Movie Review ~ The Choice

1

choice_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Travis and Gabby first meet as neighbors in a small coastal town and wind up in a relationship that is tested by life’s most defining events.

Stars: Benjamin Walker, Teresa Palmer, Maggie Grace, Alexandra Daddario, Tom Welling, Brett Rice, Tom Wilkinson, Sharon Blackwood

Director: Ross Katz

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: I fought The Choice.  I mean, I fought it hard.  And if you’re like me, you’ve tired of your long ride on the Nicholas Sparks emotional merry-go-round film adaptations where true love is easily won and tragically lost.  It also didn’t help that The Choice has, without a doubt, the worst marketing and trailers for any Sparks film to date.  I warmed slightly to 2013’s The Lucky One, disliked 2014’s The Longest Ride, and was buckled in for another trite trip through a gossamer North Carolina doomed romance. Surprise! I liked it, finding it the most enjoyable Sparks film since The Notebook (that’s seven movies ago, in case you were wondering) and, while imperfect, a decent addition to the modern romance genre.

To be fair, it’s rough going for the first 20 minutes.  Screenwriter Bryan Sipe (Demolition) uses that old chestnut, The Flashback Framing Device, to bait us into waiting 90 minutes for an answer to a question posed in voiceover by our leading man.  Traveling seven years back in time (and making sure we know it by the hauling out a crude Blackberry) we’re plopped on the deck of a North Carolina boat where Travis Parker (Liam Neeseon look-alike Benjamin Walker, In the Heart of the Sea, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is sweet-talking some bikini-clad extras.  While he’s not painted as an outright d-bag, Walker certainly gives off the ‘won’t call you back’ red flags that would send any female with half a brain running in the opposite direction.

He meets his match in Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer, bouncing back nicely from a wasted turn in 2015’s Point Break remake), a headstrong medical student nearing the end of her rotations that’s renting the cottage next door to Travis. Their ‘meet cute’ moment is anything but, with Walker and Palmer awkwardly stammering their way through the first of many squabbles eventually leading to a passionate session on top of Palmer’s dining room table.

Ah…but there’s a problem.  She’s already spoken for, the trophy girlfriend of another doctor (Tom Welling, Draft Day, looking positively inflated to the point of bursting in his child’s size clothes) and he’s managing an on-again, off-again romance with a girlfriend (Alexandria Daddario, Texas Chainsaw 3D) his friends have dubbed Boomerang because she keeps coming back.  When her boyfriend goes out of town and his girlfriend simply vanishes from the film without much fanfare, the path is cleared for Travis and Gabby to get all handsy as they drift around the picturesque Carolina shores.  But wait…this is a Nicholas Sparks film after all so there has to be an obstacle (or obstacles) to overcome.

Like the spoiler-free reviewer I am, I’ll stop there because while the film may be lacking in overall surprise, it’s in the execution of the predictable happenings that pepper the final 1/3 of the film that helps to set The Choice apart from other Sparks yarns.  Walker and Palmer overcome their initial misalignment and find some genuine chemistry which helps them both fuel the fire needed for the final act.  Walker, especially, is quite good.  Though at first I felt he was doing a great Matthew McConaughey impression with his country-fried twang and winking flirtations, he comes through in a big way and carries the film through some rough waters.

In retrospect, Sipe’s screenplay leaves more than a few loose ends hanging: Gabby makes a big stink about studying for her final tests only to never hear from them again once she locks eyes with Travis.  It’s like her career and ambition evaporate in favor of a warm embrace. To each their own but it reduces Gabby to being a follower.  There’s also some talk of Gabby coming from wealth and apart from an amusing trip home, little more is made of this diversion after milking out some laughs from a comedy of errors.

In addition to Walker and Palmer, director Ross Katz (who also helmed the excellent HBO film Taking Chance) has cast the film well.  Tom Wilkinson (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) seems uncommonly relaxed as Travis’ dad, maybe because he doesn’t have to do any seriously heavy lifting.  I’m still not a fan of Maggie Grace (Lockout) but she has a few nice moments as Travis’ wise sister…though it’s a shame she has to do it in one of the most hideous wigs (at least I hope it was a wig) I’ve seen onscreen in some time.  Special mention must be made for Sharon Blackwood (Magic Mike XXL), a riot as an ever so slightly meddlesome receptionist.  Oh, and there’s a cute dog that elicited the appropriate amount of coos from audience members.

Bring a hanky for the finale but know that you’ll have enough time to dry those tears because the film doesn’t really know when (or how) to end…so it just sort of keeps puttering along until it finds a way to close out the proceedings.  It’s a too long wrap-up that starts to weigh the picture down instead of keeping it afloat.   An overall sense of good will makes this extended good-bye easier to stomach, even for this reviewer so averse to schmaltz.  Arriving just in time to be a smart Valentine’s Day, um, choice, this is an above average effort that’s a whole lot better than its own studio would have you believe.

The Silver Bullet ~ Selma

selma

Synopsis: Chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tried and failed to chronicle the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a fictionalized historical figure. Self-serving dialogue and a cast roster more interesting than effective sunk what could have been a film of importance. Slipping in at the end of the year just in time to qualify for the busy awards season is the drama Selma and it looks like a more focused work, brimming with the passion of a call to action Lee Daniels’ The Butler was so sorely lacking. I’ve watched the trailer a few times now and found my interest quite energized by the spark director Ava DuVernay has ignited and that stars David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy) look goose-bumpy good as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King. Quickly moving to the top of my anticipated list, I’m ready to take the trip to Selma.

Movie Review ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

1

grand_budapest_hotel_ver2
The Facts
:

Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

Director: Wes Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 99 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review:  In the interest of total transparency, I wanted to let you know that I’m not a dyed in the wool devotee of Wes Anderson.  Sure, I devoured The Royal Tenenbaums as fast as the next art house hound but I started to have my doubts with The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and, full disclosure, didn’t even bother with The Darjeeling Limited.  Meryl Streep got me back to Anderson providing a voice for the clever clever clever The Fantastic Mr. Fox and my journey was complete with 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom, one of my top films of that year.

It’s March now but I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel in February and knew even then that another Anderson film would be near the top of my list for 2014 because this film represents the filmmaker at his most imaginative, most focused, most comedic, and most free from the convention and chumminess that I felt stymied some if not all of his pre Moonrise Kingdom works.

Here’s a director with that rarest of rare gifts…a point of view.  You don’t even need to know this is a Wes Anderson film to know it’s a Wes Anderson film.  His use of color and his attention to symmetric detail demonstrates a skill very few directors possess and Anderson continues to lead the way.  It says something that in Hollywood’s copy happy climate I can’t recall another studio or director that has even attempted the kind of precision and whimsy Anderson makes look effortless.

His new adventure (and it’s truly an adventure) takes place in three different time periods (and, if your theater is heeding the filmmakers instructions, three different aspect ratios) and charts the goings on of the titular lodging and it’s charismatic concierge that made it famous   Inspired by the writings of Austrian Stefan Zweig, Anderson’s film has a little bit of everything from campy farce to murder mystery foibles.  Behind every door of the hotel could lie danger or a lusty encounter with lord knows who.

Priding himself on his exceptional service in and out of the bedroom, randy would-be sophisticate concierge Gustave H (an inspired Ralph Fiennes, Skyfall) mentors young lobby boy Zero Moustafa (perfectly etched by Tony Revolori in the past and F. Murrary Abrahm in the almost present) in the ways of love and lodge, eventually embroiling him in a family squabble after a rich old lady (a marvelously brief cameo by Tilda Swinton, We Need to Talk About Kevin) kicks the bucket under suspicious circumstances and leaves a prized painting to the concierge that warmed her bed.

Chock full of familiar Anderson players, some are seen briefly while others have meatier roles that allow them to go all out.  All are standouts but notables are Adrien Brody (The Pianist) as Swinton’s son wanting his just reward, Willem Dafoe (Out of the Furnace) drawing on his Shadow the Vampire character to play a ghoulish thug, Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park, The Big Chill) odd as ever as a family lawyer, Jude Law (Side Effects) as a curious writer, Edward Norton (Moonrise Kingdom) turning up as a detective while Saoirse Ronan (How I Live Now, The Host), Jason Schwartzman (Saving Mr. Banks), Tom Wilkinson (The Lone Ranger), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and of course Bill Murray (The Monuments Men) pop up when you least expect them to.

No big surprise that Anderson’s film is given the grandest of grand production designs courtesy of production designer Adam Stockhausen (Oscar nominated in 2013 for 12 Years a Slave), art directors Stephen O. Gessler (Cloud Atlas), Gerald Sullivan (The Dark Knight Rises), & Steve Summersgill, set decorator Anna Pinnock (Life of Pi), and three time Oscar-winning costume designer Milena Canonero (Carnage).  Frequent collaborator Alexandre Desplat composes a typically tonally perfect score that sets the mood with style.  Count on all to be recognized with Oscar nominations a little less than a year from now.

Hopefully, Anderson, Fiennes, and the picture itself aren’t too distant of a memory when the award nominations are announced at the end of the year.  It would have been so easy for Anderson to toss this jewel of a picture into the 2013 award race but I think it was a wise choice for Fox Searchlight to hold this one back a bit and let audiences come down from their American Hustle and Gravity highs to start their new season off with a bang.

A film of numerous superlatives, The Grand Budapest Hotel is, for my money, Wes Anderson’s finest film to date.  Energetic, often hysterically funny, and excellent from the first frame to the last it’s as close to a perfect film experience as I’ve had in some time.  For some, it may be too left of center to feel the same way but I was bowled over with little reservation.

Got something you think I should see?
Tweet me, or like me and I shall do my best to oblige!

The Silver Bullet ~ The Grand Budapest Hotel

grand_budapest_hotel_ver2

Synopsis: The adventures of Gustave H, a legendary concierge at a famous European hotel between the wars, and Zero Moustafa, the lobby boy who becomes his most trusted friend.

Release Date: March 7, 2014

Thoughts: Are you ready for The Grand Budapest Hotel?  No, really, are you ready?  Because I have the inkling the first great movie of 2014 will arrive once Wes Anderson’s follow-up to Moonrise Kingdom opens its doors in early March.  Anderson is an acquired taste and truth be told it’s taken me a while to really warm up to his style but if it’s half as precise as Moonrise Kingdom this one’s going to be another strong entry in Anderson’s growing list of cinematic treasures.  As is always the case for an Anderson film, the trailer is more of an excuse to introduce the slam-dunk cast on board than it is to reveal plot details…I found myself saying “Like him, like her, love him, like him, love her…” as this second preview played on.  Highly anticipated to the point where it may not meet expectations, I’m trying to keep a lid on this one until I see it for myself.

Movie Review ~ The Lone Ranger (2013)

lone_ranger_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: Native American warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Stars: Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, Tom Wilkinson, William Fichtner, Barry Pepper, James Badge Dale, Ruth Wilson, Helena Bonham Carter

Director: Gore Verbinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 149 minutes

Trailer Review: Here and Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  I made the mistake of reading too many early reviews of this update on the classic character featured first on the radio, then in a run of popular films in the 50’s, and finally on television.  Words like disastrous and failure were touted loud and clear and maybe that’s why I wound up like the film far more than I thought I would.  Does the film have its problems?  Oh yes.  Did it wind up being a total bomb for Walt Disney Studios?  Oh yes.  Is the film as bad as knife wielding critics would have you believe?  No, not by a long shot.

It’s probably safe to say that the deck was stacked against this from the start.  While The Lone Ranger has been a popular icon of American culture since his debut, there has been an inescapable cloud hanging over the franchise when looked at from a modern day perspective.  Simply put, there are some serious un-PC stereotypes going on and even dismissing these incidents as a product of the time in which the episodes were shot can’t fully exonerate those involved.  So the film had to find a way to parlay the relationship between John Reid (aka The Lone Ranger) and Native American Tonto into something more than a master/servant sort of relationship.

The casting of Johnny Depp (Dark Shadows) as Tonto didn’t start things off so well.  Though Depp has claimed to have Native American heritage, there were more than a few eyebrows raised when Depp, known for his broadly sketched characters, was cast in a role that already had studio heads sweating.  To the credit of Depp, director Gore Verbinski, and screenwriters Justin Haythe, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio there are strides taken to make Tonto his own man.  Given a back-story, motivations of his own, and ample screen time, the character becomes more central and fleshed out than the title character…so much so that it can feel like overcompensation.  Depp bookends the story under some quite impressive old age make-up and at times I totally forgot the actor was there.

Even though they spend the large majority of the film squabbling, Depp and star Armie Hammer (Mirror, Mirror) have a nice rapport and it’s their eventual team spirit camaraderie that gives the film some much needed steam as it trudges ever closer to its too long two and a half hour running length.

Working with Depp for the third time, Verbinski makes a case for the resurrection of the Western though there are perhaps one too many sweaty bearded men on hand and audiences may feel they need nametags to keep everyone straight.  It’s an efficient if overproduced picture that, while never boring, does meander through its middle section while Tonto and Reid find some footing in their growing friendship.

Though the film markets Helena Bonham Carter (Les Misérables) as a supporting player she’s a glorified cameo with quite limited screen time.  She makes the most of it though in a role that has one or two tricks waiting to be discovered.  William Fichtner (The Dark Knight) is a wonderful character actor equally at home in good or bad roles.  He’s a real bad guy here and the performance would be a highlight…if the appalling decision to give him a cleft palate hadn’t been employed.  It’s pretty much an unforgivable move in my book.  Ruth Wilson (Anna Karenina) is memorable as Reid’s sister-in-law who finds herself and her son in trouble when a greedy landowner (Tom Wilkinson, Batman Begins) sets his sights on her and her property.

Halfway through The Lone Ranger I couldn’t help but think of 2012’s John Carter, another mega flop from Walt Disney Studios that I found to be unfairly maligned by critics.  Both films have handsome production values and maybe overreach and oversell in their attempt to make a proper adventure epic.  I feel both films got a bum rap and it’s up to audiences to make the final call

The Silver Bullet ~ The Lone Ranger – Trailer #2

lone_ranger

Synopsis: Native American spirit warrior Tonto recounts the untold tales that transformed John Reid, a man of the law, into a legend of justice.

Release Date:  July 3, 2013

Thoughts:  The first trailer for summer’s would-be blockbuster The Lone Ranger kept its cards close to its chest, revealing just enough to let audiences know that Johnny Depp was falling down another rabbit hole of chameleon acting as Tonto, the trusty sidekick of the titular character (Armie Hammer).  The second preview is more of the same with some added plot details and a few more impressive effects shots.  For the most part, I enjoyed Depp’s previous collaboration with director Gore Verbinski (Rango, the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) but westerns have traditionally been a tough sell for modern audiences.  If anyone can breathe some life into the old genre, it’s the dynamic duo of Depp and Verbinski.  Count me in as ‘highly interested.”

Movie Review ~ The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Facts:

Synopsis: British retirees travel to India to take up residence in what they believe is a newly restored hotel. Less luxurious than its advertisements, the Marigold Hotel nevertheless slowly begins to charm in unexpected ways.

Stars: Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith,Tom Wilkinson, Celia Imrie, Ronald Pickup, Dev Patel, Penelope Wilton 

Director: John Madden

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 Minutes

Random Crew Highlight: Unit Minibus Driver ~ Chris Hammond

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s almost too easy.  The gathering of some of the UK’s most celebrated actors and actresses in one film creates a pile of good will right off the bat.  Add to that a respected director, gorgeous locales, and a plot that brims with surprises and it’s no wonder the film has been a sleeper hit since it was released in the US in May. 

Opening with the expected rainy and grim shots of London, the ensemble drama introduces us to our main group of old-timers as they hit all the stereotypical “old age” milestones.  Loss of spouse, loss of independence, loss of available partners…it’s all covered in a mature way that lets us know that if anyone would be swayed by a brochure for a luxury retirement hotel in mysterious India, these people would.

There’s no obvious main character in the film but Dench stands out as a quasi narrator that the film could be seen through the eyes of.  A recent widow with bills to pay she sells her flat to cover her costs and heads to India alongside a handful of others in similar situations.  I found it hard to believe that everyone would be leaving on the same day, on the same route, with the same transportation but that’s part of the easy going nature of the film that you forget about logical wrinkles.

Speaking of wrinkles, it’s refreshing to see stars of a certain age owning their advanced years without lampooning themselves.  There are a few jokes made at their expense, yes, but as this is a UK made/financed production the script is fine tuned to place the actors in lightly comedic situations rather than making humiliating jokes about diapers, Viagra, and bad driving (as you know any American made film would have). 

Dench is in good company with the likes of Wilkinson as a judge who returns to India for an unexpectedly sincere reunion, Wilton and Nighy (in a tender and welcome departure) as a couple who feel that a change will help them avoid red flags in their relationship, and singles Imrie and Pickup as randy old timers that long for companionship with good old fashioned benefits.  Only Patel seems to take the easy way out and fashion his hopeless Indian hotel manager character through the eyes of an American idea of the Indian people.  He settles down as the picture unspools so that by its conclusion his story is as important as the people renting space in his hotel. 

Smith almost always deserves special mention so I’m calling her out here as the sparkling center of the Marigold experience.  Her part isn’t all that challenging (she spends nearly all of it in a wheelchair) but Smith doesn’t need to move around much to deliver a smashing performance…though the film does at times use her more as a plot tool rather than a real character.  Still, no one can send a sharp barb quite like Smith and the film really comes alive with her experiences at the hotel.

In an ensemble movie it can be difficult to juggle so many characters and storylines without occasionally losing sight of the through line.  I did feel that people would disappear for long stretches…long enough for you to forget they are also playing a part in the overall story.  In that respect, the movie feels longer than it should although it doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Madden (Shakespeare in Love, The Debt) does corral the film nicely, though, and does an admirable job showing the day-to-day life of the Indian culture.

The acting is strong across the board but with actors this good and characters so broadly drawn I found myself wondering what it would have been like had the parts shifted a bit.  I’m not sure it would have mattered because I think the actors could have made any combination work and probably what ended up on screen was for the best. 

It took me a while to get to it as my time was taken up with the latest summer blockbuster…but finally taking in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a frothy affair.  It won’t go down as the best film in the roster of these pros but is a film I can see returning to with pleasure.