Monday, December 30, 2013

The Wolf of Wall Street

The latest Martin Scorsese / Leonardo DiCaprio project, The Wolf of Wall Street, is a whirling howl of a movie about insider trading and money laundering during the lustful Clinton era. DiCaprio, whose highly profitable association with directorial giant Scorsese dates back to 2002's Gangs of New York, plays real-life Wall Street bad boy Jordan Belfort, whose biography is the source material for Terence Winter's screenplay. Belfort -- addicted to coke, coitus and cash -- starts a small investment firm in the early '90s that scams its clients but enriches the brokers -- a principle laid out in a marvelous scene between DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey early in the film. In short time, the modest firm of a half-dozen serial losers turns into a trading behemoth that is run like a Tony Robbins seminar. The boiler room banter crackles and the profanity and vulgarity are non-stop but there's a heart (although a fairly small one) beating underneath all of the cheating and double-crossing. Scorsese, who is a peerless master of unconventional storytelling, stages a half-dozen  outlandish set pieces that allow the cast to wallow in the narrative excesses of this delightful bacchanal. DiCaprio's work during the quaalude overdose scene reminded me of the physical comedy of a young Jerry Lewis, who was at the top of the screwball comedy heap during the '60s. Jonah Hill -- who stars as Belfort's second in command, the pearly-toothed Donnie Azoff -- is a wonderfully intuitive actor with Swiss-made comedic timing. His performance in Wolf is a true joy. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

American Hustle


Characters in David O. Russell's films approach one another at odd angles, sometimes glancing off, sometimes colliding. This angularity is depicted not just in his movies' unusual narratives (from Spanking the Monkey's tale of incest and self-loathing to Silver Lining Playbook's unflinching depiction of the chaotic courtship of two emotional disasters) but also in the way the characters talk to one another and, indirectly, to us, the audience. It often feels like Russell's people are mining for a just-so aphorism or bon mot that will settle the matter at hand -- whatever that matter might be. The results of this scramble are nearly always delightful and more often than not revealing. In American Hustle, the matter is a con (based on the Abscam sting of the late '70s) being staged by an unhinged federal agent (Bradley Cooper) who extorts the cooperation of two grifters, Irving Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (a paunchy Christian Bale and barely clad Amy Adams), to try to bring down some greedy New Jersey congressmen. Also caught up in the caper is the mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) and Rosenfeld's cluelessly narcissistic wife Rosalyn ("It Girl" Jennifer Lawrence). The actors spin around each other like skaters on ice, teasing and enticing and terrorizing, sometimes as part of the con and sometimes simply because they know of no other way to behave. All of the principals and featured players are wonderful in their roles, which occasionally are upstaged by the disco-era coifs and bling. Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Peter Jackson's winning formula of eye-popping visuals and affecting characters is on full display in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but more is not necessarily better. Though episode 2 of his latest trilogy includes some marvelously uncanny set pieces of derring-do (the dwarves' barrel escape alone is a stunning bit of film-making) and a winged menace voiced by uber-villain Benedict Cumberbatch (the dragon Smaug of the title), it still pales in comparison to his masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. Unlike the earlier triology, which also starred Ian McKellan as the wizard Gandalf, this picture, which is brimming with Jacksonian splendor, feels attenuated, relying more and more on spectacle and less and less on narrative and dramatic tension. Even so, it is so much fun and is highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Dallas Buyers Club


Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallee's Dallas Buyers Club features two wonderfully transformative performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto but a script, though based on true events, that is plagued by emotional hollowness. McConaughey, bowlegged and skeletal, plays Ron Woodroof, a Dallas electrician and rodeo bull-rider, who was diagnosed with HIV back in 1985 and given 30 days to live. He rejects the diagnosis, defiantly declaring he's not homosexual and so can't possibly have HIV and rejects an offer to take part in trials for an experimental drug, AZT. An inveterate horn dog, Woodroof changes his mind as his mind as his body, and libido, succumbs to the ravages of the disease. While in the hospital for treatment he meets Rayon / Raymond, a cross-dressing hustler who becomes Woodroof's partner in a scheme to smuggle vitamins and mineral supplements into the country and sell them to HIV patients. Abandoned by his rodeo friends and hounded by the FDA, Woodroof finds himself fighting both his disease and the system. McConaughey and Leto deliver fine performances that are more than stunts but still lack the resonance needed to fully connect with the audience. Vallee spends little time exploring the nature of Woodroof's transformation from ignorant, racist homophobe and a scene between Rayon and his disapproving father, who oddly looks younger than Rayon, is painfully off-key. Vallee lets the viewer assume that Woodroof's proximity to the mouthy but clearly self-loathing Rayon was enough to break through Woodroof's tough exterior. I, for one, wasn't buying it.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Out of the Furnace

Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart) has a message in his new film Out of the Furnace that is neither cathartic nor revelatory. It's just distressing. The film, co-written by Cooper and Brad Ingelsby, is the story of two brothers (Christian Bale and Casey Affleck) in a hard-luck Pennsylvania town where hope is stillborn. Affleck's Rodney is an emotionally war-torn veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Bale's Russell is the dutiful son who toils in the town's failing steel mill, while loving up on the lovely Lena (Zoe Saldana) and caring for his dying father with his uncle Red (Sam Shepherd) and trying, without much success, to keep his younger brother out of trouble. Rodney, a raging bull of a guy, channels his anger through the local fist-fighting circuit run by a bar owner (Willem Defoe) but Rodney wants to make bigger money and has heard that the action in the New Jersey mountains run by a psychopath named DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) is the way to go. A horrible idea not just because the bloody outcome is inevitable but because it forces the viewer to check any further emotional investment in these miserable people. The acting throughout is fine and the muted autumnal palette is beautiful and fitting, but the pay-off, much like the one young Rodney chases, is elusive. Also stars Forest Whittaker as the local police chief.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Philomena


In the Roman Catholic Church, St. Philomena, a 14-year-old girl martyred in the early church, is the patron saint of children and youth.  In Stephen Frears's tender new film, Philomena is a devout Irish Catholic woman looking for the son who was taken from her while she was the ward of an abbey run by an order of sanctimonious nuns. Judi Dench plays the latter-day Philomena with all of the grace we've come to expect from this grande dame, and Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, plays a scuttled and cynical BBC reporter commissioned to help her solve the mystery of her missing child. Frears is a wonderfully economical director, and he covers a lot of emotional ground in this film, which might at first appear to be a simple tale of odd fellows on a quest but is actually about the limitations of faith -- both real and imagined. Highly recommended.


Oldboy



Spike Lee's remake of the Korean thriller Oldboy is grim, cynical and pretty repugnant and a resounding disappointment. Lee continues to squander not just the gravitas he earned with some outstanding (though often maddeningly uneven) feature films  -- Do The Right Thing, Jungle Fever, 25th Hour, Inside Man) but the good will of those, like me, who love the man's cinematic vision if not to the man himself. Josh Brolin stars and Samuel L. Jackson delivers that thing he does but the most intriguing performance comes from the South African actor Sharlto Copley (Elysium, District 9) as the mystery psychopath who imprisons Brolin's Joe Doucett in a mock hotel room for 20 years and then releases him with the charge to find out why he did so or else Joe's daughter will be killed. It's all a sick and morally bankrupt affair and suggests that Lee may be channeling his creativity into his much more satisfying documentary projects.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire


Judging by the response of audience members during the screening of Francis Lawrence's The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that I attended today, the film will be enthusiastically embraced by the fan girls who, based on their gasps and giggles, think Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is ever so brave and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), ever so adorable, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) dreamier than dreamy and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) hilarious. I, on the other hand, found the second entry in this trilogy-plus-one based on the novels by Suzanne Collins an irritating diversion that features a slew of highly respected and respectable performers (Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright) out of their water (a deliberate pun for those who venture out). In this installment, Katniss and Peeta and 10 other hapless pawns are again tossed into gladiatorial games staged to give the huddled 90 percent in this dystopian world something to hope for while the privileged 10 percent dress up like peacocks on meth and cheer on the doomed competitors. All of this is probably quite profound in the books but as a movie it strikes me as just silly.

Friday, November 15, 2013

12 Years a Slave


Yes, British director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is as harrowing and horrifying as you have heard. It is also brave, sure and amazingly poetic, a stunning achievement in de-romanticizing America's "peculiar institution." The scenes of violence and human degradation on Southern plantations during the 1840s and '50s are truly and justifiably disturbing, but the words spoken by the film's astonishing troupe of actors -- Chiwetel Ejiofor as the slave of the title who was a free man in New York sold into bondage, Michael Fassbender as his savage master, Sarah Paulson as his master's bitter and vengeful wife, and the amazing Lupita Nyong'o as his master's tortured concubine --  are nearly Shakespearean. To some ears, the script written by American John Ridley, might seem unnaturally stagy but for me it raised the aura of the film above "pornography of despair" to something much grander -- nearly biblical. I loved listening to the characters speak just as much as I loathed watching the brutality inflicted by and upon them. It might be true that the language and the film's cinematic elegance and elliptical structure allow viewers to safely distance themselves from what they are seeing, but, to my mind, the only way to fully process the terror on the screen is from that dramatic distance. None of this is to say this is a weakness of the film. In fact, it might be its greatest strength and what will win it every major award this year. Bravo. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Thor: The Dark World


I'm a sucker for a primordial prologue (see Lord of the Rings), and veteran television director Alan Taylor's Thor: The Dark World has a fine one that goes all the way back to before there was light but not before there were evil elves in french braids who hated everything and everyone in the illuminated nine realms (a ridiculous concept of parallel universes that merges science and the supernatural). The leader of the curiously racially diverse band of Esperanto-speaking elves is Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) who wants revenge after being imprisoned for millennia by the beautiful, English-speaking Asgardians, whose most famous inhabitants are, arguably, the hammer-fisted Prince Thor (an impossibly handsome Chris Hemsworth), his one-eyed and disapproving father Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and his trickster half-brother Loki (the impossibly cheeky and surely one day knighted Tom Hiddleston, the life of this party, IYAM). The key to all of the chaos that threatens all known realities lies inside of Thor's mortal heartthrob, astrophysicist Jane Foster (the toothy Natalie Portman), who uncovers the source of Malekith's malevolence buried in London (seems fitting, actually) and becomes its host. It's all wonderful comic book nonsense with a bristling sense of humor and some kick-ass battle scenes. One thing can be said about the film series based on Marvel comics, they really know how to stage a good onslaught. Recommended.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ender's Game


The young actor Asa Butterfield has Children of the Corn eyes, which are the most expressive part of his face. That's a good thing because as Ender Wiggin, the savant who is recruited to save Earth from marauding alien locust beings by leading a team of pubescent virtual warriors into battle, Butterfield has to look intently at three-dimensional game boy schematics, stare down rivals and superiors and weep for his lost innocence. Butterfield (who distinguished himself in both Martin Scorsese's Hugo and Mark Herman's The Boy in the Striped Pajamas) is up to the challenge in this film which is written and directed by Gavin Hood, based on Orson Scott Card's popular novel. Hood avoids a common danger of having such a young cast, a woodiness and lack of depth due to lack of experience, by limiting the young cast's interactions and time on screen. Fourteen-year-olds are not typically great at long expository scenes and pages of dialogue, the exception being Hailee Steinfeld (outstanding in True Grit in 2010) as Ender's soul mate Petra. What exposition there is in the film is left to the grown ups -- Harrison Ford, Viola Davis and Sir Ben Kingsley -- who are all fine if not terrific. There is a lot of cool stuff to look at in the film but despite the galactic backdrop and clashes the story feels familiar (Harry Potter?) and, ultimately, at least for me, unsatisfying.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Phantasm (1979)


As low-budget shockers go, Don Coscarelli's Phantasm (1979) is as assured and imaginative as they come. Working from his own script, Coscarelli crafts a trippy little adventure that blends monster horror and fantasy and science fiction quite nicely. It's loaded with jolts and a fair amount of gore but the whole notion of a reed thin undertaker stealing bodies with a crew of robed dwarves for their masters in another dimension is ghoulishly warped and entertaining.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In A World


Lake Bell's In A World has so much clever quirkiness (quirky cleverness) that you'll catch yourself checking with your movie mate to make sure he / she heard that line or caught that bit of stage business you saw because it's all so fresh. Bell, who wrote the script and stars, has crafted a fine film about a talented, though emotionally stunted, vocal coach an dvoice-over artist (Bell) in a disjointed family who is trying to catch a break into the big time. Her disapproving father (Fred Malamed), a big dog in the voice -over business, and her self-involved, concierge sister (Michaela Watkins) are of little help as she tries to crash this boys-only party. She does have champion, however, in studio engineer Louis (Demetri Martin), who loves her and her voice, but not necessarily in that order. It's funny and refreshing and highly recommended. Note: Kids won't get it.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Things Never Said

Things Never Said is screenwriter Charles Murray's directorial debut and it's a fine one -- a refreshing and sparkling addition to the black cinema catalog that is currently overrun with Medeas and miscreant ministers. Set in Los Angeles, the film focuses on the struggles of a dreamy young poet Kalindra (a radiant Shanola Hampton of Summerville), whose painful marriage to a defeated and bitter man (Elimu Nelson) and a recent miscarriage fuel her art. A waitress during the day, Kalindra has become a regular on the open mike / poetry slam circuit. It is after one of her appearances that she meets a fellow poet, Curtis (Omari Hardwick), who is carting baggage not unlike her own. They start an affair -- the development of which is one of this film's strongest points -- which, of course, leads to a host of confrontations and revelations. Make no mistake, though this summary suggests the film is dripping with melodrama (and it has its share) it is so much more than some random infidelity potboiler. Those films lack elegance and intimacy and authenticity and Murray's film has all three in abundance. It is real and, yes, poetic and, in its way, inspiring. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Generation Iron


Documentarian Vlad Yudin's Generation Iron is an engrossing trip into the world of international bodybuilding. He follows a half dozen world-class competitors as they prepare for the 2012 Mr. Olympia contest in Las Vegas. Yudin devotes most of the film's 100 minutes to the rivalry between the arrogant though affable title holder Phil Heath and the reflective zen master Kai Greene. Though both men are finely sculpted behemoths, they come from starkly different backgrounds and take starkly different approaches to their quests. Yudin plumbs the depths of bodybuilder culture, it's obsessions and excesses in this fascinating film. Recommended.

The Fifth Estate

Director Bill Condon's Gods and Monsters (1998), which starred Ian McKellan, Brendan Fraser and Lynn Redgrave, was a sort of bio-pic about filmmaker James Whales' (Frankenstein) obsession and manipulation. Condon's latest film, The Fifth Estate, contains similar themes as it is a re-telling of  Julian Assange's founding of the Internet watchdog website WikiLeaks and its mission to present unedited documents regarding governmental and commercial corruption. An impressive though narcissistic Aussie, Assange (played by the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch) recruits a fellow disaffected hacker, German Daniel Berg (Daniel Bruhl of Rush), in his quest for domination of world news. Assange's claims to be the deliverer of a new form of web-based journalism (The Fifth Estate) that would speed the obsolescence of old school practices and liberate oppressed people around the globe -- something the mainstream media are either unable or unwilling to do -- draws many to him, including media powerhouses like The New York Times and The Guardian newspapers. It's the leaking of hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cable messages and classified documents related to American operations in Afghanistan that seals Assange's fate as persona non grata and leads to his seeking asylum in an Ecuadorian embassy in London. (That and charges, which are not depicted in the film, that he sexually assaulted two women in Sweden.) The film is not completely satisfying because the intricacies of WikiLeaks' cyber-assault on corporate and governmental structures are truly byzantine. However, when Condon focuses on the relationship between Assange and his unwitting enabler Berg, the film becomes much more engaging.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Metallica: Through the Never



Metallica: Through the Never is a visually arresting treat for both fanboys (and girls) of the venerable metal band and for cinephiles wanting to see a successful experiment in which 3D technology actually enhances and doesn't detract from the film. Directed by the Hungarian filmmaker Nimrod Antal, the picture combines pristine, eye-popping footage of a faux arena concert with the tale of a hapless roadie (Dane DeHaan of Chronicle) who is sent on an errand that turns into an urban nightmare of apocalyptic proportions (much like the band's songs). Antal is credited along with the four band members (singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo) with crafting the story, episodes from which are scattered among the dozen or so blistering odes for head-bangers that are actually the purpose of the film. It's a generally entertaining movie that appears to be targeted at a decidedly niche market.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete

George Tillman Jr.'s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete is the  distressingly familiar tale of children imperiled by their parents' inattention and dysfunction and the animosity of a world that seems to despise young people when it's not preying on them. I tried hard to like this film -- and was helped in my quest by the two young actors in the title roles (Skylan Brooks as Mister and Ethan Dizon as Pete). Tillman clearly loves these dead end kids, and their faces, and we quickly fall for the endearing Pete, an engaging Korean lad with "privacy" issues. It takes a little longer for us to warm up to Mister, an angry, skinny black kid who wants to be an actor but whose mother (Jennifer Hudson) is on the needle and turns tricks for a neighborhood pimp named Chris (a weirdly bearded Anthony Mackie). After his mother is arrested in the most nonsensical sting operation I've witnessed in quite a while, Mister is left to fend for himself and young Pete, whose mother is also a junkie hooker and avoid the social service workers until his mom returns. The days stretch into weeks as the boys wait, mount scheme after scheme to keep themselves fed and out of the way of a bushy-headed project loud mouth Mister calls Dipstick.  As much as I wanted the Mister and Pete to not be defeated and pulled for them through every turn, I felt, in the end, enervated by the two-dimensional flatness of the story, a quality that detracted from the few resonant moments in the movie. One involved a homeless veteran (played by one of finest and most under-employed actors on the planet Jeffrey Wright), Mister and a military service medal and another between a tearful Mister and a burly police officer (Lost's Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). Though I feel it is meant to be uplifting, in the end the heaviness of the subject matter keeps it weighed down. Recommended with reservations.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Captain Phillips

Paul Greengrass's The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) was a finely crafted film totally lacking in humor -- which is not to say that's a bad thing. Aside from star Matt Damon and some marvelous location shooting, it bore little resemblance to the first in the Bourne trilogy, Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity, which featured welcome smatterings of humor amidst the car chases and sniper shootings. Greengrass is an action-adventure master who knows how to turn up the heat and the intensity both on audiences and his leads. And so he does in his new, no-nonsense film, Captain Phillips, the true story of an attempted hijacking of an American cargo ship by Somali pirates near the horn of Africa. After thwarting the pirates' attempts to take his vessel, Phillips (Tom Hanks) is taken hostage by the pirate captain Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and his crew, who set off in the ship's lifeboat, a big orange motorized boot, and set course for Somalia to deliver Phillips up for ransom. When the action shifts to the confining quarters of the lifeboat, the film's intensity increases markedly and becomes nearly unbearable. Hanks, whose work in this film is truly splendid and deserving every accolade it will undoubtedly receive, becomes the epitome of desperation and dignity. It's a wonderful, and exhausting, movie. Highly recommended but not for the little ones.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Parkland


Peter Landesman's historically based Parkland raises many questions but none about the event at the center of this film -- the assassination of President Kennedy. The main question it raised for me is what did Landesman hope this film, his directorial debut, would be? It doesn't seem to have a unifying idea or premise for the audience to ponder or respond to. It's just sad recreation of a sad day for our country. Named for the hospital where Kennedy was taken after the shooting, the film is a collection of characters swirling around the action -- medical personnel, Secret Service and FBI agents, Dallas police, members of the presidential motorcade -- but also Abraham Zapruder, whose home movie at Dealy Plaza captured the assassination, and accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, his brother and his mother. There are far too many people for the movie's 93 minutes, and no emotional investment in any of them despite having some pretty solid Hollywood wattage in Paul Giamatti as Zapruder and Billy Bob Thornton as special agent Forrest Sorrells.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Don Jon


In this wonderful and winning film, writer / director / star Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a Jersey bartender who loves the gym, beautiful women and pornography -- not in that order. And that's the film's central conceit -- Jon, a handsome and fit stud, has no problem picking up women while out with his wingmen (Ron Brown and Jeremy Luke) but he does have trouble connecting with women emotionally because he's fixated on the fantasy girls of online adult films. When he meets the winsome Barbara (a sparkling Scarlett Johansson), Jon thinks she's a true "dime" (on a 1-to-10 scale) but is not ready to commit. At her insistence, he takes her to meet his parents -- Tony Danza and Glenne Hedley -- who are enamored of her. Soon his passion for the seductive Barbara has him blowing off rounds with his buddies and committing to take night classes for upward mobility, all while dry humping her in the hallway of her apartment building. Jon tries to dump the pornography cold turkey and keeps his parish priest updated on his progress during confession on Sunday. An observant audience member will catch on to Jersey Girl Barbara way before Jon does but that doesn't mean the film is not full of surprises and thoroughly engaging because it is -- in spades. Gordon-Levitt, who kills as the randy and conflicted Jon, is clearly one of the smartest and brightest stars in Hollywood. His script is immaculate and funny and insightful and his direction hits every mark. He's assembled some heavy hitters for this work, including a marvelous Julianne Moore as a boundaries-challenged classmate who teaches Jon a few lessons about life and love. Highly Recommended but in no way is it for children.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Gravity


Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is a spectacular film with what is being touted as revolutionary film-making technology in the service of a special survival adventure. Hollywood A-listers Sandra Bullock and George Clooney portray astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle is bombarded by orbiting junk from a Russian satellite catastrophe. Both Bullock (the lead in this perilous tale) and Clooney are on their game but the biggest attraction, for me, was the jaw-dropping scenes of the rotating Earth from 370 miles above ground and the backdrop of stellar eternity stretching out behind the players. How small we are. Highly recommended but it is likely too intense for the youngest of the youngsters.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Enough Said


Judging by the charming Enough Said, Nicole Holofcener knows middle age -- it's weariness, ironies and pain. And the director and screenwriter, known mostly for her work on television, also knows actors and gets the coterie of true pros -- Julia Louis-Dreyfus, James Gandolfini, Catherine Keener -- to deliver wonderfully affecting performances in this story about battered and cynical divorced people (Louis-Dreyfus and Gandolfini) who meet at a party and wonder if they might indeed have a second-chance at love. Eva and Albert take small tentative steps toward each other, often retreating back to the comfortable familiarity of their lives as a masseuse and curator of vintage television programs and both with daughters preparing to leave for college. As luck -- or Hollywood -- would have it, Eva discovers after becoming BFF's with a new client who is a morose New Age poet (Keener) that she is Albert's ex-wife. Torn between abandoning her new friend and dumping her new lover, Eva decides to do nothing and therein, if you would pardon the pun, lies the rub. This is the late Gandolfini's last filmed performance, and it is totally endearing. Highly Recommended

Friday, September 27, 2013

Rush (2013)


Ron Howard's better films are character studies of interesting men (A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Apollo 13). His latest film, Rush, is about two interesting men -- Formula One racers James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Bruhl) -- and their pursuit of the world championship in 1976. Working with a smartly crafted script by Peter Morgan (The Queen), Howard neatly dissects the drivers' heated rivalry, which leaves one of them disfigured after a fiery wreck during the Grand Prix event in Germany. That event is the focus of Howard's real interest: what drives these men? Hunt, a rowdy and rakish Brit, appears to be all about conquest (cars and woman), and Lauda, an austere Austrian, is all about discipline. Both Hemsworth and Bruhl (a Spaniard who I first noticed in a small part in The Bourne Ultimatum and later in Inglourious Basterds) are fine in their roles though their performances are overshadowed by the sensational scenes of the motor races. Marvelous camerawork and editing throughout. Recommended.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ain't Them Bodies Saints


David Lowery's beautiful Ain't Them Bodies Saints is an atmospheric tone poem of a film consisting of one lovely languorous movement. It's the story of young lovers (Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck),Texas robbers parted by fate and foolishness. Into the gulf is introduced an unprepossessing but kind young sheriff's deputy, drawn to the young woman and her toddler daughter, who was born while the child's father was imprisoned, and both of whom are the wards of an aging criminal (Keith Carradine). Each of these characters is artfully and intimately draw in this elegiac work. Comparisons to Terrence Malick's masterful Badlands (1973) are inevitable. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Prisoners

 
French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners" is grimly relentless in its presentation of its premise that virtue if properly manipulated quickly morphs into vice. Villeneuve, an Oscar nominee for 2010's Incendies, and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) cynically explore the panic around the disappearance of two small girls on Thanksgiving Day. The father of one of the girls, played by Hugh Jackman, is a seemingly devout and devoted family man who immediately after the disappearance shifts into alpha dog mode, demanding action from the police detective assigned to the case (Jake Gyllenhaal), his family (Maria Bello and Dylan Minnette)  and the parents of the other missing girl (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). When a simple-minded suspect (the ever-reliable Paul Dano) is questioned and then released, Jackman's character conducts his own bloody interrogation. Guzikowski's script contains a few neat twists and a couple of painfully convenient coincidences but overall it's an engrossing tale, tough to watch at times and, ultimately, sad and embittering. Recommended for the performances by Jackman, Dano and Gyllenhaal.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Spectacular Now, The Grandmaster, The World's End

Three quick hits from the past couple of weeks.
 

 
The Spectacular Now, directed by James Ponsoldt, is a lovingly tender film about two bruised teenagers in their senior year of high school who help each other to some "sobering" revelations. The two young leads -- Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley -- give wonderfully unaffected performances. Highly Recommended.


Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (the team that delivered Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) are the cinematic descendants of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Their latest film, The World's End, is as brilliantly unhinged as anything Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones put on the big screen but with less visionary artistry and more snark and glibness. This tale of a quintet of aging friends trying to relive an aborted night of pub-crawling frivolity from their youth is chock-full of brews and belly laughs. Highly Recommended.

Kar Wai Wong's The Grandmaster is as lovely a film as I've seen this year. It's balletic battles between Northern and Southern Chinese schools of kung fu pay homage to the masters of martial arts surrealism (Yimou Zhang and Ang Lee) while the quieter scenes of romance and introspection evoke Bergmanesque blousiness. Highly Recommended.



Thursday, August 29, 2013

Blue Jasmine


Cate Blanchett's performance in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine is so rarefied that it is nearly impossible for me to imagine another actress (aside from, of course, Meryl Streep) matching it this year. It is remarkable. This photo is from an alchemical scene in which Blanchett's Jasmine reveals the depths of her pain to her sister's 10-year-old boys who have been left in her charge. Jasmine's life as a New York trophy wife and socialite was capsized by the arrest, conviction and suicide of her unscrupulous husband (Alec Baldwin). Impoverished and addled by fistfuls of Xanax, Jasmine goes to San Francisco to live with her sister, Ginger (a tremendous Sally Hawkins), whose cramped day-to-day existence with a coterie of brutish men pushes all of Jasmine's neurotic buttons. This is Woody Allen at his best. Highly recommended.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

You're Next


Giving away the plot of Adam Wingard's horror show splatterfest You're Next (2011) would not diminish the bloody goodness of the movie. The sly twists and reveals are delivered matter-of-factly (without musical "stings") which leaves plenty of room for the marvelously zany attacks and counter-attacks by three butchers in sheep masks. The occasion of the bloodletting is the 30th anniversary celebration of parents Paul and Aubrey at the family's wooded estate. All four children and their significant (and insignificant) others are in attendance. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that this is a despicable group of people (10 fat sitting ducks), and, suitably, the "offing" commences posthaste. The gutsiest of the "plus-ones" -- the lovely Erin (Sharni Vinson) is wonderfully resourceful as she marshals her ever-dwindling troops. Of course, when you gather sibs together, it's inevitable that one of them will be a rat. In this case, they're all rats caught in a deliriously demented trap. Recommended but it features barrels of blood flowing from the hackings, stabbings, gougings and garrotings.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels' The Butler is a melodramatic piece of filmmaking that sidles up to interesting but ultimately plops itself squarely on the lap of mediocrity. I feel this despite good performances by Forest Whitaker as the eponymous character who was butler to seven presidents, Oprah Winfrey as his loving though neglected and boozy spouse and David Oyelowo as their elder son, who rejects his father's seemingly ineffective obsequiousness for a more radical path. The rest of the cast includes some solid Hollywood actors -- Cuba Gooding Jr. as the White House chief butler, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, Liev Schreiber as LBJ -- who don't seem to know what to do with their parts and I wonder if they understood what the movie's ultimate message is. I'm not sure I can tell you.  Maybe it is contained in the scene that features Nelsan Ellis as Martin Luther King Jr., who describes the importance of the American domestic in challenging stereotypes about blacks as lazy and undisciplined. It's a good scene with resonance but does not offset the film's weaknesses.
The script by Emmy-winning scribe Danny Strong relies on ironic juxtapositions of events to piece together the story of the American Civil Rights Movement as seen by Whitaker's Cecil Gaines, a fictionalized version an actual longtime White House butler. It follows Gaines from the cotton fields of Georgia -- where his mother is raped by an overseer and his father shot dead by the same man --  to luxury hotels where he must endure serial assaults from bigots who see him only when they're seeking affirmation from a good Negro. I don't know that this man's story (as worthy as it is)  -- much less the story of revolutionary change in this country -- can be told in 140 minutes without resorting to some unconvincing and annoying tropes. But it would have been interesting to see someone try.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

2 Guns


Baltasar Kormakur's 2 Guns stars Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg as bantering, double-crossing buddies on the hunt for 3 million dollars of ill-gotten gains deposited in a border town bank by a Mexican drug lord played by Edward James Olmos. Little is as it seems in this story based on a graphic novel, and that's most of the fun. In addition to a smart story line (and repartee between the two leads taken from the David Mamet school) there are more than a handful of sweet action / adventure cinematic touches (stuff blowing up real good). But the bottom line is it's a cynical and brawny summer action bromance that fetishizes guns and money and testicles. If that's your cup of tea you'll have a ball. Or maybe two. Also stars Paula Patton, Bill Paxton and James Marsden.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Elysium


South African director Neill Blomkamp has a distinctive cinematic eye, which is not to say his vision is wholly original but it IS arresting, I think. His film District 9 (2009) merged science fiction and the sociopolitical. This is not a first, I grant you. Nearly every important work of science fiction film I know is actually a treatise on some social or political structure. But District 9 was a bold and refreshing comment on apartheid (actually any systemic disenfranchisement and corralling of indigenous peoples). Set in the squalid wards of Johannesburg (Blomkamp's hometown), the film starred fellow South African Sharlto Copley as a field agent whose job was to be an intermediary between the government and members of an alien race that had settled in J-burg and been ghettoized in a crowded and polluted reserve. Through the course of events, the agent is exposed to alien DNA and begins to mutate, form bonds with aliens and become radicalized against the government. It was a meticulously crafted and intriguing film.
Blomkamp's latest, Elysium, plows similar ground but lacks the freshness of the earlier film. In this movie, the Earth has been overrun and gutted and the richest 1 percent of the planet's inhabitants have escaped to an orbiting Skylab monstrosity called Elysium, where all is lush luxury for its Francophone residents. This Eden is ruled ineffectually by an Armani clad and coiffed council of Benetton wannabes but protected by the ballsy defense secretary Delacourt (an imperious Jodie Foster). The biggest fear of Elysium leaders is the illegal immigration of the earthly unwashed and they take particularly decisive and punitive actions to halt the smuggling of immigrants.

Most of the film is set in a bombed out Los Angeles, where our hero Max (I don't know if the name is an homage to Mad Max but the film's design and texture certainly are) labors in a factory that builds robots used by the elevated 1 percent to police the masses on terra firma. After an industrial accident exposes Max (a paroled car thief played with typical assurance by Matt Damon) to a lethal dose of radiation, he is recruited by his former comrades in the radical underground to undergo the surgical grafting of a fighting exoskeleton to his body so he can lead a team on a mission to steal valuable data that will ultimately heal the planet. In short order, the team is decimated by a brutal earthbound Elysium agent(Copley).  The final battle between the two men is terrifically, grungily gladiatorial. This entertainer movie contains a patchwork of swatches from 1984, Blade Runner, Robocop and the aforementioned Mad Max. Recommended but features scenes of bloody viscera and gore.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Way Way Back


Oscar-winning screenwriters and first-time directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants) have crafted a sparkling gem of a movie in The Way Way Back, a charming and hilarious film that follows a morose 14-year old named Duncan (a wonderful Liam James) who is suffering through the indignity of watching his divorced mother (Toni Collette) be courted by a raging asshole (Steve Carell) during a stay at his home in a dingy summer vacation town. While there, Duncan, a Cinderfella who has been labeled by his mother's boyfriend as a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, meets a kindred spirit in the form of the doe-eyed older girl next door (AnnaSophia Robb), her oversexed and over-tanned mother (the brilliant Allison Janney) and, most fortunately for the boy, a rambling, marauder of sardonic wit named Owen (the ever-reliable Sam Rockwell), who runs the area water park. Sensing the kid's pain, Owen hires Duncan to do odd jobs and for a few weeks one hot summer changes his life. The movie is brimming with sharp observations and tender resonant moments that offer lessons about our responsibility for our own happiness. Marvelous and highly recommended.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

20 Feet From Stardom



Documentarian Morgan Neville's entertaining film 20 Feet From Stardom artfully describes the lives and loves, successes and failures of about a dozen women, mostly women of color, whose voices as background singers have enhanced (in some in...stances immeasurably) hundreds of pop, rock and soul recordings since the early '60s. Among them Merry Clayton, Darlene Love, Claudia Lennear, Judith Hill and Lisa Fischer. All of these women are gifted vocalists whose stories and backgrounds differ quite a bit, but whose musical heritage can be traced to black churches. Many of the performers and music historians tell Neville that the spirited interactions among choir members and soloists was the key to the background singers' success on the stage and in the studio. And yet, these women's dreams of individual stardom have nearly to a person been deferred -- some by circumstances and some by chicanery. The story of Phil Spector's treatment of Darlene Love is especially infuriating. The film is blessedly free of rancor; it's actually more of a celebration. Though the stories of these women's lives is inspiring, it's the music that makes this wonderful film such a resounding treat. Highly Recommended.
 

The Wolverine


James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma was a cinematic highlight of 2007, and his 1999 character study Girl, Interrupted, was a strong film, for which Angelina Jolie won the Oscar for best supporting actress. Mangold is probably not gifted, but he is talented, as is evidenced by earlier works (including the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line) and the latest in the Marvel comics film franchise, The Wolverine, which stars  the estimable Hugh Jackman. In this outing, Wolverine has disappeared into the wild after killing his true love, fellow X-man Jean Grey / Phoenix, after her mutant telekinetic powers went berserk and threatened to destroy the planet (or at least a sizable portion of it) in X-men: The Last Stand. Blessed / cursed with exceptionally long life because of his ability to heal from mortal wounds, Wolverine is summoned out of seclusion to the bedside of a dying friend, whom he saved during the bombing of Nagasaki in World War II.  The friend, the head of a power Japanese family and biomedical concern, hopes to persuade Wolverine, who has occasional dreams of joining his beloved Jean in the after life, to pass along his healing abilities and restore vigor and vitality to the dying man. Layered on throughout the narrative are threads involving corporate intrigue, kidnapping, family jealousy, social status prejudice, and a secret society of Ninja warriors in league with a poison spitting dominatrix named Viper. It's a real goulash and not an entirely satisfying one but I would wager for fans of the X-men series it will be entertaining enough.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Fruitvale Station


Michael B. Jordan is the heart and soul of Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, an engrossing and distressing recounting of the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a Bay Area  man aching for redemption after doing prison time for drug dealing who is killed by a police office in the early morning of New Year's Day 2004. As Coogler presents it, Grant was not entirely mended but was determined to create a life for himself, his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and their daughter, Tatiana, (Ariana Neal), when random elements converged on a BART train while Grant, Sophina and a group of their friends were returning from a New Year's Day celebration in San Francisco. One of the more devastating scenes in the film (aside from the fatal shooting on the BART station platform) is the recreation of a prison visit between Grant and his mother (a masterful Octavia Spencer). The truth pealing throughout the scene, the crystallization of a mother's uncompromising love for her damaged and damaging child, is deafening. Jordan will most assuredly get an Oscar-nod for his passionate portrayal of the doomed Grant, who was felled by fate and fear but whose end resonates through the Bay Area (and now the world) to this day. Highly recommended.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Conjuring


James Wan's The Conjuring, a mostly refreshing take on an old ghost story, is not the slam dunk its able cast could have delivered. It has a good number of jolts and more than a handful of supremely creepy set pieces but also more than its share of "don't-look-in-the-basement" moments that, even if true to the actual events upon which the film is based, are exasperating. The film features Patrick Wilson and Vera Famiga as Vatican-approved real life demonologists Ed and Lorraine Warren (they of the Amityville Horror) and Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor as the Perrons, the proud owners of a big and battered farm house into which they and their five daughters move. In no time at all, the family dog is dead, birds are crash diving into the side of the house and Mama Perron (Taylor) is waking up with mysterious bruises. All of this, of course, is because of some heinous events in the house's past that has trapped an especially malevolent spirit. She's out for blood. The Warrens, renowned for their ability to record spectral events and rid haunted premises of cranky phantoms, move in with the Perrons, which only makes things worse. The Conjuring is a pretty solid scarefest but not recommended for little ones.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim



This poster is taken from a scene in the prologue to Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim,  the summer's undisputed blockbuster to beat. The poster depicts a crippled gargantuan robot pulling itself out of the surf, its electronic innards dangling, bits falling onto the beach. It's bent but not destroyed. Two small figures at the lower left-hand side of the poster are diminished by the goliath. Those folks are us. The moviegoers. And the robot is, well, the film. Audiences will be awed and overwhelmed by this picture because of its size and, well, elegance. Del Toro, a true cinematic visionary (witness Pan's Labyrinth), has crafted an enormous and enormously engrossing multi-culti adventure tale of the human race's refusal to give in to what appears, based on the numbers, to be certain annihilation. Leading the intrepid battle is Stacker Pentecost, played by the redoubtable Idris Elba. Pentecost is one of the veteran "pilots" of the gigantic robots, called Jaegers (as in -meister) that have been battling a species of really nasty amphibious beasts (kaijus) from the center of the earth. These malevolent creatures use a portal that leads them to us and because they are aquatic they've wreaked most of their havoc on coastal cities. The suits have about had enough and want to build a wall too big for the kaijus to scale rather than continue to fund the jaeger program. Pentecost isn't hearing it and goes to ace pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy) to coax him out of retirement (he and his brother were at the helm of the damaged Jaeger on the poster) to wage one last attack on the kaiju's portal and save humankind. It's Class A story craft with an abundance of grace notes provided by a world class assortment of featured characters played by Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Ron Perlman. The heart of this greatly affecting film is in the relationship between Elba's Pentecost and junior pilot Mako Mori (the lovely Rinko Kukichi). Loud, cartoonish violence, but little blood. Highly Recommended.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Despicable Me 2


Despicable Me's cute and cuddly Minions are the shape and color of sinus capsules -- tubular and yellow.  Not the most obvious choices for phenomenally infectious animated characters but a winning formula nonetheless (with a major assist by Steve Carrell as diabolical mastermind turned single parent Gru). Directors Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud made another brilliant move by putting at the center of sequel's narrative a sinister plot to turn all things cute and cuddly (a/k/a Minions) into ravenous, fright-wigged beasties. D M 2 picks up where the original film left off, with Gru and his three adopted daughters (Margo, Agnes and Edith) settled in "suburbia." Now the former moon thief is trying to launch a line of jellies and jams but things aren't going well. Introduced into the mix is a hyper-kinetic secret agent  and potential love-interest named Lucy (Kristen Wiig), who recruits Gru for an assignment to uncover the identity of the mad monster who wants to de-cute-ify the world. It's delightful, screwy and frantic fun and highly recommended.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

World War Z



Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace, Monster's Ball) directs Brad Pitt in the curious zombie plague film World War Z, in which Pitt plays a former United Nation's investigator, Gerry Lane, who is drafted by  a desperate U.N. undersecretary (Fana Mokoena) to find the source of a global infection that is turning the world's population into the raging, ravenous undead. Little time is spent on back story (no reason is given for the outbreak), and the little we know about Pitt and his devotion to his wife (Mierielle Enos) and two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Abigail Hargrove) is relayed in the first five minutes of the film. It's this devotion that leads him to sign onto what appears to be a suicide mission because the zombies swarm like ants and the gestation period for "turning" after being bitten is about 12 seconds. Lane leaves his family in the care of the U.N. on a battle ship that has been re-purposed as a refuge for unbitten essential  personnel and heads to Korea then Israel chasing leads. Each stop introduces new perils, and Forster stages several mesmerizing scenes that are much tamer than the standard zombie attack fare on The Walking Dead or any other recent zombie flick. For me, the film's most horrifying visual elements are the scenes of the armies of the undead clawing and crawling over one another to get to fresh flesh. Unfortunately, the movie's solemn and polemical final reel was strangely pessimistic and generally disappointing. Recommended for fans of the genre and though not overly bloody or graphic it's way too intense for young children.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Man of Steel


Zack Snyder's Man of Steel has the grunge-gladiator feel of his earlier film 300 (2006) but with the disorienting visual distortion of that movie and that of his later graphic novel adaptation Watchmen (2009) amped up to a mind-numbing degree. This bombastic and unrelenting picture is both exhausting and too often uninteresting, mainly because the characters are one-dimensional and the battles are unending. Snyder fills the screen of this retelling of the Superman story with cold reptilian images (from the delivery room to space ships to body armor), erupting terrain, and crumbling massive structures of stone and steel. Every time you look up something is coming down. Snyder recounts the story of Clark Kent / Kal-El (The Immortal's Henry Cavill) unconventionally (no doubt the contribution of co-writer Christopher Nolan), weaving together flashbacks from the boy Clark's school days with the implosion of his home planet Krypton and the battle of his heroic father, Jor-El, (Russell Crowe) to save his son and, perhaps, the Kryptonian people. Jor-El is opposed by rebel General Zod (a scenery gobbling Michael Shannon [who is actually a personal favorite of mine]) and Zod's foxy enforcer Faora-Ul (the Germanic beauty Antje Traue). Once baby Kal-El arrives on Earth he is found and nurtured in the American heartland by Jonathan and Martha Kent  (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane). It is when the story returns to Kansas that it becomes much more involving; both Costner and Lane add emotional resonance to a film that sorely needs it. Clark's romance with the daring though shockingly unprincipled Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane was D.O.A. for me, however. Recommended.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

This Is The End


Evan Golderg and Seth Rogen tag-teamed their directorial debut, This Is The End, a film that could charitably be described as a comic morality tale of celebrity set against the biblical apocalypse. However, it is more accurately described as a self-referential and vulgar bromantic project that stars Rogen, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Chris Robinson, Danny McBride, all of whom appear as themselves, and a dozen tag-alongs who have appeared in the films of chief merry prankster Judd Apatow. It's self-referential and profane and hilarious. It's Goldberg's and Rogen's private party that we've been invited to attend (preferably sans panties) and at which Satan makes a few full-frontal appearances. Recommended but decidedly not for children or sensitive (sensible?) adults, for that matter.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Fast and Furious 6


Justin Lin's Fast & Furious 6 has an engineer's sensibility about it,  that is to say, it's technically precise and highly functional but is not necessarily arftul -- which will no doubt be fine with the franchises's fan boys and girls.. Lin, who directed the lethargic Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift (2009) and the infinitely more entertaining Fast Five (2011) has assembled more than a dozen brilliantly choreographed battles, auto v. auto and human v. human, that are a film editors dream (or nightmare).  Lin -- like the film's team of souped-up racing car vigilantes led by Vin Diesel's Dom and Paul Walker's Brian -- has a need for speed but little patience, apparently, for coherent narrative and emotional weight. In this outing, Dom and Brian and their motley but colorful crew of speed demons are recruited by federal agent Hobbs (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) to help capture a high-performance auto freak (Luke Evans) who wants to nab a military computer chip that could wreak havoc on us decent folk. The chase takes the team from Russia to England and then to Spain;  the speed and material destruction (though, apparently, relatively little loss of life) increases exponentially with each new location. The film is capped with a vehicle v. aircraft chase on a NATO airbase that has a runway that must be 30 miles long. It's all deafening nonsense but is enormously entertaining and, in the end, delivers a fairly conventional message: keep your word, don't abandon your family (broadly defined) and drink Corona. Recommended.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Star Trek: Into Darkness



Star Trek is about space but not just in the galactic sense. The adventures of that intrepid septet of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Uhuru, Sulu and Chekov have spawned intimate connections among fans over the years. But as the franchise moved from television to motion pictures and back to television, the personalities became ever larger and soon they were more myth than human(oid). When J. J. Abrams took over the film franchise in 2009, he injected a refreshing amount of rip and roar to the venerable series and reaped enormous benefits from casting Chris Pine as a callow, spit and vinegar Kirk, Heroes's Zachary Quinto as Spock and Zoe Saldana as Spock's love interest communications officer Uhuru. It was thrilling fun, self-referential enough to titillate the millions of knowing Trekkies scattered around the globe and ballsy enough to push the mayhem up a notch. Abrams applies the same formula in the latest entry -- Star Trek: Into Darkness -- and reintroduces one of the original series' most infamous villains [he who shall not be name] (played by the BBC's Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch). The action is still gigantic and the background is still cosmic and the film delivers and delivers. Highly recommended though its intensity would probably be too much for little ones.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Great Gatsby


I'm pretty sure I was in the minority of serious film watchers who enjoyed Baz Luhrmann's Australia (2008). I didn't mind its outrageous implausibility because it was so visually arresting and overwrought. I actually enjoyed it more than the director's first "big-boned" work, Moulin Rouge (2001), a stagy phantasmagoria with music, which has much more in common with Luhrmann's latest, The Great Gatsby, than it does with Australia, I feel. Luhrmann has raised the bar for his already storied cinematic showmanship with the stunningly beautiful and busy Gatsby, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the enigmatic bazillionaire Jay Gatsby, Tobey MaGuire as Gatsby acolyte / neighbor and the film's narrator Nick Carraway, and Carrie Mulligan (Shame) as Carraway's fickle and spoiled cousin Daisy Buchanan. Working with such familiar material as Fitzgerald best-loved work would pose challenges for the most seasoned and imaginative of film-makers but Luhrmann gives the work his usual wildly impressionistic treatment, leaving the story (such as it is) intact and spinning dazzling set pieces of 1920's Long Island and Manhattan bacchanalia that feature players in numbers rivaling those of a DeMille epic. Executive Producer Jay-Z's hip-hoppy fingerprints are all over the soundtrack, an anachronism that is signature Luhrmann (witness Moulin Rouge). Just as Spielberg did in Tin-tin, Scorsese did in Hugo, and Ang Lee in The Life of Pi, Luhrmann employs 3-D technology intelligently and meaningfully though certainly not conservatively. Roadsters speed along gravel by-ways kicking up dust and rock, colored confetti drifts down like snow upon the revelers at one of Gatsby's notorious parties and secret dalliances in arbored gardens are obscured by leafy branches.  The film has an abundance of texture layers as bedding for what I feel are too often pedestrian performances. Still, its a visually delightful re-imagining. Recommended..

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Iron Man 3


Predictability can be deadly for a major motion picture, but in the case of Shane Black's Iron Man 3, it will be the key to the film's predictably substantial success. Black took over the directing duties from Jon Favreau, who along with star Robert Downey Jr. introduced the world to Marvel comic's glibly egoistic and irreverent Iron Man in 2008 and brought him back for a rousing second act in 2010. The character was the best among equals in last year's Avengers, directed by wunderkind Joss Whedon. This year's Iron Man model has all of the sleekness and polish of its predecessors,  and mountains of demolished steel, and maniacal villains (Sir Ben Kingsley and Guy Pearce) AND a pretty clever twist to boot. What's not to love? Downey Jr. is in complete control of the proceedings (even though some of the film's biggest laughs come from the utter unpredictability of Tony Stark's hardward).  Series regular Gwyneth Paltrow (People's Most Beautiful Woman?) as the ever-imperiled though brainy Pepper Potts as is Don Cheadle as Col. Rhodes, Iron Man's beefy comrade in armor match RDJ intensive measure for measure. Especially refreshing is a segment that features the child actor Ty Simpkins, who plays a latch-key Tennessee boy who stumbles across a beaten but unbowed Stark and his hollow Iron Man suit in the family tool shed.  It's all great, lavishly excessive Marxian fun (Groucho not Karl) and is highly recommended.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Trance


Danny Boyle's Trance is as curvy as its inscrutable star -- Rosario Dawson, who plays a hypnotherapist hired by the leader of a crew of art thieves (Vincent Cassel) to plumb the fractured memory of their inside man Simon, (James McAvoy) who double-crossed the team and hid the purloined Caravaggio but after being clobbered during the caper he can't remember where he put it.  Yes, the story is a mess -- an artfully engrossing mess -- but a mess all the same, which isn't to say it's not entertaining and quite intriguing. Because much of the story takes place in the recesses of a damaged memory,  we can never be sure of the authenticity of what we're seeing. And this, of course, leads us to doubt the authenticity of the players, none more than the entrancing Ms. Dawson, a personal favorite of mine,who bares all for her art. Recommended.

The Place Beyond the Pines


Derek Cianfrance's The Place Beyond the Pines is as unsettling as his 2010 film Blue Valentine, which also featured a mesmerizing performance by Ryan Gosling. His is a strikingly nuanced and disciplined role. In this morality tale that spans families and generations, Gosling plays a stunt motorcyclist attached to a traveling carnival. After discovering he's fathered a child with the earthy waitress Romina (a splendid Eva Mendes), Luke decides to man up and try to provide for his son. The problem is Romina has a man, Kofi (Mahershala Ali), and Luke has few skills besides riding a motorbike. Following an introduction to the wily auto mechanic Robin (Ben Mendelsohn), they start robbing banks, which eventually  leads to a bloody confrontation between Luke and a green but ambitious beat cop, Avery (Bradley Cooper), who has a young son, himself, and a father who is former New York state Supreme Court justice.  It would be easy to write off Pines as a beautifully filmed but disturbing study of cops and robbers as fathers and sons but I think that would be selling short Cianfrance's starkly unsentimental story.  This is much more than a bromide about the sins of the fathers being visited upon their sons, though that is certainly a theme. It seems to me the film is mostly about the impermeable connections that tie all of us together and how little control we have over any of them. It's a wonderfully affecting movie. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen


Everything in Antoine Fuqua's latest film, Olympus Has Fallen, feels calculated -- and I'm not talking just about the impressively staged seizing of the White House and the near immobilization of the executive branch of  the government that opens the film. Fuqua knows his way around chaos and how to communicate the escalation of calamitous improbability without alienating or pissing off the audience. He's smarter than that and delivers here an entertaining 100 minutes of kick-assery. The populist director of Training Day [2001], Tears of the Sun [2003] and Shooter [2007],  Fuqua has cast a host of Hollywood's more likable faces: Aaron Eckhart as the luckless President Asher, Ashley Judd as his even unluckier first lady, Morgan Freeman (the most likable man in the known universe) as House Speaker Trumball and Gerard Butler (who co-producers this testosterone-y feast of grimacing gun play) as uber-agent Mike Banning, the president's sparring partner and hero. It's strategic, as was an early Oval Office confab that rings like the United Colors of Benneton and includes the president, his female Secretary of Defense (Oscar winner Melissa Leo), the black House Speaker, the Hispanic vice president and a coterie of colorful seconds stationed about the room. The film's villain, Kang (played with brilliant iciness by Rick Yune), is Korean but he's aligned with neither the North nor the South. Kang's manifesto, delivered off-handedly shortly after the White House is taken, contains some reference to the re-unification of his country and the alleviation of starvation and devastation among his people. It's not supposed to make sense beyond giving the evil guy some raison d'etre for his bloody badness. The film is mindless with an astronomical body count but it's enormously entertaining. Leave the kids home.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Rust and Bone


Rust and Bone is a powerfully distressing French film about an orca trainer who loses her legs in an aquatic accident and becomes FWB with an aimless bare knuckle brawler and single father. It features two remarkable, anquishing performances by Marion Cotillard and Armand Verdure and amazing camera wizardry that transforms the able-bodied Cotillard into a double amputee. Wonderful cinematic magic. Directed by Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped).

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Oz the Great and Powerful


Sam Raimi's Oz the Great and Powerful is the latest in a series of A-list directors' forays into top tier cinematic wizardry. The most noteworthy entries have been Scorsese's Hugo,  Spielberg's Adventures of Tin Tin and Ang Lee's Life of Pi, which won Lee the Best Director Oscar this year. Sam Raimi may not be as lauded as that trio but in about 30 years he has grown from low-budget horror flick visionary (The Evil Dead [1981]) to small canvas auteur (A Simple Plan [1998] and The Gift [2000]) and blockbuster craftsman (Spider-Man, S-M2, and S-M3). Oz the Great and Powerful is his latest and it has moment of visual sumptuousness and tender homages to the Victor Fleming original Wizard (1939) but in the end, to me, its Disney-fied one-world sentimentality seemed an odd companion to its outsized technological trickery. In other words, it's a stupendous piece of eye-candy that's just not very filling. To that end, the CGI creations of the flying monkey bellhop (voiced by Scrubs' Zach Braff) and the little china doll (voiced by child actress Joey King) are the most entrancing characters in the whole film, which boasts James Franco as Oz, uber-beauty Mila Kunis as Theodora, the good girl gone bad witch; Rachel Weisz as Evanora, Theodora's thoroughly bad witch sister; and Michelle Williams as Glinda, the sticky sweet good witch in a bubble. Yes, do take the kids. There's no blood but some frightening flying mandrills that might spook the really little ones.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Ethan Frome (1993)



Edith Wharton is not a writer I'm very familiar with though I enjoyed Martin Scorsese's elegantly stagy 1993 adaptation of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Age of Innocence, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder. The same year, British director John Madden (Shakespeare in Love) released his adaptation of Ethan Frome, a tale of emotional and psychological entrapment. Madden's film starred Liam Neeson as Ethan Frome; Joan Allen as his distant cousin and later wife Zeena Frome; and Patricia Arquette as Zeena's distant cousin, Mattie Silver, who comes to live with the couple after Zeena falls ill of a host of mysterious ailments. Set around the turn of the 20th century in the snow-covered back country of fictitious Starkfield, Massachusetts, the film opens with a new preacher (Tate Donovan) arriving at this frigid outpost and seeing a grossly hobbled Ethan Frome trudging through the snow. He begins inquiries into this strange, broken man but is told by townspeople to leave the Fromes alone. Undeterred, the preacher goes to the Frome house and hires Ethan as a driver, to model Christian charity to his flock. After being snowed in at the Frome's hovel one night, the preacher becomes even more insistent on knowing the story of this sad and isolated man. How did he come to be so bent and miserable. An acquaintance of the Fromes'  weaves the sad but morbidly fascinating tale of love, duty and disappointment. The three principals (Neeson, Allen and Arquette) give solid performances (especially Allen, a personal favorite of mine) in a film that probes pretty deeply into the core of human despair. Highly recommended but the story, for those unfamiliar, is extraordinarily bleak.  

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson


Roger Michell's Hyde Park on Hudson is a beguiling film that's a study in the art of beguilement. The artist under consideration is Franklin Delano Roosevelt (a terrific Bill Murray) and the object of his attention is a distant cousin, Daisy, (Laura Linney in a wonderfully nuanced performance) who is beckoned by FDR's mother (Elizabeth Wilson) to come to the family home on the Hudson to "entertain" the president while Eleanor (Olivia Williams) is otherwise occupied. It soon becomes apparent how much "entertaining" the president needs and soon Daisy is his constant companion and occasional sleepover mate. Daisy is enamored of and devoted to the charismatic president, who is trying to lead the country through the agonizing depths of what we now call the Great Depression. But her long-held secret relationship with Roosevelt, much like FDR's physical condition, was shielded from public scrutiny. It was understood and accepted, even by the president's other paramours. The central action of this beautiful and revealing motion picture is a visit to the Roosevelt estate by King George (Samuel  West) and Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), the parents of the current British monarch, in 1939 to ask America for help in fending off the inevitable attack from Nazi Germany. The royal visit is a festival of diplomatic near-disasters and faux pas but also includes a  tremendously insightful tete-a-tete between the two world leaders -- one of the finest bits of acting I've seen in a while. Michell, who I only know from his films Changing Lanes (2002) and Notting Hill (1999), has an marvelous eye for period detail, a mischievous wit, and a narrative intelligence that gently reveals what much of world is only now coming to know -- that a much beloved U.S. president, a historic icon and international hero was, in fact, a cad and scoundrel. It's a marvelous tale well-told. Recommended but the subject matter is mature.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Of Their Times


The expression "a product of his time" re Strom Thurmond has been circulating since Mrs. Essie Mae Washington Williams' first announcement that she was the daughter of the senator and his family's housekeeper. But in how many ways was SHE heself a product of her time? My foster mother was teaching at Claflin University just next to S.C. State University when Mrs. Washington Williams was a student there. I asked my foster mother if she had known about Mrs. Washington Williams during those days. She said nearly everyone knew she was Thurmond's daughter but no one EVER said anything about it openly. She described Mrs. Washington Williams as pleasant and dignified. I couldn't get from my foster mother, she was in her late '80s at the time we were talking, why this was the case -- respect? fear?. She wouldn't or couldn't say. I always find myself going back to the fact that it was NOT uncommon for prominent white men to have children by black women back in the day. Some of the children benefited from that paternity but many (most?) were marginalized and without a true place on either side of the color line. And that is what made the mulatto of literature and film so "tragic."

Side Effects



I am unapologetic in my affection for Steven Soderbergh's work. I cannot name a feature film he's directed that I've seen that I did not enjoy -- some more than others, of course, but every one of them I found smart, swift and entertaining. I also thought his collaborative work with George Clooney, the HBO mini-series K Street, was genius. I was in the Soderbergh fan club from 1989's Sex Lies and Videotapes on (though I decided not to see last year's male stripper fantasia Magic Mike because I was getting dangerously close to Channing Tatum fatigue). Even though Tatum was a member of poster quartet for Soderbergh's Side Effects, I went into the picture hoping the woodenness of "the sexiest man in Hollywood" (?) would be offset by Jude Law's ineluctably enticing charisma, Rooney Mara's hypnotic intensity and Catherine Zeta-Jones unvarnished beauty. And it was. But also the Fates were kind as Tatum, an ex-con white color criminal married to an unaccountably depressed woman (Mara), is dispatched in true Hitchcockian fashion in the first reel by his sleepwalking bride, who is having trouble getting adjusted to new meds prescribed by her distracted shrink (Law). The script, by veteran film scrivener Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Informant, The Bourne Ultimatum), is arch and cagey, and brimming with misdirection and sly reveals. It's not quite Mamet in the area of the double-cross but it's pretty darn close. I loved it. Highly recommendation but not for the kiddies.

Yesterday

  Director Danny Boyle's hummably insightful morality tale, Yesterday, is a sure starmaker for amiable Hamish Patel, who plays ...