THRS Movie Reviews

12 Years a Slave destined for date with Oscar

November 4th, 2013 at 5:01 pm by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the official trailer for 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave is now playing across Hampton Roads.

12yearsaslavePosterBy now you have surely heard the buzz about 12 Years a Slave. You’ve probably heard that it’s brutal, that it’s emotional, that it’s disturbing, and you may have heard that it’s fantastic. Well, all of that is absolutely true.

Writer John Ridley adapted the true story for the screen from Solomon Northrup’s 1853 autobiography, and British director Steve McQueen brings it to life.

12 Years a Slave is the story of Solomon Northrup (Chewetel Ejiofor) a free man, an educated man, who is also a talented violin player. It begins with him living with his wife and two children in the North pre-Civil War.  He is soon tricked and sold into slavery and shipped off to the deep South.  Unable to prove his freedom, he is given the name Platt and spends the next 12 years under various masters and enduring some unbelievable circumstances.

Solomon/Platt is confronted time and again with threats and beatings, while watching as other slaves are raped, beaten and killed in front of him.  The last master he serves is Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a psychopath and his wife is not much better. A young slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o in her film debut) is the object of both their attention for different reasons; I’m sure you can decipher. Patsey also endures the wrath of both of them.  Her scenes of desparation are heartbreaking.  I cannot say enough good things about Nyong’o's performance — it was a breakthrough career-making performance. I just can’t.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Amistad, 2012) gives an Oscar-calibur performance as Solomon. He plays Solomon with utter commitment in every scene, with an understated despair, and with a tinge of hope that is simply amazing.  And coming off the horrible turn in The Counsleor, Michael Fassbender redeems himself.  His take on the slave owner Epps embodies great acting.

I am going to give John Ridley some kudos — he did the story and co-wrote the screenplay for Red Tails, which I was less than happy with.  He has certainly proven his ability with this screenplay… The only flaw I had was the developmnt and forced dialogue of Brad Pitt’s character. But it hardly hurts the film.  Congrats to Ridley on a fine script.

McQueen bites off a lot here, and he does an excellent job of doing an unimaginable story justice.  There are scenes that resonate and scenes that haunt. He doesn’t take the ugly mark of slavery on American history and tie it up with a pretty presentable bow for an audience that might not be ready to see the harsh brutality of real slavery endurance. He does it justice, something many Hollywood attempts have fallen short of.  But be prepared, this film sugarcoats nothing, and should be seen by everyone.

12 Years a Slave is destined to be named over and over again at the Oscar nomination announcements.  Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Score… all should be locked in.  And moreover — the film should be destined for cinematic history as well.


Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. 

The Counselor could use some counseling

October 28th, 2013 at 1:08 pm by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the official trailer for The Counselor.

Now open in theaters across Hampton Roads.

the-counselor-posterCormac McCarthy has reportedly wanted to write an original story for the screen for the longest time.  He is a writer of epic status — a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award with some of his books adapted and made into successful films (No Country for Old Men).  So, his dream comes true at the age of 70, when he at last writes The Counselor.

The story goes something like this (as best as I can make out):  Michael Fassbender is The Counselor — name unknown.  The Counselor is enamored with his new love — played by Penelope Cruz.  So enamored, in fact, he travels to Amsterdam to seek out a massive diamond for an engagement ring.  But, how will he to pay for this?

The Counselor soon finds himself involved drug trafficking.  Despite warnings from Reiner (Javier Bardem), who is somehow tied to the drug trade (not explained), and Westray (Brad Pitt), who is somehow tied to the cartel, (likewise not explained), the Counselor is determined to stay the course for the sake of love.

There are some subplots here and there — including Rosie Perez’s character, a client of the Counselor’s, and her son.  There is also Cameron Diaz’s character who is slightly obsessed with cheetahs– of which she has two as pets.  She even enjoys taking them to the desert to watch them hunt their prey.  Symbolism abounds!

The fully capable, often extraordinary director Ridley Scott is at the home of this film. But even Scott’s talent cannot drive this clunky script to an acceptable outcome. McCarthy fails to create individuality in the characters.  Often they all speak with the same tone, rhythm, and awkward word choices.  McCarthy writes words that would be amazing to read and yet fall completely flat and awkward when they’re spoken by these characters on screen.   Who says (melodramatically) “truth has no temperature”?  No one.

The costume design is really good, and there are some really well-composed shots and sequences here, but as they say, the story’s the thing!  And there’s really not one of interest.  In fact, between the weird sex scenes, the awkward dialogue, and the gruesome beheadings, yes, I said beheadings, (there are three of them) I actually found very little story to engage me.

Sadly, if poor screenplay writing could be a crime, Cormac McCarthy would certainly need a counselor to defend him.

Two out of Five cookies

Rated R for graphic violence, some grisly images, strong sexual content and language. 


Gravity is heavy on thrills

October 21st, 2013 at 5:01 pm by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews, Uncategorized

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for GRAVITY.

Gravity-2013-Movie-PosterWhen Gravity first starts you sit there totally awe struck. You are floating towards a tiny dot high above earth in space that comes closer and closer — it feels like you are there.  The static radio conversation that’s happening around you and the dot itself comes clearer.

The space shuttle and its team of astronauts are working on a spacewalk mission on the Hubble telescope. Academy Award winners Sandra Bullock as Dr. Ryan Stone and George Clooney as Mission commander Matt Kowalsky are among them. Kowalsky on his final mission, Stone on her first.

It’s an every day space walk for all intents and purposes. Kowalsky spends this early time sharing stories and lamenting that he won’t end his career with the most spacewalks.   Stone spends this early time just breathing heavily and unsuccessfully working on her assignment.  The team soon finds themselves amid a storm of Russian satellite debris.  And so begins a series of obstacles for our two characters: small successes, massive failures, and along the way — life lessons during their attempt to survive space.

The script itself was a little underwhelming to me. Co-written by Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas, it has a cast of Hollywood formula about it. Backstory for the sake of backstory isn’t necessary. Dialogue seems forced and often cliche. What is right about it — the timing. It clocks in right at 90 minutes. And it’s a good thing. You need to catch your breath!

The acting is fairly on point considering the script. Bullock truly brought the panic and anxiety of the situation to life. But there are moments still where I thought to myself: come on Clooney. You can do better.  It matters little for the most part — the real star of this film is the director: Oscar nominee Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men).  The opening sequence alone worth the price of 3D admission – approximately 13 minutes of stunning, fluid filmmaking with nary a cut — that will likely be talked about in film classes for years to come.

Forgive the tie in — but Cuaron has boldly gone where no director has gone before…  Gravity is mesmerizing, heart-pounding and visually stunning. It’s simply a dazzlingly film.


 Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.

Captain Phillips is a thrilling ride

October 15th, 2013 at 9:54 am by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for Captain Phillips.

captain_phillips_posterSo Captain Phillips tells the true story of Richard Phillips – captain of a merchant ship the Maersk Alabama and the Somali pirates who took her and the captain for ransom in 2008.

Before the tension takes hold and the story blasts off… We get to see Rich Phillips at home in New England with his wife and his normal life. We see the pirates on their native soil — their back story, desperation and motivation.

Sailing close around the horn of Africa carried inherent risks… risks Capt. Phillips was worried about at sea. Emails were coming in advising of pirate activity in the area. So when skiffs appear to be chasing the Alabama, it comes as no real surprise to him.  He readies the crew for pirates in an amazing display of strength, leadership and courage.

The pirates board the ship and before long have taken the the captain hostage on a life boat — holding him for ransom. The days on the life boat — in cramped sweltering conditions with limited supplies — bide time for the U.S. Navy Seals to ready a rescue operation.  The tension mounts and even the story we think we know develops layers we couldn’t have imagined.

Two-time Academy Award-winner Tom Hanks takes the role of the hero Capt. Phillips. The leader of the pirates that take the ship is Muse and he is played by Barkhadi Abdi — a Mogodishu immigrant found in casting living in Minneapolis – who has never acted before. The two share some amazing scenes… enhanced by the fact that the director didn’t allow them to meet before the first scene together.

Speaking of the director – Captain Phillips is directed by Paul Greengrass (Bourne Ultimatum, Flight 93), It’s shot at a kinetic pace that feels every bit documentary. This film could have gone bad quick — ending up being a formula Hollywood docudrama with more drama than docu. But Greengrass holds the reins tightly, building reality and at the same time he builds tension — in a script adapted from Capt. Phillips’ memoir.

The cinematography is by Barry Ackroyd (The Hurt Locker) and is brilliant. Every scene shot amazingly — especially the scenes ahead of the boarding — the skiffs giving chase and firing on the Alabama. We were right there.

There is no doubt in my mind that Tom Hanks is destined for another Oscar nomination for his turn as Rich Phillips. There is an emotional post traumatic stress moment at the end of the film that tops even the best acting Hanks has ever done.

Fear, joy, pride, victory – Captain Phillips is one tension-filled thriller of a ride.


Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance use.

Folding on online gambling film Runner Runner

October 7th, 2013 at 1:44 pm by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for Runner Runner.

Wrunner-runner-poster09ell, we all have them. Those actors who just appeal to us for whatever reason. The actors or actresses whom we will always go see in a film no matter what it looks like from the previews, because they’ve built up our trust that they make good movie making decisions and the roles that they play are going to move us, thrill us.   Ben Affleck had me at Argo.  Oh sure he had me after other movies (and really gave me pause after some bad ones), but Argo hooked me — I’m a fan.  Same with Justin Timberlake after The Social Network.  These guys CAN act!  So naturally when I see Ben and Justin and the previews for Runner Runner, I know I’ve got to go see this movie.

Runner Runner is a gambling movie at its core… the story of Richie — a Wall street bust turned Princeton grad student (Timberlake) who finances his degree by providing online gaming services.  When bad turns to worse, he is forced to go to Costa Rica to confront the guy he thinks has cheated him out of thousands though his online gamine website.  That guy – the online gambling kingpin – is Ivan Block (Affleck).  One thing leads to another, and before you know it, Richie is working for Ivan and in way over his head.

Affleck struggled a bit in the role – especially considering the script.  The character of Ivan block talks a lot.  He has the occasional action moments, but more often than not we tire of hearing him talk.  Timberlake brings his practically-trademarked charisma to the role of Richie, but the buck stops there.  Most of his scenes are flat — even the limited romance and action sequences.

Director Brad Furman (The Lincoln Lawyer) never gets us past yawn in many scenes and fails to adequately build tension in the film -  something you have to have if you are going to call something a crime thriller.  But – The great error for me was in the failure to adequately develop the characters – any of them.  Make me care!  Tell me about Ivan’s daddy issues.  Something!  But nope.

The screenplay is by the writing duo Brian Koppelman and David Levien (Ocean’s Thirteen, Runaway Jury) and it’s full of missed opportunities in scenes for characters and story alike.  There are subplots that start and end before they get going and a few extraneous characters that could have been so much more.

I had high hopes for this gambling film, for  Justin and for Ben.  I would have bet the house on it.  But in reality Runner Runner is one of those films that soars off the “LET DOWN METER” and  — forced me to fold.


Rated R for language and some sexual content.

Held prisoner, by Prisoners…

September 23rd, 2013 at 11:51 am by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for Prisoners.

prisoners-poster1Prisoners is an all-star production part thriller suspense and drama.  It stars Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover and Maria Bello as his wife Gracie alongside their best friends Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis).

After Thanksgiving dinner at the Birches’, the two couples daughters Anna and Joy run a quick toy searching errand to the Dover’s house.  When the girls come up missing the movie gets well underway.  Jake Gyllenhaal stars as detective Loki who is the lead investigator assigned to the case of the disappearance.

The first main suspect is apparent manchild Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo).  Lots of circumstantial evidence points to Alex, but there’s nothing concrete about the case against him. So when he’s released from custody, the inner rage of Keller Dover is released along with him.

Dover takes matters into his own hands in order to try and get information out of Alex and find the location of the girls before it is too late.  He does things most parents would want to do, but would stop short of.  And that is precisely the predicament that Franklin and Nancy find themselves in When Dover tells them what he’s done – And even shows them.

Prisoners really challenges your thought process on what would you do; how far would you go; when would you stop… In the quest to find your loved one.   It really pushes the ethical questions.

It also holds so many prisoners… The girls by their captor, the family by the media and situation, suspects by the cops, suspect by Dover, audience by the suspense.

Directed by Academy Award nominee Denis Villanueva (Incendies), the pacing and tension drive the movie despite some issues with the script that weaken the overall impact of the movie.   I personally had figured out a few key things relatively early in the film and found red herring’s thrown in later to be a bit distracting.  Plus, for my taste, it could’ve been tightened up and lose about 20 minutes of the film.  Bring a lunch — this mystery drama clocks in at two hours and 26 minutes!

SIDE NOTE: And speaking of distracting, why bother paying attention to police procedure in a film? It would only help to make it more believable… and who needs that?

The cinematography by Academy Award nominee many times over (from Shawshank Redemption to Skyfall) Roger Deakins is just amazing.  I loved every shot and the overcast monochrome tinting added to the drama.  (Will this guy ever when the Oscar???)

As for the acting much of the all-star cast is wasted in the movie.  The acting talents of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are sidelined.  They had very few meaty scenes in the film.  Plus, Maria Bello remains drugged up and in bed for 80% of the film.

Jackman turns in a moving performance despite some scenes of overacting.  And then there’s Gyllenhaal – who tries his level best to bring something to the role of Loki.   We never quite get his back story or much of a story about him at all.  What were his motivations?  Inquiring minds want to know.

It might sound like I didn’t enjoy Prisoners, but I did.  It was relatively smart, had something to say and was shot with amazing clarity.  I know I’m being hard on this film, but it’s only because as much as I liked it, it could’ve been so much better.


Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.

It’s not just about the crawl!

August 26th, 2013 at 5:09 pm by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for The World’s End.

worlds-end-poster20 years ago five childhood friends attempted an epic pub crawl only to fall short due to circumstances we learn about throughout the film.  Fast forward to today and Gary King –  their fearless leader (Simon Pegg) — is trying to get the gang together to finish what they started back then – And that is what they call the Golden Mile– 12 pubs and a pint in each.

I should mention who the gang is… You’ve got the Real-estate agent Oliver (Martin Freeman), Peter, the married car salesman (Eddie Marsan), Steven who is divorced and works in construction (Paddy Considine), and Andrew the lawyer (Nick Frost).

Nobody wants to do it — especially not Andrew — but everybody feels sorry for Gary.  They have all moved on with their lives; he is still living in the past.  And so here we are: back in Newton Haven.

I don’t want to ruin it, but suffice it to say they crawl, they get drunk, and some really weird things start to happen.  And as you would expect from drunk middle-aged men, all of their issues come out in the open, fights follow, and then there are robots…? What?  Yes!  But nothing, not even robots or Andrew, is going to keep Gary from fulfilling his mission. And hilarity does ensue.

The World’s End is from director Edgar Wright, we know him from two other Britcoms — Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) also starring two of these actors — Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.  Also Hilarious!

Both actors are on point in this film.  Simon Pegg’s comedic timing is flawless, his facial expressions are hilarious and when he has to pull out the dramatic acting chops, he does. And he sends this one to the top of my list of comedy must-see films for fall.


Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references.

Lee Daniels serves up The Butler

August 19th, 2013 at 12:24 pm by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for Lee Daniels’ The Butler.

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is now playing at theaters across Hampton Roads.

thebutlerLee Daniels’ the Butler stars Forest Whitaker as Cecil and Oprah Winfrey as his wife Gloria and a host of other Hollywood all stars, including Vanessa Redgrave, Jane Fonda, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz, Robin Williams, John Cusack, and Cuba Gooding Jr.

This film relates the true story of Cecil Gaines, a butler who work under eight U.S. Presidents during an amazing and disgraceful time in United States history.

Cecil Gaines grew up on a Southern cotton farm watching his parents be abused and mistreated. When his father is murdered, Cecil is taken into the house and taught how to be a house servant.  It is what sets his whole story in motion and makes all that came after, possible.

Cecil’s story of being a butler to presidents runs parallel with that of the civil rights movement.  All of the key points in history are here and seen as they related to and touched Cecil Gains’ life.  The film chronicles history much in the same way Forrest Gump did, alongside the personal story of the lead character.

Here, one son, Charlie (Isaac White), goes off to the Vietnam War and the other son, Louis (David Oyelowo) becomes a Freedom Rider, works alongside Dr. King, and joins the Black Panther movement.  While his sons stories are playing out, his wife’s does as well.

Gloria is played remarkably by Winfrey.  Gloria has an edge to her as we see a very human woman come to life.  Alcohol, infidelity, loneliness, true love and the bittersweet joy of motherhood are all here in this character.

But it is Cecil’s commitment to being the best domestic servant he can be that sets his story apart.  And the grace and dignity Whitaker brings to Cecil makes this, for me, the role of Whitaker’s life.  Cecil stands by with loyalty and honor watching President after President making decisions that affect his life, his sons’ lives, and the lives of those he works with and loves.  Whitaker plays this perfectly.

The great challenge for Cecil was deciding what was right — was it life as he knew it (serving quietly, not bucking the system) or life as some thought it could be for African Americans (freedom and equality).  It was the same idea that presented a challenge for the screenwriters Danny Strong and Wil Haygood.  The screenplay struggles here and there — mostly with point of view, but Daniels (Precious, The Paperboy) stays the course as director.  Despite a few minor flaws, Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a must see.


Rated PG-13 for some violence and disturbing images, language, sexual material, thematic elements and smoking.

SIDE NOTE:  And be sure you call it by its name: Lee Daniels’ The Butler.   Warner Bros. Pictures won the battle earlier this year preventing The Butler (this film’s original name) from being used.  Warner Bros. has rights to a silent film that’s more than 100 years old with the title The Butler.  So, The Weinstein Company added the directors name to the title for release.  -sc

Planes soars… kind of.

August 12th, 2013 at 10:37 am by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for PLANES!

planes posterjpgTake the incredibly popular film Cars, add some wings and you have Planes –  the latest animated offering from Walt Disney Studios.

Planes takes a crop dusting plane with a dream (named what else? but Dusty Cropduster voiced by Dane Cook) and gives him the chance to race around the world and prove himself.

It’s a chance to follow his dream.  A dream only he could think was possible… In face, the thought that a crop duster could NEVER attempt, let alone complete, this globe-trotting flight occurred to everyone in the Planes world EXCEPT DUSTY.

Once Dusty convinces the key people around him that this plan could fly, the movie starts to take off.  Those key people include: Dottie (voiced by Teri Hatcher), Chug (voiced by Brad Garrett), and Skipper (voiced by Stacy Keach).

The race around the world pits dusty against some of the top flying machines from all over the world.  And the rest of the cast reads like a celebrity who’s who.  Characters are voiced by Val Kilmer, Sinbad, Anthony Edwards, John Cleese, Cedric the entertainer, Gabriel Iglesias,  Brent Musburger, and Collin Cowherd.

And the streak stays alive: you just can’t have a Disney animated film without John Ratzenberger showing up.  He’s in there!

The color and animation of the film are, of course, spectacular. It’s on par with its predecessor CARS in that regard. But for All of its star power, Planes just can’t seem to stay in the air.  The story is a little flat, tired, and played.  And then there’s the humor — it falls short and comes across corny.

The kids in my screening seemed to enjoy it, but none were on the edge of their seats loving it.  I personally like to judge an animated film on a scale of “how many times could I actually stand having my kids play this over and over and over again on the DVD player.”

I’m giving this two times before I take off myself.


Rated PG for some mild action and rude humor.


Board this train!

July 29th, 2013 at 12:01 pm by under The Hampton Roads Show, THRS Movie Reviews

CLICK HERE to watch the trailer for Fruitvale Station.

Fruitvale Station is now playing in many theaters in Hampton Roads.

FRUITVALE-STATION-POSTERThis is based on a true story… And in case you don’t know the story of Oscar Grant and what happened at Fruitvale Station, here it is.

A group of friends are coming home to the Oakland area on the transit train from celebrating New Years in San Francisco when a fight breaks out and the train stops at the Fruitvale Station.  Eventually 22-year-old Oscar Grant is held face down on the platform and shot in the back by a transit cop at close range.  He died seven hours later and the shooting sparked outrage.

The entire incident was recorded by numerous cell phone video cameras that have now had millions and millions of views on YouTube.

But the film about what happened at Fruitvale Station is less about the shooting, riots, and outrage over the verdict and more of an attempt to tell you the story of Oscar — to give him a voice in the craziness, to help us see that for all of his faults, he was loved a great deal, he tried to do the right thing, and he loved his family– especially his daughter.

The film gives us Michael B Jordan (The Wire, Friday Night Lights) as Oscar for the 24 hours leading up to the shooting.  We see him help people at the store where he’d lost his job, promise to help his sister with rent, love his girlfriend, adore his daughter and pull out all the stops for his mother’s birthday.

Academy Award-winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) plays Oscar’s mother and it’s his mom’s birthday that prompts a flashback.  Oscar served some time in jail, and his mother had to practice some tough love during one visit.

Fruitvale Station is the feature film writing and directorial debut for newcomer Ryan Coogler.   And his first time out of the gate, he scores Jury and Audience awards at Sundance for Fruitvale Station.

Kudos to Coogler who decided the film needed to show you the story of who Oscar Grant was… In all the faults, efforts, caring, challenges, history and love he had in his life.  Coogler knew it would be the shooting Grant would be remembered for, but the love he had for his family and they for him is really his legacy.  He wanted to show that.

Because cell phone video is what defined the shooting at Fruitvale, Coogler employs it in the film from beginning to end.  And it really adds to the tone and effect.  The facts of the shooting are right there on video, yet the jury saw it differently.  He shows us both versions.

Coogler starts the film with the actual cell phone video of the shooting, then rewinds to show us what lead up to it — including the film version of the shooting — shot on the actual Fruitvale Station platform as the jury saw it.  The film is important and relevant to today and speaks volumes without trying to.

Some scenes building to the shooting are cliched, but its the acting of them that keeps the film on track.  Michael B Jordan as Oscar Grant is understated and inviting to the viewer.  He makes us care about him and understand him, so much so that by the time we get to the shooting scene we, the audience, feel like our brother was just shot.  It was wrenching.

And speaking of wrenching…. Octavia Spencer as Oscar’s mother is acting perfection in motion.  You see her go through it, trying to do the right things by her kids while so many challenges around them are fighting to take them from her.  She is starting to win the game when the shooting happens, and she stays positive, turning those around her away from anger to focus on Oscar.

Fruitvale Station is more than a statement on race relations in America, (which I don’t think it really set out to be, but is in some ways), it’s everything a beautifully made film does for me… It makes me see myself in the characters, makes me — a 40-something white woman — relate to, understand and sympathize with a 22-year-old black man who lived life seemingly a world away from mine but, in some ways, still are so alike.

Board this train… See this film.


Rated R for some violence, language throughout and some drug use.