Once again, Labor Day Weekend is a bare one at the movies, with just two new releases, neither of which will light the box office. They are Relativity Media's Pierce Brosnan action film "The November Man" and Universal's horror/thriller "As Above, So Below". Because of this, other studios are trying to take advantage and attract audiences looking to play catch-up over the four-day holiday.
"Chef", the indie ensemble romantic comedy about a struggling chef looking to re-invent himself, was released by Open Road in May and spent six weeks in the Top 10. Jon Favreau ("Iron Man") stars and directs the film. And he brought together an impressive ensemble which includes Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, John Leguizamo, Sofia Vergara, Oliver Platt and Robert Downey, Jr. It's a solid comedy with several qualities on its menu which make it worth recommending.
And "Begin Again", from Focus Features, is a musical dramedy about a producer who loses his job (Mark Ruffalo), and then finds talent in a New York City songwriter (Keira Knightley). The songs, particularly "Lost Stars" performed by both Knightley and "Maroon 5" singer Adam Levine (in his first acting role), are terrific. Co-starring Catherine Keener, Mos Def, and Hailee Steinfeld ("True Grit"), "Begin Again" is predictable, but in a refreshing sort of way.
Hoping to start some early Awards Season buzz, and make some extra $$$ at the box office, both films are being re-released nationwide starting this Friday and are worth checking-out before time runs out on Summer '14.
It's ironic, yet hardly surprising that "The November Man" was buried by distributor Relativity Media at the end of August. The best thing that can be said about this effort, based on the 7th book in the "NM" series, "There Are No Spies", written by late author Bill Granger, is that it's appropriately titled, because when anyone thinks about it, the first thing that will come to mind is - TURKEY.
The true big screen "November Man" is James Bond, as six of the last seven 007 movies were released in that month to box office glory. Pierce Brosnan played the iconic agent four times and is regarded as one of the Best Bonds. As ex-CIA agent Peter Devereaux in "The November Man", Brosnan doesn't get to revisit his 007 glory days of fancy cars, beautiful women, incredible gadgets, weapons and ruthless villains. Instead, he settles for a clumsy, dumbed-down Bond knock-off which provides very little suspense or excitement.
Olga Kurylenko, who played Daniel Craig's Bond Girl in 2008's "Quantum of Solace", becomes Devereaux's partner as Alice, a social worker with a mysterious background and some inside information. The film is being promoted as an "Old Spy vs. New Spy" showdown, with Devereaux matching skills with his former apprentice at the CIA, Mason (played by Luke Bracey), who is now working against Devereaux and also happened to kill his wife. And, as has become popular in spy movies once again, the Russians are the bad guys.
If director Roger Donaldson ("The Bank Job") succeeds with anything it's that "The November Man" deserves its R-rating for the most random and bloodiest shootings and murders of any film this year. There's hardly anything new or innovative in the dull and all-too-familiar script. The "revelation" midway through, poised to fool everyone, comes-off as a bad joke. And here's how unoriginal this film is: there's actually scene involving Brosnan's character playing revolver Russian Roulette with a character he's trying to get information from.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The November Man" gets a D. It's 15 months until the next James Bond film hits theaters (November 2015). After watching a mess like this, the return of 007 can't come soon enough.
"If I Stay" is the "End of Summer of 2014 Tween/Teen Romantic Tearjerker". Based on the popular 2009 novel by Gayle Forman, Chloe Grace Moretz ("Kick-Ass") stars as 17-year-old Mia. She lives with her parents and younger brother Teddy in Portland, Oregon. Mia's love of music was inherited from her mom and dad, but they were rockers and she plays classical cello. Adam (Jamie Blackley) is the lead singer of a local rock band. He instantly falls in love with Mia while watching her play the cello in school, and together they form what they believe will be an unbreakable bond.
But that all changes when Mia, Teddy, and their parents get into a serious car accident. Mia survives the crash but slips into a coma. Yet (as a cinematic device) she is able to step away from her body and watch as the rest of the day unfolds, and her fate, and those of her parents and brother, are decided. At the same time, through flashbacks, we get to see the key moments in Mia's life - from early childhood to the current day, as she's deciding whether or not to fight to stay alive.
"If I Stay" is stronger than I expected, both structurally and emotionally. It doesn't quite provide the punch of the "Beginning of Summer Tween/Teen Romantic Tearjerker", the surprise hit "The Fault in Our Stars", but it's close. Moretz and Blackley have a likeable chemistry and are most believable in their pre-ER scenes. Mireille Enos ("The Killing", "World War Z") and Joshua Leonard ("The Blair Witch Project") are solid as the ex-rocker parents. And Stacy Keach, as Mia's supportive grandfather, has two showcase scenes that are the most authentic and heartbreaking in the entire film.
There are predictable elements in "If I Stay", and minor details are given away early that take away from some of the suspense in the final act. Some scenes are stretched-out simply to fill time, which is necessary since the main storyline ("Will she stay or will she die?") is fairly thin. And judging from the reaction of the mostly female YA audience in the theater I was in, there may be some dissatisfaction with the rather abrupt ending. Overall, veteran TV/documentary director R.J. Cutler deserves credit for taking this material, including the "out there" premise and making a film that, for the most part, is genuine and effective.
"If I Stay" is rated PG-13 for some language, adult content, dramatic elements and medical scenes. There were tears flowing freely in the theater, so keep that in mind before deciding if this subject matter is for you.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "If I Stay" gets a B-.
I give the team behind the new sports movie, "When the Game Stands" a lot of credit for pulling-off something nearly impossible: they've made a film about the most successful high school football team of all-time that's about as exciting as a 0-0 tie in an NFL exhibition game.
"When the Game Stands Tall" is based on the true story of Concord, California's De La Salle High School football program, and head coach Bob Ladouceur, who lead the team to the longest winning streak in sports history - 151 games in a row - from 1992-2003. However, like all unprecedented accomplishments, De La Salle finally lost and the streak ended in the '04 season opener. The film looks at the coach and his players before, during and mostly after they suffer their historic loss.
In the months leading up to seeing the film I had watched the unapologetic Regal Cinemas First Look preview for "Game" over a dozen times, and it gave away nearly every major plot point. The summary (SPOILER ALERT if you haven't been to a Regal theater in awhile) said it all: "Bob has a heart attack, a very popular player is tragically killed, and they lose the streak - all within a couple of months." Well, what's left?
So, while the clock was ticking along as I was watched "Game", I kept waiting for something genuinely surprising or interesting to take place. And nothing does. Instead we get a script packed with cliches, countless forced speeches and stereotype characters, from the hot-shot player, to the ignored wife, to the worst stage parent in the history of high school football. Coach Ladouceur is played by "Person of Interest" star Jim Caviezel with all the energy and enthusiasm of a zombie. An almost unrecognizable Michael Chiklis is the way too sensitive assistant coach, and Laura Dern's best scene, as Bob's wife, is a bizarre monologue which comes out of nowhere and doesn't fit at all.
A subplot involving QB Chris Ryan ("The Hunger Games"' Alexander Ludwig) and his father Mickey, who's obsessed with his son breaking a touchdown record, gets way over-the-top in the "all-football" second half. The actor who plays Mickey is Clancy Brown, the voice of Mr. Krabs on "SpongeBob SquarePants". Both characters are greedy, but I'll take Mr. Krabs, who's genuinely loyal to his "son-like" fry cook over this wacko father any day (who by the way, wasn't a real person, but made-up for the movie).
Many of the predictable themes of "When the Game Stands Tall" involve friendship, brotherhood and bonding over, as the Coach puts it, "just a high school football game". Yet there's only one brief classroom scene and no discussions about the importance of academics. Though they try to deny it, this film is all about the game. Technically, director Thomas Carter ("Coach Carter") succeeds with the well-shot football scenes. And a stretch in a rehabilitation facility (also fiction) is a nice change of pace. But the announcer voice-overs are amateurish and completely unrealistic and there are so many obvious and sloppy mistakes that the editors must have been rookies.
"When the Game Stands Tall" is rated PG for brief violence, smoking, and mild thematic elements. Diehard football fans expecting an inspiring film with emotionally charged moments will be disappointed with this unsatisfying and corny take on a coach and team that deserved much better.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "When the Game Stands Tall" gets a C-.
At one point in "The Giver", Meryl Streep tells fellow Oscar winner Jeff Bridges: "When people have the freedom to choose - they choose wrong." This seems to apply perfectly to the decision that Bob & Harvey Weinstein made to finance this big-screen adaptation of one of the most popular tween books of the last 25 years. I had several opportunities to read The Giver in grade school, but after hearing things about the story, I decided the premise was a little too "out there" for my taste. The same can be said for the film version.
The first thing readers of the novel will notice is that Bridges doesn't have the beard and long white hair of The Giver on the cover of the book. The filmmakers decided to "giver" the hair extension to Streep instead. She portrays the Chief Elder, who rules over a large, futuristic colony where the people have no emotions, don't experience pain, have no authentic feelings, don't know color or the meaning of love.
On Graduation Day, 18-year-old Jonas (played by Brenton Thwaites - Prince Philip in "Maleficent") is assigned to his life-long job - a special one where he gets to work with The Giver himself as the new Receiver of Memories. But when Jonas begins to learn how life used to be, and how everyone in the community is being deceived, he decides he needs to do something about it.
The overriding problem with "The Giver", is that the narrative is simply too tame. There are some potentially interesting concepts here, but the elementary school-level script never goes deep enough to explore them. Since it's based on a tween novel I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but the film is PG-13 and needed much more depth.
Bridges and Streep attempt to elevate "The Giver" with their performances, but director Phillip Noyce ("Salt") is too restrained with them as well. Many scenes come-off as hokey, including several sledding rides, practically every scene involving Jonas' zombie-like parents (played by Alexander Skarsgard and Katie Holmes) and his naive girlfriend Fiona (Odeya Rush), and a hologram cameo performance by singer Taylor Swift, who plays the piano while trying to act alongside the veteran Bridges. And on top of all of this is a "sing-songy" score that won't get out of your head for weeks.
"The Giver" is rated PG-13 for some sci-fi action/violence, disturbing images and a whole lot of peril for one brave little baby. If the serious themes had been developed at all, "The Giver" may have been worth recommending. But as is, "The Giver" takes (time and $$) much more than it gives.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, "The Giver" receives a D+.