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The Hangover Part III
So, it starts with the decapitation of a live giraffe. And, it goes downhill from there.
I’m always amused, quite frankly, when studios insist we critics see some of their films with a live, large audience, because, apparently, we need to be schooled as to how a movie works for, you know, real people. At the screening I attended of this purportedly last chapter of the trilogy, those real people? They didn’t seem to find that giraffe getting its head clopped off too uproarious. As a matter of fact, the only sound that accompanied that scene was that of an instantaneous group cringe. The real people also did enjoy a short giggle once or so during the rest of the movie and there was a deafening silence, not one appreciative clap of applause from the invited guests, as the credits finally began to role. So there’s that.
As a professional critic/part time real person, I actually got a kick out of the original Hangover. Sure it was silly and over the top, but there was a goofy charm to the thing, a few honestly endearing moments and there was no denying Zach Galifianakis was a star. Then, because it apparently is the law, a sequel was made. It was awful. Now, whether we needed it or not, we have yet another movie, a kind of rehash of the original set up, involving drugs, a heist, Phil, Stu and the other guy having to support odd ball Alan and the pesky Mr. Chow doing all the stuff that Mr. Chow does. This time, though, we don’t have to go through the motions of much normalcy: the wives are handily dismissed after a scene or two. Heather Graham gets an appearance because, I guess, we all missed her so much and Alan’s on-the-verge-of-a-heart-attack Dad is gone, quick, too. The emphasis this time is on, well, you know what? I don’t really know what it’s on, there’s so much running around and not particularly action packed action happening.
Ed Helms is stalwart as Stu, Bradley Cooper looks as if he can’t wait to get all this behind him, reprising his role of Phil when he has already gone on to far better things. Ken Jeong sweats it out as Chow and John Goodman has a few fun scenes. The only moment worth waiting for is the (short) meetup between Galifianakis and Melissa McCarthy, who manage to make something real out of nothing.
This all-too rare movie elicits myriad emotions: not just from the couple pounding their way as they approach middle age, but from us, watching them. Not the least of which is, “man, do they know how to fight!”
Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy are back, slipping seamlessly into the roles of Jesse and Celine, created with Richard Linklater in Before Sunrise (1995) and enhanced in 2004’s Before Sunset. We are now on the Greek Islands, catching up: with two young girls of their own, Jesse and Celine also get his son part time. He’s still writing and teaching. She’s considering an offer in Paris that will ramp up her career. But Jesse, fresh from dropping his son off at the airport, might be toying with the idea of moving back to the US, before his son graduates into inaccessibility. Everything looks great, but Celine’s acute radar can’t ignore the shifting winds.
In a series of prolonged, wickedly verbal scenes, we watch as Jesse and Celine spend one of their last days in the paradise of Crete. We travel from the airport back to the writer’s retreat, eavesdropping as the two almost tiptoe into what will become an all out spoken brawl, ripe with the anxieties facing them when they leave the island.
The issues that come up along the way aren’t really anything new: working mother balance, the lack of privacy in a creative household, step parenting, feminism, devotion and patience, just to name a few. What makes this all work, and work it does, is the smart and affectionate presentation of it all. Celine may be a sharp social commentator, but she also pretty much relishes pushing Jesse’s buttons a bit. He may feign exasperation, but, when it really hits the fan, this is a man who figures out how to respect and charm his way out of it.
Hawke and Delpy are terrific, once again. His frisky allure is recognizable and irresistible. And Delpy, with a magnificent self confidence, tackles Celine head on, beautiful warts and all. Watching these two actors (who also are co-writers here) fight it out is quite a ride: funny, scary, familiar. Except for that articulate part: how many of us could be that acutely spot on while blasting out our frustrations? Pretty awesome, I must say.
The Great Gatsby
Audacious, over-long, and, occasionally dazzling, Baz Luhrmann has delivered an adaptation that’s imperfect but also pretty darn fascinating.
Fitzgerald purists have been worrying about this one with the fanaticism of a nervous comic fanboy. How could this filmmaker, never known for subtlety, ever convey the delicate power of the classic and much beloved novel? For a good long while, I was afraid they were right. Like the Roaring 20’s themselves, most of this film is hyper-energetic and devil-may-care. The details of the period are lovingly recreated and then treated to a backseat, overwhelmed by visual tricks and unnecessary 3D. Some of the actors get to shine; others, not so much. And yet, after all the soaring camera shots, the immaculately dressed sets and the repetitive Baccanalian party scenes, Luhrmann reigns it in, allowing the last, say half hour of the story speak for itself. We are all left exhausted and, appropriately, sad. This is, after all, not just a love story, but a morality tale, one that could happen in any era. By swirling in some contemporary music, and snappy editing, this Gatsby makes us remember that.
There’s an all star cast here, but a few of them get, frankly, lost in the sauce. Tobey Maguire has a few moments as Nick, too few, though. Joel Edgerton starts off too hot as Tom and Isla Fisher is reduced to, essentially, a one note performance. Newcomer Elizabeth Debicki makes quite the auspicious debut and, I thought, outshines (or at least out-captivates) Carey Mulligan’s Daisy. All take second fiddle though to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jay Gatsby: in what may possibly be his most difficult role yet, DiCaprio is terrific, using not just his eyes, but entire body to betray the reality of this most enigmatic character.
This Gatsby is a wild and uneven ride: For every glorious shot of a New York City windowscape, there are two more that repeat the excess of the day and it’s staging here, insisting we get the point as if we hadn’t already. But when this movie works, it works beautifully. I’m glad that, in a marketplace that seems to almost exclusively demand superheroes, there’s also still a place for an ambitious hero and a movie about him, both of whom may not be so super after all.
Iron Man 3
Never intending to reinvent the wheel, this high flying chapter happily settles for a big splash into the wheelhouse.
Shane Black, along with co-writer Drew Pearce, know enough not to change the formula. Iron Man (the ever terrific Robert Downey, Jr) takes it upon himself to save the world from the threatening bad guy. This time, though, it’s personal (ok, it’s always kind of personal, but play along, will you?): Baddies Guy Pearce, Rebecca Hall and Ben Kingsley aren’t just threatening to terrorize the planet, they’ve also kidnapped Mrs. Iron Man (Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts). Now, Tony Stark must decide where his “heart” really belongs. OOOO! And there are tons of special effects and, if you pay the big bucks, they’re in 3D! Basically, this is the plot line for just about every super hero movie out there so if you’re going to keep relying on the tried and true, you’d better dress it up nicely.
Yes, this movie does look good. The pace is quick, the explosions explosive, the actors fun. I’m always happy to see Don Cheadle, Kingsley has a couple of really nifty moments, too. Pearce, employing hairpieces, goofy glasses and a body full of muscles, seems to be having a ball. Paltrow dresses the scene with a beauty that does, indeed, make her if not the most beautiful woman in the world, pretty darn close to it. And Downey, even in his third, well, fourth turn at this guy, still finds honest moments amongst the effects, pulling us in to the crazy “reality” of this inventive inventor.
Of course it is just bad timing that this movie is being released so soon after the bombings in Boston (and myriad others worldwide). And it is jarring amidst all the gleeful action to hear Kingsley refer menacingly to himself as a terrorist who is out to terrorize. The fact that a small boy is brought in, to possibly carry on the Iron Man tradition, also might encourage some to think this is a family-friendly film. Rated PG 13, this movie might be zesty escapism for some: then there are those of us who wonder when the whole concept of terrorism as entertainment will finally wear thin.
What Jackie Robinson achieved, on and off the baseball field, is the stuff of legend. It deserves to be. This decent, formulaic salute does the job of recounting it, yet never shows half the ambition of the people it depicts.
It is important, both as baseball and civil rights history (not necessarily in that order) to pass the Robinson story on through generations. And yes, Brian Helgeland’s movie does that. We see, in somewhat flourished out bullet points, how Jackie was plucked from the Negro League, warned by his new boss (Branch Rickey of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization) he must “have the guts not to fight back” when fans, teammates, even a wary nation would try to stop him. And we watch as they do. Good old boys down South threaten him. People in the stands jeer him. Some teammates sign a petition to get him out. And in one particularly difficult scene to watch, an opposing manager (Philadelphia Phillies’ Ben Chapman) shouts endless taunts, relying not just, but most often, on the “N-word”. Through it all, the player plays. He hits home runs, steals bases and makes himself a player so good, so important to his team, he changes not just the complexion of the game, but American social history, itself.
I was hoping Helgeland, who wrote the exquisite similar-period piece, LA Confidential, would serve up a more nuanced salute than he does here. These were complex, determined men (and woman, as in Robinson’s remarkable wife, Rachel). While the charming actor Chadwick Boseman takes pains to slip a wince or look of disgust into his performance, this Jackie is presented more as a well mannered polite young man, hurt and dignified more than furious and hungry. Couldn’t he be both? The savvy understanding of baseball as a business is also tossed around, but this movie concentrates instead on the father/son relationship between Rickey and his star, as well as metaphoric tricks like the two ten year old boys who show up in the stands, heavy handedly representing how Jackie influenced the future.
There are a few terrific bits of acting to be noted: Christopher Meloni (Leo Durocher), Hamish Linklater (Ralph Branca). Lucas Black (Pee Wee Reese), and Alan Tudyk (as the aforementioned Chapman). John McGinley’s a hoot as Red Barber and Nicole Benhaire is lovely as Rachel. But it’s Harrison Ford who pretty much steals the show: growling, practically unrecognizable, as Rickey, a man who pushed the boundaries of his industry and both his and our world.
To The Wonder
Artistry aside, I do still wonder: for a movie with this much dancing and twirling, how come it still feels like a ton of bricks?
Terrance Malick’s study of love and a few other things is a gorgeous, moody, contemplative piece. Brimming with schizzy edits, hand-held perspectives and subtitles like “what is this love that loves us?” this, like other Malick pieces, is for acquired tastes. I usually am among them. Not this time.
Ben Affleck appears (almost wordlessly) as Neil, who could possibly be a somewhat autobiographical stand in for Malick. An Oklahoman in Paris, he meets a woman, a single mother who is all lusty laughs, whirling romps and sad reflections on flowers. Am I the only one who smells trouble ahead?
Guess so. Soon, Marina and her young daughter have moved in with Neil, back home on the Plains. Nobody’s happy and, when her visa expires, so does the relationship. Neil picks up with a local, a corn-husking beauty played by the always effervescent Rachel McAdams. Still, he can’t get over Marina and not only takes her back, but marries her.
As always, there is plenty of theory about what hit the editing room floor on this production. A subplot involving a disillusioned pastor (a wonderful Javier Bardem), is tantalizing, but given short shrift. Word is several other actors were cut from the film altogether. Too bad because, as a few key scenes unfurl, especially one where Marina is talking to what seems to be her only friend, we are left to wonder if she’s hallucinating the other woman or just continuing a relationship Malick chose to chop.
The Company You Keep
There’s something wonderfully reassuring about seeing Robert Redford back, directing and starring in a political thriller about the Weather Underground. Redford, whose decades of credits include some great churn ‘em ups like ‘All The President’s Men’ (I could go on, give yourself a treat and look them up) is The Natural (sorry) Candidate (can’t help myself) to deliver an evocative reflection on the modern day ramifications of some 1960’s radicals. Even if the results are uneven, it still feels great to see him back, delivering a finely cast, provocative movie for adults.
Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Julie Christie, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins and Sam Elliott (phew!) wind in and out of what is essentially a story of lawyer Jim Grant (Redford), who is on a race to clear his name, now that one member of his former group has been, after years underground, imprisoned for murderous political acts. A young reporter, a fine Shia LaBoeuf, is on his trail, sniffing out Grant’s secret and trying to make his own reputation grow because of it. Once beautiful Brit Marling becomes part of the story, both men begin to consider their own willingness to sacrifice.
Surprisingly, there haven’t been a whole lot of movies about these real life, hugely controversial home grown terrorists. Sidney Lumet made his ‘Running on Empty’ focus on the intimate family dynamic. There’s a bit of that here, too, but there’s also a wider net cast: in trying to tell the stories of lots of people, we barely get to know any of them.
It is not unexpected Redford takes great pains to enhance the complicated moral side to Lem Dobbs’ sketchy script. That’s smart movie making: adding a more vivid poignancy and color to an otherwise black and white ink drawing. And what a treat it is to see the ever magnetic Redford on the screen, sharing some terrific scenes with, in particular, Jenkins and Nolte. Pushing fine actors, including himself, to say more than what is on the paper, Redford reminds us of what impact can be made without special effects, artsy pretenses and mega million budgets.
The biggest problem with this movie is that Tina Fey didn’t write it.
Based on a far more nuanced novel, this romantic comedy takes us into the usually pretty mysterious world of college admissions. Fey stars as buttoned up officer at Princeton, living with her boyfriend and deciding the fates of thousands by the numbers. Natch, everything changes: boyfriend bails, another one shows up, wacko Mom’s got issues (cancer being the least of them), there’s the possibility of a job promotion and one of the kids who really wants in is a student who’d never cut it the old fashioned way. But Portia, who takes a special interest in the boy, uncharacteristically, goes to bat for the loser.
Surely, there’s a lot going on here and I haven’t even told you half of it. But what could have been a complex, relatable story of a young working woman never reaches its real potential. Director Paul Weitz, who nailed this kind of thing with the wonderful About A Boy, falters, letting screenwriter Karen Croner’s scenes play out as if they were completely separate from the ones before and after. There’s no continuity of tone. Likeable and capable actors such as Fey, Paul Rudd and Lily Tomlin are left to break a sweat, trying all too hard to make sense of it all. It is with real respect that I say Fey should she have handled the adaptation duties. Surely, she would have more penned it all more deftly, even if, Portia does remind us quite a bit of Tina’s TV archtype, Liz Lemon. I can’t imagine Fey writing scenes where deserving college applicants are thrown under the bus as comedic (kind of surprised Princeton went along for that ride, too). And she’s smart enough not to write scenes where people are driving between Princeton, New Jersey and rural New Hampshire as if it takes, like 20 minutes. Just saying.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone
Not particularly magical, but thanks to its bevy of stars, we leave this mess with a smile on our faces.
We begin back in 1982. Young Burt, a latchkey child, is beaten up by neighborhood bullies. He only finds solace in his magic instruction kit and the other weird kid in school, Anton. Shazam! Its many years later: Burt and Anton have been headlining in Vegas for years. Their act is stale, their friendship waning and they’re losing heat to that street magician who’s shown up. Guess what happens.
No, this is not a ferocious comedy, matching magician against magician, stunt against stunt. At least not really. What we actually wind up with, thanks to the four credited screenwriters here, is a sprawling, but affectionate mess of a story, also involving a lovely but misunderstood assistant, a mentor who’s forgotten the magic of magic and a it’s-all-business casino owner. Burt may lose his joy, but, not to worry: sweetly, he “gets it”, makes amends and aims, along with his allies, once again, for the big time.
Steve Carell, as the adult Burt, tries to be nasty, misogynistic, burned out, but we never really believe what he’s doing, until, that is, Burt begins to soften. Steve Buscemi is game as sidekick Anton, as is the beautiful Olivia Wilde. James Gandolfini and Alan Arkin do stuff we’ve basically seen (and enjoyed) before, but it’s Jim Carrey, as the gritty 21st century illusionist, who steals the show, establishing this guy as the most intense, gruesome and magnetic threat to hit the strip in years. No wonder crowds show up and throw up at his events. Oddly, as Carrey eventually becomes more “family-friendly”, Burt and Co. use a ploy for their comeback that is amoral, at best. It is to the credit of director Don Scardino and the assorted actors we wind up cheering for them anyway.
Jack the Giant Slayer
No, this is not your father’s Jack in the Beanstalk: under Bryan Singer’s watch, this giant reboot is one definitely for the 21st Century audience.
Not to worry: we’ve still got good old Jack, who must not only climb the beanstalk to rescue the princess, but we’ve got a particularly bloody Medieval war, political troubles in the Monarchy, and Giants. Oh, are there Giants. These technical marvels are ostensibly here to reclaim land they once lost, but come on, we know they’re really popping up to wow modern day audiences. And guess what? They do. Of course there’s a team too huge to name behind the creation and performance of the many giants who not only roam the land, but climb the gargantuan stalks that soar, fight off pesky little humans and, of course, fight the good fight. Each creation feels unique, but the two headed guy (who does get the most face time) is a standout.
But as he did in the XMen films, Singer never forgets his human stars. Nicholas Hoult is fine as Jack, as is Eleanor Tomlinson as the Princess (who’s been given a decidedly feminist backbone). But the color comes from the surrounding company: Ian McShane as the troubled King, a wonderful Bill Nighy, who’s the guy inside the aforementioned two headed monster and a dandy Stanley Tucci, who’s having a ball playing (and I do mean playing) the manipulatively evil Roderick. If there’s a soul to any of this, and there is, it comes from the pretty remarkable Ewan McGregor, who somehow makes the part of the King’s loyal knight both funny, swashbuckling and downright moving.
Rated PG-13 for the considerable violence, this may not be an option for the very youngest, but for everybody else in the family, Jack delivers just about everything you’d want and Giants!
Once this Gothic thriller stops trying so hard, and lets its natural freak flag fly, this horror becomes quite the entertainment.
Director Park Chan-wook spends a lot of time initially showing us how visually clever he can be. There are all sorts of tricks and treats, set against a cold, clammy backdrop. It’s all impressive, but certainly not a whole lot of fun. Sure, we see India (Mia Wasikowska) is devastated by the untimely death of her father. And her relationship with mother Nicole Kidman isn’t exactly helping. Together, and very separately, they roam their creeky old Connecticut mansion, unsure of just how to go on from here. And then Uncle Charlie, Dad’s long traveling brother, shows up at the funeral. And if things weren’t weird enough already, watch out now. Not only does the story heat up considerably, but Chan-wook himself backs off, letting the story roll along and letting some very good actors do what they do so well.
We can’t help but be pulled in by Wasikowska, as she evolves from pale, bereaved teen into a sexual, hungry and shall we say determined young woman. Matthew Goode, channeling a spin on Anthony Perkins, is quite masterful as the mysterious man, who instinctively, it appears, seems to know just what both mother and daughter want and need. As the plot thickens (no spoilers here, but be assured things get bloody darn thick), Goode’s sleek magnetism makes Charlie all the more confounding. We don’t get to see enough of Dermot Mulroney or Jacki Weaver, but they are both quite effective in their key roles. And Kidman is terrific: once again, committing herself to a possibly thankless role and filling in the blanks beautifully.
A Good Day to Die Hard
A bazillion shots are fired, a gazillion vehicles and buildings are blown up. Oops: sorry! Did I forget to say “SPOILER ALERT”?
It really is a shame this series, unlike its durable star, has disintegrated into a non-stop series of violent assaults. Because the original Die Hard, which debuted back in 1988, was such an entertaining hoot, thanks to a savvy script, nifty directing and a knockout performance from Bruce Willis. Now onto its fifth tapping of the well, John McClane is off to Russia, to figure out just what’s up with his estranged son, who, it seems, is facing a lifetime in prison there. Jai Courtney shows promise as John Jr., but not to worry: while considerable money and energy has been spent on the firey effects, the filmmakers are almost miserly with such things as a script, story and dialogue. Essentially, there’s some Russian bad guys. They can or cannot be good guys at will. Just like they speak English or Russian, switching sometimes in mid-sentence. For the record, Sebastian Koch and Cole Hauser play the Russians the McClanes must protect/hunt down/kill/make jokes with.
Ah, the jokes. What happened to the sense of humor in this series? Although Willis tries to lighten up a few teensy bits of wordage, there’s very little of the engaging fun stuff to be had this time around. Even the signature “Yippee ki ya (Motherf***ers)” fell flat with the audience in my screening, many of whom, I must report, fled for the exits the second the big final blast up was over. Gee, they missed the miniscule scene of family reunion, a passage that ends so abruptly, it feels as if the filmmakers themselves couldn’t wait to get out of there.
If this is the best we can offer two very fine actors, we’re in trouble. As an industry and a culture. In other words, Melissa McCarthy and Jason Bateman deserve a lot better. And so do we.
The idea isn’t all that bad: mild mannered mid-westerner takes revenge on the woman who’s living it up on his credit cards. I’m with you so far. But this fraud of a comedy is nowhere near as ballsy as its heroine. We are introduced to “Sandy” as she is sashaying through a Florida town, charging it up, buying herself some friends with a ‘drinks on me’ offer at a local bar. Once she dives for the chandelier, knocks out the bartender and projectile vomits all over the cops, the real Sandy, minding his own sweet business and adorable family up in Denver is not just maxed out, but also got a criminal record. In case you can’t pick up the difference between the two Sandy’s on your own, she’s the one with the day glo makeup to match the upchuck that spurts from her potty mouth. He’s the one with the Subaru, bare bones budget and not just two cute as pie little girls, but a pregnant wife to boot. Oh. And because of some police technicality, even when they figure out the guy’s been scammed, they can’t do anything about it, unless he brings the suspect to them. And his new boss, who can’t give Sandy the break he’s always deserved unless his name is cleared, can only give him a week to do it.
That’s just the beginning.
What essentially becomes director Seth Gordon’s spin on a Midnight-Run ish road trip takes little detours for such niceties as a booze-infused loud and juicy shtoop with a cowboy sportin widow played by Eric Stonestreet (who also deserves way better than this), a few highway chases and crashes, a trio of Evil Looking Bad Guys shooting at each other, and, perhaps yummiest of all, a chance for our straight as an arrow good Sandy to tap into his inner manipulative ole self, just as bad Sandy tearfully confesses just why she is the way she is, all of which is rudely interrupted by another car chase and a convenient escape from police custody. Don’t worry: it’s all happily forgiven later and everybody turns out just fine. Isn’t that nice?
No. It’s not. If only writers Craig Mazin and Jerry Eeten had really gone for it, made Bad Sandy really tough and nasty, both McCarthy and Bateman would have had something to sink their teeth into. As it is, the two very capable stars do their very best, doggie paddling through slop, trying to keep their heads and their work from going down on this very creeky ship.
In his purported farewell to big screen directing, Steven Soderbergh has delivered a salute to some film masters that’s also pretty darn fun.
This zigzag of a thriller captures us the way Hitchcock (and, at his best, DePalma) did: a beautiful young woman is spun into a hazy web of depression, drugs and side effects. She knows she’s a mess, but also desperate to help her loving husband reestablish himself after serving time for insider trading. And while he’s seeing life ahead as a continuation of their previous grand Greenwich lifestyle, she’s sleepwalking through her days and seeing her harshly manipulated reflection in mirrors. Her psychiatrist keeps trying more drugs. Things aren’t getting better. And then, one night, the husband winds up dead. Stabbed to death by his wife whom he surprised while she was sleepwalking though slicing some veggies in the kitchen
Part two of our story takes place in, primarily, the courtroom. Is our heroine responsible for what she did? Or is the blame really on the doctors who prescribed her meds, and the Big Pharma companies that wine and dine them, not so subtly suggesting they offer up one particular brand, or, better yet, that they sign up as a consultant, and earn some big and very easy money? This is the kind of juicy stuff Altman and Kazan, among others, had a field day with.
Not to worry: we’re all having fun, too. Scott Z. Burns’ story takes place in the glamorous world of New York and Soderbergh takes the city at it’s most tantalizing. We’re all loving that lunch at Le Circe, feeling the downscale sadness of the subway, the brightness of sleek skyscrapers and the claustrophobic darkness of small apartments. Reuniting with a few actors, he also lets Catherine Zeta-Jones purr her purr, Channing Tatum play it straight (with his pants on). It’s Jude Law, as the psychiatrist, and particularly Rooney Mara who have the heavy lifting to do here and they both do it well. It’s too bad the third act lets us down a bit, but up until then, Soderbergh and company offer up some entertaining, skillful suspense.
Terrific actors, an irresistible story: so how come this pulpy shoot-em-up never equals the sum of its oh so snazzy parts?
Sean Penn has a ball playing notorious L.A. mob chief, Mickey Cohen. The guy who ran the town back in 1949. Mickey had everybody right where he wanted them. Except for a small group of cops, given a silent ok to do what it took to take Mickey down. An intense Josh Brolin leads the unofficial squad; his ethnically appropriate back ups include smarty pants Giovanni Ribisi, brave Anthony Mackie, newcomer Michael Pena, who is only brought in because his partner, Robert Patrick, took him on because no one else would work with an Hispanic guy. And then, of course, there’s the suave Ryan Gosling, who not only shows up because his favorite shoe shine kid is rubbed out in Mickey’s crossfire, but also because his girl, the sultry Emma Stone, also happens to be Mickey’s girl. Unhappily, of course.
Director Ruben Fleischer makes sure he not only appeals to all stereotypes, but also throws in enough fireworks to keep the most blood thirsty of audiences happy. Probably much of the action here is drawn from historical encounters, but the incessant, in your face rat a tat feels very 21st Century, not 1940’s noir. The pacing of the story bumps along,too. It is ironic, I suppose, to note that this movie was pulled from its spot on the summer release schedule and went through re-shoots (if you pardon the phrase) after one of its biggest shoot’em up scenes involved a gunman taking aim at patrons in a movie theater. An evocative killer scene takes its place, but it’s all nothing in comparison to the final climax, where the two big guns go after each other in a scene so firepowered, they finally run out of ammunition. Arguments can be made as to whether there will ever be a “good” time to release a movie with as much gunfight as this one. We always seem to be too close to another mass shooting to be comfy.
All that being said, each actor gets a moment or two to shine and, after having seen Gosling and Stone in this, as well as Crazy, Stupid Love, I submit that they should be cast in every snappy seduction scene there is. I’d so much rather watch that than any more uber-violent blood fest. Because those two, and a page or so of decent dialogue, well, that’s entertainment.
The Guilt Trip
Does it give it away where I’m coming from that I “invited” my son to join me at the screening of this mother/son road comedy? I mean, it was demographic research. Really. You know me, anything for the sake of my art.
You shouldn’t worry. We both had a good time.
The concept? It’s ok, based on the “high concept” idea that a 20 something-ish young man would take his mother along, on a road trip across country. So, of course, there are lots of sight gags about East Coast snowstorms, Texas steak houses and Vegas casinos. Director Anne Fletcher keeps it all rolling along, so even the lesser plot contrivances fly by and pretty soon, we’re onto something a little more fun. Like watching the two stars sit in a car and talk amongst themselves.
What makes this comedy what it is, is the terrific chemistry between its two leading actors, Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand. Rogen, has clearly widened his horizons since his earliest goof-ball films (he was just wonderful in the little seen 50/50 and Take This Waltz). He takes this opportunity to share the screen with the legendary Streisand and runs with it. His Andy is a bit of a mess, a well meaning scientific inventor who’s trying to make his own way in the world. But Andy’s career, love life and even his relationship with his mother aren’t too good. And Andy’s gonna be damned if he lets his mom know it.
And then there’s Streisand. Stepping into her first leading role in almost two decades, this comedienne seamlessly reminds us she’s not just in control, but in full bloom. Her Joyce is adorable, annoying, intrusive, loving and a little bit on the self-protective side. She sees Andy’s vulnerabilities but won’t admit to her own. At first, anyway.
Honestly, it doesn’t much matter what happens in this movie. The magic is in the telling: allowing us to sit back and enjoy two fine actors bring out the best in one another. And stay for the credits: those improvised spins are just a hoot.
Expanding on his theme of historical revenge, Quentin Tarentino is at his bloody best here. To borrow a phrase, this one ‘floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee’.
Tarentino adapts the spaghetti western to take on the horror of slavery in the American South. Set right before the start of the Civil War, the action (and boy is there action) revolves around the unlikely pairing of one accomplished White, German bounty hunter (Christoph Waltz) and an innately smart but unpolished slave, Django (Jamie Foxx). We begin as Schultz buys Django from some smarmy dealers. Not caring much for the concept of slavery itself, Schultz offers Django his freedom if the black man will help nab two brothers, whom Django knows and Schultz does not. Turns out, there’s a whole lot more that goes on than just that one good score.
I have always gotten a kick out of Tarentino’s savvy usage of film genre and he sure doesn’t disappoint here. In the simple guise of a standard, low budget shoot’em up, this oh so contemporary filmmaker tells a vivid (and quite horrifying) story of slavery that is honest, graphic and yes, sometimes, very hard to watch. But he also softens his rage with a dandy, slow-build relationship between the two hunters, a love of the land they travel and a smack down, era-bending soundtrack.
As usual, there’s a terrific cast to tell it all. Waltz is glorious, Foxx, smoldering. You can’t take your eyes off Leonardo DiCaprio though, with his full out turn as a plantation owner who may or may not hold the key to Django’s future. It’s a downright hoot to recognize Sam Jackson, Don Johnson and a whole lot more actors who show up, in bit parts or bigger. This isn’t all winking fun and games, though: Kerry Washington gives a beautiful, fully developed performance in a key role, too.
And, as is his part of his trademark, Tarentino curates one hell of a soundtrack. Of course, he relies on several pieces from Ennio Morricone, but also widens the cred with rap, James Brown and 2 Pac. There is a scene using Jim Croce’s I Got a Name which I think will change the impact of that song forever.
Like just about everything else this season, this is a long movie. Two hours and 46 minutes. And it flies by, leaving us not just schooled, but thoroughly entertained.
I feel like one of those reality show judges, sadly grimacing as I deliver the news. Audience boos me. How could I not like this? After all, everybody’s TRYING SO HARD!!!!
Yes, they are. Look: Anne Hathaway went down to eating apple paste or something to lose all that weight! And she let somebody chop off all her gorgeous hair right on camera! And speaking of weight: come on! Look at Hugh Jackman! He didn’t just rely on his terrific musical pipes, he starved himself so much you almost don’t recognize him! And Russell Crowe! Well, he must have done something!
Tom Hooper, after directing admirably tight productions of The King’s Speech and The Damned United, breaks the bank this time. This Les Mis is Big. Running an uneven 2 hours and 38 minutes, quite a lot of this highly anticipated adaptation is good, too. The opening sequence, as Javert surveys what seems like thousands of prisoners, slaving under his watch, is pretty awesome. And as Valjean makes his break, desperately stealing silver from the church that took him in, we all have shivers, watching Jackman break down, defiantly insisting he will change.
It’s then that things begin to waver, diligently setting up the cat and mouse game between the reformed Valjean and the police chief, Javert. But, once Anne Hathaway shows up, absolutely giving it her all as Fantine, we remember how thrilling musical theater can be. Starved, desperate and horrified, when the camera sits still, letting Hathaway do her thing, we are riveted. Her gutsy rendition of I Dreamed A Dream stops the show.
Ah, but, of course, SPOILER ALERT: Fantine dies. So, for quite a while, we’re plodding the plot along again. Until the Revolution starts stirring and two supporting actors, Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, appear. That, and they, are downright terrific.
Even when the story takes a turn for the quiet, Hooper keeps up a furious, insistent pace. There’s never a moment for any of us to take a breath or even just sit back and appreciate what we’re seeing and hearing. I think Hugh Jackman, who has the most screen time, pays the biggest price. A veteran of musical theater, Jackman is a talent who shouldn’t have to perform full steam ahead when sometimes, a simple whisper would be far more effective.
And then there’s Crowe. You’ve got to give the guy props: he shows up here, even though, as a rock singer in an operatic world, he looks terrified. To really set up Les Mis right, you’ve got to have equal strength between Javert and Valjean. That simply doesn’t happen here and the movie, as a whole, suffers.
All that being said, many people who pay their money and camp in for the long haul will love it. And it’s great that the passionate sweep of it all will carry them away. They might even find themselves singing the ballads for days afterward. I know I did. I can’t help but recognize the problems that keep this from becoming the movie it could have been, but those looking to just get carried away at the movies will have a ball (and a bawl).
Zero Dark Thirty
Kathryn Bigelow’s stunning look at the capture of Osama Bin Laden is a tremendous achievement, on many levels. Stark, smart and boy-did-they-get-this-out-fast, this is a film of urgent and undeniable accomplishment.
Told in an almost documentary type style, this ambitious drama takes us through the ten years of intelligence and military investigations. But writer Mark Boal never sacrifices story for fact: he melds the two beautifully by focusing not on the machinations of the process, but on the key players within the organization. We are there as the pretty wide eyed newbie (a dandy Jessica Chastain) shows up, just in time to witness her first water boarding/interrogation. She’s visibly disturbed. So are we. And over the span of the things shown here, we all come to wonder about the efficacy of torture. This is just one of the shady moralities Bigelow and Boal weave into the story line, insuring this is a film that’s not just a kind of you are there docudrama, but a poignant morality piece as well.
Be forewarned: this is not a movie for sissies. Besides the aforementioned torture scenes, there are restagings of some shockingly horrific true life events. People we come to care about may or may not make it, putting (dramatically reinterpreted) faces behind headlines we may or may not have paid attention to over the years. And there is not shortcutting the mistakes and confusion that led to dead ends or worse. It is, though, kind of comforting as an almost overwhelmed audience member when we find out that the “smart guys” (and girls) were, sometimes, just as misled by fake beards and look alike brothers as we are.
Originally, Boal began his script years back, intending to take us to a dissatisfying end where Bin Laden is never found. That, however, didn’t happen and quickly, the filmmakers added a really remarkable re-staging of the amazing raid and capture. In what feels like a real-time reenactment, we find ourselves sitting on the edge of our seats, peering through the darkness with our hearts pounding, watching the Navy Seals pull off what they did.
It is especially rewarding to make note of the fact that this movie is all business. We see Chastain’s agent mature over the years, letting go of vanity to devote completely to the work at hand. It’s subtle and terrific. The whole emotional arc of the film is subtle, which makes its impact even more of a wallop and harder to shake.
This is 40
Judd Apatow goes for broke in this supposed follow up to his hit romantic comedy, Knocked Up. You’ve got to admire his zeal, even if the results are pretty uneven.
Again casting his real wife and daughters, along with alter-ego Paul Rudd, the prolific and often sneakily poignant filmmaker addresses the general indignities of middle age. We enter as the couple celebrates their birthdays, he in somewhat denial, she in such serious denial, she lies to her doctors and her birthday cake about turning the big one. We’ve all been there: anybody older than, say, 10 realizes these “big” birthdays are a sign of gravity, responsibility and wrinkles, messing with our long supposed youth. This is the stuff that should be in Apatow’s wheel house: funny, but affecting.
Often, it is. Rudd continues to be one of the most appealing leading men around, even when he is discovered hiding out from the family for hours on end, playing e-games on the toilet. Leslie Mann is likeable, too, as Debbie, the beleaguered wife, mother and business woman, trying to balance it all while still looking, let’s be honest, hot. The couple’s real life daughters, Maude and Iris, are turning into quite the actresses. The Apatows better be careful what they wish for here. Seeing Maude and her mother rip into each other on screen feels just a tad too “inside” for comfort. We’re in far more secure hands with the estimable Albert Brooks, who, as always, steals every scene he’s in, as the in-over-his-head father in law. The only time he meets his match professionally and impactfully is when John Lithgow shows up for a few key scenes, as the family’s other patriarch.
Apatow could have created something really special here: a warm hearted embrace of the ups and downs of facing the middle of our lives. But, he loses his real goal, going for series after series of long, repetitive sequences, bits which were funny or sad or whatever they were the first time we saw them, but after the nth time around, just become, well, annoying.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
The Lord of the Rings trilogy behind him, Peter Jackson has begun yet another, this time adapting the Tolkien epic, The Hobbit. Flashing up the fantasy with soaring swagger, a bit of the jolly and some brand new shooting techniques, he delivers a long, but pretty fun ride.
Let’s get that technical stuff out of the way. The film was shot in 3D 48 frames-per-second and is being released in that High Frame Rate, traditional 3D and also in 2D formats. So, you buy your ticket, you take your choice. I, who has had some dizzying effects from earlier standard 3D films, was perfectly fine watching this one, although I have heard others complain. While it was jarring when the few brightly lit scenes took on the look of a TV video game, generally, I thought the look and the 3D effects were pretty cool.
Usually, when I see five writers given credit on a film, I assume we’re in for trouble. However, Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro (along with Tolkien’s original story) weave a tale that flows, even when it reminds us of other moments seen previously in the Rings movies. We also are greeted with happy reunions. Ian McKellen has a sizeable role again as Gandalf, Cate Blanchett shows up as Galadriel, Ian Holm as Old Bilbo, Christopher Lee as Sauman, Hugo Weaving as Elrond and don’t blink or you’ll miss Elijah Wood as Frodo. Andy Serkis gets a good chuck of screen time to re-work his magic as Gollum and, in the central role as Bilbo Baggins, Martin Freeman is a delight.
And, of course, there are effects. Tons of them, along with massive action scenes, and lots of fantasy adventure. And boy, does it move! Even at a running time of 2 hours and 46 minutes, no one will have time to get bored. I wasn’t particularly amused by the very dumb jokes that are spread throughout. Those, while lightening up the tone, seem to be aiming for the little kids who probably wouldn’t be able to follow much more else here.
There’s no question Jackson and company are off to an ambitious start here, with a few bumps along the way. The Rings trilogy grew stronger as it went along; I see no reason why the Hobbit one won’t either.
Life of Pi
And they said it couldn’t be done.
Ang Lee’s mounting of the best selling novel is an awesome movie event: a loving interpretation of the mystical story as well as a jaw dropping, how’d-they-do-that visual feat.
David Magee and novelist Yann Martel have combined forces to tell the tale of a young Indian man, the child of zoo keepers who find they must relocate the family business to Canada. Transporting a few of the remaining animals, the group takes to the sea. There is a terrible storm and our hero, Pi, finds himself alone on the waters, a ferocious tiger his only companion. It’s a lovely to look at narrative, up to that point. And then, when all hell breaks loose, so does Lee’s glorious use of effects and 3-D. Full disclosure: I attended a press conference for the film in which the always charming Lee tried to explain some of how he pulled off the ground breaking stuff. I listened, I still don’t know how he did it. And I kind of like it that way. Because watching Pi is magical: sometimes, you just don’t want to know how they did those tricks, you just want to love them. Yes, those comparisons some are making to Avatar do make sense, in a way: even though this is a far more elegant film, the technical accomplishment, putting stuff on the screen we have never seen before, can’t be denied.
Newcomer Suraj Sharma has been cast as the desperate Pi; his elder self, narrating the memory, is Irfan Khan, of Slumdog Millionaire fame. It is primarily up to these two men to connect us with the spiritualism of the story and, for the most part, those willing to go there will be happy to do so in their care. Because Pi, both the book and the movie, are not for those who like to keep their feet and hearts on the ground. So-called common sense and traditional movie pictures shake loose of their constraints and soar here. It’s a thrilling ride for all of us.
Silver Linings Playbook
David O Russell’s movie to love raises the bar on what has become the traditional rom-com.
Bradley Cooper stars as Pat, a schoolteacher just released from an asylum after beating his wife’s lover to a pulp. Under the care of his adoring, but somewhat apprehensive mother and father (Jacki Weaver and Robert De Niro), Pat moves back into his childhood room, plotting his road back into his old life. It’s when he befriends Tiffany, played by a fabulous Jennifer Lawrence, that Pat is forced to widen his perimeters a bit, to see that he’s not the only one with “issues”.
Under less sophisticated hands, Matthew M. Quick’s screenplay (based on his novel) might have been dumbed down, played for the easy laugh. But Russell insists his actors go for more and the results enhance things considerably. Even American passion for football becomes emotionally profound. But this is a movie about people. We see the dysfunctional, extended family at it’s most harried, but the great affection each member has for one another shines through each scene, and is never added in like an afterthought. Cooper, who has doggedly pursued more serious roles, to counter balance his moneymaking comedic ones, hits the jackpot here. I don’t know if his work is strong enough to make him a factor at awards time, but his Pat is definitely career altering work. De Niro, blending anger issues with a hunger for something more, could have walked through this role like a tiger, but he modulates enough to steal almost every scene he’s in. Except one. And that’s when Tiffany shows up, laying it on the line. Rarely do we see actors take charge of a scene they are sharing with De Niro, but Lawrence not only takes control, she humbles every other actor in the room. It’s a glorious capper to an overall terrific performance.
Often fascinating and beautiful to look at, Steven Spielberg’s latest forms an imperfect union of history and storytelling.
There is no doubt Daniel Day Lewis is marvelous as the 16th President of the United States, a man as beleaguered by society as he was by his very own inner circle. Tony Kushner’s ambitious screenplay, taken in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, reveals Lincoln to have been a master politician, savvy in his manipulations of Cabinet and Congress, insisting his Emancipation Proclamation be adapted into a Constitutional amendment. We see, with no apologies, the political process that reigns today isn’t all that different from what stood during the Civil War: passions reigned, tricks used, a few good men stuck to their guns. And the President pulled a whole lot of strings out of the public eye, navigating his platform with a gritty determination. People who love historical accounts will have a field day, watching this all unfold. Others, looking for a more “typical” Spielberg production, complete with raging battle scenes and emotional crescendos, are going to be flat out disappointed.
Tommy Lee Jones does a splendid job as Thaddeus Stevens and leads a mostly familiar looking all star supporting cast, some of whom fare better than others. I got a kick out of the kind of goofy trio of James Spader, John Hawkes and Tim Blake Nelson, operatives who specialized in certain kinds of convincing, but the jolly music that accompanied their scenes made me crazy. And while Sally Field and Joseph Gordon Levitt do their best as the President’s wife and elder son, watching these two self-involved whiners for as much time as we do not only drags the proceedings, but gets downright annoying. Even a late speech from Field, as the depressive Mary Todd Lincoln, explaining the context of her husband’s accomplishments up against such personal odds, only gets in the way of what is otherwise some pretty juicy, if talkative, action.
Outlandishly ambitious, this sure-footed re-boot isn’t just among the best of the Bond series, but among the best movies of the year.
Sam Mendes and company have taken the traditional 007 suave storyline and spun it with threads from the Bible and Greek lit, not to mention a few heavy-duty Mommy issues. Even more profoundly, the whole thing tethers on the question of aging: have M, Bond and even Her Majesty’s Secret Service outlived their usefulness? Perhaps all of these elements have come to play in earlier chapters, but they’ve never been handled so deftly and with such disarming results as they have this time around.
We know we’re into some different territory when, at the end of the signature opening action sequence, M has given instructions to have an agent shoot. She does and Bond, James Bond falls to the bottom of the sea. We all assume he’s dead. M is encouraged to accept a retirement package: she’s screwed up enough, thank you and at her age, she’s told, it’s time to go. Of course there’s more to it than that and soon, both of our heroes, along with the rest of the agency, and quite a bit of the world itself, is battling a former agent gone rogue, spectacularly played (and I do mean played) by Javier Bardem.
Daniel Craig, who at age 44 doesn’t seem that old to be outsourced, brings his usual gravitas to the playboy he’s made haunted. And Dench, allowed out from behind her desk, is her usual terrific self. It’s also a treat to see Ralph Fiennes sneak in to his new part in the series. But, even though Bardem gets to bask in the always flashy role of the villain, no one really steals the show here, because the show meshes so beautifully. Action purists will be happy: fight scenes involve some breathtaking, scenic backdrops as well as a few sentimental props. And I appreciate the fact that, as in most Bond films, the spectacular violence is contained, never really threatening the innocent, as so many other pictures do, in the name of entertainment. But what I got a kick out of most was the sheer ambition of it all: kicking it old school, and making a 50 year old classic shine.
It’s almost harder to tell which is more frightening: the remarkable crash scenes in this thriller or the self-delusion of Denzel Washington’s heroic addict.
Digging into his juicy role of Whip, an airline pilot who pulls off a brilliant emergency landing while loaded, Washington gives one of the most fascinating performances of his career. Bloated and fuzzy, Whip is a talented man in almost astonishing denial. He’s fine, he thinks: sure he can fly on a combo of drink and drugs. And, he does, not only riskily taking off during a horrible storm, but also landing after mysterious problem seems to virtually doom the plane mid flight. So, of course Whip thinks he’s ok, even when his son, the government investigators and his new girlfriend, a recovering addict herself, try to convince him otherwise. Washington’s watery eyes, slumping shoulders and slack jaw tell the real story, though.
Director Robert Zemekis stages the early in-flight terrors with a sure hand. Anyone who is already afraid of flying is not going to be happy watching these dandily filmed, long sequences. Once the plane lands, John Gatins’ script focuses on the investigation into the crash, as well as Whip’s stubborn denial of his own reality. Sober, Whip knows he’s in trouble. He informs his dealer (a wonderful John Goodman) to take back the Vodka brought into the hospital room. And he promises the only people on his side (Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood and Kelly Reilly) he’s clean. For a little while, he is. But, faced with the consequences of his actions, his slips are deep and raw.
There are a few other interesting ideas floating around here: the plane lands in the field of a church, the first people on scene are those praying, wearing flowy white robes. There’s also a lot of mention of God’s will. And the AA meeting, where another addict admits his own pattern of lies, has been seen in many films before, but is especially sharp and potent this time.
A bumpy ride (both literally and figuratively), Flight may not add up to a great film, but it is an awfully good one.
For a movie about big ideas, this occasionally entertaining fantasy sure gets bogged down in the small stuff.
The Wachowski siblings have combined forces with Tom Tykwer to bring the popular sci-fi novel to the screen. Essentially, the concept boils down to this: we, the reincarnated repeat the same patterns throughout history. That point is made, over and over again, as the story is told, over and over again, through the points of view of several characters, in the past, present and future. And it all takes a very long 2 hours and 43 minutes.
It’s not that there aren’t some fun moments here. Even in the film’s first half, when we don’t know exactly what the heck is going on, it’s a chuckle to see veterans such as Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Susan Sarandon and Hugo Weaving wend their way through the ages, playing (and I do mean playing) their roles with verve and a whole ton of makeup. Berry, of course, and her young co-star Jim Sturgess are basically too pretty to mess up with special effects and fake noses so they pretty much look the same throughout but Hanks et al seem to get a real kick out of prosthetics and go a little bananas.
Meandering through the ages, the results are very uneven. I found the stories told in the past or present working pretty cleanly and, for the most part, held my interest. The futuristic ones? Not so much. An actress named Bae Doo Na delivers an essentially wooden performance as a robot-come-to-life-to-deliver-the-message and the action sequences in this part of the movie are very Matrix-esque. In other words, been there, done that. And when Tom Hanks and Halle Berry travel through a desert, out to save a species, they are forced to overact their speech patterns, in order to “explain” what they are saying, in a half-English, half-schizo, twisted around made-up language we are supposed to find cool. Not I did. And that’s the true-true.
Ben Affleck’s very dramatic, funny, and even timely period thriller just may the most wholly satisfying movie of the year.
Based on the real covert operation to rescue some of the Americans held in the Iran crisis of 1979, Affleck has delivered a fascinating, chilling and unwittingly auspicious movie-movie. As producer/director and star, he insures this is a grab your armchair espionage story, as well as a surprisingly humorous and infectious one, showing profound respect for the real heroes who pulled off one of the few key undercover missions actually allowed by the government to be eventually published and turned into a film.
Affleck stars as CIA specialist Tony Mendez, a quiet, savvy exfiltration expert, who not only planned but pulled off the rescue of the six Americans who slipped out of the American embassy during the notorious takeover and found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. Inspired by the hugely popular Star Wars movie, Mendez designed a plan to parade the captives out of Tehran, under the guise of filmmakers, out scouting locations for a new sci-fi flick. It’s a lovely, understated performance, supported by more colorful players such as the irresistible tag team of John Goodman and Alan Arkin (as the Hollywood players who create ‘Argo” the Movie’), Bryan Cranston (the CIA boss with a heart) and Tate Donovan (the inherent leader of the captives). Chris Terrio’s screenplay moves along smartly and Sharon Seymour’s set design, featuring those shag carpets and oversized aviator glasses, is an appropriate hoot.
The press notes are careful to note that Argo is “based on real events” and a few of the moments in the piece do feel a tad manipulated, in order to make the movie more of a grabber. Still, you can’t help but be pulled in to this remarkable, pretty much true story, marvel at the real people who lived it and applaud those who’ve told their tale.
I’m all for filmmakers reaching out of their comfort zone, but what’s with this insistent attraction to scummy, sweaty lowlifes? Does allowing your crotch to be shown in an unflattering position make you A Serious Artist?
Pete Dexter’s screenplay, based on the Gothic novel, takes us into the lurid tale of a 1960’s era newspaperman who returns to his humid hometown, tracking the story of a man convicted of murder. The groupie girlfriend says he didn’t do it. For a reporter out to make a name for himself, this is irresistible stuff.
It should have been for us, too. God knows there have been lots of downright fun books/movies that have played with similar themes. The problem here is that director Lee Daniels seems to be more fascinated by the seamy side than he is with the telling of the actual story. Plot holes abound; there are, however, lots of luxurious shots of mutilation, murder and sexual mayhem. If this is your thing, well, I doubt you’re going to be into watching a top caliber of creative types slumming as they act it out.
I’m not talking about Nicole Kidman’s scene of public urination upon Zac Ephron, either. Actually, that didn’t bother me at all: it is as appropriate to the story as it was when Monica peed on Chandler in a very funny episode on Friends. And Kidman, game as always, pretty much nails her fancied up hairdresser with a fatal attraction to the bad guys. John Cusack really gets into his grotesque prisoner, Ephron is ok as the innocent younger brother and Macy Gray does a nice job in a few key scenes, too. David Oyelowo is wasted in an also ran role and Matthew McConaughey winds up, oh never mind: I’m not going to tell you how he winds up, but what he gets to enact is just one of the scenes that made me not just squirm, but want to race home after seeing it and take a shower.
I knew this was my kind of sci-fi movie when, after spending a bit of time establishing the “rules” for this conceptual thriller, Bruce Willis yells at Joseph Gordon Levitt, insisting that they stop talking about how time travel works and just get down to the business at hand. I often think filmmakers spend far too much time and energy explaining the wacko conceits they’re playing with. Rian Johnson’s got a lot more fun stuff than that to get to, after we can all put aside those pesky particulars.
Since a true part of the fun here is watching the actual story reveal itself, I am not going to give a whole lot away. Let it suffice to say that the futuristic plot very much moves along traditional western storylines. Mysterious Levitt shows up, battered and alone, at single mom Emily Blunt’s Midwestern farm. There’s a bad guy (Willis) he’s trying to head off, he tells her. Whether that’s true or not, none of us really know. After all, there’s a whole lot more going on than just that. Everybody’s got a secret: everybody’s got an agenda.
I’m not saying this all make sense. And I’m not saying the initial first half hour or so isn’t a whole lot of exposition, during which I found myself kind of tuning out. But I am happy to report Levitt carries his complicated acting challenge with great aplomb. Willis is reassuringly terrific. And I love Emily Blunt. Sporting blonde locks and a nifty all-American accent, she nearly steals the movie. In a key role, young Pierce Gagnon makes an auspicious debut. I won’t tell you anything more about that!
While Johnson has souped up the proceedings with lots of special effects and sci-fi detail, he was smart enough to keep the heart of it all very human. We wind up caring about the main characters and the messy plight in which they live. While this is familiar territory for audiences, a lot of Johnson’s technique is not. There are actually a few visuals in Looper I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. Sure, they’re tricks. But they work because somehow, we believe them.
Trouble With the Curve
As comfy as an old shoe, this one does nicely enough but could have used a few curve balls of its own.
Clint Eastwood, slipping back into the grouchy old guy role he’s perfected, plays a baseball scout who’s losing his eyesight. His semi-estranged daughter, Amy Adams, shows up once in a while but is much too busy with her impending law partnership to really notice. But, prodded by old family friend John Goodman, our girl takes a few days off and shows up as not so dear old Dad is scouting the kid who will make or break his already precarious career. Just for fun, a nifty Justin Timberlake shows up, one of Dad’s former prospects, now arm blown, scouting the new kids himself.
You know what’s going to happen. You know the Big Corporate Bad Guys back at the Atlanta Braves office won’t value Clint the way they should because the actors in these scenes sneer a lot. And you know Amy’s manfriend, who’s convinced they should take things to the next level because they work ‘on paper’ is a goner. And mostly you know Amy and Clint will come to love one another again, their past troubles can all be explained neatly away, and that the irresistible Justin will prove, well, irresistible. That’s all very nice, as folksy American as well, baseball used to be. Don’t get me started on juicing, corporate mid season trades and the price of box seats. We want it all pretty straight across the plate here.
What works, and works beautifully are the performances. Sure, we’ve seen Clint do this kind of thing before, but nobody can argue he isn’t terrific at it. And Timberlake, as an actor, just gets better and better. But it’s Adams who’s the knockout. Standing up to the Eastwood legend, she more than holds her own in their scenes together, she actually steals them, no trouble at all.
The buzz words alone: Scientology, Hoffman, Phoenix, Anderson, made even the anticipation for this film compelling. The finished product, an imperfect, demanding yet extraordinary slice of American history, delivers not just on the promise, but on our hopes for it, too.
Nicholas Jarecki’s screenplay may remind you of one of those paperback thrillers people devour, but his savvy direction and Richard Gere’s best performance in years make the movie as a whole wonderfully satisfying entertainment.
Taking on the not so pretty world of New York City high finance, we meet Robert Miller, a lion of the hedge fund world, home to Park Avenue just in time to celebrate his 60th birthday with his family. It’s been a tough day: Miller’s company is on the verge of collapse; his savior/lender is threatening to pull out and, oh yeah, that gorgeous mistress of his? She’s not happy, either. No problem, Miller insists. He’s got it all under control. He’ll get the company sold, earn a sweet profit and take said mistress for a ride upstate, like the old days. She’ll come around.
And then there’s the accident.
In a sophisticated turn, Jarecki makes Miller and the rest of the characters here anything but easy to figure out. They aren’t all bad guys, they aren’t all good guys. They believe they have to do what they have to do and it’s thanks to savvy work from wife Susan Sarandon and cop Tim Roth, we kinda believe them. Apparently, the life lessons for the 1%ers aren’t so different than those for the rest of us after all.
But it’s Gere who really makes Arbitrage as fun as it is. His understanding of and compassion for Miller is a treat. And when he finally loses control, in a furious exchange with daughter Brit Marling in Central Park, we are all left shaking. Over the years, Gere has quietly become a more adventurous, interesting actor. He uses all that he’s learned here to make the sneaky Arbitrage a potent but darn good time.
Will Ferrell and Zach Galifanakis’s political satire may not deliver a profound punch but it’s no sucker, either.
Playing two very different candidates running for Congress, these likeable stars make even the silliest, broadest moments at least worth a giggle. Ferrell is Cam Brady, the good old boy who loves the cushy spot he’s been elected to on the Hill; his wife, sensing an eventual VP nod, is willing to overlook the other women, the tweeted scrotum pictures and the publicized graphic phone messages so she can get to Washington, too. Galifanakis, as hometown booster Marty Huggins, is, well, a little different. As awkward as Cam is slick, Marty just wants to help his neighborhood out. The fact that he’s an embarrassment to his wealthy dad disappears, a little, when the notorious Motch Brothers (John Lithgow and Dan Ackroyd, in a thinly veiled spin on the Koch Brothers) show up with a thick checkbook and a plan. A fine Jason Sudekis and an especially funny Dylan McDermott add to the fracas, as the vying campaign managers.
The script is uneven, there’s a heavy reliance on low rent humor and a mass appeal insistence that sells the potentially potent idea short. But, there are funny things in this movie. Ferrell, playing a hard R version of his George Bush on Saturday Night Live, is fun, if expected. It’s Galifanakis who shines, taking a kind of pathetic character and nailing it. Maybe that trick isn’t that much of a surprise either, considering other roles Zach has played before, but it’s always a real treat to watch him do it.
The Bourne Legacy
“How doesn’t really matter, does it?” yells Ed Norton, about half way through this muddled spinoff. I was so relieved, no longer having to sweat the small stuff, like plot.
Here, we are informed Jason Bourne (the very much missed Matt Damon) is still on the lam. But, back at the ranch, well, actually the wilds of Alaska, another injected super guy, Aaron Cross, is running low on meds. Rebounding his way into a fellow soldier’s camp, Aaron finds himself in the midst of an assassination. And if you think that’s bad, wait till you see what’s going on back in headquarters, where Cross and the rest of the big guys check in for check ups.
Somehow, remember “how” really doesn’t matter, Aaron gets out of Alaska, into a car and apparently a bunch of money, and shows up just in time to rescue the doctor who he thought was cute, just as she is getting the crap kicked out of her by government types who showed up at her creepy manse after she somehow escaped the gunman who went “berserk” at the lab. And off they go, Cross and Dr. Not-so smarty pants, trying to get half way across the world to use her key card to swipe their way into a sister lab and get Aaron his blue pills. Or some other concoction that will keep him buff, brave and brilliant.
Oh yeah, and there’s an eons long chase scene. Or two. Maybe it was three. They all sort of melted into one another. The lack of cohesion is surprising here, considering the man behind the story, Tony Gilroy, wrote the other chapters of the Bourne saga. Poor Norton is left to frown and fret and basically spill a bunch of expositional mumble jumble. I liked Jeremy Renner as Cross, who brings as much back story as he possibly can to the otherwise perfunctory proceedings. Rachel Weiss does the same, in the thankless role of the girl, I mean the supremely intelligent Doctor who gave up bragging about her research to serve her country. They, and we, deserve better.
Just when so many ticket buyers “of a certain age” seem to have given up hope, here comes a delightful “movie-movie” that’s most special of effects come from its flesh and blood, very human stars.
Written by a surprisingly young Vanessa Taylor and directed by David Frankel (yeah, he’s young too), this is a tricky story of an all American couple, married 31 years. They’ve got a nice home, nice jobs, nice adult kids and two separate bedrooms. He snoozes comfortably watching the golf channel : she’s getting restless. Must be hormones, he informs her. She buys them a trip to a marriage counselor.
Yes, this could be a mess. But, Taylor’s script treads lightly and manages to meld some very real life issues with some really hilarious moments. And Frankel, who stamped his signature on the movie version of ‘The Devil Wears Prada’, brings a similar polish here, while never rushing the small stuff, which makes the poignant moments all the more effecting.
Steve Carrel, who is a funny guy, does his most interesting work when he’s not handed the punchline: and that’s what he’s doing here. He plays the counselor, the straight man, as it were, in the sessions with the miserable Tommy Lee Jones and uncomfortable Meryl Streep. Pushing firmly gut gently, Carrel keeps the momentum of the storyline moving along, but its Jones and Streep who make the promise pay off. Tommy Lee doesn’t always get to play the romantic lead, even though he doesn’t need sweet stuff to appeal. Here, he is downright irresistible as the grumpy husband who begrudgingly does want his wife and his life to be happier. And Streep? What can I say? It’s been such a treat to watch this fine actress loosen up as she ages, embrace her inner comedian and let a few vulnerabilities bounce off the screen. Working with Frankel again (their collaboration in Prada was perfection), she gives a performance that is pure joy. Even if many in the audience can’t relate to the particular circumstances of our heroine’s situation (thank God), we can all feel her desire for a vibrant life. And good news is: we feel a little more vibrant, just walking out of the theater.
The Dark Knight Rises
An antidote to comic book escapism, Christopher Nolan’s take on Batman has never taken the easy road. Now, in the final chapter in the promised trilogy, the going is still tough. And the rewards are great.
We meet again, eight years after Batman (the effective Christian Bale) has crawled into his cave, assuming the blame for the death of D.A. Harvey Dent. Of course, we know how elaborate that cave is, as Bruce Wayne’s fortunes have supplied a gorgeous mansion, complete with treasures to tantalize the savviest cat burglar. And so enters Cat Woman, a lithe Anne Hathaway, who’s out to steal from the rich and give to the poor, with a healthy percentage going toward supporting her “habit”. As Bruce has got his domestic terrorist to deal with, outside the walls of his self-imposed prison, there’s Bane: the masked terrorist who is out to destroy Gotham. Good guys John Blake (a terrific Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Marion Cotillard’s Marion are on the case and both have their appeals to Bruce and his caped alter ego.
If the portent of all this isn’t heavy enough for you, Nolan takes pains to incorporate some real issues of the day into this comic based adventure. Referencing the Occupy Wall Street and Sustainability movements make things all the more contemporary, the threat of having Gotham, i.e. New York blown to hell, all the more terrifying. The gravity of this threat isn’t the thrill ride it is in the Avengers: in other words, Bane looks like he means business and even as we’re rooting for the heroes, Nolan doesn’t give us the comfort of knowing it’s all going to work out ok.
It’s great to see the fine actors Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman and the especially beautifully cast Michael Caine back. Tom Hardy has the biggest challenge, to present Bane as not just a physical but psychological threat from behind a mask and, for the most part, he succeeds. Unfortunately, much of his dialogue is muffled because of the signature mouthpiece.
There have been a few times I let some sentimentality take hold while watching these super hero movies. I was surprised at how I felt during a few of JJ Abrams’ sweet Star Trek moments and sure, I even felt a small lump in my throat when we saw the evolution of the X Men in the First Class picture. But I have never actually reached for a tissue until we reached the end of this lengthy, dramatic Batman story. Engaging the audience, not just through special effects, but through actual story telling, is perhaps Nolan’s greatest gift to the Batman legacy.
To say this is a movie about male strippers is to say Boogie Nights is a movie about porn. Steven Soderberg has delivered a mostly thoughtful, funny, beautifully edited story. And it happens to be about people involved in the all-male revue world of Tampa, Florida.
Based on star Channing Tatum’s reminiscences of his days on the stage (he was young, he needed the money), Soderberg brings not just a pedigree but integrity to the proceedings. Allowing Tatum to actually act for his supper, his lovely, understated performance is matched by Alex Pettyfer, the young kid Tatum’s Mike takes under his wing. And, for the most part, Matthew McConaughey, sashaying into a role he might have been born to play, as the club’s older, but not particularly wiser, owner, is dandy.
The strength of this movie is in its genuine enjoyment of what these men are doing. There are delicious scenes backstage, as the guys “prepare”. And the highly choreographed strip numbers are grandly shot and slickly edited. We get the essence of what’s happening, the athleticism of it, the savvy shimmy for dollar bills, but it’s all cut off at just the right point, leaving the audience (and not just the ladies, thank you) wanting more. It’s a great tease. But then comes the rest of things: Reid Carolin’s script is pretty much by the numbers, the female characters are thinny thin thin and the “dangerous” stuff that we know is coming wouldn’t scare somebody away from this life of sex, drugs and rock and roll for a minute. As if there was almost no other way to end the movie, a hail Mary moment is handed to McConaughey. He does his thing with relish, as if he’s scoring a virility touchdown. If only the script and the director had shaded this into a more interesting, almost pathetic scene, McConaughey would have nailed the best reviews of his career. Because, at least as I saw it, watching a just about middle-aged body building obsessed shirtless wonder take it all off for a group of drunk coeds is pathetic, indeed.
To Rome With Love
Woody lite, this pretty string of short stories is uneven, landing it nowhere near Allen’s best or his worst.
The most familiar of the tales involves sellout success Alec Baldwin, back in Rome and finding himself as a shadowy mentor to Jesse Eisenberg, a young architect who not only reminds the elder of himself, but who also is about to screw up a lovely relationship with Greta Gerwig. Ellen Page is fine, but I thought somewhat miscast as the femme fatale who, obviously in retrospect, leaves a series of disappointed men in her wake.
There’s also a strange little sex tale, involving Penelope Cruz as a lusty prostitute, a relatively poignant story, handled quite nicely by Roberto Benigni, about the merits and demerits of fame, another one of Allen’s go-to themes. For the first time in several years, Woody himself takes an on screen role as a retired opera director who, while visiting his newly engaged daughter, discovers an amazing talent in the new family. Tenor Fabio Armiliato gets to sing some arias that class up the joint considerably; Woody gets to sputter out a few good old reliable jokes.
When you have made as many films, as quickly, as Allen has, there are bound to be some that are better than others. For me, a few of his movies are seminal: glorious works that I hold dear. There are also a few real bummers: movies that feel lazy, undeveloped, sketchy. This movie is nowhere near as ambitious as it could be, but there are moments that delight. I’ve been harder on Allen before, but this half hearted effort left me hoping for more next time. To paraphrase the master, in Annie Hall, “Well, I guess that's pretty much now how I feel about (Woody’s films); y'know, they're totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and... but, uh, I guess we keep goin' through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs.”
Rock of Ages
A retro rom-con whose aim is true, this Broadway musical adaptation does please a crowd, especially if that crowd loves ‘em some 1980’s rock and roll. It’s Tom Cruise who, momentarily, shakes things up enough to stir everyone else.
A pleasant and capable Julianne Hough stars as the wide-eyed newcomer to Hollywood, newcomer Dakota Sage Grant grew on me as the ambitious rocker who loves her. A considerably more seasoned supporting cast shows up for the more salty parts of the story. Spot on Russell Brand and an underused Alec Baldwin run the club where the lovebirds work, Paul Giamatti dons a short pony tale to authenticate his sleazy manager. Blink and you might miss Mary J. Blige, who must duet with Hough. Catherine Zeta Jones looks a tad shell-shocked but still does the job as the politician’s wife who is morally outraged by the scourge of the music. All perform their musical numbers with the same goofy affection as we saw in, say, Mamma Mia. Not great, but it’s likeable.
And then there’s Tom. Cruise, who I’ve always thought was a more interesting, adventurous actor than he’s given credit for being, takes the slim role of Stacee Jaxx, the washed up legend, and runs with it, creating a real character out of what, on the page, is a caricature. Bringing the kind of full bodied intensity he brought to Magnolia here, Cruise also blends in just enough humor to keep us rooting for his messy machismo throughout.
Men in Black 3
Is there any big movie star performance more genuinely charming than Will Smith’s Agent J? Even when this latest chapter in the series is at its sloggiest, Smith saves the day.
This time, we’re dealing with time travel. An initial, and not very promising slug fest at a Chinatown restaurant, leads to a threat against not just mankind itself, but the life of Tommy Lee Jones’ Agent K. Driven by an almost mysterious loyalty to his partner, J visits a guy who knew a guy who got another guy to go back to the year 1969. And so, in pursuit of said guy (the guy who already went back), so does J. And let’s not forget J and K have a new boss on board, Emma Thompson has replaced Rip Torn.
Once we’re back in this pungent period, the movie seems to find its groove and get it on. Sure there are silly hippies and stuff, but J is gently reminded of what it is to have been a black man in Florida back then, Andy Warhol is discovered to be a lot more than we thought and a game Josh Brolin accompanies J, as the 29 year old K. Brolin does a really nice Jones impression, even if he a tad warm and fuzzier than the crusty older version. (It’s all explained later.) Perhaps the sweetest addition is Michael Stuhlbarg, the lovely actor who first came to film prominence in the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man. Even when his character is predictably seeing the future, we’re seeing something irrepressibly fresh.
Anemic in parts, this Johnny Depp/Tim Burton reboot is still, often, a bloody blast.
Based on the classic TV series, this “family-friendly” version is somewhat of a surprise, considering the popularity of contemporary, blood-spouting and violent vampire tales. Barnabas Collins, bitten into eternal life and lust by a scorned Angelique (Eva Green), is inadvertently uncovered in the tomb where he was buried alive back in the 1750s. It’s now 1972 and a lot has changed. Much is made of Barnabas’s discoveries of modern day life; his remaining dysfunctional family? Not so much. They’re having their problems, mind you, but this is very much a movie about Barnabas. And some nifty set design. And music that will bring you gratefully back into the day.
Michelle Pfeiffer makes a welcome return as the midi-sporting matriarch; Helena Bonham Carter has some fun with her role as the in-house psychiatrist who can’t help but develop a thing for the mysterious, old fashioned visitor. And who can blame her? Depp is pretty delicious as Collins, even if his take on Barnabas is as soft and fuzzy as was the eventually (and sadly) watered down Captain Jack Sparrow. It is a detour from Burton’s past to see him not go for the gusto in Barnabas’s “hungry” scenes. Most of them are conducted off-screen, which might disappoint vampire fanatics out there.
But. If you accept what is given here, an imperfect goof that could have used a transfusion or two along the way, there are still some real, vivid moments of pure entertainment. Depp always delivers and the effects are eye poppers. And, if not much else, Burton has stretched his technique to play with Danny Elfman’s irresistible soundtrack, swooping the hits up in a crescendo or two that will knock the most dubious off their feet.
Marvel’s The Avengers
This full throttle action extravaganza might have benefitted from an attached ‘Superheroes for Dummies’ cheat sheet, but, hell, who cares? If its 3-D thrills you want, you’ll have a blast.
Joss Whedon has mounted a great looking meeting of the Marvel family of characters. Succinctly, there’s a bad guy (Loki, played by a classically malevolent Tom Hiddleston) who’s out to take over the world. Called into action by leader Nick Fury (Sam Jackson), a bevy of beef converges to save us all. In one corner, we’ve got Robert Downey Jr’s dandy Iron Man, adjacent, the nifty Mark Ruffalo, trying to keep his cool, lest he burst into The Hulk. Diagonally opposite Tony Stark is Chris Evans’ stalwart, if a tad (appropriately) dated Captain America. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has a nice, Shakespeariany moment with his adopted brother. A sexy Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) seems to have some back story with an underused (and underexplained) Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and there are various other good or bad guys who show up along the way, too. To be honest, I didn’t realize some of them, fine actors like Paul Bettany and Don Cheadle were even in there, but hey, I did recognize Stan Lee in a short cameo, so that’s cool.
Unlike the splendid J.J. Abrams Star Trek, which took familiar science fiction characters and made them not only recognizable, but relatable, Whedon settles for less. Of course we know our superheroes will make it, and that there will be welcome bits of humor along the way to entertain us, but we never honestly feel for these people, who keep spouting obligatory dialogue about how tough it is to be so special. Considering the relish they, and the filmmakers take in giving it back to the man, it feels as if their talk is cheap.
That’s about the only thing that is cheap in this effect-aganza. Too often lately, producers have slapped in a few 3-D amplifications, bowing to the technical pressure of the times. That’s not the case here: Whedon has a great time playing with swords that reach into the audiences’ chests, creatures that dare to swallow us whole, flying fists and hammers, too. What he does may not be as state of the art as, say, Avatar, but it is a barrel of fun. Maybe next time, and yes, there will be a next time, we’ll actually fall as under the spell of the heroes as we do with their flourish of their superhuman tricks.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
The Avengers of old age, a team of superhero actors considerably enhance this sweet but slight look at taking life by the tail.
The great Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy (come on, do you really need anything more than that?) lead a fine group of players, as English seniors who, for varying reasons, wind up living in a rundown retirement home in India. We’ve got lonely widows, desperate singles, miserly infirmed and people with long hidden secrets. The usual stuff. And it’s plotted out in a decent, well meaning script by Deborah Moggach. What makes it all shine are 1. India, which is fascinating, beautiful and exotic, 2. John Madden’s compassionate direction and 3. the fact that these smarter than smart actors present their characters as not standards of old age, but as full bodied human beings. These men and women do more with their eyes than Moggach accomplishes with pages of dialogue.
It should also be noted there’s a young love story slotted in, to perk things up and entertain the kids who might accompany their grandparents to see this feel-almost good-er. Dev Patel is adorable and a collection of Indian actors are also quite fine.
The conditions are the Hotel may not be so great, but, for those of us not having to put up with no hot water and questionable ceiling fans, spending time with its residents is still quite a treat.
The Five year Engagement
A bumpy entertainment about a bumpy road to the altar, this overly long rom-com offers up a couple of laughs, a thought or two and a lot more extraneous stuff.
Jason Segal has reunited with his Forgetting Sarah Marshall partner, Nicholas Stoller, to introduce us to an oh-so-modern couple. Emily Blunt’s a Brit living in San Francisco, applying for post Doc jobs in psychology. He’s a nice Jewish boy, a chef who’s about to break out into the big time. We meet just as they are about to get engaged. Nicely set up, we’ve got lots of potential hazards here: career, backrounds, locations. All pop their ugly heads and manage to keep our 21st Century sophisticates from tying the knot one way or another.
There certainly are some moments that make this movie a step up from the average goofball love story. Unfortunately, the movie only flirts with the pungent possibilities. There’s one teeny scene about yarmulkes which suffices to hint at possible complexities of interfaith marriages, but most disappointing to me was the passing glance at the “emasculation” of the man, unfulfilled career wise as his fiancée soars in hers. We see disappointment and a stab at uber-macho (including some really ugly facial hair) but a sub plot about deer hunting never really gels. I am hoping, I guess, that Segal is making a statement here, but if he is, the only real message that gets across is that shooting animals, and the inadvertent human who’s in the way of the forgotten cross bow in the kitchen, is what guys in Michigan do for fun.
Segal, who is one of the most likeable, if unlikely romantic leads in contemporary movies, does a nice job here, as does his stellar supporting cast. Of particular note is Chris Pratt, who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in. Emily Blunt is wonderful, as always. And, if nothing else, we discover she looks really cute in bangs.
The Lucky One
A by-the-numbers romance, this momentarily interesting picture is very much of the Nicholas Sparks brand. You know going in what you’re buying: beautiful young people finding true love against some odd or two, usually in the also beautiful Carolinas. There’s a spunky elder to set them straight, and a comforting sense of Americana. This time, though, Sparks plays with a most contemporary of wounds: the PTSD of a marine, just back from a most harrowing third tour of Iraq.
A quite fine Zac Ephron stars as U.S Marine Sergeant Logan Thibault. After discovering a picture of a (beautiful, of course) woman buried in the rubble of an attack he was lucky to survive, our hero carries the photo through a few other assaults. Returning stateside, Logan is haunted by the fact that he lived when others close by did not. He is jittery, aloof and unable to find his own peace. Taking off on foot, with his loyal dog, Logan finds himself walking toward the woman he doesn’t know.
Too bad Sparks settles for his usual stuff at this point. Naturally, the single mom is gorgeous, available (sort of) and wears high cut shorts to reveal the spectacular legs she earned by running track. The fact that Beth owns a kennel, needs some help on the ranch and has wisened Grandma (the always delightful Blythe Danner) around to set her straight, well, this is all the kind of thing we know is going to happen before we walk into the theater. Even if we didn’t read the book, which, like all Nicholas Sparks books, was a best seller.
Yeah, there is a bit more to it than that, but not much. A bad guy ex (who reminded me of dumb dumb bad guy Biff in Back to the Future) is involved, we figure out the psychic connection involving the photo and pretty Taylor Schilling, who plays Beth, must at one point, wear long pants.
The Cabin in the Woods
A post-Scream scream, this genre puzzle rearranges the pieces to create quite the hoot.
Written by Joss Whedon and director Drew Goddard, this horror/sci-fi-er makes sure we’re never too comfy. What looks to be a standard kids-in-the-wilderness set up, is not. What looks to be a standard mad scientist movie, is not, either. Since so much of the fun here is in the revelation, I won’t spill the beans. Let it suffice to say, there are spot on performances from the young cast. In the years since its’ filming, (not their fault: supporting studio MGM went belly up and ‘Cabin’ got shuffled around quite a bit in restructuring, etc.) one of the stars, Chris Hemsworth, has become quite the box office draw, with pictures like Thor Star Trek and the upcoming Avengers on his list of credits. And it’s always great to see Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford do their thing.
Is ‘Cabin’ scary? Yes, there are a few moments that did get me jumping. Is it funny? Yes, I laughed. More than a few times. Is it perfect? No. But this neat little twister is adventurous, inventive, and energetic. As welcome as a hearty breathe of spring, even if that spring has been sitting on a shelf, just bursting to bloom.
So it’s the future. And the President’s daughter is being held hostage in an outer space prison. And the only guy brave/tough/smartass enough to go get her just happens to be the ex-government agent who might be a murderer. If this is the kind of thing that floats your personal boat, you might find this Luc Besson creation adequately entertaining. After all, there is a lot of shooting and snarling and sweating going on.
Guy Pearce, the terrific actor whose credits include everything from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert to The King’s Speech buffs up to play Snow, the rogue anti-hero. We know he’s an anti-hero because Snow has one name, growels at his old boss, and answers everything with pithy one sentence retorts that are the comic equivalent of “so’s your old man”. Convinced he can clear his own name if he takes the job of rescuing the beautiful blonde in distress, Snow still hates her. She is, after all, representative of “the man”. And Snow hates “the man”. Pretty Maggie Grace, from tv’s Lost, turns out to be a little different than what Snow expected, so there’s that, too.
In typical Besson style (even though the directorial credits go to newcomers James Mather and Stephen St. Leger), the horribler-than-horrible bad guys are almost hilariously over the top. On the excuse that they’ve been induced with a sleeping medication that causes brain damage, they are allowed to act so wacko, they get to slobber, hold various body parts in awkward positions and constantly threaten rape.
Pearce and Grace look good amongst the ruins. And it’s not Pearce’s fault he’s saddled with stupid frat boy dialogue. It takes a special talent to make lines like that work. I found myself aching for Bruce Willis, who could have handled this stuff with aplomb. Like he did in so many vehicles, even Luc Besson’s other futuristic extravaganza, The Fifth Element.
Damsels in Distress
Whit Stillman’s college coeds don’t look as if they are distressed at all, as this sneaky little comedy begins. Spying the new kid in town, this trio of togetherness swoop her up, promising not just their tantalizing friendship, but a shortcut to coolness. Who could resist? And, we are off, on what becomes an occasionally uneven but still irresistible treat.
Stillman’s seminal trio of the socially privileged ‘90’s (led off by the magnificent Metropolitan) made him pretty cherished for his modern day, Henry James-ish take on New York. After a self imposed sabbatical of sorts, Stillman has refocused his sharp eyes to a modern day college campus, set in The North, but still, the notes divulge, shot in Staten Island. Now, it seems, the pride is in the dumbness. While we do get an occasional shot of snap (thanks mostly to a very funny Megalyn Echikunwoke), most of what these kids are all about is blandness. Violet, the Queen Bee of the group, is even wide eyed in her ever-pronounced judgments about others and their behavior. Carrie MacLemore’s Heather makes SATC’s Charlotte look like a saber wit. Adam Brody’s Charlie, along with Ryan Metcalf’s Frank and Billy Magnussen’s pitifully funny Thor are all surfacy, too. At least at first. It’s the wonderful Analeigh Tipton’s Lily who appears to bring some salt to the table here. And she does, but even her “edge” is pretty dulled down when compared to what we discover of her annoying new BFF, the surprisingly textured Violet, as brought to fascinating life by the estimable Greta Gerwig.
I could very well document some scenes, even a few silly subplots, that just don’t work here, but these are relatively minor complaints. Watching Stillman subtly dissect these white-bread kids cuts us, too. How happy we all are when they can retreat into their blinders-on innocence.
Wrath of the Titans
The biggest surprise of this mythical swashbuckler is how downright dull it is. Wrath is supposed to be emotional, right? And Titans? Shouldn’t they at least be compelling?
Picking up some 12 years after ‘Clash of the Titans’ (a box office hit in 2010) left off, we now find a war that’s been raging between the Gods is about to surface: because of a lack of interest on part of the real people, plus some pretty serious squabbling between brothers Zeus, Hades and Poseidon, the whole world could crumble. Zeus (Liam Neeson) must enlist the help of his estranged son, the demigod Perseus (Sam Worthington), who has sworn to live quietly amongst the villagers, raising the son he adores. Of course, Perseus must tap his inner warrior, set off to the Underworld, set things right with his father and uncles and save mankind while he’s at it.
Not to make light of these stories from Greek mythology: their multi-dimensional moralities have captivated people for thousands of years. And it’s still pretty cool to watch the legendary Cyclops, Kronos and Chimera come to life, along with characters most of us only think about when we’re filling in crossword puzzles these days. While the first ‘Titan’ film was just a mess, this one tightens things up enough to make the story easy enough to follow, the effects ok enough to make their point. As for the 3-D, I was particularly unimpressed. Very little if offered to make the extra price of admission for that worth it. Why wear those silly glasses for an hour and a half if the snake hissing with his mouth open as if to devour you feels as if he’s 20 feet away?
Played out in a perfunctory 4/4 rhythm, this movie tells a story, sets off some big special effects and goes home. There’s nothing truly bad going on, but nothing truly exciting or memorable, either.
A “February” script with a “December” cast, this predictable thriller still manages to get the pulse to race once in a while.
Ryan Reynolds is the central CIA agent here: just starting out, assigned to watch a safe house in South Africa. He’s complaining to the boss (Brendan Gleeson) nothing’s happening, that he wants a chance to really show his stuff. So, of course, guess what happens.
The especially terrific Denzel Washington’s in town, an “off-the-charts” brilliant (aren’t they all?) American spy who went rogue on us. He’s carrying some weird computer chip he had to inject into his stomach to prevent the constant stream of bad guys who’re always shooting at him from getting their scary looking paws on. Seeing no other alternative or something, Denzel (who’s traveling here under the character name Tobin Frost) turns himself into the consulate and, after freaking out the folks back at Langley, our mysterious captive is moved to, surprise surprise, Ryan’s suddenly not so safe house after all.
David Guggenheim’s script feels as if he took the playbook for those CIA guys on the lam action thrillers and slotted in his people’s names in the blanks. We have seen this story so many times before, director Daniel Espinosa has to really rev up the jittery camera and incessant gunfire to wake things up. And his tricks, for the most part, do what they are supposed to. I found myself jumping in my seat, even though, intellectually, I knew exactly what was coming.
The other smart move on Espinosa’s part was to hire on a roster of very good actors. Even though Gleeson, Vera Farmiga, Sam Shepard and Ruben Blades don’t have much to do, it’s a pleasure to see them bring some real starry gravity to their short scenes. And Reynolds is perfectly cast as the ambitious, wide-eyed newbie who learns more than a few things along the bumpy, if familiar (to us) road.
But the true thrills come from Washington, who is such a treat as the enigmatic Frost. A guy who likes games, Frost loves to play with people’s heads, as well as the more blood-spurting parts of their bodies. Watching Denzel sit back, watch the chaos spinning around him when he just knows the answer, is irresistible fun. More fun than the movie itself, but hey, it’s February at the movies and I’ll take what I can get.
Joe Carnahan’s poetically virile Alaskan survival tale offers up some of the most unpleasant moments you can spend at the movies. I guess that’s the point.
Troubled Liam Neeson (when isn’t Liam troubled? Can somebody get this guy a musical comedy or something?) stars as a man, who thinks himself clearly superior to the working slugs surrounding him on a remote Alaskan work site. During an aborted suicide attempt, our hero spots a glowering wolf approaching the camp and deftly kills it. The next day, he and the motley crew is on a rickety airplane, heading for home. You just know this isn’t going to go well.
Carnahan, who wrote and directed, takes great pains to class up what could have been a more traditional and less poignant thriller. Shooting in the real wilderness, the scenery is terrifyingly beautiful. And the arc of the story, allowing us all to discover the humanity of the survivors slowly, makes their journey all the more compelling for us, sitting in the cool and safe darkness. Neeson, always fine, is here, too. I also liked what the smart actors Dermot Mulroney, Frank Grillo and the terrific Dallas Roberts brought to their roles. But, here’s the thing. This is not a movie about men’s relationships with one another, trudging through snow and making it to Russia (I hear you can see it from there). This is also very much (too much) a movie about Adventure. There are all sorts of smarty pants tricks these guys figure out to make life a wee bit more comfy. In the heat of the moment, are these basically untrained survivalists really going to know how to pull off some of the level, cool headed stuff they do here? And then there are the wolves. These aren’t any old wolves: these are eyes glowing, sharp toothed salivating, huge guys. And they travel in packs. And they’re pissed. Ohoh.
I get it. I see just what Carnahan is going for here and it’s impressive. The results are mixed, as if he (and the people behind this film) are hedging their bets: don’t just go for the masculine mush, make sure there’s lots of blood and guts. Give ‘em what they want: and keep repeating it. Pure gore, up close and personal.