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!

Movie Review ~ Hot Pursuit

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The Facts:

Synopsis: An uptight and by-the-book cop tries to protect the outgoing widow of a drug boss as they race through Texas pursued by crooked cops and murderous gunmen.

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Sofia Vergara, John Carroll Lynch, Richard T. Jones, Rob Kazinsky

Director: Anne Fletcher

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 87 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Maybe it’s because I had such low expectations going into Hot Pursuit that I wound up digging it more than I likely should have…or maybe it’s just that this kind of cliché-ridden road trip farce arrived at the perfect time when I needed a laugh. Either way, though early reviews have panned this female-driven comedy for being bird-brained and for failing to be nothing more than its one-joke premise there’s more than a little gold to be found among the coal.

Let me say that in all honesty there’s little in Hot Pursuit you haven’t seen done before (and better) in similar films. TV writers David Feeney and John Quaintance make the jump to the silver screen in a very TV-minded script with attempts for laughs every few minutes and episodic scenarios that all seem to be variations on the same joke. Thin character development and a lack of overall surprise handicap the movie, as does Anne Fletcher’s (The Guilt Trip) hands-off direction that suggests a style favoring sidling up to the chess pieces instead of moving them with purpose.

What keeps the film from descending immediately into agonizing awfulness is the off-the-chart chemistry of its leading ladies. Reese Witherspoon (Wild, Inherent Vice) and Sofia Vergara (The Three Stooges, Fading Gigolo) have the kind of lightening in a bottle charisma with each other that help each tired joke land sans thud and allow audiences to remain engaged for its trim 87 minute running time. The best part about this pairing is that the actresses are allowed to play on their strengths, rather than resort to them. Does that make sense? Let me see if I can explain.

Vergara is a spicy Latina sexpot and she plays it to the hilt, but the comedy isn’t purely visual and the actress shows some different layers that I wasn’t expecting. True, most of her role is delivered via the shouting method and she couldn’t be more stereotypical but it’s less offensive than it could have been and frequently funnier than her role on TV’s Modern Family.

She’s matched well with Witherspoon playing a tightly wound cop previously benched for an accident involving a Taser gun and the mayor’s son. She’s called into action when the FBI needs her to help transport Vergara and her husband who are set to testify against a drug kingpin. Clearly, things go awry and the two ladies bicker over 24 hours as they avoid killers for hire that don’t want them to arrive in time for Vergara to give her testimony.

After making a name for herself with feather-light comedies, Witherspoon picked up an Oscar and hasn’t really set foot back into the wacky comedy genre since. Some will say she’s slumming it here but Witherspoon is no dummy and knows exactly the kind of performance she’s giving here. Wearing a variety of costumes (including one drag get-up that produced a nice belly-laugh) the actress seems to be having a ball being partnered with Vegara and, unlike the tedious 2013 female buddy film The Heat, the audience is invited to share in the fun as well.

That’s another difference between Hot Pursuit and The Heat. I hated the pairing of Melissa McCarthy and Sandra Bullock because the script forced Bullock into a straight-man role that the actress wasn’t comfortable with. She struggled with truly owning the ribald comedy and the film was a disappointment because of that. In Hot Purusit, however, Vergara and Witherspoon are in total understanding about the jobs that they have to do. Sure the laughs are cheap…but they’re laughs all the same.

Ending with one of the funniest end credit sequences since 22 Jump Street, I’ve the feeling that the way critics are trashing Hot Pursuit will mean it will sail quickly through theaters but I’d urge you to give it a try. Even if this may not be wholly original or free from a been-there-done-that feeling I liked it quite a lot and I’d welcome another cinematic collaboration for its stars.

Movie Review ~ Fading Gigolo

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Fioravante decides to become a professional Don Juan as a way of making money to help his cash-strapped friend, Murray. With Murray acting as his “manager”, the duo quickly finds themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money.

Stars: John Turturro, Woody Allen, Liev Schreiber, Sofia Vergara, Sharon Stone, Vanessa Paradis, Max Casella, Bob Balaban, Aida Turturro

Director: John Turturro

Rated: R

Running Length: 90 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: For his fifth time behind the camera, writer/director John Turturro brings to the screen another off-kilter slice of life dramedy that is advertised as being about one thing (man becomes gigolo) but is really about something totally different. Turturro is lucky that this other thing is actually more intriguing than the gigolo angle and while the film is enjoyable for the 90 minutes you’ll be in your seat, it fades from memory before your seat belt is in place for your journey home.

Let me back up – what made me most interested in Fading Gigolo was director Woody Allen making a rare appearance in a film that he didn’t write or direct. Moreover, Allen (who scored big with 2013’s Blue Jasmine) and Turturro (Gung Ho) aren’t familiar collaborators, with Turturro having a small part in Allen’s 1986 Hannah and Her Sisters and the two sharing some screen time in 2000’s Company Man. So what would draw Allen to the film?

Turns out, Turturro has given Allen a nicely Allen-esque role as a book dealer strapped for cash that winds up pimping Turturro out to a string of lonely NYC ladies that enjoy his services. It’s a peculiar film, to be sure, but one that feels based in some sort of reality and not the kind of reality that only seems to exist in NYC. At times, the film is so reminiscent of Allen’s work that I had to keep reminding myself who was responsible for the creation of the film.

Three stories are really told here. The first is Turturro’s burgeoning relationship with a Hasidic widow (Vanessa Paradis, coming across as Marion Cotillard lite) and how his presence in her life causes a ripple effect in her deeply traditional community. These quiet scenes between Turturro and Paradis are quite lovely in their simplicity with Paradis especially impressive as a woman torn between the rules of her faith and a need to feel love.

A very different relationship is found with Turturro and two women (Sharon Stone, Lovelace and Sofia Vergara, The Three Stooges) who want him for a ménage à trois. Stone looks like a million bucks and is granted some nicely bitter with a side of regret dialogue, though it’s really Vergara that has a breakthrough here…showing that she’s more than an overemphasized accent and nice boobs.

The final thread in Turturro’s cinematic knot shows Allen making a home with a black woman and her children. These scenes provide some nice comedic moments while giving Allen the chance to nervously hem and haw as only he can. Turturro’s set-ups are so richly interesting that they almost seem like a condensing of several scripts into this one film. I for one would love to see a full movie with Allen running around NYC with his brood of wise-cracking children.

Though its charm doesn’t extend past the closing credits, I found myself engaged and invested in Turturro’s tale of love in NYC. It’s not out to redefine the genre with snappy dialogue or contrived occurrences but is content showing characters that feel real to live their lives while letting us watch. A fine film with extra fine performances.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fading Gigolo

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Synopsis: Fioravante decides to become a professional Don Juan as a way of making money to help his cash-strapped friend, Murray. With Murray acting as his “manager”, the duo quickly find themselves caught up in the crosscurrents of love and money.

Release Date:  April 18, 2014

Thoughts: Making a rare appearance in front of the camera without also being the writer/director, Fading Gigolo finds Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine) as a nebbishly down on his luck guy that winds up pimping out his amicable friend, John Turturro (Gung Ho).  The film has the look and feel of a, well, Woody Allen film so I have to believe that director Turturro wrote the film with Allen and his influences in mind.  With Sharon Stone (Lovelace, Total Recall) and Sofia Vergara (The Three Stooges) on hand as oversexed vixens the film is ripe with possibility…but I’ve found Turturro’s previous work to be complicated and hard to warm to.  Perhaps a little Allen vibe will help smooth out his rough edges.

The Silver Bullet ~ Machete Kills

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Synopsis: The U.S. government recruits Machete to battle his way through Mexico in order to take down an arms dealer who looks to launch a weapon into space

Release Date:  September 13, 2013

Thoughts: Though 2010’s Machete was far from a blockbuster, director Robert Rodriguez is bringing the character back that was first introduced in a faux trailer attached to his Grindhouse collaboration with Quentin Tarantino.  I found the first film to be typical Rodriguez: messy, over-the-top, and exactly the kind of film that it was advertised to be.  This sequel looks to be more of the same with craggy faced Danny Trejo being surrounded by busty babes (including Sofia Vergara, Amber Heard, and Lady Gaga in her film debut) and lots and lots of weapons of physical destruction.  Its grimy feel fits right into the throwback movement that Rodriguez and Tarantino have such an affinity for so expect another small win for the loopy duo.