40 years ago, Sylvester Stallone ran up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art as boxer Rocky Balboa in a film that established the standard for the sports movie genre. Following five other “Rocky” films Balboa is finally retired. But in “Creed” a special young fighter inspires Rocky to make yet another comeback.
We’ve seen so many sports dramas, many involving boxing, since the release of “Rocky” in 1976, and most have had a very formulaic flow. But here “Fruitvale Station” director Ryan Coogler breathes new life into the “Rocky” franchise. “Fruitvale” star, Michael B. Jordan, gives a commanding performance as Adonis (aka Donnie), the troubled son of the late, legendary Apollo Creed.
Donnie’s been fighting underground for years, and is undefeated, using the name “Johnson” to hide his identity. He wants to make it on his own. So he quits his office job in California and heads to Philadelphia. Where better to make this dream a reality than in the place where the sport’s two greatest icons, Rocky and his father (who died in the ring before he was born - in “Rocky IV”) became superstars?
His goal is to convince Rocky, who’s been out of the fight business running his restaurant “Adrian’s” full-time, to become his trainer. Moved by Donnie’s passion and determination, Rocky decides to return to the gym and the sport he loves - and an opportunity give the pair a chance to prove they both belong.
Thankfully, “Creed” elevates this very basic premise, with a multi-layered, character-driven story that goes at the steady pace of Rocky’s main motivational line to Donnie: “One Step, One Punch, One Round at a Time.” Coogler often mirrors the previous “Rocky” films (too much so with the glorified finale bout), but he’s able to give this spin-off the appropriate, modern flare that allows it to fly on its own. Bianca, a local singer (played by Tessa Thompson) provides a love interest for Donnie, and as his training and relationship with Rocky continue, things become more and more complicated. Most of the dialogue is quite authentic and packed with emotion.
Jordan has the physical look and overall presence of a real fighter. He and Thompson have great chemistry, and Phylicia Rashad, as Apollo Creed’s former wife and Donnie’s adopted mother, has a few standout scenes. But, believe it or not, it’s Stallone who gives the defining, knockout performance in “Creed”. He revitalizes this beloved character, with a subtle authenticity and restrained command of every moment on screen. In a career filled with cartoonish action roles, Stallone proves to all doubters, once and for all, that he can act, as he carries some of the most raw and powerful scenes of any movie this year.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Creed” gets a B+.
After a solid first installment and an even stronger sequel, "The Hunger Games" franchise flamed-out with last year's "Mockingjay - Part 1". Lionsgate decided to split the third and final book from Suzanne Collins' phenomenon series into two films based on the financial successes of the "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" series, which utilized this strategy. This time, however, it was a huge mistake.
"Mockingjay - Part 1" underperformed at the box office, and the film itself was a snoozer, with a serious lack of action. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" does amp-up the destruction and explosions, and there is a level of anticipation for those who have been with this series for the past four years (especially for those who didn't read the books). Will Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the shining symbol of the ongoing Panem districts rebellion, finally kill the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland)? And how will the romantic triangle end - will she pick Gale (Liam Hemsworth) or Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)?
"Mockingjay - Part 2" suffers from the exact same problem as its predecessor: there isn't enough legitimate material to warrant a stand-alone, 2-hour, 15-minute movie. Once again, there are long, dull stretches with the array of characters talking and talking but not advancing the story. But the truth is - even if combined into just one movie, "Mockingjay" is clearly the least exciting and satisfying of the adaptations.
Each of the "Hunger Games" films has featured at least one or two standout performances. In the original, it was Woody Harrelson's former "Games" winner Haymitch and Stanley Tucci's TV show host Caesar Flickerman (their roles are greatly reduced in "MP2"). "Catching Fire" introduced us to new gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee (played by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman), who elevated the entire cast. He does have several scenes in this final installment (though, oddly, no "In Memory of" this time in the closing credits). In "Mockingjay - Part 1", Julianne Moore was terrific as District 13 President Alma Coin, with a commanding presence and an engaging and slightly mysterious personality. Coin is a significant character in this final chapter, still leading the rebel take-over of The Capitol and the destruction of Snow. And she has a few other surprises up her sleeve as well.
But the best performance in "Mockingjay - Part 2", by far, is delivered by Lawrence. The Oscar-winner captivates in at least a half dozen dramatic scenes, displaying the acting skills she regularly saves for collaborations with David O. Russell. If you've been invested in "The Hunger Games" movie franchise, seeing Lawrence's best work of the series is really the only reason to check-out this finale. If that's not enough for you, just ask one of your obsessed friends or younger family members to take 30-seconds and fill you in on how it ends.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2" gets a C.
In a season filled with blockbusters and awards hopefuls, “Love the Coopers” deserves a very special recognition: This all-star comedy takes elements from every “dysfunctional family coming together for the holidays” movie ever made, combining them into one, large fruitcake…that’s as hard as a rock.
If you’re expecting some holiday cheer from this star-studded effort, think again. There’s very little love on display in “Love the Coopers”, but plenty of pain. We’ve got the main couple, played by Diane Keaton and John Goodman, on the verge of a divorce after 40 years of marriage. A son, played by Ed Helms, who’s lost his job and can’t afford to buy presents for his kids. Oh yeah, he’s also divorced. How about the daughter who’s forced to bring home a fake boyfriend for the holidays so the other family members won’t feel sorry for her? And she’s also having an affair with a married man. This storyline (featuring Olivia Wilde and Jake Lacy) gets the most screen time and is the most interesting, though only because of the likeability of the two actors, and not their actual characters or wildly-predictable situation.
There’s the lonely sister played by Marisa Tomei who’s a criminal and becomes involved with police officer Anthony Mackie. “Nebraska”’s delightful June Squibb somehow got roped-into playing the senile old Aunt. And finally, nothing says festive fun like a young woman looking to start anew inspired by the wise ol’ grandpa of the family. Amanda Seyfried and Alan Arkin, as longtime waitress and her devoted customer, play-out this awkward relationship as best they can.
It’s hard to understand how a movie like “Love the Coopers” got made. If I laughed or smiled at all it was in sheer disbelief of what I was witnessing. At least director Jessie Nelson didn’t play favorites, instead making sure each actor has their own embarrassing scene or two…or three. We get both the uncomfortable Christmas Carol sing-along and cringe-inducing family dancing exhibition - in a hospital cafeteria. Plus, the obligatory dysfunctional dinner table drama. At times it felt like I was watching “December: Osage County”. Nelson also plays mind tricks with weird, unexpected flashbacks and visions, I’m guessing just to keep the audience from dozing-off.
The story, which is set in Pittsburgh on Christmas Eve is narrated by a Hollywood legend who’s barely recognizable and only named in the closing credits. That’s his early Christmas present, getting to stay as far away from this holiday disaster as possible. You should do the same.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Love the Coopers" gets a D.
2012’s “Skyfall” marked a box office high and critical resurgence for James Bond. However, the 53-year-old franchise has, sadly and surprisingly, taken a downfall with the newest installment - “Spectre”: that’s Bland, James Bland.
Returning director Sam Mendes does deserve credit for getting things off to a rousing start, with Daniel Craig’s 007 in Mexico City amid a Day of the Dead celebration that features a sloppy assassination attempt and a wild helicopter extravaganza. The rest of “Spectre” is hit and miss.
Ralph Fiennes takes-over the position of “M”, following the death of Judi Dench’s character at the end of “Skyfall”. (If you didn’t know that fact by now you have no reason to go to “Spectre”.) And boy, do both Bond and this film miss Dench’s presence. Following the Mexico fiasco, M grounds Bond, but that doesn’t stop the agent from going “rogue” and finding his own way of getting in and out of sticky situations.
“Spectre” has all the gadgets associated with a great James Bond movie: cool weapons, fast autos, exotic locations, beautiful women and a devious villain. Oberhauser, head of the evil Spectre organization, is played by the new king of the modern movie villain: Christoph Waltz. But this time, much like the car that Bond uses during one of the many chase scenes, this script has no fire-power.
Three years ago, singer Adele belted-out the title track “Skyfall” all the way to an Oscar. Sam Smith’s “Writing’s On the Wall” accompanies “Spectre’s” opening credits montage, which is rather bizarre, even for Bond standards. The song, like the entire film, is generic and uninspiring.
“Spectre” runs 2 hours and 28 minutes, and it moves along at a snail’s pace, only accelerating during a few solid splashes of action. Waltz doesn’t get much to do, and Lea Seydoux (who plays Bond girl, Madeline Swann), is a full 17 years younger than Craig in real-life. It would’ve made more sense if Bond was a new father figure in her life than love interest, especially considering the elements of his past that are revealed.
“Spectre” has none of the intrigue, excitement, emotion, humor and charm we’ve come to expect from this franchise, not to mention a story with legitimate purpose. It’s downgraded James Bond to being just another cinematic agent, along with Jason Bourne, Ethan Hunt and all the rest. And that’s a REAL crime.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Spectre” gets a C.
When Blue Sky Studios, the makers of the “Ice Age” franchise, announced they were going to tackle the world of Charlie Brown and Co. with a CGI “Peanuts” movie, the expression “Good Grief” was heard loud and wide - the general opinion being: Why mess such beloved characters? But, 65 years after the comic strip began, and in the golden anniversary year of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, “The Peanuts Movie” overcomes all the fears and concerns by sticking with its timeless foundation. This is classic 20th Century “Peanuts” - nothing modernized or updated - and it works beautifully.
“The Peanuts Movie” has a heart as big as the sky, thanks to director Steve Martino (who also crafted an honorable adaptation of "Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who!” for Blue Sky back in 2008), and three writers, including late “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz’s son Craig and grandson Bryan. It’s a genuine, all-new story, but it’s packed with all the classic elements - from the iconic music to direct lines and bits from the TV specials.
None of the characters have been altered in any way, including Charlie Brown himself, who’s kind, but a bit clumsy and often puts himself down for always, somehow, messing things up. He still can’t fly a kite or strike-out a batter. But when “The Little Red-Haired Girl” moves-in across the street and becomes his new classmate, Chuck instantly gets a crush on her and comes up with a plan to overcome his lack of confidence and become a “winner” so he can win her over.
“The Peanuts Movie” is consistently fun and inventive, with new layers that unravel as the film moves along. High energy, up-tempo scenes involving the gang at school and at play mix nicely with appropriate, quieter moments. There are plenty of nostalgic touches for parents and grandparents who have watched the TV specials countless times, and wonderfully colorful and friendly animation that a new generation of kids, who may be introduced to this world for the very first time with this film, will absolutely love.
And remember Snoopy’s WWI Flying Ace from “It’s The Great Pumpkin”? A parallel storyline to Charlie Brown’s girl troubles involves the fearless beagle and pal Woodstock writing (on a old fashioned typewriter) an adventurous romance novel of the Ace trying to capture the heart of his new love Fifi, and defeat his nemesis The Red Baron. I wish they had spent a little less time on this, but the animation in these sequences is spectacular.
“The Peanuts Movie” is about friendship and staying true to yourself - those themes hitting home surprisingly hard in a sweet and moving finale. On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Peanuts Movie" gets an A-.
The latest true-story investigative journalism drama “spotlights” one of the most star-studded casts of the year: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery from “Mad Men”, Brian d’Arcy James (who played Shrek on Broadway), Billy Crudup and the great Stanley Tucci. “Spotlight” deals with a controversial topic and a groundbreaking, Pulitzer-Prize winning expose. The story itself needed to be told in print, but the events leading-up to it, depicted in this film, don’t deliver quite as much impact.
In 2001, The Boston Globe’s renowned “Spotlight” investigative team was told by the paper’s new editor, Marty Baron (played by Schreiber) to dig deeper into reports claiming Catholic priests had been sexually abusing children over the past several decades. A few previously reported cases, which quickly and quietly went away, are revisited, but as the team keeps working they uncover new, appalling details on just how many incidents of abuse there are, and of the cover-up by the church, which could go all the way to the top.
“Spotlight”’s strength is the solid ensemble (each of the actors is being put-up for awards consideration in the Supporting categories). The standout performance comes from Ruffalo, who transforms himself completely into “Spotlight” reporter Michael Rezendes. In fact it’s Ruffalo’s back-to-back scenes late in the movie that finally elevate “Spotlight” to the emotional level it needed to be at throughout. Until that point, the narrative is quite monotone, with a very straightforward plot. There isn’t a lot of tension and scenes begin and end so quickly it’s difficult to lose yourself in them. Frankly, I (like Rezendes) couldn’t wait for this expose to finally make it into the paper so we could experience the aftermath.
However, “Spotlight” is never uninteresting. The level of importance director and co-writer Tom McCarthy places on the screen is valid. And the work these reporters did to bring to light the worldwide Priest abuse scandal deserves high praise. A few subtle subplots add texture, and there are some terrific dynamics on display between key players: Keaton’s Spotlight chief Robby Robinson and a valuable source, Rezendes and victim defense attorney Mitchell Garabedian (played by Tucci), and Baron and the entire staff. And the final 10-15 minutes shine, especially a well-staged final scene. If the entire movie had been this strong, “Spotlight” could have been a ‘Best of 2015’ contender.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Spotlight” gets a B.
"Brooklyn" is a charming and enchanting period romance, featuring one of the best performances of the year. This marks a major step up for director John Crowley, whose previous film, 2013's "Closed Circuit", was a "thriller" with absolutely no thrills. "Wild" screenwriter Nick Hornby adapted a 2009 Irish novel for the screen and he paints a beautiful canvas on which 21-year-old star Saorise Ronan (Oscar-nominated for "Atonement") can shine.
It's the 1950s and Eilis (played by Ronan) lives in Ireland with her mom and older sister, working at a small convenience store. She and a friend regularly go to local dances in their free time. The friend is the town catch. In an early haunting and powerful moment, we see Eilis standing alone, waiting, for what seems like forever, for someone to ask her to dance (and maybe change her dull, uninteresting life), and no one does. And so she quietly leaves the hall.
Eilis gets the opportunity to leave Ireland and start anew in America. A parish priest has made the arrangements and set her up at a boarding house in the Irish section of Brooklyn, and with a job at a lavish department store. Deciding to leave her family and homeland is difficult, though not the most challenging decision she'll face over the course of the film. The boarding house is run by Mrs. Kehoe (a feisty Julie Walters is terrific). While attending a dance in her new community, a young man approaches Eilis. Though she is Irish and he's Italian, Eilis and Tony (Emory Cohen) quickly become a couple.
Soon life gets much more complicated for Eilis, as the prospects of returning home loom because of gloom. Promises, vows and secrets are all on the line as the story unfolds in a beautiful and often heartbreaking fashion. "Brooklyn" is a simple, yet powerful exploration into love and loss, fate and faith.
Technically, there are a few slight glitches: Scenes on the steamship crossing the Atlantic and of the NY skyline feature clumsy use of green screen. And, from a story structure standpoint, the climactic decision made by Eilis comes rather abruptly, considering all the time and events that lead up to it. It's as if she simply flicks a light switch, erasing everything that came before. This turning-point feels rushed and misses some much-needed outside motivation. But these are minor quibbles.
There's a nice balance of heavy drama and occasional humor, and the score and cinematography are lovely. But above all, "Brooklyn" is a showcase for Ronan, who embodies this young woman torn between two sides of the world, each with powerful influences on the life she has and the one she longs for. This is a performance worthy of Best Actress nominations, though "Brooklyn" is a type of film that will not have mass exposure or appeal. It needs to be seen and embraced by the voting communities. It is one of those "hidden gems" that we're lucky enough to get every Awards Season that deserves to be seen and enjoyed.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Brooklyn" gets a B+.
In 2009, Warner Bros. scored a touchdown with Sandra Bullock, the actress earning an Oscar for “The Blind Side”. Four years later, they soared together again, Bullock snagging a nomination for her work in “Gravity”. Can this team go three for three with the political dramedy “Our Brand Is Crisis”? Well, early results are not promising.
Bullock plays “legendary” campaign strategist Jane Bodine. We meet first her as she’s being interviewed, and the film is actually done in flashback, which is totally unnecessary. Burned-out from the political game, Bodine’s been living in a cabin in the woods for six years, making pottery. Two members of a team running a campaign for a candidate in the Bolivian Presidential Election find and convince her to help them get Senor Castillo elected.
Castillo was actually el presidente 15 years ago, but that didn’t go too well (apparently he had a lot of the citizens killed). So both he and Jane (a lover of quotable quotes) are desperately looking for comebacks, though their stories are not parallel.
Things take an all-too “Hollywood” turn with the entrance of Pat Candy - the campaign manager for an opposing candidate who’s the current leader in the polls. Candy is played by Billy Bob Thornton, in a typical Billy Bob Thornton role. He and Jane have gone head-to-head several times in the past, and he’s always beaten her. This time we watch him pop in and out of scenes for some cinematic trash talk, but never actually do much of anything involving his own campaign.
My numbers show that about 75% of “Our Brand Is Crisis” doesn’t work. There have been so many election movies with similar storylines, and there’s little fresh here, especially when it comes to saying anything new or remotely interesting about the political system. And attempts to blend in comedy all misfire. There’s a campaign bus race scene through the Bolivian mountains that doesn’t belong in this (or any other) movie, with Bullock dropping her pants and showing-off her Buttocks. And even when it tries to be dramatic, the script suffers from a lack of believability and some really corny dialogue.
As for Bullock’s performance, award-season voters won’t need to consider her this time around because she likely won’t be on any ballots. She tries her best, delivering a handful of effective speeches, and her bitter exchanges with Thornton did keep me from dozing off. There are a few scenes late that do add some meat to the otherwise sparkle-free story. But there’s no debating the fact that someone should have realized this movie was in crisis long before it got to the screen.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Our Brand Is Crisis” gets a C-.
"Truth" is based on the real-life 2004 events surrounding a "60 Minutes" investigative report put together by veteran show producer Mary Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett), legendary CBS News anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford), and their team, involving then President George W. Bush's military service. On-record interviews and copies of documents obtained by Mapes revealed enough damaging information about Bush's attempt to avoid being sent back to Vietnam in the early 70s that everyone felt good about airing the explosive story. However, after the report runs, questions about the validity of the documents arise - and Mapes, Rather and everyone at CBS must deal with the truth that their truth may not be the REAL truth.
First-time director James Vanderbilt also wrote the script, adapted from Mapes' own memoir, which is why she is clearly the main focus of the film and, unfortunately, not Rather. Most people going to see this movie will be interested in Redford's performance of the iconic newsman and may be disappointed in how limited his role really is. Redford plays it "rather" straightforward, though the scenes where he is at the center of attention are my favorites of the film. Blanchett is also strong, though she's given a boatload of showy scenes, and especially towards the end as we watch Mapes become an emotional mess, I felt like I was watching an encore "Blue Jasmine" performance.
"Truth" is compelling enough to keep your attention, and it's fascinating to witness, as things start to unravel and then snowball, just how bad it got. However, Vanderbilt and the script place way too much importance on this journalistic event. The dialogue and overall tone combine to blow this relatively minor moment in the history of TV News way out of proportion. A few slow-motion scenes and corny dialogue also add to the melodrama.
If the focus was the decline and fall of Dan Rather, then maybe. But this isn't Watergate, or "Rathergate": it's "The Mary Mapes Story". Frankly, whether or not she loses her job because of her mistakes wasn't of much interest.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Truth" gets a C+. Courage.
Remember when Barry Levinson made great films? I don't, specifically, because they all came-out before I was born. His latest, "Rock the Kasbah" is set, as the opening title card reads, "in the recent past". The director of such 80s classics as "Diner", "The Natural", "Good Morning, Vietnam" and "Rain Man" (for which he won an Oscar) has brought some of Hollywood's most respected and likeable actors together for a comedy with a somewhat interesting premise. However, here's the really bad news: nothing in this mess of a movie works.
Bill Murray plays the same character he's played for basically the 100th time (though name and occupation always change): a wisecracking, smart aleck. Murray has terrific comic timing and can deliver great lines and memorable moments when working with the right script, such as in the holiday favorite "Scrooged" (1988). That film's writer, Mitch Glazer, also wrote this screenplay, which is, well, "Bah, Humbug!", with no cohesive flow, a misguided tone and characters who pop in and out at will.
Early in the film Murray's down-on-his-luck talent manager, Richie Lanz, tells his daughter that he and business partner/singer Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) are going on tour in The Middle East and will "Rock the Kasbah". The girl informs him that Kasbahs aren't in Afghanistan, but northern Africa. This stuns Richie and then the topic is dropped completely. You know a movie has problems when the title doesn't even fit the project.
Lanz, who claims to have discovered Madonna and suffered a broken nose in a squabble with Stevie Nicks, gets caught-up in a bunch of wacky situations on the tour, including an arms deal with warring Afhgan factions. None of this is entertaining. The only surprise comes when Ronnie leaves him, and the film for good, after about 15 minutes. Deschanel apparently knew when to cut her losses.
Murray soon meets-up with some of his ol' acting pals: Bruce Willis plays the same schmuck mercenary soldier we've seen before. At first he wants to kill Lanz, but then somehow agrees to tag-team along with him. Kate Hudson plays the happy, friendly prostitute with a heart of gold, and Danny McBride and "Hawaii Five-O"'s Scott Caan are goofy weapons dealers. But, in order to add even more to this mis-mash, the focus shifts yet again to the Middle East version of "American Idol" called "Afghan Star", and a contestant Richie discovers who could "win it all."
But there are only losers where "Rock the Kasbah" is concerned. It is as long and dry as the desert. There are so many attempts at laughs and they all fail miserably. Every line just sits there. Even Murray's closing credits ad-lib bit with a store owner is embarrassingly beneath him.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Rock the Kasbah" gets a D-.
Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar win for playing the 16th President of the United States marked the first time an actor won an Academy Award for a Steven Spielberg movie. “Bridge of Spies”, the legendary director’s first film since “Lincoln”, features another Hollywood heavyweight and, what could be, statue-worthy work.
First off - Tom Hanks is sensational, giving the most genuine performance I’ve ever seen him deliver. While his scenes are never as “showy” as those in recent films “Captain Phillips” and “Saving Mr. Banks”, Hanks’ Brooklyn insurance lawyer Jim Donovan, another ordinary man quickly placed in an extraordinary situation (a Hanks staple), is a character easy to like and root for the entire time. His reserved tone and authentic mannerisms and expressions carry us through this two-plus hour Cold War drama.
Based on a true story that Hanks admits “he thought” he knew before reading the script co-written by the Coen Brothers, Donovan is asked to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (played by Mark Rylance of TV’s “Wolf Hall”), who was captured by the C.I.A. in NYC in 1957. Donovan knows that Abel is guilty, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t provide this man with a proper defense. In a very real sense Hanks embodies Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird”. As Donovan puts it early on: “every person matters.”
The relationship between Donovan and Abel is at the heart of “Bridge of Spies”. Rylance is very good, though it’s a rather one-note role. And not appearing on screen for a lengthy chunk of time in the middle of the film could hurt his chances at Best Supporting Actor nominations.
The stakes are raised when Abel is convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison, and a short time later, American U-2 pilot Gary Powers is shot down during a spy mission over the Soviet Union and captured. The two countries decided there should be a swap of prisoners - and Donovan is chosen to make the deal. The complications surrounding these tricky negotiations dominate the middle of “Bridge of Spies” - and while these scenes aren’t exactly heart-pounding, they’re critical in explaining character motivation and setting-up the final act.
Shortly into his critical stay in freezing Berlin, Donovan is forced to sacrifice his overcoat to troublesome men. When asked by partners later on where the jacket was, Donovan replies, “Spy stuff.” He knows that this mission, though not exactly to the extravagant achievements of “Mission: Impossible”, is vital to the two unsettling sides of the world.
Spielberg’s trademark visual look and thematic touches are evident at specific checkpoints, including in the final few minutes. Thomas Newman’s score has an appropriately old-fashioned feel (the composer is seeking his 13th Oscar nomination and first win). “Bridge of Spies” embodies restrained emotion and power. It’s not a complicated story, but it’s so well executed by Spielberg and Hanks that it ranks as one of the year’s best.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Bridge of Spies” gets a B+.
The Goosebumps book series has been scaring kids (and making them laugh) for the past 23 years. Now R.L. Stine's monsterful characters come to life in the big screen version of "Goosebumps". Unlike traditional book to screen adaptations, this film doesn't specifically focus on one installment of the series, but rather takes elements from practically all of them. And two-time Golden Globe nominee and comic mastermind Jack Black actually plays the legendary Stine - an interesting take right out of the gate.
When Zach (Dylan Minnette of "Alexander and the... Bad Day") and his mom (Amy Ryan) move to a small Delaware town, Zach quickly becomes friends with Hannah, the girl next door ("The Giver"'s Odeya Rush). While she gives-off a mysterious vibe, it's her father is who really scares Zach. The Black character doesn't reveal that's he's Stine until about a half-hour into the film (but we know from the start). What he does tell (or rather, order) Zach to stay away from his daughter and their house.
But when Zach fears Hannah is in danger, he and a new school friend named Champ (Ryan Lee) sneak-into the house and discover locked Goosebumps manuscripts packed into a bookcase. One book is opened, and all you know what breaks loose as The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena literally jumps off the pages and into the room, ready to destroy the three teens and everything else in his sight. Stine soon joins the kids in trying to suck the monster back into the book. Unfortunately, other books also get opened, unleashing more of Stine's unique and terrifying beasts, led by Slappy, the evil talking ventriloquist dummy. So it's up to the creator of these creatures and the three young heroes to try to save the day.
"Goosebumps" had the potential to be a completely silly, goofy, over-the-top money grab aimed solely at fans of the books. Frankly, that's what I was expecting after sitting through the trailer numerous times. However, the result is the exact opposite. As an angry, wacky fictionalized version of Stine (the author himself told me Black doesn't embody any of his real-life qualities), Black is effectively reserved, delivering some clever one-liners, but not stealing the spotlight from the young actors and the film's most important characters - the monsters. Director Rob Letterman showcases the creatures effectively and produces some genuine scares. This is an old fashioned horror movie, with the right atmosphere to match. Letterman takes us from a spooky mansion to an abandoned amusement park through a cemetery to a high school dance. He doesn't leave anything out.
Yet there are enough modern touches to make this story feel fresh, as if it's Stine's latest installment. At one point Black's Stine says: "Every story ever told can be broken down into three parts - the beginning, the middle, and the twist." And with "Goosebumps", the twist (revealed about an hour in) is smart, sweet and completely unexpected. Sony Pictures Animation developed Stine's creatures for the screen and they have just the right look, appearing as storybook creatures - not typical CGI creations. And Danny Elfman's score is terrifically appropriate.
"Goosebumps" is being promoted for the entire family, but it's a strong PG. Little ones may have trouble with some of the intense scenes. It's a little long, and granted, the action is wild and a little too rambunctious at times. But with a clever premise, some impressive visuals and a great lead in Black, "Goosebumps" succeeds as a surprisingly fun pre-Halloween treat.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Goosebumps" gets a B.
"Room" is a powerful indie drama with two heartbreakingly effective lead performances. Brie Larson (most recently seen as Amy Schumer's sister in the comedy "Trainwreck") is outstanding as Joy, and nine-year-old Jacob Tremblay is a breakout star as Joy's five-year-old son Jack. Writer Emma Donaghue adapted her own popular novel for the screen and it's one of the most gripping and emotional stories of the year.
At 17, Joy was approached by a man walking home from school. He then lured her into helping him find his lost dog. Sadly, there was no dog. The man took Joy and for the past seven years, has held her captive inside his 10ft. x 10ft. backyard shed. She cannot been able to escape because of a security door - only her abductor knows the four-digit code. And as often as she's tried, no one has heard her screams from inside.
Young Jack has never experienced the outside world, only knowing what goes on inside the "Room", as they've come to call their home, and what he sees on TV. Yet his Ma has created a "normal" life for him inside this prison. As in the book, Jack narrates the story, though only sporatically sharing his innocent and gut-wrenching thoughts and feelings about his life. Joy struggles every day to keep her son happy, though on the inside, understandably, she is a complete mess.
"Room" is divided into two, distinct parts. The first half is an intense and raw psychological look at this mother and son's life inside the shed. The second deals with their world following a dramatic turn. This second act exposes even more layers as new characters (including Joy's separated parents, played by Joan Allen and William H. Macy) are forced to deal head-on with the events surrounding this horrific situation.
Larson and Tremblay share the majority of screen time and their scenes together are touching, moving, shocking and at times simply take your breath away. Both deserve serious awards season consideration. And the supporting roles are perfectly cast and exectuted. This is a brave and important film that will leave a lasting impression. It defies the standard four walls of moviemaking by allowing a story so intimate and personal to be, at the same time, so open and universal. Credit director Lenny Abrahamson and cinematographer Danny Cohen for creating a film that, at the same time, makes you feel hopeless and hopeful, sad and uplifted, horrified and joyous.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Room" gets an A.
I was one of only a few critics who genuinely appreciated "Jobs", the 2013 biopic on legendary Apple CEO Steve Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher. A little more than two years later, Hollywood tackles the complicated mind of one of the most fascinating technological pioneers of all-time yet again with "Steve Jobs". And this time they've tripled the RAM, with Aaron Sorkin ("The Social Network") penning the script, Danny Boyle ("Slumdog Millionaire") directing and Michael Fassbender ("12 Years a Slave") playing the title character.
The powerhouse team chose not to go the traditional life-story biopic route, instead sculpting their film using three 40-minute periods from three separate days of Jobs' life: product launch days in 1984, 1988 and 1998. These pivotal and highly-stressful events provide a unique look at Jobs both as multimillionaire company head and simple human being, with more relationship problems that you can count. He is an imperfect genius, unable to relate to practically everyone around him. Jobs publicly and psychologically denied he was the father to young Lisa and completely disapproved of acknowledging the work of those who helped him get to where he is, specifically co-Apple creator and presumed friend Steve Wozniak (it's hard to say, from this portrayal, that Jobs had any true friends).
Woz is played by Seth Rogen, who gives the most memorable and dramatic performance of his career, going toe-to-toe with Fassbender in some great, showy scenes. Jeff Daniels plays former Apple CEO John Scully. At one point, he and Jobs debate how Steve's controversial exit from Apple really went down. This is the only scene in the movie that features the wild, rapid-fire dialogue Sorkin is known for. The rest of the screenplay has a more tolerable pace and features some sharp, sarcastic and insightful (albeit, at times, cutesy) lines.
Fassbender is excellent, with a commanding presence in all three "mini-movies". The best performance in "Steve Jobs" comes from Kate Winslet as marketing executive and Jobs' longtime right-hand-woman Joanna Hoffman. Winslet pours restrained emotion into every scene and it's her arc (including how she feels about Jobs' strained relationship with his daughter) that is the core of the film. In what's already shaping-up to be another highly competitive Awards Season, Winslet should be a lock for Best Supporting Actress nominations.
Unfortunately, "Steve Jobs" suffers from a few small but noticeable bugs in its operating system that prevent it from reaching the status of one of the best movies of the year. The similarities in style, storytelling and execution to last year's "Birdman" are evident. But, unlike with that film, Boyle and Sorkin aren't brave enough to let the three parts play-out themselves. The addition of awkward flashbacks (including "younger-looking" Fassbender and Rogen working in their garage), as well as "here's what's happened since" narration and news clips in between each section, are only included to help move the audience along, but are totally unnecessary, dumbing-down the overall narrative. Simply letting these stories happen in real-time, without these distractions and some heavy-handed symbolism (the final scene is clumsy and should have been deleted altogether), would've resulted in a much more powerful finished product.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Steve Jobs" gets a B+.
2008's Oscar-winning documentary "Man on Wire" beautifully showcased the incredible French artist Philippe Petit, who, in 1974, defined cultural American history by walking on a wire hung between the World Trade Center Twin Towers in New York City. The story itself is remarkable, and as the Hollywood version of Petit's feat, "The Walk", once again proves - Petit's saga leading-up to his daring stroll is so unbelievable there's no way any of it could have possibly been made-up.
The previous film from legendary director Robert Zemeckis, 2012's airplane pilot drama "Flight", featured a memorable sequence early on with Denzel Washington landing a 747 upside down. The rest of that film wasn't nearly as strong, though Washington's performance definitely held your attention. "The Walk" has a reverse effect. It's Petit's backstory and the preparations for his walk that are interesting and escalate in quality as we get closer and closer to the critical morning of August 7th. And then, after 90 minutes, the showcase visual scenes finally appear.
"The Walk" had been primarily screened for critics, and marketed to audiences, in its IMAX 3D format. I decided to see it in regular 2D, and trust me, the visuals and this interpretation of Petit's actual walk are still very effective. And the climactic wire walk sequence is accompanied by my favorite film score of the year so far - it's absolutely lovely.
Early on, and at certain key spots, Zemeckis intentionally throws us a gimmick aimed for the 3D effect, and you can tell that much of his vision was aimed for that format. Otherwise this fictionalized execution of the story is as straight as a wire. His biggest risk was allowing Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is quite convincing as Petit in the dramatic and conversation scenes) to narrate the entire film. And he does this, often, on camera, looking directly at the lens while standing next to the torch atop the Statue of Liberty. For me, this device was the one element "The Walk" could've easily walked away from. We do get to hear Petit talk about his psychological struggles and first-hand experiences of the amazing event, but each time we go to Gordon-Levitt on Lady Liberty it feels awkward, leaning towards corny (or maybe that he's going to try to sell us auto insurance).
Even so, "The Walk" succeeds with a fine lead and solid supporting work from Sir Ben Kingsley as Papa Rudy, a veteran trapeze artist who mentors Petit, and Charlotte Le Bon (who shined opposite Helen Mirren in "The Hundred-Foot Journey") as Petit's girlfriend Annie. The real Petit personally trained Gordon-Levitt, which must've been an unforgettable experience for the Golden Globe nominated actor.
Most of all, "The Walk" pulls-off something rather difficult in the symbolism department: making us believe in and care for buildings that, tragically, no longer exist. It's clear throughout that Zemeckis has the importance of these structures on his mind, honoring them through this triumphant event. The towers will live on, as Petit puts-it, "forever".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Walk" gets a B.
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