Movie Review ~ Widows


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago, amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities, take fate into their own hands, and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Stars: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Kaluuya, Liam Neeson, Colin Farrell, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Elizabeth Debicki, Brian Tyree Henry, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia Rulfo, Robert Duvall

Director: Steve McQueen

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: If there’s one truly unfortunate thing that happened at the movies this year it’s that Steve McQueen’s Widows failed to catch fire at the box office.  The director of 12 Years a Slave and Gillian Flynn, the writer of Gone Girl, have adapted an ‘80s UK crime series and updated it to present day Chicago and cast some of the best actors working today.  It’s a gritty, great film and that it went largely unnoticed just totally baffles me.  Oscar-winner Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) turns in what I think is the best performance of her career as a woman whose life is totally turned upside down and then is tossed sideways by a series of revelations that shock her and the audience.  Gathering together a group of disparate women (Elizabeth Debicki, The Great Gatsby, Michelle Rodriguez, Furious 7) to follow through on a crime their husbands were planning, just when you think you’ve figured out where the movie is going it throws in multiple twists that I just did not see coming.  It’s hard to pull one over on movie-goers but McQueen and Flynn do it twice.

Hopefully, this is one movie that people will rediscover when it arrives on streaming services and then kick themselves for missing it when it was on the big screen.  Perhaps it was marketed wrong or maybe it was released at a bad time of year, but something strange happened with Widows because this is one of the best films of the year that just totally vanished way before it should have.  Find it, see it…you’ll understand what I’m saying when you do.

The Silver Bullet ~ Widows

Synopsis: Set in contemporary Chicago amidst a time of turmoil, four women with nothing in common except debts left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities take fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.

Release Date: November 16, 2018

Thoughts: Oscar-winning director Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave) had a fondness for Widows, a UK television series created by Lynda La Plante (Prime Suspect).  In fact, McQueen liked it so much that he brought on Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn to modernize the story and signed on top notch talent to bring it stateside.  The result can be glimpsed in this trailer, an exciting first look at a hard-boiled crime drama that could be an award contender when all is said and done.  The cast is made up of Oscar winners Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) and Robert Duvall (The Paper), Oscar nominees Liam Neeson (The Commuter), Daniel Kaluuya (Black Panther), and Jacki Weaver (Life of the Party), not to mention impressive names like Colin Farrell (Saving Mr. Banks), Elizabeth Debicki (The Great Gatsby), Michelle Rodriguez (Furious 7), and Cynthia Erivo.  If the finished product is as impressively dynamite as this trailer, McQueen and company will have a very good fall.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fences

fences-600x400

Synopsis: An African American father struggles with race relations in the United States while trying to raise his family in the 1950s and coming to terms with the events of his life.

Release Date: December 25, 2016

Thoughts: Fences, August Wilson’s modern classic, comes to the big screen courtesy of director/star Denzel Washington with a screenplay by Wilson and boy, does it look like a whopper. Repeating their Tony award winning performances, Washington (The Magnificent Seven) and Viola Davis (Suicide Squad) stake their claim as front-runners for awards season glory in this first teaser trailer.  Davis, in particular, is long overdue to take home the prize and if you don’t get some kind of goosebumpy tingle from her final moments here, you need to take your Spidey senses in for a tune-up.  Adapting Wilson for the big screen can be a tricky task as his plays are so intimate and personal…but if anyone can make it work it’s going to be the players assembled here.

Movie Review ~ Suicide Squad

suicide_squad_ver24

The Facts:

Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Stars: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevingne, Adam Beach, Karen Fukuhara

Director: David Ayer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 123 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: About halfway through Suicide Squad, a dejected looking Deadshot (Will Smith) remarks “For a few seconds there, I had hope”…and he’s on to something. The pre-credit studio/production company logos have a dirty neon sheen to them and I felt the briefest tingle of excitement, some eager optimism that the last big film of the summer would be swooping in to save an otherwise lackluster season of good but not great entertainment. Instead of saving the day this stinker of a superhero film winds up burning down the house in a most spectacular fashion.

Warner Brothers and DC Comics continue to have a major identity problem, which is causing a sizable rift in their plans to build up a superhero universe franchise to rival Marvel Studios. Though they possess the most recognizable caped characters of them all (Batman and Superman) they haven’t yet been able to deliver a fully satisfying entry, or at least one that pleases both the critics and the audiences. Man of Steel was too dark, unwisely going the route of The Dark Knight’s gloom and doom and while I wasn’t as out for blood as the majority of critics were, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice had such significant structure problems that it wound up collapsing under its own turgid weight.

It’s easy to imagine that with BvS underperforming all eyes turned to Suicide Squad to right a listing ship and it’s not hard to see that this film has been heavily fussed with…to the point where it’s plot is almost completely incomprehensible. I’ve no doubt that writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) had a plan going into production but wound up bowing down to the studio heads and compromising his vision for the sake of the franchise, not to mention watering down the violence/language to fit into an ill-advised PG-13 rating.

There are a lot of characters to introduce and the movie is a herky jerky stumble through of brief origin stories, none of which feel long enough or inspire any sort of investment of interest for the next two hours. Deadshot (Smith, Winter’s Tale) is shown as both a family man and top-priced assassin, captured by a cameo-ing crusader in front of his young daughter. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Legend of Tarzan) turns to the dark side after playing head games with her former patient, The Joker (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club) while inner-city gangbanger Diablo (Jay Hernandez, Bad Moms) spews flames whenever his temper gets the better of him. Rounding out the group is Boomerang (Jai Courtney, The Water Diviner), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Trumbo), and Enchantress (Cara Delevingne, Paper Towns). The lone squad member given zero introduction is Slipknot (Adam Beach) in appearance so brief I’m shocked he wasn’t edited out completely.

All of these rogues were rounded up by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Prisoners) a morally stunted government agent that sees using bad guys to do good as a way to get in front of the new meta-human uprising. It’s never clear why Waller is as hard-nosed as she is, Ayer gives her no backstory or even a kernel of a hint as to her motivation and Davis plays her with uncharacteristic vacancy. Assisting Waller in keeping the rag tag team in line is Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop), Lt. Edwards (Scott Eastwood, The Longest Ride) and the ghost-blade wielding Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

Bringing the team together occupies the first hour while the second is filled with their first mission when they learn to stop thinking about escaping and start working together. When the Enchantress goes all magically evil, Waller sends the Suicide Squad in to stop her, leading to low stake fights on dark soundstages with poor CGI creations and terrible dialogue of quippy one-liners that fall flat. Throwing in some twists that lazily wriggle more than they interestingly tangle, the picture sputters through its overblown finale before giving up the ghost and paving the way to Wonder Woman and Justice League in 2017.

Smith and Robbie are interesting enough in their roles, though to call Robbie a breakout star based on her performance here is not that accurate. Sure, she’s probably the flashiest thing about the film but when it’s based purely on sexuality instead of characterization you have to wonder who the role is ultimately in service to. Much has been made of Leto’s wild methods in his creation of a new Joker but he’s in so little of the film that whatever impression he was supposed to make is likely on the cutting room floor…which is fine because when he does show up he’s so terrible that the less you see him the better. It’s fitting that Delevingne and Kinnaman’s characters are linked by love because they’re both dreadful, with Delevingne working her eyebrows and lisp into a frenzy whenever she’s threatened. Courtney and Akinnuoye-Agbaje barely register while Hernandez is the only vaguely root-able character in the whole bunch.

Now that Suicide Squad is open and will likely make a killing at the box office this weekend, on Monday morning I’d expect some heads to roll over at Warner Brothers as a way to exorcise the demons that the studio simply can’t shake. There needs to be a bit of cleaning the slate if there is any hope of saving future installments in this DC Universe. Hopes are high that Wonder Woman can give critics and audiences what they want, a decently composed intelligent adventure that’s not so damn dark.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suicide Squad

Squad2

Synopsis: A secret government agency recruits imprisoned supervillains to execute dangerous black ops missions in exchange for clemency.

Release Date: August 5, 2016

Thoughts: One thing that’s always bothered me about the slate of Marvel movies released over the past several years is that they’ve all been so damn sunny. Sure, they’re fighting some pretty bad baddies and lives are certainly lost…but there’s a particular lack of edge that can sometimes result in the stakes being a little lowered. I’ve always leaned toward the darkness of the DC Comics world through outings with Batman and Superman…but next summer DC takes it a step further with Suicide Squad.

Our first look at the highly anticipated flick may clock in over three minutes but it seems to only skim the surface at director David Ayer’s vision of the bad side of justice. Ayer has delivered the goods in films like End of Watch and Fury so I’m especially excited to see him put those talents to work on this franchise starter. Jared Leto (Dallas Buyer’s Club) is getting the major press for his nightmare inducing take on The Joker but don’t forget that the film also stars Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Will Smith (Winter’s Tale), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and a few other not-so-surprise cameos that live within this universe.

 

Movie Review ~ Blackhat

3

blackhat

The Facts:

Synopsis: A furloughed convict and his American and Chinese partners hunt a high-level cybercrime network from Chicago to Los Angeles to Hong Kong to Jakarta.

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Wang Leehom

Director: Michael Mann

Rated: R

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: Director Michael Mann hasn’t released a film since Public Enemies came and went back in 2009.  Though the 71 year old director tried his hand at the ill-fated HBO series Luck, it seemed like Mann was taking his sweet time on deciding on his next project.  Now, if Blackhat had been the kind of return to form Mann fans had been waiting for, I’d say that the wait would have been worth it…but it’s not and it isn’t.

Originally titled Cyber (wait, are you snoring yet?), Black hat refers to someone violating computer or Internet security maliciously or for illegal personal gain.  A globe-hopping crime drama involving a team of computer experts and government agents tracking down a cyber-villain that hatches a plot straight out of a failed James Bond film, Mann’s film is a cold as steel chrome-plated stumble.

Moody to the point of needing an anti-depressant, the film opens with an inside look at a computer virus attacking a Chinese nuclear reactor.  (This sequence looks like it was drafted the same time Matthew Broderick was playing his WarGames.)  When a stock market upset happens shortly after, federal agents (involving a bored looking and sounding Viola Davis, Beautiful Creatures) partner with a Chinese official (Leehom Wang) to identify the criminal.

Enter Chris Hemsworth (The Cabin in the Woods) as a jailed cybercriminal that happens to be the ex-college classmate of the Chinese agent.  Sprung from prison so his talents may be further exploited, he leads everyone on a chase over the Western part of the globe as each new destination provides a clue to the whereabouts and endgame of our terrorist.  Oh, and Hemsworth falls in love with the sister of the Chinese agent…just so there’s a reason to feature Hemsworth frequently sans shirt.

While the movie has the typical Mann touches of gorgeous aerial shots and breathless action sequences that put you right into the action, it’s also chock full of concerning missteps that wouldn’t seem out of place for a newbie filmmaker.  The film is far too long and in need of a editor willing to stand up for several subplots to be excised and the love story between Hemsworth and Wei Tang is hardly steamy and with Tang’s heavy accent hard to make much sense of.  Let’s not mention some of the worst dubbing in a mainstream film you’ll ever see.

A final showdown finds Hemsworth hunting down our bad guy and his cronies in the midst of a parade.  Things understandably get out of control pretty fast and the revelers laughably keep moving like nothing’s wrong amidst gunfire, stabbings, and other bloodletting.  Perhaps this sequence would have been better on the written page as the ending for some spy novel you’d pick up in an airport kiosk.

With his impressive body of work, Blackhat won’t be the final word on Mann’s career but it may be his most disappointing footnote.  While I found myself engaged when the film started deciphering its central mystery, I drifted away when the plot became a convoluted mess.  With a running time of over 2 hours, Blackhat is one that is easily skippable in theaters and possibly worth a look when it arrives for home consumption…that way you can rewind it if you fall asleep.

The Silver Bullet ~ Blackhat

blackhat-36698-poster-xlarge-resized

Synopsis: A man is released from prison to help American and Chinese authorities pursue a mysterious cyber criminal. The dangerous search leads them from Chicago to Hong Kong.

Release Date: January 16, 2015

Thoughts: Not that Michael Mann has ever been a director that turns out work on a regular basis, but it’s been nearly six years since Mann’s Public Enemies rolled out into theaters. Returning with the cyber action adventure Blackhat, the first look here is classic Mann with lots of shots of grandly styled action sequences sure to be interspersed with a flawlessly perfect (but icy cold) production design. Starring Chris Hemsworth (Cabin in the Woods) and Viola Davis (Prisoners), Blackhat will be unveiled mid-January of 2015, when audiences will be weary on award-ready dramas and in the mood for the type of skilled cinematic craftsmanship Mann has perfected over the years.

Movie Review ~ The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

disappearance_of_eleanor_rigby

The Facts:

Synopsis: One couple’s story as they try to reclaim the life and love they once knew and pick up the pieces of a past that may be too far gone.

Stars: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, William Hurt, Bill Hader, Viola Davis, Isabelle Huppert, Jess Weixler, Ciarán Hinds

Director: Ned Benson

Rated: R

Running Length: 122 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review:  I’m going to try my hardest to get through this review without working in a quote from The Beatles song featured in the title of this brittle drama. However, I may wind up resorting to cheap references to talking about “all the lonely people” and questioning “where do they all come from?” because aside from two strong performances from the leads, there’s not a whole lot more to discuss.

Originally filmed and intended to be released as two movies told from the male and female perspective of a crumbling marriage, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby feels familiar from the get-go.  There’s a mystery surrounding why our titular character (Jessica Chastain, Zero Dark Thirty) has fled her marriage to Conor (James McAvoy, Trance) and returned home to mommy, daddy, and single-mom sis but Ned Benson’s script isn’t malleable enough to allow Chastain and McAvoy to rise above some overly dramatic sequences that feel like scenes out of a training video on grief counseling.

I’m growing less enamored with Chastain as I see more of her work.  After scoring so big in 2011 & 2012 with a slew of memorable roles (like The Help, Lawless, Mama, and The Tree of Life), she’s now seemed to have slipped into that groove of making emotion filled movies as she waits on her next Oscar nomination.  McAvoy. too, doesn’t seem all that challenged by the material, largely letting Benson’s cliché set-ups win out over the actors usually interesting instinct.  It was a brilliant choice to pair Isabelle Huppert (Dead Man Down) and William Hurt (The Host) as Chastain’s parents because I actually believed they produced this character…but Huppert is stuck with a lot of out of the blue observances meant to be revelatory but wind up as mere devices to explain where some of Eleanor’s hurt comes from.  Speaking of hurt, Hurt takes on another soft-spoken sage seemingly capable of one quizzical facial expression that indicates he’s just seen a sockeye salmon driving a dune buggy wearing a Versace dress.  Then there’s Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) as a grumpy college professor and colleague of Hurt’s that takes a liking to Chastain after she audits her class.  Davis is as strong an actor as they come, but her performance here is so ice cold that it seems impossible someone like Eleanor could melt her.

Perhaps editing the two movies into one damaged the overall effect Benson was going for in showing there are two sides to every argument and some arguments are more interesting than others.  The whole central conceit of the film was (and this may be a minor spoiler) done better in Rabbit Hole, providing nearly the exact same set-up but arriving at its final destination with its characters in row…rather than leaving them in the dust as Benson’s writing and direction is often wont to do.

Movie Review ~ Get on Up

get_on_up_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history

Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Nelsan Ellis, Lennie James, Jill Scott, Dan Aykroyd

Director: Tate Taylor

Rated: PG-13

Running Length:

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: As I mentioned in my review of the trailer for Get on Up, my dad was responsible for introducing me to the music of James Brown.  I remember he had several cassettes of Brown’s hits in his car and though I liked his early music just fine it was his later smash “Living in America” that I requested most often.  May dad passed away in 2009 and watching this long overdue biopic of Brown I couldn’t help but think how much my dad would have grooved with this well made, if overly sanitized, look into the life of the Godfather of Soul.

Being a James Brown fan I was a little leery about how this PG-13 biopic chronicling Brown’s rise to fame would tackle some of the more R-rated aspects of Brown’s life and career.  The answer to that is it treats some of Brown’s run-ins with the law, drug use, marital problems, and allegations of domestic abuse as anecdotes to his story rather than events that played a huge role in the path his career and life ultimately took.  It’s more reverentially respectful to the man once called Mr. Dynamite than condemning.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, mind you.  The movie is designed to be an audience pleaser, thundering along with hit after hit…not making you wait for the music like June’s Jersey Boys, which seemed afraid to let their Broadway-trained actors actually sing the songs crowds know by heart.  As James Brown, Chadwick Boseman doesn’t do any singing of his own but impressively lyp-synchs to Brown’s vocals.  And what vocals!  The sound design is appropriately loud and immersive, allowing ticket-buyers the opportunity to hear every horn and funky beat that Brown and company laid down.

Director Tate Taylor wasn’t the obvious choice to helm 2011’s adaptation of The Help and he’s an odd choice for this one too…but he brings a certain flare to the screen that matches well with Brown’s larger than life personality.  Working from an oddly structured script by brothers Jez & John-Henry Butterworth (already represented this summer with Edge of Tomorrow), Taylor brings along several of his ladies from The Help for comfort and winds up giving them another chance to shine.

The script has its problems though.  The brothers Butterworth opt for a fractured timeline to tell their tale, beginning in the 80s before quickly moving backwards, forwards, sideways, and such to other years in Brown’s life.  I get that the standard narrative of biopics is straight-ahead-with-no-stops but what happens here results in confusion of time and place, making it difficult to see how certain events of the past influenced the star in the future.  It also conveniently places emotional arcs right where they need to be, peeking with a poignant (though well acted) crescendo shortly before the credits roll.  It’s as if the film was put together randomly, rather than from a place with strong narrative intentions.

The randomness of the scenes could have been a death sentence for the film had the performances not been so terrific.  Boseman (Draft Day, 42) takes on another real life story and knocks it clean out of the park.  The first time we see him as Brown he’s walking down a shadowy hallway before a concert late in life with Brown’s recognizable swagger.  Then we see his face and for a moment I wasn’t sure if it was Boseman or stock footage of the real man he’s portraying.  Boseman nails Brown’s raspy voice and rapid fire delivery and acquits himself as a dancer quite believably.  It’s a fully realized, galvanizing performance that signals Boseman is just getting started in this business.

Maybe even better than Boseman is Nelsan Ellis (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) as Brown’s second in command, confidant, and life-long friend.  Meeting an imprisoned Brown while performing with his gospel group in a local penitentiary, Byrd takes him under his wing and allows him to fly even after Brown outgrew his old band mates.  Ellis too lyp-synchs quite well and goes toe-to-toe with Boseman in several highly charged scenes.  It would be great to see Ellis nab an Oscar nom for his valuable supporting contribution to the film.

Rounding out the cast is Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) as Brown’s absentee mother, Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station) in a marginally realized role as Brown’s aunt running a shanty town brothel, & Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), contributing less than his fair share as Brown’s agent.  All are merely there to bridge gaps between scenes where Boseman and Ellis can do their thing.

Though it misses opportunities to dig into some sensitive territory, Get on Up is nonetheless a pleasing bit of entertainment that accomplishes what it sets out to do: tell the James Brown story through music.

The Silver Bullet ~ Get on Up

get_on_up

Synopsis: A chronicle of James Brown’s rise from extreme poverty to become one of the most influential musicians in history.

Release Date: August 1, 2014

Thoughts:  One of my earliest musical memories is my dad owning the soundtrack to Rocky IV on vinyl and playing it while he went through his workout. Though Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” may be the most closely associated with the third sequel of Sylvester Stallone’s popular franchise, the song I always dropped the needle on was James Brown’s horn heavy whopper “Living in America” and its remained a personal favorite ever since.

Though The Godfather of Soul has been gone for nearly eight years, a biopic of his life is just now making its way to the big screen in a late summer slot. Directed by Tate Taylor (The Help) and featuring Chadwick Boseman (Draft Day) as James Brown I’m wondering why the previews I’ve seen so far haven’t made me as excited for this film as I think I should be. In addition to Boseman, Taylor has hot screenwriters Jez & Jon-Henry Butterworth (Edge of Tomorrow), a fine group of actors like Octavia Spencer (Fruitvale Station), Viola Davis (Prisoners), and Dan Aykroyd (This is My Life), and has the music not to mention the real-life drama to produce what should be a slam-dunk. Yet I’m left feeling that this will be a surface dwelling account of Brown’s rise to stardom and the troubles of the drug and legal kind won’t be lingered on for long.

I hope I’m wrong because done right, this could be the kind of music biography that gets the crowd on its feet.