Podcast: SJ 134: Project Runway; The Grand Tour; Rolling Papers; Life of Brian; Sing; Fences; Passengers;

White Background LogoSwanner and Judd talk about Project Runway; The Grand Tour; Rolling Papers; Life of Brian; Sing; Fences; Passengers.

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Fences

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Swanner: Theatre nerds were rejoicing when they heard that Fences was finally going to become a theatrical film. The play first opened on Broadway in 1983 winning a ton of Tony Awards. In 2010, it came back to Broadway, winning more Tony Awards as Best Revival of a Play, with Best Actor and Actress in a Play going to Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. So like in The Golden Years, a hit Broadway play comes to film with the original leads. It doesn’t happen like that much anymore.

Denzel Washington takes the reins as not just actor, but also as director  and producer. He also got August Wilson, the genius playwright, to adapt his Pulitzer Prize winning play for the screen. Lucky us. The store centers around Troy Maxson (Washington) a sanitation worker in 1950’s Pittsburgh. He lives with  his is wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo) and life is a routine. Fridays he gets paid and brings the money home to Rose with a sack of potatoes. Little does the family know that Troy is hiding something from them that will change all their lives.

This is an exceptional film. The performances are crazy good, but it’s August Wilson’s incredible words they are speaking. The rest of the cast includes Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson and Saniyya Sidney. It’s a small cast and a good one. The film does suffer from staging the film like a play, but Washington may have been trying to create a claustrophobic atmosphere, like the one in Troy’s house. Fences is a hard film to watch, with Troy’s 1950’s model of masculinity, but it’s a film worth seeing. As I said before, all the performances are crazy good, but Viola Davis will be taking home and Academy Award if there is a god.

Swanner: 4 stars

Passengers

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Swanner: Image, if you will, traveling to a new planet; a trip that takes 120 years. One fourth of a way through your trip, you are awakened unexpectedly, just you. While over 5000 stay sleeping, you are alone for another 90 years. Jim Preston is that man. Alone till he dies, unless he does the unthinkable. Curse someone else with his solitary confinement. Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence star.

Judd: Someone must have binged watched the Twilight Zone.

Swanner: Shut up. Academy Award nominee Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game) attempts to bring romance to outer space, and for the most part pulls it off. Lawrence and Pratt work well together, and, with their own likability, help create an on screen chemistry. The script by the Jon Spaihts (Doctor Strange) is good but flawed with plot holes. Of course it’s hard to blame Spaihts and Tyldum, since I don’t know if the film had to undergo a studio cut for time, which is always a consideration.

As I mentioned, the chemistry worked for me. No matter how believable the plot, the story is still about a man locked away with no company, with the exception of computer voices and a robotic Bartender named Arthur played by Michael Sheen.

Judd: No passengers and my own personal bartender? Sign me up!

Swanner: This isn’t the best sci-fi to come out this year, nor is it the worst. The special effect are good, and if you’re going for the romance you’ll probably leave happy. If you’re going for the best sci-fi adventure, rent Captain American Civil War

Swanner: 2 ½ stars

Sing

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Judd: Sing is about a koala named Buster Moon who owns a theater in a city much like Disney’s Zootopia. Animals of all kinds live their anthropomorphic lives side-by-side in a nameless city that appears to be a mix between L.A. and San Francisco. Moon’s theater is about to be foreclosed upon due to the fact that he hasn’t had any hits. As a last-ditch effort, he decides to produce a singing competition. Sing stars Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C Reilly, Taron Egerton (Kingsman: The Secret Service), Tori Kelly and Jennifer Saunders. Sing was directed by relative newcomers Christophe Lourdelet and and Garth Jennings, with Jennings also providing the script.

The script is very busy with such a large cast, with each character having a sub-plot. Rosita the pig (Witherspoon) has 25 children and wants to return to the stage. Meena the elephant (Kelly) is too shy to sing. Mike the mouse (MacFarlane) has a gambling problem. Johnny the gorilla (Egerton) wants to break away his criminal family. Eddie the sheep (Reilly) needs to get his life together and make good with his retired stage diva grandmother, Nana (Saunders). Ash the punk porcupine (Johansson) just broke up with her boyfriend and is being pushed to sing pop. All the while Moon is fighting off the bank and fears disappointing his deceased father. Whew! Because of all these plots, and clocking in at just over 90 minutes, there isn’t enough time to devote to any sort of arc or developing an emotional tie. If the movie would have been more of a Muppet show type affair where all the characters were devoted to one thing – saving the theater – it could have worked.

What I really liked, and supremely appreciated, was the diversity of the music genres in the movie. While the movie could not have been made without pop drivel like Firework and Call Me Maybe, the movie also devoted substantial junks to jazz – Brubeck’s Take Five; 60s Brit-Pop – The Way I Feel Inside, with Golden Slumbers as a recurring theme; and MacFarlane got to show off his crooner’s pipes on some Sinatra numbers. The movie plays to children, and I love the fact that the movie took the opportunity to introduce music that kids may not hear at home, and will never hear on the radio.

The movie wasn’t bad, and it exceeded my expectations when it came to music and performances. It could have done with a stronger hand at the helm; someone with more experience to guide Lourdelet and Jennings, and trim down their bloated script. It’s unfortunate that the stories get in the way of what, otherwise, would have been a great “Juke Box” musical.

Judd: 2 stars

Collateral Beauty

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Swanner: Will Smith plays Howard, a successful advertising executive, who suffers a tragedy that has him questioning everything in his life. Howard composes letters to Love, Time, and Death, only to get them answered… in person. Sounds like a good Christmas Movie doesn’t it? A sad man with three entities coming to visit the holidays. As familiar that may sound, the film is quite different from the Scrooge story.

Howard’s business partners are trying to save the agency from failing, so Whit (Edward Norton) comes with a plan to bring Howard back to the real world using Love, Time, and Death. It’s a touching emotional story that may get a bit schmaltzy, but if you’re in for a good cry you shouldn’t be disappointed. Director David Frankel (Marley and Me) is in familiar territory for this tearjerker. The biggest problem is Allen Loeb’s screenplay. Too many storylines that all have their own griff, pull focus from Howard’s story, and that’s not a good thing.

The rest of this incredible cast includes Kate Winslet, Michael Pena, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris and Keira Knightly. This may sound strange, but I think there were too many big stars in this film, and that also pulled focus from Howard. Ultimately, it is Will Smith’s fine performance that made me care that Howard finds peace. I think if they hadn’t set the film during the holidays it would have suffered, because it needed that holiday magic you can only find in a Christmas Movie. 

Swanner: 3 stars

La La Land

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Swanner: It seems strange to be reviewing a film that hasn’t opened yet but has already been nominated for many critics awards and just yesterday top nominee for the Golden Globes. La La Land is the first film from Damien Chazelle since his Oscar win for Whiplash two years ago. It tells the story of two love crossed lovers who fate keeps pushing together only to have their dreams tear them apart.

Judd: This is first original musical movie feature that wasn’t a cartoon I’ve seen in years. The movie opens with a very large and wonderful song and dance number filmed on a gridlocked LA on-ramp. This is where our lovers Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) meet each other, each in their separate cars, with Sebastian trying to get somewhere while Mia is too engrossed with her script to notice that traffic has started moving again. The story is as old has the Hollywood sign, and Chazelle invokes as many of those classic images he has can muster without becoming trite or cliched. I wish I could say the same about the actual plot.

Swanner: Yes, there is a thin plot, but Chazelle was tipping his hat at the old Gene Kelly musicals that were fluffy entertaining stories of finding love. The plots thinness was no problem for me. The loved that Chazelle really had a plan here. The technical part of the film was so complete. Production design, costumes, cinematography and music were fantastic. I couldn’t stop smiling during the film at how creative the whole experience was for me.

Judd: If the movie had kept the pace with the opening number I, too, could have forgiven the thin plot, but there were vast sections of the movie focused on only the actors and the story. I have no problems with the actors, but without song and dance numbers to move things along, the movie was tiresome – even though, as you said, the technical aspects of the movie restored Los Angeles’ mythical, magical luster of it’s Golden Days. For being a musical, I felt there was far too little music.

Swanner: I would have loved more songs. There is a lot of music, but not enough musical numbers. Even more lovely moments like on the pier would have made me even happier. This may sound terrible, but the film reminded me of Xanadu, but done right. Both had their thin storylines, but where Xanadu tried to work at the end of the disco era, La La Land thrives in a time where the musical got redefined regularly. Great performances and a Director/screenwriter with a vision makes La La Land magical.

Judd: I like that comparison, but while I would never watch Xanadu again, I regularly listen to the soundtrack. I will probably never watch La La Land again, and if I listen to the soundtrack, it will only be to catch the lyrics I missed in the theater. If La La Land were more like the Cohen’s Hail Caesar! or vice versa, we could have had one fantastic return of the movie musical instead of two near hits.

Swanner: 4 stars
Judd: 2 ½ stars