Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Joy


Even David O. Russell's weaker films are interesting and fairly idiosyncratic in that they challenge viewers to work a little harder than they must for conventional film fare. Such is the case with Russell's Joy, which stars his usual posse of players -- Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Russell seems drawn to stories about failed (or failing) people whose lives are truly studies in interpersonal conflict and complication. These characters are mostly sympathetic, like the hardworking divorced mother of two of this film's title, but the lead character's gullibility or greed or lack of healthy boundaries makes them also a bit tarnished and pitiful. Joy (Lawrence) is an imaginative, resourceful but duty-bound young woman, locked into familial commitments but struggling, when she has time, to find a way to make her life less miserable. She gets loving encouragement from her grandmother (Diane Ladd) but little from the other members of her family -- her insensitive father (De NIro), self-involved mother (Virginia Madsen) or envious half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm). Her stargazing, under-employed ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) offers her moral support and little else that's bankable. Joy's ingenuity leads her to design a product that she fully expects will change the lives of American housekeepers and, ultimately, her own. But, alas, her plans for financial independence are threatened by the world of commerce, which she, frankly, doesn't understand and swindlers eager to take advantage of her ignorance. Russell's Joy is an often entertaining but not entirely satisfying fable about a modern woman who refuses to succumb to circumstances or the limitations of the imaginations around her. Recommended.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Concussion


Journalist and filmmaker Peter Landesman's Concussion will no doubt resonate with those who love tales about waging the good fight on behalf of those who cannot fight for themselves. In this story -- adapted from a GQ article on the rising frequency of suspicious, seemingly self-inflicted deaths among veteran NFL players -- Landesman sets at center stage a meticulous Nigerian immigrant pathologist in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who conducts the autopsy on former Steelers center Mike Webster (David Morse). Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) finds anomalous injuries in Webster's brain that were either ignored or hidden by team physicians and which, he is convinced led to Webster's madness and death. He shares his findings with the county coroner (Albert Brooks), who supports Omalu's investigation of other NFL deaths despite the inevitable shitstorm in the league's universe his findings would turn up. Omalu finds a few friends in his quest to be heard, among them, love interest Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and former players physician Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin) but he also finds himself outmatched by the NFL, which, as Brooks' character says, "owns a day of the week." But Omalu asks, genuinely mystified, why the league commissioner would not want to know the truth and protect the players. The answer is obvious to all who grew up in America, but not so clear to a relatively new arrival, and, further, might make the question even more pressing. Landesman has an ear for story and an eye for the intimate elements contained therein. Scenes between Smith and Mbatha-Raw (Belle, Beyond the Lights) are radiant and in one instance late in the film, heartrending. It would be difficulty for me to overstate how terrific I found Smith to be in this picture. Maybe the real-world celebrity marital / parental drama clouded my memory of just how fine an actor he is when he's got a character to pour himself into (Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds) and he has found another here. Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Big Short


Adam McKay's name has been attached to Will Farrell's Anchorman series, which McKay wrote and directed. Though the subject of his latest film is high finance, McKay's comedic sensibilities are not entirely benched for The Big Short, which is by turns delicious and disheartening. McKay's film is a treatment of Michael Lewis's bestselling chronicle of the chicanery that led to the implosion of the American housing market and the world economy in 2008. Because Lewis's book drilled deep into Wall Street's byzantine money-making mines, McKay stages hilarious and helpful explainers delivered either by one of the picture's primary characters (mainly Ryan Gosling) or guest presenters (among them chef Anthony Bourdain and singer Selena Gomez). This exhuberant movie has two settings -- simmering contempt and roiling outrage -- funneled through Christian Bale's Michael Burry and Steve Carell's Mark Baum, both independent financial investors who in 2006 detected the stench of corrupt mortgage lending practices and bet against the continued growth of the subprime housing market, convinced it would implode in a matter of months. Though all indications were that this was a certainty, it didn't come when expected, which revealed another layer of corruption -- complicity between Wall Street and "independent" ratings indexers who refused to downgrade the bundled subprime mortgages (as one character describes them "dog shit wrapped in cat shit"). As history has shown, the whole affair ended with bank failures and bailouts but no arrests of those who lied and cheated the American public, costing millions of people their livelihoods, homes and retirement funds. McKay's The Big Shot is smart, layered and, hopefully, instructive. But don't bet on that. Highly Recommended.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Room


Irish director Lenny Abrahamson puts a lot of devastation on the screen in his remarkable film Room. But, for me, the picture's resonating power lies in what is not told and the deep sadness that comes from trying to assemble the pieces. Abrahamson has filmed fellow Irelander Emma Donoghue's screenplay of her bestselling novel of the same name. She tells the story of a young mother (Brie Larson), known only as Ma, and her 5-year-old son (Jacob Tremblay) who are captives of a terrifying man called Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). Ma has been locked in Old Nick's garden shed for seven years; her son, all of his life. The circumstances of the boy's birth, how he and his mother have been sustained, how they came to create the worlds that keep them sane are weighty imponderables.  Abrahamson has crafted the first half of the film so carefully that these claustrophobic confines never feel oppressive, primarily because Jack's innocent wonder about life, as stiflingly artificial as it is, is so genuine and marvelous -- and, yes, tragic. When Ma finally decides they have to escape, the viewer is torn because in doing so she must dismantle Jack's world. The scene of his tearful rejection of her talk of "the world" is nearly more than one can stand. But escape they must and do and that sequence is wrenching and terrifying. The two are finally reunited with family (Joan Allen, William H. Macy and Tom McCamus) but this new chapter feels as perilous for Jack and Ma as their imprisonment had been. Such a beautiful, heartbreaking story.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Chi-Raq


Spike Lee's films are often honest and artful, but rarely at the same time. This usually results in movies that have colliding tones and atmospheres -- the serious and the comic, the theatrical and the dogmatic. In that regard, his films are more like Kevin Smith's than Quentin Tarantino, with whom he has been compared. All three are auteurs, though Smith's work tends to be more purely satiric, not as political, than the others.Tarantino's more violent and less intimate.
Lee's best ideas and images are inspired by the lunacy he finds in governmental corruption and political perfidy and in the conflicts that arise among the races and between the sexes. Confict is at the core of his latest film, Chi-Raq, the name given to inner city Chicago where gang wars have torn communities apart and have been especially deadly for children, innocent bystanders killed by stray bullets fired by bangers who, frankly, couldn't care less. Warring chief bangers, Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon) and Cyclops (Wesley Snipes), spew bullets and rhyming invectives as those around them scurry for cover and the unlucky are laid to waste. When the daughter of a young mother (Jennifer Hudson) is killed, the community, led by a firy Catholic priest (John Cusack) will not be stilled and the molls of the beefing thugs borrow an idea from Greek playwright Aristophenes and agree to withhold sex until guns are surrendered and peace is declared.
The head of the women's movement, Lysistrata (the captivating Teyonah Parris) orders a take-no-prisoners posture, commandeers the National Guard Armory with nothing more than a winsome smile and a thong, and faces down every male opponent from horny husbands to befuddled city police. Her "No Peace / No Pussy" campaign sparks an international "withholding" movement and, in pretty short order, shit gets real.
When Lee is not painting scenes and characters with the broadest of strokes or staging rousing dance numbers, he's preaching, not altogether effectively but certainly fervently, to stop the violence. He and co-screenwriter Kevin Willmott (CSA:Confederate States of America) merge their polemics with poetics, in keeping with the classics model, and cast Samuel L. Jackson as big pimping narrator Dolmedes. (South Cackalackey makes it into the film, quite explicitly, with reference to the Emanuel 9 and Dylann Roof.)
Chi-Raq is a generally entertaining mishmash of ideas but, frankly, most of Lee's films are. If one understands that, and knows, further, that the film will both delight and frustrate then the moviegoer will not be disappointed. Recommended.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Creed


Gifted young writer / director Ryan Coogler scored big two years ago with his first picture, Fruitvale Station, and scores again with Creed, his homage to the spirit the Rocky film franchise embued, if not the movies themselves. Coogler has cast Fruitvale leading man Michael B. Jordan to tell the story of the illegitimate son of Rocky fixture world heavyweight boxing champ Apollo Creed. Creed was Balboa's early opponent and later friend who died in the ring during a fight that Rocky wishes he had stopped as Creed's trainer. Jordan's character goes by Adonis Johnson, at once rejecting his father and desiring to embrace him by abandoning a respectable nine-to-five in a bank to train for the professional boxing ring. Johnson leaves the Los Angeles home of his adoptive mother, Mary Anne Creed, Apollo's wife (played by Phylicia Rashad), and moves to Philadelphia to learn from Rocky (Sylvester Stallone). Johnson keeps his parentage secret from everyone for a while, even the braided beauty (Tessa Thompson) in the apartment below his, whose brass turns him on. The two meet cute and their courtship is sweet and provides the film with some nice grace notes to offset the battering bluster in the bulk of the picture. The scenes between the craggy and inimitable Stallone and the truly adonic and chiseled Jordan drill deep into the heart of what this often savage sport means to those who are drawn to it and suffer from it. In that regard, the real beauty in this impressive movie is in the ring -- in the unsually intimate training sequences and, of course, the last reel bout between Adonis and the mouthy Liverpudlian boxing champ, "Pretty" Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew). All of it's brutal and bloody and boffo. Highly Recommended.



Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Night Before


The holiday music playing in my favorite hummus and tabbouleh restaurant this morning put me in the spirit so I went to a screening of Jonathan Levine's The Night Before to get out of it. Levine's movie of three best friends facing their last semi-raucous Christmas Eve outing before one of them becomes, albeit reluctantly, a father stars Seth Rogen as the dad-to-be, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a stunted, lovelorn musician of sorts and Anthony Mackie as a late-blooming professional football player with a social media addiction and mommy issues. For this last go-round, Gordon-Levitt's character scores tickets to New York's most exclusive and secretive Xmas Eve party, but God and his angels (metaphorically speaking, sort of) seem determined to keep the boys from attending. What starts out as an "innocent" adventure turns into a fiasco, a Red Bull stretch-limo charging through Brooklyn. Still, if it's a Seth Rogen bromance a couple of things are sure bets: (2) there will be pot, and (1) James Franco will make an appearance. In fact, not since Pineapple Express (2008), which costarred Rogen and Franco, have I witnessed such seemingly endless, blissful reefer toking in a movie. The contact high created a giddiness in the audience at the screening I attended that might not have been wholly deserved but the film is such brainless fun that you hardly notice how ridiculous it all is. The scene that features Rogen's Isaac, who is Jewish, attending, disastrously, midnight Mass with his Baby Mama (Jillian Bell) is brilliant. Recommended for those who like their comedy broad and vulgar and don't mind sexting images of, supposedly, James Franco's junk.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Spotlight


Actor / writer Tom McCarthy doesn't direct a lot but when he does the product is usually pretty terrific (The Station Agent, The Visitor). McCarthy's is a familiar face and voice, and his films are becoming just as recognizable -- smart ensemble pieces that combine the public and the personal. His latest film, Spotlight, is the story of The Boston Globe's Pulitzer-winning investigation into reports of children being molested by Catholic priests in Boston and the church's efforts to cover up the assaults. Though the Globe had spottily covered one case of a pedophilic priest who was reassigned in the '90s, no follow up reporting was conducted and information forwarded to the paper by survivors and other interested parties was ignored or lost. In 2001, the Globe's investigative team, named Spotlight, was charged with revisiting the matter after the paper's new executive editor arrives from The Miami Herald, reads a column about another predatory priest and asks the question voiced during the Watergate probe: Who knew what and when did they know it? The ensemble of performers is worthy of McCarthy's methodical and engrossing screenplay (written with Josh Singer)  -- Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery and Brian D'Arcy James. His direction is crisp and the design will be familiar to former journos -- and there are many of us -- who know how its feels to get a great story, tell it well, and, hopefully, make the world a better place. Highly Recommended.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Truth






James Vanderbilt’s debut as a director, Truth, is a stiffly earnest film that features a fine performance by Cate Blanchett but surprisingly inert turns by the rest of the cast. Blanchett stars as Mary Mapes, a producer for 60 Minutes who spearheaded the program’s 2004 investigation into President George W. Bush’s military record and reported that he had received favorable treatment as a member of the Texas National Guard. The news story was based on documents passed along to Mapes by a former military officer (Stacy Keach) who vouches for their authenticity. Though Dan Rather (Robert Redford) has concerns about the story, his confidence in Mapes leads him to green light the piece even while CBS fact checkers raise red flags. In the end, the story is discredited, the officer who leaked the memos recants some of his remarks to Mapes and the reporting team and anyone associated with the piece is canned. The film is based on Mapes’ account of the affair and attributes the debacle that led to Rather’s resignation from CBS to a convergence of haste, hubris and corporate cowardice. Sections of the film reflect a preachy self-satisfaction that rings dully because the aftermath was so devastating.

Steve Jobs


Director Danny Boyle’s latest motion picture, Steve Jobs, includes the Apple pioneer's infamous boast that while his engineering cohorts – Steve Wozniak and Andy Hertzfeld – were skilled “musicians” in the computer world symphony – he, himself, was the conductor who played the orchestra. A claim of startling arrogance but delivered with such brio that it is tough to deny. The musical analogies do not stop there in Boyle’s terrifically enjoyable film based on the biography by Walter Isaacson. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has written a set of beautiful chamber duets that showcase his sparkling, incisive and bristling dialogue. Boyle and Sorkin have constructed this baroque film in three movements, each corresponding to the premiere of a new Jobs’ product – 1984’s Macintosh, 1988’s NeXT cube and 1998’s iMac. Most of the film’s action is set in the wings of the hall where the product is being introduced and where Jobs (a masterful Michael Fassbender) demeans technicians (Michael Stuhlbarg), spars with corporate handlers (Jeff Daniels), cajoles and dismisses allies (Seth Rogen), but lovingly waltzes with his tireless marketing manager (a marvelous Kate Winslet). A leitmotif regarding Jobs' paternity is woven nicely through the three movements and moves to center stage in the film's exuberant and touching finale. Audience members may not like Jobs much after the film but they will certainly love the picture. Highly Recommended.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Bridge of Spies


Steven Spielberg's best movies are generally about decent men doing extraordinary things. They're rarely about women although women are vitally important to the decent men. In Spielberg's latest film, Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks, a trusted Spielberg collaborator, stars as New York insurance attorney James Donovan, whose firm is asked to represent a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) who is caught by American G-men in Brooklyn. Donovan is reluctant to take the case at first but after meeting the enigmatic, taciturn Rudolf Abel commits to offering top drawer representation. Because it is the late 1950s and the U.S. is mired in paranoia and fear of the Reds, Donovan finds himself alone in providing what the Constitution guarantees even enemies of the state -- a fair hearing. Still, the jury finds Abel guilty of all charges but the judge, rather than ordering him executed, sentences Abel to 30 years in prison in hopes, as Donovan pointed out ex parte, that such mercy might be viewed favorably if an American was ever captured by the Soviets doing just what Abel was doing. From his mouth to God's ear for shortly after Abel's sentencing, an American pilot (Austin Stowell) is blasted out of the sky high over Russia while shooting film of the terrain (a thrilling set piece BTW). The pilot is taken into custody, tried and imprisoned. Simultaneously, an American economics student (Will Rogers) studying in a disintegrating Berlin is detained and accused of spying by East Germany. Donovan is approached by the CIA and agrees to go to the Soviet Embassy in Berlin to negotiate an exchange of Abel for the American pilot. He agrees but insists on adding the student to the trade, a condition everyone around him believes will kill the proposition. Donovan won't be dissuaded and the second half of the film -- the Cold War showdown -- is riveting. This is a rich and fascinating tale, based on actual events and written for the screen by the Coen Brothers, masters of taut, complex narrative. Hanks appears comfortable in the role of this highly principled and selfless man -- he's no stranger to such parts, after all -- and delivers a performance that is assured and captivating.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

99 Homes and The Walk



99 Homes and The Walk are two marvelous films that feature remarkable performances by their lead actors but are still difficult to watch. Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes stars Andrew Garfield (a fine actor) as a construction worker in Central Florida who is trying to hold onto his family home even as foreclosure looms. The angel of death finally arrives in the form of a cold-blooded, unscrupulous real estate scarfer named Rick Carver (a superlative Michael Shannon) who meets Garfield's Dennis Nash on the latter's doorstep during an eviction. Nash had been assured by a judge the day before that he had 30 days to appeal the eviction. Carver claimed to know nothing of this extension and has his goons toss Nash, his 10-year-old son, Connor (Noah Lomax), and his mother (Laura Dern) into the street. This early scene is one of the most disturbing I've seen in film this year, and it is only one of several that feature Garfield's Nash trapped in the grip of a vise that pressures and twists him torturously until he doesn't recognize himself. This is a thoughtful and sensitive film that is both a searing critique of those who preyed upon Middle America before and after the economic collapse of 2008 and a morality tale of how one man lost his home and his way and nearly lost his soul. Highly recommended.

Few actors are as amiable of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and he pours all of his preternatural likeability into his role as high wire walker Philippe Petit in Robert Zemeckis' vertigo-inducing The Walk. (It must be seen in 3D.) Petit was the subject of the 2008 documentary Man on Wire, which won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2009 but there is little similarity between the two films. Zemeckis' imaginative and romantic retelling of Petit's high wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 is the story of man's love affair with "the void," the gulf that lies below the high wire. It's not that Petit courts self-destruction. It's more that he knows his life belongs to the wire but he enjoys teasing and enticing the void. As the Frenchman Petit, Gordon-Levitt, a fully engaged (and engaging) performer, recounts the original inspiration for the feat and his recruitment of "accomplices" (principally Charlotte Le Bon and Clement Sibony) in Paris and in New York to pull it off. Yes, Gordon-Levitt is terrific but the stomach-turning recreation of the infamous walk between the towers is astonishing. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Martian and Sicario



Ridley Scott's interplanetary Robinson Crusoe tale, The Martian, is a crowd-pleasing nail-bitter that borrows from Ron Howard's feel-good playbook -- maybe a little too much. Scott was once an edgy visionary (Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise, American Gangster) but this film is stylistically arresting but narratively safe, few surprises. In Scott's latest picture, Matt Damon plays a member of a six-person NASA exploration team on Mars who gets left behind by his fellow crew members because they presume he was killed in a violent storm. He indeed survived and must devise ways to keep himself alive and communicate with Earth. The film has a great deal of star power propelling it -- Jessica Chastain, Jeff Bridges, Chiwetel Ejiofor, head the cast -- but most of its bang is in the science that Damon's Mark Watney brings to bear on his otherworldly predicament. The film invests so much in the mechanics and in the international sensation the eventual rescue mission attracts that there is no doubt all will end well. Still, it's an entertaining ride. Recommended.

Denis Villeneuve's Sicario (Spanish for "hitman") is a thrill ride of another sort entirely and, in the end, a better film than The Martian, I feel. In it, Emily Blunt plays FBI agent Kate Macer, who is fighting the drug war in Arizona, with little to show for her efforts. She volunteers for a special interagency team to capture the Mexican drug kingpin whose murderous enterprise is spreading rapidly in the U.S. The mysterious crew is run by a tousled hot dog named Matt (Josh Brolin) who gets lethal assists from a dead-eyed enforcer named Alejandro (a wonderful Benicio Del Toro). Nothing about the operation feels right to Kate and when she brings in her partner (Daniel Kaluuya), he smells a rat, too. The truth is slowly revealed during agonizingly intense scenes, the staging of which are truly masterful because they suggest much more than they show. Villeneuve's Prisoners (2013) was an engrossing exploration of obsession and vengeance. Sicario contains those elements, as well, in its chilling, unblinking treatment of a war that seems to have no end -- only mounting casualties. Highly recommended but bloody.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice and Grandma




A couple of quick hits:

Edward Zwick's entertaining but not totally satisfying Pawn Sacrifice tells the parallel stories of American grandmaster Bobby Fischer's simultaneous ascent into the stratosphere of world championship chess and his descent into stifling paranoia and how these events fed each other. It's quite a ride and Tobey Maguire is quite good as Fischer, but the film is somehow not as absorbing as Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001) or this year's Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad) -- both of which examine the connection between genius and madness. Zwick's film lacks the  grace notes and elegance of the other two -- it seems to be all intensity and frustration and very little tenderness. Fischer's (in)famous rivalry with Russian champion Boris Spassky (played with humorless deliberation by Liev Schreiber) during the early '70s is the dramatic core, but it's Maguire's deepengin disconnection from reality even as he lays opponents to waste that drives the picture. Maguire is finely supported Peter Sarsgaard as a former chessmate now Catholic priest who is Fischer's second on his tour and by Michael Stuhlbarg as a lawyer / patriot who is charged with keeping Fischer in the game until he trounces the Russians for God and Country, mostly Country. Recommended.

Lily Tomlin is not a great actress. She doesn't have the range of a Judy Dench or Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren. But she IS a wonderful performer to watch because she seems to fully inhabit the roles she's given, becomes these women. Most of her work has been on television, a medium that calls for smaller, more intimate interactions and it is in these that she really shines in Paul Weitz's Grandma. Tomlin has a deadpan delivery (except when she's cursing) that rather than evoking irritation she draws out our empathy -- she's so beat down by life -- and we understand. Tomlin's retired college professor finds herself miserable and brittle one year after the death of  her life-partner, pushing away another, younger lover (a wonderful Judy Greer) and confronting unexpected news from her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) that she is pregnant. Tomlin's Ellie Reid is a brisk, dismissive, verbally abusive mess who, while trying to help her granddaughter find the funds for an abortion, discovers just how much of a mess she, herself, is. The film is both caustic and tender and highly recommended.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The End of the Tour


When handled properly, a film that's for all intents and purposes about two people talking can be as engaging (maybe more so) than an action-adventure flick that is about propulsion and collision. James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour is an intriguing motion picture about a unique sort of propulsion and collision -- that of two writers whose lives are nearly all about interior terrains and observation, artifice and facade. The subject of this film is the late literary phenom David Foster Wallace, whose 1996 masterwork Infinite Jest, an imposingly complex postmodern novel, won him accolades (and a few brickbats) and a grueling signing tour. For the latter part of the tour, Wallace is accompanied by Rolling Stone writer John Lipsky, whose conversations with the oddly reticent novelist is the meat of the film (though never published in Rolling Stone, the interview became the material for the book upon which the film is based). Wallace is played Jason Segel and Lipsky by Jesse Eisenberg, two of the smartest younger actors in film. Segel is probably known best for his roles in Judd Apatow films and for the television series How I Met Your Mother, and Eisenberg for playing Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. In this film they are hyper-literate, introspective intellectuals whose navigation of the roles of observer and observed (roles that they occasional trade) is the most fascinating element of this entertaining, and sobering, study of the fallout of fame. Wallace died in 2008, the victim of suicide. Highly recommended.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.


Guy Ritchie has written and directed a beautiful motion picture with beautiful people in the leads but a frustratingly inert story and, alas, the promise of a sequel. I was a child when the original Cold War spy series Man From U.N.C.L.E. was broadcast ('64-'68) and spawned a weak sister of a spin-off, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. ('66-'67). I ate up the intrigue, clever devices and campy guest stars; maybe I've lost my appetite for this variety of tongue-in-cheek caper films although still devour Ritchie's usual cinematic fare. The film stars three Hollywood beauties -- Henry Cavill as Napoleon Solo, Armie Hammer as Illya Kuryakin and Alicia Vikander as Gaby Teller -- as undercover operatives in beautiful mod fashions trying to wrest a nuclear bomb away from a beautiful and murderous Italian family led by a ruthless aristocratic beauty (Elizabeth Debicki). Despite an interesting set up, the picture doesn't deliver the usual Ritchie punch, in every sense of the word; in fact, it's a Guy Ritchie production seemingly without Guy Ritchie. But, man, is it beautiful!

Friday, August 14, 2015

Straight Outta Compton


F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) has directed a highly watchable bio-pic of the influential Los Angeles rap group N.W.A that manages to celebrate their individual and collective achievements by using the same elements that made then notorious -- violence, profanity and the objectification of women all to a killer beat. Straight Outta Compton stars a trio of outstanding young actors -- Jason Mitchell as Eazy-E, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre and O'Shea Jackson Jr. as his father, stage name Ice Cube. Gray is peddling naturalism through his street scenes and the characters' Crenshaw argot. The young men's disaffection and cynicism, nearly all because of the horrific treatment they receive from L.A. police, rise and converge in brilliant beats and word play recorded in studios paid for with dollars earned by former dope dealer Eazy-E. Their attitude on record and on-stage swagger attracts the attention of promoter Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), who wins the group's confidence and ushers them into the big time -- which is not entirely the same as success. Gray is a natural at staging a party scene -- and the film has a surfeit of them, IMO -- but the casual jocularity of the group members rings true and keeps the film from devolving into a succession of music videos. It is unfortunate Gray's creative team fell back on tired black dramatic tropes -- preachy, long-suffering black mothers slapping sense into their children and the near absence of responsible adult men in the lives of the lead characters. The closest thing to a "positive" male role model on the screen is Giamatti's Heller, an aging, shady Jewish pitch man who takes the boys for a ride. Recommended for fans of hip hop or of the era -- mid-80s to mid-90s.

Mr. Holmes


Ian McKellen is near perfection in Bill Condon's imperfect film about an imperfect man, Mr. Holmes. McKellen plays both an aging and aged version of Sherlock Holmes, the famous late-Victorian era detective, wholly the invention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In the film, Holmes has retreated to a cottage on the English coast where his sole companions are a housekeeper (beautifully portrayed by Laura Linney) and her precocious son (a remarkable Milo Parker). Holmes, in his 90s, has set for himself the frustrating task of correcting the published account of the last of Dr. Watson's tales of his adventures, which he, Holmes, says he did not actually solve but can't remember why. The detective's deteriorating mind is enlivened by his interactions with the admiring boy, whose curiosity and persistence Holmes finds endearing. In fact, the pairing of McKellen, who is nearly 80, and young master Parker, is this lovely picture's most enduring endearment. Sadly, though, at only 100 minutes, the picture feels rushed and truncated and the child's relationship with his mother (a counterpoint to his friendship with Holmes, which she resents) and the nature of Holmes's important journey to post-World War II Japan are left as, well, mysteries. Still Highly Recommended.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

The Gift


What is most unsettling about writer/director/actor Joel Edgerton's nifty little picture The Gift is how cynical we must be that the appearance of an admiring, if needy, old high school classmate sends up red flags. But Edgerton's sad sack-loser Gordo is pitched perfectly and matched, note for note, by Jason Bateman's crass corporate climber Simon and his trusting wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall). A great opportunity has called Simon and Robyn from Chicago to California where the couple runs into Gordo while shopping. And old "friendship" is reignited but Simon, who has a really sensitive bullshit detector, feels something's not right about Gordo. Robyn thinks he's sweet and harmless. They're both right and wrong and therein lies the real beauty in Edgerton's story. Yes, it's genuinely creepy, has a couple of solid twists and offers homages to some classic thrillers -- including Rosemary's Baby. Recommended.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

MIssion:Impossible -- Rogue Nation


Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie won an Oscar for The Usual Suspects nearly 20 years ago. Needless to say, he knows his way around a double-cross. As the director and writer of Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation (a film title with a bit more punctuation than I'm accustomed to), McQuarrie has concocted a convoluted caper that is as thrilling and globetrotting (London, Vienna, Morocco) as the previous installments in the M:I franchise. Tom Cruise and company (Simon Pegg, Jeremy Renner and Ving Rhames) are all back, even though the Impossible Mission Force has been discredited and dismantled (ostensibly) by CIA director Hunley (Alec Baldwin), who believes the body count (and general mayhem that follows M:I field work) is too high. Cruise's Ethan Hunt has been tracking the leader of a terror organization (Sean Harris) who is MI6-trained but, alas, disillusioned by the chaos that the world's superpowers have wrought. When Hunt gets word of M:I's fate, he, of course, ignores it and sticks to the trail, pulling his cohorts in with him. Harris's Lane wants to wreak a little havoc of his own and enlists the assistance of British double-agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) to steal and deliver a file that contains information on accessing billions squirreled away by MI6 for a rainy day.  It appears at first that McQuarrie has front-loaded his picture with Cruise hanging onto the side of a jet that's taxiing and then taking off but there is plenty more derring-do in this flick, and in Cruise. Whether he's battling an opponent in the fly space above the stage of the Vienna Opera House or zipping through Moroccan markets on a motorcycle, it's clear that Cruise (and his popular franchise) still has a lot of life in him. Recommended.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Southpaw


Antoine Fuqua is a reliable, if not artful, film director. He smartly chooses material with a strong, centering presence -- Denzel Washington in Training Day and The Equalizer, for example. In his latest film, Southpaw, Fuqua directs Jake Gyllenhaal, who is both reliable and artful, in the starring role of New York boxing champion Billy Hope, who knows how to take a licking and keep on ticking, if a bit more slowly of late. Gyllenhaal, famously immersive in his preparation for roles, is ripped and rocking as Hope, whose wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams), wants him to step away from the ring so that there will be something left for her and their daughter, Leila (child actress Oona Laurence). After Maureen is shot in an incident that's far too street for this picture, IMO, Billy descends into drug addiction and self-destruction. His manager (Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) dumps him for a bankable pugilist, his daughter is taken away by child protective services, he's tossed out of his mansion, his automobiles are repossessed and the poor orphan from Hell's Kitchen is out on the street. A judge orders him to clean up or risk the permanent loss of his child, and Billy goes to a boxing gym run by Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker), the personification of all that Hope (no heavy symbolism there, huh?) lacks in his life -- discipline, focus, integrity. Wills takes Hope on, helps him learn how to defend himself in the ring (and out) and dispenses valuable wisdom. All of this, of course, leads to a Las Vegas showdown between Hope and his nemesis Magic Escobar (Miguel Gomez). A predictable tale, no question, but Fuqua is such a masterful storyteller -- and Gyllenhaal and Whitaker are so good -- that you won't mind you've seen this a hundred times before. Recommended.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Ant-Man


I don't know if the actual universe is expanding but the Marvel Cinema Universe is growing unabated. The latest Marvel star is Paul Rudd as Ant-Man, cat burglar turned super hero Scott Lang. Rudd is a beguilingly self-deprecating comic actor, whose character is enlisted by aging genius inventor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and, reluctantly, his daughter (Evangeline Lilly) to don a miniaturizing suit and lead an army of ants against former student and present nemesis Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who wants to militarize Pym's research and score a big payday. Veteran TV director Peyton Reed crafted this film with an eye toward the natural incongruities -- hardscrabble con artist and thief working with former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative -- to impressively comedic effect. Speaking of effects, the opening set piece that introduces our hero to the wonders and dangers of an insect-size existence are, er, Marvelous, which is to say this often uproarious movie is best enjoyed in 3D.

Trainwreck


Judd Apatow's latest addition to his stable of vulgar artists is that filly named Amy Schumer, a comedian of some repute in certain quarters. I will admit to not knowing much firsthand about Ms. Schumer before seeing Trainwreck, which, as is true for most Apatow films, has its moments, despite being about half as nasty as any of his other films that had male leads -- for example, Knocked Up and 40 Year Old Virgin. That's not to say Trainwreck -- the story of a New York magazine writer with daddy issues and a fear of intimacy -- isn't filthy. It is. Wonderfully so. But it also has genuine moments of tenderness -- which kind of means we get to care about this foul-mouthed, miserable sexpot and the sports doctor she's fallen for (Bill Hader). It's a good show. Apatow's movies always score major points with supporting players, in this case with Tilda Swinton as a wickedly unfeeling magazine publisher and a surprisingly entertaining LeBron James as himself. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Amy


British documentarian Asif Kapadia's film on singer Amy Winehouse's tragic and precipitous drug- and alcohol-induced fall from stardom is riveting and nearly unbearably depressing. Comprising mostly the personal video shot by Winehouse herself and her friends and concert footage, the film traces in unblinking detail the Grammy-winner's steady rise from obscurity as a club act to international superstardom and every false move and bad decision she made, most of which involved the parasitic men in her life. Winehouse's death in 2011 at age 27 was sudden but not entirely unexpected as much of her notoriety was rooted in her seemingly self-destructive addictions. Though she was working through a recovery at the time of her death, the damage had been done and her heart gave out. Kapadia makes it clear in his fine picture that Winehouse was genuinely loved by most people in her life but she could not manage to love herself.  Recommended but terribly grim.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Magic Mike XXL


Channing Tatum is eminently watchable even when he's acting badly, which he does often (White House Down) but not always (Foxcatcher). But Tatum is most watchable when he's dancing. He's leonine grace wrapped in B-boy swagger. He's always been pretty fly for a white guy, and he marshals his XXL amiability and athleticism as he returns to the role of Mike Lane, a former Tampa "male entertainer" named Magic Mike who reunites with his unique band of brothers (Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Matt Bomer and Adam Rodriguez) for one last hurrah at the annual stripper convention in Myrtle Beach. Lane has been out of the game for a few years building a custom-made furniture business when he gets a call the boys' former leader (played by Matthew McConaughey in the first Magic Mike [2012]) has died. The call is a ruse to lure Lane back into the game. It works and off the merry band go for a July Fourth weekend of bonding, teasing and tantalizing -- with one another and assorted women along the way. As they make their way from Tampa to Jacksonville to Savannah to Charleston and finally the Grand Strand, the Kings of Tampa visit two powerful women played by Jada Pinkett Smith and Andie MacDowell, who lend the film a refreshing air of feminine affirmation that isn't rooted in motherhood or martyrdom. Smith and MacDowell are both terrific. The dancers, who seem to revel in their sexual objectification, try to heal broken women while embracing their own fractured and fragmented natures. Reid Carolin's script has its moments of zen and it's pretty gay-friendly but the final act is a little, well, limp after a pretty scorching buildup. Still, it's worth a few bucks.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Ted 2


Despite the plush cuddliness of its eponymous star, Seth MacFarlane's Ted 2 is not warm and fuzzy, though occasionally it seems to want to be. Once again MacFarlane (creator of Family Guy and American Dad and perpetrator of an epic fail of a hosting job at the 2013 Oscars) visits Beantown bad boy John (Mark Wahlberg) and his boorish buddy, the animated teddy bear, Ted. Ted, unaccountably, has fallen in love and married a trash-talking bombshell named Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) and gotten a a job as a cashier at a local supermarket -- all despite having no penis or fingers. Soon Ted finds his marital bliss derailed by, er, married life, and John recommends Ted and Tami-Lynn have a baby to give them something to love while they work through their disdain. Because of the missing appendage mentioned before, Ted and Tami-Lynn must get a sperm donor or adopt. All of this leads to the discovery that Ted is not human and so he is stripped of everything that ties him to the human race -- marriage, jobs, parenthood. Outrage at the injustice of it all, John and Ted seek the services of newby lawyer Samantha Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) and they're off. Depending on your taste, the movie is either weighted down or buoyed by the flood of pop culture references, profanity and vulgarity, endless pot smoking and beer drinking and general mayhem and juvenile misbehavior. Enough of it is hilarious, though, to recommend it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Jaws


Steven Spielberg's Jaws was released 40 years ago, back when I read books before they became movies -- Jaws, The Exorcist, The Godfather, among them. Peter Benchley wrote a bestseller about a stone-cold killer that  keeps moving and eating because if it stops it will die. Into his film, Spielberg, a television director turned to motion pictures, poured what would become staple ingredients for his movies -- threatened families, kids in peril, an amoral bureaucrat, a flawed hero who guts it out in the last reel, and, on occasion, some gore. Jaws has its share of blood but is amazingly restrained as compared to the descriptions in the book. And, of course, John Williams' ominous score crawls up and down the spine. It is not a perfect film -- though it was nominated for Best Picture. The townspeople are a tinge more cartoonish than they need to be, even for the Gerald Ford Years. And yet, the movie features three terrific performances  -- Roy Scheider as the frustrated, newly hired resort town police chief Brody, Richard Dreyfuss as cocky oceanographer Hooper and, especially, Robert Shaw as a modern day Ahab Quint, who Brody hires to deliver the man-eating Great White on a plate. The best part of the film, as one might expect, is the chase, which takes up more than half of its running time. Watching these three disparate individuals get fused by heat and danger into a semi-fuctioning unit is much of the joy in watching this picture. Recommended.

Dope

Nigerian-American writer-director Rick Famuyiwa's Dope is a fresh coming of age tale that stars a young black computer geek / garage musician Malcolm (Shameik Moore), who with his posse, 1/14th-black bassist Jib (Tony Revolori) and no-nonsense lesbian drummer Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), navigate the rocky shoals of senior year in high school while avoiding beat downs from hallway bullies, neighborhood drug dealers and warring gangs, studying for SAT's and making spiky, bouncy music (supplied by Happy hitmaker Pharrell Williams). And, yes, this is a comedy, narrated by Hollywood A-lister Forest Whitaker. After narrowly escaping a schoolyard thug, the trio peddle their bikes past the operation of drug slinger Dom (rap artist A$AP Rocky), who enlists Malcolm as message-bearer to fabulous b-girl Nakia (Zoe Kravitz). As luck or fate or Hollywood plotlines would have it, Nakia is drawn to Malcolm's handsome, unassuming charms and invites him to a nightspot where the dope (several bricks of MDMA) comes into play. Famuyiwa's cagey tale of crosses and double-crosses also explores thorny issues of race and class and their intersection with youthful aspirations. A hilarious treatment of the proper use of the n-word by non-blacks is for the ages. Like Famuyiwa's earlier films The Wood (1999) and Brown Sugar (2002), Dope probably contains more than a few autobiographical references, and if his selection of featured actresses is any indication, Famuyiwa definitely has a type. Highly Recommended.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Inside Out


Animated feature Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter and Ronaldo del Carmen, is beautiful -- actually and conceptually -- and the smartest film I've seen so far this year. The film stars the voices of Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith and Lewis Black, among others, and tells the story of the emotional upheaval a high-energy 12-year-old girl (Kaitlyn Dias) goes through after she and her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move from Minnesota to San Francisco. Most of the storyline focuses of the girl's feelings -- joy (Poehler), sadness (Smith), anger (Black), disgust (Mindy Kaling), fear (Bill Hader) -- as she negotiates her new world and her relationship with her parents. Docter and del Carmen have done something pretty amazing in putting on the screen a story that is rooted solidly in the intangible and successfully anthropomorphizing emotions (light years beyond emoticons, I must say) so brilliantly that both children and adults are captivated. While the entire film is marvelous, a trip through the world of abstract thoughts with the young girl's imaginary friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind) and joy's escape from the land of forgotten memories are truly superb as visual representations of sophisticated notions. They will have you laughing and crying. Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Jurassic World

Colin Trevorrow's Jurassic World is amazingly unimaginative and frustratingly trite. It has producer Steven Spielberg's requisite family in crisis, children in peril, perfidious quasi-governmental baddies, a ballsy great white hunter / good guy and an ice princess in dire need of defrosting in the leads. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard star in the latter two roles. It all feels so done.

Love & Mercy

Bill Pohlad's Brian Wilson biopic, Love & Mercy, is unsettling and uneven but not because of Paul Dano (a keen, protean actor) and John Cusack (an often inscrutable performer). Dano owns this dark and fairly humorless recounting of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds period and a later time when Wilson (Cusack) was under the care and control of a shrink named Landy (a villainous Paul Giamatti). Elizabeth Banks also stars.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Heaven Adores You


Nicholas Dylan Rossi's indie doc about indie darling the late Elliott Smith is a loving, mysterious and not wholly satisfying film about the singer / songwriter who died from "apparently" self-inflicted stab wounds to the chest in 2003 after rocketing to fame as a prolific and insightful poet and musician. Docs about artists, particularly those who die young and tragically, frequently try to piece together the subject's past and pain by talking to family, friends and fans and examining the subject's work. Rossi tags each of these bases but the spaces between the recollections and Smith's own musings (often captured during the media interviews he deplored) do not contain answers to Smith's deep and inconsolable disconnection from life. Questions rise, are acknowledged but not always addressed. If Smith did in fact leave his Dallas home for Portland, Oregon, as a teenage what was it about his home that was so toxic? If his relationship with his father was a lingering painful part of his childhood, what made it so. Why such a rapid decline after his celebrated Oscar night appearance in 1998 when he played his nominated song Miss Misery from Good Will Hunting and after two subsequent, well-crafted and moody releases and moves first to New York and then to Los Angeles. What demon was chasing him? It's never clear. No, documentaries are not journalism and they're not history (strictly speaking). The world presented to the film goer has been filtered through the camera's lens and through the memories, passions and prejudices of those who agree to be interviewed. And these make this film wonderfully intimate. But I left it feeling that the decidedly enigmatic Smith was less so but still so. Much of this by turns joyful and disconcerting film is quite lovely and, of course, Smith's music is evocative and beautiful. Recommended.

Spy


New rules for spy comedies: Leads not only have to know how to take a punch but how to drop kick their egos into next week -- all while laying waste to propriety and skewering their opponents -- and the audience -- with deliciously delirious doses of profanity. Paul Feig's secret weapon in his latest film Spy is the irresistible Melissa McCarthy, who, as the film's poster suggests, is Hollywood gold. Feig directed McCarthy in two solid gold bonanzas -- Bridesmaids and The Heat. Spy is far better than those movies, classier and crasser and another guaranteed pay day for all involved -- Feig, McCarthy, costars Jason Statham, Rose Byrne and Jude Law and 50 Cent, who makes an odd and less-than-inspired cameo appearance near the film's end. In this dense (in all senses of the word), globetrotting movie, McCarthy plays a CIA in-office agent, the full-figured and underappreciated Susan Cooper, who is brains to Law's field agent Bradley Fine's charming brawn. When maniacal fashionista Bulgarian brat Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne of Neighbors) gets her hands on a nuke retrieved from her murdered arms-dealer daddy, Cooper is dispatched to track her because all of the top-tier field agents have been made. Therein lies the core of this grizzled and grisly fish out of water tale -- Cooper tries to break bad and earn the cred she needs to win the respect of her ballsy unit chief (Allison Janney) and avenge Fine's untimely off-camera death. The road leads not only to Rome but to Paris and Budapest and each stop involves a hilarious change in identity and a bloody encounter with another bungling agent. The body count is high but the corpses are overshadowed by the gags and eclipsed by McCarthy's outrageous charm. Recommended.

Friday, May 29, 2015

San Andreas


Yes, Canadian director Brad Peyton's San Andreas is brainless disaster porn but it is also enormous fun when it's not trying to be meaningful. The film stars Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino as estranged spouses who find themselves on a perilous trek from Los Angeles to San Francisco to find and rescue their daughter (the nubile beauty Alexandra Daddario) during an unprecedented Pacific Coast earthquake. Johnson's Ray is a hotshot L.A. rescue copter pilot. Wife Emma has just served him divorce papers and announced that she and daughter Blake are moving in with new boyfriend, real estate tycoon Daniel Riddick (Ioan Gruffudd), whose San Francisco tower will be the tallest on the West Coast (compensate much?). It's then that Ray's world starts to fall apart, literally, as the earth begins to shift and buildings start collapsing. Paul Giamatti has a choice part as a Cal Tech seismologist whose equations and gadgetry have predicted just such an occurrence but his warnings have gone unheeded. The scenes of devastation -- the demolition of the Hoover Dam, the swallowing of L.A. and the drowning of San Francisco -- are so over-the-top that they are funnier than Peyton probably intended. Along for the joy ride are a comely British lad, played by Hugo Johnstone-Burt, and his cheeky younger brother Ollie (young Art Parkinson), who take a shining to the busty Blake and end up hiking the the even crookeder streets of San Francisco with her. If watching Mother Nature kick ass is your cup of tea, San Andreas is for you. Faults and all. Recommended.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road


George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is post-apocalyptic poetry and superior to the original Road Warrior series of the early 80s, which was terrific. Miller's dystopian vision of a road-raging, fuel-starved future is familiar to many but the new film ratchets up the intensity to nearly unbearable levels.  Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron star as captives of the despotic, and despicable, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), ruler of a kingdom of fall-out survivors and a band of chalky, shaved warrior boys who guard his rocky fortress, from whence he dispenses wisdom and water, but not in equal measures. When Theron's Imperator Furiosa makes a break for it in an 18-wheeler that is carrying some of Joe's precious breeding cargo, Joe and his boys take off in pursuit with Hardy's Max in tow as "blood bag" to one of Joe's anemic underlings (Nicholas Hoult). The opening 20-minute chase is grindhouse opera -- symphonic, grungy and grand, a sensory assault that is unrelenting and exhausting.  The whole film is. The dusty, world's end vistas (shot in Australia and Namibia), the punk / metal / S&M costuming and makeup, and the Cirque du Soleil grotesque acrobatics in the final chase are all exquisite.  Miller's dark message has not changed since the original Mad Max was released in 1979 -- man's feral nature will undoubtedly survive whatever devastation his greed and shortsightedness bring --but Miller has exceeded -- to marvelous effect -- the delivery of that message. Highly recommended but terrifically violent.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Unfriended


The cleverness of Levan Gabriadze's little creeper for the chat-room set, Unfriended, will probably be lost on those whose primary means of interaction is NOT social media. The film assumes the viewer understands the dynamic and appeal of Facebook, instant messaging and webcams and builds on that foundation an intermittently entertaining teen revenge flick that outside of social media's cyber-bubble would make no sense at all -- not that there is much sense even for cyber pros. A group of five high school friends (Shelley Hennig, Matthew Bohrer, Renee Olstead, Wil Peltz, and Jacob Wysocki) convene one evening and are joined by a mysterious, avatar-less lurker using the web address of a dead friend (Heather Sossamon). The lurker has targeted our charmingly jaded and multitasking quintet because they were responsible for posting a shaming video of their drunk, butt-hurt friend. The video was so much the talk of Fresno that the unlucky girl ended up shooting herself in the head -- on camera, of course. That too was posted online. The film delivers a bit of a primer on debugging and blocking pesky trolls -- even if these measures come to naught -- and the little nimrods are picked off one by one.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron



The artistry in Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron is truly impressive even as the franchise's evolving story of interplanetary / interdimensional alien invasion gets compressed into chaotic, muscular battles joined by the ligaments of running gags and witty banter. The superior first installment (The Avengers, 2012) introduced the ragtag band of heroic misfits -- Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), David Banner / The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) -- led by the one-eyed chief of S.H.I.E.L.D. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). That story merged science and magic in the person of rogue Norse god Loki (Tom Hiddleston), who was hellbent on world domination. Age of Ultron grounds its story squarely in the digital world and introduces a new nemesis, a quipping artificial intelligence (voiced by James Spader) hellbent on creating peace on earth by exterminating human life. Ultron is joined, for a while, by a curious set of Slavic mutant twins (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olson) and a horde of flying cyborgs. Yes, it's a loud, crowded party with a multitude of your closest friends and is best enjoyed as such. If you want depth and reflection go see Ex Machina.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

While We're Young


Noah Baumbach writes and directs smart and smartly observed small but meaningful films (Margot at the Wedding, The Squid and the Whale). His latest, While We're Young, is the story of a stagnating middle-aged New York couple, Josh and Cornelia (Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts), who meet a vivacious younger couple, Jamie and Darby, (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) whose lives seem to be embodiments of the older couple's fears and regrets. Alienated from their birthing peers, Josh and Cornelia gravitate toward the younger, childless pair and find themselves in hip-hop aerobics, bicycling and exploring abandoned subway lines -- and loving every exhausting moment. Josh and Jamie are both documentary filmmakers, though Josh appears blocked while Jamie has no off switch or internal edit. They seem to speak a common language and draw energy from one another. The early symbiotic relationship between them eventually, as they tend to do in film, takes on parasitic properties that reveal much about Josh and Cornelia's  relationship with one another and the world they thought they knew. Stiller, a spotty actor at best, gives a winning performance here and is matched by Driver's truly disconcerting affability. The film is funny and insightful, especially for those of us on the other side of youthfulness.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Furious Seven


The Fast and Furious franchise has always driven right up to the edge of sappy sentimentality -- amidst all of the trash talk and body slamming -- without going over the cliff. This time? Over the cliff it goes but it's understandable. When franchise co-star Paul Walker died in a car wreck near the end of the 2013, the future of Furious Seven (much less the film series) was cast in doubt. Director James Wan has crafted an enjoyable and reliably frantic edition piecing together what remained of Walker's scenes with post-production magic but leaving, one senses, a vacuum among the cast members. Co-star Vin Diesel (a close friend of Walker's) offers a genuinely touching moment at the film's ending, reflecting on the men's friendship and adventures. It's a nice coda to all of the usual jetsetting, high-speed, ballistic action that consumes most of the movie's 2-plus hours. The story, as negligible as they generally are, has occasional outlaws Dom (Diesel) and Brian (Walker) enlisted by federal agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) to hunt down the murderously vengeful Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), a mission that has the guys' road crew (Michelle Rodriguez, Chris Bridges and Tyrese Gibson) tearing up asphalt and throwing fists first in Azerbaijan then the UAE then back in Los Angeles. It's all wildly ludicrous (pun intended), brainless and enormously entertaining. Recommended.

Ex Machina


Ex Machina is screenwriter Alex Garland's directorial debut, and it is quite a film to ruminate over. Judging from his movies, Garland is not the cheeriest cuss on the planet. He wrote two annihilation films -- zombie feast 28 Days Later and the end of days saga Sunshine -- and his next movie is actually titled Annihilation. Ex Machina (as in Deus Ex Machina with God removed from the machine) is as gloomy as the others but leaves the viewer more to chew on. This is the story of a loner, billionaire programming genius dude (a terrific Oscar Isaac) who invites young Caleb, one of his company's underlings (Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson), to his remote subterranean lair to drink beer and test his newest invention -- a semi-transparent (literally and figuratively) robotic woman named Ava (Swedish beauty Alicia Vikander) -- for true artificial intelligence. Signs of sentience, we're told through a series of interviews between Caleb and Ava, are self-awareness, self-interest and intent. And therein lies the movie's mystery. It's a cat and mouse game but we're never entirely sure who is the cat. Garland's framing, pacing and lighting are Kubrickian, and the final quarter of the film is as shocking and pessimistic as the best of the great master's work. What to make of this film. Maybe Garland regards human explorations in the cyberworld as hubristic and dangerous as the film purports or the movie might just be a reflection of the views of skeptics and paranoiacs. I suppose it doesn't matter because the three leads are superb, and the curious and provocative ending is fresh and not a little bit chilling. Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Intolerance (1916)


The Birth of a Nation (1915) will stand as both D.W. Griffith's greatest cinematic achievement and greatest contribution to the nascent film industry, despite its incendiary depiction of blacks and the Reconstruction. Griffith's next film, Intolerance: Love's Struggle Through the Ages (1916), is a fascinating, poetical conceit of a motion picture that weaves together four separate stories, all of which relate in some fashion to persecution and, well, intolerance. The four tales -- the fall of Babylon, the crucifixion of Jesus, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and a contemporary story of class warfare and social injustice in America -- exist on that hoary and impressionistic plane that is silent film but are not lacking in dramatic pull or emotional currency. The film is compelling and cunningly crafted. Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Josephine Crowell and Lillian Gish star but Griffith paints on a large canvas, with enormous, elaborate sets and casts of thousands. The sweep of this film is indeed epic, with battling helmeted hordes and chariotted marauders. It is quite the spectacle. Still, I'm not entirely sold on the elegiac tone of much of the film; it seems too grandly earnest and it clashes with the elysian vision at the end.  Also, if this was indeed Griffith's response to charges he stoked the flames of oppression with Birth of a Nation, it strikes me as a little heavy-handed to use Jesus Christ as cover.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On the Waterfront


Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront (1954) is a near perfect picture in tone and tenor, whose melodrama does not detract from its substantial artistry. Marlon Brando is Terry Malloy, a former prizefighter who is now a New York dockworker and errand boy for the mob boss who runs the local stevedore union (Lee J. Cobb). Terry's brother Charley (Rod Steiger) is the boss's right-hand and so the unskilled and dim Terry gets to count coffee bags and nap and tend to his racing pigeons. Terry, though a bum, starts to wise up after becoming a part of a hit the boss arranges against a longshoreman who plans to testify against the mob. The informant's sister Edie (Eva Marie Saint) is intent on finding out who tossed her brother off the roof of his apartment building and suspects that Terry knows. Terry, who takes an immediate liking to the spunky schoolgirl, urges Edie not to pry but after more attacks decides to do what he can to set things right. The script by Budd Schulberg crackles with "wise guy speak" as it lays out a morality tale of conscience and corruption in the watery world of longshoremen. Brando and Cobb are beyond superb as flinty antagonists in this tale -- beautifully filmed in overcast grays -- that asks viewers to reflect on the price of one's soul.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

It Follows


Were it not for the abundance of full-frontal nudity and references to cheap pornography, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows would be a slamdunk as an abstinence-only propaganda film whose core message is “screw around and malevolent demon spirit WILL track you down and kick your ass.” Mitchell, working from his own screenplay, takes the old movie trope of “death after teen sex” and gives it a fresh, though not totally coherent, spin. Maika Monroe (who reminds me of a slightly less winsome Catherine Deneuve circa Repulsion) stars as Jay, a young Detroit woman who gets bagged by a handsome though sketchy guy named Hugh (Jake Weary) who, post-coitus, ties her up and shows her the naked succubus who has been trailing him to tear him apart. But, now that he and Jay have done the nasty, Jay is “it” as in a game of tag, and the creeping soul sucker, which can change its appearance, will chase her. Peace out. The rest of the film is Jay running from a variety of slow-footed ghoulies with the help of her eager but utterly feckless sister (Lili Sepe) and friends Yara (Olivia Luccardi), who is reading Dostoevsky, and Paul (Keir Gilchrist), who wants to share Jay’s burden in the worst way. Though the movie features some solid shocks, it has a grim griminess about it, an air it comes about honestly, being set in Detroit. I’m not altogether a fan of this new chiller genre I call “the pointless animus of spirit beings.” I generally like my evil with a purpose and “sex is bad” doesn’t do it for me.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel


The poster for John Madden’s film The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel features the slightly retouched images of stars Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Bill Nagy, British cinema royalty, which is fitting because the film itself is a “retouching” of the “first” BEMH, which starred the same. Both pictures are set in the crowded but charming Indian city of Jaipur, and tells the story of aging Brits living in a worn but not unappealing inn run by an excitable, jug-eared kid named Sonny. Sonny (played by the wonderful young actor Dev Patel) wants to expand his popular enterprise and is hoping to make a good impression on a stealth American inspector who he suspects is in the guise of a recently arrived guest (Richard Gere). Sonny is the embodiment of accommodation and self-deprecation. He’s spry angularity to the rest of the cast’s sometimes lugubrious doughiness and is pure joy to watch. The movie, like the inn, has a radiant warmth that embraces but doesn’t overwhelm. Though I’m a fan of most of the movie’s stars, I went to SBEMH with no expectations but was beguiled by its colors and refinements. Recommended.

Kingsman: The Secret Service


British director Matthew Vaughn’s terrifically entertaining films (Layer Cake, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class) contained equal measures of scabrous wit and bloody wonder. His latest movie, written with frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, is the stealth social satire Kingsman: The Secret Service, which is based on a comic book that I’m not familiar with but I didn’t feel at as much of a disadvantage watching this film as I did when viewing Watchmen (2009), for example. Vaughn borrows with seemingly mocking glee from the secret agent playbook as he tells the story of a league of gentlemen avengers with code names borrowed from Arthur’s Round Table, whose bond is to protect mankind. Vaughn scored major Hollywood wattage in casting Colin Firth, Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson in this farce, and they seem to be having a grand time. Firth and Caine play members of the Kingsmen,  which is trying to stop a lisping, diabolical billionaire tech capitalist, that would be Jackson, from ridding the planet of worrisome humanity who are stinking up the place. All but a handpicked handful will be spared. Firth, code name Galahad, recruits a young London tough (Taron Egerton), the son of a slain Kingsman, for the team, and the movie is also about Eggsy’s training under the inscrutable Merlin (Mark Strong). Like Vaughn’s earlier films, Kingsman contains brilliant balletic close-contact battles — many featuring Sophia Boutella as Gazelle, a killer amputee who walks on knives — that are worth the price of admission.  But a long scene of unbridled carnage featuring Firth and set in a Kentucky backwoods hate-mongering church has to be witnessed to be believed. Highly recommended but not for the squeamish.

Network


Sidney Lumet’s Network (1976) is a grimly satirical film about the grimly cynical business of network news — which is not to say it’s about journalism, mind you. It seems to be about everything but. Network, written by the great Paddy Chayefsky (Altered States, Marty) was probably considered sobering and cautionary when it was released — immediately after Watergate and Vietnam, during the Ford administration. Today, ita warnings about the dilution of journalistic standards in the hunt for ratings and in an effort to turn around public disaffection seem a bit done. Not irrelevant, just sadly familiar. 

But the film is predictably well-crafted. Oscar-winner Peter Finch’s raving prophet Howard Beale is iconic, a voice in the wilderness as “mad as Moses,” as one character describes him early in the film. Beale loses his job as the evening anchor for the UBS network after an on-camera meltdown over “bullshit” only to score huge ratings with a final broadcast rant that sends listeners to their windows to scream the film’s famous line — “I’m mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” 

Watching Beale come into new stardom are his friend, the former head of UBS news, Max Schumacher (a stolid William Holden); the glibly manipulative head of UBS programming Diana Christensen (Oscar-winner Faye Dunaway), who knows a goldmine when she sees one, especially one that helps the American people “articulate their rage;” and the greedy and self-serious chief bean-counter for the network’s parent company CCA, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall). The narrative is a bit of a chaotic whirligig, not unlike network television itself, and interweaves subplots of marital infidelity, Arab investment and political insurrection for the story’s inevitable and bloody climax.

Yesterday

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