On December 21, 1970, Elvis Presley went to White House and met with President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office. A photograph of these two icons shaking hands was taken, and to this day, it is still the most requested photo by visitors to the National Archives. In the wrong hands, "Elvis & Nixon", the fictionalized dramedy that provides the story behind this bizarre and fascinating meeting, could've been an absolute disaster. But director Liza Johnson makes sure this story doesn't come-off as a bad "SNL" skit, handling the tricky material appropriately, resulting in one of the most enjoyable film experiences I've had in a long time.
Michael Shannon plays The King of Rock-N-Roll. Shannon doesn't do the typical Elvis twang impersonation, a smart decision in that it allows us to quickly buy into his characterization. Disgusted with the Anti-American behavior of the young people at the time (sex, drugs and The Beatles), Elvis wants to work for the government and become a "Federal Agent At Large". He heads to Washington, D.C., uninvited, with longtime friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer). There, they meet-up with another member of The King's inner-circle, Sonny (Johnny Knoxville), and at 7:30 a.m., Elvis heads to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, where Elvis walks up to the guards at the West Gate with a personal letter to President Nixon (played by Kevin Spacey) in hand, requesting a meeting.
This may sound like the set-up to a bad joke, but when Presley arrives, one security guard says to the other, "It's Elvis." However, it's very important to keep in mind, while watching "Elvis & Nixon", that all of this, more or less, really did happen.
While the initial reaction by Nixon and most of the White House staff is to ignore Elvis's request, two of the President's top assistants (played by Colin Hanks and Evan Peters) see this as a great public relations (as in getting votes) opportunity, and their campaign to make this historic event happen sets the film's incredibly amusing narrative in motion.
Johnson is able perfectly balance the tone of "Elvis & Nixon". She establishes a nice 70's vibe, and acknowledges the utter absurdity of every situation, yet treats them all with a straightforward respect worthy of a historical event. She's able to mix-in some of the serious political and societal themes of the times while keeping the fun meter at the highest level.
Unfortunately (?) Nixon didn't begin the infamous recordings of all his Oval Office conversations until a few months later, so it's unclear how much of the dialogue in this film was actually said. But that just doesn't matter. The verbal exchanges between these two icons is perfectly crafted and deviously playful. The screenplay (by three writers, including "Princess Bride" actor Cary Elwes) gives the entire ensemble opportunities to shine. And there's a sense of freedom in the script that could only work with a plot this wacky (for example, when Elvis encounters a couple of Elvis impersonators at an airport it seems, well, believable!). And there are several great scenes involving the reactions of fans, unexpectedly meeting The King.
"Elvis & Nixon" is filled with 70's music, but Johnson smartly chose NOT to include any Presley songs, even in the closing credits. This is a story about Elvis the Man - not the Myth or Legend - and the same goes for Nixon, who's portrayed as a hardworking, insecure and devoted family man. You can tell that Spacey, no stranger to playing a President, had a great time being Tricky Dick. He embodies Nixon's physical mannerisms and not-so-friendly persona. And Shannon's performance as Presley is one of the cinematic highlights of 2016 so far. He's remains completely restrained (even when demonstrating Karate to an amazed Nixon), avoiding all temptations to veer into stereotypes, and even has two showcase dramatic monologues that provide an emotional kick.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Elvis & Nixon" gets a B. You've just got to trust me on this one. With its unique premise, two outstanding lead performances, a smart script and skillful direction, this will be one of the most memorable movies you'll see all year.
Tom Hanks rarely makes indies. Instead, He usually headlines compelling biopics, gripping action/adventures and animated blockbusters. So the low-budget, German-produced drama "A Hologram for the King", based on a 2012 novel by Dave Eggers, is definitely a change of pace for one of the biggest movie stars on the planet. But even THE Tom Hanks can't save this unfocused and largely unimaginative adaptation.
Hanks plays businessman Alan Clay, who is sent to Saudi Arabia to represent his Boston-based technology company in presenting the King with a revolutionary hologram communication system for a soon-to-be constructed new kingdom. When Clay arrives - the atmosphere isn't anything like expected - and yet his story plays out exactly like I expected.
There's the obligatory goofy driver, a love interest (who's also his doctor) and conflicts involving the weather, culture clashes, and Clay's mysterious illness. Writer/director Tom Tykwer (who re-teams with Hanks following 2012's "Cloud Atlas") crafts a scattered screenplay. Situations occur simply based on chance and coincedence in order to quickly get us from Point A to Point B. Some of the subplots are left oddly open-ended, and several of the supporting characters have the ability to manipulatively get some of Clay's history out of him. Tykwer's occassional quirky visuals and brief flashbacks involving Clay's difficult marriage, challenges with his daughter and father (Tom Skeritt in a shockingly brief supporting role) and difficult career decisons from his past are the minor elements that do stand-out.
Hanks doesn't give my favorite Hanks performance ever, but without him at the helm of "A Hologram for the King" the movie would've completely fallen flat. This film feels old-fashioned - and a little too so - especially since the story is contemporary, about a breakthrough tech innovation. "A Hologram for the King" isn't awful and far from intolerable, but it desperately needed something NEW to say about the world of international business, foreign relations, human relations, personal struggles or, frankly, anything.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "A Hologram for the King" gets a C.
“Snow White & the Huntsman” was one of the pleasant surprises of 2012. It twisted-up a classic fairy tale with a smart script and a killer Evil Queen in Charlize Theron. She’s back, along with Chris Hemsworth, for this “Huntsman” spin-off.
As Emily Blunt, who plays the Ice Queen Elsa - I mean Freya - has stated during her publicity tour for “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”, this is a prequel that quickly turns into a sequel. That may be the only unique element worth noting and remembering in an otherwise forgettable second chapter. That - and the uncredited Liam Neeson narration. Honestly, listening to his voice was the only thing that kept me going during the slow half-hour set-up.
Once the “Winter’s War” timeline takes us past the events of the original, this film becomes “Frozen” meets “Mad Max” meets “The Hunger Games” - as Hemsworth’s Huntsman Eric joins forces with his long-lost-love Sara (played by Jessica Chastain) - a red-haired archer who never misses. They’re accompanied by a pair of male and female dwarves (who serve as awful comic relief). They should have been named Dopey, Boring, Cliche and Uninspired.
Freya really is a lot like that Disney animated phenomenon character: her hair is white as snow (though that princess only appears once - with her back to us so we can’t see it’s not Kristen Stewart from the first film), she goes a little mad because of love (and events from her past have forced her to think "love isn't an open door") and she’s got a frigid relationship with her sis. However, Ravenna is the anti-Anna - all about vengeance. Theron was so good last time, but her role is sadly slashed in half here.
We spend close to an hour with the Huntsman, Huntswoman and their companions in the woods - and these scenes are as dull as, well, a dull blade. Once we hit the climax, in which all four main characters are involved (and fighting each other), “Winter’s War” finally takes-shape in the form of the passably-entertaining second chapter it should’ve been all along. There is mild intrigue to see which sides these characters would choose and then if they’d decide to change their minds, but not enough to, “happily” give a positive recommendation.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” gets a C-.
“The Meddler” is writer/director Lorene Scafaria’s extremely personal follow-up to her innovative 2012 indie “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World”, with Steve Carell and Keira Knightley finding humor, and each other, on the cusp of the Apocalypse. For her latest film, Scafaria turns to a more low-key, but just as enriching and relatable story of a woman with undeniably good intentions, trying to mend broken hearts and please everyone in her life - aka: Mom.
Susan Sarandon gives the best on-screen performance of the year so far as Marnie, a widow and mother to Lori (played by Rose Byrne), a screenwriter living in LA. Following the death of her husband, Brooklyn native Marnie moves to a nice apartment near The Grove so she can be close to Lori, who is still single. Marnie resembles someone that just about everyone has known during their lifetime. She’s overprotective, doesn't understand boundaries (a point Lori makes very clear to her several times) and loves helping people (whether it’s complete strangers, those closest to her, or anyone in between) with their problems.
Marnie’s husband left her with plenty of money, enough so she can buy three tickets every time she goes to an action movie: one for her - one for her deceased mother and the other for her dead husband. She doesn't get to spend as much time with Lori as she'd like to, so she spends that time and money on strangers: shelling-out $13,000 to help pay for the wedding of one of Lori’s friends (“SNL”’s Cecily Strong), even though she doesn't even know her last name; befriending the Apple store employee who helps her in getting her iPhone up and running - driving him to night school three times a week. And when it comes to her daughter’s love life, Marnie is right there at the center of the drama - or as far as Lori will let her be.
But clearly money and good deeds can't fill the hole in her life or her heart. And being a "meddler" won't get her the type of relationship with her daughter that Marnie desperately wants and needs. She gets an appointment with Lori's therapist in hopes of snooping into her personal life but refuses to share any of the pain she's feeling.
Scafaria intentionally overwhelms us in the first 15 minutes of “The Meddler” with Marnie’s bold personality. Sarandon delivers several funny and spot-on authentic lines. But then, slowly, as the film progresses, Scafaria pulls back on the zaniness, and we begin to see a different side of Marnie, or more accurately, begin to understand that she may not be as inappropriately over-the-top as we first thought.
“The Meddler” keeps you engaged, with Marnie at the center of multiple storylines throughout the film. It often takes you by surprise, going in humorous, serious and personal directions. There's a showcase scene when Marnie visits Lori at work on the set of her TV pilot in New York that includes all three. The emotional level builds, resulting in a final act that’s a bit extensive, and a tad too mainstream, but touching and fulfilling nonetheless.
Byrne has some strong moments, and J.K. Simmons, in a refreshingly restrained role, is terrific as Zipper, a retired LA cop who gets caught-up in Marnie’s charm. But this is Sarandon’s movie. It’s a dynamite character and a once-in-a-lifetime role for an actress who, in recent years, has rarely garnered the leading lady spotlight. It’s only Spring, but she should be in the conversation when awards season rolls around in seven months (unquestionably Best Actress in a Comedy consideration from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards voters). Scafaria has written a full character here - someone who is both annoying and loving, nosy and generous, someone Lori can't live with and can't live without. Isn't that the true definition of a mother?
In making this sweet, sincere, and heartfelt tribute to her own mother, Scafaria has given all of us a little something to think about, with some laughs, and maybe even a few tears, along the way.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Meddler” gets an A-.
Let's "cut" to the chase: "Barbershop: The Next Cut" is a rare threequel that works as a standalone film. 14 years after the original and 12 years after "Back in Business", stars Ice Cube and Cedric the Entertainer return to tell a straightforward story, but one that has legitimate purpose: "Barbershop 3" doesn't simply entertain, it has something to say.
Calvin's Barbershop is located in the south side of Chicago, and Cube sets the tone during an opening montage that gun violence, particularly involving young Black men, has escalated in the past decade. Cube's Calvin is genuinely concerned about raising his 14-year-old son, Jalen, in a neighborhood that's turned into a war zone.
This script doesn't shy away from topical and controversial subjects. Race, black-on-black violence, gangs, prejudice, politics, including the performance of President Obama, sexism and even the public school system are all discussed and debated by the various characters working in and visiting the barbershop. In one scene in which an argument is made that "Right now is the best time in America to be a Black Person", Rashad (played by actor/rapper Common) runs down the long list of real names of young black men who have died in recent years nationally at the hands of police officers, and that nothing is being done to prevent this from continuing to happen. It's a powerful moment.
But "Barbershop: The Next Cut" is still, first and foremost, a comedy. And the entire cast delivers their share of funny one-liners and sarcastic remarks about relationships and family values that ring true. For me, Cedric the Entertainer's elderly Eddie steals the show. Others may give that nod to Nicki Minaj - simply for her 30-seconds of twerking - but she does actually hold her own with the much-more experienced cast. Subplots involving Anthony Anderson as a greedy food truck owner and J.B. Smoove, as a shady "businessman" who's into just about everything, are corny, distracting and over-the-top.
"Barbershop: The Next Cut" succeeds as both entertainment and social commentary. Considering that most films with such intentions don't even get one of those things right, director Malcolm D. Lee and company deserve a ton of credit.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Barbershop: The Next Cut" gets a B.
Nearly 50 years after The Mouse House first adapted Rudyard Kipling's iconic literary works for the screen with their animated musical "The Jungle Book" (the last film Walt Disney produced), a new version for a new generation has arrived. The 2016 "Jungle Book" is directed by Jon Favreau, whose diversity of films include innocent "Elf", a smart-aleck "Iron Man", a whole-hearted "Chef" and some "Cowboys & Aliens" that even he'd like to forget about.
The story of "The Jungle Book" centers around young man-cub Mowgli (here played by newcomer Neel Sethi), who was left abandoned in the jungle as an infant. A protective panther named Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley) discovers and protects Mowgli, taking him further into the jungle to be brought-up with a pack of wolves. Bagheera is the best character in this movie, with Kingsley delivering an outstanding, at times quite moving, voice performance.
The evil tiger, Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) feels threatened by Mowgli (since he's a human) and wants him dead. There are a handful of "jump-out-at-you" moments, especially involving the menacing Khan, that will definitely scare younger kids. Mowgli is in peril throughout the entire film, whether it's during his interaction with the slithering and hungry boa, Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), who tempts him to "trust" in her, chased by Khan, or being surrounded by fire ("The Red Flower"). I applaud Favreau for not playing it safe with the violence, as it allows the audience to feel the danger the young boy is in - within PG-rated limits.
But, as gritty and dark as it is, "The Jungle Book" also has its lighter moments, mostly with Mowgli's friendship with bear Baloo. You'd think Bill Murray was an inspired choice to voice Baloo. But the problem is Murray doesn't do a character voice. He simply says his lines with his extremely recognizable Bill Murray voice. This definitely takes you out of the moment and is quite challenging to get used to.
I was curious if/how Favreau was going incorporate the iconic songs from the original into this version. He does with full production numbers of both "The Bare Necessities" and "I Wanna Be Like You" (performed by Christopher Walken as ape King Louie). These scenes definitely break-up the dramatic flow, but they're also welcome and memorable. And they may give little kids something to think about on the way home - instead of the nightmares they may have about Mowgli's multiple brushes with death.
The main hook of "The Jungle Book" is the look. Favreau shot all of Seethi's scenes (and he's in practically ever scene in the movie) on soundstages in draped with green-screens. All the animals were brought to life through the technique of photorealism animation, and the results are amazingly impressive, technically flawless, and rarely distracting. However, outside of a few key scenes with Mowgli and Bagheera, including one involving a herd of elephants, the story doesn't provide much of an emotional spark. None of the relationships between friends or foes work to the level that you become deeply invested in how this tale is going to play out. And the ending - let's just say it lacks the impact of the '67 classic.
Favreau is ambitious and successful with practically every other aspect. But in order for this "Jungle Book" to be on par or exceed its hand-drawn predecessor, having Walt's ability to make us care deeply about these characters was a necessity.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Jungle Book" gets a solid B.
"Criminal" is your textbook "Popcorn Movie". The cast includes big names: Kevin Costner, Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman and even Ryan Reynolds in a small role. It's action-packed with plenty of violence - and some unexpected bloodshed. There are elements of danger, suspense, weird science and a hint of mystery. "Criminal" doesn't break any new ground, but its execution of the simplistic formula makes it more than satisfying.
Reynolds owns the first five minutes. He plays CIA agent Bill Pope, who gets murdered while on an important mission. But government officials still want the info Pope has in his head. So they recruit Dr. Franks (Jones), a brain specialist, to transfer Pope's memories into the mind of a Death Row inmate named Jerico (Costner). His brain (for reasons I won't give here) is perfect for this experiment.
Following the procedure, Jerico wakes-up with the mother of all headaches, but he also starts thinking and acting like Pope and begins working with top CIA agents Quaker (Oldman) and assistant Marta (Alice Eve from "Star Trek Into Darkness") to hunt down an evil, cyber hacker closing-in on access to all the codes of the weapons of mass destruction throughout the world.
Jerico's Jekyll and Hyde act, as he becomes more and more like Pope, translates into awkward, unpredictable and sometimes violent interactions with total strangers. Costner commands these scenes, and his attempts to do right (even in the most challenging of circumstances) keep you glued to the action. This one of the most appealing aspects of "Criminal".
The scenes involving Jerico and Pope's grieving wife (played by Gal Gadot - aka Wonder Woman) are fairly strong, though a young daughter is one of the most poorly written child characters in recent movie memory. This child latches-on way too quickly to a total stranger (who broke into their house and tied mommy up, by the way), inviting him to stay for dinner, teaching him to play the piano, and then kissing him on the cheek before she goes to bed. Yes, Jerico tells the girl he knew her father, but the instant relationship between these two isn't close to being believable.
Oldman can add his role to a resume packed with "supporting characters who yell a lot and order people around". And Jones, not in charge for a change, provides some innocent-looking facial expressions I hadn't seen from him in a while.
"Criminal" does have some ridiculous elements and few surprises in the story department, but I have to admit I was never bored, instead going with the premise and staying in the zone through the predictable ending.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Criminal" gets a B-.
Jake Gyllenhaal has delivered a recent string of impressive performances in "Prisoners" (2013), "Nightcrawler" (2014) and "Southpaw" (2015). "Demolition" is another great vehicle for him, but overall, the film is not as strong director Jean-Marc Vallee's past two efforts. His 2013 drama "Dallas Buyers Club" earned Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto Oscars, and his 2014 hiking tale "Wild" sent Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern to the Academy Awards as nominees.
Vallee certainly doesn't waste any time setting the stage and tone of "Demolition". In the opening scene Davis (played by Gyllenhaal) is in the passenger seat next to his wife Julia when their car is involved in a serious crash. She's pronounced dead a short time later at a nearby hospital. Davis, understandably in a bit of a fog, attempts to get a bag of M&Ms from a hospital vending machine, but the bag gets stuck. He immediately turns his attention to the vending machine company, writing the first in a series of letters explaining his frustration - in great detail.
But Davis also uses these letters to express his emotions over the loss of his wife, but in a strangely straightforward way (complete with monotone narration from Gyllenhaal). And outwardly, Davis doesn't seem to be too upset about his wife no longer being in his life. This frustrates his father-in-law (played by Chris Cooper), who's also his boss at a NYC investment firm. Davis' true, off-beat colors begin to show, especially as he develops a unique relationship with the vending company's customer service representative, Karen (Naomi Watts), who is moved by his letters.
The first two-thirds of "Demolition" are solid. I bought into this story and was genuinely curious to see where Davis was headed or if and when he would finally crack from the grief of the tragedy. Gyllenhaal is one of the rare actors who always keeps you interested because you never know where he'll take his character. Here he has nice chemistry with Watts, and Cooper, as the devastated father, has some nice showcase scenes early on. Vallee's filmmaking style is quite reminiscent of his previous films - and the techniques make sense within the structure of this script.
But in the last half-hour, once Davis begins to spend time with Karen's 15-year-old son, "Demolition" becomes an overly dramatic soap opera. Vallee pours-it-on with at least three "twists", taking the movie from quirky to conventional. His previous films had meaning and purpose behind them - with powerful and bittersweet endings. "Demolition" had potential, especially with Gyllenhaal as the lead, but, unfortunately, in the final act, it breaks apart in a big way.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Demolition" gets a C+.
Melissa McCarthy has proven she can deliver plenty of laughs, both on TV and the big screen. But a pattern is starting to emerge when it comes to her movie projects: With McCarthy's most successful films ("Bridesmaids", "St. Vincent", "Spy"), she and husband Ben Falcone were NOT the screenwriters, and Falcone wasn't behind the camera as director. However, the pair teamed-up for 2014's underwhelming "Tammy", and they're at it again - with results being pretty much the same.
In "The Boss", McCarthy plays Michelle Darnell (a character she originated at The Groundlings comedy club in LA 16 years ago). In a brief but humorous backstory we see how Darnell went from a being an orphan to eventually becoming a financial powerhouse - proudly the 47th richest woman in America and author of the self-help book Money Talks, Bulls*it Walks.
Moments later we get Darnell entering Chicago's United Center riding on a golden phoenix to a crowd of thousands of screaming fans - some with their hair dyed a similar color red. And she sings and dances to "All I Do is Win". All of a sudden - T-Pain runs out on stage to sing the chorus and finish the song with her. OK - we're off to a great start.
But the momentum doesn't last. We're introduced to Darnell's assistant Claire (played by Kristen Bell) and her bodyguard in a long scene that largely falls flat. A short time later Darnell is sent to prison for 5-months for insider trading. During this time, her company goes belly-up, her mansion is foreclosed on and she hardly has a dime to her name. So Claire and her daughter Rachel decide that Darnell can stay with them in their tiny apartment until she can get back on her feet.
Darnell tries to sleep on Claire's pull-out sofa bed - and the results are hilarious. It's no surprise that this is the scene that's been used most often in the trailers, commercials and on McCarthy's promotional tour because it's the strongest gag in "The Boss", and one of only a handful that actually work. After visiting Rachel's scout troop and realizing that selling treats can actually be a legitimate business, Darnell recruits two dozen girls to sell brownies, and make a 10% commission from the sales. She believes "Darnell's Darlings" will be the key to her comeback. But, of course, it won't be that easy.
Michelle Darnell is a fun character. McCarthy delivers several smart one-liners and some offensive remarks as well - the trademark brand of humor that has gotten her movies to a nearly $1 billion domestic box office total since 2011. And in the more dramatic and sentimental moments, McCarthy proves that she can elevate this character above the base-level script, which simply doesn't provide many genuinely entertaining situations.
Like "Tammy", "The Boss" lacks a sharp comedic punch. A scene where Darnell goes on a talk show hosted by Gayle King is tame when it could've been dynamite. A brief glimpse at Darnell selling the brownies on HSN could've been turned into a hilarious five minute sketch. And a better developed relationship storyline between Darnell and her mentor (Kathy Bates) would've added some welcome bite to the story.
There are lengthy, 10+ minute stretches of "The Boss" that provide no laughs. And the script relies way too heavily on rude, tasteless humor (especially in the final half hour) and over-the-top/"shock-value" scenes, which come-off as desperate and absolutely ridiculous - including an insane brawl in the middle of a street between rival scout troops (that you'd ONLY see in the movies) and an awful climax involving a rival business mogul (Peter Dinklage).
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Boss" gets a C. Even with two disappointing efforts in a row, McCarthy and Falcone have already signed-on for "Life of the Party", a college comedy that will begin shooting this summer. Here's hoping their third time will be the charm.
"Hardcore Henry" has a unique hook: this relentless, incredibly violent, sci-fi action extravaganza was shot almost entirely with GoPro cameras, and told completely from the first-person perspective of Henry - a half-man, half-machine.
Much like "Mad Max: Fury Road", "Hardcore Henry" relies heavily on wild, zany chaos and incredible stunts. And while I wasn't a huge fan of George Miller's one-note Australian outback saga, "Hardcore Henry" makes "Mad Max" feel like "Mary Poppins".
The problem is, this film is more of an “exercise” than a movie.
A cyborg with mechanical limbs and a power supply, Henry (whose face we only see once, late in the film) has the strength and juice to kill any enemy in his path. His only goal is to take out a ruthless, mad scientist bent on instilling havoc upon the world. Yes, the plot is as basic as you can get. Writer/director Ilya Naischuler (who shot the film in his native Russia) almost HAD to keep the story simple - to be able to showcase the style and technology.
However, the non-stop, brutal violence is consistently - and literally - in-your-face…and is just overwhelming. The editing techniques and shaky camera movements (because Henry is always on the run) make things even more insane, as you try, desperately, to keep up. The pace allows very little time to catch your breath - forcing you to stay glued at all times, because you’re experiencing EVERYTHING through the eyes of this one character.
Positives? the stuntwork is amazing; there’s one, very creative action scene; Sharlto Copley’s Jimmy, Henry's one, true friend, is a memorable character; and the first-person technique, in general, does work. But all of this is overshadowed by the extreme level of utter mayhem, though I appreciate that many diehard action fans will enjoy watching someone get shot, stabbed, or beaten to death every-second of a 90-minute film.
Above all else, "Hardcore Henry" is an experience. There’s no denying that.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hardcore Henry" gets a C-.
Recent biopics that dissected the lives of popular musicians and groups, including James Brown, Frankie Valli, Brian Wilson and N.W.A., all had some bold and powerful statements to make. The main problem with “I Saw the Light”, which chronicles the brief but amazing career of Hank Williams, is that it fails to give the country legend’s life the gold-star treatment.
35-year-old Tom Hiddleston (Loki in the “Thor” and “Avengers” movies) stars as Williams, who is 21 when we are first introduced to him, alongside his soon-to-be new bride, Audrey (played by Elizabeth Olsen) in 1944. Williams isn’t a phenomenon yet, but he has a dream: to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Unfortunately “I Saw the Light” hardly delves into this quest or the aspects of Williams’ life once he became a superstar, turning-out one "honky tonk" hit after another.
Instead, writer/director Marc Abraham focuses more on the troubles that faced Hank and Audrey - his drinking, her ego, his women on the side - which threaten to derail their relationship. Hiddleston and Olsen’s on-screen chemistry holds your attention during the stronger and much more interesting first half. The musical performances do as well. Hiddleston sings all of Williams’ tunes - and there are quite a few. These renditions serve as comfort food throughout the film, as we starve for some purpose from the non-musical scenes.
Abraham's screenplay is scattered and the on-screen narrative flow is blatantly uneven. There are random edits and odd jumps in time that open-up gaping plot holes. And, let's be honest, a famous performer having problems with alcohol, cheating, and not being able to keep up with a demanding tour schedule is something we’ve seen depicted numerous times before - and more dramatically. Over the course of the second hour, “I Saw the Light” gradually loses what appeal it had, concluding with an abrupt and emotionless final scene.
Hiddleston is consistently solid. The age difference didn’t really bother me, though he does have a bit of a mature presence for the role. And, as I predicted after I first saw her in “Godzilla”, with the perfect role, Olsen is destined to win an Oscar. Her work here is another step in that direction. However, there’s just nothing in this story that’s gripping or powerful enough to warrant a recommendation. Williams, undeniably one of the most significant singer-songwriters in the history of popular music, deserved more than this movie delivers.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “I Saw the Light” gets a C.
"Midnight Special” comes from “Mud” writer/director Jeff Nichols, who was clearly inspired by the sci-fi movies of his childhood when it came to crafting this script. And for the first hour or so, Nichols really makes you work to try to piece everything together. Normally that's a good sign of things to come.
Instead of a set-up, Nichols drops us right in the middle of a Texas Amber Alert. Eight-year-old Alton (played by “St. Vincent”’s Jaeden Lieberher) has been abducted by Roy (Michael Shannon). We’re not exactly sure why, or their relationship. Lucas (Joel Edgerton), a friend of Roy’s, is also involved.
We soon learn that young Alton has special abilities, and that he is the spiritual leader and prophet of a local cult, which the FBI and other law enforcement agencies have been watching. Now, with Alton missing, both the cult leaders and the federal government want him, while his captors are trying to get him to a secret location for a major event. NSA investigator/interrogator, Sevier (Adam Driver, most recently seen - masked and unmasked - in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”), is brought-in to try to help figure out the methods and the motives of the adductors. Kirsten Dunst plays Sarah, another important figure in Alton’s life and key player in his ultimate quest.
As "Midnight Special" was unfolding, a nagging thought developed in the back of my mind: “It can’t simply turn-out to be what I think it’s going to be.” But, sure enough, by the third act “revelation”, we get what was coming to us - and none of it is special (and I still don’t know how the title applies to anything in the movie).
Alton’s plight was intriguing enough early on, but once Sarah proposes a question to Roy with about a half-hour to go, I gave-up on the possibility of having any element of originality in the film's closing scenes. Driver’s character seems like he comes out of about a dozen other films in the sci-fi genre. And there's an obvious similarity between "Midnight Special" and an all-time classic movie (no spoiler here), and this new version comes-up way short.
At least Shannon, who’s been getting a lot of showcase roles lately (including “99 Homes”) gives a genuine performance. He is the only true bright spot in this otherwise complicated, but ultimately quite simple, disappointment.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Midnight Special” gets a C.
Relationships are complicated. In "Hello, My Name is Doris", Sally Field stars as the title sixty-something-year-old single woman who sports a wig extension, wears up to two pairs of glasses at once, and is clearly the oldest employee at her longtime NYC office job. Doris is mourning the recent death of her mother, and her brother and his wife think this is the perfect opportunity for the clutter-obsessed Doris to get rid of all the random (and heavily sentimental) items that fill her house and move to an apartment. What's holding Doris back is her lasting devotion to her mom, who dominated much of her life, even ruining a potential marriage some four decades earlier.
But Doris soon experiences a new sense of freedom from an instant attraction to a much younger co-worker. John (played by "New Girl"'s Max Greenfield), is an art director who was transferred from Malibu to the NY office. He's half Doris' age, but this doesn't discourage her one bit. However, at this point in the script, Doris unfortunately says "hello" to the "Cinematic Cliche Crush Path": she secretly obsesses over John (including daydreams that we see on screen); obviously he just sees her as a co-worker/new friend. But then their relationship strengthens, and even when road blocks enter the picture, Doris finds the motivation and strategy to keep things going.
"Hello, My Name is Doris" suffers from a story that is undeniably familiar. And yet - it's through Doris that we find ourselves not wanting her to fall into the trap that unrequited love can produce. Doris is quirky, honest and innocent beyond comprehension. She instantly embraces a motto from a self-help expert, who turns the word impossible into I'm Possible.
The Doris character is a lot to buy into, and several of her blatantly over-the-top and goofy scenes don't help. However, there are just as many realistic and on-point ones. Like someone in love for the very first time she keeps mementos, including a pencil from her initial, elevator encounter with John and uses Facebook (with the help of a friend's 13-year-old daughter) to learn his interests. She's eager to simply chat with him in the hallways about random topics. She completely, and wholeheartedly, lets this connection take over her life. And when pushed to the limit, she makes mistakes, but defends the type of person she is and stays true to herself even when things seem to have fallen apart.
"Hello, My Name is Doris" is not nearly as interesting, nor as funny, as it could've been. It's Field's performance that saves the film from being completely irrelevant. The veteran actress makes us care about Doris from the first scene to the last, even though we can see the triumphs and troubles of her situation coming from a mile away.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hello, My Name is Doris" gets a C+.
It’s The Man of Steel vs. The Knight of Dark in the most anticipated “Summer Blockbuster Released in the Spring” of all-time. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” definitely has a nice ring to it and a star-studded cast that rivals Marvel’s “Avengers”. Problem is - there’s just nothing special about this film.
Nearly the first two-thirds of “BVS” are devoted to establishing the rivalry and building-up the anger between our two DC superheroes before their inevitable showdown. There’s just so much of this - dialogue, flashbacks, “he said-he said” - OK - you don’t like each other - let’s get it on! But no, we need more set-up. The only scene during this entire time that actually works takes place inside the Capitol Building - and Batman’s not even there!
Ben Affleck’s beefed-up Caped Crusader (the Bat Signal is noticeably plus-size) doesn’t come with much personality. He’s always got that stone-cold, kinda dopey Ben Affleck expression on his face. Henry Cavill’s second go-around as Clark Kent feels as stiff as the first. Amy Adams (nearly 10 years older than Cavill) slightly phone-booths it in this time as Lois Lane. Jesse Eisenberg tries to emulate Heath Ledger’s Joker in his manic take on the evil Lex Luthor and the results are more embarrassing than menacing.
But the biggest reason why “BVS“ doesn’t work (and this shouldn’t come as much of a surprise considering his less-than-“Super” work that came before this), is the vision of director Zack Snyder. He gives the comic book fans plenty of va-va-voom with the franchise introductions of Wonder Woman and a handful of other cameos. And he creates colossal sequences filled with CGI, tons of explosions and ear-bending NOISE.
But - ultimately - the Batman/Superman “no-cage match” is underwhelming - granted it’s much more appetizing than anything that comes before it - and the finale that follows is so uninteresting that even the movie character version of Anderson Cooper (who does some play-by-play commentary of the battle) makes it clear he doesn’t care who wins - he just wants to get back to reporting serious news.
And that’s the thing about “BVS” - it’s difficult to take this superhero movie seriously because of the constant slow-motion moments, the goofy dialogue, laughable sound effects and melodrama overdose. And the pivotal moment of the entire story comes down to - well - let’s just say “It’s all in a name“. Sadly - this film is an Epic failure.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” gets a D+.
"Miracles from Heaven" comes from the same studios behind 2014's emotionally effective faith-based, true-story family drama "Heaven is for Real". That film starred Greg Kinnear as a minister and father of a little boy who suffered a near-death experience and, once he recovered, claimed to have seen and talked with God. Much of the focus of that film was on the impact that revelation had on their family, the community and the national media.
On the surface, "Miracles from Heaven" seems very similar to "Heaven is for Real". It's also based on a true story, with a big-name star. Jennifer Garner plays Christy Beam, the mother/wife of a devout Christian family living in rural Texas. One of her three daughters, Annabelle (played by 12-year-old Kylie Rogers), gets a rare and incurable intestinal disease. Her agonizing, inspiring and powerful experiences while dealing with her illness dominate "Miracles from Heaven". The narrative also includes some religious elements, but, unlike with "Heaven is for Real", "Miracles" hardly spends any time on the "controversy" that comes from Anna's claim that she spoke with God. More than anything else, this is a story of faith.
"Miracles from Heaven" is one of the most intense movies I've seen in quite some time, proving that you don't need big-budget explosions or graphic fight scenes in order engage an audience. The combination of pain, frustration and drama on screen is compelling. Garner pours her heart into her role, portraying a mom who goes to every possible length to make sure that her daughter gets seen by the right doctors and is treated to their best care. There are so many scenes that are difficult to watch, particularly when Christy and her husband Kevin learn of Anna's condition. A conversation between Anna and another sick girl in their Boston Children's Hospital room is heartbreaking. And there's a phone conversation between Christy and a doctor, who explains how she'll get an appointment with a specialist, that is stunning in its power.
Mexican actor, writer and director Eugenio Derbez ("Instructions Not Included") is terrific as Dr. Nurko, the child-friendly doctor who treats Anna in Boston. He becomes just one "miracle" in the Beam family's life. Another is waitress Angela (played by Queen Latifah), who sees value in random customers Christy and Anna and befriends them. She offers to give these needy strangers a tour of Boston, including a visit to the Aquarium, whose beautiful creatures amaze Anna and enrich her spirit. Latifah's slightly over-the-top character is a little too Hollywood, taking you out of the moment a bit, but she is vital to the overall message.
If you know the real story of the Beam family going into "Miracles from Heaven", or have just seen the trailers, that's exactly what you get here. There are no twists or shockers. And the spiritual aspect of the film is very subtle compared to others in this genre. But all of that is OK. This film is about the determination of a mother, the courage of a little girl, and about finding light, and God, even in the most frustrating and challenging times. And the payoff, shown through a finale montage, is completely unexpected, smart and really affective. It may take some faith on your part to see "Miracles from Heaven" but, just as what happens to the characters in the film, that faith will be rewarded.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Miracles from Heaven" gets a B+.
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