Movie Review ~ Irresistible


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A Democratic political consultant helps a retired Marine colonel run for mayor in a small Wisconsin town.

Stars: Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Rose Byrne, Topher Grace, Mackenzie Davis, Natasha Lyonne, Eve Gordon, Brent Sexton, Will Sasso, Debra Messing, Alan Aisenberg

Director: Jon Stewart

Rated: R

Running Length: 101 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: About a month ago, I shut down all my social media for about two weeks because I just couldn’t  take it anymore…things had gotten so ugly in all aspects.  Everyone hated everything and there was nothing nice that could be said about anything happening in the world.  What was the point in reading page after page and tweet after tweet of negativity?  Eventually, I had to give in and get back into the swing of things if I wanted to promote my reviews and, let’s face it, see what the celebrities were up to on Instagram.

This brief respite was nice but I know it’s only going to get worse as we head toward the election in November.  Political comedy has changed from what it was during the time Saturday Night Live was spoofing Gerald Ford, Bush Sr., and Bush Jr. and the humor has morphed from eliciting belly laughs to grimaces because it is a little too on the money.  The reality of our current administration is so spoofable that it should be funny…until you realize that it’s no laughing matter with lives and livelihood on the line.  It’s hard to joke about a heightened politicized climate that is increasingly volatile and hostile.

That’s what makes a movie like Irresistible such a strange beast to approach.  On the one hand, writer/director Jon Stewart (Rosewater) has delivered a pleasantly serviceable comedy aiming to address topical issues concerning the way government can be manipulated and in that way the film is a success.  However, if you look at it through the lens of where the country sits at the present within its release platform, the message being received feels out of touch and off key.  In his sophomore outing as a director, Stewart’s film almost instantly casts a shadow on itself, categorizing it squarely as a decent effort with sadly little impact.

Political strategist Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) still feels the sting of the 2016 election where he saw his Democratic candidate win the popular vote but ultimately not emerge victorious in the general election.   After one of his staffers shows him a video gone viral of a retired colonel (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) defending the rights of immigrant workers in a small town in Wisconsin, he decides to travel to the Midwestern town and convince the conservative veteran to run for Mayor…as a Democrat.  Initially hesitant, Jack agrees to enter the race and with Gary’s help begins a campaign to oust the current Republican mayor (Brent Sexton) who is taken off-guard but this late-breaking opponent.

Gary’s plan is bigger than a Wisconsin mayoral race, though, and that’s when political rival Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne, Like a Boss) enters the picture.  Arriving in town to serve as the strategist for the mayor, she comes with Republican money to pour into the campaign in order to hold their ground.  She knows as well as Gary that if he can flip this heartland community from conservative to Democrat, perhaps he can use that to his advantage in the 2020 cycle.  Soon, Faith and Gary are circling each other like the sharks they are and readying their dirty tricks as the townspeople and Jack’s daughter (Mackenzie Davis, Blade Runner 2049) watch from the increasingly forgotten sidelines.

As a straight up comedy, Irresistible has its moments of clarity and hilarity and Stewart mines the gold in the comedic hills of Gary’s big city ways clashing with the homegrown support of the townspeople.  It’s when the movie walks the line of balancing itself out as a political satire that things begin to get a bit hazy.  There’s a good deal of fun to be had at the expense of both Democrats and Republicans and Stewart has his talking points clearly laid out to drill home again and again.  We understand he thinks the current system is designed to fail the small and benefit the large but it’s packaged in such a transparent framework that the message doesn’t come off feeling as clever as he thinks it is.  That’s especially true for a rather cuckoo twist he unwraps at one point and it’s then you see the entire movie was designed around this gotcha moment.

If Stewart can’t quite nail the narrative of the piece, at least he’s cast the film with commendable effort.  Carell is nicely pitched in the lead and I’d be interested in hearing a commentary track for the film where the two men discuss the process of Stewart pitching the project to his old corespondent at The Daily Show and how they worked together making it.  I like that Carell didn’t play to the usual lunacy of the fish out of water tale but laid off the gas pedal for a more reserved reaction to everything that came his way.  Speaking of laid back, Cooper exerts the exact amount of energy required for the role and then sort of coasts…that’s not a negative per se, it works for what he’s trying to accomplish in any given scene.  I consistently like what Davis does on screen and while Stewart doesn’t really develop her character until the end, Davis is smart enough to use what she’s given in early scenes to make what transpires near the end come off better than it should.  She’s not in the movie as much as the poster and trailers make you think she is, but when Byre is present she’s the best thing happening and easily steals her scenes.

If Irresistible had been released five years ago would we feel differently about it?  I think so.  There’s just too much bad going on in politics right now to be able to stop and find the satire clever or the pointed importance in the small potatoes mash Stewart puts on the plate.  Viewed solely as a comedy about a man in limbo needing to learn a lesson about himself, I think it’s enjoyable on the whole but the moment it has to be classified in the political arena the frivolity of the affair becomes less appealing.

Movie Review ~ Vice


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of Dick Cheney, an unassuming bureaucratic Washington insider, who quietly wielded immense power as Vice President to George W. Bush, reshaping the country and the globe in ways that we still feel today.

Stars: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, Sam Rockwell, Tyler Perry, Allison Pill, Jesse Plemons, Lily Rabe, LisaGay Hamilton, Alison Pill

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: In 2015, writer-director Adam McKay made the rare successful transition from helming absurd comedies to becoming an Oscar winner for his work on The Big Short.  Whereas he was previously known for college dorm room friendly movies like Anchorman and it’s sequel, Talladega Nights, and Step Brothers he was now responsible for a movie that the parents of his fans were buzzing about.  The movie that resulted from The Big Short was a fairly remarkable achievement given how complex the novel by Michael Lewis was and McKay justifiably shouldered much of the plaudits.  With that kind of clout, not to mention the big box office his comedies had already made, McKay was given a wide berth for his next movie and the super-charged political Vice is the result of an artist that has tried to use all of his bag of tricks to much less success.

Charting the rise to power of Dick Cheney from college dropout all the way to the Vice Presidency under George W. Bush (Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), Vice is a peculiar film that suffers under McKay’s employment of a similar set of structural devices he used in his previous films.  There’s a lot of jumping around in time, numerous lines delivered directly to the audience, and multiple times where the action stops so a familiar face can break down to viewers what exactly is going on or give a greater description to a political term that may be foreign to audiences.  With The Big Short and it’s heavy use of Wall Street lingo, these asides proved helpful but in Vice they feel like a hindrance to the narrative thrust of the piece.  I feel like Americans are much more savvy to politics so it has the effect of being talked down to rather than it being explanatory.

Vice has a lot of ground to cover and even in 132 minutes it rarely dives below the surface to give us a view into the lives of the former VP.  We simply go through the motions seeing Cheney (Christian Bale, The Dark Knight Rises) as a younger (thinner, less bald) man, a bit of a loser until his wife Lynne (Amy Adams, Her) threatens to leave him unless he changes his act.  Entering Washington politics as an intern to Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell, Welcome to Marwen) under Nixon and Ford before being ousted by a regime change when Carter was elected President, Cheney had his hand in multiple power plays along the way where he skillfully positioned himself while playing the long game.

The first hour of the film focuses on these early years while the last half is all about the Bush years when Cheney agreed to serve as the Vice President for the son of the former president.  Recognizing him as unqualified and easily manipulated, Cheney seized this opportunity to request more power and responsibility, which Bush handed over to Cheney and his cronies without much incident.  Essentially, Cheney was running the show with Bush the real figurehead that was controlled by his second in command.  With the attacks on 9/11, Cheney saw an opportunity to strike back at enemies and helped set into motion a war many of the issues we still face today generated from.  For anyone that has read a book about this political age in our country, these won’t be revelatory facts but it’s not any less frustrating to see how many of our current problems could have been avoided had the election that put Bush/Cheney into office been criminally investigated as many now agree it should have been.

Much of the hype surrounding Vice has been Bale’s performance as Cheney and I have to say the actor looks and sounds remarkably like the man.  Bale is known to be an actor that dives headfirst into his roles, both mentally and physically and the transformation here is commendable.  Still, this felt like an impression not a performance and nothing I saw on screen revealed to me anything about Cheney from an emotional perspective only from Bale’s impression of the man.  That could easily be a choice since Cheney is notoriously a hard person to pin down but I think there’s something more that could be done apart from the physical alteration he made for the role.

I’m not sure if I had an issue with Adams and her performance as Lynne Cheney or if I just didn’t like Lynne Cheney and that made me respond in kind to what Adams was doing.  In McKay’s eyes, Lynne was a Lady Macbeth for the 20th century, pushing her husband into this life and often encouraging him into his most trying periods of power.  The parallels are further drawn in an admittedly amusing scene where McKay has Lynne and Dick speaking in Shakespearan verse when discussing Dick’s consideration of taking the Vice Presidential nomination.  Adams is always a reliable presence and she and Bale have a good chemistry, perhaps they just were too believable as evil people.

McKay clearly knows how to attract a name cast.  Aside from Carell’s hammy take on Rumsfeld and Rockwell’s good ole boy ease as the younger Bush, there are nice cameos from Jesse Plemons (Game Night) as a fictional character that serves as a narrator who becomes an important piece later in the film and Tyler Perry (Alex Cross) as a morally conflicted Colin Powell.  Allison Pill (Hail, Caesar!) and Lily Rabe (A Midsummer Night’s Dream) have some nice scenes as the Cheney daughters, and a special shout-out to LisaGay Hamilton (Beautiful Boy) for her spot-on Condoleezza Rice.

What’s missing from the movie are the moments between these big political benchmarks.  Skipping around in time (and over the Clinton administration all together) feels like McKay is cherry picking the passages he wants to highlight and that doesn’t feel fair enough in presenting an accurate picture of what was happening in the world that could have influenced Cheney in his later years.  I could easily have seen this being a Netflix series that stretched eight hours and being perfectly content to spend that extra time with these rather morally bankrupt people.  What’s not missing from the movie?  Symbolism.  McKay is a fan of making everything Symbolic with a capital S with many fishing/lures interstitials cut into scenes when Cheney is trying to hook another unsuspecting simp into his power plays.  At first it’s creative, then it becomes cloying.  Let’s also not speak of a dreadful mid-credit scene that Annapurna Pictures should immediately remove from all prints — totally unnecessary and weakens McKay’s argument up until that point.

There was little doubt before the release of Vice that former Vice President Dick Cheney was already considered one of the greatest villains our country but under McKay’s watchful eye he’s now become one of the screen’s most diabolical forces.  Vice is one of the most outwardly liberal movies to come out of a major Hollywood studio and in a way that’s refreshing because there’s no hidden agenda.  I just wish McKay’s message was delivered in a better envelope.

Movie Review ~ Welcome to Marwen

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A victim of a brutal attack finds a unique and beautiful therapeutic outlet to help him through his recovery process.

Stars: Steve Carell, Leslie Mann, Janelle Monáe, Eiza Gonzalez, Diane Kruger, Gwendoline Christie, Merritt Weaver

Director: Robert Zemeckis

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: We’re often asked to provide our instant reactions to movies on our way out of advanced screenings.  This can be a good way to get some off the cuff remarks or quick takes to bring back to the studios as to what audiences felt the moment the lights come up and the credits start to roll.  I struggle in these moments to come up with two to three sentences that summarize two hours of thoughts, preferring to let the feeling marinate for a while until I can let it flow out here.  My overall opinion of the film rarely changes, it just solidifies as my mind works on detailing why I feel the way I feel.

With Welcome to Marwen, I knew leaving the theater it was one of the most troubling movies I’d seen all year but the way the movie nagged and gnawed at me in the days since I saw it was truly something to behold.  Hailing from a major studio with a well-liked star and Oscar-winning director, it’s a drastically misguided misfire that has no clue who it’s audience is or how to balance its technically impressive effects with a dramatically inert narrative.

Based on the 2010 documentary Marwencol, director Robert Zemeckis (Flight) and co-screenwriter Caroline Thompson (The Secret Garden) turn the doc into a narrative feature starring Steve Carrell (Beautiful Boy) as Matt Hoagancamp, an artist recovering from a brutal beating that has found a most unique coping outlet.  Creating a WWII-set world of his own in his backyard, he photographs dolls inhabiting his town of Marwen in various adventures featuring Cap’n Hogie, a stand in for Matt himself.  While Cap’n Hogie is the bomber jacket wearing tough guy in the group, he often needs to be saved by an assembly of leggy female figures that are modeled after various women in Matt’s own life.

This is where the movie starts to provide some extremely problematic issues it can just never recover from.  The real-life women in Matt’s world are his Russian caretaker (Gwendoline Christie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), a war veteran we briefly see in flashbacks (Janelle Monáe, Hidden Figures), a friendly worker at his local hobby shop (Merritt Weaver, Signs, by far the best performance in the film), his co-worker at a local diner (Eiza Gonzalez, Jem and the Holograms), and most disconcerting of all, a sexy French maid inspired by a nameless woman Matt sees in an adult film (played by Leslie Zemeckis, the directors real-life wife…yuck).  In reality, the women are portrayed as normal human beings but in Matt’s fantasy world their sexuality is heightened, their cleavage is on display, their skits are hiked up to crotch level, and they exist only to serve and protect Cap’n Hoagie’s wishes.  Basically, they are sex figurines.  Which would be fine if the movie ever acknowledged that this is odd and oddly disrespectful…which it never does.

When Nicol (‘I spell it with no “E” ’) moves in across the street, Matt becomes infatuated by the woman who seems to understand his quirks, especially as it relates to his penchant for wearing women’s high heels.  That Matt has a shoe fetish is but one of several of his eccentricities the film introduces only to never fully explore to any kind of satisfactory degree.  Though not gay, Matt finds that while wearing a woman’s shoe he can more easily get at the ‘essence’ of women (or, “dames” as he calls them) and, bless her heart, Nicol barely bats at eye when he delivers this corker of a revelation.  As played by Leslie Mann (This is 40) Nicol has a restrained charm that suggests she’s put up walls to guard her own emotional sensitivities.

Aside from it’s odious devaluation of nearly every female character that walks across the screen (Christie and Monáe are barely in the film in human form), the movie also has a rather large blind spot when it comes to talking about PTSD and the lasting effects of mental illness.  Clearly, Matt is suffering from major mental health problems brought on by his vicious attack and Zemeckis and Thompson don’t seem the slightest bit interested in presenting Matt with any kind of support outside of his made-up world of Marwen.  His interactions with people outside of Marwen are either comedic fodder or humiliating emotionally – it’s no wonder he’d rather spend time all alone with his dolls.  The one solution presented is in the form of a blue pill medication that no so subtly takes the form of another “doll” named Deja (Diane Kruger) who doesn’t seem to have a real-world counterpart but obviously has a huge hold over Matt’s psyche.

I have absolutely no idea who the audience would be for this movie.  It’s not a family film, it’s not a film an older adult audience will find much value in, and it’s certainly not a movie for the mid-range crowd who have a plethora of better choices this holiday season.  It literally has no target audience and I am mystified at whoever would have thought this would have made for a good feature film.  Carrell seems uncomfortable, and not just in the heels but as this is a Zemeckis film, it’s technical merits are first-rate.  Zemeckis is like a dog with a bone where motion-capture animation is concerned but here the technology works well in making Carrell, Mann, Monáe, and company all realistically doll-like when they are in Marwen.  It’s a good-looking movie, even if it’s rather ugly on in the inside.

Movie Review ~ Beautiful Boy


The Facts
:

Synopsis:  Based on the best-selling pair of memoirs from father and son David and Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy chronicles the heartbreaking and inspiring experience of survival, relapse, and recovery in a family coping with addiction over many years.

Stars: Steve Carell, Timothée Chalamet, Maura Tierney, Kaitlyn Dever, Amy Ryan

Director: Felix Van Groeningen

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: After so many landmark films about the perils of addiction have been made featuring numerous memorable performances, it takes a special story not to mention top flight actors and on-the-ball filmmakers to make the case for another entry. What is different about this story that sets it apart from what has come before? Where and what is the message? Is there a lesson to be learned? A final thought to hold tight to? It’s an uphill battle of questions for even the most talented of professionals to answer which is why the final take-away from Beautiful Boy is that it’s a respectably well made film of a story that feels too familiar.

Based on the popular memoirs from journalist David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, Beautiful Boy documents the journey both men go through as they deal with Nic’s addiction to alcohol and drugs. A child of divorce, Nic was a bright young man who became entangled with narcotics at a young age and continued to use through his attempts at going to college and after his various stints in rehab. Bouncing between his parents that tried in their own flawed way to pull their son out of his darkness, Nic (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name) continually hit rock bottom but couldn’t stay sober for long stretches of time. He becomes homeless, despondent, overdoses, and watches as friends (some of whom he brought into his drug orbit) overdose as well. It’s a pattern that repeats itself often throughout the film, to intentionally maddening results for David (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher), his wife (Maura Tierny, Insomnia), and his ex-wife (Amy Ryan, Goosebumps)

Chronicling this frustrating journey, screenwriter Luke Davies (Lion) effectively blends elements from both memoirs that give a narrative through line but never truly fleshes out the lasting effects Nic’s addiction has on the two men and the people in their lives.   I almost wish they had chosen one perspective to focus on and stuck with that or done a better job at sectioning off David’s story and telling that in parallel to Nic’s side of things at the same time. As it stands, we get bits of pieces of this long road the Sheff family traveled without being able to stop and explore the territory.

Directed by Felix Van Groeningen (director of the stunning Oscar nominated The Broken Circle Breakdown), the movie is slow to get started but does have some highly effective moments when it starts to cut its own path. We’ve all seen movies about addiction but the recovery aspect isn’t something covered in detail that often. The film works best when we see Nic on the other side of his binges and trying to put his life back together. These passages work so well because when he eventually falls victim to his addictions again we feel that grief right along with everyone else. When David finally stops trying to aggressively parent Nic and treats him like an adult with consequences, it’s a powerful moment for him (and the actor playing him) – I wish there were more moments like this throughout the movie but they are few and far between.

As indicated, the performances are good but not totally revelatory. While I applaud Chalamet’s approach to the role I didn’t fully find myself immersed in his performance as I thought I would. So unforgettable in his Oscar-nominated role in Call Me By Your Name, his work here feels like aspiring actor effort instead of fully formed. He hits the notes and looks the part but doesn’t quite deliver from the inside. I have much the same issue with Carrell, though the comedic actor fares better because he’s given a less obvious arc toward ownership of his shortcomings to help his son. Carrell has more moments to shine and work though some of the pain David experienced as he struggles to be a considerate parent to his troubled son but also an attentive father to Nic’s young half siblings.   Ryan and especially Tierney provide strong support as well as the maternal figures in Nic (and, let’s be honest, David’s) life.

It’s Oscar season so it’s not hard to see why Beautiful Boy is being released near the end of the year. It feels like Oscar material that we’re supposed to like because it has so many prestige people involved. It’s a good film and one I’d ultimately recommend, but in several key areas it misses the mark to be something to consider in the “best of” lists critics and audiences are starting to make for themselves.

Movie Review ~ Last Flag Flying

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Thirty years after they served together in Vietnam, a former Navy Corpsman Larry “Doc” Shepherd re-unites with his old buddies, former Marines Sal Nealon and Reverend Richard Mueller, to bury his son, a young Marine killed in the Iraq War.

Stars: Steve Carell, Bryan Cranston, Laurence Fishburne, Yul Vazquez, Kate Easton, J. Quinton Johnson, Cicely Tyson

Director: Richard Linklater

Rated: R

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: It’s not lost on this reviewer that the director behind the tin-eared Last Flag Flying is Richard Linklater.  Linklater has built a career on authentic sounding/feeling movies like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, not to mention his career high of Boyhood.  Following that up with the enjoyable Everybody Wants Some! which was seen as a spiritual sequel to his earlier Dazed and Confused, Linklater seemed like he was entering a mid-career golden zone of easy-going character driven films.

So you’ll forgive me for being pretty surprised that he’s at the helm of Last Flag Flying, a phony baloney film that not only wastes two good actors (and one mediocre one) but your valuable holiday time as well.   A kinda-sorta sequel to 1973’s The Last Detail (which, full disclosure, I have not seen), this is a long trip with a short premise and it all goes nowhere.  I’m usually fairly forgiving with movies that limp out of the gate if they can finish strong but this one falls flat from the very beginning and never gets back up again.

On a cold night in 2003, a Larry Shepherd enters a dive bar in Virginia.  The man (Steve Carell, Freeheld) strikes up a conversation with Sal, the guy behind the bar (Bryan Cranston, Godzilla) and reveals himself to be an old Vietnam war buddy the bartender hasn’t seen in decades.  With lingering guilt over a crime Sal was involved with that Larry took the fall for, Sal agrees to accompany Larry on a day trip to a church nearby.  That’s where they meet up with former comrade in arms Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne, Passengers), who has transformed from a war-time wild man to a man of the cloth.

Larry has tracked down these two men because he recently lost not only his wife to a long-term illness but has just learned his son was killed in the Iraq war.  Would these men accompany Larry as he buries his son in Arlington Cemetery, you know, for old times sake?  Mueller was also involved with the indiscretion that saw Larry serving time in custody and while Larry doesn’t explicitly say the two men owe him one, the suggestion is that this small favor is something they can do to right a past wrong and clear their conscience.  It also helps Mueller’s wife forces him to go.

Thus begins a road trip that stretches across multiple states and forms of transportation as the three men bring the fallen solider home to his final rest.  Along the way old war wounds are opened and the guys must come to terms with what they did and how that changed the course of everything they’ve done since they returned to the states.  There’s even a chance for some small redemption with a stop to visit with the mother (Cicely Tyson, Alex Cross, excellent with limited screen time) of a soldier killed in Vietnam.

All of this should have panned out to a rewarding experience, but the movie is so faux in thought, word, and deed that I never warmed to anyone or anything on screen.  I never once bought that the three leads were former military, nor that they would ever in a million years be friends.  I know war makes friends out of enemies but there’s no authenticity in the performances or in the script from Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan.  While Fishburne is the most believable, he’s also the one least invested in the movie.  Carell continues to be an actor with interesting depths but struggles with a role that asks him to emote in all the wrong ways.  As usual, the actor that has the greatest trouble is poor Cranston who proves again that he’s an actor probably best suited for television.  Cranston’s performance (much like his hammy Oscar-nominated performance in Trumbo) is all hot air and booming voice; when you place it aside Fishburne and Carell who are trying to find their own arcs he just crumbles under the pressure.  It’s a memorably forgettable performance in a movie that’s equally a huge write-off.

I can think of a half-dozen actors that could have pulled these roles off better but at the heart of the movie’s problems is a meandering script and poor pacing – that falls squarely on Linklater’s shoulders.  There’s a kernel of an appealing movie at play but before we’d even reached the halfway mark I was waving the white flag of distress.  Skip it… Now it’s time for me to go seek out The Last Detail.

Movie Review ~ The Big Short

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Four outsiders in the world of high-finance who predicted the credit and housing bubble collapse of the mid-2000s decide to take on the big banks for their lack of foresight and greed.

Stars: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Brad Pitt, Rafe Spall, Tracy Letts, John Magaro, Jeremy Strong, Byron Mann, Finn Wittrock, Hamish Linklater

Director: Adam McKay

Rated: R

Running Length: 130 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review:  Want to do something nice for your stockbroker this holiday weekend?  Ask them to accompany you to a screening of The Big Short, pay their way in, and then when it’s over ask them to explain the film to you.  Yes, this true story of the bursting of the housing market bubble is a dense watch and would benefit from studying a textbook beforehand…but at the same times it’s a riotously funny and routinely ribald comedy more entertaining than it has any right to be.

Though I’m not normally a fan of director Adam McKay (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), he’s turned in his most timely and mature work to date, juggling multiple storylines and characters over several years without ever losing the thread of what a tremendous disaster this downfall was to the economy.  Adapted by McKay and co-writer Charles Randolph from the book by Michael Lewis, The Big Short is big on market-savvy terms, facts, and figures but short on overall time to explain everything along the way.

Following four distinct sets of characters of various stature that overlap throughout the years, it’s a movie you have to buckle up and into from the beginning.  I was worried early on that I was going to wind up emerging as a true dumb dumb, never truly grasping the enormity of the situation or how things got as bad as it did.  Thankfully, McKay’s script had the foresight to predict this and employs a clever means to explain things in terms that the average Joe (me!) can understand.  I won’t spoil some of this surprisingly adept tactics for you, but I will say that it involves celebrities playing themselves breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to us.

McKay was lucky to gather the high-caliber cast he did.  It’s mostly a boys club here with the likes of Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace), and Brad Pitt (World War Z) taking on roles of those involved to varying degrees of seeing a problem on the horizon and then deliberately setting up the market to fail so they can profit.  Moral quandaries are few with only Carell standing up for the littler guy, gaining a conscience that stands him apart from his cut-throat colleagues.

In the supporting department, Marisa Tomei (Love the Coopers) is appreciated as always as Carell’s wife and even the usually campy Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) channels her natural tendency to overplay things into a dandy of a cameo as a Wall Street player conducting a meeting from behind some Mr. Magoo-ish optometrist shades.  Strong turns from Rafe Spall (Prometheus), Hamish Linklater (Magic in the Moonlight), and Finn Wittrock (Unbroken) round out a uniformly strong ensemble.

Though it deals with events that led to the ruin of many (mostly middle to lower class households), the film is surprisingly engaging and entertaining.  It feels like the movie that The Wolf of Wall Street thought it was behind all of the showboating performances and excessive running time.  The Big Short is still too long at 130 minutes but unlike Wolf, it gives the audience someone (anyone) to relate to.

The market is slowly building itself up again but if the final moments of the film are any indication, this is a problem that isn’t totally vanquished…making the movie ultimately a cautionary tale of unfettered greed and unregulated ambition.

Movie Review ~ Freeheld

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The Facts:

Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Stars: Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell

Director: Peter Sollett

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Why didn’t I like Freeheld more? That’s a question that hasn’t necessarily kept me up at night since the screening but it’s one that has stuck with me over the course of the last several days. As an advocate for equality for all and a sucker for a triumphant true story (not to mention a dedicated fan of Julianne Moore) I thought going into it that I’d emerge with a tear-stained face and strong sense of due justice…but instead I left dry-eyed and frustrated.  What should have been a slam dunk missed the net entirely.

The story of a lesbian couple fighting for equality regarding pension benefits has some mighty heft to it, so much so that it inspired the 2007 Oscar-winning documentary short of the same name. In a solid, moving 40 minutes we met Laurel Hester, a 23 year veteran of the New Jersey police force battling terminal lung cancer and the system that says she can’t leave her pension to her partner, Stacie Andree. As Laurel’s health fades and the odds stack up, a community of support forms around the women, changing the law in the process.

That’s a story! And the dramatization of that short should at least come close to the emotional impact the documentary had. Sadly, it’s a terribly clumsy affair that loses its footing early on and can’t rally enough to make it to a satisfying finish line. Though it features typical good work from Moore (Still Alice), Ellen Page (The East), and Michael Shannon (Man of Steel), it has its share of performances painted with broad strokes, weakening the overall effectiveness of a movie that never feels organic or personal.

Most of the problem likes with Peter Sollett’s stodgy direction and Ron Nyswaner’s ham-fisted script. It’s especially surprising that Nyswaner stumbles as hard as he does considering her wrote the far more effective Philadelphia in 1993. That movie was about justice and this one is about equality but Nyswaner doesn’t seem to know the difference because there’s a lack of overall tone. One moment it’s a tender love story and the next it’s a camp-fest with Steve Carell (Foxcatcher) woefully miscast as a gay Jewish civil rights activist played like an even more amped up version of his character from The Office. Carell is so very bad that he overwhelms everyone whenever he’s onscreen, no small task when you’re sharing space with the likes of Moore.

It’s a film with dialogue that seems taken verbatim from a sensitivity training video or a pamphlet on the gay rights movement. The “bad guys” tote religious beliefs and incredibly general stereotypes, unmoved by any example presented showing that gay people love their partners just like everyone else, the “good guys” dole out mighty preachy sentiments about acceptance and equality. It just never feels honest, even though it’s well intended.

Another big problem I had was that I never bought Moore and Page as a couple. Both actresses capably portray their characters but we’re supposed to believe in their bond and I never did. So it made it harder to relate to the situation the real-life couple found themselves in. Instead it becomes a film about Moore dying before justice is served, instead of the struggle for equality that Hester herself wanted to be front and center.

It says something when the most memorable thing for me was the song played over the end credits.  “Hands of Love” was written by Linda Perry of 4 Non Blondes and performed beautifully by Miley Cyrus and it’s the one chance the film has for an Oscar contention.

Is the film important to see?  Sure, if you’re wanting to have a larger discussion with someone on the continued fight for equality for all.  But as a dramatization of real life events that led to a landmark change in the law, it’s an overall letdown.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Big Short

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Synopsis: When four outsiders saw what the big banks, media and government refused to, the global collapse of the economy, they had an idea: The Big Short. Their bold investment leads them into the dark underbelly of modern banking where they must question everyone and everything.

Release Date: December 11, 2015

Thoughts: It’s an interesting move that Paramount Pictures decided to release this heavy hitter smack dab in the midst of a busy holiday movie season. That means they think they have a winner on their hands in this true-life tale, a bit of counterprogramming to the more obvious Oscar bait flicks that are being readied for the end of the year. If I’m being honest (and I always am), I’m a bit exhausted with these corporate level endeavors about the failure of big business. Like the wearying The Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short isn’t lacking in star-power thanks to producer and star Brad Pitt (World War Z) looping in the likes of Ryan Gosling (The Place Beyond the Pines), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace). Still, I desperately hope it has a snap, purpose, and isn’t just another showcase for big stars saying big things about big problems.

 

 

The Silver Bullet ~ Freeheld

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Synopsis: New Jersey police lieutenant, Laurel Hester, and her registered domestic partner, Stacie Andree, both battle to secure Hester’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Release Date: October 2, 2015

Thoughts: Reigning Best Actress Oscar winner Julianne Moore (Still Alice) might want to pick out another redhead friendly clothing ensemble because Freeheld could nab the actress another season pass for end of the year rewards. Starring alongside fellow Oscar nominees Ellen Page (The East), Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), and Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road, Man of Steel), this true life drama concerns the fight for equality by two lesbian life-partners. While the trailer dips into some TV-movie-of-the-week-ish maudlin speechifying, I’m hoping that screenwriter Ron Nyswaner (who penned the similar Philadelphia, also Oscar nominated) finds the honesty in the midst of the sentimentality.

Movie Review ~ Minions

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Minions Stuart, Kevin and Bob are recruited by Scarlet Overkill, a super-villain who, alongside her inventor husband Herb, hatches a plot to take over the world.

Stars: Michael Keaton, Steve Coogan, Allison Janney, Sandra Bullock, Jon Hamm, Jennifer Saunders, Pierre Coffin, Steve Carell

Director: Kyle Balda, Pierre Coffin

Rated: PG

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In my review of 2013’s Despicable Me 2, I mentioned that the filmmakers succeeded in making an enjoyable sequel because of their understanding of exactly what the audience wanted…more Minions.  After Despicable Me 2 broke big at the box office, a third film was set for release in 2017 but in the interim a spin-off animated adventure has been created that focuses solely on how the Minions came to serve their not-quite-so evil master Gru.  You’d think that the most enjoyable elements from the first two films would be a slam-dunk when given their own film…but it turns out that sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

Look, I loved the Minions in the first two films and laughed at their gibberish language and love of bananas as much as the next easily pleased adult in the audience.  Heck, I even waited in line for a considerable time in a light drizzle for a spot on the Minion Mayhem ride at Universal Studios in Florida.  It’s clear, though, that these were characters that worked better in their featured supporting roles and aren’t quite ready for headlining their own film.

The opening credits show the genesis of the Minions as they emerge from a prehistoric ocean and start their quest to serve the baddest of bad guys throughout time.  Their bumbling winds up offing their masters throughout history, though, from a T-Rex to Dracula to Napoleon and eventually they find themselves exiled into a cave frozen over with ice where they languish without a villainous boss to serve.  Not content with just lying around any longer, during the ‘60s the resourceful Kevin recruits two of his compatriots (Stuart and Bob) to venture out in search of an evil genius they can attend to.

Starting out in New York before heading to Florida and then England, the film follows the three pals as they become involved with the first female supervillain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock, Gravity) as she plots to overthrow the British monarchy.  Owing a little bit of its plot to King Ralph, the final half of film has the Minions first trying to help Overkill steal The Crown Jewels and then staving her off as she goes mad with newfound power.

Like the previous two entries in the Despicable Me universe, Minions feels too long even at the relatively short 91 minutes.  I was checking my watch before it was half over, a bad omen for a film not lacking in color or 3D distraction. (Like its predecessors, this one is worth the 3D upcharge…but make sure to stay until the final credits have passed for some impressive 3D effects.)  Directors Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin (who also voices every last Minion…totaling almost 1,000!) seem to know they don’t have enough material for a full-length feature so there are more than a few pit stops along the way, such as Stuart leading some Royal Guards in a sing-a-long to, randomly, a selection from the musical Hair.

The voice talent also is disappointingly underwhelming.  I was looking forward to Bullock’s performance but didn’t get much from her.  Like Frozen, the voices never seemed to really match their animated counterparts so you have the voices of talented actors like Bullock, Michael Keaton (RoboCop), Allison Janney (The Way Way Back), Jon Hamm (Million Dollar Arm), and Steve Coogan (Philomena) coming awkwardly out of designs that don’t sound totally correct.

It’s in the final five minutes where the movie shows some signs of life, not surprisingly it’s the part that acts as a bridge between Minions and Despicable Me, by that time I was just ready to get up and go so it’s a credit to the film that it finished up strong.  Still, in a summer that’s shown that there’s a case to be made for successful sequels, Minions is an example of how a spin-off (even one with good intentions) isn’t always the wisest route to take.  I’m sure the film will rake in a buttload of cash, though, so I hope that Despicable Me 3 puts the Minions back to work at what they do best…support the action rather than lead it.