Saturday, August 27, 2016

Southside With You

Richard Tanne's enjoyable, and talky, film recreation of the first "date" between Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) and Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) -- Southside With Your -- is a loving tribute to the first couple and an endorsement if not of the president's politics then certainly of the spirit of rational engagement and empowerment that, one could argue, has defined his terms in office. Though Michelle insists their outing to a Southside Chicago community meeting is off-the-clock, professional time between law firm colleagues and not a "date," Barack is persistent and winning, one might even say calculated, in his wooing, booking for them much more than the meeting. The two spend most of the film's 84 minutes talking about themselves, yes, but they're actually telling each other (and those of us eavesdropping) what has made them who they are (and, for those of us eavesdropping, what they will become). Michelle is guarded; Barack is hopeful. But, in the end, they appear compatible in their differences.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Don't Breathe

You can't really call Jane Levy (Evil Dead remake) a Queen of Scream because there's no screaming going on in Don't Breathe -- at least, not on the screen. The audience? Now that's a-whole-nother thing. Director Fede Alvarez, who wrote the screenplay with collaborator Rodo Sayagues, methodically lays out the story and the playing field for this cat and mouse game. Levy's Rocky and friends Alex (Dylan Minnette) and Money (Daniel Zavotta) have been burglarizing homes in Detroit because their lives suck and they want out of Motor City. Alpha dog Money scopes a house on a deserted street. The owner is a blind Gulf War veteran (Stephen Lang) mourning his daughter who was killed by a careless motorist. Setting sympathy aside, Money and Rocky decide to break into the house and relieve the vet of the money he received in a settlement from the driver's affluent parents. Beta male Alex, who is pining for Rocky, is ambivalent at first but eventually joins the gang. Once inside the house, however, the plan goes awry and the blind vet -- with his keen hearing and smelling -- proves to be much more than he appears as the thieves try to hide from him in his creaky house. It's all bloody good fun that had me rooting for both the cat and mouse at different times and sometimes both at once.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings / Hell or High Water

Both the animated feature Kubo and the Two Strings and David Mackenzie's Gothic Western Hell or High Water are dark, engrossing tales. Kubo is the name of a gifted, one-eyed troubadour in samurai Japan. He cares for his ailing mother -- a former celestial being -- when he's not bringing to life with music the origami sculptures he uses to tell stories in the village square. Kubo had been warned that evil is stalking him and he must take care. When it finds him he sets off on a quest to secure the armament he needs to protect himself. The film features the voices of Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes and George Takei and is a fable unlike any I've seen. Death is a constant presence throughout the picture, which includes terrific battle scenes that would likely be quite frightening to the youngest children.

Chris Pine and the ever-entertaining Ben Foster are West Texas sibling bank robbers trying to right wrongs done to their family by bad luck and greed. Beau Bridges is the Texas ranger who is nearing retirement but whose understanding of the criminal mind is still sharp. The expansive desolation of that desiccated region is in every frame but it's the flinty language writer Taylor Sheridan puts in the mouths of the actors that is the true star of this wonderful, brutal and human picture.

Bad Mom

Mila Kunis plays a do-everything Supermom with an ungrateful spouse and kids and a part-time job being the adult in a gourmet coffee company. She’s a wreck and blows a gasket when she discovers her husband is virtual-dating a chat room porn star, her son is coasting through middle school
and her daughter is a walking bundle of stress. Even the family dog is a mess. Bad Moms, directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, follows Kunis’s Amy as she decompresses and takes back some of her life. While all does not go well, she does befriend two other distressed mothers – Kathryn Hahn’s randy vulgarian Carla and Kristen Bell’s emotionally battered Kiki – but crosses the local PTA maven (Christina Applegate) who swears vengeance. The laughs will be hearty if you enjoyed Lucas and Moore’s Hangover series but the film also carries a needed message about self-love and priorities.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Stephen Frears is a loving filmmaker who urges audiences to embrace his characters but not too roughly lest we harm these spirited but fragile people. In Florence Foster Jenkins, Frears directs the indomitable Meryl Streep and the reliably affable Hugh Grant in the true story of an aging New York socialite and music patron and her husband during the Second World War. Madame Florence, doused with stardust after hearing the heavenly Lily Pons at Carnegie Hall, decides she wants to revive her own performance aspirations. The problem is she’s deaf to her own tunelessness but gets only affirmation from doting husband St. Clair and the high society toadies who love her sandwich and potato salad parties and money. She enlists the support of the effete and impoverished young pianist Cosme McMoon (an Oscar nomination for the Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg) and is off to the races. I found quite a lot to love about Florence, was touched by her passion and rooted for her despite her delusion.

Sausage Party

Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon’s brilliant animated film Sausage Party takes the unrelenting vulgarity and sex and drug obsession that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg peddle (Superbad, Pineapple Express) and turn them into a phantasmagoria of talking and dancing grocery store items that are awaiting the rapture of being purchased for Red, White and Blue Day (the Fourth of July) – for that is the reward the gods (humans) have planned for them. When a bottle of honey mustard is purchased by mistake and returned, he brings word (between his mad ravings from PTSD) that no good awaits the franks, buns, veggies and condiments on the other side of those glass doors. Thus begins a quest for the Truth, and therein lies the film’s brilliance. While titillating viewers with naughty talk by comestibles, the filmmakers are also addressing gender roles, sexual repression, religious intolerance and ethnic persecution. Not as odd a mixture as it might appear. The movie will probably require multiple viewings.  Not because the commentary is so dense. Rather, it is because the gags are so rapid-fire that you’ll miss half of them because of your howling laughter.

Captain Fantastic

Matt Ross’s Captain Fantastic is a thoughtful film about how the best intentions of loving people can have devastating consequences. Viggo Mortensen is the shamanistic father of six living off the grid in the Pacific Northwest. His wife and the children’s mother has been hospitalized for what is later revealed as manic depression and suicidal tendencies. Mortensen’s Ben has rejected societal conventions and is raising his children – ranging in age from 18 to 6 – as primitives and philosophers who kill and cook their meals, scale the side of cliffs, read Nabokov and celebrate Noam Chomsky’s birthday. Yes, the premise is fantastic but the sentiments feel genuine, and when the family receives tragic news about their mother, their sadness and distress and then resolve to fulfill her wish for a Buddhist departure feels pure and real – which in these times of mountainous cynicism is reason enough to see this gentle and affirming film. The children’s performance of Sweet Child O’ Mine is guaranteed to bring on the waterworks.

Jason Bourne

No, Paul Greengrass’s Jason Bourne is not as edgy and dynamic as the three previous installments, especially The Bourne Ultimatum, and has a frustratingly familiar style and flavor and set pieces that echo the earlier films. Matt Damon stars as the buff and predictably unstoppable Bourne, who is on the hunt for answers to his identity and the mysterious forces that turned him into a killing machine. Tommy Lee Jones plays the intelligence villain with the same sliminess as his predecessors – Chris Cooper, Brian Cox and Scott Glenn. Alicia Vikander, however, lends a bit of freshness as the ambitious CIA cyber-warfare chief with her own agenda but, sadly, she’s not able to lift the movie’s staleness. Greengrass amps up the vehicular wreckage and lays waste to Athens, London and Vegas, which will undoubtedly delight die-hard Bourne-boys and girls. And, yes, there might be more.

Star Trek Beyond

Justin Lin capably moves the Star Trek franchise forward with a film that pits militarism against humanism, albeit with a predictable outcome. Idris Elba, the kind of actor I wish Sam Jackson was, joins the stable of performers introduced by J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot as the energy-devouring war lord Krall, who draws the Starship Enterprise into a trap with the intent of using Kirk and crew to destroy the Federation of Planets. Lin’s staging of the destruction of the Enterprise is spectacular and ingenious, as it represents not only the imperiling of the ship’s crew but the near demolition of the idea of exploration and peaceful coexistence. Elba’s speech at the film’s climax, and the big reveal that comes immediately before, is intelligent screen craft and worthy of the venerable series’s legacy.

Hunting for the Wilderpeople / The Innocents

Saturday’s double-feature at the Nick was the delightful New Zealand film “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” starring Sam Neill and the juvenile actor Julian Dennison, in a semi-farcical, adventure tale of a grumpy backwoodsman who becomes the reluctant guardian of a ward of the state who passionately wants to be “gangsta,” and “The Innocents,” a haunting film set in post-WWII Poland. In “The Innocents,” a French Red Cross worker (Lou de Laage) responds to pleas for help from a young Benedictine novice and discovers several nuns in the nearby convent pregnant, the result of assaults by German and Russian soldiers during the war. Both films are quite beautiful and tremendously affecting in distinctly different ways. The lush, mountainous bush of New Zealand is nearly a character in the often tender and heartwarming Hunt, and the snow-blanketed terrain surrounding the convent in Innocents is just as important in communicating isolation without disconnection, as both films portray, quite vividly, the human capacity for courageous compassion.


Former Congressman and much-maligned New York mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner’s predilection for naked selfies and Internet sexplay with strangers led to his exit from Capitol Hill and his trouncing in the 2013 Big Apple election. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg document the fiery Democrat’s graceless fall from grace in their fascinating film Weiner, which describes – rather sympathetically given Weiner’s energy and charisma – the utter waste of talent his self-destruction represents and the depths to which New York tabloids will sink for penile puns.

Finding Dory

Finding Dory is Disney / Pixar’s latest high-concept animated family feature that is a parable about determination and family, in all of its configurations. Ellen DeGeneres (whose public persona is preternatural kindness) voices Dory, a forgetful blue tang who, after being separated from her parents, must make the trek across miles of ocean to find them. Helping her are friends Marlin (Albert Brooks) and his son Nemo (from Saving Nemo) and assorted other goodhearted fish (shelled and un-shelled), including a scene-stealing “septopus” named Hank (Ed O'neill).  It’s a beautifully crafted adventure (it is Pixar, after all) with many sweet moments (it is Disney, after all) and a few stinging insights about humans.

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping / Maggie's Plan

Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone’s intermittently funny Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping is essentially a compilation of not altogether successful Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone) videos starring Andy Samberg’s Conner 4 Real, the under-gifted frontman of the inexplicably celebrated rap group The Style Boyz (Samberg, Schaffer and Taccone). Conner leaves the group for a solo career but flies too close to the arena lights and crashes and burns. It’s actually the crashing and burning – and not Conner’s idiotic ascent – that is most entertaining about the movie, which stars a boat load of addled celebrity cameos and the prominent appearance of a fanboy penis (not in a  box) that Conner must autograph. It’s all much too much but will undoubtedly delight SNL’s Lonely Island fans and others sucked into the vortex of producer Judd Apatow’s expanding universe.

Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan is a nicely observed film about self-delusion and self-absorption, starring Greta Gerwig as Maggie, a low-level administrator at New York’s The New School and Ethan Hawke, as a whiny egoist and part-time New School anthropologist married to a high-powered Columbia University egoist (Julianne Moore). Maggie wants to have a baby and enlists the services of a donor named Guy (Travis Fimmel) who’s a pickle entrepreneur and mathophile. Maggie’s plan goes awry after she meets Hawke’s John and agrees to read his novel – an interminable treatise on the hell that is his marriage to Moore’s Germanic Georgette. Maggie’s swept up and swept away, abandons her single-motherhood plan, has John’s baby, marries him after his divorce from Georgette and enters into dismal marital torpor, which, of course, then leads to the hatching of another plan. The small film is smart and insightful and the three leads are wonderful and get terrific assists from Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as Maggie’s supportive but not sympathetic friends.

The Conjuring 2

How much one enjoys James Wan’s latest scarefest, The Conjuring 2, depends on one’s appetite for the earnest ridiculousness of the “true tales of demon possession” genre. I don’t exactly crave them though I do enjoy a good jolt that comes with the gravitas of endnotes. C2 has plenty of jolts –maybe too many – and a final 10 minutes that are both intense and maddeningly contrived. It’s literally spiritualist Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) telling husband Ed (Patrick Wilson) “don’t go into the basement,“ which he does, of course. Still, you pull for the ghost hunters and the north London family whose house is crawling with pissed off poltergeists and whose younger daughter (Madison Wolfe) – a true screamer – is channeling the undead.

A Bigger Splash

A Bigger Splash’s beauty is not understated though the performances are wonderfully nuanced, even Fiennes’, whose character, rock producer Harry, fills a room with his narcissistic brio. He and his love child Penelope (Johnson) arrive on the impossibly lovely Italian island of Pantelleria to visit with former lover and recuperating rock star (Swinton) and her studly filmmaker partner (Schoenaerts). They appear to be friends if not friendly, intimates without much regard for feelings and bristling with irritation at one another when they’re not having sex or sprawling about naked. Director Guadagnino has fashioned here a puzzling psychodrama where much lies beneath the surface, which is literally where these characters discover the meaning of life. Which is not to say the answer is life-affirming.

The Man Who Knew Infinity

In the prologue to Matt Brown’s interesting but undernourished film, The Man Who Knew Infinity, Irons’ character, Cambridge professor H.D. Hardy, suggests that he and the “man” of the title shared a deep friendship that the film does not relay. In fact, the movie does much to show Hardy and Indian mathematician Ramanujan (Patel) had a surface-y association for much of the time of their collaboration. Hardy brought Ramanujan to England in the 1910s after receiving a letter fro…m the young Hindi that contained imaginative mathematical formulas and a request for help publishing his work. Hardy spent many hours urging him to discipline his thinking and test his ideas by using established, accepted proofs. Ramanujan resisted at first but eventually conceded, all while suffering hateful treatment from teachers and classmates. That Hardy knew nothing of this or much else about the man speaks not only to his detachment from his protege but, as is slowly revealed, the scholar’s detachment from life outside his own study. Hardy eventually becomes Ramanujan’s champion and delivers a stirring case for his admission as a fellow to the Royal Society. The math is dense and its importance not clearly conveyed. Because of this, the story needed more about life away from the books and chalk. The few scenes of Ramanujan’s alienation only suggest the pain he must have endured to be heard.

X-men Apocalypse

Singer’s X-Men Apocalypse is a bad picture that is technically, er, Marvelous. It’s mishy-mashy, hodgy-podgy, unwieldy and tedious. Its tale of the End Times runs far too long; its battle scenes are blurry, illogical messes that made me squirm with irritation. It lacks wit and insight and nearly everything that made the original entries in the franchise classics. I’d read the film was weak but it’s astounding how awful it is.

Money Monster

Jodie Foster’s Money Monster crackled and popped like a first-rate thriller but lacked sufficient narrative to get me to care about the people at the center of the story (Clooney and Roberts). It is saved, ultimately, by actor Jack O'Connell, whose highly engaging angry young man Kyle Budwell drives the economical plot to what is, unfortunately, a predictable ending. Clooney stars as a television investment guru and Roberts the director of his circus of a show. Enter stage right disgruntled Everyman Kyle with a gun and a vest filled with explosives and a simple demand – to know why a stock Clooney’s Lee Gates had promoted as a sure thing only a few weeks before had recently lost 800 million dollars, ruining Budwell and thousands of other investors. As crafted by Foster, as serious a film director as any, the story of this catastrophe stays a little too murky, the last reel showdown a bit too rushed and pat for my taste. Still, the movie’s strength is the middle section when Budwell’s pain – in all of its human dimensions – becomes clear and the focus of the picture.

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War is an explosively excessive treatise on loyalty, accountability and excess explosives. Evans and Downey lead teams on opposite sides of a movement to put the otherwise free-agents-of-justice Avengers under U.N. supervision. It seems that rampaging, enhanced vigilantes sometimes leave mass destruction and dead bodies in their wake. All of this death and regret makes for intensely dour (though wonderfully crafted) stuff by the Russo Bros. Leave the kids home.

Barbershop 3: The Next Cut

Ice Cube’s highly entertaining Barbershop series has been mostly a celebration of urban (black) culture and sexual politics with social consciousness as garnishing. The third outing amps up the polemics with not altogether satisfying results. Still, the laughs come honestly and are nearly devoid of pandering and buffoonery. Even though the film’s resolution feels more audacious than hopeful, its message to reject community impotence in the face of gang violence is sorely needed.

The Nice Guys

The Nice Guys is a funny flick about good guys doing bad things to worse people. Crowe and Gosling are a ball-busting Abbott & Costello in disco-era polyester with a 13-year-old moppet sidekick as they lay waste to half of L.A. while searching for a missing social activist porno actress. It’s all ludicrous but so much fun.

Queen & Slim

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