Movie Review ~ Whitney


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An in-depth look at the life and music of Whitney Houston.

Stars: Whitney Houston

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: When I was young and MTV was just starting, I remember asking a friend’s sister to record this one video from an artist I just loved because I wanted to be able to watch it whenever I wanted. I even used a tape recorder to nab a sound recording so I could listen to it on the go. The song? How Will I Know. The artist? Whitney Houston. It was the start of a life-long devotion to the singer and sometimes actress, one that didn’t end with her tragic death at 48 on February 11, 2012.  Before she died and even after she was gone, rumors about drug use, sexual abuse, and destructive behavior swirled around the artist leaving many to believe the lies without knowing the truth.

In the new documentary Whitney, director Kevin Macdonald (How I Live Now) explores Houston’s meteoric rise and untimely fall through an introspective lens. Though he’s become more well known for Hollywood films, Macdonald got his start with documentary filmmaking and has kept to his roots throughout the years. It’s Macdonald’s experience with this genre and his piqued interest in the subject that propels Whitney from being a standard biography to an electric showcase of the dark side of fame.  Seeing the previews for Whitney I expected to come out of the film sad but never expected to come out as mad as I did. Here’s another tale of a talent surrounded by people that loved her for what she gave them but turned a blind eye to her cries for help. Not wanting to upset their meal ticket, it’s clear that family, friends, and co-workers were unwilling to tell the troubled performer no and largely sat idly by as she imploded.

An interesting technique Macdonald uses is to give viewers a snapshot of what was going on in the world at various points throughout Houston’s career. Interspersed with family photos and videos are television ads of the day and news clips from key events. It’s not exactly a revolutionary method but it helps set the scene quickly and distinctly. Through the years we get a better idea of what kind of impact Houston had on pop culture and how, after her public battle with drugs, she eventually became a joke to the very people that once sang her praises.

As she was growing up in New Jersey, Macdonald interviews those that knew Nippy (Houston’s nickname) and could tell at an early age that she possessed something special. Raised by her civil servant father and groomed by her famous mother (Cissy Houston, a singer), Houston was exactly the kind of fresh face and powerful voice that the music industry didn’t even know they needed. Shepherded by Clive Davis at Arista records, Macdonald boldly moves the action far forward, jumping from the popularity of her first album and skipping over the next several years as Houston cements herself as a gigantic star.  Going beyond the music, Macdonald shins a light on secrets within the Houston family and goes into uncomfortable detail in how everything in Houston’s upbringing wasn’t as rosy as her PR team made it out to be.

A telling sign of how fame can affect family and friends, many of the subjects interviewed get “employee” added to their onscreen relationship credit over time. Eventually, everyone that she was close to got on her payroll which caused great conflicts of interest between the star and those she trusted. Were they giving her advice as a friend or as an employee? Did they have her best interest as a person in mind or were they just looking the other way to keep getting a paycheck.  Thankfully, Macdonald doesn’t fall on either side of this issue but keeps Whitney as objective as possible. This viewer surely made his own conclusions but the filmmaker lets the words of Houston and those that knew her tell the story…and lets some of them dig their own grave. In frank and honest interviews, people admit to, among other things, providing Houston with drugs, knowing about sexual abuse within Houston’s extended family, and worrying about her parenting of daughter Bobbi Kristina. Houston’s notorious ex-husband Bobby Brown pops up and does himself no favors while the brief time we sepnd with Houston’s mother tells us all we need to know about the fire in their bellies that fueled their dreams of success.

While Macdonald covers a lot of bases (including the rumors about Houston’s sexuality) he never fully ties up any loose ends. There are several items that are introduced but never truly explored, a sign the film could have been a lot longer had Macdonald been free from the constraints of a theatrical running length. My hope is that any excised footage or interviews are made available on a home release or that a longer version is compiled at a later time. There’s just too much to cover in two hours and, while it’s all fascinating, too many of the fairly important pieces to  a much deeper puzzle are left in the box.

Let’s just face facts, Whitney Houston was one of the best singers in history and to lose her so early was an outright tragedy. Could her death have been prevented? Was there something more someone could have done? Sadly, the answer is yes and while Whitney doesn’t try to answer all the questions audiences may come with, it does provide stunning evidence that many people let her down.

Movie Review ~ Wonderstruck

The Facts:

Synopsis: The story of a young boy in the Midwest is told simultaneously with a tale about a young girl in New York from fifty years ago as they both seek the same mysterious connection.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Michelle Williams, Oakes Fegley, Millicent Simmonds, Cory Michael Smith, Tom Noonan, James Urbaniak

Director: Todd Haynes

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: We’re all about honesty at The MN Movie Man so I’ll admit that I was a little sleepy when I caught an early preview of Wonderstuck a few weeks back. Seen on a double screening day, I struggled greatly not only keeping up with its ping-pong-y plot but just staying awake for the new film from well-liked director Todd Haynes. Based on Brian Selznick’s thick tome that’s a hybrid of novel and picture book (much like his previous hit Hugo which found its own way to screens a few years back), Selznick also wrote the screenplay and one wonders what Haynes would have done (or could have done) had he run the whole show.

Taking place in two time periods that eventually collide in unexpected ways, Wonderstuck spends a good hour just to get moving and another half hour after that to provoke the kind of wonderment I think the filmmakers were going for. For those first sixty minutes I was largely at sea with the two tales. One features a motherless boy named Ben (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon) in the ‘70s who loses his hearing in a freak accident before running away to find his unknown father. The other trails deaf-mute Rose (the exceptional Millicent Simmonds) as she embarks on a quest to track down her favorite Hollywood actress (Julianne Moore, Still Alice) making a return to the New York stage following the advent of talkies in the late ‘20s.

Ben’s story is displayed in the vibrant, pulsating with color world of the ‘70s while Rose’s is presented in somber black and white silence. No matter how good or bad his movies are, the one thing you can absolutely say about a Todd Haynes film is that the production design will be flawless and that’s certainly the case here. Production designer Mark Friedberg (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) recreates two totally different eras of NYC with a master’s touch. I totally marveled at the depth of detail evoked by each period…if this isn’t an Oscar front-runner already, it surely will be as more people in the know see it.

How the stories eventually come together is a mystery that isn’t as easy to solve as you may first realize. The disparate time periods would suggest a different solution than Selznick arrives at but by the time we get to our destination the film has overstayed its welcome every so slightly and explained more than it showed how it all came to be.  It does help that the performances across the board are delivered with a strong sense of conviction.  Fegley’s frustration at his loss of hearing, the loss of his mother (Michelle Williams, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later), and the needle in NY haystack he’s out to find is crushingly felt as is Simmonds wish for independence despite the limitations others perceive her as having.  Moore, as usual, makes a strong showing in dual roles that are polar opposites of each other.

To its credit, the final fifteen minutes are exceptionally moving and send you out of theater better than when you arrived…but at the same time I wish the film had found another fifteen minutes to excise. It wants to be a family art-house prestige picture but can’t get out of its own way to find a stronger rhythm that will hold the attention of young and old alike. That’s all well and good for the previous films that Haynes has directed like Carol or Far From Heaven, these films had the benefit of playing to an adult audience looking for a sophistication. If Wonderstruck is able to find that family audience, I think that’s wonderful and I hope it happens. However, parents should take this one in first to determine if their kids are up for something challenging.

 

Movie Review ~ Hello, My Name is Doris

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hello_my_name_is_doris
The Facts
:

Synopsis: A self-help seminar inspires a sixty-something woman to romantically pursue her younger co-worker.

Stars: Sally Field, Max Greenfield, Natasha Lyonne, Kumail Nanjiani, Peter Gallagher, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tyne Daly, Beth Behrs

Director: Michael Showalter

Rated: R

Running Length: 95 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: Some people watch scary movies peeking out from behind their hands covering their eyes. I do the same thing for movies with socially awkward people trying and failing to be heard. There’s something inherently not enjoyable about seeing a person already uncomfortable in their own skin being put through an emotional ringer. For the masochists out there that love a good grimace, you need look no further than Hello, My Name is Doris, a whiffle of a dramedy that ultimately finds success in its lead performers.

Sally Field is Doris, a data processer at a hip New York ad agency that has kept her around for politically correct reasons rather than necessity. Mourning the recent loss of her mother and avoiding the urges of her brother and his wife to sell their family home, she finds a ray of sunshine when John Fremont (Max Greenfield, The Big Short) joins the company. Newly relocated from Malibu, John is everything Doris is not…young, current, and confident. Doris develops a fixation on John and daydreams about him saying sweet words before locking her in a passionate embrace.

There’s more to the story thought, with a hoarding subplot that seeks to explain a little more about why Doris acts and reacts the way she does. Her friends (Tyne Daly, Caroline Aaron) chalk up the obsession to another wild fantasy Doris has dreamed up, before realizing too late that she’s doing more damage to herself in the process. When John starts dating another woman, Doris drinks away her sorrows and innocently sets into motion events that lead to an inevitable denouement.

You’ll wince through a lot of the movie; only because it’s hard to see a character so clueless learn such difficult lessons late in life. Shielded somewhat from the outside world and dreams of romance after caring for her mother for so many years, Doris sees John as a chance to reclaim some of the years she’s lost but can’t see that they’re on two different journeys running parallel to each other.

As usual Field (Steel Magnolias) is a treat, coloring Doris in a way that makes you feel for her even when she’s making a wrong move. I feel like every character in the film has at least one moment where they have a ‘poor Doris’ look on their face and Field earns those melancholy stares. Her best moments come near the end of the film, especially in one dialogue-free scene where the buttoned up woman literally lets her hair down and sees herself for the first time as she really is underneath all of her accessories.

Field is well matched by the appealing Greenfield, who manages to take a role that could have been your standard unattainable dreamboat and show some nuance to him as well with writer/director Michael Showalter (adapting this from a short film by Laura Terruso) making sure that John isn’t the image of perfection. At one point John tells Doris that he worries he’s boring…and you can see it’s a genuine fear of his. Because like Doris, he just wants to be noticed for who he is.

At 95 minutes, the film is well-paced and ever so slightly rough around its independent edges. More thought seems to have gone into Doris’s thrift store wardrobe and headscarves than continuity. Like Doris, it’s a bit thrown together and flat out drops certain central characters without much fanfare. A rather impressive roster of familiar faces pepper the supporting cast but their appearances are so brief that they become even more inconsequential to a film that only wants to focus (rightfully so) on the leads.

If you can muscle through an hour and a half of squirming uncomfortably every time Doris rocks out to electronic dance music or is caught embarrassingly daydreaming of romantic interludes, this might be the movie for you. It’s surely worth it for the performances Field and Greenfield turn in…but it’s not an easy watch.

Movie Review ~ Chi-Raq

chiraq_ver3

The Facts:

Synopsis: A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago.

Stars: Teyonah Parris, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Jennifer Hudson, D.B. Sweeney, Harry Lennix, Steve Harris, Angela Bassett, John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson

Director: Spike Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 127 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I can’t remember the last Spike Lee movie I saw…I’m ashamed to admit that I kind of gave up on the director about a decade ago after a series of heavy-handed offerings that got bogged down in their own messages.  And I hadn’t even heard about Chi-Raq until a screening popped up on my list so I stayed away from any previews, put away my pre-conceived notions of the director’s past work, and knowing only that it was Lee’s update to Lysistrata by Aristophanes, I let the film speak for itself.

And speak it does…with a strong, loud, clear voice.  It’s Lee’s voice and it’s familiar in its tone and delivery, but wrapped in a timely package about guns, violence, diversity, and peace.  Lee has brought forth his most focused film in quite some time and while it has its interminable sections, there are moments of sheer brilliance that’s as good as anything else I saw in 2015.

In Chicago, violence is at an all-time high. People are gunned down on the streets, in their homes…the innocent and the guilty are indistinguishable. Into this mix we meet Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris, giving a star-making performance), the girlfriend of rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) who has had it with the violence always right outside of her doorstep.  Moving in with a neighbor hardened by violence in her past (Angela Bassett), her eyes are opened to the power she holds to help effect change in her neighborhood.

After a child is gunned down in broad daylight, Lysistrata and her girlfriends band together to attempt to force their males to put down the weapons and make peace.  How do they do it?  Well, those familiar with Lysistrata will know but for newcomers, I’ll let that be something you discover on your own.  It proves to be a method that brings international attention to the war on street violence, a happening that moves Lysistrata to the front lines of the battlefield.

Lee expertly brings Lysistrata forward to the new millennium and has created a movie arriving when gun violence is at an all-time high and questions about police action and neighborhood activism is front page news.  Using Samuel L. Jackson (The Hateful Eight) as a hilarious Greek chorus, Lee gets his message across in a more commercial way but its nonetheless powerful in how it’s received.

There are some parts of Chi-Raq that bristle with firepower and moments that seem to stretch on forever, thankfully in the end there’s more that crackles than strains and the end result is a movie that’s important to see with a message imperative to heed.

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)

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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!

The Silver Bullet ~ Stonewall

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Synopsis: A young man’s political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots.

Release Date:  September 25, 2015

Thoughts: Though we still live in a world plagued by racism, homophobia, sexism, and a lot of other unfortunate “isms”, it’s worth noting that we’ve come a long way over the last half century and these key moments in the civil rights movement for all walks of life are getting the silver screen treatment in full force the last few years.  2014 had its Selma and 2015 audiences will get see Meryl Streep in Suffragette and Roland Emmerich’s Stonewall.  Fitting for the director of Independence Day, Emmerich (White House Down, who I wasn’t aware was gay himself until a few years ago) takes on a dramatized version of the events surrounding the 1969 Stonewall riots, placing a fictional story in the midst of the very real conflict.  I’ll admit to being under-educated on this period in history and while I won’t rely on the film to tell me all I need to know, I hope it’s a good jumping off point to continue the discussion on equality.

Movie Review ~ I’ll See You in My Dreams

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A widow and former songstress discovers that life can begin anew at any age

Stars: Blythe Danner, Mary Kay Place, Martin Starr, Sam Elliot, June Squibb, Reid Scott, Malik Akerman, Rhea Perlman

Director: Brett Haley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Screening movies can be an interesting experiment in timing. Between seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron and Mad Max: Fury Road (two gigantic movies in scope and sound) I caught a preview of the quiet drama I’ll See You in My Dreams. The title alone lulled me into a slight slumber and I’ll admit to being this close to “resting my eyes” on several occasions…but I’ll admit that by the time the credits rolles I found the film to be a nice change of pace from the current cinematic offerings and features a lovely star turn from its leading lady.

I’ve always liked Blythe Danner and appreciated that in her later years she’s not merely known as “Gwyneth Paltrow’s Mom” but had continued to find roles that showcase her well. I met Danner in New York nearly a decade ago after her stellar performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies and was struck not only by her dynamic onstage presence but how radiantly beautiful she was up close and personal (something I can’t say for some actors I’ve met over the years).

The film is nearly a one-woman show as Danner (The Lucky One) anchors every scene of the movie she’s in (which is every one of ‘em) whether sharing it with one or more members of its pleasant supporting cast or going it solo playing a long-time widow retired to Florida. Though she doesn’t live in one of the numerous retirement communities the state has to offer, she still makes it out to the weekly bridge game held at a local senior palace with her spry friends played by Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill), June Squibb (Nebraska), and Rhea Perlman (The Sessions).

Focusing on two burgeoning relationships: a friendship with her pool boy (Martin Starr, This Is the End), and a romance with a newly arrived hunk (Sam Elliot, Draft Day) the movie develops at its own pace and takes its time to highlight the feelings both men stir in Danner’s independent character. A strength in the screenplay from Bret Haley (who also directs) and Marc Basch is that they’ve crafted Danner’s widow not as someone lacking something in her later years but excited at the prospect that a new adventure she never expected may be awaiting her.

Truly, it’s a piffle of a movie and feels perhaps too small for a big screen but it’s wonderfully acted and conveyed with a sensitivity toward those in their golden years that know it gets greater later. Even a phony-feeling section where Danner and her pals toke up on medical marijuana gets a pass from this citic because the four ladies play it with such verve. A truly special scene finds Danner and Starr in a barely populated karaoke bar where Danner delivers a tender rendition “Cry Me a River”.

So far this summer the movies have been appropriately gonzo but unexpectedly overwhelming which has led to a decided fatigue even before the previews have ended. If you’re looking for a respite from the flash, give I’ll See You in My Dreams your time instead.

The Silver Bullet ~ Mr. Holmes

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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.

Release Date:  July 17, 2015

Thoughts: Let’s get excited for this one, shall we?  Though Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) made a lovely Sherlock Holmes in two less than lovely big screen outings and Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) has put his quirky stamp on the legendary detective via the BBC series, I’m quite interested to see Ian McKellan (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) give his take on an elderly Holmes.  McKellan re-teaming with his Gods and Monsters director Bill Condon (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2) is exciting enough but this early tease at July’s Mr. Holmes hints at a fine effort and I’m waiting with bated breath for the full trailer.

Movie Review ~ The Homesman

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Three women who have been driven mad by pioneer life are to be transported across the country by covered wagon by the pious, independent-minded Mary Bee Cuddy, who in turn employs low-life drifter George Briggs to assist her.

Stars: Tommy Lee Jones, Meryl Streep, Miranda Otto,Hilary Swank, James Spader, Hailee Steinfeld, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richte

Director: Tommy Lee Jones

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  You haven’t seen bleak onscreen quite like you’ll see it in The Homesman, a drama with Western sensibilities.  Based on Glendon Swarthout 1988 novel and adapted by Kieran Fitzgerald, Wesley A. Oliver, and star/director Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln), the film ambles down a road to the unknown and is not for the wary.

It’s the mid-1800s in the Nebraska Territory and independent Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) has come from New York City to lay claim to a land of her own.  The opening scenes show Cuddy as a hard-working woman of the land, but one that has a recognizable hint of sadness around the corners of her dirt streaked face. Unable to find a husband, she entertains suitors with food and entertainment like a black widow without any venom.

Volunteering to transport three women from the territory part of the way back to their homes, Cuddy sets out in a covered wagon across the desolate landscape of pioneer life…but not before getting a desperate claim jumper (Jones) to accompany her in return for a fee.  All three women have seemingly lost their minds due to the harsh conditions and maybe Cuddy is just doing the honorable thing by stepping up to take on a task that the men from the community won’t…or maybe she relates to them more than she cares to admit.  Either way, the journey holds surprising turns for all involved.

Though depressing and an overall stunningly somber film, The Homesman is finely crafted and possesses enough darkly comic gumption to take narrative turns that could upend a lesser work…though a particular game changing twist is dealt with so quickly that should you go to the bathroom and miss it you may think you’ve come back to a different movie all-together.

Jones and Swank have the perfect faces for this material, his showing the crags of a life lived from problem to problem and hers displaying a plaintive wish for a dream that she sees fading each morning she wakes up.  While Swank has two well-deserved Oscars in her possession, she has about a dozen other performances of note that may make you question her strength as an actress.  She redeems herself again here and I’m sad the work isn’t getting more attention at the end of the year.

If you’re waiting to open your Twizzlers until Meryl Streep (Into the Woods) shows up on screen you’ll be waiting a long time as the actress only pops up for a brief cameo late in the film.  Actually, everyone else in the film are really just there for a scene or two before drifting off into the dusty atmosphere of the journey Jones/Swank are on.

Worthy of a look if you’re in the right mood, even with its desolate subject matter The Homesman ends with a bang…a quiet bang…but a bang all the same.