Movie Review ~ The Goldfinch


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A boy in New York is taken in by a wealthy Upper East Side family after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stars: Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Oakes Fegley, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Sarah Paulson, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Willa Fitzgerald, Aimee Laurence, Denis O’Hare

Director: John Crowley

Rated: R

Running Length: 149 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: When I was in school, I like to think I was pretty good with my homework. Sure, there were times when I wound up working late on calculus, having procrastinated my way into an all-nighter but for the most part I was on top of things. One thing I never failed to follow through on was doing any assigned reading.  However, I’m admitting now in this public forum that lately, in my advancing age, I’m getting bad at finishing books. I’ll start them all the time but then I get distracted and can’t make it to that final page. If a movie is based on a book, I do everything I can to read it before I see it and in these last few years it’s often come down to the wire to get in those last chapters.

I give you that brief backstory because it helps illustrate how disappointed I should have been with myself for not reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-prize winning 2014 novel The Goldfinch before the film adaptation was released. You know what? I got on the waiting list for the library and waited months and months for it to be my turn. When I finally got the hefty novel home, I took one look at it in all its 794-page hardback glory and decided on the spot I was going to give myself a well-earned pass on attempting it.

I feel no shame.

In fact, having seen the movie I’m wondering if I was better off with not having any pre-conceived notions going in. With nothing to live up to, the film could make a play for my attention without striving to be exactly what I had envisioned in my head. I purposely avoided delving too deep into the plot or matching characters to actors prior to seeing the film but rather let the screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) and director John Crowley (Brooklyn, Closed Circuit) have a crack at telling me a story. It’s a long story, though, and one that doesn’t quite shake off its creaky contrivances and some muddled performances.

Narrated by protagonist Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars), we see how he lost his mother at a young age, when a bomb is set off in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Barbours, a rich family with a son that attends Theo’s prestigious prep school, soon take in Young Theo (Oaks Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). Initially hesitant to get too close to this broken boy, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, Secret in Their Eyes) warms to his love of fine art and kind spirit that shines even during his most dark days. Yet Theo has a secret he’s keeping from everyone and it involves a priceless painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, and a mysterious man he meets in the rubble after the bomb goes off. Both will lead him on journey forward while shaping his future from a past he wants to forget.

Straughan has a challenge in parsing down Tartt’s epic into a watchable two and a half hours and it winds up working some of the time. Having to manage two timelines with the younger Theo and the grown-up man he becomes gets a little tiresome over the course of the film, only because Theo as a boy is so much more interesting than the enigma he turns into. Every time the action switched back to Elgort in the present there is a marked dip in energy and curiosity into the mystery at the center of it all. It helps that Fegley is an assured talent, steering clear of your typical child actor trappings and giving the impression he’s an old soul trapped in the small frame of a youngster. The same can’t be said for Elgort who labors mightily with the material, rarely letting go and totally losing himself in the role. Sure, there are Big Acting scenes where Elgort puts himself through an emotional ringer but there’s a thread of falsehood running through his work that lets the character and, in the end, audiences down.

It’s a good thing, then, that Crowley has filled the supporting roles with such unexpected (and unexpectedly solid) actors. As is often the case, Kidman is terrific as a WASP-y Upper East Side wife, rarely without her pearls and pursed lips. Even in old age make-up later in the film, she manages to give off a regal air. Kidman always gives her characters sharp edges yet the performance never lacks for warmth. Luke Wilson (Concussion) was a nice surprise as Theo’s deadbeat dad that brings him to Nevada to live with his new wife (Sarah Paulson, 12 Years a Slave, gnawing on the scenery like it was a turkey leg) but doesn’t seem to have interest in being a parent. Wilson so often plays soft characters but he gets an opportunity here to show a harder side and it works to his advantage.

I struggled a bit at first with Finn Wolfhard (IT, IT: Chapter Two) and his Borat-adjacent accent as young Theo’s bad influence best friend but he eventually won me over, though Aneurin Barnard (Dunkirk) as the older version of Wolfhard’s character rubbed me the wrong way from the jump. Ashleigh Cummings gets perhaps the best scene in the whole movie as older Theo’s unrequited childhood love, I just wish her character was better conceived. She gets all this wonderful material and then pretty much vanishes. Also absent for long stretches is Jeffrey Wright (Casino Royale), turning in the most memorable performance in the movie. Wright has long been a valuable character actor, never quite making it to A-List leading man status but showing here you don’t have to be the focus of the film to effectively steal the show.

Crowley’s best move was to get Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (Skyfall) to lens the film. Deakins is a master behind the camera and his gorgeous work here is another reminder that he’s one of the all-time greats. Everything about the movie looks wonderful and feels like it should work but there’s a curiously absent beating heart that holds it back from reaching the next level, one that I’m guessing would have pleased fans of the book more. For this audience member coming in blind, I found it to be a watchable but only occasionally memorable literary adaptation of a celebrated work.

Movie Review ~ IT: Chapter Two


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Twenty-seven years after their first encounter with the terrifying Pennywise, the Losers Club have grown up and moved away, until a devastating phone call brings them back.

Stars: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Bill Hader, James Ransone, Andy Bean, Jay Ryan, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård, Xavier Dolan, Will Beinbrink, Teach Grant, Jaeden Martell, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer

Director: Andy Muschietti

Rated: R

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: Two years after IT: Chapter One took the late summer/early box office by screaming storm, we find ourselves in a similar situation upon the arrival of its sequel.  Like its predecessor, IT: Chapter Two is being released at the very tail end of a mostly bummer summer of sputtering sequels and non-starter indies.  At this point in the year, the hunger for something high quality that isn’t seeking Oscar gold (or is it?) but just wants to entertain is, I must admit, quite appealing.  Re-watching Chapter One in anticipation of Chapter Two, I was struck by how well that earlier film scooped up the audience into its spell and had high hopes the second chapter would continue with that same magic.

In my review of the first film I wondered why the studio didn’t have a little more faith in the property and shoot the entire novel back-to-back instead of disrupting its non-linear plot in favor of more straight-forward storytelling. Instead, Warner Brothers and New Line Cinema, still wary after a troubled start to the project when the original writer/director left, decided to test the waters by filming only the first of a planned two-part movie.  The film was a gigantic hit (rightfully so), made a few stars out of the kids, and almost immediately had fans compiling their dream cast for the follow-up that quickly got the greenlight.

It’s been 27 years since the Losers Club bested Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård, Atomic Blonde) and most have moved away from the tiny town of Derry, Maine.  Mike (Isaiah Mustafa, The Three Stooges) is the only one that has stuck around, living above the library and keeping watch for any strange occurrences that might be tied to the evil he faced with his friends when they were tweens.  Receiving a fairly targeted message at the scene of a horrific crime that confirms his worst suspicions, Mike tracks down his long-lost pals who have all strangely forgotten the summer of the clown and they oath they made to return.

Overcoming his stutter and becoming a successful novelist and screenwriter, Bill (James McAvoy, Split) is more than happy to vacate the set of his latest movie where he’s having trouble getting the ending right.  Beverly (Jessica Chastain, Lawless) escapes her violent husband/business partner in order to keep her promise, while foul-mouthed stand-up comedian Richie (Bill Hader, The Skeleton Twins) leaves his tour and heads for Maine.  Eddie (James Ransone, Sinister) and Ben (Jay Ryan) have no problems getting out of their stuffy corporate jobs and away from the drone of their daily lives.  Only Stanley (Andy Bean, Allegiant) finds it harder to return for reasons I won’t spoil here.

When the gang has gathered back in their hometown and Mike levels with them about the evil that has reemerged, the memories come flooding back and it’s here the movie starts to fray. Up until that point, writer Gary Dauberman (Annabelle Comes Home) and returning director Andy Muschietti (Mama) have been pulling the rope tighter and tauter around the group, giving them all warning signs that danger awaits them all.  Once they all arrive, however, there’s a fracturing isolation that occurs which gives each person an individual mini sub-storyline to follow and the movie curiously goes slack.  Seems that Mike has found out a way to destroy the entity that has been feeding off of Derry residents for hundreds of years and he needs his friends to split up and gather a personal “artifact” from that summer that was important to them.

This gives each actor their own stretch of time to be the star of the film and not everyone uses their time wisely. Surprisingly, it’s the biggest stars that fare the worst with McAvoy whipping himself into an absolute frenzy at inopportune times, coming off as bug-eyed and hysterical instead of terrified.  Chastain is right behind him feasting on the scenery and she and Hader fight over which high emotional moment to gnaw on next.  (There is a serious campaign to get Hader an Oscar nomination for his work here and, while I’m a fan, that’s totally bonkers.  This isn’t even an Oscar-adjacent performance.) All three become, frankly, grating as the movie extends which makes the restrained and nuanced work Ransone, Ryan, and, to a slightly lesser extent, Mustafa, seem even more welcome.  These character “adventures” feel like the chapters they are in the book, personal moments that have slight ties to the greater action but are largely drop-in and drop-out scenes.  The same scenario is repeated later in the movie when the adults get thrown into their own personal horrors.  What started in 2017 as a scary riff on Stand by Me turns into a tricky re-working of A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors.

What’s really missed are the child actors from Chapter One and, though they have been brought back for this second installment they aren’t…quite the same.  Over the past two years the kids have done what kids do at that age: they grow.  Via digital scrubbing and voice modulating, the performances have been youth-ized and the results are often creepier than Pennywise.  You know the voice matches the actor but the face doesn’t look right so it’s all strangely out of whack.  Only Sophia Lillis seems to have escaped the airbrush and thus her performance feels the most grounded and real.  When the action switches back to the adults, you can see the work the older actors have done to match their younger counterparts and, for what it’s worth, the casting is spot-on.  I just kept wondering what would have happened if they waited 27 years to let these younger actors grow into their older selves.

As is the case with most sequels to horror films, the scares have to be bigger and more frequent and IT: Chapter Two definitely falls in line with expectations  The trouble with that is there is no build up to a scare almost anywhere in the movie.  Sure, there is some disturbing imagery and a few jolts but none come close to the satisfying and expertly orchestrated thrills elicited from Chapter One.  It’s like in Jaws.  Once you’ve seen the shark, you’ve seen the shark and it’s all about the attack from then on.  Now that we are familiar with Pennywise and have seen so much of him, there’s less menace to be had, even though he does bare that hideous maw with rows upon rows of razor teeth multiple times in the film.

There’s a fairly large amount of iffy CGI on display, as well. Though the protracted finale of the film features the most well-rounded effects of all, there are numerous nightmare creatures conjured up by Dauberman and Muschietti that are simply goofy to look at.  An abundance of grotesque creepies emerge from the darkness throughout the movie and few have the same impact of the simple image of Pennywise staring out of the dark at an unsuspecting child.  An effective (if extremely hard to stomach) opening sequence at a country fair and a later scene underneath the town bleachers are good reminders of how Muschietti can extend tension to its most enjoyable breaking point.

At 169 minutes, the movie either needed to be 40 minutes shorter or 60 minutes longer. Were it shorter, Muschietti could have trimmed up some redundant character bits in the third act that feel like extra padding.  Had it been longer, we could have spent some more time with the Losers Club and their lives outside of Derry.  There’s too little of their current lives shown to give us a proper introduction so we have to almost base our knowledge soley on what we remember from the original film.  What I do appreciate is Muschietti’s attention to small details from the book and within his vision of the film.  I’ll  have to give the movie a second watch, but there’s usually something not quite right going on in the background of scenes that most viewers won’t catch on the first viewing.  It’s also a nice touch to have Eddie’s nagging wife played by the same actress who was his mother in Chapter One.  There are also two very funny cameos, one in particular that had our audience cheering.

There’s rumors of a supercut that might happen that would combine both movies into one and I’d be fascinated to see how that would come together. I’d definitely recommend this movie, sequel flaws and long running time aside, because of the way it nicely concludes what was started back in 2017.  If only everything was done at the same time and the filmmakers didn’t have that extra year to get too zealous with their plans for IT: Chapter Two.

Movie Review ~ Tomb Raider (2018)


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Lara Croft, the fiercely independent daughter of a missing adventurer, must push herself beyond her limits when she finds herself on the island where her father disappeared.

Stars: Alicia Vikander, Dominic West, Walton Goggins, Daniel Wu, Sir Derek Jacobi, Kristin Scott Thomas

Director: Roar Uthaug

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 118 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review: I’m more of a Mario guy so I don’t pledge allegiance to Lara Croft and the Tomb Raider series of games that originally spawned two movies starring Angeline Jolie in 2001 and 2003. That’s important to note because while most fans of the video game didn’t care for the Jolie adventures I found them to be pleasant (if slight) diversions and a noble attempt to introduce a strong female into the male-dominated halls of gamer heroes. With Jolie declining to continue, the series sputtered out until a recent reinvention of the game got Hollywood interested in further adventures of Lara Croft.

Enter recent Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) who beat out a host of fresh faced ladies for the role of feisty Lara Croft in a reboot of Tomb Raider. With direction from Roar Uthaug, a Norwegian who first made a splash with his 2015 film The Wave and scripted by Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons (fairly new names on the screenwriting scene) the results of this new take on an old premise are decidedly mixed. While the first half of the film lays some nice groundwork in re-introducing audiences to our heroine, there’s precious little in the way of overall payoff during the last hour of action.

Vikander’s Croft is less self-assured than Jolie’s previous incarnation and that makes for a nice entry point to her world. Vikander’s impressive abs actually appear onscreen before she does when she’s found sparring in a London gym and getting her butt whupped. Mountain biking her way around town working for a delivery service, she proves she’s one of the guys early on during a spirited race through the city streets that leads to trouble with the law. That’s when Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas, Darkest Hour) appears as Croft’s guardian and she’s none too pleased with her ward’s antics.

After her globe-hopping employer disappeared, Miller was left to take care of his young daughter and the vast family estate and business that bears his name. Long declared dead, the memory of Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West, John Carter) lives on in his daughter who still can’t fully accept he’s gone. When it comes time to sign over the company to her, Lara discovers a clue that sends her on an adventure around the world to an uninhabited island in Japan that supposedly holds the remains of a Queen who brought death to all she touched that was buried alive and forgotten.

Once Lara makes it to the island, the myth of this evil royal turns out to be the most interesting thing the film has going for it. I was more invested in seeing her remains unearthed than I was in watching Lara outwit Japanese street thugs or escape the clutches of a deranged treasure hunter (Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight). While Uthaug puts Vikander into many perilous predicaments, many of these are so CGI and stunt double heavy that it felt like the film was moving through levels of a video game instead of building any kind of cinematic momentum.

While Vikander makes for a plucky lead, her Croft is almost completely devoid of any kind of personality to speak of. She’s clearly damaged by the absence of her father but aside from that we know as much about her at the end as we did at the start. Goggins has made a career out of playing these big toothed crazies so this doesn’t feel like much a stretch for him, his danger comes not from anything internally cracked but all external weapons that easily take down targets. Appearing only briefly, Scott Thomas seems to be waiting for a sequel script to arrive to give her something more to do (though the film makes a pretty giant leap at the end to keep her involved) while West finds his way back into the movie through predictable means.

I kind of knew what Tomb Raider was going to be when I went in but honestly I was hoping it would be a little more intelligent. Lara and her dad shared a love of puzzles so the assumption would be that we’d see her solving some clues to his whereabouts along the way…but Lara tends to solve all of these riddles and clever traps in her mind. We, the audience, never see the inner workings of that thought process so it becomes dull viewing when we aren’t let in on the secret. Even a finale inside a tomb has oodles of opportunities to bring some fun obstacles to overcome, ala The Goonies and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that sadly never come to be.

The framework is clearly laid for future installments of this new Tomb Raider franchise and I’d be up for more of Vikander if the plot was firmed up a bit and more fun was injected into the mix. This first outing, while sporadically entertaining, felt too paint-by-numbers to be considered much more than a middling popcorn feature.

Movie Review ~ Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 Movie Poster

The Facts:

Synopsis: Thirty years after the events of the first film, a new blade runner unearths a long-buried secret that has the potential to plunge what’s left of society into chaos. The discovery leads him on a quest to find a former blade runner who has been missing for 30 years.

Stars: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 163 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: Though it’s enmeshed in pop culture now, it’s worth noting that when Blade Runner was originally released in 1982 it wasn’t anywhere near the hit it probably should have been. Way ahead of its time (as most Ridley Scott directed movies were in those days) and arguably overtooled for less than discerning audiences, the movie was a wonder of visuals but lacked a certain depth. Scott would later make some cuts and remove a tiresome voiceover narration from star Harrison Ford (Working Girl) and that started guiding Blade Runner to a new audience while reenergizing its original fan base. Honestly, the movie has had so many different versions released that I have trouble remembering which is which…but the Blade Runner you can view in 2017 is much different (and better) than the one first seen over thirty years ago.

In this age of nostalgic and reworked reboots, when I first heard that Scott was coming back to the Blade Runner universe I was curious to see what the outcome would be. Having already dipped back into his canon with a prequel to Alien (Prometheus and, later, Alien: Covenant) would he be able to find that same new way in without totally destroying the memories of his original creation? Turns out, Scott did the wisest thing possible and stepped out of the director’s chair but kept his producer cap on for oversight. Handing over the reins to red-hot director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Enemy, Arrival) was a stroke of genius because Villeneuve has delivered not only an exceedingly worthy sequel to Blade Runner but one of the most exciting visual spectacles of the year.

At the end of the screening I attended for Blade Runner 2049, we were read a laundry list of items the studio and director would rather we not mention in our review. I’ve no problem keeping those secrets as to go into the film with any hint of spoilers would be doing a disservice to yourself. What I can tell you is that the film picks up 30 years after the events from Blade Runner when the original replicants from the first film have been all but obliterated, replaced with newer models that are programmed to obey at all costs. There are a few early replicants still roaming the overcrowded wasteland cities of the future, though, and a new blade runner (Ryan Gosling, The Big Short) is tasked with rounding them up and retiring them for good.

During one mission, Gosling’s character makes a discovery that sets into motion a series of events that is equal parts mystery and sci-fi action suspense. His superior (Robin Wright, Wonder Woman) wants him to get to the bottom of things and eliminate any threat before anyone else does. That puts him in opposition with the new manufacturer (Jared Leto, Dallas Buyers Club) of state of the art replicants who dispatches his cold as ice henchwoman (Sylvia Hoeks) to get to Gosling’s target before he does. His journey eventually bridges the gap between the past and the future when he meets up with a familiar face harboring secrets of his own.

That’s all! I can’t say more or the studio will send a blade runner to retire me!

Villenueve has shown time and time again that he’s a master of both style and substance and Blade Runner 2049 is likely the pinnacle example of that. With jaw-dropping visuals incorporating seamless effects with Roger Deakins (Skyfall) gorgeous cinematography, the film is overwhelming in all the best possible ways. At 163 minutes, it could have had some major dips in momentum but miraculously the film keeps rocketing ahead, gathering speed and tension as it goes. There so many memorable sequences that it’s hard to pick just one that rises above the others, but be on the look-out for Gosling’s fight sequence set in a showroom amongst holograms of throwback Vegas entertainment. The finale showdown is also a white knuckle mini-masterpiece.

While the A-list stars are pitch perfect, it’s the lesser-known supporting players that stuck with me long after the movie was over. Hoeks, in particular is a most exciting find. The Dutch beauty actually has more screen time than Leto and she’s scary good because you never know quite what her angle is. Carla Juri and Mackenzie Davis (The Martian) also contribute strong work as important contacts Gosling makes along the way.

Answering some of the questions that Blade Runner left open may or may not happen here and this sequel may or may not close up shop with even more questions left for you to ponder…I won’t spoil some of the biggest surprises screenwriter Hampton Fancher and Michael Green (Logan) have waiting for you.

See this movie on the biggest screen you possibly can find, preferably with the best sound system too. Villeneuve has provided a full-bodied entertainment package for you and it deserves to be seen and appreciated for the knockout it is.

Movie Review ~ Creed

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Johnson, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Stars: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad, Anthony Bellew

Director: Ryan Coogler

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 132 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Back in July when I posted my thoughts on the preview for Creed I made an admission…that I’d only seen the first and fifth Rocky films.  It was a tough thing to say, not because the other Rocky films were classics but being The MN Movie Man, I just should have had those locked down years ago.  In my trailer review I also mentioned that before Creed was released I would go back and catch up…but alas, I only made it as far as buying the Rocky collection on BluRay.  So, like the books made into movies that I never finished before the release date arrived, I went into Creed only knowing a brief history of the boxing franchise that inspired it.

As most reviews will state, Creed is really Rocky 7 masquerading under a different name.  And that’s an OK thing because like the titular character, it needed to stand on its own and succeed on its own merits.  And succeed it does.  You won’t believe it, but let me assure you that this drama is an undisputed winner filled with knockout performances, dynamite filmmaking, and enough electrifyingly crowd pleasing sequences to keep the lights on in small city for months.

This is first and foremost a story about fathers/father figures/mentors, and the sons/young men that look up to them.  A pre-credits scene shows a teenage Adonis Johnson fighting his way through a stay in a juvenile correctional facility.  The illegitimate son of world famous boxer Apollo Creed, he’s a ward of the state when Mary Ann Creed (Phylicia Rashad) pays him a visit.  Interested in the boy her late husband never knew, she takes him in and provides for him while keeping him on the right path…and away from the sport that she believes killed her husband.

Flash forward a decade to an adult Adonis (Michael B. Jordan, Chronicle) fighting in a Tijuana boxing ring before heading back to his 9-5 job, his boss and Mary Ann none the wiser.  Turning down a promotion in favor of making a go as a professional boxer without Mary Ann’s support, Adonis finds his way to Philadelphia intending to track down the famous friend of his late father.

Of course, the man is Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone, The Expendables 3) and at first he’s not interested in returning to his boxing roots, preferring a quiet life running his restaurant and paying visits to the graves of his late wife and best friend.  But Adonis is persistent and eventually the men are working together toward getting Adonis prepped for a big time fight with a towering rival…leading, as all of these movies do, to a showdown finale that ends the film on an emotional uppercut.

There’s a formula to any sports related film and Creed isn’t unique in its overall construction.  It’s the execution of said formula that makes the film work like gangbusters.  On one side of the ring we have Adonis desperate to prove something not only to himself but his father’s memory.  On the other side we have a faded fighter that sees a younger version of his friend (and himself) unaware of the effects the boxing life will have on his body and the sacrifices he’ll be making.

Director Ryan Coogler reteams with his Fruitvale Station star Jordan and has written a thoughtful extension of the Rocky franchise that honors Stallone’s original creation while crafting a new underdog hero story that’s more than just another entry in a long line of sequels.  Not only does Coogler break down the sport to make it less about jabs and blocks, he shows the commitment it takes to be the best of the best.  You really come to understand a boxer’s life, swollen eyes, bruised bones and all that goes with it.  Each punch lands with such force that by the end it’s possible you could forget you’re just watching a movie — I found that several times I had to fight the urge to stand up and cheer along with the film extras.

Whenever a romantic subplot is introduced in a sports centered picture, it can sometimes feel shoe-horned in but Coogler has given Adonis (and the film) an equal partner in Bianca (Tessa Thompson, Selma).  A singer with her own struggles, the film takes its time in showing their courtship…a courtship that winds up as tenderly authentic as the boxing scenes are brutally realistic.  Jordan and Thompson have excellent chemistry and you’ll be rooting for their relationship as much as you’ll root for Adonis to deliver a knockout blow to his final opponent.

Though Coogler’s use of real athletes more than a little stiff in the acting department can take you out of the picture, it somehow winds up lending a strange authenticity to the film.  Jordan trained so much for his role that the line between real fighter and actor is a thin one indeed, shown to great effect in one continuous take that seemingly lasts for three minutes.  Taking you from the locker room to the ring and through several rounds of a fight, the camera never cuts or stops moving — it’s a thrilling sequence, expertly accomplished by Maryse Alberti (already represented in 2015 with The Visit and Freeheld).  Alberti’s camerawork is so strong that I think you could watch the movie with the sound off and still be bowled over.  With the sound off, though, you’ll miss Ludwig Göransson’s (We’re The Millers) stirring score.  Interlacing the famous Rocky theme with unexpected an unexpectedly effective instrumentals, the music only adds to the excitement on top of Alberti’s visuals.  When Göransson’s perfectly timed reworked Rocky theme is introduced, just try to keep those goosebumps at bay.

Jordan’s star continues to rise and he’s delivered an award-caliber performance here, along with Stallone doing his best work in three decades.  Both men, along with Coogler and the picture itself, should be recognized by the Academy when they announce the Oscar nominations in January.  Based on the previews, I figured I would like Creed but I never thought it would be as moving and inspiring as it is.  Audiences are in for a true TKO with this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Our Brand is Crisis

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Synopsis: A feature film based on the documentary “Our Brand Is Crisis”, which focuses on the use of American political campaign strategies in South America.

Release Date: October 30, 2015

Thoughts: Since winning her Oscar for The Blind Side in 2009, Sandra Bullock has chosen her projects cautiously.  Many a Best Actress winner followed up their wins with one or more (coughcoughHalle Berrycoughcough) disappointing outings and Bullock wisely steered clear of making any hasty decisions. She took a supporting role in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, tried playing the straight man in The Heat, and found herself in the Best Actress race again with Gravity. In 2015 she voiced a villain in the animated Minions and she’s closing out the year in an adaptation of the 2005 political documentary Our Brand is Crisis. I have faith in Bullock and producer George Clooney, even if our first look at their collaboration leaves much to be desired.  Maybe it’s because we can’t tell if it’s a high stakes drama or a goofball comedy and it certainly doesn’t help my interest at all that Billy Bob Thornton (Entourage) shows up (teeth first, cueball head second).  Director David Gordon Green has an iffy record in my book but Bullock and good buzz sell it for me…still it’s not at the top of my fall movie list.

The Silver Bullet ~ Creed

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Synopsis: The former World Heavyweight Champion Rocky Balboa serves as a trainer and mentor to Adonis Creed, the son of his late friend and former rival Apollo Creed.

Release Date:  November 25, 2015

Thoughts:  I’ve only seen the first Rocky.  OK.  Now that I have that secret off my chest can we move forward as friends?  Here’s the first look at a spin-off that’s several decades in the making…and it looks like it could be a heavyweight champ this season.  Rising star Michael B. Jordan (Chronicle) reteams with his Fruitvale Station director for this new chapter of the Rocky franchise that focuses on the son of Rocky Balboa’s friend/competition Apollo Creed.  Sylvester Stallone (The Expendables 3) directed and starred in many of the Rocky sequels and I’ve a feeling that had he also taking directing chores here, the film might not come across with as warm a welcome.  Looks like I have some catching up to do before this gets released in November…

The Silver Bullet ~ Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

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Synopsis: On the heels of the worldwide success of Man of Steel director Zack Snyder is bringing together the two greatest Super Heroes of all time – Batman and Superman for the first time on the big screen.

Release Date:  March 25, 2016

Thoughts:  I still think 1979’s Superman: The Movie is one of the best all around “comic-book” origin movies to be made and I was more than willing to give director Zack Snyder’s reboot a fair chance.  After all, look what Christopher Nolan did with his reinvention of Batman in three films about the caped crusader.  Sadly, Superman’s return in 2013 was a glum bummer, and a movie that took way too long to come out (how can a new Star Wars movie be filmed and come out in a little over a year but Snyder takes almost three years for his meal to cook?).  Disappointments aside, the film made good on its franchise starter nature at the box office yet it’s a little surprising that Warner Brothers decided that the sequel should merge its flying superhero with The Dark Knight – the poor guy was enjoying a well-deserved retirement.  Feeling the heat from Marvel’s unstoppable films, I’m sure that DC Comics was more than happy to bring their Justice League dreams to light…why else would this Superman sequel feature not only the Man of Steel and Batman but Wonder Woman and Aquaman as well?  I hope the film isn’t merely a bridge to a bigger idea, but from the looks of this impressive teaser Snyder may be borrowing a page from Nolan and going ultra-dark.

Movie Review ~ American Sniper

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind.

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Jonathan Groff, Kyle Gallner, Keir O’Donnell, Sammy Sheik, Jake McDorman

Director: Clint Eastwood

Rated: R

Running Length: 131 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: Including a spoiler alert here because while many are aware of elements about the subject of this film, I realize that some pieces may not be as well know. To avoid any angry claims I didn’t warn you…I just did.

There’s been a lot of brouhaha in the press about American Sniper and the life of the man the movie is based on. Chris Kyle was a United States Navy SEAL honorably discharged from the Navy in 2009 who went on to write his autobiography that recently Oscar nominated screenwriter Jason Hall based this movie on. Accumulating 160 confirmed kills over four tours of duty in the Iraq War, he was thought to be the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. It was only after he was gunned down in 2013 by another vet Kyle was helping cope with PTSD that the mysteries behind certain pieces of Kyle’s memoir started to come to light.

What you should know about the film is that while I haven’t read the source novel it was based off of, the disparities between Kyle’s account and what some would argue as the truth aren’t the focus of director Clint Eastwood’s latest film. I’m not going to speak to those that claim Kyle fabricated several sequences or events, I’m merely reporting out on the movie as it was presented to us. I did read an article recently detailing the false claims and I don’t recall any of these incidents being included in the movie.

Whether that was a conscious decision on Hall’s part, creative editing after the fact, or simply not the story Eastwood and star Bradley Cooper (American Hustle) wanted to tell is anyone’s guess. What I do know is that Eastwood’s film is an edge-of-your-seat experience anchored strongly by Cooper’s revelatory performance as Chris Kyle.

Arguably the most pro-American movie you’re likely to see in some time, the film bleeds red white and blue from frame one. It’s clearly established who the “good” guys and the “bad” guys are and Eastwood makes no apologies for injecting some politicized grandstanding throughout. I can’t say it really bothered me because it didn’t really stray into that insufferable right wing territory.

Bulked up and burly, Cooper transformed himself from the sinewy muscled look of previous projects to an impressive built Navy SEAL that’s 100% believable. With his Texan twang in full drawl his performance is the most flesh and blood in his already impressive career. Cooper may have been nominated for an Oscar twice before (for Hustle and Silver Linings Playbook) but his nomination for American Sniper is his most warranted. He’s never been better.

Unlike December’s Unbroken, American Sniper doesn’t shy away from showing the after effects of war on the men, women, children, and families of veterans after they return home. A decent chunk of the movie is devoted to showing Kyle’s adjustment to life with his wife Taya (a stellar Sienna Miller, Foxcatcher), and young children. Responsible for so many fatalities, the film looks (but doesn’t press) into the psyche of those that have to live with themselves long after their service to our country ends.

To round the film out there’s a through line arc of Kyle’s multiple run-ins with a stealth sniper and while these war torn sequences are impressively staged they start to feel like a part of an action film rather than a human drama which is really what American Sniper is at its core. It’s no wonder that directors like Steven Spielberg and David O. Russell circled this project at one time or another, there’s some meat to the script and the chance to explore not just the destructive side of war but the healing piece as well.

Eastwood struck out earlier in 2014 with the disastrous Jersey Boys so I was hoping he’d redeem himself with this film and it’s nice to report he found his footing with American Sniper. The 84 year old director’s laid-back style could easily have worked against the overall momentum of the film but it’s as breathless and engaging as any film he’s made before.

Nominated for 6 Academy Awards, American Sniper may not hit on the full scope of Chris Kyle’s life, but what’s told is a powerfully moving tale of service and sacrifice.

Movie Review ~ Inherent Vice

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In 1970, drug-fueled Los Angeles detective Larry “Doc” Sportello investigates the disappearance of a former girlfriend.

Stars: Joaquin Phoenix,Reese Witherspoon, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Jena Malone, Owen Wilson, Martin Short, Katherine Waterston, Joanna Newson, Maya Rudolph

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 148 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (1/10)

Review: Looking back at the experience (and what an “experience” it was) of my recent screening of Inherent Vice I’m reminded of that one time I was in an airplane for 10+ hours traveling from Greece to Minnesota.  At certain points of the turbulent flight I thought I wasn’t going to make it and mentally said my good-byes to everyone I loved while a single tear fell down my face.  Then the plane landed, I was able to exit the airliner, and I went about my life.

Inherent Vice isn’t 10 hours long (but it sure feels like it) but unlike my trip to Greece, you won’t leave a showing of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaption of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel with a miniature replica of the Acropolis for your troubles.

Pynchon’s loopy novels have long been thought to be unadaptable for cinematic endeavors and Anderson’s screenplay proves why over and over again.  It’s an obtuse, awkward, non-engaging film with so many layers it could be described as an onion dipped in PCP…which doesn’t necessarily signify a bad film, mind you.  No, the worst offense of Inherent Vice is that it’s shockingly, maddeningly boring.

Set in the Manson crazed days of 1970’s Los Angeles, the film follows schlumpy PI ‘Doc’ Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix, HerParenthood) through a case that hits close to home but opens up a Pandora’s Box of trouble.  Asked by former flame Shasta (Robot & Frank’s Katherine Waterston, the victim of a humiliating sex scene late in the proceedings) to take a look into the shady intentions of the wife of her current lover (Eric Roberts, Lovelace), Sportello dives headfirst into a plot involving murder, kidnapping, extortion, drugs, and sex.

Now, sounds like fun, right?  Perhaps…but my friends, it’ all in the execution and though Anderson knows how to produce a film with multiple storylines (Boogie Nights, Magnolia) things are rocky from the get-go.  Though I was initially intrigued by a pre-credit noir-ish sequence that finds Shasta visiting a sleepy Sportello and asking for his help the film lost me before fifteen minutes were up.  Even with the occasional foray into explicit hilarity such as Sportello’s visit to a massage parlor that boasts a menu of services that I can’t reprint here the majority of the film is a rough slough.

Reteaming with The Master star Phoenix, Anderson should have stuck with the original choice for the role….Robert Downey, Jr.  Though Downey was deemed “too old” for the part, Phoenix looks gruesomely ancient thanks to unkempt sideburns, permanently greasy hair, and unshaven scruff.  While Phoenix has a field day with the role, lounging through several drug induced sequences and slurring his words like was the Meryl Streep of lazy r’s, he’s only pleasing himself (and Anderson) as the haphazardly effective private eye.

The film’s labyrinthine plot may be interesting in hindsight but it’s so dense and unconcerned with our interest that I wondered if this shouldn’t have been a home movie for Anderson and Phoenix to watch huddled together with a bowl of popcorn on Oscar night.  Pynchon’s novel is chock full of wacky names and comic turns but onscreen it feels too goofy for its own good.  Josh Brolin (Oldboy), Reese Witherspoon (Mud), Owen Wilson (The Internship), and Benicio Del Toro (Savages) all show up as part of the caper at hand with only Brolin and Witherspoon in on whatever joke Anderson was attempting to convey.  Also of note is Joanna Newsom’s earthy performance as an acquaintance of Sportello, though I started to question if she was a figment of his imagination or not.

Let’s put a pin in showering Anderson with love simply because he started out so strongly.  I feel like it’s almost a sin for a cinephile to deride Anderson’s work but viewing a film like Magnolia side-by-side with Inherent Vice reveals a filmmaker that has given in to self-indulgence and forgotten that films are made for audiences (even discerning ones, though nearly a dozen at my screening didn’t stay for the whole picture).  It doesn’t have to be a simple, easy to digest, pallid work…but it does have to have a pulse.