Synopsis: When a top-secret weapon falls into mercenary hands, a wild card CIA agent joins forces with three international agents on a lethal mission to retrieve it, while staying a step ahead of a mysterious woman who’s tracking their every move.
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Lupita Nyong’o, Penélope Cruz, Diane Kruger, Fan Bingbing, Sebastian Stan, Edgar Ramírez
Director: Simon Kinberg
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (3/10)
Review: Back in those free-wheeling pre-pandemic days, it was a lot easier to track the ebb and flow of a movie season. Coming into the new year, all the studios had put their might behind the films they hoped could snag an award or two so January was a common “dumping ground” for their less than desirables, a wasteland of also-rans where they could offload a turkey that was beginning to mold or take something off the shelf which had been gathering conspicuous dust. Now, however, when films have been delayed due to multiple release date shifts, it’s getting harder to know what is truly a movie in trouble or one just caught in the crosshairs of a global health crisis affecting the entertainment industry.
When marketing for the spy thriller The 355 kicked back up again recently, I vaguely remember seeing early trailers for it well over a year ago and having my interest pinged because of the international cast assembled by Universal Studios. No dummies to foreign distribution and marketing, the film boasted top talent (if not exactly mega-watt superstars who guaranteed blockbuster opening weekends) that held smart appeal teaming up for an ensemble adventure which felt like Jason Bourne meets Oceans Eight in execution. Swallowed up by a number of moves on its way to opening, it’s only now being released nearly a year after originally scheduled and while I would love to report it’s one of those good movies with bad timing, it’s a cringe-y outing for a number of likable actresses attempting to act smart through a pretty dumb film.
A deadly device has been created that, when activated, can tap into the electronics of any system in the world and take control. Whole cities can be shut-down, airplanes can be crashed, you name it. Obviously, it’s a weapon every bad guy or gal would want to get their hands on and luckily there’s only one of them in the world and conveniently there’s only one person who knows how to make it. The opening finds DNI agent Luis Rojas (Édgar Ramírez, Point Break) locating the mechanism and its creator before it can fall into the wrong hands but not before the CIA is alerted to his location. Sending their two best agents Mace Brown (Jessica Chastain) and Nick Fowler (Sebastain Stan, I, Tonya) to broker a deal with Rojas in Paris, the plan goes haywire thanks to German agent Marie (Diane Kruger, Welcome to Marwen) intervening, sending a number of standard plot mechanics into motion across a global playing field.
I won’t spoil the details of just how Oscar-winning stars Lupita Nyong’o (Black Panther) and Penélope Cruz (Pain & Glory) enter the picture, but both feel miscast in roles that don’t quite suit them. Take Nyong’o, as a former MI6 agent who tells one character that she is a top computer specialist who is the best in the world as what she does when listing her achievements and then within minutes is telling the same person she can’t crack the code on a locked iPhone. Cruz may have it a little worse, spending most of the movie either whimpering that she “doesn’t want to be here” (join the club) or wearing one of The 355’s 355 questionable wigs. Both actresses are better than this and by the time the movie realizes it is underserving the Academy Award winning stars, it’s too late to fix it. (And it does it in a shamefully gross way involving the type of violence only a studio forced rewrite could have asked for.)
Born from a desire Oscar-nominated star Chastian (Lawless) had to create a female-driven spy franchise to rival the likes of James Bond or a modern-day Mission: Impossible, The 355 (a reference to the codename of an unidentified female spy who fought for the Patriots during the American Revolution) was written by playwright Theresa Rebeck who’s previous known-for was the TV series Smash. The musical TV series Smash. Now listen, I’m not saying Rebeck is perhaps a bit underqualified for the type of dynamic writing a film in this genre requires but the entire endeavor pretends like the audience has never seen a film involving espionage before. Double crosses are introduced as if we can’t see them coming from a mile away and romantic or familial entanglements are awkwardly asked to take center stage at inopportune times. Truthfully, it plays like a bad pilot episode of a show for television…and with a PG-13 rating that prevents much bloodletting or violence it’s not even cable television but something from the NBC Wednesday Night line-up.
Directed by Simon Kinberg who was also behind the fantastically reviled X-Men: Dark Phoenix (which I will still stand-by as not nearly as bad as people said it was), the action sequences are so goofy looking at times it feels like it was created by the studio photo editor based on what would look good in a promo shot. There’s nothing special about any of the heavily choreographed fights and early on they start to blend together. Even the more strident stunt sequences don’t appear ground-breaking, they just look painful. Keep your eyes open for Chastain jumping from a crane to a shipping crate. She (or, rather, her stunt double) hits the side of the crate so hard all I could think about for the rest of the movie were how many ribs were totally shattered as a result. It almost feels like this is the fifth film in a franchise because so little effort has been put into making The 355 stand out in any way from others in its field. I think it’s admirable Chastain talks the talk and walks the walk in work she has faith in (her performance in The Eyes of Tammy Faye in 2021 was really incredible, another project that came about based on her interest) but if the end result is something as lackluster as this, it tends to diminish the original intention.
Synopsis: Jean Grey begins to develop incredible powers that corrupt and turn her into a Dark Phoenix. Now the X-Men will have to decide if the life of a team member is worth more than all the people living in the world.
Stars: Sophie Turner, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult, Alexandra Shipp, Tye Sheridan, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jessica Chastain, Evan Peters
Director: Simon Kinberg
Running Length: 113 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: Having never been someone that has done a deep dive into the comic book realm, I can’t speak to fan reactions when a franchise plays fast and loose with characters and story arcs. There are some that can’t look past a studio wanting to continue their cash cows by making financially motivated choices to keep their films alive and there are others (like myself) who don’t mind sitting back and taking in the movie for what it is – entertainment. It’s not for lack of interest or ambivalence on my part, it’s stepping back and seeing the big picture. Of all the superhero tentpole films, it seems the X-Men movies take the biggest beating from critics and fans that revolt at the slightest stray from where they want to see the action go and I find that so strangely fascinating.
I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that by and large I’ve enjoyed most all of the X-Men films and their numerous spin-offs. True, some have been problematic and less winning than others but they’ve been more consistent than most long-running series and have evolved from the silly seriousness of the original film (you know it’s true!) to something bold and musclar like 2016’s brilliant Logan. A new era of the X-Men began in 2011 with X-Men: First Class and I was not moved either way by that semi-reboot until X-Men: Days of Future Past arrived in 2014. That film was a grand return to form and while The Wolverine didn’t connect with some I appreciated what it was doing in advancing Hugh Jackman’s character toward Logan. Knives were unfairly out for X-Men: Apocalypse in 2016, even though I found it a weirdly fun film.
Arriving amidst an ominous cloud of bad buzz is the next film in the X-Men series, Dark Phoenix, and I imagine it will take the same beating from former fans and critics eager for an easy target. Delayed several times by 20th Century Fox due to highly publicized reshoots not to mention its pending purchase by Disney studios which had its own Marvel superhero movie to attend to earlier this summer, I’m not sure this ever would have had a fair shot when it was released. Honestly? The film has some major flaws and often feels like it’s held together by packing tape that’s long since lost its ability to keep things in place but when it works it works like a charm. For all the negative things I’d heard about it going in, maybe the bar was set low enough that my opinion couldn’t be worse than what people were saying.
When we last left our world-saving mutants, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) had unleashed the full force of her powers to destroy Apocalypse. After a brief prologue shows us the tragic beginnings of how Jean came to stay with Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy, Glass) at his school for teens with extraordinary talents we are thrown right into action set in 1992. The team, comprised of Jean, Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, mother!), Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Storm (Alexandra Shipp, Love, Simon), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman), and Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect), is dispatched to save the crew of a space shuttle in the path of a solar storm. This is no ordinary space mission, though, and Jean is exposed to an energy source at the center of the storm.
Now possessing remarkable power that begins to consume her, Jean goes rogue to seek out answers from her past to help her decide what to do with her new gifts. At the same time, she’s pursed not only by Professor X, the X-Men, and a revenge-seeking Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), but by alien huntress Vuk (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) who has arrived on Earth with a large number of her own warriors aiming to harvest the lifeforce within Jean that has the power to create new worlds…and destroy Earth in the process. It leads to a showdown that begins with Jean’s allegiance and ends with the lives of many hanging in the balance.
It’s clear this movie has been through many an edit and it shows not only in the hastily reshot footage but in the tonal shifts throughout. Looking at the success of grittier fare like Deadpool and its sequel, you can see where writer/director Simon Kinberg (Murder on the Orient Express) wanted to push the boundaries a bit by making this one more intense but without being able to go all the way with the blood, language, or violence it comes off as too tentative and neutered. There’s also a strange reliance on scenes with characters gulping down booze whenever they can’t cope with pressure or wanting to tamp down their own emotions. Normally good actors paint with broader strokes here, perhaps knowing this was their final time at bat they are really swinging for high camp. Chastain, Hoult, and McAvoy in particular seem to be trying to outdo each other in who can be the most ostentatious…until Fassbender shows up and puts them all to shame.
Yet somehow the movie checked off enough of the right boxes on my score sheet to emerge a winner and that’s mostly due to a fantastic finale set aboard a train. Usually a reshot ending can be one big eye roll since it often is an afterthought that rarely gels with the rest of the film but this one felt like it came after the filmmakers had some distance from the work and came back refreshed. There are some crowd-pleasing moments to be had here and it provided the requisite thrills some other parts of the movie lacked. Also, it showed once again that Shipp’s Storm (and just the character of Storm in general) needs her own movie, like, yesterday. I still long for the filmmakers to spend more time at the school so we can see more of the youngsters and their burgeoning abilities — anytime we’re in the school and we see hints at the comic-books fringe characters people recognize you can tell people want more. Now that 20th Century Fox is owned by Disney, perhaps Disney will get a series together for their streaming Disney+ service that’s all about the school? Might be a good idea.
I’m still grappling with these recent X-Men movies not totally lining up with the original three X-Men films that started off this whole series of films. Don’t think too hard that the first X-Men movie is set a mere eight years after this one is to take place…or wonder what happens to Fassbender and McAvoy in those eight years to turn them into Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. Instead, take these movies as the prequels they were always meant to be and for what they are, casual entertainment. Perhaps if you go in with the lowered expectations like I did you’ll set yourself up to get something more out of this than others who went in prepared to hate it. Give it a chance. I’m not totally sure where the series goes from here. There’s absolutely room for more sequels but based on the struggle this one had to get to theaters and the boos and hisses already coming from the Twitter-verse, a reset might be in order to restore some faith in this franchise. Clearly, I’m easier to please than most and found the fun in this Phoenix…but I’m also not a hardcore fan that had a great investment in it either.
Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.
Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy
Director: Bryan Singer
Running Length: 143 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.
In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.
Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.
I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.
His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.
Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.
With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.
On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.
For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.
There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.
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.
Traditionally, August is the month when the wind-down begins. It never has any of the big tent pole pictures featured earlier in the summer and it can be a time when studios try to burn off some troubled pictures or try to skillfully position a sleeper hit. This August for sure had its share of high and low points, much like the summer that it capped off. I was still in frolic mode so didn’t get to as many reviews as I had wanted but sitting here now, in still sunny September, it’s time to review the movies I missed!
Movie Review ~ Shaun the Sheep Movie The Facts: Synopsis: When Shaun decides to take the day off and have some fun, he gets a little more action than he bargained for. A mix up with the Farmer, a caravan and a very steep hill lead them all to the Big City and it’s up to Shaun and the flock to return everyone safely to the green grass of home. Stars: Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes, Omid Djalili, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate Director: Mark Burton, Richard Starzak Rated: PG Running Length: 85 minutes TMMM Score: (7/10) Review: I’m not saying that the U.S. doesn’t churn out a fine slate of family friendly films…but there’s a certain aura around the British imports that seem to work time and time again. Like Paddington earlier this year, Shaun the Sheep Movie was an unexpected delight, 85 minutes of smart comedy that’s deep enough for adults to not need a lobotomy to enjoy and zany enough to keep the attention of young tykes. Remarkable when you consider there’s not any dialogue in the movie aside from some rumbles and grumbles from human and animal characters, it’s a big screen adventure adapted from a popular television show. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was surprisingly entertained and quite impressed by the stop-motion animation. The film didn’t have great marketing so it slipped by most people but if it’s at your bargain movie theater, pack those kids up in your minivan and get to it…or treat yourself to a solo show.
Movie Review ~ Dark Places The Facts: Synopsis: Libby Day was only seven years old when her family was brutally murdered in their rural Kansas farmhouse. Twenty-five years later, she agrees to revisit the crime and uncovers the wrenching truths that led up to that tragic night. Stars: Charlize Theron, Drea de Matteo, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Grace Moretz, Corey Stoll, Sterling Jerins, Tye Sheridan, Shannon Kook Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner Rated: R Running Length: 113 minutes TMMM Score: (3/10) Review: With the huge success of Gillian Flynn’s third novel Gone Girland seeing how fast the movie rights were snapped up, it’s only natural that her other two other books would take a similar path. Dark Places is the first of these to hit theaters (Sharp Objects is arriving as a television movie) and it shows one of two things, either the third time was the charm for Flynn or something was lost in translation. Full disclosure, I haven’t read the book but I’m inclined to think that it’s the fault of the screenwriter because there are so many hazardous movie mistakes only a Hollywood writer could make. Though the mystery of a decades old killing spree coming back to haunt the sole survivor is initially intriguing, it quickly dissolves into a sticky mess that makes less sense the more secrets are revealed. It also doesn’t help that it’s badly miscast, with the usually impressive Charlize Theron relying on her ever-present trucker hat to do most of the acting for her…or maybe to hide her embarrassment at being looped into this turkey. Though it boasts a cast that typically gets the job done, no one quite seems to know what they’re doing…as if they hadn’t read the book before undertaking their scenes. The only worthwhile performance is Christina Hendricks as Theron’s murdered mom, bringing some dignity to a role that, as written, doesn’t earn it.
Movie Review ~ Fantastic Four The Facts: Synopsis: Four young outsiders teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe which alters their physical form in shocking ways. The four must learn to harness their new abilities and work together to save Earth from a former friend turned enemy. Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell, Tim Blake Nelson, Reg E. Cathey Director: Josh Trank Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 100 minutes TMMM Score: (4/10) Review: Well, what can I saw bout the Fantastic Four that hasn’t been said (loudly) already? Is it a lousy movie? Yeah, probably. Could it have been better? After two attempts to bring these characters to the big screen I’m not sure we’ll ever get a decent adaptation. What went so wrong? If you believe the outspoken director, it was studio interference that took his movie from a rich origin story to an overstuffed thundercloud of action movie clichés and fairly terrible special effects. If you are to believe the studio, it was that director Josh Trank (who debuted with the surprise hit Chronicle) disconnected from the material, a development that was costing time and money. Watching the film with this knowledge you can see the moment that something went awry. Because the thing is, the first 20-30 minutes of Fantastic Four is quite good, sensitive even. It’s a slow start and, let’s face it, audiences these days don’t want a slow start. They want their action and they want it now. The studio was happy to oblige and when it becomes a standard summer superhero movie my interest took a nosedive and it became a waiting game of the good guys defeating the bad guys so I could go home. I think the colossal outcry from fans and critics was a little on the dramatic side, even for a superhero film, but it’s not wholly unwarranted.
Movie Review ~ Ricki and the Flash The Facts: Synopsis: A musician who gave up everything for her dream of rock-and-roll stardom returns home, looking to make things right with her family. Stars: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Sebastian Stan, Mamie Gummer, Audra McDonald, Rick Springfield Director: Jonathan Demme Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 102 minutes Trailer Review:Here TMMM Score: (6.5/10) Review: So we’ve all long agreed to the fact that Meryl Streep can do no wrong. You can love her for it or hate her for it, but she never fails to impressive me with each new role she takes on. From starring in The Iron Lady to taking a supporting role (cameo, really) in The Homesman, Streep seems to take a role if it speaks to her, no matter the size or commitment. It’s not hard to see why she was attracted to the rough rocker Ricki with her tattoos and braided hair, here was another opportunity for Streep to strip away the classical actress aura and go barefoot into the wild. She’s ably aided by Diablo Cody’s middling script, Jonathan Demme’s careful direction, and a supporting cast that don’t just play second fiddle to Streep’s lead guitar. I think there’s one too many musical numbers allowed to play longer than they should and Cody’s dialogue doesn’t have the snap that it used to. The whole thing is worth it though for a stellar scene between Streep and Audra McDonald, the new wife of Streep’s ex-husband. A sparring match spoken with calm and some care, the two women have an electricity between them that the film needed more of. It falls apart swiftly in its second half, but it’s not a totally out of tune affair.
Movie Review ~ The Man from U.N.C.L.E. The Facts: Synopsis: In the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin participate in a joint mission against a mysterious criminal organization, which is working to proliferate nuclear weapons. Stars: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant Director: Guy Ritchie Rated: PG-13 Running Length: 116 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: I never watched the television series on which this cool-as-can-be spy movie was based on but I’m pretty sure there weren’t the same amount of homoerotic jokes during the weekly adventures of Solo and Kuryakin. While I feel that director Guy Ritchie relied a bit too heavily on his similar experience at the helm of two Sherlock Holmes films, he brings his A game to this big screen adaption, sparing no expense when it came to production design. And that’s a good thing because though it’s never truly predictable, the plot is pretty thin. So it’s up to Ritchie and his cast to sell the film and they are more than up for the challenge. Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) is perfectly cast as the smooth Solo and he’s well matched with Armie Hammer’s (Mirror Mirror) simmering Kuryakin. The two trade barbs rich with double entendre while protecting Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) from falling into the hands of a sinister villainess (the scene stealing Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gastby). The film looks and sounds amazing, here’s hoping costume designer Joanna Johnston gets an Oscar nomination for her impeccable suits and stunning dresses.
Movie Review ~ End of the Tour The Facts: Synopsis: The story of the five-day interview between Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace, which took place right after the 1996 publication of Wallace’s groundbreaking epic novel, ‘Infinite Jest.’ Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segel, Joan Cusack, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Mickey Sumner Director: James Ponsoldt Rated: R Running Length: 106 minutes TMMM Score: (8/10) Review: I never thought I’d say the words “potential Oscar nominee Jason Segel” in a work of non-fiction…but then again I didn’t think two-time Oscar nominee Jonah Hill was possible either and look what happened there. Yes, Segel’s work as tormented writer David Foster Wallace is worthy of acclaim as the actor digs deep within and bypasses his comedic instincts to find the truth of the man behind the epic novel Infinite Jest. Jesse Eisenberg (who also pops up in American Ultra) turns in strong work as well, though he’s really just a prop for Segel to react off of. Their five day road trip interview for Rolling Stone is the basis for the movie and it leads the men and the audience into interesting territory. It’s a movie you watch once, appreciate, then file away as something you can recommend to people and feel like you’ve done them a favor. One thing that must be said…Eisenberg needs to learn how to smoke a cigarette. Here and in American Ultra he looks a child does when they are mimicking their parent. Many things about Eisenberg annoy me and this is just another thing to add to the list.
Movie Review ~ The Diary of a Teenage Girl The Facts: Synopsis: A teen artist living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother’s boyfriend. Stars: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgård, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig Director: Marielle Heller Rated: R Running Length: 102 minutes TMMM Score: (7.5/10) Review: It’s nice to go into a movie with only a basic logline and a list of the actors featured. I didn’t know what to expect from The Diary of a Teenage Girl but whatever I thought, the movie surprised me in the best ways. The story of a young girl’s sexual awakening in San Francisco is gloriously set in the mid ‘70s, an era of freedom and discovery. While some may be off put by the relationship between an older man and an underage girl (star-in-the-making Bel Powley is older than she looks, thankfully), they’d be missing the point of Phoebe Gloeckner’s autobiographical graphic novel on which the film is based. It’s a frank flick that frequently finds its actors in the buff but doesn’t feel gratuitous because these characters are coming into themselves, marveling at a new experience they never knew existed. I appreciated that the film pulled no punches in showing nudity and discussing sexual situations and director Marielle Heller shows respect for all people involved. It’s a bold film with animated sequences, a killer soundtrack, and splendid performances.
The dog days of summer brought three other notable releases to theaters, though I’m guessing by the poor box office returns of two of them that the studios (and actors) wish the films had just quietly gone away.
I hadn’t heard a thing about American Ultra until two weeks before it was due to arrive, strange considering it starred Kirsten Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg. The two aren’t serious box office draws but they do have a fanbase that might have helped build more buzz for the stoner comedy. Not that it would have made the film any better because at its best it was a mildly diverting mix of comedy and gratuitous violence and at its worst it was a merely the thing you watched because you’d seen everything else at the theater and wanted some time in the air conditioning. It’s bad when you don’t know what the movie is about, but it’s worse when it feels like the filmmakers don’t have a clue either.
I’ve gone on record as no fan of director Noah Baumbach and very on the fence for actress Greta Gerwig so I wasn’t at all looking forward to their latest collaboration, Mistress America. Once again, the universe has a way of loving to see me humbled and I emerged from the screening not only in a damn fine mood but the desire to see it again. That rarely happens with any movie, let alone a Baumbach/Gerwig joint so that should tell you something about the quality of this movie that is firmly in a New York state of mind. Sure, it has its share of problems but they don’t ultimately detract from the overall enjoyment the film brings.
Finally, there’s the sad, sad case of We Are Your Friends, Zac Efron’s latest attempt to be a serious dramatic actor. While I think it’s Efron’s best dramatic performance to date and didn’t totally hate the film, audiences sure did and it became the third biggest box office failure of all time…pretty stunning considering how many other bad movies have been released and made at least a few million during its opening weekend. I think the film got a bum rap and just was released at the wrong time, but it should hopefully send a message to Efron that he needs to spend some time figuring out exactly where his place is in Hollywood because he is, like his character here, totally lost.
Synopsis: The X-Men send Wolverine to the past in a desperate effort to change history and prevent an event that results in doom for both humans and mutants
Stars: Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman, Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Shawn Ashmore, Peter Dinklage, Omar Sy, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Boo Boo Stewart, Adan Canto, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Lucas Till, Evan Jonigkeit
Director: Bryan Singer
Running Length: 131 minutes
TMMM Score: (7.5/10)
Review: Ok, I believe by now we’ve established the kind of reader-critic relationship that allows me to be as open and honest with you as I possibly can. So, I the spirit of putting it all out there on the table I need to tell you that the X-Men and all their variations have never really been my thing. Aside from a childhood desire to beat the SEGA game, I’ve never truly warmed to Professor X and his motley crew of mutant heroes and villains…even after seven films.
Though the overreaching message of the film (we’re all mutants in some form or another and that’s ok) is a positive one that has the ability to speak to anyone, there’s something about the over eagerness of the filmmakers to constantly “get it right” that I find myself enjoying the spectacle at a distance.
It doesn’t help that the quality of the movies hasn’t maintained any sort of consistency since X-Men was released in 2000. The first sequel improved upon its predecessor but when original director Bryan Signer vacated the series for Superman Returns the third entry landed with a thud. Spinning off the series into a poorly executed Wolverine origin story further dug a hole for the franchise before 2011’s X-Men: First Class saved a listing ship. I didn’t dislike 2013’s The Wolverine as much as my colleagues but by that point fans were a little sensitive to their mutants getting less than stellar cinematic adventures.
Now we’ve arrived in the present with X-Men: Days of Future Past…but we won’t stay there long as the enjoyable seventh entry of the series is more interested in looking back than moving forward. There’s a lot (A LOT) going on in Simon Kinberg’s script…so much so that I often found myself struggling to remember how all the pieces fit, who is who, and what decade we’re in. After an opening in a desolate not-too-distant future, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman, Prisoners, who must have been paid in how many bicep veins are present) is sent back to the early 70’s by Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto (Ian McKellen, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) to prevent rouge Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, American Hustle) from setting a series of events into motion in the past that will have a deadly impact for the future.
Juggling two separate time frames, returning director Bryan Singer manages to keep everything in balance for the most part. Having watched X-Men: First Class directly before seeing this new film, I was impressed that Singer and Kinberg carved out a new path while keeping continuity through some difficult loose ends previous director Matthew Vaughn left for the new crew to figure out.
Less impressive is an overall humdrum feeling the movie left me with after all was said and done. I’m not suggesting the movie isn’t terrific popcorn entertainment or doesn’t contain a handful of impressively filmed sequences (like Evan Peters as Quicksilver showing off his talents while Jim Croce’s “Time in a Bottle” plays in the background) but it all feels overly calculated, designed to allow the franchise to continue without really having to answer for past mistakes.
With Lawrence’s star gone supernova since the last installment, her part is significantly beefed up here. Mystique has never been so front and center and Lawrence manages to eek out some nice moments under her full body make-up. As the younger Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy (Trance) and Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) don’t seem quite as invested this time around, but then again there’s not the same kind of character discovery available to them. Jackman can play the role in his sleep…and by now it looks like he is.
Moving fast through its 131 minute running length, the end of the film sets up the next volume of X-Men escapades nicely…but then again if you really think about it that’s all the movie seemed interested in in the first place. Fairly and frequently violent for a PG-13 film, parents should think twice before bringing young children along…Godzilla has less death/carnage in it.
With all my griping about overall ulterior motives, I’ll admit the movie fits neatly into the mode of summer blockbuster by combining all the right elements into the mix. I think fans will look back and see the mechanics of the script in years to come…but by that time these will be the true days of future past.