski, it’s clear that he’s got more in him than the character he’s played for nine seasons on television’s The Office but it’s strange that he’s written himself such a one dimensional role.  It also bugged me that his environmentalist character is very concerned about chemicals in the ground but could care less about scattering hundreds of pamphlets around town and Damon’s truck.

It’s really McDormand that quietly steals the show from her male counterparts.  Clearly realizing this is simply a job to support her family, she can be equal parts bulldog and supportive parental figure.  Her scenes with a local business owner (Welliver) have the kind of on the money feel that the film needed more of.  Wearing little make-up and dressed down, she looks the part and acts it wonderfully.

Swede cinematographer Linus Sandgren helps Van Sant’s even-keeled direction with a nice eye for small town life.  There are the requisite shots of American flags, county stores, and endless fields of harvest but it’s straightforward enough to not feel gimmicky.  Danny Elfman’s score is a far cry from the work he’s done for Tim Burton and it’s nice to hear something smooth and considerate from him.

Promised Land is a perfectly fine film with good people doing good work.  It’s going to fade from your memory quite fast and probably isn’t a movie you’ll revisit after it’s over.  Perhaps it’s too small of a film to really have an impact on the big screen – had it been made for television it might have worked out better.  That being said, it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of anyone involved or some of the stronger thematic material it covers.

Down From the Shelf ~ Flatliners

flatliners

The Facts:

Synopsis: Medical students bring themselves near death; their experiment begins to go awry

Stars: Kiefer Sutherland, Kevin Bacon, Julia Roberts, Oliver Platt, William Baldwin

Director: Joel Schumacher

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There are some movies that bring up a lot of memories when you hear the title and for me just hearing the name Flatliners takes me back to the summer of 1990 when I anxiously awaited the August release of this thriller.  I recall the movie was released when my family was at our cabin and I wouldn’t be able to see it until we returned to the cities but it wasn’t long until my dad took me (hey, I was still underage for an R-rated movie!) to Yorktown 3 for a weeknight showing.

Flatliners has always been a guilty pleasure film for me with its over-the-top concept, stylish direction by Schumacher, and enjoyable performances by a cast that have all gone on to bigger and better things (well, maybe Baldwin excluded).  Revisiting the film again recently, I found that it still packed a nice little punch even if my adult eyes saw many of the cracks that previously went over my head.

Schumacher was a hot director at the time and was still riding the successful high of The Lost Boys three years earlier.  His remake of a French romance (Cousins) was well-received yet Schumacher would change course again to deliver what may seem like a horror film but is really more of a drama-thriller.  Re-teaming with one of his Lost Boys (Sutherland) and nabbing shooting star Roberts (who filmed this before Pretty Woman was released in March of 1990) was a bit of a coup and both actors, along with Bacon, Platt, and Baldwin formed a nice quintet of players as medical students pushing the line between life and death.

Sutherland has always been an interesting actor (much like his father, Donald) and he turns what could have been a one note hero/anti-hero role into a guy with some depth though it’s masked by a false bravado.  Film history has established that doctors have a God-complex and that notion is played up as the medical students each take turns ‘flatlining’ in an after-hours illegal pseudo-study group.  It’s when they are brought back that, unbeknownst to them, they bring something else back with them.

Essentially, the same scenario is replayed over and over again as each of our leads has a different experience in the thin line between heaven and earth.  All of the post-revival happenings are menacing in one way or another but none are of the serial killer variety…though the film’s preview tries to trick you into thinking they are.  Sutherland begins to be terrorized by a boy from his youth, Roberts sees her dead father, and Baldwin’s seedy past comes back to haunt him.  The secret to Bacon’s struggle seems to parallel what Sutherland is going through but a surprisingly emotional twist brings the film its best scene between Bacon and someone from his past. 

This could have been made by any number of directors with any combination of actors but the group that has been assembled strongly delivers a thriller even with its definite B-movie origins.  Elevating it slightly is James Newton Howard’s alarming score and Jan de Bont’s excellent visuals.  The film was shot around Loyola University in Chicago and Schumacher mines the campus and its gothic design for all it’s worth.

Flatliners does fall, um, flat in the middle section but I’ve always responded well to the movie in my numerous viewings of it throughout the years.  Yes, the basic plot stretches the bounds of any logical credibility and in hindsight much of it doesn’t line up but I’m willing to forgive a lot from a film that has its eyes and ears in the right place.  From a visual standpoint alone the film is recommended, and if you’re looking for a slick thriller from the 90’s that isn’t too horribly dated, you can’t miss with this one.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella

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stella

The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.

31 Days to Scare ~ Kill List

The MN Movie Man

The Facts:

Synopsis: Nearly a year after a botched job, a hitman takes a new assignment with the promise of a big payoff for three killings. What starts off as an easy task soon unravels, sending the killer into the heart of darkness.

Stars:  Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring, Michael Smiley, Harry Simpson

Director: Ben Wheatley

Rated: Not Rated

Running Length: 95 Minutes

Random Crew Highlight: Armourer ~ Mike Wild

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  This is not a movie for everyone.  Let’s just get that out of the way right off the bat.  Even hardcore genre fans will have a tough time with this one as it plays several nasty tricks with plot and logic that may be simply too much to accept for most.  Those that enjoy their films with a raw edge and a dangerous angle should pay attention, because…

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