Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies


Those of the mind to see the final chapter of Peter Jackson's fairly bloated staging of Tolkien's The Hobbit must come to peace with the film being good but not great (by Jackson's standards), too "spectacular" by half and an unblinking bore in the final reel. Jackson and his team of screenwriters have hammered a decent screen narrative but the core struggle of one man's, er, dwarf's battle with his inner demons is overwhelmed by too much swordplay and an irritating clownish hamming. As Thorin, the British actor Richard Armitage has three or four solid Macbethian moments as his greed for the golden riches within the mountain chambers once guarded by the dragon Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) turns him ever more indifferent toward his kin and paranoid. But once the dragon is defeated, the former flotsam of Middle Earth come a-knocking. Thorin's  moments of introspection are replaced by the Sturm und Drang that both of Jackson's trilogies have centered around, that is, scads of indistinguishable grotesqueries battling on one side against the scrubbed beauty of the Elves, led by the effete but deadly Thranduil (Lee Pace), his son Legolas (Orlando Bloom also of the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and the dashing she-elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly of Lost) and on the other by the hapless though hearty forces of mortal men, led by the archer Bard (Luke Evans). As always Ian McKellen's Gandalf is on hand to dole out wisdom and crack a few skulls with his staff and Martin Freeman's amiable Bilbo Baggins, the Hobbit of the title, provides ample heart to help keep the magical mayhem grounded.  Recommended.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Top Five


Chris Rock's Top Five is the densely comical and thought-provoking story of a former standup comedian and costumed film star whose "funny" was stolen by alcohol. (Whisky shtick?) On the wagon now with the help of his babalicious reality TV star fiancee (Gabrielle Union), Andre "Dre" Allen (Rock) is celebrating both the release of his first dramatic feature -- Uprizing, an unintentionally ludicrous recounting of a slave revolt  in Haiti, the first such revolt in the Western Hemisphere -- and his marriage to his Dream Girl. Allen is being interviewed by a skeptical and, herself, "recovering" New York Times arts writer played by Rosario Dawson. After they lay down a few ground rules about the interview, they have some interesting conversations about fame and family, love and trust, sex, sanity and sobriety. These Rock has explored in his stand-up routines for years. Rock, who also has written and directed this entertaining romp, is offering two things to his fans: (1) a soulful and insightful statement about celebrity, and (2) a house party to which he has invited a couple dozen of his favorite people -- Cedric the Entertainer, JB Smoove, Jerry Seinfeld, SNL's Lisa Jones, Kevin Hart, Tracy Morgan, among them. Rock smartly maneuvers this picture between the rocky shoals of race, class and gender politics and comes out, in the end, with an enormously enjoyable piece of work. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Theory of Everything


James Marsh's beautiful but occasionally overwrought The Theory of Everything is the biopic of renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking and his devoted wife, Jane. It is stirring and inspiring and will wrench tears nearly from start to finish. Cinephiles, however, might find Marsh's narrative choices a bit dusty despite having highly engaging dual protagonists played masterfully by Eddie Redmayne (Les Miserables) and Felicity Jones. We are introduced to young Hawking (Redmayne) in the '60s as an awkward though brilliant Cambridge doctoral student who takes a fancy to a lovely poetry student (Jones). The scenes of Hawking's courtship of Jane Wilde are utterly charming.  So much so that when ALS finally enters the frame -- presented in an artful passage just 30 minutes into the film -- the audience is as startled and despondent as Hawking. Most of the film, which is based on Jane Hawking's memoir of her life with the physicist, recounts the couple's early struggles to manage Hawking's disease, which his physicians said would kill him within two years. Redmayne's contorted figure as the wheelchair-bound Hawking is pure perfection, as he portrays genius locked inside a crippled body. ALS has not killed Hawking and the audience is left to wonder why or accept that, ironically, sometimes science simply gets it wrong. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Bill Cosby



I recall interviewing a young woman from Irmo some years back who had recently started her modeling career. Soon she would be off to New York to take acting lessons, etc. I got a note from her a few months after the piece ran that she'd landed a non-speaking part on The Cosby Show. She would be a young pregnant woman in Cliff Huxtable's waiting room reading a magazine.  I tuned in and, sure enough, there she was.

I have no idea if Bill Cosby is guilty of what he's accused of. Maybe I would be less circumspect if I didn't appreciate him so much. I think he's contributed a great deal to how we think about the world and race and class. Positive contributions. He put a lot of young black faces on television and probably made a good many of them wealthy. Fat Albert is the creation of a funny, smart, intuitive and generous man, a doctor of education. He introduced much of the world to the beautiful art of Varnette Honeywood by displaying it on his shows.  I think the tremendous donation to the Smithsonian Institution from him and his wife is truly remarkable. It is so hard for me to fathom that the same man who did all of these things (and more) was also a demon. If it is somehow proven true, I will be terribly, terribly disappointed and sad.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Beyond the Lights


Nina Simone's Blackbird (as different in tenor and affect from the Beatles' Blackbird as night is from day) is featured prominently in writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights.  We first hear it as a 10-year-old Noni Jean (India Jean-Jacques) takes wing in song at a talent show in London. We hear it again, near the end of the film, after hip-hop diva Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has nearly crashed and burned from the demands of stardom. Noni's earlier attempt to end her torment is prevented by L.A. cop and political hopeful Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), who sees a damaged soul under the street swagger. Noni hires Kaz as her bodyguard over the objections of his father (Danny Glover), her mother (Minnie Driver, where have you been?) and unbeknownst to her boyfriend, Kid Culprit (played by Cleveland rapper MGK). And, as the kids say, "shit go bad, for real for real." Prince-Bythewood (The Secret Life of Bees, Love and Basketball) doesn't avoid film cliches entirely (I would love to get through an urban melodrama without somebody on-screen getting slapped) but the freshness she does offer -- many insights on identity and contentment -- makes up for the more predictable passages. And besides, Mbatha-Raw (Belle) and Parker (The Great Debaters) are sizzling hot. There are worse ways to spend your time than watching impossibly beautiful people romp in the surf in T.J. Recommended.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Book of Life, Big Hero 6



Jorge Gutierrez's The Book of Life and Don Hall's and Chris Williams' Big Hero 6 are mind-bogglingly complex animated treats that are also interesting studies in cultural diversity. 

The Book of Life (principal voices by Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum and Ron Perlman) is the fanciful Mexican tale of the competition between two boyhood friends (Manolo the singer and reluctant bullfighter and Joaquin the town hero) for the affection of a third friend, the lovely and fiercely independent Maria. The story, written by Gutierrez, weaves the dark elements of deals between and pacts with underworld into an amazingly ornamental tapestry that celebrates and extols Latin culture but does make one wonder, as one of the characters in the film does, "What is it with Mexicans and death?" The film features several styles of animation but showcases dazzling, textured characters and backgrounds that have the grainy, wooden appearance of marionettes. It's a stunningly detailed piece of work, with a sophisticated view of adult themes, but whose darkness might be a little too upsetting for the youngest ones.

Big Hero 6 is set in an Amerasian metropolis called San Fransokyo and stars a Amerasian genius named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter) whose brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney) attends the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology. Hiro finished high school at 13 but rather than go to college he builds robots and enters them in bot fights. Tadashi turns his younger brother onto the possibilities of serious robotics by introducing him to his invention -- an outsized, huggable mass of TLC called Baymax, who diagnoses and treats human injuries and ailments. (Another truly inspired character from the folks at Disney.) When a tragic accident delivers a huge dose of reality, young Hiro springs into action with the aid of his robotically modified, inflatable buddy and a colorful crew of students from the institute. The film has some weaknesses, narratively, but I can't imagine anyone not loving the relationship between this boy and his battle-ready nurse. Splendid.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Birdman


Mexican film auteur Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a festival of emotional and physical kinetics that will exhaust even as it delights. Michael Keaton stars as Riggan Thomson, an actor whose celebrity was earned as a motion picture superhero called Birdman. The intervening years have not been kind to Riggan (thickening waist, thinning hair), and he hopes to turn himself around by directing and starring in a play he's adapted from a Raymond Carver short story. His venture is complicated by his slow descent into madness, his mercurial co-star Mike (Edward Norton) and the show's two leading ladies, his girlfriend (Andrea Riseborough) and Mike's lover (Emily Watson). Shot almost exclusively in the interior of the St. James Theatre on Broadway, the movie has the feel of an unbroken reel as it follows the players down the narrow corridors to the dressing rooms, into the wings, onto the stage, up on the roof for battles royal. Iñárritu borrows heavily from the magical realism literary tradition to depict Riggan's unraveling but telekinetic mind. Keaton is marvelous as are all of the supporting actors, especially Zack Galifianakis as Jake, the show's frazzled producer, Amy Ryan as Riggan's ex-wife, and Emma Stone as his insouciant daughter. The film will likely resonate more with theater folks but Keaton's identify crisis will surely connect with anyone who is haunted by the spectres of their youth.

Interstellar


Christopher Nolan's Interstellar has substantial amounts of wit and wisdom but a windy ending that will tax the patience of all but the most stalwart of fans. The film, written by Nolan's brother Jonathan, tells the near future tale of a widower farmer and father of two named Cooper, who is also a grounded NASA pilot (Matthew McConaughey).He's grounded because the nation's resources are needed for the raising of crops and not for space exploration. Some natural scourge called "blight" has devastated most food sources and enormous dust storms threaten to choke the rest of life on the planet. Cooper and his adoring daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy) stumble across a scientific anomaly in the child's bedroom and discover, rather miraculously, that lines in the dust are geographic coordinates. Off they go, tossing caution to the wind, following the coordinates and discover the dusty remains of NASA, headed by a physicist named Brand (Michael Caine) and his daughter (Anne Hathaway). After the brothers Nolan scatter the requisite Stephen Hawking / black hole folderol about for a bit, Cooper, the daughter Brand, two other space explorers (Wes Bentley and David Gyasi) are off on an expedition to another galaxy via a wormhole. They're in search of a planet that could be colonized (Plan A) or serve as an incubator for human life (Plan B). The space travel set pieces are marvelous and the planet visits supply sufficient thrills but for some reason the many narrative tendrils don't come together completely. It's not that questions are left unanswered. It's that the answers aren't especially deep. A parallel storyline that involves an adult Murph (Jessica Chastain) and her brother, played by Casey Affleck, as they wait for either a sign from heaven or a dusty death feels peculiarly uninvolving. Even so, the movie is imaginative and at times quite provocative. What's out there? Maybe that's the wrong question to ask.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

John Wick


Keanu Reeves  has kept his amazingly inscrutable face. While it was once a distraction -- and a point of derision -- it perfectly suits the character John Wick, a former gangland assassin who retired to marry and take a stab at a normal life in the New Jersey suburbs. Unfortunately, the son a Russian mobster steals Wick's prized vintage Mustang and kills his dog, just weeks after Wick's wife dies of cancer. So, Wick gets pulled back in, which means the bodies pile up pretty quickly in cleverly choreographed gunplay scenes courtesy of directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski. The Russian mobster (Michael Nyqvist) and Wick have history, which makes all of this even more personal, and so begins a game of cat and mouse played out in a number of crowded upscale venues in Manhattan. The bloody violence is nearly unchartable and pushes the film, undoubtedly a franchise for Reeves, into the realm of the cartoonish. Most definitely not fit for young ones.

Nightcrawler


Screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, Nightcrawler, is a scalding treatment of the "bleeds and leads" dictum in big city broadcast news that will be an Oscar-contender because of the wonder of Jake Gyllenhaal's performance. In a role that raises his game substantially, Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a cunning and resourceful shyster who is as oily as his hair. Gyllenhaal is all method acting and immersion as a textbook sociopath who turns away from theft when he discovers a more lucrative game, that of a night owl freelance videographer who feeds ratings-hungry stations with grimy footage from roadway accidents, house fires and assaults. Bloom finds a willing mark in fourth-place KWLA news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo, who is married to Gilroy), whose response to the query "what is news" is "a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut."
Bloom is an amazingly quick study, which is typical of arch manipulators, and admits to having had little formal education. He learns from the Internet and from aping others and his speech and manner befit one so detached from real human interaction. The genius of Gyllenhaal's portrayal -- and it is genius -- is the paradoxical "rational madness" behind Bloom's forced sociableness. He does what he must to get what he wants at the time. He's a liar and, as we discover in the final reel, is completely lacking in empathy and compassion.
The brilliance of Gilroy's writing and directing is in the gradualness of this reveal. The pacing is superb and the tension is unrelenting. A pivotal scene midway through the film has Lou and Nina meeting over drinks and dinner and Lou laying out -- coldly, without a hint of the empathy that keeps "normal" people from imposing on others -- what Nina will deliver to him without question -- opportunity, money and sexual favors. It's a jaw-droppingly forward move brought to life by two actors who are perfectly pitched. The gambit -- and the scene -- work so well because Nina (and the audience) is convinced Lou is not your garden variety loony. His is a very special kind of madness -- the kind that will undoubtedly make him rich and famous. Highly recommended.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

St. Vincent


Theodore Melfi's St. Vincent is a less introspective Alexander Payne film that features high-caliber performances from A-listers (Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts) in a story about miserable people behaving badly. And as is true of Payne's movies (Nebraska, Sideways, About Schmidt) what is delivered, though serious, is often quite funny. Murray plays a lonesome Brooklyn crank who has a fondness for slow racing ponies, his white Persian cat and a pregnant Russian hooker and pole dancer (Watts). Into his life comes new neighbors young Oliver (the totally winning child actor Jaeden Lieberher) and his divorced mom Maggie (the reliable McCarthy). Oliver is a runty but perspicacious lad who takes to grumpy old Vincent, despite the man's protests, after Mom hires the old guy to babysit Oliver while she's at work. Vincent's idea of babysitting is hauling the kid to the track, giving him pointers on fighting dirty and, oddly, taking him on visits to a nursing home in the city. In many ways, the story's arc is pretty conventional and the last 10 minutes are calculated to wring the tears but that can be forgiven because Murray is marvelous as a pugnacious mess of man who simply wants this bitch called life to cut him some slack. Highly recommended.

Fury


In most ways, David Ayer's Fury is like other latter-day war movies. It's a story of men and machines that celebrates brotherhood and sacrifice. Fury, starring and exec-produced by Brad Pitt, is no jingoistic rave. In fact, it's a grim tale of a well-bonded tank crew led by Pitt's Sgt. Don Collier, who is hell-bent on eradicating the Nazis and all that comes between him and that mission. Because the humanitarian Pitt is attached to the film, one can be sure the picture will  be peddling much more than blood and body count heroics. To my mind and eye, it goes deeper than Band of Brothers bromides and invites audiences to reflect on how much is lost when battling evil. The film, which was also written by Ayer, opens with Collier and his crew members (Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal) having just lost their driver in a skirmish. They are regrouping with what remains of their company in Germany. Collier and the other American tank commanders are out-gunned but must press on, recover stranded infantrymen and stall, capture or destroy what's left of the German forces, including the barbaric Waffen-SS. An untrained young clerk (Logan Lerman) is assigned to Collier's crew, and it is immediately clear there will be many kinds of battles waged in the film. Ayer has a sure and expressive style; his most powerful scenes take place in the close quarters of the tank where the visceral horrors of military engagement are viewed through scopes and where crew members barely maintain control of their fear and their despair. Ayer's vision of war is grisly but not gross and is often layered with nuance, as in a brilliant set piece toward the middle of the picture that features Collier, his crew, and two German women. I feel all of this is in service to  the film's larger goal of examining how conflict too often interweaves valor and debasement, the innumerable ways men lose their souls in battle. Highly recommended but not for the squeamish.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Dear White People


Writer / Director Justin Simien's debut feature, Dear White People, is a hyper-literate and often intriguing satirical treatment of race appropriation and disgruntlement. It's not about "racism" really -- though one could sit through the entire film believing it is. To me, this artful movie is actually about racial fixations -- mostly among black folks.  The film stars Tyler James Williams (best known for the comedy series Everybody Hates Chris) and Tessa Thompson as black students at the fictitious Winchester University, where a campus radio DJ named Sam White (Thompson) pokes and prods the majority white student body (the Dear White People of the title) and the university's administration with quizzical remarks and bon mots about racial identity and oppression. A budding, bushy-headed journalist named Lionel, (Williams) tries to infiltrate Sam's closed circle to tell her story but is blocked by his own tentative racial and sexual identity. Sam's latest crusade is a campaign by the university administration to abolish the tradition of resident houses that has allowed students to segregate themselves by race and class. Some of the black students, led by Sam, feel this threatens their already tenuous grip on healthy black consciousness and so they oppose it, framing it as more BS from the man. Others, most notably the blue-contact / fall-wig wearing beauty Coco (Teyonah Parris) and Troy (Brandon P. Bell), son of the dean of students (Dennis Haysbert) see the push for integration as a natural occurrence in Obama's evolving post-racial America. This movie has a lot on its mind and much to say but Simien, unlike Spike Lee, keeps the story from spinning out of control though the last act might frustrated some who, perhaps naively, want resolution to the weighty questions raised in the film. I'm not sure who the audience is for this insightful and imaginative work. I believe many blacks, and cosmopolitan whites, will find the politics espoused by the characters familiar while others might find a lot of the talk pedantic. I must say I was delighted to see so many young performers of color on the screen. Recommended.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Equalizer


I don't rush to see Denzel Washington's pictures. It's been a while since I have. It's not because I'm not a fan; I'm a huge admirer of his work. And it's not because he makes poor choices in films; he does not. It's oddly because he's so reliable, dependable, trusted that I'm never eagerly anticipating his latest film because I might be surprised. I'll eventually see all of his pictures and I enjoy them, and, well, that's about it. I don't talk about them for days.

Washington's latest film with director Antoine Fuqua, Equalizer (based on the Edward Woodward series of the '80s) is fiercely entertaining and highly watchable, with winning performances from Washington, Marton Csokas as the Russia killing machine Teddy, and Chloe Grace Maretz as a feisty young Russian hooker named Teri.  Washington plays Robert McCall, a widowed, anal retentive home improvement retail clerk with a murky past and a soft spot for troubled souls. His well-ordered life of midnight tea and classic literature in a neighborhood diner is disrupted by a battered Teri, whose two-fisted pimp works for a Russian mobster named Pushkin.  When McCall makes a call on Teri's battering handler to try to purchase her freedom, the visit ends with five men dead and the cold-blooded sociopath Teddy on the hunt for the weaponless ghost. The film, tautly directed by Fuqua (Training Day, Olympus Has Fallen), plays to the audience's outrage and, yes, bloodlust and features a clever climax in a darkened hardware store -- death by lawn and garden supplies.  Recommended but not for kids or the squeamish.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl


For Gone Girl, David Fincher shelves the acrobatics (Fight Club, Benjamin Button) and the schematics (Social Network, Panic Room) for a cagey thriller that bristles with media-age cynicism. Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike lead a pitch-perfect cast in this film treatment of Gillian Flynn's novel, which tells the story of an under-achieving writer and bar owner, Nick Dunne, whose author-wife, Amy, disappears on their fifth anniversary. Because of the film's narrative structure, the audience is never quite sure if Nick is innocent or delusional. At the same time, it's quickly revealed that he's a snake and maybe his wife had reason to be wary, as she wrote in her journal. Still, the lady has vanished, curiously incriminating clues are found, the police converge and then .... Tight, menacing thrillers that don't traffic in gore and mayhem are as rare as hen's teeth these days. Fincher's Gone Girl is an intoxicating cocktail, that's blessedly free of frills. It's a straight whodunit and it's terrific. Highly Recommended.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Walter White


Breaking Bad's meth chef Walter White's drug of choice was much more addictive than his signature blue crystal. He got his first whiff of it when he met the psychopath Tuco Salamanca in the drug lord's barrio headquarters to get paid for the meth Tuco had stolen and to avenge Jesse. The fulminated mercury that nearly levelled Tuco's building was a "crystallization" of Walt's delusion that his brain would win the day over the world's brawn. He would finally get he recognition he deserved. After he and Jesse escaped from Tuco's clutches and he launched the infamous fugue state canard, he was hooked. Every close call, every fabrication, every probing heart-to-heart with the conniving Gustavo Fring and, of course, Heisenberg's eventual destruction of the great man all fed his delusion that he was unstoppable, invincible, imperial. In the final season, Walt's narcissism was in full bloom and he grew more and more incautious, testing the limits of his luck with the railroad heist, or, perhaps, tempting fate with the giant magnet scheme. But why? Walt's greatest frustration was that he was all power and no glory. He could not tell the world how great he was. They would never know how he had outwitted the devil himself, built an empire that spanned the globe, cheated death time after time. "I'm the one who knocks," he told Skyler, showing a bit of the bristling arrogance that lay just below the surface and daring not to reveal more. He ached to be known and celebrated for the mastermind that he was. Early in Walt's descent into the pits, he showed his infant daughter stacks of money -- hundreds of thousands of dollars -- he had crammed between the insulation in the walls of his home. "See what your daddy has done for you," he cooed. Pitiful, heartbreaking and chilling. When Walt (Bryan Cranston) came back from New Hampshire to set things aright, he'd taken on the bearing of the fiends he'd been supplying -- gaunt, wasted, depleted. Poetic justice? Perhaps. Say my name? You goddamn right.

The Drop


Belgian director Michael R. Roskam's terrific crime puzzler The Drop stars Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini and Noomi Rapace in the screen adaptation of a bleak Dennis Lehane story titled "Animal Rescue." Hardy and Gandolfini, in his last performance before his death last summer, are cousins (Bob and Marv, respectively) who run a Brooklyn bar owned by Chechen mobsters and which serves as one of several "drops" for the mob. After the bar is hit by masked robbers, the Chechen gangsters order the two to get the money back or else. Message received. One afternoon, Bob, a deceptively simple chap, finds a battered pit bull pup in the trash can of a neighbor Nadia (Rapace), who's had her own abusive encounters. She convinces the perplexed Bob to take the dog and promises to coach him in pet care. It's the closest that the eternally dour screenwriter Lehane (author of Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone) gets to meet-cute. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that Nadia's past is her present and it's tailing her. Roskams' washed out palette, the wintry sidewalks, cluttered interiors and the ominous presence of Roskam's fellow Belgian Matthias Schoenaerts as lunatic stalker Deeds signal that none of this will end well. Dark and thoroughly entertaining.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mike Ehrmantraut


With Gus Fring's demise at the end of Season Four, the series needed a new foil for Walter White's increasingly reckless Heisenberg. Fring enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) was the man. Strong but sympathetic, taciturn but trusted, Mike was a solid Omega to Walt's rising Alpha. Unlike Walt, Mike was not a deep thinker but that's not to say he was dim. He was dutiful and disciplined, the epitome of efficiency. He was an assassin, after all, a job that required resourcefulness and cunning. And, luckily for a series that was getting close to being oppressively dour whenever Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) wasn't on-screen, Ehrmantraut was funny ... really, really funny.  Who knew? His best scenes, in my view, were with the perpetually harried Madrigal inside woman Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), whom he really, really wanted to shoot in the head. (I'm glad he didn't because that character was a treasure.) A bit of a sentimentalist, Mike's doting grandfather became a surrogate father to Jesse as Walt's monomania pulled him further and further away from his protege and deeper and deeper into his own obsession. Mike's disappearance at the end of Season Five left Jesse, once again, adrift and lonely. And, once again, we felt his pain.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Gale Boetticher


Breaking Bad's guileless geek Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) was Season Three's most interesting featured player for me. An avowed libertarian vegan and Walt Whitman enthusiast, Gale was recruited by Gus Fring to build a master lab in which he would learn to cook master meth from master chef Walter White. And eventually, we came to realize, Gus would dispose of Walter, permanently, and promote Gale. Gale's character, though he only appeared in a couple of episodes, was so richly constructed and embroidered that I wondered if he was creator Vince Gilligan's alter ego. From his Birkenstocks to his throw rugs to his infra-red kitchen thermometer to hs Pillsbury Dough Boy giggle to his love of musical esoterica, Gale was one strange dude. But he added his own beautiful counterpoint to Walt and Gus's strident fugue. I loved his character, as I think many viewers did. Perhaps mostly because of the effect he had on Walt. Walter White wanted a friend, someone who didn't threaten him, who understood his passion for the "chemistry," who he did not resent. Gale was the closest thing to a friend that Walter had. Gale's gifting Walter with an inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass suggests that he may have been a little smitten by Walt and that made Walt's betrayal even more painful to watch and Gale's execution by his rival so shocking. And yet it was also quite fitting for a series where no one ever gets what they want.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Gus Fring


At the end of Season Three of Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman shot meth geek Gale in the face to save Walter White from being killed by Gus Fring's henchmen Mike and Victor. At the start of Season Four, Fring slit Victor's throat with Gale's boxcutter in front of Jesse and Walt, trumping their move and showing both of them what a grown-up sociopath looks like. While gripping Victor's bleeding, convulsing body, Fring trained his eyes on Jesse as if to say, "Who's the man?" In my estimation, Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) was the man that Walt would eventually become -- deliberate, remorseless and calculating.  After Fring was obliterated, Walt seemed to adopt a few of the great man's fastidious affectations. An interesting narrative move. Did Gus's spirit take up residence in Walt's body? Series creator Vince Gilligan made an exception with this terrific character of Gustavo Fring by offering insight into Fring's war with the Mexican cartel and the murder of his "Chicken Brother," Max. While watching Max's blood pour into Don Eladio's pool, we begin to realize that Fring's entire operation, the enormous investment of time and treasure into manufacturing and distributing crystal has all been about his friend. And in that way, Gus was not like Walt, at all. Gus was never about empire-building; he was about revenge. And unlike the food he served at Los Pollos Hermanos, that meal was served ice cold.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Skyler White


Breaking Bad's Skyler White was no Lady Macbeth ... and that's no dig. Her ruthlessness was born not out of greed or ambition but something much more complex --  an insatiable desire to cheat fate, avoid the inevitable. Over the course of the series, Skyler (Anna Gunn) went from hausfrau to money laundering mogul who knew that any misstep would mean her world would come crashing down around her ears. Yes, she was a bitch -- solid gold. But, it seems to me, she came about it honestly. A very telling moment in a series full of them came when we're shown in flashback Walt and Skyler looking at their Negra Arroyo Lane home while Skyler is great with their first child, Walter Jr. She's talking sensibly about affordability and Walt is complaining that the house is inadequate, too small for what their life will become. More, more, more, he seems to say. As we know, Walt never delivered, swapping what would have been a multi-million dollar bonanza with Gray Matter for a few thousand dollars to pay the mortgage on their "inadequate" starter home. Pride goeth before destruction. Skyler, trading tchotckes on eBay to help with expenses, knows how tenuous and uncertain life can be. She gave birth to a child with cerebral palsy, after all. And, she knows her brilliant though underachieving high school chemistry teacher husband who moonlights at a carwash is offering less, less, less. That is until he becomes a meth cook and loads the entire family into a van on the road to hell. So, we can forgive her if she, as tightly wound as she had to be to keep her family together, was a nag and a scold and a closet smoker and adulteress. Carpe diem.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Jesse Pinkman


What a grand creation is Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman. Stuttering syncopation, juvenile bravado and arrested emotion wrapped in B-boy swagger. How I loved listening to this guy talk.  All frenzy and ellipses. Pinkman would offer rapid-fire delivery that merged hip-hop and Valley Boy and then stop, leaving one word dangling ... alone. It was  like jazz riffing. As with the other major characters on this remarkable show, Pinkman was a neurotic enigma. And we were left to wonder, or not, how he came to be who he was. Why was he so viscerally homophobic? Was it street hustle or overcompensation? Why did he break bad so early? One thing was clear to me -- Jesse had two, true loves in the series. Both he lost to drugs -- Jane and Walter. Yeah, he cared deeply for Andrea and Brock Cantillo, but by the time he met the young mother and her son he had already been transformed into the "Bad Guy." His attachment to them was not about love but about redemption. But Jesse LOVED Jane Margolis. She cut through all of his residual Cap'n Cook BS and found the kid who loved to draw and imagined that he was special, in some way. She affirmed him and, yes, hurt him, and he loved her deeply. Walt he loved despite the manipulation and condescension. He loved Walt because Mr. White wanted him to be better, to try harder, to apply himself dammit. And when Walt hurt Jesse, turned on him, or let him down, the wound went deep. Pinkman's most powerful scene, at least to me, was delivered in Season Three from the hospital bed, as he was recovering from Hank Schrader's beat down. His denunciation of Walt's million dollar offer was his moment to hurt Mr. White in the way that he, Jesse, had been hurt so many times in his life -- by rejection. "You don't give a SHIT about me," Jesse spat, his face horribly swollen. It was a masterful performance by Aaron Paul, who truly deserved every accolade he's received for his work in this series.

Hank Schrader


Fans of Breaking Bad know DEA agent Hank Schrader, brother-in-law of Walter White aka drug lord Heisenberg. Recent reports attributing the high rate of suicide among men under 50 to their feelings of isolation reminded me of Hank and that character's obsessiveness, insecurities and anxiety. Hank was a lumbering mess of blustering impropriety whose apparent lack of an off-switch hid his nagging lack of confidence. He was an insightful investigator who refused to dig into his own dysfunction. Series creator Vince Gilligan never explained why Hank (or any other major character for that matter) was the way he was. Hank was Hank -- a fine drug enforcement agent who in Season Three was crippled less by the unsuccessful hit by the Salamanca cousins than his own brutalizing rage and self-pity. His wife, Marie, was his occasional confidante but he kept his most important and crucial demon battles to himself -- even after he discovered Walt's big secret. Keeping up appearances, as he told fellow DEA agent Steve Gomez, was of utmost importance. Living that code nearly killed him. Such a rich and remarkable character.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Marie Schrader


Vince Gilligan wasn't much interested in examining the emotional and psychological pathology woven throughout  Breaking Bad.  In fact, Gilligan wasn't much interested in explaining much of anything in the world he created, aside from Walt's cancer, and even then little screen time was given to the man's illness and treatment, lending early credence to Walt's final season confession that his meth cook exploits were all about him.  And, of course, as with much of what was presented in this brilliant show, the lack of exposition was deliberate and, to me, intriguing. Once Walt's cancer was arrested and he was off to the races with Jesse and Gus and the rest, the damaged psyches of the show's other characters were thrown into greater relief. Walt's sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt) was such a bundle of repression and rage that her venomous meltdown after husband Hank's shooting was, at least to me, the character's most revelatory moment. It was clear to me that Marie was blistered by her resentment of her husband, his work, her work, her sister, and all of life, really. Oh, if she could only get that townhouse in Georgetown. Not a single moment was spent explaining this spiteful woman, in an effort to get us to understand her. She was who she was -- a bewildered, isolated, kleptomaniac out to piss off the world that had dealt her a handful of nothing.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Walter Jr.


I never really warmed up to Breaking Bad's Walter Jr. aka Flynn (R.J. Mitte) though friends of mine say he was everything from the moral core of the otherwise sick White household to the innocent victim of his parents' disabling dysfunction. I didn't agree with these characterizations because I always felt those calls were too easy and conventional for a series that was anything but. I've been re-watching the series lately and I have a better idea of where I am with Walter Jr. now, and it actually has more to do with all of the other players in the drama than with him. Like other minor characters (and I mean minor as in age and not necessarily importance) on television, Walter Jr. was not an active player; he responded to what the loony adults around him did, often with irritation and opprobrium. That's not to say he was unimportant,  just that he was not an agent and so it was difficult for me to emotionally invest in him. I never really knew what he wanted from life except a "car" and a "six pack of beer." His only friend, Louis, was a cipher, without context or connections. The only time we saw Walter Jr. with other friends, they were trying to get an adult to cop beer for them. Their interaction was brief and unproductive and we never saw the friends again. In short, Walter Jr. was a device. He was a tool (and in this case I mean both in attitude and in application). Maybe the audience was to take his cerebral palsy as the reason for his ill-temper and snarkiness.  I had a tough time buying it. I thought the kid was a prick and probably would have been even if he did not have those challenges. I did buy that he was the reason his parents were so indulgent, and used him as a chip to control one another and their in-laws. It actually may be a common occurrence that people use their children to threaten one another in this way. If so, I think that is terribly sad. But, in the case of Breaking Bad, because Walter Jr. was someone to be indulged and protected, I don't think Skyler and Walt Sr. ever felt like his parents, this was probably more true of Walter than of Skyler. The dynamic between Walter Jr. and Uncle Hank is revelatory, and contributed to Walt Sr.'s rashness and monomaniacal drive to outsmart his DEA agent brother-in-law.  I also thought the bonding that developed between Walter Sr. and his meth cook partner and surrogate son, Jesse Pinkman, was compensation for the disconnection he felt with his own son, who seemed to prefer another "dad" to him.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Shame



Exchanges with friends about the reporting of the Ferguson crisis has made me wonder if what so many people loathe about Fox News is the apparent lack of shame on display. The barometer that used to help us gauge our behavior toward family, friends and strangers seems to be disappearing (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shrinkwrapped/201103/shame-third-pillar-civilization).  Shame kept us from telling lies or misbehaving for fear of discovery and humiliation. Being accused of being unfair or unkind was enough to elicit apologies or requests to make amends. Now, such accusations are noise lost in the ether. Caught in a lie? We were misunderstood or taken out of context. Caught in wrongdoing? Blame others. Offend someone? It's their fault for being sensitive or for provoking us. Do what earns. Scapegoat. Spew utter nonsense and walk away, much like Philip Seymour Hoffman's character in The Master. The scene in which Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd had the luckless, rageaholic Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) walk back and forth from a wall to a window in a ridiculous search for meaning was a chilling representation of shameless mind-control and puppetry. That was fiction. What we are seeing on display on TV is real and heaven help us.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Boyhood


Richard Linklater's films (my favorites are Before Sunrise and Waking Life) are about transcendent moments, some strung together into a life and others isolated, singular but no less important. His remarkable new film, Boyhood, is a collection of transcendent moments in the life of a Texas kid, Mason, played over the course of the movie's 12 years by Ellar Coltrane, in a performance that will certainly be recognized as special come award season. That Linklater and the principal members of the cast (Coltrane, Patricia Arquette as Mason's mom, Ethan Hawke as his ragtag father and Linklater's own daughter Lorelei as Mason's pain-in-the-ass sister) committed a dozen years to this project is enough to get the attention of serious filmgoers ready to marvel at such a feat and to forgive narrative holes and continuity gaffes. The surprising thing about Boyhood, which opens on a daydreaming 6-year-old Mason and closes with a buzzed and uncharaceristically cogent 18-year-old Mason, is virtually free of such lapses. What an achievement. Because the 2 1/2-hour film tracks Mason's formative years, it is, by necessity, episodic. But the episodes are rich and resonant, funny, frightening, unsettling, sad and always thought-provoking. Yes, the film is about Mason being shaped by the folks in his life -- most of them terribly unhappy people -- and the complex and, understandably, dour and listless young man he seems to become. But it is also about human imperfection. In fact, the film, to me, is about those beautiful imperfections in the people we love and who love us, the imperfections in the moments the universe gives us that can, nonetheless, be satisfying. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy


James Gunn's Marvel-ous story of intergalactic upheaval, menace and piracy, Guardians of the Galaxy, answers the question "what does a 'comic' genius do after creating scores of heroic characters who battle evil across time, space and dimensions?" Increase the wattage, spoof what has come before and add a sticky Top 40 soundtrack to underscore the chaos. Guardians is the latest in Marvel Comics Hollywood barrage of cartoons to cinema and stars a perfectly affable, though peculiarly familiar, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill, a scavenger / thief who is chasing a mysterious orb that a half dozen other unsavory creatures and fiends are also hunting. When I say Pratt is familiar, I don't mean he's a familiar face though he is that, best known for Parks and Recreation. I mean he has a familiar affect -- I call him "hip, white dancing dude. " The film itself traces Pratt to his most obvious progenitor -- Kevin Bacon in Footloose.  He's rascally, glib, slick and irrepressible. Though ostensibly about space travel and epic battles, Guardians is actually more interested in reflecting modern society back to itself. Nearly everything in the film has a "real world" referent, and most of the fun of the film, at least to this viewer, was making the connections. I mean, honestly, what are we to make of a barbarous alien being who does not understand nuance, irony or metaphor (David Bautista)? We are to go with it, reveling in the construct of a humorless, brutal literalist and thinking if we put a Roman collar on him he might pass for clergy. What are we to make of a living tree (voiced by Vin Diesel) whose only words are a simple statement of his existence -- "I am groot" -- but who can be understood only by his trusted companion, a bad-ass, amped-up talking racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper)? Love comes in all shapes and sizes. And what of the pea-green assassin (Zoe Saldana) who is drawn to Quill's '80s AOR mixed tape but resists his pelvic seduction? I'll leave that one open. It's all fabulous and fun. Highly recommended with a body count in the billions and billions.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Begin Again


Irish writer / director John Carney's Once was one of the cinematic highlights of 2006 for me. The story of a lovelorn Irish busker who meets and falls in love with a Polish pianist on the streets of Dublin, that film's exquisitely anguished tunes were by Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, who also starred. The film was turned into a Broadway sensation, as well. Carney's latest film, Begin Again, also features lovelorn musicians but this time the film's troubled romances are trumped by the movie's amazing exuberance. Keira Knightley plays Gretta, a British songwriter with a lovely, breathy Jewel-like voice, who has been penning songs for and with boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine of Maroon 5), with whom she has been living for five years before they arrive in New York City for Dave's big recording gig. Gretta, not unpredictably, is all support and optimism and so is, predictably, devastated when Dave returns from L.A. and in the most passive-aggressive display I've seen on film in quite a while plays her a song he wrote on the road to another woman. Gretta departs and bunks with her old mate and fellow busker Steve (the wonderful James Corden), who talks her into doing a few minutes at open mike and that's when the magic really begins. In the audience, nursing disillusion and dissolution, is Dan, an A&R man who has been run off from the label he started with friend Saul (Mos Def billed as Yaslin Bey). After Gretta receives a lukewarm reception from Saul, she and Dan concoct a scheme to record her songs -- each one beautiful pop blossoms, both musically and lyrically -- in various sites around Manhattan. They gather a posse of performers and in the grand tradition of old Hollywood musicals "put on a show." Mark Ruffalo as Dan never hits a wrong note though he does not actually perform any  music in the picture. Rufallo is such a reliable actor, and he and Knightley have several wonderful moments in this wonderful film. Their scene with the audio splitter as they walk through the city listening to Sinatra is pure gold. The lesson of this tender picture is:  If you've been hurt surround yourself with people who care about you, make some music and begin again. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Snowpiercer


Joon-ho Bong's Snowpiercer is a dazzling amalgam of cinematic styles and sensibilities. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, Snowpiercer takes place in the near future, after an attempt to reverse global warming freezes most of the life on the planet. Survivors are holed up in various compartments on a perpetual, high-speed train that traverses the globe. The further you move from the rear of the train forward, the greater the splendor of your life. The unwashed hordes in the rear car stage a rebellion under the leadership of grimey idealist Curtis (Chris Evans of Captain America), his idolizing buddy Edgar (Jamie Bell of Jumper) and their aged leader Gilliam (John Hurt) and aided by the intrepid Tanya (Octavia Spencer) and the ginger-headed Andrew (Ewen Bremner). They know they must fight their way to the engine room and wrest control from the train's builder, Mr. Wilford, who undoubtedly would resist the coup. To get the ball rolling, they must enlist the help of "hibernating" junkie / designer Minsoo (Korean actor Kang-ho Song) who will only work if he's supplied with chemical incentives. Once the revolution begins, blood flows and the body count mounts in a most surreal fashion. Bong is best known to me as the director of a fresh and fantastic monster movie from 2006, The Host, which also was an environmental cautionary tale. Like that film, Snowpiercer is a blend of terror and humor, which often works but occasionally is too broad and throws off the tenor of the film. Tilda Swinton, who enhances every film she's in, is marvelous as Wilford's officious spokeswoman Mason, sent to suppress the uprising. This hyper-violent affair is recommended, but is not for the squeamish or those who are averse to moral ambiguity.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Korengal


Journalists and filmmakers Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington were imbedded in an airborne platoon stationed in a grim valley in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. In 2010, they released the riveting and critically acclaimed documentary, Restrepo, about the lives of the members of a combat team. Korengal is the second, and likely last, installment in the series. But, because of the nature of war, those who wage it and those who are sent to fight, the series could be extended indefinitely. Korengal includes footage Junger and Hetherington shot with the soldiers in their mountain encampment and in the villages in the valley from which the film takes its name, post-deployment studio interviews (the faces of each subject is framed in extreme close-up) and other material shot by the troops themselves.Though the sentiments shared by the men -- most of whom also appeared in Restrepo -- are now familiar, their comments about duty and fear are no less compelling. One of the most intriguing parts of the film is a long section toward the middle in which the members of the platoon talk candidly about the rush the get during firefights with the enemy. Admittedly, they say, a lot of the enjoyment comes from the relief skirmishes offer from the stretches of stultifying boredom. But, they add, they have lost members of the platoon to enemy shells and mortars during firefights. Director Junger has written dozens of articles about the bond the trials forge between men and strikes those chords about brotherhood and sacrifice in Korengal. Highly recommended. Strong language but no blood.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes


The wonder of Matt Reeves's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is not in the narrative -- which is familiar -- but in the execution. This, of course, means it will not win Best Picture but it will be lauded for the unquestionable artistry that is on display. The wonder of the movie begins and ends with the amazing Andy Serkis, who carries the picture as Caesar, the leader of a nation of biologically enhanced apes living peacefully in Oakland after humankind nearly eradicates itself by "monkeying around" with viruses and microbes in labs in San Francisco. All of this was introduced in 2011 in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in which Serkis, CGI'd down to the wrinkles in his brow, showed us what real acting looked like. It's not about declamation but the expressiveness that resides in gesture. He delivers again in Dawn. The human element in the picture -- kind-hearted envoy Jason Clarke, equally kind-hearted nurse Keri Russell, the distrustful and desperate human leader Gary Oldman, and the bitter and trigger-happy crew member Kirk Acevedo -- while not negligible does not compare to the movie's simian cast -- played by Serkis, Toby Kebbell as the mad and traitorous Koba, Nick Thurston as Caesar's disillusioned and naive son Blue Eyes, and Karin Konoval as the wise orangutan teacher Maurice. Matt Reeves's Dawn overflows with stunning images of apes swinging through the trees, scaling scaffolding, and storming barricades and quite a few quiet moments of genuine tenderness that approach sentimental but do not cross the line. Highly recommended but violent and could be distressing for children.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Immigrant


James Gray's beautiful and mesmerizing film The Immigrant features two Oscar-caliber performances in a powerful story of one Eastern European woman's struggles after coming to America. Marion Cotillard is Ewa a Polish nurse and seamstress who arrives at Ellis Island with her sister Magda but through the connivance of a charming stranger, a superlative Joaquin Phoenix, she is quickly separated from her sister and swept up in the man's world of speakeasies and brothels. Both actors, personal favorites of mine, deliver stellar performance in roles that are not showy but brimming with intelligence and control. An early scene in which Phoenix's Bruno upbraids Ewa for resisting his advances is so wonderfully written (Gray and Ric Menello) and acted that it resonates throughout the film. In three or four minutes we understand Bruno's perfidy and Ewa's entrapment. It's frightening and heartbreaking and splendid. The film is shot mostly in sepia and muted grays, which makes Ewa's donning of the harlot's crimson lipstick all the more stunning and tragic. Gray, who has worked with Phoenix on a number of other films (The Yards, We Own the Night), has crafted an important tale of the desperation and hope that drive many to our shores or across our borders. Cotillard's Ewa is an emblem. She accepts what she must do to finally obtain American freedom that she and her sister traveled so far for. As she tells her aunt in one of the film's most riveting scenes, she has done sinful things but she had to survive. And in that realization and acceptance is the film's message. Some of the wretched refuse yearning to be free did -- and do -- unspeakable things to get here and stay here. The cast also includes Jeremy Renner as Bruno's cousin, Orlando the magician, who falls for Ewa which sets him on collision course with his cousin. Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

22 Jump Street


It is to be presumed that the audience for Phil Lord and Christopher Miller's 22 Jump Street skews young even though the film's cleverness would resonate most with folks who remember those simmering buddy police television series from the '70s like Adam 12 and The Rookies. In those series, the female characters, while not totally ancillary, were decidedly second-tier. The True Romance was between these women's boyfriends and spouses and their partners in the squad car. 22 Jump Street, and its predecessor 21 Jump Street, parody the '80s series by pushing the entire genre over a cliff to hilarious effect. Jonah Hill (Schmidt, the smart, fat one) and Channing Tatum (Jenko, the dumb, pretty one) reprise their roles as improbable cops in some fictitious California city who go undercover in a high school in the 2012 film and a college in this one to stamp out the narcotic trade that's preying on the community's youths. Hill and Tatum have enormous chemistry and their juvenile co-dependency makes for some of the sharpest observations about relationships this highly observant film has to offer. Ice Cube plays their commanding office, Capt. Dickson, whose part consists almost entirely of blasting everyone within earshot with profanity and threats. Much like that other summer release Neighbors, 22 Jump Street overflows with sexual references and hints of homoeroticism that fans of this genre (I don't know the name but it's leading perpetrators are Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen and their crew) have come to expect, if not demand. Highly recommended but not for youngsters.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

How to Train Your Dragon 2


Dean DeBlois's sequel to the popular How to Train Your Dragon (2010)  is a high-flying and high-minded animated adventure that picks up the story of Hiccup, the intrepid young Viking dragon-tamer voiced by Jay Beruchel, and assorted Nordic folks of his island village Berk after they've made peace with the once-feared but now petted beasties of the title.I quite liked the mix of whimsy and dread in the first film, and was thrilled to see the sequel (a third is planned for 2016) expands this magical world beyond the delightfully intricate backdrop of the village to explore new astoundingly beautiful territories. (The aerial scene that opens this thoroughly entertaining film is breathtaking. Do see it in 3D.) When the film opens, Hiccup, an aeronautical genius and son of the village chief, Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler), is on a mission with his loyal dragon companion Toothless, a rare Night Fury, to make all of the dragons friends of man (and vice versa) but on one of his excursions he is confronted by a crew of wranglers in the employ of one of the ruthless villain Drago (Djimon Hounsou), who means to rule the world with a dragon army. When told of Drago's plot, Stoick decides to protect his own and put Berk under lockdown, but  Hiccup and girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) slip out to try to change Drago's mind. While they are out Astrid is captured by the wranglers and Hiccup is intercepted by a kindred spirit and therein lies the heart of this surprising and touching film. Highly recommended though it contains frightening scenes of destruction and the death of major character and so might be too much for the little ones.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Fault in Our Stars


In the 44 years since that bestseller turned movie Love Story made diseased young love a popular culture commodity, writers and filmmakers have dispensed with dramatic buildup and have been introducing audiences to characters and their maladies almost immediately. Once TB (or consumption) was reserved for the Third Act, sweeping in to usher one character or other into the wings. But no longer. That writers and directors no long wait has made leukemia or lymphoma or senility or HIV a character in the given story, the villain at whom we boo and hiss. Josh Boone's film adaptation of John Green's teen tale of love in the age of cancer stars Shailene Woodley (The Descendants, The Spectacular Now) and Ansel Elgort (Divergent) as young people living with cancer who meet in support group and fall in love despite Hazel's failing lungs and world-weariness. Elgort's Gus is a ray of single-amputee sunshine whose outlook is blisteringly optimistic. Hazel is soon walking toward the light. The story's centerpiece is a trip that takes Hazel, Gus and Hazel's mom (a luminous Laura Dern) to visit Hazel's favorite novelist (Willem Dafoe), a recluse living in Amsterdam, so that she and Gus, who one suspects loves the man's enigmatic book because Gus loves the girl, might experience some closure. Woodley, a fine young actress who is becoming an old pro at playing distressed teens, carries this solid picture, which is hobbled just a bit by Elgort's odd two-dimensionality. It's not so much that he's bad, because he's quite good. It's more the case that he's danseur noble to Woodley's prima ballerina, which is an interesting dynamic to watch particularly during the Third Act. Because Woodley is so good, Elgort's Gus seems under-modulated or fuzzy. Still, it's a solid picture, for those who like their teen angst served raw. Recommended but it's a real weepy woo-woo.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow


Doug Liman's contribution to the original Bourne Trilogy, The Bourne Identity, was the only one of the three that kept a sense of humor amidst the explosions, flying fists and vehicle chases. Liman's latest film, Edge of Tomorrow, displays his penchant for spicing his war with wit. Tom Cruise stars as Major Cage, an Army public information officer who has been managing promotions for the global campaign against alien hordes of whirling biomechanical demons that have taken over Europe. Emily Blunt plays Sgt. Vrataski, the poster girl for the resistance. She is also called the Angel of Verdun because she led a seemingly successful battle against the alien invaders in France. When Cage refuses to suit up and actually join the fight he has been spinning, he is busted down to a private and impressed into the ranks of a unit that will be taking a beachhead the next morning. Unwilling and untrained, Cage is soon killed, along with everyone else, after landing. He is drenched in the blood of the time-shifting aliens and finds himself living the day of the attack over and over once he is killed. During one of the early iterations of this horror, he encounters Vrataski who becomes his cohort and teacher because she had met a similar fate earlier but had since lost the ability to "reset" the day. Her coaching of Cage through his agonizing training are some of the film's funniest moments. The ever-dependable Bill Paxton (Aliens, Big Love) and Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges) deliver finely accented performances as a no-nonsense master sergeant and the general officer in charge of the doomed invasion. Highly recommended.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Belle


The enchantment in Amma Asante's Belle is in the title character's face. Asante trains her camera on Gugu Mbatha-Raw's eyes, which signal brilliantly flattery and fear, intimidation and indignation, rage and romance -- the range of emotions she goes through as the illegitimate, biracial daughter of a British naval officer in 18th century England who is left in the care of the officer's aristocratic uncle and aunt. The child, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, but called Dido (not Belle, as the title would suggest), is reared in splendor but relegated to a station lower than the other residents of the estate where she lives -- her loving cousin Elizabeth (Sarah Gadon), her spinster aunt Mary (Penelope Alice Wilton) and the Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson). Screenwriter Misan Sagay has crafted parallel story lines based on the true story of Lady Lindsay. One involves the intrigues surrounding Lady Elizabeth's debut in London society as the impoverished though cultured and cherished niece of the Mansfields. The other concerns a case that Lord Mansfield will be ruling on as Lord Chief Justice that involves the suspicious drowning of slaves by a ship's captain. The young and fiery son of a local minister comes to clerk for Mansfield and falls captive to Dido's beauty and she to his passionate resolution to end slavery. The young squire, Daviner, is played by Sam Reid, whom I recently saw in another fine British film, The Railway Man. The chemistry between Dido and the ardent Davinier is undeniable and their courtship is handled with grace. It's a splendid film, sensitively pitched, and uses human servitude to explore questions of identity, honor and justice, writ large and small. Highly recommended.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Maleficent


Veteran visual artist Robert Stromberg's Maleficent is a supremely efficient and dazzling motion picture. It presents the origins story of the evil queen from the Sleeping Beauty story economically, narratively, but with an extravagance of visual embellishments -- the grandest being star Angelina Jolie's cheekbones. They're absolutely amazing -- witchy and old Hollywood. In fact, every shot of the queen is wondrous. Jolie, one of the producers of the film, plays the wronged queen of the fairies and guardian of the creatures living in the magical moors that are threatened by greedy humans. (Yes, the parallel to Jolie's philanthropic work in developing nations is stark.) Spurned and dewinged by a man she foolishly trusted, Maleficent curses the daughter of the man whose treachery wins him the throne (Sharlto Copley). The queen's infamous curse is that on her 16th birthday the Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning) would prick her finger on a spinning wheel's needle and fall into a death-like sleep. Over the course of those 16 years, however, Maleficent and her raven helper (Sam Riley) watch after the child who has been entrusted to the care of three inept and disputatious pixies (Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton and Juno Temple) living in a cottage in an enchanted wood. The child touches the bitter queen's heart but nothing can reverse the curse but a true-love's kiss. It's an interesting twist but I'm not sure if young children, who will love the animation, will pick up on the film's message about the nature and meaning of love and devotion. Recommended.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Railway Man


Jonathan Teplitzky's film The Railway Man is a painful and highly affecting treatment of the true story of British World War II prisoner Eric Lomax, who along with scores of other Allied soldiers helped to build a railway from Thailand to Burma for their Japanese captors. Lomax (Jeremy Irvine) is discovered with a radio receiver he built from spare parts scavenged before the British surrender of Singapore and also connected to a map of the railway that he hid in a latrine. He is then beaten and starved by interrogators, led by the young "interpreter" Nagase. The scenes of his torture are nearly unwatchable but one must if one is to feel the full power of the film's conclusion. Most of the picture is told in flashback as Lomax, 35 years after the war, meets a lovely woman named Patti on a train to the Scottish Highlands. He is smitten, pursues her and they marry for she is taken by this rumpled, strange but loving fellow who seems fixated with train schedules. Soon after taking up house, Patti discovers Eric's wounds but only suspects how deep they go for he does not talk about them. The elder Lomax is played by Colin Firth (The King's Speech) with all of the classical discipline we have come to expect from this fine actor. And Nicole Kidman, whose screen work has always been interesting if uneven, has matured from girlish beauty into striking loveliness as Patti. Their friend and Lomax's fellow POW Finlay (Stellan Skarsgard) warns Patti about the danger of probing into the regions that Lomax has guarded so carefully. But Patti is determined and it is that determination and sudden and surprising act by Finlay that lead to the confrontation between Lomax and Nagase that is the final act of the film. Though not a perfect film,  questions about the prisoners' liberation and Lomax's life before Patti are not answered,The Railway Man is human without being sentimental and it carries an important message. Highly recommended but some scenes of prisoner torture, including water boarding, are nearly unbearable.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Neighbors


Nicholas Stoller's Neighbors flexes the same kind of comedic homoeroticism  that has made wealthy men of writer / director Judd Apatow and his stable of actors, principally Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill. Though Apatow is not formally associated with this picture, the doughy Rogen stars along with the adonic Zac Efron as the neighbors of the title. Rogen and Rose Byrne play new parents living the American Dream in a college town when the Delta Psi Beta men and their coterie of busty babes move in next door. Rogen's Mac and Efron's Ted become quick "bros" but then after too many late night frat parties and a call to the local constabulary they declare war. Once the barrages of penis jokes, simulated (and actual) intercourse and references to ejaculate are unleashed, there's no turning back. And for the audience you either go along for the ride or cover your eyes and ears. Perhaps it is true as some have written that once you've passed through the dense cloud of sex and drug references you will discover the film's deeper message about maturity and responsibility. I can't attest to that because Stoller has dialed the outrageous meter up to 11 and the quiet pillow-talk between two stoned parents tagged on the end just seems a bit, er, anticlimactic after 100 minutes of unspeakable vulgarity. Recommended but not for youngsters or oldsters who can't take a joke.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Chef

Jon Favreau parlayed his wit and affability into an interesting interview program back in 2001 called Dinner For Five. The idea was for Favreau, known at the time mainly for his acting in Swingers, to talk shop with four friends who were also in show business. The conversations were not all riveting but the notion of gathering around the dinner table to talk about common passions is appealing (My Dinner with Favreau?). Food and passion are at the center of Favreau's latest film, Chef, a nicely constructed tale of family, friends, fortunes and forgiveness that features some of the most lovingly crafted scenes of food preparation I've seen since Babette's Feast (1987). Favreau, who is writer and director of this delightful picture, stars as L.A chef Carl Casper, who runs the kitchen of a high-dollar boite owned by the unimaginative Riva (Dustin Hoffman). Casper wants to explore the culinary landscape but is shutdown by Riva and, subsequently, is pummeled by a local food blogger who describes Casper's cuisine as "cloying." Though Casper is professionally stunted that's nothing compared with the disappointment he feels in his relationship with his 10-year-old son, Percy (a perfectly casted Emjay Anthony), who delivers many of the film's most genuinely touching and insightful moments. Favreau gets enormous (and enormously loving) support in this venture from John Leguizamo, Bobby Cannavale and Sofia Vergara. I'm disappointed that Scarlett Johansson was cast in a relatively small role that did not require the amperage that she inevitably brings. Highly recommended but be sure to eat before you go.

Friday, May 23, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past




Peter Dinklage makes cinematic hay of the delectable role of Bolivar Trask, a scientist intent on protecting the human race from an inevitable mutant uprising in Bryan Singer's enjoyable but perplexing X-Men: Days of Future Past. Dinklage, best known as Game of Thrones' Tyrion Lannister, dominates the crowded film that stars, to varying degrees, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence in a curvy, spectral time-travel tale that sends Jackman's Wolverine back to the '70s to avert Trask's murder at the hands of Lawrence's blue shape-shifter Mystique, a killing that would lead to the eventual annihilation of mutants and their supporters. The film is all reliably weird and nonsensical, and Singer's signature comic relief is delivered by American Horror Story's Evan Peters as the jokey kleptomaniac Quicksilver. X-men veterans Patrick Stewart, Ian MacKellan, Halle Berry and Shawn Ashmore are more or less placeholders. Oddly, Anna Paquin who has played Rogue in the previous films gets star billing and is seen for maybe 10 seconds at the end of the film. Recommended.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Godzilla (2014)


Not 10 minutes into Gareth Edwards' weirdly off-kilter remake of the 1954 classic Godzilla, stunt-casted Bryan Cranston delivers a cringe-inducing scene. He's an American nuclear engineer in Japan who is forced to shut the door on his slow-footed wife (Juliette Binoche) and her team as the belly of a nuclear reactor in full-meltdown fills with radioactive gas. It's a stunning wreck of a scene that introduces this stunning wreck of a movie. Edwards ably stages scenes of mayhem and destruction as Tokyo, Vegas and Frisco are reduced to rubble and kindling by the gargantuan deep sea lizard and his two leggy foes, the M.U.T.O.'s. British actor Aaron Taylor-Johnson, a big-eyed cipher, is the human star of the film, as the skeptical son of Cranston and Binoche's characters, who is a bomb disposal ace. Oddly, he never does actually get to show his bomb-defusing stuff, though, because he's too busy running toward or away from screaming monsters and screaming people. The real weakness in the film, IMO, is that we have no human villain to cheer against. It's tough to unload your animus on 300-foot-critters that humans created and who eat our weapons as if they were chili dogs. Reap, sow and all that jazz.The film also features the reliable David Strathairn as an admiral who is tasked with the destruction of the big battling baddies. His character is introduced in a truly bizarre tracking shot on the deck of an aircraft carrier as Strathairn's character addresses the crew, his back to the camera. When he finally turns to face the camera, I'm sure most of the folks in the audience were thinking, "Who the hell is he?" The picture is no biggie but see it if you must.

Friday, May 9, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel


Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel has beautfiul, fractal intimacy, which is to say it is lovely, complex and cold. That is NOT to say it isn't entertaining because it is, quite delightful, because like those geometric puzzles that fascinate math-nerds, Grand Budapest's component parts -- script, art direction, cinematography and performances (principally Ralph Fiennes amd Tony Revolori) -- are precise and astounding. It's a technical marvel, much like the work of Peter Greenaway (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover; The Pillow Book), but, alas, lacks an essential warmth. Recommended.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Noah


Three-quarters of the way through Darren Aronofsky's Noah, the titular character and his family are huddled in the ark with the remains of the world's critters and he retells the creation story. The story is fairly close to biblical text but the visual elements are pulled straight from the Evolutionist's Bible. It's a pretty neat trick. In fact, the entire film (which stars Russell Crowe as Noah and Jennifer Connelly as his wife, who was not given a name in Scripture but is called Naameh in the film) is tricky in that one is never sure of the point of this cagey retelling of The Flood. Has Aronofsky (a skilled visual artist, for sure) recast the ancient story of the Creator's great displeasure with his Creation (at least the human element of it) as an environmentalists' cautionary tale (the CGI animals are marvelous) or is it, like others of Aronofsky's films, a weird study of destruction and delusion. I must say I spent so much time trying to puzzle out this question that I never connected with any of the rage and emoting on the screen and there's plenty of it courtesy of Ray Winstone as the murderously carnivorous Tubal-cain and Emma Watson as another filmic construct Ila, the once-barren but then miraculously fertile wife of Noah's oldest son, the noble Shem, played by Douglas Booth). Crowe and Connelly (a compelling coupling in A Brilliant Mind) are good here -- he's all righteous stoicism and she's all weepy, loving connivance. Recommended but it's not a Sunday School lesson.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Oculus


Horror films by definition are malevolent but Mike Flanagan's Oculus has a really unsettling meanness to it that is fairly disturbing. Murderous, demonic spirits need motivation just like any other character, to my mind, but Flanagan's haint seems to like to kill without meaning or purpose. Can it be that for screenwriters all acceptable reasons have been spent? Or has Hollywood entered into an era of pointless annihilation, which in itself signals a turn toward the dystopic. That seems too easy. The picture stars the Scottish actress Karen Gillan (whom I first noticed as the irrepressible Amy Pond of Doctor Who) and Aussie Brenton Thwaites as sibling survivors of a particularly nasty domestic upset that left both parents (Katie Sackhoff and Rory Cochrane) dead and Thwaites's Timmy in the nut house. In the 11 year interim since that really bad day, Big Sister Kaylie has been hatching a plan to call out and, presumably, destroy the devil living in a cracked and cranky mirror that Kaylie believes was the cause of a few dozen grisly murders over the past 300 years. The film, which is artfully crafted and loaded with jolts, is comparatively free of gore and guts, but puts the children in peril trope through its paces. I'm not a fan of parents beating up on tots (be they mouthy or not) so this picture was tough going for me. Recommended but with those reservations.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Captain America 2: The Winter Solider


The Russo Brothers' Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier is an exhilarating feature that is witty without being glib and thrilling without being mindless. Chris Evans, who stars as the cryogenically preserved WWII hero Steve Rogers aka Captain America, knows how to deliver patriotic indignation and fill an Under Armour T-shirt, which is not a diss because this latest edition in the Marvel comics cinematic catalog is all about talking a big game about truth, justice and the American way (with apologies to D.C. Comics) and having the muscle to back it up. In this edition, Cap has to defend S.H.I.E.L.D., the agency responsible for transforming him from a 94-pound weakling into the specimen of masculine pulchritude that he is, and the world from the evil insurgent group Hydra and its own, unstoppable fighting machine, the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) of the title. Cap is joined in this exuberant undertaking by Samuel L. Jackson as  S.H.I.E.L.D.'s head honcho Nick Fury, Scarlett Johannson as the winsome and pistol-packing Black Widow and Anthony McKie as the metal-winged Falcon. It's all great fun, action packed, reliably bloodless and features a pretty gnarly performance by Robert Redford as the milk-drinking Alexander Pierce, Fury's friend, mentor and boss, with a big secret.

Yesterday

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