Rarely does a movie make me cry. On the few occasions it's happened, it was at the end of the film. "Christine" not only brought me to tears during the climax, but on two other occasions earlier in the movie, as I watched Rebecca Hall give a painfully resonant and hauntingly brilliant performance as 1970s TV news reporter, Christine Chubbuck.
You may recognize the name and know a little about the story of Chubbuck, a one-time Sarasota, Florida on-air TV personality. If so, chances are it's how she died that you're familiar with. "Christine" brilliantly portrays Chubbuck's final months, the events that led to her infamous act of pulling-out a handgun and committing suicide live on the air during a newscast.
Every scene and line of dialogue is designed to get us to this staggering event. You know it's coming, and yet, the moment is still incredibly jarring. The shooting (which forever changed television, and inspired the iconic film, "Network"), may leave the biggest impression, but it's just one of more than a dozen gripping, heartbreaking and poignant moments throughout "Christine".
Hall embodies Chubbuck, who was 29 years old in 1974 and into her second year at ABC affiliate WXLT (in "Christine" the call letters are changed to WZRB). Her socially awkward attributes were difficult to ignore. She was brilliant, overly-sensitive and very good at her job, but also extremely insecure, especially in dealing with criticism from News Director/Station Manager Michael (played by Tracy Letts). Their interactions are especially insightful. Chubbuck was also dealing with depression. Several times there are references to Christine's past problems "in Boston", though they are not spelled-out specifically, adding to the mystery of this very complicated and troubled woman.
The early 70s was the time when local TV news was becoming sensationalized, and Michael starts pushing for juicier crime stories ("If it Bleeds, it Leads"), urging Christine to get away from the interviews with chicken farmers and stories on the local strawberry festival. But this is the kind of reporting Christine loved.
Her spirits are tested further when the station owner comes to town. He's looking to see which on-air and production talent he can pluck from this small station for his new station in Baltimore, which was a Top 30 market (and still is today). Christine becomes obsessed with getting that new job. Hall's mesmirizing performance, as complications arise that prevent Christine from achieving her goals - how she reacts as, piece by piece, her professional and personal life begins to crumble around her, is heartbreaking. Her weird and strained relationship with her roommate (who also happens to be her mother) only makes her more of a ticking time bomb.
I could write pages dissecting every scene in "Christine": a very uncomfortable interaction Chubbuck has with a young couple at a restaurant celebrating their three-year anniversary. The "date" Christine has with news anchor George Ryan (played masterfully by Michael C. Hall) that goes in completely unexpected and devastating directions. A "Yes, But..." group therapy session scene that will tie your stomach in knots. And each of the three puppet shows Christine performs at a hospital for special-needs children. The way she incorporates the troubles of her life into these sessions intended for kids will leave you breathless.
"Christine" is 33-year old director Antonio Campos's third feature film (he was a producer on "Martha Marcy May Marlene"). He and writer Craig Shilowich completely capture the atmosphere and look of local TV news in the 70s, from the set design, to the clothes, to the spot-on dialogue. You feel the pressure that Christine and, to a lesser extent, her colleagues were dealing with: the pressure to get higher ratings; the pressure to get a promotion; the pressure on the women in the newsroom to succeed in a male-dominated field and, for everyone, especially Christine: the pressure to be loved. The ensemble cast is outstanding and the creepy, "click-clack" score, at times reminiscent of ticking clocks on classic game shows, adds to the drama.
Tonight's Top Story: "'Christine' is One of The Best Movies of 2016". It's also one of the most important, largely thanks to Hall, who represents everyone, especially those in the media business, whose goal it is to matter. If there are five better Lead Actress performances this year I will be stunned. Hall is impossible to ignore.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Christine" gets an A.
"Christine" opens in Limited Release on October 14th.
Many thoughts were swirling around my head as I was watching "Storks". The opening montage reminded me of the stork delivering baby Dumbo to Mrs. Jumbo in that Disney classic. Hearing Kelsey Grammer as the voice of the stork delivery company boss made me think of his role on the TV drama, "Boss". I enjoyed Ty Burrell's voice work as a dad who's a realtor because he plays realtor Phil Dunphy on "Modern Family".
When a pigeon broke-out into song with "How You Like Me Now?", I thought of how much I dislike random, completely unnecessary musical numbers that pop-up in the middle of stories (maybe that's why I never got into "Glee"). And as a rogue stork and bumbling human girl were taking part in their quest of delivering a new baby to her parents, I realized that the crime "Endangering the Welfare of a Child" has never applied more to an animated film than it does with "Storks". This movie is also guilty of "Endangering the Sanity of an Audience".
Such frenetic, scatterbrained thinking is exactly what went into the creation and execution of "Storks", which can be summed-up in two words: Sensory Overload.
The concept is cute and had SO MUCH potential. At the start of the film we learn that the traditional stork baby delivery service ended 18 years ago (I must have been one of the last stork deliveries) and was converted into the package delivery business. So storks now ship cell phones, books, etc. all purchased on the website, Cornerstore.com. A couple things worth noting: There is an actual Cornerstore.com, though it, interestingly, has no ties to "Storks" whatsoever. And - in case you were concerned - a form of the U.S. Postal Service still exists in the movie, though UPS and FedEx do not.
A boy named Nate writes a letter to the Storks asking for a baby brother. His parents, a workaholic real estate team voiced by Burrell and Jennifer Aniston, don't want to tell him that babies don't come from storks (anymore). When the letter arrives, one of the head storks, Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg, with simply his normal, Andy Samberg voice) and a human orphan girl, Tulip (Katie Crown) see it get processed into the old factory system. Once the baby is "born", Junior and Tulip make it their task to deliver the infant to her new family without anyone else finding out. Of course, keeping a new baby a secret is impossible to do.
In true Warner Bros. tradition "Storks" is looney. Not only is it extremely fast-paced and frantic, but it's very reminiscent of WB's classic "Looney Tunes" in pace and energy. That iconic cast of characters, writers and animators made that style work - in small doses. It doesn't work at all in "Storks". My head was spinning after the first five minutes, and there's hardly any let-up over the next 85.
Director Nicholas Stoller, of "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Neighbors", also incorporates way too many ridiculous references and forced ad-lib dialogue, with characters constantly yelling over each other, while, at the same time, flying, running and smashing into things. And, if that's not enough zaniness, Key & Peele voice the leaders of wolfpack that transforms itself into a bridge, submarine and minivan. Just bizarre. And there's that pigeon mentioned earlier qualifies as the most obnoxious animated movie character of 2016.
Also - a small point: Nate asks for a brother, and the baby "produced" from his letter is a girl. Maybe this was commentary on how real delivery services sometimes screw-up orders? Or, it was just sloppy filmmaking.
If there's an ideal audience for "Storks", you'd think it'd be young kids. But parents - be warned: With so much going on, they'll be overwhelmed rather than entertained. I was mostly frustrated. There are a few well-handled, quiet scenes that prevent "Storks" from being a total disaster. But, overall, the wild, uncontrolled style engulfs the core concept, resulting in a package that, frankly, you'd be better-off not opening.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Storks" gets a D+.
When done right, modern attempts at the Western can rise above ordinary standards. A couple recent examples: 2010's “True Grit” and last year’s “The Revenant”.
Director Antoine Fuqua’s remake / re-imagining / re-do / re-shoot-em-up of 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven” has the feel and flavor of a “classic” Western, maybe more so than any other film in the genre in recent memory. I give Fuqua a lot of credit for the spot-on set-design, appropriate score, slick cinematography and staging an extended, half-hour-long climactic shoot-out.
But being SO true to the formula is also what prevents “The Magnificent Seven” from living-up to its title. There are no surprises in the story and very little suspense. The only element worth placing a bet on is how many of the Seven “good guys” (though plenty more join the core group) will survive the epic showdown.
Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisolm - who’s Part lawman/part bounty hunter - enters “The Magnificent Seven” by walking into a saloon (complete with plenty of dirty-faced, poker-playing cowboys and their female “companions”) dressed in all-black. The residents think he’s trouble, but Sam assures them he’s there to help.
Soon, Josh (played by Chris Pratt) joins Sam on a quest to save a small town from being taken over by maniacal, gold-obsessed land-grabber Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Five others join the group, including Legendary sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux. Ethan Hawke gives the best performance of the ensemble as the only interesting character in the movie.
“The Magnificent Seven” is 2 hours and 10 minutes - and - like a long ride on a hard saddle - you feel it. As with most Westerns, it’s dominated by set-up. Every character talks - a lot - especially Pratt’s Josh. His sarcasm shtick is getting old and really doesn’t fit with the tone of the rest of the film. And even though Fuqua has now made three movies with Washington, he doesn’t provide his star with one “magnificent” acting scene.
I wish “The Magnificent Seven” wasn’t so by-the-book. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the original, chances are you know exactly how this saga is going to play out before the first frame. I’m never impressed by films that are satisfied with only meeting an audience’s bare-minimum expectations.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Magnificent Seven” gets what it deserves - a C.
I could thoroughly describe how the low-budget drama, "Mr. Church", is basically a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie that sugar-coats numerous serious issues and situations, including terminal cancer, divorce, single parenthood, both alcohol and child abuse, drunk driving and neglect. It's also an extremely simple Circle of Life story that packs-in way too many coincidences and too much symbolism.
But instead, I'm going to devote the remainder of this review to the actor who portrays the title character in "Mr. Church", Mr. Eddie Murphy. If you thought Murphy had left the entertainment industry for good here's some great news: This small film proves that he's still got it - and that dramas are now where he belongs.
Murphy hasn't starred in a film since 2012's disaster, "A Thousand Words", and he hasn't received mass, critical praise for a performance since his Oscar-nominated work in 2006's "Dreamgirls" - a role that was extremely showy. Here's what's incredible about what Murphy is able to accomplish in "Mr. Church": Without a fat suit, flashy costumes, a wacky voice or outrageous makeup, not relying on punchlines or big laughs, and without a partner to play-off of, he delivers one of the standout performances of his career.
The role of Henry Church, who becomes the house cook to a sick mother and her young daughter in 1970s Los Angeles, is as sincere and substantial as they come. Church is a genuine, mutli-layered character, who eventually becomes the life mentor to Charlotte (played by "Tomorrowland"'s Britt Robertson). Murphy himself has been credited for being a mentor and inspiration to many comedians and actors working in the business today.
As Mr. Church, Murphy stays low-key, rarely raising his voice, and he really does cook on screen (though, unlike what alter ego Donkey would've suggested, Murphy never makes waffles). But he is not without emotion, often conveyed in quiet moments and silent glances. As the film unravels, we get bits and pieces of what eventually adds-up to the complete extent of Church's situation in life. There are scenes in which Murphy portrays Church as intoxicated, but never does it come-off as over-the-top (or something pulled from one of his "SNL" sketches from decades ago).
"Mr. Church" spans 15 years, and Murphy successfully pulls-off the range, both in appearance and performance, something most films struggle with. The script provides showcase moments in each act, with each of his co-stars, and Murphy nails them all.
Since it's what I do, I have to give "Mr. Church" a grade. So, On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mr. Church" gets a C. But, in this case, the grade of the film is not what's important. Obviously, "Mr. Church" isn't a great movie, but Murphy's performance makes it worthy of attention - the kind of attention that matters more than earning gold statues. It's the kind of attention that earns respect and, hopefully, shows Hollywood that Eddie Murphy is still one of the most talented actors of our day.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Edward Joseph Snowden in Oliver Stone’s biopic on the infamous U.S. government contractor who, in 2013, leaked stunning, classified information from the National Security Agency regarding the organization’s monitoring of the personal lives of billions of people across the globe.
Last year, Gordon-Levitt played tightrope master Philippe Petit in “The Walk”, complete with a strong French accent. As Snowden, Gordon-Levitt digs deep in his throat in an effort to mimic Snowden’s voice, and he sports glasses and a short haircut to capture the look. And as was the case with “The Walk”, the majority of time in “Snowden” is devoted to setting-up the climactic event that most people are already very familiar with.
And that familiarity may be why Stone chose to make this such a human story - much of it told as flashbacks. We get a solid background of Snowden’s early life - pre-CIA/NSA, including his up-and-down relationship with girlfriend Lindsay (played by Shailene Woodley). These scenes allow “Snowden” to have a conventional feel, but that’s not a negative - because Gordon-Levitt and Woodley do make a believable couple.
There are a host of supporting characters. Rhys Ifans is menacing as Snowden’s professor. Melissa Leo, Tom Wilkinson and Zachary Quinto play the trio of journalists who break the story (though Quinto is the only one who gets a showcase scene). And Nicolas Cage (you haven’t heard that name in a while) has a small role in his first “big” movie in years as one of Snowden’s early mentors.
One of the biggest problems with “Snowden” is that - even though there are some moments early-on that attempt to demonstrate just how revolutionary Snowden’s discoveries were - by the end, there’s no intensity behind the actions of the young whistleblower publishing the information and becoming a national criminal. Stone’s broken narrative structure undermines his own efforts for a suspenseful final act.
Stone also includes a handful of unnecessary visual tricks. And I don’t quite understand why he chose to finish-out the film as he did, taking a documentary approach with the final five minutes, including a jarring final scene better suited for the 2014 Oscar-winning Snowden documentary, “Citizenfour”.
Clearly this is a one-sided view of a highly controversial figure. But it does do a better job with similar subject matter than the 2013 WikiLeaks drama, “The Fifth Estate".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Snowden" gets a C+.
What does it mean to be deemed a hero? Clint Eastwood explored that question in his previous film, the powerhouse “American Sniper”, the story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. Now, Eastwood, at 86, tackles another heroic figure - Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger - the man who pulled-off the “Miracle on the Hudson”.
Tom Hanks anchors “Sully” with a very human performance as the stoic pilot. The film begins, not with the “forced water landing”, as Sully classifies it, but rather the immediate days following the events of January 15, 2009. Still in NYC, Sully is a reluctant media sensation. But he’s also feeling the heat from officials of the National Transportation Safety Board, who are investigating the incident and second-guessing his decisions.
Representatives pound Sully with question after question, trying to figure out why, exactly, he chose to land U.S. Airways flight 1549, carrying 155 passengers and crew, on the Hudson River, when test results run immediately after the event showed that Sullenberger could make it safely to either of two nearby airports after his engines failed following a bird strike.
Eastwood makes a smart decision with his narrative: He needs “villains” to give this story drama, but he can’t make Sully a “bad guy”, as was the case with the pilot Denzel Washington played in Robert Zemeckis's 2012 film “Flight” (spoiler alert if you haven’t seen it by now), who admitted to being an alcoholic. “Sully” is based on Sullenberger’s own book, and clearly he acted responsibly before and during that fateful day (otherwise we would’ve heard about that by now).
So the challenge was to create dramatic tension out of a story that may not have much besides the obvious. This was Eastwood’s checklist:
Step 1: Work with the Material You’ve Got. He stages the water landing in three separate sequences that are as intense and captivating as anything on screen this year.
Step 2: Establish an Appealing Conflict. Sully vs. the NTSB actually works because, throughout the course of the movie, you’re rooting for him to be proven right.
Step 3: Let Hanks Shine. With restrained but meaningful delivery of well-crafted dialogue - including one of the best transitional lines of 2016, “Can we get serious now?”, and plenty of strong moments, Hanks is at the top of his game.
Step 4: Surprise Us. “Sully” isn’t simply “The Hanks Show”. As his character states late in the film, it wasn’t just him who “saved the day”. It was a team effort. Aaron Eckhart is quite believable as co-pilot, Jeff Skiles. Laura Linney rises above some corny dialogue as Sully’s wife, Lorraine, who we only see during phone conversations with her husband. And Eastwood’s special attention given to about a dozen minor characters adds to the realism.
And Step 5: Tie it All Together. “Sully” does end abruptly and has a brisk total runtime of 96 minutes. But I like the unique angle taken with the closing credits scenes. They make you feel proud - like you just witnessed something incredible - and to get a feeling like that out of any movie is somewhat of a Miracle.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Sully” gets a B+.
The film is released on the weekend of the 15th Anniversary of 9/11. Eastwood includes a heavy amount of subtext involving that tragedy, particularly relating to why Sully made the critical decision that he did. At one point a character remarks, "It's been awhile since New York had news this good - especially with an airplane in it."
The making of “The Light Between Oceans” brought together two of the industry’s shining stars: Michael Fassbender and Alicia Vikander. Their chemistry on screen, as a loving husband and wife, sparked a real-life romance off-screen, as the two have been “a couple” since filming took place in 2014. But this isn’t PerezHilton.com - this is a movie review!
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, “The Light Between Oceans” spotlights Tom (played by Fassbender), a lighthouse keeper in post- WWI Australia who falls for young Isabel (Miss Vikander). They decide to marry and live on the remote island where it’s Tom’s job to keep the light burning for passing ships. Attempts by the newlyweds to start a family are unsuccessful - but then, one day, a rowboat washes ashore containing a baby, and Tom and Isabel’s lives are changed forever by the decisions they make from that point.
Writer/director Derek Cianfrance is tempted to go into soap opera territory but avoids it (at times just barely), largely thanks to his convincing leads. The set-up of “The Light Between Oceans” is lengthy, but Fassbender and Vikander prevail with solid performances, particularly Vikander in a demanding role that includes some extensive scenes that are devastating to watch.
Once Rachel Weisz’s key character, Hannah, a grieving mother and widow, enters the picture, “The Light Between Oceans” becomes compelling moviemaking. Cianfrance crafts the film much like his previous effort, the multi-generational crime drama “The Place Beyond the Pines”, with Bradley Cooper and Ryan Gosling. Both stories involve young children, critical events that tie numerous people together, are set over a span of time, and are filled with believable coincidences. In “Oceans”, they are presented in the most sophisticated manner possible without being considered cheesy or laughable. Weisz, who was exceptional in last year’s overlooked, “Youth”, is terrific yet again here.
Also worth noting is the lovely score by cinematic composer legend, Alexandre Desplat. In what looks to be another crowded, highly competitive Awards Season, this may be the sole element of this movie that will shine through. That’s not to say there aren’t other things in “The Light Between Oceans” that couldn’t get some awards attention. This is a fine, respectable melodrama. However, at 2 hours and 13 minutes, I was expecting more of an emotional punch. The climax isn’t as powerful as it wants to be and feels very rushed compared to everything that comes before.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Light Between Oceans” gets a B.
Boxing movies, always a popular genre, have been a “main event” in Hollywood over the past few years. The latest on the card, “Hands of Stone”, is a lightweight compared to most fight films. But it does have an element of “class” and tone that provide for a satisfying viewing.
This is the story of Panamanian boxing legend Roberto Duran (played by Edgar Ramirez, most recently seen in “Joy” and “Point Break”). Much of the early rounds of “Hands of Stone” focus on Duran as a poor young boy with the urge to fight. We flash-forward seven years and Duran is making a name for himself in the ring - and wooing school girl Felicidad Iglesias (played by Ana de Armas, who audiences JUST saw in “War Dogs”).
With classic (“Raging Bull”) and campy (“Grudge Match”) roles as a fighter under his belt, Robert De Niro takes-on the duties of trainer here, playing Ray Arcel, who comes out of forced retirement to work with Duran, who he sees early-on as a future champion. In recent boxing films it’s the trainer that’s become the coveted role - from Christian Bale in “The Fighter”, to Forest Whitaker in “Southpaw” and Sylvester Stallone turning the tables on Rocky Balboa in “Creed”. De Niro’s presence and performance give “Hands of Stone” the weight it needs to be worth the price of admission.
Most sports fans over 45 likely know the saga of Duran’s professional career. The script treats his career highlights in a very matter-of-fact, straightforward fashion, so boxing experts and fight fans expecting new, interesting layers to this story will be underwhelmed. As someone who knew nothing about Duran, his bouts with Sugar Ray Leonard or the impact of “No Mas” until this movie, I found all of it interesting.
“Hands of Stone” doesn’t pack quite the same punch in the second half as the first, but it’s never dull. The political tensions of the time between the U.S. and Panama over the Panama Canal, and the drama surrounding the two Duran/Leonard fights (especially the rematch) kept me in the flow. Sugar Ray, by the way, is played by R&B superstar Usher (as Usher Raymond IV). The role doesn’t require a lot acting, but the singer handles himself quite well.
“Hands of Stone” isn’t emotionally dominant, but it’s not intended to be your typical “underdog crowd-pleasing sports film”, regardless of the final five minutes. Instead, Duran is depicted as maybe the most unsympathetic on-screen boxer in recent memory, and I give the film extra points for that approach.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Hands of Stone” gets a B-.
"Mechanic: Resurrection" is the sequel to 2011's action/thriller "The Mechanic" (which was a remake of a 1972 film of the same name, starring Charles Bronson). Buried in January, "ME1" only grossed $29 million in the U.S. This sequel opens at the end of August, the dreaded period of the movie year when studios dump films not good enough for the legit Summer schedule or Awards contention later in the year. But every Summer needs a bad action movie to wrap things up, and "ME2" certainly fits that bill.
Jason Statham has made a career out of killing people - on screen. And as Arthur Bishop in "The Mechanic" and again here in "Mechanic: Ressurection", he's so good at it that he makes assassinations look like accidents. The hitman gets lured out of retirement ("Jason Bourne"-esque) and is tasked with killing three of the most dangerous arms dealers in the world or his kidnapped girlfriend will be "eliminated". Gina is played by Jessica Alba. In press interviews, Alba said she took the role because it isn't the typical "damsel in distress" part. But that's EXACTLY what it is - aside from a few times she gets to kick guys in the groin.
"ME2" begins with a laugh-out-loud opening sequence, in which Statham either stabs, shoots, or does things I can't describe in print, to at a least a dozen bad guys. The body count by the film's end approaches 100 - and he takes them all down single-handedly. Enjoying the variety of killing methods the assassin uses does provide a level of entertainment. However, as a whole - from the visuals to the sound effects and the performances - "Mechanic: Ressurection" is an exercise in cheese.
Speaking of "Jason Bourne", Tommy Lee Jones, who a month ago was seen tracking down that title character, adds to the level of camp with a 3rd act appearance as Bishop's final target - Max Adams. Tommy Lee Jones looks nothing like a Max Adams. What he does look like is a bit bizarre, even for TLJ: short haircut, goatee, Ozzy Osbourne sunglasses and earrings, a black T-shirt, leather jacket and ripped jeans. His best line comes after he and Bishop secretly escape a life-threatening situation, with those watching the surveillance video presuming he's a goner: "I never realized dying could be so exhilarating." Not as exhilarating as cashing the paycheck from being in this mess.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mechanic: Resurrection" gets a D. Of course, the final scene sets-up a "Mechanic 3". Let's hope someone takes his tools away before that can happen.
"Hell or High Water" has a very simple premise: a couple of bank-robbing brothers are looking to rob more banks so they can pay-off...the bank - and save the family ranch. A sheriff on the verge of retirement and his longtime partner are out to catch them.
Complete with his Texas "True Grit" twang, Jeff Bridges plays that elderly sheriff, Marcus Hamilton. His targets: Toby and Tanner Howard (Chris Pine and Ben Foster, who also braved violent ocean waves together in "The Finest Hours" earlier this year). The Howards aren't looking to hit the biggest banks, and they aren't gunning for the largest wads of cash. They have a specific plan: modest "withdrawals" from several branches of the same bank - and the money quickly adds up.
Hamilton thinks he's figured out the boys' plan, and he makes tracking them down his final mission. His Native American partner (played by Gil Birmingham from "The Twilight Saga") believes Hamilton is using this case to hold-off retirement a little bit longer.
All four central characters have positive characteristics and nearly just as many flaws. This conflict in values is one of the strengths of "Hell or High Water", as it challenges you to decide who, exactly, you should be rooting for. Actually, the real enemy in this tragic saga isn't revealed until very late in the film. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan ("Sicario") has crafted a solid, modern day Western heist movie, that definitely holds your interest. However, the ultimate resolution is underwhelming.
The actual bank robbery scenes are well-staged and nerve-wracking to watch, and the performances, with Bridges leading the way, are noteworthy. Katy Mixon ("Mike & Molly") has a small role as a waitress who, in one of the movie's best scenes, squares-off with the Oscar winner and takes him down (no gun necessary).
There's a lot to like about "Hell or High Water", and enough meat on the bone to warrant a recommendation. I just wish there was one unique twist, or another interesting layer, to complicate things a bit. Once it becomes clear where this story is headed, you realize that's it's not going to end well - for anybody.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hell or High Water" gets a B-.
While promoting “War Dogs” on “Live!”, Kelly Ripa asked star Jonah Hill, “Did you get to meet the person you play?” Hill replied, while chuckling and with a smile, “No. He’s, like, suing us and stuff. I probably shouldn’t talk about it.”
“War Dogs” has some legitimate controversy behind it, with the man Hill portrays, Efraim Diveroli, indeed, suing Warner Bros. over the rights to the film’s screenplay, which is based on a Rolling Stone article. It’s no surprise, then, that the typical “While the film is based on true events, liberties were taken…” paragraph appears fairly early on in the closing credits.
The magazine piece that inspired “War Dogs” appealed so much to “Hangover” trilogy director Todd Phillips, that he reportedly became “obsessed” with it and quickly optioned to turn it into a movie. Bradley Cooper came on board to co-produce it, and similarly to the entrance of his character midway through “Joy” last year, the appearance of his shady businessman, Henry Girard, in “War Dogs” provides the film with more of an edge and moves the narrative in more interesting directions.
Miles Teller plays David Packouz, who in 2005, quit his job as a male masseuse in Miami Beach, to join Diveroli, his best friend from middle school, as arms dealers for the U.S. military. They work the phones and the internet, and even travel to Baghdad at the height of the Iraq War, making weapons deals for ridiculous amounts of cash. Teller also serves as narrator, and, appropriate to his name, tells us everything that went on, legal and illegal, in a very informational, “matter-of-fact” style.
The first two-thirds of “War Dogs” feel like two dogs, literally, are at war with each other - one fighting for this film to be a comedy, the other equally determined to produce a drama. There are some occasional tense moments, but Hill’s over-the-top character, a role reminiscent of his pal Leonardo DiCaprio’s in “The Wolf of Wall Street”, is clearly intended to be funny. Phillips finally settles on a serious tone for the final act, which is the right choice. It’s here when we finally get a sense of the dynamic between Diveroli and Packouz, without the many predictable side elements that only serve to clutter the script for the first two-thirds of the film.
Hill is very convincing, Teller is solid, and Phillips has compiled one of the best soundtracks of the year. I just wish “War Dogs” didn’t feel so conventional. This movie could have used a Wolf or two - to add some much-needed Bite.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "War Dogs" gets a C+.
In the opening narration of “Kubo and the Two Strings”, our young hero asks of us, “If you must blink, do it now.” Turns-out - it’s difficult to take your eyes off the screen while watching one of the most visually striking and emotionally intense movies of the year.
“Kubo” is the latest stop-motion animated adventure from Laika, the makers of “Coraline”, “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls”, all of which received Best Animated Feature Oscar nominations. “Kubo” deserves to be on this year’s ballot. It’s the studio’s most ambitious and moving film to date.
This fable is set in ancient Japan. Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) is an 11-year-old boy who had his left eye taken from him as a baby. By day, Kubo tells stories in his local village, enchanting the townspeople with origami characters that come to life when he plays his magical shamisen - a traditional Japanese instrument. At night, he returns to care for his ill mother. They live in a nearby cave, and she shares stories with him about his heroic father, who died protecting him.
When Kubo is threatened by his evil Vendetta aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) and grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), his mother uses the last of her powers to bring a small ape figure to life, who will guide Kubo on a quest to find his father’s legendary suit of armor, which will protect him from his relatives, who want his other eye. Charlize Theron is excellent as Monkey, and Matthew McConaughey is equally strong as Beetle, a giant warrior and archer who they meet on their journey.
“Kubo and the Two Strings” is a visionary triumph. Not only is the animation breathtaking, but the screenplay is heavy and mature, with so much weight and symbolism concerning love and loss. “Kubo” is not for kids - more so than all of Laika’s previous movies. Yes, little ones will enjoy the few funny slapstick breaks and the action scenes, and there is some comic dialogue solely added to lighten the dramatic tone (most lines work - a few feel out-of-place). But there are also a handful of frightening mystical sequences mixed with issues such as what we believe happens to us when we die and close family members trying to gouge a little boy’s eye out that certainly aren’t intended for moviegoers under 12, especially those who’ve spent the summer with Dory, Scrat, Birds and cute household Pets.
Once again Laika takes plenty of risks. There are a couple of twists - one I saw coming, the other took me by complete surprise. Like Disney’s “Zootopia”, “Kubo” often has the look and feel of a live-action movie in animated form. The editing is a bit choppy in spots, and I didn’t love that the significance of the “Two Strings” is revealed very late.
However, when it comes to the ending (Kubo remarks that every story needs one), the final act contains bold, daring material centering on the power of memories and the need to have loved ones who have moved-on to the next life with us when we yearn for them the most. It’s incredibly effective.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Kubo and the Two Strings” gets an A-.
"Pete's Dragon" is Disney's latest re-imagining of one of their past favorites. However, the 1977 original isn't actually regarded as being on the upper tier of the Disney catalog, so it was definitely an interesting, if not risky choice. But director and co-writer David Lowrey ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints") took a serious, old-fashioned and sincere approach to the boy/dragon story - and struck gold.
The jarring opening scene sets the mature, largely sophisticated tone. At only 4 years old, Pete is the lone survivor of a car accident that claims the lives of both his mother and father (this may the fastest parents have ever been killed-off in a Disney film, and that's saying a lot). He flees into the woods with a book he was reading in the car and soon encounters a giant green dragon. The creature protects him from a pack of wolves and the two become fast friends. Pete names his dragon Elliot, the name of the dog in the book.
Following a six-year fast-forward, Lowrey devotes a large chunk of time to establishing this relationship, which will be the backbone of the film. We get a good 10 minutes of Pete (played by Oakes Fegley) and Elliot interacting in a variety of ways, allowing us to fully understand their bond. Comparisons can instantly be made to the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the "How to Train Your Dragon" films, and similar "animals protecting a boy" elements of Disney's own re-telling of "The Jungle Book" from earlier this year. What helps us buy into the Pete/Elliot friendship is the rugged, anti-cute appearance of the dragon. The CGI design decisions and execution make this one of the most believable fantasy creatures seen on screen in recent memory. Pete doesn't speak much, and Elliot doesn't talk at all, so their facial expressions and quick gestures often serve as their means of conversation. And unlike the original, there are no musical numbers used to liven things up.
Shot entirely in New Zealand, "Pete's Dragon" is set in Millhaven (or what Disney enthusiasts would call your typical Small Town, USA). The lumber business is what generates the revenue in a community that still uses cord telephones and record players. The idyllic, wholesome setting only enhances the throwback vibe. This movie could have been made in 1977. Bryce Dallas Howard plays forest ranger Grace, and Robert Redford (who recently took "A Walk in the Woods", where he didn't find a dragon but did deal with with Nick Nolte) plays her dad, Meacham. For decades, he's told the tale of how he once saw a giant, green dragon in the forest - but very few people believed him. A new generation of town kids aren't sure what to think of the story, either. And they can't try to search for it on their phone or IPads, since the digital age hasn't yet reached Millhaven.
"Pete's Dragon" has a simple, majestic feel to it, though still with a bit of an edge. Pete and Natalie (Oona Laurence from "Southpaw"), the daughter of the owner of the lumberyard, are placed in peril throughout much of the movie due to successfully sneaking-off from the adults. This device is used multiple times in order to move the story along, which did bother me. But it's Disney peril, which means you know nothing bad will really happen to them (that only happens to parents), and the lack of imagination in the script doesn't detract from the calm, almost elegant rhythm. The editing is smart and Lowrey avoids getting trapped into predictable "save the trees/environmental message" territory I feared was coming.
While Elliot is the visual star, the cinematography of the wilderness scenes in particular are impressive. And there's a nice surprise in the final few moments to guarantee that everyone, in the film, and in the theater, goes home happy.
This is a step-back-in-time Disney family film. You can envision Walt, himself, introducing this on his "Wonderful World" TV show with a wide smile. It's "Spielbergian" in a way that Spielberg's own "The BFG" failed to be. When you hear older generation movie fans say, "they don't make movies like that anymore", you can now correct them and say "yes they do."
Refreshing and engaging from start to finish, on The Official LCJ Report Card, "Pete's Dragon" gets a B+.
Here’s the list of ingredients for every Seth Rogen adult, raunchy comedy:
- 15% original, funny, clean material
- 20% original, funny but inappropriate material
- 25% unoriginal, unfunny, inappropriate material
- and 40% filler
His latest - “Sausage Party” - follows this recipe exactly - oh, and it also includes the most pornographic 5-minute sequence in the history of animation.
The movie opens with an original song and production number called “The Great Beyond”, written by Disney legend, Alan Menken. It’s a psychedelic, profane and sexually explicit version of “Be Our Guest” - and it sets the tone for one of the most bizarre movies I’ve ever seen, with Rogen at his most unapologetic.
Yes, the premise is unique: grocery store items that are actually “alive”, learning the real true about what happens when they are bought, or “chosen”. The lead characters are voiced by Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Michael Cera, Salma Hayek, Danny McBride and more of Rogen’s regular posse. They could’ve taken “Sausage Party” in a bunch of different directions …and they chose to go in all of them.
The relationship at the center of the story involves Frank, the sausage, and hot dog bun Brenda. They desperately hope to be chosen by a customer and taken home, so they can finally get out of their packages and - umm - get together. They get separated and each go on a quest throughout the aisles of the store, meeting a variety of other products along the way. There are some genuinely clever and well thought-out moments of parody, political humor and even “spiritual insight” sprinkled in throughout the script.
However, the majority of the good stuff in “Sausage Party” is clouded-over by excessive use of profanity in the dialogue. Practically every sentence contains multiple F-bombs and a cornucopia of sexual references. And that’s NOT an exaggeration. This gets very old very quickly. There’s also a food vs. humans action movie subplot that allows Rogen to inject his trademark drug humor, which, again - “Been there, smoked that”. Someone needs to tell this guy that “Stoner Comedy” - even when the stoner sees his food coming to life - isn’t exactly cutting-edge material anymore.
“Sausage Party” literally has no filter. Every idea Rogen, Hill, Evan Goldberg and others on the team had in meetings was put into this movie - and clearly no one, including Sony execs, ever asked them to cut anything out.
Movies can be raunchy and also be very entertaining. Another Seth, Seth MacFarlane, proved that with his “Ted” movies. But even he knew when to draw the line, and he crafted legitimate stories around a wacky, “out there” premise. Like ALL of Rogen’s films, “Sausage Party” unnecessarily takes everything to the extreme to get the cheap laugh, and in the case of the final sequence, simply shock and stun the audience. And there are plenty of dull stretches, including a tacked-on ending, simply to get to the required 90-minute runtime.
Have to mention Edward Norton’s spot-on Woody Allen impression as the voice of Sammy Bagel, Jr. But is “Sausage Party“ worth “Checking-out”? Maybe if you have coupons and realize that some of it is well past its expiration date. Oh - and don’t even think about bringing the kids.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Sausage Party” gets a C-.
She’s sung Abba, Sondheim and Springsteen. Now, The Greatest Actress Alive, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep, tackles Opera as Florence Foster Jenkins. In the history books, Jenkins is defined as “The World’s Worst Singer”. But even though that was a headline used to sell papers in the 40s, and a slogan that will be used to sell tickets to this movie, Streep and director Stephen Frears (“The Queen”, “Philomena”) prove she was much more than that…or at least they try to.
Jenkins’s real life story was not a comedy, and yet, “Florence Foster Jenkins” attempts to be one - with Streep giving her most campy performance of the past decade. Set in 1944 in NYC (though the film was shot entirely in the UK), it begins with Florence and her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (played by Hugh Grant), performing theatrical skits at the Verdi Club, which Florence founded a quarter century earlier. Streep makes a grand entrance - floating down from the top of the theater as “The Angel of Inspiration”. At the end of the evening, she tells the audience that “Music has always been - and is - my life.”
But Florence thinks it’s time to return to singing on the stage (and without St. Clair, a longtime actor, delivering an opening monologue). They soon look for a new piano accompanist for Florence’s daily vocal exercises with one of the city’s top coaches and find their talented young man in Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg from “The Big Bang Theory”).
The first time you hear Streep sing, the extremely high-pitched tone may make you laugh a bit in shock. Frears spends the next 10-15 minutes solely on Florence’s singing lessons. The audience at the screening I attended couldn’t stop laughing out loud as she kept belting-out out-of-tune notes.
But here’s the thing, Florence believes she has a wonderful voice. To continue to laugh at her throughout these scenes, instead of trying to understand her delusion, completely misses the point. All those around her in the movie react that way (except her close circle of friends), realizing that she’s a terrible singer. But it was a mistake for Frears to steer audiences to think like that, depicting this woman and her life the wrong way. This film is more of a tragedy, which becomes clearer as we learn bits and pieces of Florence’s past.
St. Clair, who calls Florence “Bunny”, has a full-time job trying to hide all the negativity from her, whether it’s paying for good reviews or preventing hecklers from attending her concerts. At times, the script, by Nicholas Martin, takes these elements to the extreme, entering into conventional territory by the climax.
The first hour of “Florence Foster Jenkins” is largely devoted to set-up and subplots involving a host of uninspiring supporting characters and, primarily, St. Clair. Grant may actually have more screen time than Streep. It’s not until a scene involving Streep and Helberg at the halfway mark when we finally start to understand how Florence feels about who she is, why she sings and her love for life. Her optimism and perseverance are exuberant, but are put to the test, as shown in the final 10 minutes.
As for Ms. Meryl, she makes the most of a role in which she doesn’t get a whole lot to do. Outside of the singing, which is impressive (Streep does it all - mimicking Florence’s vocals perfectly), it’s not as immersive, showy or fearless as some of her recent work. But she does captivate during a few quiet scenes, including a well-handled finale.
Though interesting to watch and discussion-worthy, with an off-key script and unfocused direction, “Florence Foster Jenkins” fails to hit the high notes.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Florence Foster Jenkins” gets a C+.
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