Sunday, October 22, 2017
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

happy death day 1 Happy Death Day (2017) Movie ReviewCourtesy of Universal Pictures

Jessica Rothe and Israel Broussard star in the horror-comedy from ‘Paranormal Activity’ franchise writer Christopher Landon.

Reuniting a variety of veterans of the Paranormal Activity and Insidious series, Happy Death Day offers a comedic take on the usual stalker-slasher fare, which may sound more promising than it actually proves to be. Lightweight and accessible enough to appeal to its short attention span PG-13 target audience, this is largely disposable entertainment that doesn’t suggest obvious franchisability or significant staying power.

Cultivating relatability shouldn’t be a problem, though, as the filmmakers offer up an easily identifiable mean-girl type as their protagonist who’s headed for a comeuppance. University sorority sister Theresa (Jessica Rothe), nicknamed “Tree,” displays all the traits of a privileged campus minority, including a haughty attitude, superior self-regard and shocking lack of empathy. So it’s a bit of a comedown when she wakes up totally hungover in the dorm room bed of her hipster-ish classmate Carter (Israel Broussard), who’s clearly not remotely in her rarified league. Swearing him to silence about their embarrassing hookup, she tries to go about her day unperturbed, but since it’s also her birthday there’s a certain level of unpredictability involved.

She’s not pleased, for instance, with her roommate Lori’s (Ruby Modine) surprise birthday wishes or her estranged father’s attempts to call, opting to avoid any celebrations beyond paying a visit to her pre-med professor Gregory’s (Charles Aitken) office to unsuccessfully reignite their secret fling. Then her downer day ends in the worst possible way when some masked psycho attacks her that night on her way to a party, repeatedly stabbing Tree to death. Only her life isn’t over yet, as she discovers when she wakes up in Carter’s bed and her birthday from Hell begins all over again, ending abruptly with her inevitable murder.

Clearly it’s going to take some time for Tree to work things through and unmask her killer if she’s going to survive her life on auto-rewind. With each repetition of the incidents leading up to her demise, she discovers additional details about the circumstances surrounding her death and the identity of her killer, who wears the baby-faced mask of her university’s sports mascot. Enlisting Carter in her attempt to cheat death appears to be her only option, since snotty sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and her other housemates refuse to tolerate any slacking or slumming that might tarnish their organization’s reputation.

While scripter and comic-book scribe Scott Lobdell (Marvel’s Uncanny X-Men) quickly demonstrates the repetitive pattern provoking Tree’s recurring reincarnations within the film’s first 15 minutes, the exact mechanism behind her mysterious fate remains unexamined. Brisk pacing helps obscure this oversight, though, with Lobdell trickling out just enough information to justify another iteration of the cycle before delivering a couple of imaginative twists toward the film’s conclusion.

Rothe proves game for taking on Tree’s escalating tribulations, but doesn’t really get a chance to shine until her character goes on the offensive against her tormentor, devising some increasingly clever strategies to corner her killer. As her potential love interest, Broussard gets stuck with an underwritten part that could have benefited from a more focused motivation beyond just trying to get the girl.

Director Christopher Landon — who built his career with a series of scripts for the Paranormal Activity franchise before directing Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones — here disposes with much of the mythmaking that made that series so memorable. Although concentrating on delivering easily digestible situations and scene progressions, Landon does demonstrate some enticing visual flair that gets rather diminished by the repetitiveness of the plot.

The filmmakers’ appropriation of Groundhog Day‘s narrative template will probably be of little concern to younger viewers and doesn’t really grate as much as might be expected, even when the characters are forced to gratefully accept patently obvious life lessons.

Production companies: Blumhouse Productions, Vesuvius Productions, Digital Riot Media
Distributor: Universal
Cast
: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Rachel Matthews, Jason Bayle, Phil Vu, Cariella Smith
Director: Christopher Landon
Screenwriter: Scott Lobdell
Producer: Jason Blum
Executive
producers: Angela Mancuso, John Baldecchi, Couper Samuelson, Seth William Meier, Jeanette Volturno
Director of photography: Toby Oliver
Production designer: Cece M. De Stefano
Costume designer:  Meagan McLaughlin Luster
Editor: Gregory Plotkin
Music: Bear McCreary

Rated PG-13, 96 minutes

only the brave Only the Brave (2017) Movie Review

Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, Jennifer Connelly, Taylor Kitsch and Miles Teller star in a drama about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who battled against the Yarnell Hill fire in Arizona in 2013.

The well-worn dramatic format of putting a unit of professional men in a tense situation and watching them deal with it is given a big shot in the arm by Only the Brave. This robust and vigorously acted telling of the tragic loss of 19 top-tier firefighters in Arizona’s Yarnell Hill blaze in June 2013 most directly follows in the line of such recent true-life-derived action hits as American Sniper and Lone Survivor. But temperamentally it’s also a descendant of Hemingway’s grace under pressure, of Howard Hawks’ “Are you good enough?” explorations of male camaraderie in extremis.

As a fall attraction aimed at the nation’s mid-section dwellers rather than at coastals, this Sony/Columbia release is certainly good enough to make a notable score commercially.

The members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were all just regular guys, but they were also members of a true elite, the creme-de-la-creme of a fraternity of men who risked their lives containing fast-spreading wildfires. They were mostly gung ho, can-do types with a penchant for horsing around and downing a few brewskies, but all that would immediately be put aside when danger called. However variable and volatile they may have been off-duty, they were Medal of Honor material on the job.

At first, the outfit overseen by “Supe” (as in superintendent) Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin in absolute top form) aren’t yet in the major leagues of firefighting; they’re a Prescott, Arizona, municipal team trying to crack through to cherished “hotshots” status. A table-setting scene of the men at work provides vivid evidence of the amazing rapidity with which wildfires can spread, and also serves as a springboard for Supe’s crew to win acceptance into the elite of firefighters.

Since such a unit consists of 20 firefighters, we’re not about to get to know many of the men very well; the well-wrought script by Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down and — ahem — Transformers: The Last Knight) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle) decides to principally concentrate on the most capable, Supe, who has what seems like a great marriage to feisty, loving Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), a horse whisperer for battered steeds, and the least likely to succeed, Brendan “Donut” McDonough (Miles Teller). When met, the latter is a no-account wastrel and druggie who’s just gotten a poor young thing pregnant, an issue he views as just one more “whatever.” He’s a total jerk, indicating a very long road back to redemption.

After just this straightforward bit of setup, the film has already succeeded in immersing the viewer in a particular way of talking, a way of life. When it’s time to kick back, the guys know how to do it, Western-style, with the customary booze and B.S.-ing humor embedded in strong feelings of professional camaraderie. And music, too, of course, some of it supplied by Supe’s closest confidant, old fire chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges, for once clean-shaven, conventionally coiffed and unburdened with the gravely voice he seems mostly to have used since playing Rooster Cogburn).

By throwing down the welcome mat and inviting the viewer into close quarters with generally positive characters in a distinctive enclave within an otherwise recognizable small-town world, director Joseph Kosinski (Tron: Legacy, Oblivion) establishes a crucial audience bond that will make the tragic end you know awaits all the more powerful. The film is also good at the perfunctory stuff of showing how the Hotshots train, create burn areas to prevent fires from spreading further, give each other a hard time and otherwise go about being the best at a job that can keep you away from your family for long stretches; in the worst of circumstances, it can also end tragically. It’s hard not to genuinely admire these guys who work very hard for very little other than the satisfaction of doing the job well.

The screenwriters do have a tendency to conclude too many scenes with little upbeat kickers, but these are exceeded by small details that stick in the mind, such as a burned tree almost falling on a man out of the blue, another fellow being bitten by a rattlesnake when his mind is on much bigger threats or the guy who’s expert at cleanly opening a bottle of beer with a chainsaw.

Because of its cast of young men being buff and hormonal and good at their jobs, one could say that Only the Brave is the Top Gun of firefighter movies, the difference being that the new pic feels like it’s embedded in reality rather than in an aerial wet dream.

The tragic climax is a mighty and grim thing to behold, a catastrophe dictated by stupid mistakes, misfortunes and the whims of nature. No one was more qualified or could have been better prepared to face the adversities of that day than this squad, which had set so many controlled burns before. It was just a day when very bad luck trumped very good preparation.

Brolin strongly conveys the brawn, brains and confidence any foot soldier would want in a leader, and James Badge Dale offers fine backup as the second-in-command. Teller so convincingly embodies a massively loathsome young lout at the outset that it’s hard to believe you can at least somewhat come around to believing he’s reformed by the end. Connelly is unusually spirited as Supe’s deeply invested wife.

Production values are all they need to be, first and foremost the quite believable fire effects.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, di Bonaventura Pictures, Conde Nast Entertainment, Black Label Media, Relevant Entertainment
Distributor: Sony
Cast
: Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges, James Badge Dale, Taylor Kitsh, Jennifer Connelly, Andie MacDowell, Scott Haze, Alex Russell, Ben Hardy, Rachel Singer, Natalie Hall, Geoff Stults, Jake Picking
Director
: Joseph Kosinski
Screenwriters: Ken Nolan, Eric Warren Singer
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Eric Howsam, Michael Menchel, Molly Smith, Trent Luckinbill, Thad Luckinbill, Dawn Ostroff, Jeremy Steckler
Executive producer: Ellen H. Schwartz
Director of photography: Claudio Miranda
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Louise Mingenbach
Editor: Billy Fox
Music: Joseph Trapanese
Casting: Roma Kress

Rated PG-13, 134 minutes

Miracle on the Mountain 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain (2017) Movie ReviewCourtesy of Good Universe

Josh Hartnett stars in this real-life adventure tale about a man struggling to survive on a mountain in freezing temperatures.

If people believed everything they saw in the movies, there would be a stampede toward mountains experiencing blizzard conditions. After all, you may find yourself fighting for survival with the likes of Kate Winslet or Idris Elba and enjoying some hot sex in the process. Or, like Josh Hartnett’s character in 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain, you would have the opportunity to kick that nasty drug habit and turn your troubled life around.

In this faith-based drama based on real events, Hartnett plays Eric LeMarque, a former professional hockey player who, at the story’s beginning, is in the throes of a meth addiction and facing a jail sentence. An avid snowboarder, Eric impulsively decides to spend a day in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains just as a storm approaches. Short on winter gear and lacking food, he finds himself trapped there for eight days in freezing temperatures. Fighting the elements and fending off wolves, he’s also forced to deal with drug withdrawal.

Naturally, the experience prompts some soul-searching, which includes flashbacks to his troubled childhood dealing with a domineering, abusive father (Jason Cottle) and his hockey career in which his selfish grandstanding cost his team. Meanwhile, his worried mother (Mira Sorvino, only 10 years older than Hartnett, but hey, it’s a movie) urgently attempts to rouse the authorities into a rescue attempt.

During his ordeal, Eric falls through the ice into freezing water (providing the opportunity for Hartnett to strip off his clothing for a discreetly filmed nude scene) and resorts to some extreme measures to keep alive, including at one point eating his own flesh.

Director Scott Waugh (Need for Speed) and screenwriter Ailish Bracken somehow find a way to make these harrowing events supremely tedious onscreen. Endless stretches of the film essentially feature Hartnett wandering silently and painfully through the snow, and suffice it to say that he isn’t nearly as compelling in isolation as Robert Redford in All Is Lost. Nor is he as interesting delivering a final recorded message to a loved one as James Franco in 127 Hours, another film to which this one greatly suffers by comparison.

Not only does 6 Below: Miracle on the Mountain blandly echo these and other movies, but it also gently steps around the issues that could set it apart: the story’s religious and drug addiction themes. As a result, the film just seems to lack the courage of its convictions. Hartnett doesn’t bring much depth to his troubled character, making it hard for the viewer to care about his fate. Considering the title, it’s not much of a spoiler alert to reveal that LeMarque survived. In the real-life footage of him seen during the credits, we learn that he’s become a motivational speaker. It doesn’t come as a surprise.

Production companies: Dune Entertainment, October Sky Films, Sonar Entertainment, Tucker Tooley Entertainment
Distributor: Momentum Pictures
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Mira Sorvino, Sarah Dumont, Kale Brady Culley, Jason Cottle
Director: Manuel Puro
Screenwriter: Ailish Bracken
Producers: Simon Swart, Bradley Pilz, Scott Waugh, Tucker Tooley, Josh Hartnett
Executive producers: Greg Renker, Tom Lesinski, Louise Linton, Greg P. Russell, Madison Turner, David Grace, Michael Mailis, Eric Lemargque
Director of photography: Michael Svitak
Editors: Vashi Nedomansky, Scott Waugh
Costume designer: Jaqueline Newell
Composer: Nathan Furst
Casting: Rich Delia, Jeff Johnson

Rated PG-13, 98 minutes

snowman ver3 The Snowman (2017) Movie Review

Michael Fassbender stars as a troubled detective tracking down a serial killer in this screen version of Jo Nesbo’s best-seller from ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ director Tomas Alfredson.

The weather outside is frightful in The Snowman, the long-gestating movie adaptation of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo’s 2007 literary smash hit, which has sold in the millions. Directed by Swedish left-field hitmaker Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In, Tinker Tailor Solider Spy), this is a classy, polished production with a starry international cast led by Michael Fassbender. It was previously earmarked for Martin Scorsese, who now has an executive producer credit.

But if production partners Universal and Working Title are hoping for a Scandi noir blockbuster to rival David Fincher’s 2011 version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, they are heading for disappointment. For all its high-caliber talent mix, The Snowman is a largely pedestrian affair, turgid and humorless in tone. The cast share zero screen chemistry, much of the dialogue feels like a clunky first draft and the wearily familiar plot is clogged with clumsy loose ends. While Nesbo’s novel was a pulpy page-turner, formulaic but effective, Alfredson and his team have somehow managed to drain it of tension.

Of course, countless mediocre crime yarns have scored big at the box office. Director, author and star probably have a sufficiently large following between them to make The Snowman into a commercial hit, but nobody comes out of this production with their reputations enhanced. Critical reaction will be frosty, and Universal’s reported hopes of launching a new franchise seem likely to melt away. Rolling out across much of Europe and the Middle East this week, Alfredson’s chilly killer thriller is set to open Oct. 20 in the U.S.

A killer is targeting the young mothers of Oslo, building a sinister snowman as a calling card before he strikes. Maverick detective Harry Hole (Fassbender) is officially between cases, but he inveigles his way onto this one by shadowing a new arrival at the city’s police department, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson). Following a long trail of clues, the pair expand the investigation to include different cities and unsolved murders stretching back decades, soon realizing they have a serial killer on their hands. Their inquiries turn up murky connections between wealthy industrialist Arve Stop (J.K. Simmons), creepy doctor Idar Vetleson (David Dencik) and boozy detective Gert Rafto (Val Kilmer), who died years before in an apparent shotgun suicide.

In parallel with his police duties, Harry is also struggling to stay on good terms with his estranged ex-wife Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), his sulky teenage stepson Oleg (Michael Yates) and Rakel’s new partner Mathias (Jonas Karlsson). But as the murder investigation deepens, the killer gets Harry’s family in his sights, and their deadly cat-and-mouse game turns personal. Meanwhile, Katrine is revealed to have a secret history that throws her interest in the case into question.

Fassbender plays the kind of rule-breaking antihero who ticks every cliche on the flawed-genius screen cop checklist. Harry’s crime-fighting instincts are brilliant but unorthodox, which means his stuffy bosses indulge him while female co-workers find him dangerously irresistible. He may be too much of a self-absorbed drunk to keep his promises to his ex-wife and stepson, but both still adore him anyway. He is a chain-smoking alcoholic who routinely passes out on park benches, yet strangely still possesses the athletic stamina to chase villains across vast frozen landscapes wearing nothing but tastefully understated Nordic knitwear.

In its favor, The Snowman looks magnificent. Norway is a gift to Alfredson, with his strong eye for snow-covered landscapes and stylishly bare modernist interiors. Cinematographer Dion Beebe and production designer Maria Djurkovic transform the homely urban geography of Oslo into a Nordic Gotham City of deep shadows, towering churches and cavernous municipal halls, while the vast hinterland beyond the city becomes a majestic winter wonderland of frozen lakes and snowy peaks.

The Snowman also boasts a fine cast, though its leaden script and perfunctory characterization leave scant room for subtle performances. Arriving on set direct from Assassin’s Creed, Fassbender coasts through the movie with his roguish charm on autopilot. Ferguson wrings a little more complexity from her traumatized avenging angel, but Gainsbourg wanders through her scenes in a daze, as if she has accidentally stumbled onto Alfredson’s shoot en route to her latest self-lacerating encounter with Lars von Trier. Simmons, Chloe Sevigny and Toby Jones are all underused in glorified cameos. And Kilmer’s minor role is just plain bizarre, with his raddled appearance and mannered dialogue that seems to be overdubbed in places.

Screenwriters Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Soren Sveistrup stick fairly closely to Nesbo’s plot, with a few minor changes and shifts of emphasis. Thus The Snowman only has one major secret to keep us in suspense: the identity of the killer. Even for viewers unfamiliar with the book, this not-so-shocking surprise becomes pretty easy to call about midway through the story, leaving Alfredson to fill another hour with increasingly silly red herrings and pointless blind alleys.

In a movie that had more layers, deeper questions and more fully evolved characters, such predictable touches would not necessarily be fatal lapses. But The Snowman does not do subtext. Indeed, its by-the-numbers script barely qualifies as text. When the killer’s risible psychological motivation is finally revealed, it feels as if the screenwriters began reading Freud for Dummies, but did not even get to the end. Alfredson has yet to make a terrible film, and The Snowman is certainly not terrible, but it falls way short of what a superior big-budget thriller should deliver.

Production companies: Universal Pictures, Working Title Films, Perfect World Pictures
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Rebecca Ferguson, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jonas Karlsson, J.K. Simmons, David Dencik, Val Kilmer, Toby Jones, Chloe Sevigny, James D’Arcy, Michael Yates
Director: Tomas Alfredson
Screenwriters: Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan, Soren Sveistrup, based on the novel by Jo Nesbø
Producers: Tim Bevan, Eric Fellner, Piodor Gustafsson, Robyn Slovo
Executive producers: Tomas Alfredson, Martin Scorsese, Liza Chasin, Amelia Granger, Jo Nesbo, Niclas Salomonsson, Emma Tillinger Koskoff
Cinematographer: Dion Beebe
Editors: Claire Simpson, Thelma Schoonmaker
Production designer: Maria Djurkovic
Music: Marco Beltrami
119 minutes

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) Movie ReviewProfessor Marston and the Wonder Women is an intriguing story played a little too safe

No one keeps secrets better than a superhero. Double lives are written in the job description — holding down the ordinary-citizen drag of secretary, cub reporter, or wayward CEO until the call comes to slip into spandex and save the world. Deception wasn’t a skill that Wonder Woman creator William Moulton Marston ever really mastered, though he earned a degree in psychiatry from Harvard and shares credit for the invention of the modern lie-detector test. (How’s that for an origin myth?) And openness cost him a lot: His pioneering muse became a lightning rod for censure and scandal almost from the moment she debuted in 1941, as did his own deeply unconventional personal life, a three-way love story played out decades before polyamory became the stuff of daytime talk shows and premium-cable dramas.

Even in today’s vastly more tolerant world, that kind of romance à trois — like the unmiss­able thread of bondage, kink, and sexual dominance running through his scantily clad heroine’s plotlines — remains defiantly outside the mainstream. Which may be why director Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) puts such a decorous sheen on Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, a tasteful, surprisingly sedate biopic slathered in the traditional signposts of heavy exposition, gold-toned cinematography, and note-perfect period detail.

“Are you normal? What is normal?” Marston (bluntly handsome British actor Luke Evans) asks a classroom full of rapt young women at Radcliffe College circa 1928, with special attention paid to the doll-faced Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote). The question may be rhetorical, but Marston is already the living embodiment of something more radical; he treats his brilliant, bristling wife Elizabeth (the electric Rebecca Hall) as an equal — which she is, though Harvard refuses to award her her own rightfully earned Ph.D. — in career and marriage, both of which soon begin to include Olive. It turns out there’s a shrewd mind beneath those blond ringlets (Byrne’s aunt was birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger, her mother a renowned feminist in her own right), and together the trio experiments with early prototypes of the systolic blood-pressure test, which would go on to become a crucial element in polygraphs. But chemistry is the sweet science here, as William and Elizabeth fall for Olive and find their feelings returned — at first tentatively, and then unmistakably (in a scene set, with unfortunate on-the-noseness, to Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good”).

The movie frames its soft-focus flashbacks against the harsh glare of Marston’s interrogation by a public-decency panel led by Connie Britton’s Josette Frank. A cool fury in pink lipstick, Frank would very much like to know how a relatively obscure academic became the man behind the most subversive comic book on the market, and why. Professor Marston answers that first question capably; it just never quite captures the true, transgressive wonder of his creation.

The Meyerowitz Stories The Meyerowitz Stories (2017) Movie Review

Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Dustin Hoffman and Adam Sandler shine in Noah Baumbach’s familiar The Meyerowitz Stories

The title is a tip-off to the literary ambitions of writer-director Noah Baumbach’s semi-dark Netflix comedy, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). It gives off the faint bookish whiff of a J.D. Salinger short story collection. And what unspools over the next comedically caustic two hours does as well. This is a New York-set fable about a dysfunctional, artsy family and its discontents that are aimed at the same audience who appreciated previous Baumbach films such as The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding. It’s smart, relatable, laughter-through-psychic pain entertainment that happens to be elevated by a handful of wonderful performances even if it, at times, feels like a lesser version of The Royal Tenenbaums — another urbane tale about an oblivious, difficult, self-centered patriarch and the lingering damage he’s done to his three neurotic, now-grown children.

The Meyerowitz Stories works in large part due to the actor playing that patriarch, Dustin Hoffman. With his leonine, snow-white beard, touchy narcissism, and blind disregard for the feelings of his kids (or anyone else, for that matter), Hoffman looks like a cross between Santa Claus and a late-period Sterling Hayden. He’s fantastic. Harold Meyerowitz is easily the actor’s juiciest role in years and he seems to know it, tearing into each barbed, backhanded insult like a true master in the dark art of undermining. Harold’s offspring are played by Adam Sandler (his best performance since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love – arguably his only performance since 2002’s Punch-Drunk Love), Ben Stiller (acing the kind of apoplectic, Type-A role he’s played many times before, including The Royal Tenenbaums), and Elizabeth Marvel (deadpan perfection hiding behind a long, lank hairdo that matches her wallflower personality to a tee).

Baumbach parcels out the story of this strained family in chapters. The first kicks off with Sandler’s Danny and his teenage, college-bound daughter (Grace Van Patten) hunting for a parking space in Manhattan. It’s a killer opening, not just because it happens to be dead-on in its frustrating accuracy, but also because it allows the hangdog Sandler to go from mild fatherly banter to profanity-spewing road rage mode in a flash. Soon, we meet Hoffman’s Harold, a retired sculptor who’s still a legend in his own mind (he talks and talks, but never listens), and his third (or is it fourth?) wife Maureen (Emma Thompson), a blowsy drunk in a billowy muumuu. Stiller’s Matthew shows up in chapter two — a Los Angeles financial advisor who happens to be the favorite son. We know this not only because Hoffman’s Harold comes out and says this to Sandler’s Danny, but also because he receives the least of Harold’s passive-aggressive insults (although there’s still plenty). Marvel’s dutiful Jean is more or less invisible to everyone, which is pretty much how she seems to like it.

The Meyerowitz children all feel, in one way or another, like disappointments to their easily slighted, aging-lion father. And while that might not sound like much fun to sit through, Baumbach’s film is relatable and loaded with enough knowing laughs that it tugs at you in disarming ways. Still, apart from Hoffman and Sandler’s exceptional, lived-in performances, the movie’s familiarity prevents it from being great in the way The Squid and the Whale was. Parents can be well-meaning monsters. Their children can be resentful, scarred victims. And it’s never too late for forgiveness — or at least a resigned sort of belated truce. There can be an undeniable grace in all of that. After all, these are timeless themes. They’re well-told in The Meyerowitz Stories, but they’ve also been told many times before by others, including Baumbach himself.

Breathe Breathe (2017) Movie Review
Breathe_170816_Day37_ 1428.jpg

Bleecker Street/Participant Media

As far as the inspirational-poster-covered walls of freshman dorms across America are concerned, “life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.” That’s become a parody of itself, a trite sentiment that performance-capture visionary Andy Serkis curiously decided to stretch thin across his aptly titled directorial debut Breathe, a tame, vanilla whimper of a period drama begging for a better treatment in more assured hands.

For what it lacks in narrative spark, Breathe is nonetheless a dutiful biopic, one that pays respectful — if frustratingly restrained — homage to the life and legacy of Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield), an ambitious Brit with an entrepreneurial spirit. He was stricken with polio at 28 and staring down a grim prognosis. Paralyzed from the neck down and unable to draw breath on his own, doctors told him he’d survive three months, shortly after his marriage to a young woman, Diana (The Crown‘s Claire Foy), yields a newborn son.

The bulk of the film charts Cavendish’s journey from dejected victim to inspired advocate for disabled rights alongside his committed wife. While Breathe is clearly fond of its subjects’ real-life accomplishments (they traveled the globe campaigning for better treatment facilities, and popularized a respirator-clad wheelchair that enhanced patients’ independence), Serkis fails to find an appropriate, complementary visual language to enliven their story and properly engage his audience. There are satisfying glimmers of existential complexity at the start, as Cavendish questions his faith and will to live while bonding with suicidal responauts in hospital, but Serkis instead clings to a mawkish framing of his leads’ domestic lives, glacially wafting in and out of lighthearted familial vignettes that dress the build-up to an otherwise heartening conclusion in uncompelling, photo album antiquity.

Written by Shadowlands and Gladiator scribe William Nicholson, Breathe contains fleeting moments of zest that far outpace Serkis’ modest scope. There’s something steadily reassuring about the way the former’s script evolves Diana, the affectionate, steadfast wife, an instrumental piece of the Cavendish legacy; Foy shepherds the transformation with ease as Diana turns from knowing object to a forceful agent carrying the bulk of Breathe‘s dramatic weight. (It’s all a bittersweet notion, however, considering Foy will be campaigned in the awards race as a supporting actress for a film she very much shoulders on equal ground with Garfield.)

Still, despite his cast’s dedication, Serkis has unfortunately boxed himself within the confines of duty to the memory of the Cavendish couple — apprehensive to take liberties and approach the already subdued material with the same sort of onscreen daring with which he conquered The Lord of the Rings or King Kong. The inklings of panache we do get are reduced to gorgeous shots of the Cavendishes’ early courtship, the swooning aura elevated greatly by the actors as they knowingly lean into the aesthetic as it recalls sweeping epics like Out of Africa or the dreamy glow of a Douglas Sirk melodrama.

But too soon after, Serkis again settles into a by-the-numbers, biographical reconstruction instead of compelling storytelling, stopping short of the finish line just when you think he’s found his stride. At its core, the story itself doesn’t allow much leeway for strokes of creative brilliance — a mismatch of a filmmaker’s reputation and material that doesn’t allow him to go much of anywhere. But Serkis still takes the straightest road through already placid terrain and crafts a film that’s ultimately suffocating in its harmlessness.

question of faith 1 A Question of Faith (2017) Movie Review

Kevan Otto’s latest religious-themed feature showcases an ensemble cast led by Richard T. Jones and Kim Fields.

After the faith-based Christian film God’s Not Dead became a sleeper hit in 2014 by grossing more than $60 million, distributor Pure Flix was quick to get onboard the sequel God’s Not Dead 2, although it ultimately topped out at under $21 million in 2016. The company’s current release A Question of Faith represents a more traditional ensemble-cast drama that leans heavily on manipulative narrative techniques to emphasize its message, which will most likely be ignored by mainstream audiences while drawing support from the usual Christian constituencies.

If heavy-handedness were recognized as a desirable narrative technique, then A Question of Faith would certainly be an awards contender. By forcing together disparate characters based primarily on coincidence and thematic exigencies, the filmmakers succeed in driving home both their religious and social convictions, unrelated as they may be.

First however, they need to establish how good, decent people can fall from grace despite their best intentions. Serving as the associate pastor of a large Atlanta-area African-American Baptist church, David Newman (Richard T. Jones) has a lot on his plate. With a major construction project to expand church facilities pending before the congregation’s board and his upcoming installation as senior pastor to replace his father looming, David can find little time for his wife Theresa (Kim Fields), teenage son Junior (James Hooper) and youngest child Eric (Caleb T. Thomas).

Across town, construction contractor John Danielson (C. Thomas Howell) has problems of his own, with his business facing bankruptcy and the bank threatening to foreclose on the home he shares with his wife Mary (Renee O’Connor) and teenage daughter Michelle (Amber Thompson). He’s pinned his remaining hopes on Michelle landing a recording contract with a major gospel music label, relentlessly pushing her to repeatedly rehearse with their church choir. When Michelle collapses from congenital heart failure during her audition, John and Mary’s priorities shift to supporting their daughter while she awaits a suitable transplant donor. The fates of these two families are joined when tragedy suddenly strikes the Newmans as well and Eric ends up in a hospital intensive care unit, barely clinging to life.

Borrowing the intersecting storylines technique common to many a low-budget independent film, screenwriter Ty Manns also introduces Latina teen Maria (Karen Valero), who ultimately bears responsibility for Eric’s critical condition, to the complete bewilderment of her mother Kate (Jaci Velasquez). Each facing monumental personal catastrophes, David, John and Maria must all struggle with their faith, examining how God’s plan for them will emerge from such dire circumstances.

Filmmaker Kevan Otto appears well within his comfort zone with his latest feature, after writing or directing the likes of Christian-focused releases What Would Jesus Do? and Grace of God, among others. Besides the religious themes, Otto and Manns have practical issues on their minds as well, sending stern messages about the perils of texting and driving, as well as the virtues of voluntary organ donation.

The castmembers take this awkwardly integrated proselytizing in stride, gamely delivering serious-faced sermons on their assigned topics. The not-coincidentally named pastor Newman ends up on the receiving end of much of this haranguing, and Jones manages to make his character’s change of heart appear almost believable. Fields as his steadfast wife deserves the pastor’s job herself for displaying such clear-eyed compassion toward her husband and family in the midst of tragedy. Despite a great deal of bluster, Howell doesn’t really have much to say, but makes for a suitable example of faith regained.

While Otto demonstrates a good deal of passion for his project, it isn’t matched by a similar level of creativity. Camerawork, lighting and editing are all more on the level of broadcast TV than cinema, but perhaps fewer visual distractions make the self-conscious messaging more impactful.

Production company: Silver Linings Entertainment
Distributor
: Pure Flix
Cast: Richard T. Jones, Kim Fields, Caleb T. Thomas, C. Thomas Howell, Renee O’Connor, T.C. Stallings, Jaci Velasquez, Marliss Amiea, James Hooper, Amber Thompson, Karen Valero
Director: Kevan Otto
Screenwriter: Ty Manns
Producers: Angela White, Lisa Diane Washington
Executive producer: Cameron Lewis
Director of photography: Chase Bowman
Editor: Sean Robert Olson
Music: Nelson Jackson III

Rated PG, 104 minutes

foreigner ver13 The Foreigner (2017) Movie Review

Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan star in Martin Campbell’s London-set, China-U.K. co-production about a retired hitman avenging his daughter’s death.

Based on Stephen Leather ‘s 1992 novel The Chinaman, Martin Campbell’s first film in six years was rechristened The Foreigner possibly because of the discriminatory connotations of the original title. The new title is somehow fitting, with Jackie Chan’s against-type performance pushed to the side in something more akin to a conspiracy thriller. Chan’s sullen avenger might plant bombs, but the narrative is more concerned with multiple betrayals among Irish terrorists and political chicanery between them and the British political establishment.

In fact, while marketed widely as a Chan-led vehicle, The Foreigner‘s main focus is on the struggle of Pierce Brosnan’s terrorist-turned-politician to contain the fallout of a series of bomb attacks across London — a situation that threatens his comfortable life as a top-ranking government minister in Northern Ireland. Credit is due for the film’s attempt to adapt Leather’s story to current-day political realities. But the plot is convoluted and sprawling, bringing into play British politicians, police and secret services, and largely sidelines the tale’s box-office raison d’être: its tale of a retired killer reactivating his skills to avenge the death of his daughter.

This emphasis on Northern Ireland’s politics might have led to The Foreigner‘s subpar performance in China. Having opened on Sept. 30 in anticipation of the country’s weeklong National Day holidays, The Foreigner has daily grosses half of those generated by the chart-topping, homegrown, mid-budget comedy Never Say Die. And this despite Campbell’s film being released in 3D and benefiting from premium markups. Some Chinese viewers might have gone in expecting Chan’s usual comic antics, which grossed $368 million for him this year alone in Railroad Tigers and Kung Fu Yoga.

At the screening this critic attended, the audience’s chattering, phone-fiddling exasperation was palpable, even in an upmarket cinema located in the cosmopolitan city of Shenzhen. Still, The Foreigner should easily recoup its reported $35 million budget in China alone, and Chan’s fans and action-flick aficionados will embrace it when it opens in Australia, the U.S. and Russia on Oct. 12 and 13. British audiences who could potentially relate to the story the most are still out of The Foreigner‘s equation, with release dates in the U.K. as yet unconfirmed.

In the film’s opening scene, Chan’s pensioner-aged, London-based restaurateur Nguyen Minh Quoc is shown driving his daughter Fan (Katie Leung, Cho Chang in the Harry Potter franchise) to a party. Just moments after waving goodbye to her, she’s dead, the victim of a bomb attack at the restaurant to which she was going. Quoc learns of how a band of terrorists from Northern Ireland orchestrated the bombing. Mired in a mix of grief and fury — a mental state Chan conveys surprisingly well — Quoc drops everything and heads to Belfast to get more information about Fan’s killers.

His target is one Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), a leading Northern Ireland politician who has swapped his paramilitary past for a career in mainstream politics. His secret dealings with the British authorities risk putting his career or even his life in peril. With much bigger fish to fry, Hennessy meets Quoc but rebuffs his demand to know the identities of those who killed his daughter.

But he has underestimated this seemingly meek restaurant owner: Quoc’s swift retaliation is to blow up the toilet of Hennessy’s well-guarded office with a bomb created out of groceries. And this is just the start of the China-born, Vietnam-raised and U.S.-trained mercenary’s relentless campaign to force Hennessy to deliver names.

As the politician seeks refuge at his country villa, Quoc follows, camping out in the woods and then terrorizing his security guard and finally confronting the man himself again. Quoc’s incredible dexterity during the fights might be at odds with the slow and shuffling figure he cuts at the beginning of the film, but at least Chan manages to hold his usual comical streak back. He infuses all these scenes with ample grit and power, every blow and thud amplified by the film’s sound design.

Quoc has one more big hurrah unleashing violent revenge on the baddies. Then again, his exploits could be seen as distracting from the main story about Hennessy, who has to confront dissent from a splinter paramilitary group and betrayal among his ranks and within his family. The chaos also reveals how he has sold out his ideals for a life of corrupting power, illicit lovers and clandestine deals with the British authorities which he once fought against as a young street fighter. While all this is happening to the politician in London and Belfast, Quoc’s presence is easily forgotten.

Brosnan returns to his Irish roots with a vibrant performance as the conflicted and confused Hennessy, a character screenwriter David Marconi has modeled on real politicians: He wears a beard like the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and has a career trajectory like the late Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander who eventually became Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister. While Brosnan has quite a few opportunities to show his acting chops, Chan makes do with less: The original novel contained much more about Quoc’s motivations and deeds. In any case, it’s good to see Chan swapping his happy-go-lucky persona for two hours for some gravitas as a tragic rogue with a marked past.

Production companies: The Fyzz Facility, Arthur Sarkissian, The Entertainer Production Company, in a STXfilms, Sparkle Roll Media Corporation, Wanda Media, Huayi Brothers Pictures presentation
Cast: Jackie Chan, Pierce Brosnan, Tamia Liu, Katie Leung
Director: Martin Campbell
Screenwriter: David Marconi, from Stephen Leather’s novel
The Chinaman
Producers: Jackie Chan, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Arthur M. Sarkissian, Qi Jianhong, Claire Kupchak, John Zeng, Scott Lumpkin, Jamie Marshall, Cathy Schulmann
Executive producers: Zhao Lei, Jiang Defu, Joe Tam, Cary Cheng, Karl Li, Liu Xinxuan, Sunny Sun, David Marconi, Philip Button, Penny Jiang, Wang Zhongjun, Wang Zhonglei, Donald Tang, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson, Oren Aviv
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Alex Cameron
Costume designer: Alex Bovaird
Music: Cliff Martinez
Editor: Angela M. Catanzaro
Casting: Debbie McWilliams

Rated R, 116 minutes

my little pony the movie ver3 1 My Little Pony: The Movie (2017) Movie Review

The Hasbro toys trot on to the big screen with some added star power from the likes of Emily Blunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Liev Schreiber, Taye Diggs and Sia.

Attention The Emoji Movie: Your status as worst animated feature of the year might well be in jeopardy when My Little Pony: The Movie trots into theaters this weekend.

At best, it’s a dead heat between the former and this numbingly generic issuance from Allspark Pictures (Hasbro’s film unit), whose raison d’etre can be immediately traced to its sparkly rainbow-hued poster bearing an unmistakable resemblance to Trolls, another production taking its cue from a successful line of toys. Despite attracting a top-drawer voice cast, including Emily Blunt, Uzo Aduba and Liev Schreiber, the production remains as cloyingly plastic as the equine toys with the outsized Keane peepers.

Though grumpy male critics are obviously not the targeted audience, it remains to be seen if the Lionsgate release can lure sufficient numbers of female preschoolers to something that has been readily available for viewing in one form or another, for the better part of the past 30 years.

Perhaps the results won’t be quite dazzling enough to greenlight a Beanie Babies: The Movie any time soon.

For the record, it isn’t the first time the four-legged denizens of Ponyland have sung and danced their way onto the big screen. In 1986, ahead of the debut of the TV series, the inaugural My Little Pony: The Movie, featuring the voices of Danny De Vito, Rhea Perlman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman and Tony Randall, grossed just shy of $6 million for De Laurentiis Entertainment Group and Marvel Productions.

Cut to MLP:TM 2.0, which finds the Mane 6, as Princess Twilight Sparkle (Tara Strong), Applejack (Ashleigh Ball), Rainbow Dash (also Ashleigh Ball), Rarity (Tabitha St. Germain), Pinkie Pie and Shutterfly (both voiced by Andrea Libman) are collectively known, busily preparing for their annual Festival of Friendship. But their party is crashed when a dark force descends upon Equestria courtesy of the villainous Storm King (Live Schreiber) and the grudge-bearing Tempest Shadow (Emily Blunt), who’s determined to make somebody pay for her busted horn.

Mild action (as the MPAA correctly calls it) ensues, as the candy-hued heroines embark on a quest to save Equestria while pausing occasionally to bust out a bunch of inspirational ditties with Disney Broadway-esque titles like “I’m the Friend You Need” and “We Got This.”

While the main characters appear to have been given a bit of Powerpuff Girl sass by screenwriters Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao and Michael Vogel, it ultimately does little to goose the limited hand-drawn 2D animation.

Director Jayson Thiessen, a veteran of numerous My Little Pony episodes, gets a minor energy boost from all those special guests, also including Kristin Chenoweth as an irrepressible sea pony named Princess Skystar, Taye Diggs as a con artist cat called Capper and Sia as an enigmatic pop star named Songbird Serenade, who belts out the ode to inclusivity, “Rainbow.”

Summing it all up is Schreiber’s Storm King, who at one point late in the proceedings moans, “I’m so totally over the cute pony thing!”

Pretty much.

Distributor: Lionsgate

Production company: Allspark Pictures

Cast: Emily Blunt, Kristin Chenoweth, Liev Schreiber, Sia, Michael Pena, Taye Diggs, Uzo Aduba, Zoe Saldana

Director: Jayson Thiessen

Screenwriters: Meghan McCarthy, Rita Hsiao, Michael Vogel

Producers: Brian Goldner, Stephen Davis, Marcia Gwendolyn Jones, Haven Alexander

Executive producers: Josh Feldman, Meghan McCarthy, Kirsten Newlands, Sarah Wall

Director of photography: Anthony Di Ninno

Editor: Braden Oberson

Composer: Daniel Ingram

Rated PG, 99 minutes

better watch out ver2 Better Watch Out (2017) Movie ReviewHorror-comedy Better Watch Out puts the carnage into Christmas

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 10/06/17; Performer: Levi Miller, Olivia DeJonge; Director: Chris Peckover; MPAA: R 

Horror-comedy Better Watch Out puts the carnage into Christmas

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 10/06/17; Performer: Levi Miller, Olivia DeJonge; Director: Chris Peckover; MPAA: R

The title of this yuletide-set horror-comedy gives an ominous edge to the lyrics of that old chestnut “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” But it also serves as a warning not to reveal too much about director/co-writer Chris Peckover’s tricksy film — a warning your reviewer intends to heed, lest he find himself on St. Nick’s “naughty list.”

Levi Miller stars as Luke, a 12-year-old who has the embarrassingly inappropriate hots for his babysitter (Olivia DeJonge). After Luke’s parents (Virginia Madsen and a deliciously weird Patrick Warburton) leave for a party, he sets about trying to woo his object of desire with a mix of champagne and horror movies. The terror, however, turns real when they find themselves the victims of a home invasion. The ensuing mayhem strongly suggests that Macaulay Culkin’s defense of his abode in the Home Alone films would have resulted in the violent deaths of Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern.

Peckover’s sharp directing keeps things nicely nasty without ever going too far over the top — though it’s possible some gore-averse Scrooges may disagree. If you want to gift yourself a holiday film that decks the halls with blood, this is one to put under the tree.

mountain between us ver2 The Mountain Between Us (2017) Movie ReviewIdris Elba, Kate Winslet struggle to survive in mediocre The Mountain Between Us

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 10/06/17; Performer: Kate Winslet, Idris Elba; Director: Hany Abu-Assad; MPAA: R 

If you’re going to watch two attractive people slog through the snow for almost two hours, you could do a lot worse than Idris Elba and Kate Winslet. But both actors deserve better than the middling disaster movie The Mountain Between Us, which can’t decide whether it wants to be a chilling survival movie or a sweeping romance. It never fully commits to either genre, and the result is a forgettable adventure that leaves you feeling cold.

Directed by Hany Abu-Assad (the Oscar-nominated foreign language films Omar and Paradise Now), the movie stars Elba as Ben, a neurosurgeon trying to get from Idaho to Boston for a surgery in the morning. Winslet is Alex, a photojournalist who’s flying to her own wedding back in Brooklyn. He’s all logic, prone to saying things like, “I need to occupy my amygdala.” She thinks he should listen to his heart more often. When they’re both stranded in an airport, they decide to team up and charter a plane to get them home. Before long, the pilot (Beau Bridges) has a stroke somewhere over the Rocky Mountains, and they crash land in a hostile wilderness, miles from any other human being. Their only company is the pilot’s yellow lab, and together, man, woman, and dog have to decide whether to stick it out and wait to be rescued or try to brave the perilous trek back to civilization.

Ben and Alex’s journey includes a few moments of serious peril — the actual plane crash scene is claustrophobic and unnerving — but their trek never feels quite as harrowing as it should. They discuss their dwindling supply of food, but things never get so dire that they vocally question whether or not to eat the unnamed dog. (The film’s spoiler-heavy marketing has leaned primarily on two concepts: Idris Elba is very attractive and the dog doesn’t die.) Instead, the script is filled with clichéd heart-to-hearts about commitment and relationships, and a ridiculous epilogue takes the film into blatant rom-com territory. Elba and Winslet each breathe life into their stock characters, but the film never meets their level. This is one Mountain that never reaches great heights.