Movie Review ~ Just Mercy


The Facts
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Synopsis: After graduating from Harvard, Bryan Stevenson heads to Alabama to defend those wrongly condemned or those not afforded proper representation. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian, who is sentenced to die in 1987 for the murder of an 18-year-old girl, despite evidence proving his innocence.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Foxx, Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Karan Kendrick

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 137 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  There’s always a dilemma in missing an early screening of a movie and waiting to see it after it is released to general audiences.  I had the opportunity to see Just Mercy back in October at the Twin Cities Film Festival and again in late December for a press screening but wasn’t able to attend either showing due to other commitments. This was a disappointment because I had been looking forward to this high-profile studio film starring rising A-Lister Michael B. Jordan and Academy Award winners Jamie Foxx and Brie Larson in a true-life legal drama.  With buzz out of initial festival screenings that it could be a crowd-pleasing awards favorite, I wanted to be able to see it early, yes, but also with a packed house to get their reaction as well.

So, I couldn’t have that group experience, though I don’t think Just Mercy is meant to be one of those roof-raising stand up and applaud your noble defense attorney movies in the first place. Though it could be unfairly compared to a TV movie of the week because of its familiar story line of ambitious attorney battles Goliath bigoted legal system, it’s the small gentle touches that make it special.  You get a sense it’s wrong emerging from Destin Daniel Cretton’s fourth feature feeling entertained because there is nothing fun about its racially charged subject or the picture it paints about the conviction rates of the past, present and future.  It’s a somber and sobering look at the life of one man at the beginning of his journey in the fight for social justice and the individuals that had an impact on setting him on his path.

Harvard graduate Bryan Stevenson (Jordan, Creed) turns down offers from bigger (i.e. better paying) firms in better ports of call in favor of moving to Alabama to defend inmates wrongly convicted of crimes.  Inspired by an early meeting with a death row inmate he formed a connection with while he was still a law student, he starts the Equal Justice Initiative with Eva Ansley (Larson, Captain Marvel).  Seeking to provide a pro-bono defense for death row inmates who may not have received a fair trial due to their social class or ethnic background, Stevenson and Ansley come up against communities that sees them as nothing more than trying to free murders and rapists.  They face opposition from the start.  No one will rent them space for their office, Ansley receives bomb threats at her house, Stevenson is targeted by the local police and, in so many words, told to keep out of their business.

Marketing for Just Mercy would suggest that all of Stevenson’s time is devoted to working on overturning the conviction of Walter McMillian (Foxx, Django Unchained) who was accused of killing a teenage girl and given the death penalty despite a mountain of evidence proving he was innocent but that is a bit deceiving.  While it’s true that the bulk of the film revolves around the relationship that forms between the two men, there’s a significant amount of time spent with inmate Herbert Richardson (Rob Morgan, The Last Black Man in San Francisco) a veteran with PTSD on death row that also comes under Stevenson’s banner.  Both men have an impact on the lawyer Stevenson becomes and especially the time he spends with Richardson informs how Stevenson approaches the numerous setbacks he faces in the McMillian trial.  As Stevenson digs deeper in the McMIllian case, it opens the old wounds of a community that used the McMillian conviction as a Band-Aid to heal after the violent murder and aren’t willing to look at any evidence suggesting McMillian was innocent.

As this is based on a true story, the outcome of everything is right there for you to see if you choose to spoil things for yourself before going in, but I’d advise staving off that knowledge if possible.  I went in knowing nothing and it added to the tension of not being able to predict what would happen next and if justice would be served after being denied for so long.  The answers aren’t always what we want or how we expect to receive them but overall there’s a strength in Cretton’s script, though at 137 minutes the film is slightly circuitous in its path to get there.  What I can say is that the events in the film had a lasting impact on the lives of everyone involved and the work continues to this day — be sure to stay until the credits are fully rolling to be brought up to date with where things are presently.

Continuing to show he’s going to be one of the next generation of Movie Stars (the capital and M and S are purposeful), Jordan can come across as overly earnest as Stevenson but it’s exactly the right approach for the recent grad having his eyes opened to the certain realities.  He’s not naïve enough to think justice is always blind or that everyone is treated the same but watching his spirit get a bit broken during a cruel strip search his first-time visiting McMillian in jail is hard to watch.  With McMillian, Foxx has his best role in years and should have had an Oscar nomination to show for it.  The resolution to his situation and a body bereft of hope is evident when Stevenson first meets him, and Foxx creates a nice kind of magic letting the hope seep back into his person when the tides seem to turn in his direction.  Both men have an electric chemistry with Foxx the actor taking a fatherly role over Jordan — I can’t say for sure but it feels like the two got along like gangbusters and it shows onscreen.  Though their characters struggled to trust at first, the beauty found behind the walls eventually broken down is extraordinary.

Having worked with Cretton several times now, I’m surprised Larson didn’t have more to do.  She’s determined and confident as Ansley but goes missing for long stretches only to appear again to give Stevenson a pep talk or be a sounding board – so it winds up feeling like a utilitarian role rather than a pivotal one.  In some ways, I thought Morgan’s troubled death row veteran outshone Foxx.  He’s honestly the heart of the film and he’s got a whopper of a showcase that will easily get him work for the next several years.  Every film needs a villain or villain-adjacent and while it’s hard to cast the legal system into one person, Rafe Spall (Prometheus) as the stubborn District Attorney refusing to see the evidence presented to him fits the bill just fine.  Some may find Tim Blake Nelson (Angel Has Fallen) as a key witness to be slightly on the broad side but considering that Nelson had to add a speech disability that distorts his face, I found it to be an effective performance.   I also couldn’t write this review and not mention the enormous contribution of Karan Kendrick (The Odd Life of Timothy Green) and her solid turn as McMillian’s devoted wife who rallies her community behind Stevenson and her spouse.  There’s more to the role than simple love and support and Kendrick makes the most of her few scenes.

Plenty of movies have been made about the failure of our justice system to serve the men and women that can’t afford the kind of defense that would prove their innocence and plenty more will be made in the future.  Each has it’s own story of lines being crossed and motivations that are less than noble winning out over the quest for the truth.  All are worthy stories to tell because maybe it will prevent one more person from being wrongfully convicted of a crime.  Just Mercy may not have set out to change the way lawyers work with their clients, prosecutors pursue a conviction, juries weigh the facts, or judges deliver sentencing but it does highlight there is still work to be done to get it right.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (August)

arnold-terminator-almostdidnotstarHasta
We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

August

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
shaun_the_sheep_ver2The Facts
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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
dark_placesThe Facts
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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 Girl and 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
fantastic_four_ver3The Facts
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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
ricki_and_the_flashThe Facts
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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.
man_from_uncle_ver2The Facts
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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
end_of_the_tourThe Facts
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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
diary_of_a_teenage_girl_ver2The Facts
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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.

SO THERE YOU HAVE IT!  THE SUMMER OF 2015!

CHECK OUT MAY & JUNE & JULY

The Silver Bullet ~ Kill the Messenger

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kill_the_messenger

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

Release Date:  October 10, 2014

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