Movie Review ~ Vampire Academy

vampire_academy_blood_sisters_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: Rose, a rebellious Guardian-in-training and her best friend, Lissa – a royal vampire Princess – have been on the run when they are captured and returned to St.Vladamirs Academy, the very place where they believe their lives may be in most jeopardy.

Stars: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky, Gabriel Byrne, Sarah Hyland, Joely Richardson, Cameron Monaghan, Sami Gayle, Claire Foy, Ashley Charles, Olga Kurylenko

Director: Mark Waters

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Vampire Academy sucks.  It bites.  It’s a stake through the heart of YA adaptations capitalizing on the success of franchise films like the Harry Potter series and, to a lesser extent than you might imagine, Twilight.  It’s toothless in its construction and bloodless in its execution.  Yes, my fangs are bared and my bad puns are all but used up for this cheap looking, badly acted mess that could have gone so right but finds itself oh so very wrong.

With the director of Mean Girls (Mark Waters) and the writer of Heathers (Daniel Waters, yep, they’re brothers) involved I was expecting a nice mash-up of those two films with a little bit of Jawbreaker thrown in for good measure.  Sadly, none of the sparks that made those movies a pleasure (guilty or otherwise) exist here so we’re left to wonder what in the hell went askew.

When a film isn’t screened for critics it’s usually never a positive sign but there was something that compelled me to see the film anyway, possibly hoping that this high school fantasy was just not designed for critical consumption.  Based on the first novel in Richelle Mead’s popular series, the film follows Rose (Zoey Deutch, daughter of 80’s royalty Lea Thompson and director Howard Deutch) and Lissa (Lucy Fry), two girls bonded together by an age-old prophecy and their (mis)adventures in a prestigious boarding school for vampires.

An early prologue contains so much rote exposition to bring the audience up to speed that I half expected the actors to start saying things like “I’m opening a door. I’m sitting on a bed.  I’m looking dazed at the moment”.  Filmed in such non-descript locales suggesting the filmmakers secretly filmed in IKEA showrooms, it’s not long before Rose and Lissa are back on the ground of St. Vladimrs Academy and thrust back into a dangerous plot…the one thing Daniels Waters script doesn’t bother to flesh out.

Remember that scene in Showgirls where veteran dancer Cristal Connors asks newbie Nomi Malone to rehearse with her, only to have a cat fight stop rehearsal five seconds in?  There are at least three of passages like that here with Rose getting “trained” by the hunky Dimitri (Danila Kozlovsky) in enough time for the two to engage in badly timed fight choreography that ends with them staring longingly  at each other.  While Deutch has an Ellen Page vibe about her that’s mildly engaging, Kozlovsky is pretty much just an Aqua di Gio ad come to life.

This lack of personality in its characters is really where the film trips and falls, we can excuse Deutch’s milquetoast line readings for a while but when she’s paired with Fry the tone becomes incredibly deadly.  About as appealing as a glass of room temperature milk, Fry is supposed to be a regal princess but her cracking voice and penchant for wearing ankle length skirts gives off more Amish Princess than Vampire Royal.  The costume and make-up design is across the board awful and I can’t imagine any of the women in the film were happy that they wound up with rouged cheeks that suggest a playful three year old applied it.

The film earns two whole stars for including two bits of biting dialogue that hints at the direction the film should have gone.  Both occur too late in the film to save us from abject misery but in the hands of Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace, Oblivion) and Sarah Hyland they were the most memorable moments of an entirely forgettable film.  Never deciding if it wants to be a satiric black comedy or a dewey young adult fantasy, it winds up turning to dust the moment the lights come up.

Laughably (but laudably) ending with the promise of a sequel, this movie should never have happened.  Even if the airwaves are chock full of vampire series right now, this would have been much better suited as a weekly television series because the episodic nature would have made more sense.  To the big screen the money hungry producers went, though, leaving the film to go the way of other franchise non-starters like Beautiful Creatures and The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones.  Terrible.

Movie Review ~ Philomena

philomena_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A world-weary political journalist picks up the story of a woman’s search for her son, who was taken away from her decades ago after she became pregnant and was forced to live in a convent.

Stars: Judi Dench, Steve Coogan, Sophie Kennedy Clark, Anna Maxwell Martin, Mare Winningham, Peter Hermann

Director: Stephen Frears

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 98 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

ReviewPhilomena provided an interesting challenge for me.  Being a huge Judi Dench fan I was happy to see the actress back on screen in what looked to be a tearjerker drama, affording the esteemed actress another chance to shine.  On the other hand, I’ve found it very hard to warm to the other star of the film, Steve Coogan.  I’ve found his previous work to be a chore to sit through and his style of comedy unappealing.  Though I enjoyed Coogan’s very meta comedy The Trip from 2010, the horror of 2008’s Hamlet 2 still was scuffling about in my mind.

When I read more about Philomena’s true life origins and with the added involvement of celebrated director Stephen Frears, I knew that there was no keeping me back from this dramedy and I’m so happy that I went into the film as unbiased toward Coogan as I could be because he’s one of the key reasons the film winds up so damn good.

Coogan wears many hats in the film in addition to being co-star (and really, second fiddle to Dame Dench).  He co-wrote the script adaptation from Martin Sixsmith’s novel The Lost Child of Philomena Lee and he also produced the film – a lot of responsibilities but he seems to have balanced it all well.

Playing Sixsmith, a disgraced political journalist used to writing hard hitting news stories that finds himself traipsing over the UK and US with the aged Philomena to find what happened to the baby boy she was forced to give up for adoption, Coogan has strong contributes to the film but mostly just gets the hell out of Dench’s way.

Dame Dench (Skyfall, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) is luminous as ever as Philomena, who starts the film as broken and perhaps a bit simple but gradually finds an inner strength through forgiveness that adds a hefty fuel to the film’s fire.  I won’t spoil the secrets of what Philomena and Martin discover on their journey because once you think you know where the film is headed, it opens up another door of mystery that you didn’t even know was there.

Though the film does fall into some trappings of fitting the defined beats of a real story into the framework of a movie, it overcomes them by the grace of Dench’s nuanced and heartbreaking performance and Coogan’s strong support.  Frears, too, tends to keep things moving along at a brisk clip so that you aren’t considering how convenient many of the happenings really are.

This is one of those films that creeps up on you in ways you least expect it.  You’ll want to have some tissues handy for there are multiple moments that you’ll find you’ve got something stuck in your eye.  Dench should be assured a trip to the Oscars this year for her rich work here, a complex character that has more layers that anyone could ever have originally conceived.  It’s a brilliant performance in a well groomed film.

 

The Silver Bullet ~ August: Osage County

august_osage_county

Synopsis: A look at the lives of the strong-willed women of the Weston family, whose paths have diverged until a family crisis brings them back to the Midwest house they grew up in, and to the dysfunctional woman who raised them.

Release Date:  November 8, 2013

Thoughts: An all-star cast has been assembled for the big screen version of August: Osage County, based on the searing Pulitzer Prize winning play.  Seeing the play, I was riveted and while I’m not sure a film version can create that same immediacy there’s a wealth of strength in the material from playwright/screenwriter Tracy Letts.  Meryl Streep (The Iron Lady) is an interesting choice for the boozy matriarch of the troubled Weston family but knowing Streep she’s going to knock this one out of the park and wind up with another Oscar nomination or win for her troubles.  When they announced Julia Roberts (Mirror, Mirror) was to play opposite Streep some turned up their noses but our first look at Roberts in action suggests that the A-List star is readying for a powerhouse performance.  The rest of the cast is top-notch too with some spot-on casting to look forward to.  Unless something goes majorly wrong, this is a film that will factor heavily into the next Academy Awards…I can’t wait to see it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Butler

1

the-butler-poster-20130507

Synopsis: A look at the life of Eugene Allen, who served eight presidents as the White House’s head butler from 1952 to 1986, and had a unique front-row seat as political and racial history was made.

Release Date:  October 18, 20113

Thoughts: I find myself at a crossroads with Oscar nominated director Lee Daniels.  Though I felt his work on Precious was deserving of his Oscar nomination his other work has produced a strong reaction in me – a negative reaction.  His first feature, Shadowboxer was a rumpled mess even with star Helen Mirren and his Precious follw-up The Paperboy was an loony exercise that tested the mettle of even the most forgiving audience member.  So I’m approaching The Butler with some angst that it will be another Daniels pic with a strong cast that ultimately fails to deliver.  On the other hand, this first trailer hints at a movie without its own agenda that could conceivably call upon the strengths of many of the talented cast involved.  Releasing in October, I’m hoping this works because I think there’s a good story to tell here.

Movie Review ~ The Master

2

master_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: A Naval veteran arrives home from war unsettled and uncertain of his future – until he is tantalized by The Cause and its charismatic leader.

Stars: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Rami Malek, Laura Dern, Jesse Plemons, David Warshofsky

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Rated: R

Running Length: 144 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Writer-director Anderson has given cinema several very fine films over the course of his career.  Wild and epic, all of his films have a lot of high-level ideas and concepts to them which can make them fun discussion movies when the lights come up.  A case could be made that most of these films involve some sort of fatherly figure and the relationship they have with someone they see as their child. In his little seen and underrated Hard Eight, Philip Baker Hall played a wise figure that takes nobody John C. Reilly under his wing and provides tutelage in the world of gambling.  Boogie Nights finds the porn producer inhabited by Burt Reynolds guiding protégé Mark Walhberg to becoming a star.  Magnolia, There Must Be Blood, and even the dreadful Punch-Drunk Love all find similar situations.

It’s more of the same with Anderson’s newest work, The Master, as it documents the bond formed by a loner veteran Freddie Quell (Phoenix) brought into the fold of The Cause by its founder  Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman).  As Quell gets in deeper with Dodd and his family (including Adams as his wife), he’s tested greatly physically and mentally until like all Anderson films something inevitably has to give.

There’s some mighty fine acting happening in The Master and it is clear why Hoffman has been nominated for an Oscar for his work.  The troubling thing for me is that he’s nominated as a Supporting Actor when he really is a co-lead with the also-nominated Phoenix.  (The same thing happened with lead actor Christoph Waltz snagging a Supporting Actor nomination for Django Unchained).  Sure, Phoenix is the character the film revolves around but Hoffman has just as much responsibility in the grand scheme of things.

Hoffman can sometimes make me weary as the characters he takes are quite passive but in The Master he delivers a career high performance with a conviction and underlying deceit.  He elevates nearly every scene he’s in and does it with an assured ease.  It’s clear that Hoffman and Anderson worked in tandem to create this character and it’s a fine example of the symbiosis between an actor’s craft and the written word.

As the troubled Quell, Phoenix is back on the screen after a hiatus from acting that saw the actor go through a truly weird metamorphosis.  Phoenix still maintains his unfortunate trait of mumbling through his dialogue and even if it is a character choice that works better with this character than others, it does create an invisible barrier between his performance and the others onscreen. 

Anderson’s last film was working with the infamously committed Daniel Day-Lewis and Phoenix is much the same type of method actor.  What sets the two actors apart is that Phoenix’s commitment seems unplanned rather than spontaneous and before you say what’s the difference – there is one.  Day-Lewis may make his choices in the moment and feed off of others but you know that he’s so invested in the character that even the most unexpected moments come from an understanding of the work itself. On the other hand, Phoenix has more than a few scenes in the movie that feel as if they are in service to him rather than the movie. Still, Phoenix and Hoffman have two dynamite scenes that are so good they dwarf everything and everyone else in the film.

I feel like I’ve seen Adams doing this kind of work for a while now.  It’s clear that Adams is an actress with ingenuity and strength but I’m not seeing what the big is with her performance here.  For my money it’s not a memorable enough performance to warrant the Supporting Actress nomination she received.  I kept waiting for that one scene that would truly blow me away – even if a few moments started up that mountain the peak was never reached in a satisfying way. 

Much has been made about the film being a thinly veiled insight into the rise in popularity of Scientology and it’s easy to draw comparisons between the movement started by L. Ron Hubbard and The Master’s movement, The Cause.  Not being overly familiar with Scientology I have to say that even if that’s what The Cause is getting at it’s not the central focus of the film.  The people at the heart of the matter are what the movie is focused on.

As is the case of all Anderson’s films, this one overstays its welcome.  I thought the film was winding up with a nice coda, only to witness an extra 10 minutes that did nothing to make the film better than where it could have stopped.  It’s strange that some directors don’t know when to close up shop and go home and Anderson’s The Master (along with Spielberg’s Lincoln and Tarantino’s Django Unchained) winds up being that friend at the party you were happy to see arrive but now just wish would go home so you can sleep.