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.

Queen & Slim

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