"Mississippi Grind" is a solid and engaging drama about the extreme highs and lows of the world of gambling. This low-budget indie more effectively portrays this culture (just how quickly you can make money - and how destructive it can be when you lose it) than both Mark Wahlberg's recent remake of "The Gambler" and Will Smith's con/crime caper "Focus" from earlier this year. Credit goes to writers and directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck as well as the performances from leads Ben Mendelsohn ("The Dark Knight Rises") and Ryan Reynolds.
Mendelsohn's Gerry is a struggling real estate agent with a gambling addiction. He owes a lot of people a lot of money. At a casino in his home state of Iowa Gerry meets-up with Curtis (played by Reynolds) at a poker table. Curtis seems like a guy who's just passing through town...and who's passed through more than his share of towns. The two hit it off and eventually decide to travel down the Mississippi to New Orleans to take part in a major poker tournament, which promises a payoff that could change both of their lives.
The two make stops in cities to gamble along the way, including St. Louis, where Curtis reunities with on-again/off-again girlfriend Simone ("American Sniper"'s Sienna Miller). Boden and Fleck do a nice job, with quick shots of the buildings, restaurants, theaters and casinos in each area, providing a real feel for the roadtrip the men are on. Even at nighttime, the grim and gritty cinematography sets the perfect tone.
A strong theme throughout "Mississippi Grind" is the idea of rainbows bringing Curtis and Gerry good luck. The symbolism is not heavy-handed and works quite well. However, some of the scenes in the second half get a little messy and aren't as compelling as the set-up, particularly a section when Gerry decides to re-connect with his ex-wife. And the ending doesn't quite match-up with the feel of the rest of the movie. But Reynolds (who's having a highlight year with this performance and his work in "Woman in Gold") and Mendelsohn make us want to stay with "Mississippi Grind" to its somewhat predictable ending. Even after all they go through, there may just be that pot of gold at the end of their rainbow.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Mississippi Grind" gets a B-.
Johnny Depp has given a lot of great performances in his career…just not lately. With his portrayal of ruthless gangster Jimmy “Whitey” Bulger in director Scott Cooper’s “Black Mass”, Depp is generating the most positive buzz since he played Sweeney Todd on screen back in 2007.
Often it’s the Depp performance that either makes or breaks the movie he’s in. But that’s really not the case with “Black Mass” because both Depp and the film are simply just OK.
A star-studded ensemble accompanies, but never overshadows, Depp, led by Joel Edgerton as FBI agent John Connolly, who was boyhood friends with both Jimmy and his brother Billy Bulger, growing-up in tough South Boston. Billy (played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who struggles with his Boston accent) has become a powerful Massachusetts senator. And Jimmy, well, let’s just say he and his pals have been “taking care of business”.
Set in the 70s, and based on real-life events, “Black Mass” begins with Connolly and the FBI convincing Jimmy to become an informant so they can get information on the notorious Italian mob that rules the north side of the city. And over the course of the film, as Connolly’s boss (played by Kevin Bacon) and others keep telling him that the alliance with Whitey is a mistake, Connolly’s loyalty and ambition allow Bulger to expand his crime empire.
Unlike in the classic mob movies, the best scenes in “Black Mass” come during quiet times, including two exchanges between Depp and Dakota Johnson, from “Fifty Shades of Grey”, who plays Bulger’s wife. A conversation that Whitey has with their young son at the breakfast table is quirky, memorable and perfectly foreshadows what’s to come. However, other intended showcase moments for Depp, away from the predictable shootings and strangulations, don’t provide much impact.
All the elements are here for a classic crime drama. This could have been the Boston version of “Goodfellas”. But “Black Mass” never comes close to rising to that level. In fact my interest in this story and these characters fluctuated drastically over the two hours. And ignore the buzz: Depp’s performance is largely one-note and not nomination-worthy. But the biggest black mark for “Black Mass” is the over-the-top score, which ruins otherwise effective scenes and consistently hits the wrong note.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Black Mass” gets a C.
“The Visit” is the latest effort from “The Sixth Sense” director M. Night Shyamalan. His last several movies, including “The Last Airbender” and “After Earth” were both critical and box office flops. “The Visit” is being advertised as a traditional modern horror movie…with some touches of comedy. And it’s actually a pretty good film - just don’t expect a lot of scares or laughs.
Here’s the plot in a nutshell: a mother decides to send her two teenage kids - 15-year-old Becca and her 13-year-old brother Tyler - on an Amtrak train to rural Pennsylvania to visit their grandparents for a week. The catch: Becca and Tyler have never met their grandparents. Once the two arrive they are immediately welcomed by Nana and Pop Pop who, at first, seem sweet and innocent.
But not too long into their stay, Tyler (a wannabe rap star) and Becca (who’s filming their visit for a documentary) begin to notice strange circumstances involving their grandparents. Nana has issues during the day and seems completely possessed at night (the kids capture this on video), and Pop Pop has a mysterious shed and anger management issues.
Things escalate quickly, and even though there are some story and character flaws, I bought into the premise and bizarre happenings. And then, about an hour in, Shyamalan hits us with a twist that comes as a complete surprise. But it also causes the last act, which should be the most dramatic, to drag on to an uninspired conclusion.
Interestingly, “The Visit” isn’t particularly scary and is rarely intentionally funny. My favorite line comes from Pop Pop, who at one point tells the kids that he thinks they are acting strange - this after we’ve seen him collecting his dirty adult diapers and sticking the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth.
Shyamalan, who also wrote the script, clearly focused more on his director duties. “The Visit” is well-shot, though the handheld camera style has been overused lately - and it’s taken to extreme measures at times. And I appreciate the satirical approach Shyamalan takes concerning this device, this genre and his critics. At least I hope that’s what he was doing.
Or I may be guilty of over-analyzing this over-the-top thriller. Either way, this “Visit” is worth taking - I just wouldn’t want to live there. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “The Visit” gets a C+.
“A Walk in the Woods” is about two older gentlemen who decide to hike the Appalachian Trail. It certainly couldn’t have been a walk in the park for 79-year-old Robert Redford and 75-year-old Nick Nolte to make this film. And, unfortunately, it’s a bit of a struggle to watch as well.
This is a true story, based on nature writer Bill Bryson’s personal account. Redford plays Bryson, who was 44 at the time of his real walk. Redford is nearly double that. Even with that major problem the set-up does have potential. Feeling the need to do something adventurous, Bryson decides he wants to tackle the mighty Appalachian Trail. He admits that he can’t explain his motivations for the quest to wife Catherine (played by Emma Thompson), but he’s determined, against her wishes, to go. In last year’s true-life hiking movie “Wild” we had Reese Witherspoon taking-on the Pacific Crest Trail, and there was plenty of purpose behind her journey. Here - not so much.
Joining Bryson on his “Walk in the Woods” is old friend Stephen Katz (played by Nolte), who’s not exactly in great physical condition. Together they make their way along the trail, starting in Georgia and hoping to end in Maine, some 2200 miles later. They experience plenty of ups and downs - literally falling into rivers, sliding down rocks and getting stuck in mud patches. And they get themselves into predictably wacky situations involving fellow hikers and even a couple of bears. It’s all played for laughs and the execution is so corny that many scenes are simply embarrassing to watch.
However, I never lost interest in “A Walk in the Woods” mainly because I had to see what these veteran Hollywood A-listers were going to be put through next, even though the results are rarely entertaining. The script does include some solid dialogue and exchanges between Redford and Nolte, who proves he’s still one of our best actors. As for Redford, maybe since he hardly spoke in 2013’s “All is Lost”, another film in which he tried to prove he could beat nature, he’s forgotten how to properly deliver lines.
There‘s a bit of a surprise ending, but we never learn what the point of the hike really was or what these two men were trying to achieve. One thing is clear - you need to walk the other way if you’re tempted to buy a ticket.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “A Walk in the Woods” gets a C-.
“We Are Your Friends” star Zac Efron has called his latest film the “Saturday Night Fever” of this generation. But instead of a white jumpsuit and disco, Efron sports headphones and blares techno music as a DJ looking to make it big.
Efron’s Cole Carter is part of a four friend posse. They live in California’s San Fernando Valley - on the backside of the Hollywood hills. All four of are struggling to make money and desperately want to become successful. Cole meets superstar DJ James Reed (played by Wes Bentley - Seneca Crane in “The Hunger Games”), and Reed instantly takes Cole under his wing, vowing to help Cole perfect a signature track that could send him on his way to the top.
A lot more happens in “We Are Your Friends”, mostly involving the four friends and some enemies and friends who become enemies. A love triangle emerges, as Cole begins to take an interest in James‘ assistant and sort-of girlfriend Sophie (played by Emily Ratajkowski). But it’s the music that controls this movie, as the loud and relentless techno-pop soundtrack dominates most scenes, including numerous montages featuring predominately girls at parties and clubs dancing in slow-motion.
And yet, even with all this beat, “We Are Your Friends” has very little energy. In one distracting segment, Cole takes you completely out of the moment with graphics, charts and narration about the science of dance music, explaining, in detail, how 128 heartbeats per minute is the perfect way to get people moving. Unfortunately, this script kept me at a steady 60 heartbeats per minute for the entire film.
Efron’s Cole is in a complete daze from start to finish, even in a couple of fight scenes, and his buddies are pure stereotypes. Jon Bernthal (from “The Wolf of Wall Street”) does have a solid supporting role as a shady real estate tycoon. “We Are Your Friends” provides a little insight into this end of the music industry and avoids (for the most part) a “Happily Ever After” ending. It tries to set itself apart from other “finding yourself in Hollywood” stories that also feature conflict and romance, but all good efforts are erased by the cornball finale.
“Saturday Night Fever”? - No. “Tuesday Night - Very Mild Temperature.” is more like it. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “We Are Your Friends” gets a D+.
“No Escape” sounds like the title of a direct-to-DVD (or, these days, direct-to-VOD) movie. But The Weinstein Company thought they could make a little bit of money at the end of an action-packed Summer by releasing it in theaters. But there’s “no escaping” the fact that this thriller belongs in a discount bin at Walmart and not your local multiplex.
Owen Wilson is known for playing the goofball or sidekick in comedies - not a heroic action star. In “No Escape”, he’s inventor and businessman Jack Dwyer, who’s just taken a job with an international corporation that supplies clean water to 3rd world countries. So he’s moving his family - wife Annie (Lake Bell from “Million Dollar Arm”) and two young daughters - to Southeast Asia.
But to say his timing is bad would be a gross understatement: On the first day in their new country, the Prime Minister is assassinated and a revolution begins. The coup escalates quickly, and the violence travels directly to the Dwyers’ hotel. So Jack is forced to act fast - and take some wild chances - in order to survive this horrific nightmare and get his family to safety.
Pierce Brosnan has a 007-style supporting role and he does add some lighter touches to the very serious tone. This film doesn’t just depict one of the worst possible circumstances parents could ever face - but places you right in the middle of it, early on, making you feel like you’re in just as much danger as the Dwyers. But there is such as thing as “too much of a bad thing”…and once Jack is forced to throw his daughters from one rooftop to another (shown in ridiculous slow-motion), “No Escape” begins its decent into the land of unbelievability.
It’s always tough to buy-into movies, especially fictional ones - in which a family or small group of people are at the center of their own apocalypse and, somehow, they’re the only ones to stay alive. There are literally hundreds of people, just like the Dwyers, graphically slaughtered in this film, and yet this husband and wife, dragging two little kids along, are able to survive deadly situations, time and time again. Wilson and Bell do their best, but it’s all pretty far-fetched.
And I always find it distasteful, manipulative and desperate when a screenplay (this one is written by the film’s director John Erick Dowdle and his brother Drew) has to rely on young children being put in extremely dangerous situations in order to draw emotion out of an audience.
“No Escape” also has some rough editing and shaky story elements in certain spots. And while it does do a good job of convincing you to maybe put-off that planned vacation to Southeast Asia, it never feels gripping or genuinely suspenseful.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “No Escape” gets a C-.
"The End of the Tour" is an immersive true-story drama starring two actors who give two of the year's finest performances. For five days back in 1996, Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky (played by Oscar-nominee Jesse Eisenberg) travelled with and interviewed prolific, 34-year-old author David Foster Wallace (played by potential Oscar-nominee Jason Segel) as he made his final stops on the promotional tour for his latest book, the 1,079-page, critically praised novel Infinite Jest.
As Lipsky discovers early on, Rolling Stone hadn't done an author profile in the last 10 years, and he needed to prove to his boss that Wallace was someone worth doing a piece on. Fourteen years later, Lipsky would publish the book this film is based on - Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. Many of the scenes with Eisenberg and Segel take place inside the rental car Lipsky gets for the trip, as he asks Wallace about a variety of topics of his life, including his love of writing, substance abuse issues, and the price that comes with success and fame. But the focus here is also on Lipsky, who is a struggling author and sees Wallace's life as something to strive for - at least for awhile.
From the first minute they meet, you are completely engrossed in this relationship. Much like in "Frost/Nixon", there's a fascinating dynamic taking place between interviewer and interviewee that we have a front row seat for. And it constantly changes throughout the five days, with the tables getting turned and stakes being raised, leaving you always wondering how far both men will go and how much about themselves they will reveal. And Lipsky's tape recorder becomes a third and very critical character in this relationship, used by both players at times to their advantage.
This is Eisenberg's best work since "The Social Network". Joan Cusack has a small, but memorable role as Wallace's book tour escort. As for Segel, this performance should earn him plenty of Awards Season attention in the Best Supporting Actor category. While his character is the focus of the interview and he has the more showcase role, this is really Lipsky's story. So, just as J.K. Simmons' domination of "Whiplash" last year was a Supporting role, so too, is Segel's work. And it's just as much of a powerhouse. He displays Wallace's pain, joy, humor and sadness through both words and actions. The dialogue between these two characters, the philosophies they share, reveal their loneliness and insecurities. Wallace's beliefs on world's obsession with television and the media are incredibly on target (and even more meaningful 20 years later). They make the scenes in which he's glued to the movie screen and hotel TV even more profound.
Writers, journalists and storytellers at all levels will relate to and embrace everything "The End of the Tour" stands for. Director James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now") and writer Donald Marguiles (this is his feature film screenwriting debut) condense a typical relationship arc of two people over a lifetime into just a handful of days, but the complexities of this film will stay with you for a long time.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The End of the Tour" gets an A.
"Hitman: Agent 47" is a reboot (of sorts) in a film franchise that started, and should've ended, with 2007's bomb "Hitman" starring Timothy Olyphant. Both of these movies are based on the popular video game series that's been around for 15 years. While video games, especially the shoot-em-up variety, are typically have extremely thin storylines, it seems the script for "Hitman: Agent 47" was likely written in about 15 minutes.
Katia (Hannah Ware), who has some telepathic tricks in her noggin, finds-out from a mysterious man named John Smith (played by "Star Trek"'s Zachary Quinto) that a genetically-engineered hitman, who has a human body but few human emotions, is out to kill her. His name is Agent 47 (the other 46 names were apparently taken). He's played by Rupert Friend, who has a slight resemblance to "Pirates of the Caribbean" star Orlando Bloom (which, of course, has nothing to do with the plot of this film, but that's what happens when one's mind wanders when the film one is watching is so completely uninteresting).
Soon the plot becomes a search for Katia's dad, complete with the typical advanced technology mumbo-jumbo. The dialogue is so boring that ALL of the characters may as well have been genetically-altered non-humans (maybe they are?) As for the performances, Quinto is overdramatic, stiff and stingy - basically Spock in a nice suit. And all this time I thought he was acting in the two "Star Trek" films. This may be how Quinto plays all his roles. Friend's major responsibilites are fast driving and shooting people. For some reason his accent becomes noticably more American halfway through the movie.
There are some uninteltnionally hilarious moments during the goofy, slow-motion-filled action scenes, complete with corny one-liners. I must say there are some creative ways that people are killed in "Hitman: Agent 47" (clearly inspired by the game). And the body count is massive. In fact, 31 people die on screen even before the opening "Hitman" title appears, about five minutes in.
Mindless, ridiculous, but certainly not painless to watch, this is the worst pure action film of Summer 2015. On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Hitman: Agent 47" gets a D.
“American Ultra” is the latest in a long line of movies which suffers from the “Pulp Fiction” syndrome: the attempt to mix quirky characters, sarcastic comedy and very graphic violence into one wild, cinematic experience. No one’s been able to successfully pull it off since Tarantino over 20-years ago (including Tarantino himself). The result this time is an absolute mess.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Mike. He works at a small town convenience store and has a longtime girlfriend Phoebe (played by Kristen Stewart). They were supposed to go to on vacation to Hawaii, where Mike was finally going to propose. But that gets put on hold when Mike has one of his violent panic attacks just before getting on the plane.
A few nights later back at the store, a mysterious woman enters and warns Mike that he is in serious danger. A few minutes later he notices two men messing with his car in the parking lot, and suddenly, he has the strength and abilities to not only beat them up but actually kill them. Mike has no idea how or why this happened, but the CIA does. Turns-out Mike was once an experimental agent, and now he needs to be eliminated. If only someone at Lionsgate felt the same way about this film before it made it to theaters.
“American Ultra” is one of the most unfocused and discombobulated films in recent memory. The plot never makes complete sense, with holes in common sense and logic everywhere. The concept of an ex-agent, now in the real world, becoming a target is so unoriginal that for it to work there has to be a unique spin - and here there is not. The “stoner” element, pushed in the ads and the trailers, doesn’t even apply in the actual movie.
The acting is so ridiculous I don’t know where to begin. There’s no chemistry between Stewart and Eisenberg, whose Mike - a combination of dumb, naïve, and high - just doesn’t work. And the two are laughable together in the “dramatic” moments. Connie Britton (from TV’s “Nashville”) is miscast as Mike’s former CIA boss. John Leguizamo is completely unfunny as Mike’s drug dealer. The Emmy-winning co-star of “Veep”, Tony Hale, adds nothing as a goofy agent. But worst of all are Topher Grace, who plays the weird and wacky CIA operations head - and Walton Goggins (“Justified”), as “Agent Laugher”. They give two of the most embarrassing on-screen performances in recent years.
And then there’s the style: One minute “Ultra” tries to be cute and clever with Mike’s “Space Ape” comic book drawings - seconds later he’s slicing someone’s head off with a dust pan. Shocking? A little. Effective in helping make this a quality film? No. In fact nothing here works. Even the only “twist”, which is hardly unique, comes way too early and has no impact.
I didn’t like a single scene or element in this entire film. Just another example of a studio burying a bomb at the end of August. On The Official LCJ Report Card, “American Ultra” gets an F.
"The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is based on a semi-hit 60s TV series, and while director Guy Ritchie does a nice job capturing the style and feel of the decade with fashion, sets and music, he fails miserably at delivering a film with any actual substance. This should've been a light and fun summer popcorn spy adventure. Instead, it's close to a complete F.L.O.P.
Ritchie was clearly trying to duplicate the successes of his "Sherlock Holmes" movies (BTW - the sequel was better than the original) by having Henry Cavill (aka the guy who plays our current Superman) and Armie Hammer (aka the guy who played two guys in "The Social Network") as foes begrudgingly forced to work together to stop a nuclear warhead from getting into the wrong hands (how original). The plot of the film is continually explained to each of them by a handful of supporting characters speaking multiple languages. And early on, the two leads even recap the other's life story TO EACH OTHER, just for the sake of the audience.
Both American thief turned CIA agent Napolean Solo (Cavill) and star athlete turned KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Hammer), both actors speak with phony accents - Hammer's Russian, Cavill's, James Bondian. I'm still debating which one is worse. Illya constantly referring to Solo as "Cowboy" made me think back to one of Hammer's other recent bombs "The Lone Ranger", another failed "buddy film". As "U.N.C.L.E." progresses, Ritchie tries other "Holmes" tricks, including having characters reveal how they pulled-off certain stunts, and re-showing previous scenes while "surprises" are being explained. A little of this goes a long way and all of it is unnecessary. It's not cute or stylish, but is an insult to audiences who are much smarter than this director thinks.
And on top of all of this: "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is supposed to be an action comedy. There are numerous, intentional and extensive attempts to illicit laughs with dry, obvious dialogue and a few cringe-worthy scenes, including one in which Solo eats a sandwich in a truck while his partner is being shot at in a boat. In another, Alicia Vikander, who's one of "U.N.C.L.E"'s only bright spots (she gave a breakout performance earlier this year in "Ex Machina") dances suggestively while Hammer is playing chess alone. It's one of those "I fell bad for the actors" moments. This movie has a lot of those.
Hugh Grant pops-up from time to time, including in the final scene, which sets the stage for a sequel. If one is made, and I'm forced to see a different version of this misguided project, I may be forced to "cry uncle".
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." gets a D+.
"Straight Outta Compton" is a biopic that chronicles the highs and lows in the careers of rappers Dr. Dre, Eazy-E and Ice Cube, who together formed the legendary ghetto rap group N.W.A. back in the late 80s. And while I can't write what N.W.A. stands for, I can state that this is a solid and occasionally daring film - with attitude.
While these rappers had millions of fans, most people heading into this movie won’t be aware of the depths of this true story, and it’s the details that give “Straight Outta Compton” its power. These three artists and a few longtime friends from their tough, south LA neighborhood, decide the way to escape lives of poverty, violence and drugs is through their music - and the film follows their rise from local stars to international superstars, who change the industry forever, unapologetically exercising their First Amendment rights with controversial lyrics. And we see that the real struggles come in trying to stay successful, under the shady leadership of manager Jerry Heller (played by the always excellent Paul Giamatti).
There are some funny scenes in the recording studio, and surprise references and cameos from actors playing other popular rap artists of the time. But the strongest scenes in “Straight Outta Compton” are the confrontations between these young black men and the LA police (both white and black officers), who harass, insult and physically beat them just because of who they are and the messages they’re delivering in their songs. This script doesn’t hold back - providing a realistic sense of the racial tensions of the time, even incorporating the Rodney King beating and subsequent riots into the storyline. And it doesn’t portray these rappers as heroes, as everyone involved in this story is flawed - some more than others.
Ice Cube’s son, O’Shea Jackson, Jr., plays his dad. Corey Hawkins (“Non-Stop”) is Dr. Dre, and Jason Mitchell (“Contraband”) plays Eazy-E. All three are quite convincing. F. Gary Gray (who directed Ice Cube’s breakout film “Friday” 20 years ago) gives each artist’s story the proper attention, resulting in a nice narrative balance.
But “Straight Outta Compton” suffers from one major problem: it’s two and a half hours long and feels it. By the time we arrive at the third act (which is dominated by the business end of things - no longer the passion for making great music) the material becomes very repetitive. Some editing would’ve helped make for a tighter and more coherent film. The closing credits perk your interest back up, with true-life footage and interviews - which will inspire you to check-out the 2008 VH1 Documentary - “N.W.A. - The World’s Most Dangerous Group”. But considering the influence these young men continue to have on the popular music scene of today, a more comprehensive, updated feature would be welcome.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Straight Outta Compton” gets a B-.
Just when the world thought Meryl Streep had done just about everything an actress can do, her latest movie features the 19-time Oscar nominee singing Lady Gaga. As mother turned rocker, Ricki Rendazzo, title character in the musical dramedy "Ricki and the Flash", Streep teams-up with fellow Academy Award winners Jonathan Demme (director of "The Silence of the Lambs") and screenwriter Diablo Cody ("Juno"). This film isn't groundbreaking by any means, as there are hardly any real sparks in the traditional, yet satisfying story. But what "Ricki" proves, more than anything, is that Streep can still hit it out of the park.
As the film opens we see Ricki and The Flash, her band, performing in a small town California bar, where they're the house band. Ricki never hit it big as an artist, having only released one album (an actual record - not a CD) during her long career. She and The Flash perform covers of classics, as well as some modern songs. They also cornily banter in between tunes, entertaining the handful of people in the room - a nice, authentic touch.
But when Ricki (whose real name is Linda) receives a call from ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) that the husband of their daughter Julie (played by Streep's real-life daughter Mamie Gummer) has left her for another woman, he asks her to come back home to Indianapolis for a visit - to the family she abandoned a long time ago.
Ricki's family is as dysfunctional as it gets, and an awkward restaurant scene involving most of the members is tough to watch (though not as wacky and ridiculous as the one in "August: Osage County". What is it about Streep and family dinner confrontations?) One of the biggest surprises in the film is that, even though the trailers and commercials heavily promote the Streep/Gummer relationship as the central focus of the film, it's really only half of the story.
Ricki's lead guitarist, Greg, is played by Mr. "Jessie's Girl" himself - Rick Springfield. Over the course of the film, Ricki and The Flash perform chart-topping singles from artists such as Bruce Springsteen, U2 and P!NK. As you watch Streep and Springfield sing "Drift Away", the pair looking at each other for practically the entire time, they both do a great job conveying the emotions of the song with their eyes as well as their voices. One of Demme's main successes with "Ricki and the Flash" is that all of the songs are performed "live" (no post-dubbing), which does elevate the overall experience. And the film's sole original song, "Cold One" (which Streep sings twice) is terrific.
Streep often shines with simple facial expressions and reactions that are chuckle-worthy. There are also plenty of showcase moments, including a conversation between her and Pete's new wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald). It's too early tell if Streep's work is good enough for a 20th Oscar nomination (she's a lock for a Golden Globe Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical nod). Overall, like a great concert, "Ricki and the Flash" pulls you in early, keeps you entertained, and leaves you with some fun memories.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Ricki and the Flash" gets a B.
Australian actor Joel Edgerton is best known to American audiences as the star of the MMA drama "Warrior" and as Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrman's version of "The Great Gatsby". "The Gift" is Edgerton's feature film directorial debut. It's a tense and genuinely suspenseful thriller which he also wrote, co-produced and co-stars in, alongside the always solid Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman, who delivers a career-best performance.
Bateman plays Simon and Hall is his wife Robyn. They've just moved from Chicago to California for Simon's new job, and into a luxurious new house in the SoCal hills. While shopping, they run into one of Simon's old classmates from high school - Gordon Mosley (played by Edgerton). From their conversation, "Gordo" seems a little...quirky, or as Robyn puts it "socially awkward". But pretty soon, Gordo shows up at their home uninvited and brings them the first of a series of gifts: a bottle of wine.
Following dinner and more unexpected visits from Gordo when Robyn is home alone with their family dog, Simon thinks it's best if the couple's relationship with Gordo should end, telling his wife that kids used to call him "Gordo the Weirdo" in school, and that his somewhat strange personality hasn't really changed much in the past 25 years. There's a dramatic plot twist and suddenly "The Gift" begins a rollercoaster ride of surprises, each coming at a terrific pace - making you question what you thought you knew about these complex people and where this story was going.
As the stakes get elevated, so does our interest. "The Gift" is one of those movies where paying attention early helps in figuring out the causes of events as they unfold. There are so many layers to these characters that you are constantly unsure who's really to blame for what's taking place. Edgerton bravely turns the modern thriller genre on its head, masterfully unwrapping his bold vision. Several times he holds a camera shot just past the point where it's no longer comfortable for the audience, including a close-up of the pet dog that I still can't get out of my mind. Only a few scenes feel over-dramatized for effect.
Bateman, who's starred in a string of comedies over the years, gets to show-off his true acting abilities in several showcase scenes. Hall is excellent as a confused, stressed, good-hearted but psychologically troubled woman. And Edgerton's Gordo is both sinister and sympathetic and simply fascinating to observe.
Even if you think you've figured out where "The Gift" is headed for its finale, the last major twist will throw you for a loop and leave you in a much different state of mind than when you entered the theater - which is exactly what a great thriller should do.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Gift" gets a B+.
20th Century Fox and Marvel have already made two “Fantastic Four” movies - the first released a little more than 10 years ago. Now they’re at it again, with a film that should’ve been called “Fantastic Four Origins”, because that’s exactly what it is - a 100 minute backstory to a potential sequel that should never be made.
This is designed to be a younger/cooler version of the classic comic book story. Miles Teller (of “Whiplash”) plays Reed Richards, who is never referred to as Mr. Fantastic. Michael B. Jordan is Johnny Storm, who shows-off his reckless street racing skills in one of only three action scenes in the entire film. Even “Iron Man” (which stuck Robert Downey, Jr. in a cave for 45 minutes) was a superhero origin story with WAY more action.
Kate Mara (from Netflix’s “House of Cards”) is Susan Storm, though she prefers Sue over Susan. And Jamie Bell, who survived the motion-capture experience of “The Adventures of Tintin”, eventually becomes The Thing. Even Michael Chiklis - who played The Thing in those two previous “FF” movies - has to feel bad for Bell, who reminded me of the Ticket Oak from the Stub-Hub commercials.
Those are your less than fantastic leads - but casting isn’t the movies biggest problem - or problems: First of all - it takes so long for “Fantastic Four” to get to the point where the charactesr get their powers. The screenplay begins way back in Reed’s school science fair days, eventually flashing forward to these four as young adults, along with Victor Von Doom, working on a breakthrough teleportation device that could take them to another dimension. No doubt thousands watching this in theaters nationwide will be thinking the same thing I was: if only that machine could transport me to a theater showing a much better movie I would’ve hopped on board immediately.
Visual effects? Laughable. The Dr. Doom costume looks like something from a low-budget, sci-fi parody film. The dialogue? Corny. Story? Completely uninteresting - in fact the reason why these four individuals get their powers is absolutely ridiculous.
What we didn’t need in a “Fantastic Four” reboot is one that starts from the beginning, yet again. Maybe if the story took these characters to new and unique territory, it could have worked. Doom (which also describes what director Josh Trank expressed in his Tweet blaming Fox for re-cutting what he thought was a “fantastic” version of the film), is actually the most interesting character. The only other element that keep me from zoning out completely was counting the scenes in which Tim Blake Nelson’s Dr. Allen chewed gum. Yes, it’s that bad.
And now - It’s Clobberin’ Time: On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Fantastic Four” gets a D.
UK-based Aardman is one of the most reliable animation studios operating today. Practically every feature and short they've produced has been a winner, led, of course, by their iconic creations - "Wallace & Gromit". Now, with its first film since 2012's non-stop laugh fest "The Pirates! Band of Misfits", Aardman brings British TV animation staple "Shaun the Sheep" to American audiences in feature-length form.
One of the main things that sets the "Shaun" series apart is that, unlike with most animated films and programs, the non-human characters don't speak English - instead communicating through animal noises. And the human characters rarely speak as well. And when they do, it's also mostly through grunts or a couple of mumbled words. This style has been used successfully on the wildly popular "Shaun" BBC TV series, as well as on the excellent spinoff,"Timmy Time" (which aired for a few seasons in the US on the Disney Channel), and stars the littlest member of Shaun's flock and his orange stuffed companion. And, with the "Shaun the Sheep Movie", Aardman proves once again that you don't need traditional dialogue to tell a funny, heartwarming and highly entertaining story.
Shaun and the other sheep are tired of the same, boring, daily routine of farm life: get-up at dawn, eat, get into a pen, and get sheared. They want a day off. So, after getting inspiration from an unexpected source, Shaun decides to put a plan into action. But things take an unfortunate turn, and the Farmer ends up in "The Big City". And they quickly realize that without him they are also lost. So Shaun and the others, including watchdog and arch-enemy Blitzer, set out to the city find the Farmer and bring him home.
The entire breezy 85 minutes of "Shaun the Sheep Movie" is packed with both clever gags and subtle comedy bits. Aardman's trademark attention to details is fully on display and never more spot-on. Often there are two and three jokes taking place at the same time, so you can't take your attention away from the screen for a second (though, at one point, the sheep do put the farmer asleep by continually hopping over a fence). There are funny references throughout and you never know what's coming next. The script mixes both old-fashioned and modern material, and while the plot is simple, the result is surprisingly effective. There aren't a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in "Shaun", but you will find yourself chuckling more times throughout this movie than during any film you've seen in a long time. And there's also a hefty amount of emotion built into this story, dealing with topics such as abandonment (a few visuals are brilliant), pet shelters and, amazingly, what's important in life. Trust me, the next morning you feel tired of your daily routine you'll think of Shaun and his adventure and will jump out of bed.
It goes without saying, but I still have to say it: the Aardman stop-motion animation remains the best in the business. The studio never disappoints when it comes to the spectacular look and execution of both the over-the-top physical scenes and the small details, such as facial expressions. And the song "Feels Like Summer" (which is the heart and soul of the film) is simply terrific.
"Shaun the Sheep Movie" is witty, fast-paced fun for both kids and adults. If you've grown-up with Aardman and know these characters you'll be delighted by this tale, and if you're a newcomer you'll welcome Shaun and his flock to your animation family with open arms. This is both the best animated film and most delightful movie of 2015 so far.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "Shaun the Sheep Movie" gets an A-.
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