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Movie reviews: ‘War Dogs,’ ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ on KQRS

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Tim Lammers reviews the Jonah Hill and Miles Teller true-life comedy drama “War Dogs,” as well as Laika animations studios stop-motion fantasy “Kubo and the Two Strings” on “The KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard and the crew. Tim, Tom and the crew also weigh in on the latest remake of “Ben Hur” and its box office prospects Hear the segment starting 7 minutes in.

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Interview: Screen legend Diane Ladd talks ‘Joy’

Jennifer Lawrence and Diane Ladd in 'Joy' (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

By Tim Lammers

Screen legend Diane Ladd does double-duty, in a sense, in director David O. Russell’s critically acclaimed dramedy “Joy,” both as the wise grandmother of the title character, Joy (Jennifer Lawrence), and as the

film’s narrator. The amazing thing is, Ladd’s enlightened sense of storytelling — which establishes a larger-than-life presence of her character throughout the film — wasn’t originally in Russell’s plans.

Ladd, who was already done with filming “Joy,” said she actually got the call from Russell just as she was wrapping up her upcoming film, “Sophie and the Rising Sun.”

“David put the producers on the phone and they said they tested the picture,” Ladd said in a phone conversation this week. “They said, ‘Without question, everybody adores Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro and Bradley Cooper. But after testing the picture, we need more light in it, and you are everybody’s favorite character in the movie because you constantly give Joy hope. Because of that, we want you the narrate the whole picture.'”

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Now playing in theaters nationwide, “Joy” is based on the true-life tale of Joy Mangano, a divorced mother of two who defied the odds in the early 1990s with her invention of the Miracle Mop, a product that helped the burgeoning inventor lay the foundation of what would become a business dynasty. “Joy” also stars Robert De Niro as Joy’s hard-edged dad, Rudy; Virginia Madsen as her sheltered mother and Rudy’s ex-wife, Terry; Bradley Cooper as QVC executive Neil Walker; Edgar Ramirez as Joy’s ex-husband and loyal advisor; and Isabella Rossellini as Rudy’s new wife and Joy’s principal investor, Trudy.

Ladd stars in the pivotal role of Mimi, Joy’s faithful grandmother.

The actress, who earned Oscar nominations for her work in “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “Wild at Heart” and “Rambling Rose,” said narrating “Joy” was the hardest work she’s ever done because she had “already put the character aside” to work on her role in “Sophie and the Rising Sun.”

“I went off and created a whole new character, so when I came back, David was quite incredible in guiding me,” Ladd said. “He helped me lower my voice three octaves so I would sound older, and give off more wisdom and age. To prepare myself, I would do a bit of method acting, or more specifically, method narration. I would sit in meditation and put myself in a state of unconditional love so I would never judge (the people that wronged Joy).”

Ladd, 80, added that the image Russell gave her to narrate the film was Clarence from the Frank Capra Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

“It was almost if Mimi was an angel and not a human. Maybe her soul had come in ahead of time so she’d be there to help Joy and this family,” Ladd observed. “Maybe she was there to help because if Joy succeeded and fulfilled her destiny, she could put a minimum of 500 people to work, and the people she picked were Spanish and Latin people who needed jobs. Suppose she hadn’t been there to fulfill her destiny, like George Bailey did in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? What would have happened to those people, and a lot more now? The spiral goes on and on.”

As far as her character’s physical presence in “Joy,” Ladd said she absolutely loved how Russell and co-writer Annie Mumolo created a strong Bond between a grandmother and her grandchild. As the mother of two-time Oscar nominee Laura Dern, Ladd knows the bond between generations very well.

“I told David right away that American Indians have a saying: ‘The soul of a grandchild’ lives in the heart of a grandmother,'” Ladd said. “As a mother, it took five friends of mine to help tell Laura what to do. But if my mother, Mary, said something to Laura, she was right there. They had such a connection.”

Now, Ladd says, she has the same sort of relationship with Dern’s daughter.

“Once Laura and her daughter had a fight and Laura went off, and I said, ‘Come on, Jaya,’ and I think she thought I was going to preach at her. But instead I took a blanket and we went outside, and we laid on the ground and looked up at the trees and the sky — and in a little while Jaya was telling me all of her feelings,” Ladd recalled.

Having lived those vital, real-life roles, Ladd said she’s developed a clear understanding of how the grandmother and grandchild dynamic works, and was more than happy to bring that knowledge to her work with Lawrence in “Joy.”

“I think grandmothers see clear because responsibility isn’t always on us,” Ladd said, laughing. “A grandparent can pull back and relax more, and have a little more detachment. The parent’s on the line, man. God’s got your backside pinned to the wall.”

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Movie review: ‘San Andreas,’ ‘Aloha’

Carla Gugino and Dwayne Johnson in 'San Andreas' (photo -- Warner Bros)

By Tim Lammers

“San Andreas” (PG-13) 3 stars (out of four)

Ridiculous scenarios and a paper-thin plot and characters aside, it’s hard to, well, fault “San Andreas” – a wildly conceived and thrillingly executed natural disaster movie that is pure summer popcorn drenched with gobs of butter. Starring the affable Dwayne Johnson and featuring megatons of earth-shattering visual effects, “San Andreas

221; is certainly not the best movie of this young summer movie blockbuster season, but ranks among one of the most entertaining.

Johnson stars as Ray Gaines, a Los Angeles Fire Department Rescue chopper pilot  who has no boundaries when it comes to risking his life to save others. Despite his achievements in the field, Ray is haunted by a family tragedy that led to the separation from his wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) and estrangement from their adult daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) — so he’s willing to face hell on earth when “The Big One” hits.

The problem is, the event is not one big earthquake, but a series of them that begins at the Hoover Dam. Intensifying  in power with each earthquake, the series of ultra-destructive events continues with a run up the entire San Andreas fault line. The biggest and worst one – along with a tsunami — is set to hit San Francisco, where Blake is holding on for dear life.

Amid the crumbling buildings, people scattering and the earth shattering, “San Andreas” follows three sets of characters: Ray and Emma, who plow through hazards in the air, land and sea in a desperate attempt to find their daughter; Blake, who forms a bond with aspiring businessman Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and his younger brother Ollie (Art Parkinson) as they battle the harsh elements; and a reporter (Archie Panjabi) who helps an earthquake scientist  (the always great Paul Giamatti) warn the residents of San Francisco of their impending doom.

Unlike Johnson’s previous action movie blockbuster “Furious 7,” “San Andreas” does its best to assemble a story amid all the chaos involving the characters. But as evidenced by the film’s nail-chomping opening rescue scene, “San Andreas” is all about the action and effects, and the intensity rarely lets up for the film’s 114-minute run-time.

The characters, while all likeable (apart from Ioan Gruffudd, who is perfectly slimy as Emma’s weasel boyfriend), are really only pawns to support the film’s majestic visual effects, which to director Brad Peyton’s credit, sometimes boom out of nowhere so loudly that you can’t help but jump out of your seat. “San Andreas” is one of those movies that has to be seen on the big screen if you want to experience its full effect, and for Californians, it’s one that will leave audiences quaking in their boots.

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“Aloha” (PG-13) 1 1/2 stars (out of four)

God only knows what exactly writer-director Cameron Crowe’s intentions were with the ambitious but ultimately ambivalent “Aloha,” a disappointing dramedy that has all the right talent but can’t seem to figure out what to do with it. Awkward, disjointed and sometimes just plain confusing, “Aloha,” which stars Bradley Cooper and Emma Stone, seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. Is it a romance? Is it a comedy? Is it a tale of redemption? Is it a tale about Hawaiian spirits? Is it a cautionary tale about weapons of mass destruction?

As odd as it sounds, all of those elements are dancing inside the frames of the 105-minute film, but never quite seem to gel.

Cooper stars as Brian Gilcrest, a former, starry-eyed Air Force veteran who fell from grace while making a shady living as a defense contractor in Afghanistan. Despite a stormy past with billionaire businessman  Carson Welch (Bill Murray), Brian, a gifted private aerospace contractor, is recruited once again by the shrewd industrialist to oversee a game-changing, super-secret satellite project. Seems that Brian not only has the technical wherewithal to launch the risky project, but has a rapport with the Hawaiian natives to calm their fear and skepticism about it.

Cold and removed, Brian’s return to Hawaii after 13 years seems to soften him up, as he encounters an old flame (Rachel McAdams), who is now married with two kids; and a flaky but intelligent Air Force Captain, Allison Ng (Stone), who possesses the same enthusiasm for space that Brian lost years before.

For the sake of the story, Brian’s potential future with Allison eventually leads us to the film’s predictable third act, where Brian is forced to confront his past misgivings and make a decision that could save his soul but ultimately ruin his life. Coming far too late in the proceedings, it’s the only part of “Aloha” that seems to make any sense.

Cooper, coming off the blistering success of “American Sniper,” is likable in “Aloha,” but the problem is, he’s not supposed to be. Cooper’s natural charm and charisma overshadow Brian’s shifty demeanor, and it’s shame to say, but he was simply miscast. Starting off as an annoying character, Stone’s character softens enough by the end to become tolerable, even though her motivation in the film is horribly contrived.

In supporting roles, Murray is his usual great self as Carson, and Alec Baldwin is a hoot as a hot-headed Air Force general. McAdams’ character is more or less a functional role, which spins off into a subplot involving her dejected husband (John Krasinski), who becomes jealous of Brian.

Ultimately, the pitfalls of “Aloha” fall squarely on the shoulders of Crowe, who seems to have peaked with his brilliant autobiographical 70s music tale “Almost Famous.” With “Aloha,” it just feels that he’s desperately trying too hard to tell a unique story, yet he never quite gets his arms around the sprawling narrative tight enough to rein everything in. There are mere flickers of Crowe’s brilliance in “Aloha,” but nothing near to “Almost Famous” or his memorable sports agent movie “Jerry Maguire.” For all the talent “Aloha” has in front of and behind the camera, the film is hardly a movie fan’s paradise.

Tim Lammers is a veteran entertainment reporter and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, and annually votes on the Critics Choice Movie Awards. Locally, he reviews films for “KARE 11 News at 11” and various Minnesota radio stations.

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2015 Oscars: Tim Lammers predicts who will win, should win

Birdman and Michael Keaton

By Tim Lammers

The 87th annual Oscars are Sunday night, bringing to an end another controversial awards season. At this point with all the guild awards decided, it’s pretty clear who and what film will win the big prize, although I personally hope for some big upsets just to keep the perennial overlong night interesting.

As usual, my predictions aren’t a reflection of who and what I hope will win, but educated guesses based on voting trends throughout the awards season. Of course, no one — no one — is a sure thing (remember Juliette Binoche upsetting Lauren Bacall?), so included in the picks is a wild card in each major category.

Best Supporting Actress nominees:  Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”; Laura Dern, “Wild”; Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”; Emma Stone, “Birdman”; Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods.”

Analysis: This category will likely signal the overrated “Boyhood’s” only big win for the night, but if any categories have upsets, it’s the supporting acting ones. Perennial nominee Streep generally bulldozes everyone she’s up against, and this year is no different. Arquette’s performance is the best of all those in “Boyhood,” but all the awards love for the movie is still mystifying.

Count Arquette’s win as the Academy’s tip of the cap to the year’s most gimmicky movie. A Dern win would be a salute to not one, but three Hollywood acting stalwarts: Dern and her parents Bruce Dern (who should have won for “Nebraska” last year) and Diane Ladd, but don’t hold your breath.

Will Win: Arquette.

Should Win: Streep.

Potential Upset: Dern.

Best Supporting Actor nominees: Robert Duvall, “The Judge”; Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”; Edward Norton, “Birdman”; Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”; J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash.”

Analysis: Not only has Simmons proven to be a great actor who has consistently delivered in his roles over the years, his turn as the vitriolic jazz conservatory conductor in “Whiplash” is hands-down the best nominated performance across all of the categories.

“Birdman” is shaping up to be this year’s awards juggernaut, and Norton — who is brilliant in the movie — could be a benefactor of that. Duvall, who is terrific as usual in “The Judge,” would be a shoo-in as a sentimental winner, but he already has an Oscar thanks to “Tender Mercies.”

Will Win: Simmons

Should Win: Simmons.

Potential Upset: Norton.

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Best Actress nominees: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”; Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”; Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”; Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”; Reese Witherspoon, “Wild.”

Analysis: With five Oscar nominations (including this year) to her credit, Moore is long-overdue. But this award isn’t being earned by Moore for sentimental purposes: Her turn as an early-onset Alzheimer’s disease patient is heartbreaking and emotionally exhausting, and one that stays with you long after the credits roll.

Cotillard (who previously upset Julie Christie, oddly enough, in Christie’s Alzheimer’s-themed movie “Away From Her”) and Witherspoon don’t have a chance because they’re won in the category before and it’s hard to repeat, and Jones, while great, is simply over-matched in the category. An upset for Pike’s ultimate ice queen role in “Gone Girl” would be a way to rectify the Academy huge oversights in several categories — including Best Picture and Best Director (for David Fincher) — in what is easily one of the best films of the year.

Will Win: Moore.

Should Win: Moore.

Potential Upset: Pike.

Best Actor nominees: Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”; Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”; Michael Keaton, “Birdman”; Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything.”

Analysis: Keaton’s career performance in “Birdman” has dominated most of this year’s awards season, and since he’s sidestepped personal controversy (i.e., he’s said all the right things in his acceptance speeches and has been genuinely gracious) the award has been his to lose. Keaton is brilliant in the role with a fine mix of comedy and drama, but Cooper took the biggest risk with his moving, understated turn as late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle.

It’s not a flashy role, but yet somehow you can sense the inner-turmoil of Kyle as deals with the stress of the battlefield and suppressing his emotions on the home front. It’s an amazingly subtle role and a gutsy move for an Cooper since it flies in the face of Hollywood’s political ideas.

As much as Cooper deserves to win, the only possible person capable of upsetting Keaton is Redmayne, who gives a “My Left Foot” Daniel Day-Lewis-caliber performance as Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything.” His unlikely Screen Actors Guild upset opened the door for a possible upset at the Oscars, but don’t bet on it. Carell’s and Cumberbatch’s nominations are well deserved, so don’t be surprised to see future noms, especially for the latter.

Will Win: Keaton.

Should Win: Cooper.

Potential Upset: Redmayne.

Best Picture nominees: “American Sniper”; “Birdman”; “Boyhood”; “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; “The Imitation Game”; “Selma”; “The Theory of Everything”; “Whiplash.”

Analysis: The race all along this awards season has appeared to be an even match between “Birdman” and “Boyhood,” but then a surprising surge with “American Sniper” (and a $300 million North American box office) with a strong showing in the nominations suddenly made the race that much more interesting.

Conventional thinking at the moment points to a big night for “Birdman,” since it has taken top honors with the Producers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America (for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – who will also win the Best Director Oscar) and the Screen Actors Guild Best Ensemble Award (the equivalent for a Best Picture prize) — so don’t be shocked when it when it wins the Best Picture Oscar.

As refreshing and inventive as “Birdman” is, remember 2015 as the year the chickens come home to roost on Hollywood. The Academy will appear completely out of touch with Middle America for not naming “American Sniper” its Best Picture; even more so if it goes the upset route and names the low-budget, gimmicky “Boyhood” as “the best.”

A film that rightfully puts the focus squarely on the American soldier and his or her families (and avoids the politics of war), “American Sniper” has had a profound emotional experience on viewers, and it will no doubt enrage them when it is passed over (watch out, Twitter!). Ultimately, if one film is going to make Hollywood stand up and listen to its audiences, this is the one, but they’re too afraid to honor a movie with ties to the right wing by default.

Will Win: “Birdman.”

Should Win: “American Sniper.”

Potential Upset: “Boyhood.”

Tim Lammers is a nationally syndicated movie reporter and author of the ebook “Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton (Foreword by Tim Burton).”

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