Movie Review ~ The Best of Enemies


The Facts
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Synopsis: Civil Rights activist, Ann Atwater, faces off against C.P. Ellis, Exalted Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan in 1971 Durham, North Carolina over the issue of school integration.

Stars: Taraji P. Henson, Sam Rockwell, Anne Heche, Wes Bentley, John Gallagher Jr., Bruce McGill

Director: Robin Bissell

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: The filmmakers for Green Book haven’t even had their Best Picture Oscar on the shelf long enough to gather dust before another problematic movie on race relations has made it to theaters. Now I have a feeling that The Best of Enemies tells its tale with a bit more honesty and is unquestionably less outright manipulative but still…something feels off here. Though, like Green Book, it boasts two likable stars (one a recent Oscar winner) and is based on actual events, The Best of Enemies overstays its welcome by hammering home its message audiences will have received loud and clear early on.

It’s 1971 and Durham, North Carolina is still racially divided. Though laws on desegregation have chipped away at the antiquated restrictions at many institutions within the state, the schools remain separated by race. Continuing to fight for her civil rights and the rights of others was the outspoken Ann Atwater (Taraji P. Henson, What Men Want), a grassroots activist that wasn’t afraid to raise her voice to call attention to injustice within her community. On the other side of the coin was Ku Klux Klan leader C. P. Ellis (Sam Rockwell, Vice) who also felt like he was seeing the rights of another population of Durham being restricted. The two public figures were both respected within their individual circles and known to each other…and they didn’t care for the other one bit.

When a fire destroys part of a school that served the black children of Durham, it sparks a debate that leads to the city council voting whether or not to allow children of both races to attend the same school. At the same time, a court-ordered school desegregation decree has finally come into play but instead of being the deciding vote and making history, the district judge involved passes the decision down to the people of Durham. Through a structured two-week community meeting known as a charrette, Atwater and Ellis become co-chairs and lead a group of representatives from the city in deciding how they want to move forward on several key issues, the biggest being fully integrating their schools.

Writer/director Robin Bissell (a producer of The Hunger Games) has adapted Osha Gray Davidson’s book and while it’s clearly a labor of love, it is quite a labor to get through. At two hours and thirteen minutes, the movie takes a while to get moving and then just sort of treads water for a good sixty minutes rehashing what we already know or setting up more scenes of racial tension designed to elicit the appropriate rage from the audience. By the time the film reaches it’s predicted climax, audiences might be a bit numb after all the elevated dramatics Bissell introduces.

The saving grace of the movie lies in the casting and it starts at the top with Henson and Rockwell. Both are actors that invest themselves fully into their roles and that’s certainly the case here. Though Henson is sporting an almost comically large fake set of breasts, she brings a dignity and strength of soul to Ann who wrestles with wanting to practice what she preaches about acceptance even when the person on the other side won’t look her in the face. You may think Rockwell has played a version of this character already in his Oscar-winning role in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri but the differences between the two men are vast. At the beginning of the film Ellis actually believes in the racist thoughts he spews forth but Rockwell takes us through each crack in his belief system as he spends time not only with the black members of Durham but other white people that don’t share his values.

There’s nice supporting work from Anne Heche (Volcano) as Ellis’ wife who doesn’t suffer fools…especially her husband, Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as the prototype KKK member of that era in that area, and Bruce McGill (Lincoln) as a crooked councilman. I also liked John Gallagher Jr. (10 Cloverfield Lane) as a local shopowner sympathetic to the integration that has to choose between what’s right for him and what’s right for his community. He shares a brief scene with Rockwell that hints at the kind of impactful moments the movie is sorely short on. Yet the film never takes off quite so much as when Henson and Rockwell are bickering or, eventually, seeing eye to eye.

Conceived as a historical piece documenting an important turning point in the Civil Rights movement but orchestrated as an audience rousing drama where everyone goes home happy, The Best of Enemies wants it both ways. It tries awfully hard, though, and that work doesn’t go unnoticed. Yet it winds up feeling like another strange misstep in Hollywood’s attempt to get a movie about the Civil Rights…right.

Movie Review ~ Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon.

Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford

Director: David Lowery

Rated: PG

Running Length: 102 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If you were to visit The MN Movie Man’s house during the early eighties, on any given weekend you can be sure that at some point Pete’s Dragon would be unspooling on an oft-rented (eventually purchased) VHS cassette.  The 1977 Disney musical production was a household favorite and Helen Reddy’s plaintive Candle on the Water remains one of my favorite tunes to this day.

So you’ll understand that when I heard Disney was adding Pete’s Dragon to it’s expanding list of remakes, I was less than thrilled.  How dare the studio take its folksy tale of a boy and his dragon changing a small New England town and its residents for the better and put a 21st century spin on things…and would they stoop so low as to have some pop princess warble out an auto-tune version of Candle on the Water?  Right up until the lights went down and the Disney logo appeared on screen I was on the defense…but then something downright magical happened.  I loved this remake.

When I say loved, I don’t mean in the same way you say “I love that new Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer” but loved in the sense that you feel a wave of warmth emanate from your belly just thinking of certain key scenes in writer-director David Lowery’s damn lovely re-imagining.  Not only is it the best family film to come along in ages but it’s without question the best movie released so far this summer.  People wanted to believe that the terrible Suicide Squad would save the (summer) day and forgive the June and July trespasses but it turns out that Pete’s Dragon is the one that flies highest.

The first thing Lowery did was wisely throw out everything but the names of Pete (Oakes Fegley, This is Where I Leave You) and his dragon Elliot (spectacularly rendered via CGI).  Gone are the songs, the East coast setting, and the plot involving a runaway orphan finding a home with a lighthouse keeper and his daughter in the early 1900s.  Lowery knew the charming yet staid quaintness of the original and it’s accompanying songs wouldn’t appeal to modern audiences so he’s set his film in the 1980s Pacific Northwest.

By the time the credits are over, toddler Pete has been orphaned via tragedy and adopted by a gentle dragon he names Elliot before disappearing into the forest for the next six years.  Found by a kind forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) and befriended by her future stepdaughter (Oona Laurence, Bad Moms), a near-feral Pete warms to this new family but struggles to leave the pain of his past and his fire-breathing constant companion behind.  There’s some late in the game roughness involving a logger’s (Karl Urban, Star Trek) plot to hunt down and trap Elliot that gives the film some tangible conflict but it’s the emotional conflict that is the biggest test for all involved.

This is a film you’ll get a good cry at so just go with it and enjoy the way it kindly pushes your emotional buttons.  It’s not manipulative or malicious in its intent and, man, it feels so good to have an honest response to a movie this far into 2016 when many films have left me cold.  The actors, especially Howard and Fegley, do outstanding work and Robert Redford (All is Lost) exudes grandfatherly warmth as Howard’s dad with his own ties to Elliot.

Where the 1977 Elliot was an animated goofball with neon lime green scales and pink accents, the 2016 version is impressively created as a furry tenderheart endlessly devoted to Pete.  With dog-like mannerisms (watch him struggle to get a giant log through two towering trees), Elliot wins you over from the first time he appears onscreen and thankfully the folks at Disney don’t keep him under wraps/invisible for much of the movie.

Beautifully produced and told with grace, Pete’s Dragon is the kind of remake that shows how to do it right.  If the original wasn’t broke, don’t fix it via a remake but use it to inspire a new tale that can stand on its own against its predecessor.  The two films may share a title but they couldn’t be more different in style and tone…and this new version easily earns a spot on the shelf of future family classics.

Movie Review ~ We Are Your Friends

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Caught between a forbidden romance and the expectations of his friends, aspiring DJ Cole Carter attempts to find the path in life that leads to fame and fortune.

Stars: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Jonny Weston, Shiloh Ferhandez, Alex Shaffer, Jon Bernthal.

Director: Max Joseph

Rated: R

Running Length: 96 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: The few times I saw the preview for We Are Your Friends, my head hurt.  Lots of flashing lights, quick edits, pounding music, and Zac Efron feeling the beat in a tank top under the California sun gave me little hope that the finished product would amount to much.  Then early reports indicated that the film was like Flashdance meets Saturday Night Fever with a dash of Cocktail…and I was officially sold. While the film starts off pretty rough for the first half hour or so, there’s something ultimately winning about it.

Efron (That Awkward Moment) headlines the picture as Cole, a DJ with a heart of gold struggling to break into the big leagues.  Living with a buddy (Jonny Weston, an annoyance in the beginning before graduating to valued asset) and working as promoters of a local club with two other friends (Shiloh Fernandez, Evil Dead, and Alex Shaffer) they live for the Thursday nights that are their reward for a job well done.

But, as in all movies with similar themes, they all dream of something more and the chance to “get out” and make something of themselves.  While the others all have admirable aspirations, it’s Efron that gets the focus as he makes the move from clap trap backroom DJ to working posh pool parties and headlining a summer music festival with his music.

Now, I know absolutely nothing about the DJ culture but I do understand that it’s more than just working two turntables and knowing when to scratch and mix the tunes together.  And, to its credit, the film makes an attempt to explain how it all works, but it’s not enough to clue most audiences in on what exactly is happening when Efron intensely turns one knob up high while turning another one down low.  The only thing we know, from Efron’s brow sweat and dilated pupils, is that it’s important stuff and he’s very good at what he does.

Being mentored by a DJ that many feel has sold out (Wes Bentley, Interstellar) has repercussions for the young upstart.  He learns to follow his internal turntable to churn out better music, yes, but also falls in love with the DJ’s assistant/girlfriend (Emily Ratajkowski, Gone Girl, Entourage, with lips like life preservers) in the process.  At the same time, he’s supporting himself by working for a shady real estate investor (Jon Bernthal, The Wolf of Wall Street), whose methods put him into an even greater emotional spiral.

What’s nice to report about the film is that it’s probably Efron’s best performance to date.  Ignoring a flawed attempt at emoting near the end (must every Efron movie feature him with tears in his eyes?) Efron ably carries the picture to success and seems at ease with the complexities of the DJ scene.  Passages between Efron and Bentley are the best of the bunch, with both actors doing solid work and never coming off as merely pretending to understand what they’re talking about…but actually believing it.

Music obviously plays a big part in Max Joseph and Meghan Oppenheimer’s script and with Joseph directing, the film feels alive with rhythm from the first frame until the last.  Again, I couldn’t tell you a good beat from a bad one but there are enough music consultants and musicians listed in the credits that I’m confident the movie hits all the right notes.  Brett Pawlak’s cinematography may favor lingering on sweaty body parts a little too much (one sequence covers every inch of Ratajkowski’s flesh several times over) but generally it’s a nice mix of California sun and hypnotic club lights.

Owing a lot to the aforementioned Cocktail, the movie may find itself becoming a guilty pleasure down the line.  It’s relatively inoffensive and pleasant enough to not hold too many of its faults against it, buoyed by Efron’s considerable charisma and Bentley’s commanding performance.

The Silver Bullet ~ We Are Your Friends

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Synopsis: An aspiring DJ looks to make it in the electronic music scene.

Release Date: August 28, 2015

Thoughts: I’m starting to feel a little sorry for Zac Efron at this point because he’s yet to really prove himself as more than just a pretty face with amazing abs.  He’s struggled with dramatic roles that call on him to act (That Awkward Moment, The Lucky One) and his biggest hit has been The Lorax, an animated film he provided vocal work for.  While Neighbors did good business in 2014, you could hardly attribute that success to Efron’s work.

So I’m worried for We Are Your Friends, Efron’s latest attempt to go dramatic as a go-getter DJ that’s trying to catch a break in the popular EDM (Electronic Dance Music) scene.  It looks like a messy “driven to adulthood” film with an amber-hued California as its backdrop.  On the other hand, while his performances aren’t always a success, Efron can’t be faulted for choosing appropriate pictures for his age and peer group and EDM is a hot topic right now…it’s possible that the time is right for Efron’s official “big break” into believable adult fare.

The Silver Bullet ~ Knight of Cups

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Synopsis: Unknown (and the trailer won’t help you)

Release Date: TBD 2015

Thoughts: Director Terrence Malick doesn’t play the Hollywood game so it’s interesting that his newest film seems quite focused on the California lifestyle of the Tinsel Town elite…or does it? It’s hard to say because plot details are scarce and any attempts at figuring out who Christian Bale (Out of the Furnace) is playing could provide you ample amount of head-scratching time. Though only Malick’s seventh feature film since 1973, his style is instantly recognizable and it’s intriguing to know that it was mostly improvised. People either love or hate Malick; there’s no halfway camp (hello, Tree of Life bashers!) but even in his most obtuse the man knows how to frame a scene to make ordinary images seem extraordinary. Co-starring Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine), Natalie Portman (Thor), Imogen Poots (That Awkward Moment), Jason Clarke (The Great Gatsby), and Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop).

Movie Review ~ Interstellar

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Ellen Burstyn, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, Casey Affleck, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin, Mackenzie Foy, Topher Grace, David Gyasi

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 169 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: Most of the reviews for Interstellar are going to focus on the fact that it’s a let-down to what we’ve come to expect from director Christopher Nolan.  Destined to be held to the impossibly high bar he set for himself with his trilogy of Batman films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises), you could say that he really only has himself to blame for critics and audiences alike coming to expect a certain need to be filled with each Nolan epic.

While I agree that Interstellar may not be the 2001: A Space Odyssey of the new millennium as many thought it would be, I still marveled at the sheer magnitude of innovation surrounding the film.  I applaud its commitment to science, cinema, and humanity – it’s why I left the screening with a spark of ebullient respect that literally kept me up tossing and turning in bed as my dreams were filled with wormholes, theories of relative time, and all those failed physics tests of my youth.  Yet, as I continued to think on Nolan’s film as a whole, I found enough fault in the melodramatic moments Nolan and his brother Jonathan have unfortunately wedged in that overall my jovial enthusiasm for the movie faded…and faded fast.

In a distant future, our crops are dying and our prospects look grim.  Single father and retired pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey, Dallas Buyers Club) lives on his farm trying to do best for his children.  Guided to a secret government facility by a series of events I won’t divulge here, it isn’t long before Cooper is blasting off into space with a two pronged mission to find a new world to inhabit and save the human race.

That’s a heavily oversimplified rundown of the first hour of Nolan’s three hour trek into universes beyond our reach and it’s this earthbound time at the front of the picture and the final hours that kept restraining the journey from really rocketing into the oribit I wanted it to.  There’s a manipulative feeling to what the brothers Nolan have constructed, with attempt after attempt to tug at the heartstrings of viewers.  What they failed to include, however, is a set-up that allows us to be attached emotionally to anyone enough to be moved by their fight for survival.

The film is best when it’s floating in space because that’s when the artistry begins to take form and all cylinders start to fire.  Projected on an IMAX screen and making full use of an immersive sound design (my teeth are still rattling), Interstellar could come across feeling like an entertaining school lecture with its long monologues describing time travel and explanations of the effects of relativity.  Thankfully, Nolan finds a balance in keeping audiences up to speed without boring them (or dumbing it all down) with textbook-ish dialogue that only a multi-PhD professor would grasp.

An impressive, Oscar recognized cast (2 nominees and 4 winners…5 if you count a surprising cameo) make the most of Nolan’s multi-layered script.  McConaughey’s a bit of an odd duck as our hero lead.  Adept at wearing his emotions on his sleeve, I found myself craving for a shot of the actor that didn’t show him with his eyes welled up with tears.  Cool headed when trouble arises, he still cuts the appropriate swath of an All-American dad just trying to get home to his kids.  Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) has never been a favorite of mine but the break she took after her Oscar win has given the actress time to reacquaint herself with a grounded acting style and she largely succeeds in her role as a brainy, all-business counterpart to McConaughey’s cowboy cavalier.

Rounding out the cast is Michael Caine (Now You See Me) as Hathaway’s father and McConaughey’s mentor and Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) playing a scientist with a link to McConaughey, alongside Wes Bentley (Lovelace) and David Gyasi (Cloud Atlas) as fellow explorers onboard the shuttle.  Caine has a long history with Nolan but here the role he’s been given is so clearly designed as a plot device that it’s hard to form an honest opinion of the performance.  Chastain fares better, considering she’s saddled with a hefty amount of the problematic moments in the final third of the film.

Less complex than Nolan’s trippy Inception and lacking the emotional attachment of 2013’s better (and shorter) Gravity, Interstellar is a film I can imagine getting less interesting with repeat viewings.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ll see the movie again in 70MM on the largest screen I can find because the movie looks absolutely incredible…but I’m not sure all the additional viewings in the world can excuse some major cracks in Nolan’s ambitious rocket-ship.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar (Trailer #3)

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Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: I’m so ready to see Interstellar. Not that I needed any more convincing after the teaser and first trailer for Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi drama, but this recently released preview shown at Comic-Con definitely ramps up my anticipation.  I cringed a bit when I saw how long the trailer was but thankfully Nolan (Batman Begins) remains a cagey filmmaker and doesn’t let go of many plotlines and important pieces of info that could spoil the overall experience.  Bolstered by a truly A-list cast featuring Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (Mama), Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day), and Michael Caine (The Dark Knight Rises), the rocket boosters are starting to truly heat up to send this one into orbit come November.  Can’t wait.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar (Trailer #2)

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Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date: November 7, 2014

Thoughts: Now at the point where the mere mention of his name guarantees you’ll buy a ticket to his films, director Christopher Nolan steps out of the shadow of The Dark Knight Trilogy (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) and looks upward into space. The first teaser for Interstellar had tongues a-waggin’ though it had next to no original footage and while this second look reveals a tad bit more about what the film is all about, it’s still more intriguing than verifiably interesting in my book. Then again, Nolan’s trailers have historically been as spoiler-free as possible so that’s par for the course. Make no doubt about it, this is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year and it doesn’t hurt Nolan has the star power of Oscar darlings Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club, Mud), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty), Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge) and Ellen Burstyn (Draft Day) to escalate this to warp speed. I expect big things from this one…and I’ll bet we get ‘em.

The Silver Bullet ~ Interstellar

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Synopsis: A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.

Release Date:  November 7, 2014

Thoughts: With a director that has yet to make a bad film and a, well, stellar cast of A-Listers it’s not hard to see why Interstellar is already one of the most highly anticipated films of 2014.  Director Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises) has tapped Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables), Jessica Chastian (Zero Dark Thirty), Ellen Burstyn, Michael Caine (Jaws: The Revenge), and Casey Affleck for his new film, details of which are still being kept tightly under wraps.  Sources say it has to do with time travel and the race to save the food supply of our planet but if I know Nolan it’s about so much more.  The first look doesn’t have a lot of footage to it (and you know I love my teasers) but it nicely places its stake in the ground as the movie we’ll be talking about in about a year.

Movie Review ~ Lovelace

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The Facts
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Synopsis: The story of Linda Lovelace, who is used and abused by the porn industry at the behest of her coercive husband, before taking control of her life.

Stars: Amanda Seyfried, Peter Sarsgaard, Sharon Stone, Juno Temple, Wes Bentley, Hank Azaria, Bobby Cannavale, Chris Noth, Robert Patrick, James Franco, Eric Roberts, Adam Brody, Chloe Sevigny,

Director: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  This is the type of review that you hope your parents don’t read…because then you’ll have to admit you’ve seen Deep Throat and, well, will Sunday brunch ever be the same again?  So Mom, if you’re reading this (and, let’s face it, you probably opted for another round of Candy Crush instead) just know that I have seen the infamous adult film that made porno mainstream…but I watched it under duress, I swear.

The star of Deep Throat was Linda Lovelace and she didn’t fit the mold of the adult film.  Pretty but not desirably beautiful, she had one particular talent that earned her the starring role and gave the film its title.  Though she only worked in the porn industry for a total of 17 days, her legend would live on but her story hasn’t been told on screen until now.

It’s too bad then that, as presented by Lovelace, her story isn’t all that interesting or intriguing.  Though it pulls a Rashomon-style switcheroo ¾ of the way through, the movie can’t make…um…head or tails of its starry cast or soapy subject matter.  Turns out that Linda Lovelace was either a) a willing participant that rolled with the punches or b) a victim of abuse forced into a life of drugs and prostitution by her smarmy husband.  The film wants us to feel sorry for Linda so the “b” option is presented in a more heavy-hitting fashion but so much time is spent on the set-up of the “a” option that you leave the movie not really sure of where the truth falls on the spectrum of history.

Credit should be given to all involved for taking care with the period aspects of the film set in the 70’s and early 80’s.  The production design is restrained and just tacky enough to let us know feathered hair and bell bottoms didn’t look all that bad on the right person.  Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman come from the documentary world and one would think that they’d handle their narrative with a bit more efficiency and not as presentational as screenwriter Andy Bellin has made the biopic.

That leaves the cast to make some magic but strangely nothing seems to get their motors going.  Amanda Seyfried (Les Miserables) has some nice moments in the last half of the film when we finally get to see a more vulnerable side of Linda but up until that point it’s not a very grounded character for her to work with.  Though the role is undeniably one-dimensional, as Linda’s husband, Peter Sarsgaard (Blue Jasmine) has never met a creep he can’t play to the hilt and that’s true here.  The rest of the supporting cast really are simply brief cameos as the 92 minute film can’t accommodate so many familiar faces with jettisoning some of their scenes (they should be thankful…Sarah Jessica Parker filmed her role as Gloria Steinem only to be excised in the editing room).  It was nice to see Sharon Stone, albeit in an awful wig from a community theater production of Grease, as Linda’s tough, gruff mother.

It’s not the revealing biography that it’s intended to be and honestly I can’t say I took anything of value away from the movie.  Though it’s interesting to get a behind the scenes look about that particular time in film history (however blue the films were), Lovelace leaves the audience unfulfilled.