The Silver Bullet ~ La La Land

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Synopsis: A jazz pianist falls for an aspiring actress in Los Angeles.

Release Date:  December 16, 2016

Thoughts: It’s hard enough to find an original musical idea on Broadway these days, let alone in Hollywood. So director Damien Chazelle’s La La Land has a lot riding on it…good thing it has a lot going for it too. Chazelle (who made a big ‘ole splash with Whiplash in 2014) has cast Ryan Gosling (The Big Short) and Emma Stone (Aloha) as his leads and the two are so effortlessly (and maybe relentlessly) charming that I already feel like I’m buying what they’re singing about.  The song featured in this teaser didn’t exactly set my ears on fire but the brief glimpses of story and setting hint at a nice mix of styles. Arriving in December and targeting those Oscar voters who can’t resist a triple threat, La La Land hopes to hit some pretty high notes to ring in the new year.

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 ~ Poltergeist (2015)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A family whose suburban home is haunted by evil forces must come together to rescue their youngest daughter after the apparitions take her captive.

Stars: Sam Rockwell, Jared Harris, Rosemarie DeWitt, Saxon Sharbino, Jane Adams, Kennedi Clements

Director: Gil Kenan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 93 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: I was mad when MGM and Fox announced they were remaking the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist.  Like, mad.  Like, really, really MAD.  How could any studio, director, or screenwriter even hope to come close to, let alone best, a film that has aged well and still scares the ever loving hell out of anyone that gives it a spin?  Haven’t we learned from remakes lately that it’s best to leave well enough alone and maybe focus on something original…or in the absence of something original pour through the countless numbers of average films and give them a spit-polish for a new generation?

Now let me say that as mad as I was and as incredulous as I remain that a remake of Poltergeist made it through the planning stages, I’ll tell you now that this 2015 take on Poltergeist isn’t a bad film.  It’s made well, has a fair freak-out factor, and features worth-a-watch performances that don’t feel like they’re careening down the copycat highway.  Here’s the thing, though.  It’s also so completely unnecessary that I wound up just feeling bad for everyone involved because their budget and time were all for naught.

Screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (Oz The Great and Powerful) may have changed the names and some key plot elements from the original script by Steven Spielberg (Lincoln) and he may have inserted some new millennium colloquialisms and technology that wasn’t present in the early ‘80s but he’s retained the overall gist and familial themes that worked so well in Tobe Hooper’s film.  This turns out to be a wise choice because what’s been carried over remains the most interesting thing about the film.

Downsized from his job and forced to move into a new home with his wife and three children, Eric Bowen (Sam Rockwell, The Way Way Back) is your typical cool dad that has a witty quip at the ready but loves his family.  He’s a little ashamed that he can’t be the provider and feels guilty that his family has had to uproot their lives.  The original film featured a family that lives in a pristine new residential development but the neighborhood that the Bowens call home feels sad, another victim of a depressing economy.  The groovy ‘80s décor from the 1982 film gives way to a bland three story cookie cutter home with butter yellow walls and a heck of a lot of ghosts.

The events unfold in much the way we expect.  Family moves in, bad things start to happen, little girl starts talking to the television, a big storm arrives and the little girl vanishes.  While Lindsay-Abaire has nobly tried to put some feeling into the Bowens, the economical running time doesn’t leave much wiggle room to develop the characters as well as Spielberg did originally.  What made Spielberg’s script so jazzy for the time was putting JoBeth Williams’ stay-at-home mom front and center, a key player in the action of finding and saving her young daughter.  Rosemarie DeWitt’s (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) mom is more passive and not only lets her husband do most of the work but lets her scared of the dark son overshadow her when the going gets rough.

Nice to see that the children cast aren’t the annoying tots that they could have been.  Kennidi Clements is a sprightly tyke, precocious enough to believe she may have been born with a psychic gift but endearing enough to make you fear for her safety.  Saxon Sharbino as the oldest daughter seems like an afterthought, a character kept in because the remake rules demanded it.  Though I had some problems with Kyle Catlett’s middle child being moved to such a prominent role at the expense of his parents, the young actor does good work with a role that might seem more at home in a PG rated thriller for kids.

Now for the bad stuff.

The original film featured Oscar-winner Beatrice Straight as a wise but unprepared paranormal psychologist who enlists the help of Zelda Rubinstein’s medium to save the day.  The remake casts Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) in Straight’s role and turns the medium into a television ghost hunter (Jared Harris, Pompeii) that was romantically involved with Adams years ago.  Adams is full-on crazy cat lady with her unkempt hair, multiple pairs of glasses, and plaid skirts while Harris is no worthy replacement for the missing medium Tangina.  I just haven’t the faintest clue what the thought process of the creation of these characters was…landing on the idea that perhaps the studio hopes to make some sort of spin-off with these two (if you must, stick around for a post-credits sequence that explains my thoughts) but it’s just unwise through and through.

Director Gil Kenan helmed the admirable animated Monster House and his Poltergeist comes across like a sequel to that film more than it feels like a remake of the 1982 Poltergeist.  In fact, in Kenan and Lindsay-Abaire’s hands the film has the overall sense of a campfire story that’s been passed down over the last thirty years.  Over time the names have changed and modern references have been inserted…but the heart of the film remains and when the ghosts come out to play there’s some marginal fun to be had.

Still…I left the film not totally disappointed in what I’d seen but so very depressed that much effort was spent on something with no lasting value.  I’m especially troubled by the thought that some audiences may see this film before ever experiencing the dynamite scare fest that inspired it.  I think it’s better than Poltergeist II: The Other Side and Poltergeist III…but overall it’s a bummer.

The Silver Bullet ~ Poltergeist (2015)

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Synopsis: A family’s home is haunted by a host of ghosts

Release Date:  July 24, 2015

Thoughts: I’ve so many thoughts and feelings about this particular instance of Hollywood remaking one of its tried and true classics. I’m not usually precious about a property but the original Poltergeist is one of my all-time favorite films (not just horror) and it was done so well, so right the first time that I’m cowering in a corner hoping that this remake doesn’t sully the good name that 1982 haunted house flick made for itself. I’m encouraged by the cast, led by Sam Rockwell (The Way Way Back) and Rosemarie DeWitt (Promised Land) but am a bit wary by Jared Harris (Pompeii) and Jane Adams (I Love Trouble) taking the place of Zelda Rubenstein and Beatrice Straight. It’s unfortunate so much of the plot is revealed here…leaving me to wonder why director Gil Kenan (Monster House) and producer Sam Raimi (Evil Dead, Indian Summer) have left to surprise us with. Maybe it’s just best to leave well enough alone…

The Silver Bullet ~ Men, Women & Children

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Synopsis: A look at the sexual frustrations that young teenagers and adults face in today’s world.

Release Date: October 3, 2014

Thoughts: Earlier in 2014 Jason Reitman had what some consider his first real stumble with the coolly received Labor Day.  I was one of the few that seemed to absolve it from its awkward assembly and languid pacing because it’s clear that Reitman is a filmmaker that knows exactly what he’s doing and what he wants to say.  With October’s Men, Women & Children, Reitman is taking a page from the American Beauty experience and digging under the perfect veneer of a suburbia and its inhabitants.  With its tantalizing images played over a silky update of Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”, I get the feeling Men, Women & Children has the potential to truly put Reitman on the A list if handled correctly.

The Silver Bullet ~ Kill the Messenger

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Synopsis: Based on the true story of journalist Gary Webb, a reporter becomes the target of a vicious smear campaign after he exposes the CIA’s role in arming Contra rebels in Nicaragua and importing cocaine into California.

Release Date:  October 10, 2014

Thoughts: Though it reeks of Jeremy Renner continuing his neverending quest for Oscar glory, there’s little doubt that the real life story serving as the basis for Kill the Messenger has potential to be a pivotal moment in his career.  Look, we all know that Renner (The Bourne Legacy, American Hustle) can act with the best of them…but I feel the actor is taking himself a bit too seriously at this point.  Working with director Michael Cuesta to bring journalist Gary Webb’s life to the big screen, Renner makes a good impression in this first trailer…though it does feel like we’ve seen this exact same story told several times each decade .

Movie Review ~ Promised Land

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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.