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


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.

Queen & Slim

In the soon to be iconic photograph from Melina Matsoukas's distressing Queen & Slim, stars Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith...