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WHAT'S NEW AT THE MOVIES?
If I have any quibble at all with Richard Linklatter’s glorious film, it’s the title. Because while the ambitious concept is to follow one boyhood, the movie is just as much about a family and about America.
Filmed over 12 years, with the same cast, Linklater’s story centers on Mason, (initially) a 7 year old whose parents are divorced and slightly older sister drives him nuts. The director got his cast and crew together periodically over that time, shooting with a naturalistic style similar, say, to Truffaut’s in the Antoine Doinel Cycle. Over the dozen years in which we check in to catch up with Mason and his family, we see not just the boy come of age, but his mother find her own strength, sister blossom and even his child-like father become a more responsible man. Set as so much of Linklater’s work is, in Texas, we also witness the economic fortunes of the state, the love of the land and its politics, paralleling that of America itself, a proud country divided by concepts as basic as gifting rifles when a youth reaches the age of 15. Oh yeah, and there are boy friends and girl friends, beer and drugs and some fabulous music, too.
Know going in this is a long film; I luxuriated in the 162 minutes. Ellar Coltrane, who, of course, grows before our eyes, is astonishingly good, remarkably comfortable in front of the camera as a child, shaggily compelling as a teen. So, too, is Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter, who appears throughout as Mason’s pain-in-the-butt-but-still-loved sister. I just loved what Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke pull off here, as the parents who, too, must grow into their roles. Both are simply stellar, delivering wonderful, fully realized performances under what I would think might be challenging and exciting circumstances.
Linklater, along with Hawke, of course, has played with the passage of time already in his work, with the “Before” series. By allowing evolution to flow seamlessly here, the results are almost breathtaking. But neat-trick concept is only part of the wise and heart-rending reward of this independent, but very much embracing film.
Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues
This movie is nuts. I just wish it had to courage to really go with it.
Will Ferrell and Adam McKay’s revival of the cult hit from 9 years back takes us into the freewheeling 1980’s, as the San Diego local news team hits the world of 24 hour cable news. Much time is spent setting everybody up here. Ron Burgundy and his wife (voice of reason Christina Applegate) have broken up, thanks to her career advancement and his jealousy. But when Ron is offered a slot at a brand new cable network out of New York, he rallies from his drunken depression, gathers the old gang in the RV and off they go, along with Baxter, the dog.
Much of what happens is what you’d expect for a while. Loud, silly, and sometimes, funny. And then we see what Ferrell and McKay are really up to. There’s a take off/put down of a particular kind of news and a particular news network that’s much sharper and passionate than anything that comes before it, even if it goes on a bit too long. There are a few dandy subplots, involving interracial relations and the influence of big business on the news industry. And the last, completely loony sci-fi action sequence, along with a riotous handful of cameo’d co-stars, is quite literally, a blast.
Paul Rudd and David Koechner slip into their old, purposely stereotyped news guys seamlessly. And, even if I don’t always get what baby Brick Tamland’s appeal is, I do get an honest kick out of how Steve Carell plays him. Ferrell, as usual, goes full throttle, serving up mainstream chuckles to, I suppose, make the much more interesting stuff go down more easily.
Spike Jonze’s glorious 21st Century love story not only swept me off my feet, but also shot an arrow deep into my heart.
We’re in near-future Los Angeles. Theo, a laid off journalist, now writes heartfelt letters for other people at a busy online service. About to be divorced, he wanders back to his lonely pad in the sky to play 3-D video games and mope. Numb, going through the motions, he does take note of the announcement for the world’s first A.I. operating system, offering a virtual companion. He signs up. And enter Samantha, the lush “consciousness” with an attitude, a seemingly perfect girlfriend who can be everything he needs.
The concept is great: in this world of on-line dating, texting not talking, having a virtual soul mate is a logical tip into what’s coming. We are, of course, set up to question what makes a perfect love, but Jonze isn’t just about big ideas here. In his richest and most profound work yet, he digs as deep as he leaps ahead. In the new L.A., you may be able to take a train to the beach and not wear a belt, but you also will have to deal with your own true emotions, recognize your real needs and forgive the ones you’ve been blaming for your own shortcomings.
And don’t even get me started on the online “Perfect Mom” game Theo’s pal (a lovely Amy Adams) is developing for her company, B Perfect.
Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt and Olivia Wilde provide fine support, but this is really a movie about Theo and Samantha. Joaquin Phoenix gives a simply wonderful performance: too subtle for awards, perhaps, but graceful and winning all the same. And, as the Siri with Soul, Scarlett Johansson serves up a most remarkable piece of acting: embodying Samantha into a new movie icon without ever (that we see) breaking a sweat.
Just because David O. Russell’s take on ABSCAM isn’t what I’d hoped it would be doesn’t mean it isn’t still a damn entertaining movie. In fact, I had a blast watching it.
“Some of this actually happened” reads an opening title card and we’re off. Pot-bellied scammer Irving Rosenfeld (a fabulous Christian Bale) is taking great pains with his comb-over. Like a star in a dressing room, he is preparing to take the stage, this particular stage being a floor of the Plaza Hotel, where he and his soul mate, (Amy Adams’ seductively smart Sydney) are cooperating with Bradley Cooper’s FBI agent Richie DiMaso, coercing, taping and framing government officials. ABSCAM, the 1981 sting operation that ‘actually happened’, brought down 7 Congressmen. It also gave a whole new understanding to the word entrapment.
Russell, who co-wrote the script with Eric Singer, chooses not to spend a whole lot of time on the morality lesson part of the story: he goes, full throttle, for the hustle. The jazz. The polyester, perms and plunging necklines, all rockin to a soundtrack boasting Donna Summer, Elton John, The Bee Gees and Sinatra, to name a few. The pacing’s terrific, the performances, even better. As he did with Russell in Silver Linings Playbook, Cooper strips away all the movie star stuff and this time, gives a wonderfully jittery, yet controlled turn. Jeremy Renner, Robert DeNiro, Louis C.K., Michael Pena and Jack Huston, too, nail every scene they’re in. But, if there’s a standout in this all-star crowd, and there is, it’s Jennifer Lawrence. As Irving’s luscious left at home wife, she, both as a character and the actress, insists her way into the action with irresistible charm. She’s kinda looney, but she’s also a force of nature; we’re hooked and love every minute she’s on screen, whether she’s sashaying over to a bar full of mobsters, sealing a ladies’ room smackdown with a kiss or dusting aerobically.
As a critic, I think it’s important to go into each film fresh, not letting pre-conceived notions color what we see. The fact that I had hoped for more of an ethical punch is really my own issue. Russell has delivered the movie he wanted to: a rollicking, adult, laugh-out loud funny comedy.
Saving Mr. Banks
Resistance is futile.
Even if this occasionally clunky “making of” picture does soften a lot of ragged edges, the trademark Disney charm’s gonna getcha.
For those who did not know, Walt Disney had a tough time convincing author P.L. Travers to let him make ‘Mary Poppins” into the classic musical it, eventually, became. Even though the rights battle lasted some 20 years, this film focuses primarily on the shorter period of time, in 1961, when Travers, needing the money, flew off to Hollywood in order to supervise early adaptation efforts. Honoring the family ties that shaped the novel, there are also several colorful flashbacks, introducing us to Travers’ tough childhood in Australia.
It’s admirable this dramatic comedy takes the pains and time to explain why the reportedly universally impossible Ms. Travers was so protective of Poppins and the Banks family she created for the novels. And, as the alcoholic father, Colin Farrell reminds us of what a fine actor and star he can be: you cannot take your eyes off of him whenever he’s on camera here. Far more fun and irresistible to any movie lover is the recreation of the development process. Bradley Whitford, Jason Schwartzman, and B.J. Novak are dandy as writer/lyricists Don DaGradi and Richard and Robert Sherman. Paul Giamatti’s perfect as driver Ralph and Tom Hanks brings Disney’s sweet business side front and center as the savvy, determined filmmaker.
The heart of it all, of course, is Emma Thompson, who modulates a prim, irritable and selfish Travers with just that spoonful of sugar, making her bitter medicine go down a bit more easily. It’s a terrific, unsentimental performance that wins us over even if the real woman she plays might not.
Inside Llewyn Davis
The Coen Brothers’s ode to the early 1960’s folk scene certainly stirs a symphony of emotions.
The easiest? Familiarity. We know (or have seen) this affectionately dirty town, the hungry players in it. There’s scope of the musical genre, so lovingly saluted by T. Bone Burnett and crew. And there’s Llewyn, the angry young man who insists it’s all about integrity.
More demanding? The somewhat satiric, yet stirringly sad tone. As it is with the best of the Coen’s work, there’s no direct route to the truth here. Llewyn, as wonderfully played by Oscar Issac, is soulful, talented, and a selfish pain in the ass. There’s a loving recreation of Greenwich Village (with a few stops uptown and in the boroughs) that stifles our “hero”. Casual relationships pay harsh results, unlikely looking competitors win, wonderfully wacko diversions (looking at you, John Goodman, in particular) don’t always hang around long. We never quite know who we’re rooting for, or which direction we’re headed for. But that’s the Coens for you.
And I loved the ride. At least for the first 2/3rds of this herky, jerky film. The actors are all terrific, the cinematography exquisite. And, oh man, the music. And then, for me, it began to turn. Well, ok, not the music. And not the performances. It was Llewyn, the character. The grouchy sad sack reveals just one more layer and we meet the real fury he’d been, I suppose, trying to swallow all along. No leading character has to be attractive or even magnetic all the time, but, for me, the sour began to outweigh the sweet in Llewyn. A brave artistic choice, perhaps, but I felt deflated, the exhilarating air let out of an oh-so buoyant balloon.
The tale itself is painful, it’s telling here, a delicious mix of sweet and sour.
Steve Coogan, the actor/comedian, co-wrote the fine screenplay here, based on journalist Martin Sixsmith’s book about his efforts to assist a retired Irish Catholic nurse find the son she was forced to give away some 50 years earlier. As a teenager, Philomena was handed over to a Magdalene program in the Church, a home where unwed mothers would give birth, wash other people’s laundry and be allowed short visits with their children until the babies were placed elsewhere. Each girl was made to sign papers, assuring they would never try to find the child they conceived, they were told, in sin. Under director Stephen Frears’ assured direction, we see Martin and Philomena not only do the detective work, but confront their own regrets, fears and beliefs.
I thought quite honestly, Cate Blanchett had Best Actress pretty much sewn up this year until I saw Judi Dench here. In what could have been a treacly mess of a spectacle, Dench never loses control, weighing the adorable with the pragmatic. Coogan does quite the balancing act himself: nailing Sixsmith’s snobby suspicion, allowing it to evaporate, at least a bit, into compassionate outrage. Individually, these are dandy performances; together, they are even stronger. And they make for great company on this terribly sad trip.
There’s a gentle tone to Alexander Payne’s work, which makes his piercing look at contemporary American life all the more surprising. And, perhaps, revealing.
Bruce Dern knocks it out of the park as Woody Grant, a Missouri man who may or may not be “losing it”. But he’s convinced that letter he got, awarding him that million dollar magazine sweepstakes, is the real thing and one way or the other, he’s getting to Nebraska to claim his winnings. Saturday Night Live’s Will Forte gives a lovely performance as the sad sack of a son who agrees to drive Dad on the futile trip; June Squibb is complete perfection as Woody’s frustrated but, ultimately, loyal wife.
Yes, all the actors (let’s not forget Stacy Keach, Bob Odenkirk and a whole town-full more) are grand, but they are working with some wonderfully potent stuff. Plotwise, screenwriter Bob Nelson packs in a lot over a short few days. Woody may never have talked much about his youth, but it’s some story, revealed in layers as the family winds up back in the teeny town where Woody and Kate were raised. And, fearful, annoyed and fed up as they are, when Woody’s wife and sons smell trouble, their devotion is primal and immensely moving.
You can’t help but feel an American Gothic vibe here: the movie, shot in black and white, lives in dusty Main Streets and plains that seem to go on for miles. Extended families gather to watch the game. Bullies bully. Vulnerable seniors, hopeful for one last shot at it, swallow their good sense and insist on following a promised pot of gold. Or they try to weasel their way into someone else’s. It’s a tough economy out there. It’s a tough world, too. Even in the Heartland. But, as Payne and Nelson, remind us, sometimes love, even in its bumpiest form, can soften it a bit.
For a movie that packs few surprises, the happiest is that it is such sweet entertainment.
Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline and Morgan Freeman headline, lifelong friends who are called together in Las Vegas, in celebration of the last holdout’s marriage. Back when they were growing up in Brooklyn, the gang named themselves The Flatbush Four. Now, Kline and his wife (a game Joanna Gleason) have retired to aquasize in Naples, Florida. The widowed Freeman is coddled by his well meaning son, after a stroke. DeNiro doesn’t leave his New York apartment much, still mourning the wife he loved. It’s Douglas, spray tan and all, who’s getting married. Which he decides at a friend’s funeral. To a girl who’s 1/3 his age.
Writer Dan Fogelman (of the underappreciated Crazy, Stupid, Love) hits the expected notes, but makes them sing with an understanding of age and expectations amongst friends. What could have been a desperate and sad spin on the Hangover theme is enhanced with just enough of a touch of warmth and reality. We all know guys like these, even if the characters teeter on the stereotypical. While director Jon Turtletaub doesn’t add a whole lot of shading to the proceedings, he knows enough to get out of the way of his terrific cast. These guys know what to do and boy, do they do it. The screening I attended was packed with young men and women, virtually all of whom took the experience as one of audience participation, aaawwwing and guffawing at every twist, turn and twinkle. They carried the good will out the door, laughing with real appreciation at what the actors pulled off, particularly Morgan Freeman, who was loudly proclaimed “the man”.
Gotta agree. But I would like to add a very special mention for Mary Steenburgen, who plays a 60 something year old torch singer the guys meet in a casino bar. We don’t get to see this Academy Award winner enough these days and, hopefully, her absolutely glorious turn here will change that. Steenburgen sleek and elegantly funny, reminds us all that women “of a certain age” can still be irresistible.
This movie is a hot mess. And it’s damn entertaining.
In his first screenplay, Cormac McCarthy revisits the violent (and apparently sometimes really talky) Southwest American drug world. A local lawyer, lured by the big money, enters into a deal that promises multi-millions. Soon, stuff starts to go wrong. Big time. And, this being a McCarthy script, there’s a whole lot of blood, guts and betrayal to go along with the occasional morality speech.
Even with veteran Ridley Scott at the helm, we get off to a very bumpy start. I’m not sure what to make of several introductory scenes, where we meet the lovers Counselor Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz, the partners Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz, the middleman, Brad Pitt. Of all the actors, only Bardem (who was so sensational in the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men) flies out of the gate, truly comfortable with the stagy language and ironic humor. But, after a long and odd set up, the deal sours, we’re off to the oh so gory races.
You might want to close your eyes during all the blood and body part letting, but you would be missing some dandy cameo performances interspersed throughout. And I loved how, after warning us individuals aren’t important in the climbing body counts of drug trafficking, characters we spend considerable time watching are dispensed with anonymously. We watch blank faced cleaning crews scrub off globs and patch up bullet holes, readying trucks for the next leg of their delivery. Cold world this is.
Except for its stars. Pitt gets better in each scene, Fassbender, in the least showy role, manages to keep us as shocked by the amorality as he is. Penelope Cruz may be wasted, but Cameron Diaz sure isn’t. Once she gets going here, she’s a scary hoot. Especially in the scene that is sure to be most remembered from this colorfully uneven movie: one, as wonderfully recalled by Bardem, in which Diaz makes love to the hood of his car. He describes it as unforgettable. That’s about right.
Blue is the Warmest Color
How can a movie this good feel so wrong?
Rarely has any coming of age story been this holistically astute. Filmmaker Abdel Kechiche’s adaptation of Julie Maroh’s graphic novel takes us, through about a decade or so of an extraordinary love story. Adele is just 15 when she passes Emma, a somewhat older woman with bright blue hair, on the street, but when their eyes meet, so begins a relationship that is as profound as any first real love can be. Years pass. The schoolgirl earns her teaching certificate. The art student struggles to balance commercial and creative success. They create a home together. Adele rushes home to cook for Emma’s friends. Their initial physical attraction, so overwhelming at first, finds itself in a new place, in a shuffle of exhaustion and mixed expectations. And, as it happens, our lovers face a turning point: do they settle, together, or push the boundaries, looking for something: something more or something else?
I purposely did not read the myriad interviews, articles and gossip items about the schism between Kechiche, Maroh, and his two leading ladies before seeing this film. I like to go into a film with as open a mind as I can; I think that is my job. That being said, ticket buyers may want to know a few things. This movie is 3 hours and 7 minutes long. It is in French, with subtitles. And yes, it is rated NC-17 because of the graphic sex scenes between the two women.
I hope that when other critics rave about the performances of the two leading actresses, they convey the truth here. Both women are so outstanding because the real nakedness of their performances is emotional, not physical. Adele Exarchopoulos is amazing to watch: messy and magnetic. Lea Seydoux, in a stretch from her more traditional film work, is equally compelling. Together, they are combustible.
And yet, appreciative as I am of the storytelling, I am also very uncomfortable with the disproportionately lengthy, repetitive and explicit sex scenes. Almost all other parts of Kechiche’s movie are wonderfully edited, packing the punch in a direct but evocative way. The sex between the women leaves nothing to our imagination. Not only is nothing left untouched, as it were; being this suddenly explicit feels exploitive. And that was before I read the articles.
Does it matter that the actresses have complained about their on set demands from the director? Does it matter that said director has been reported to be gay, thus precluding a “he was just getting his rocks off” argument? What matters most to me, for the purposes of this review, is the sad discomfort and disappointment I felt watching these misguided parts of what was an otherwise terrific film, spoil it.
12 Years A Slave
Steve McQueen’s fact-based film about Southern American slavery is uncompromising, insistent, and one of the most powerful films about the subject ever made.
Tonally, this story of a free man, kidnapped and enslaved in the 1840’s almost an anti-Django Unchained. McQueen, who co-wrote the screenplay, based on Solomon Northrup’s memoir, never takes entertainment short cuts in telling the tale; there are no sweet love stories, no buddy sidebars. Once he is enchained, Solomon learns quickly not only to hide he can read and write, but also that he should not dare become emotionally invested in his fellow slaves. The slavery we are shown here is lonely, fightening and a special kind of hell. Seen through the eyes of a man who had his freedoms stolen away from him makes it all far more acute and harrowing. The few scenes with music, where the slaves are awakened to dance, or gather to bury one of their own, may have similar cinematic cousins, but they’re singular in their sharp, painful catharses.
This is not to say McQueen’s film is not emotionally and artistically rewarding. Chiwetel Ejofor, excellent as Solomon, is surrounded by a fine group of co-stars. Outstanding in the ensemble are Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, and Sarah Paulson. Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard are on board in short bits, too, all showing the occasional near-decency but mostly horrible anguish and fury of the times. As horrifying as much of the film is to watch, it is also, at times, quite beautiful in its appreciation of the land and the local fauna. And when Northrup is finally rescued and brought home to his family, we all go through a rich whirl of reactions.
To me, the most stunning performance is Michael Fassbender’s, as the slave owner so notorious, some Southerners still use the name “Epps” as a derogatory term. By almost underplaying it, Fassbender delivers a man profoundly evil and yet also, in a way, as tragic as any on the screen.
All is Lost
More than a dandy counterpoint to the megahit Gravity, J.C Chandor’s thrilling adventure is also a remarkable existential ride: it’s man against the elements, facing the consequences of his actions.
It’s pretty nifty that Robert Redford is “our Man”, alone on a sailboat, waking as his craft hits (internationally labeled) flotsam. Water is pouring into the cabin. That scene alone is terrifying. But we’ve only just begun. We have already heard a short, rather cryptic voice over, written, we are told, eight days after the accident, in which our sailor admits all is lost. He apologizes to the one(s) to whom he is writing, acknowledging a failure he doesn’t delineate. So, watching, as storms wreak more havoc, as provisions dwindle, as options grow smaller, we know where we are headed. And yet, as he floats toward the international shipping lanes of the Indian Ocean, so do all of our hopes. Our Man has an undeniable will to survive. He faces each new set back with prowess and dignity, determining a game plan, sticking to a schedule of eating and sleeping, he even shaves. We, the audience, can’t help but question our own behavior if placed in similar circumstances. And so, we root for him, our fellow man, a reflection of ourselves, for better or worse.
Of course, we don’t all look like Robert Redford. And few of us have his impact, on screen or off. As a movie star, he’s just great here, holding our eyes against the most furious of fabulous special effect co-stars. But as an actor, he’s just as great in the quieter moments, sticking his fork into a cold can of food, analyzing a star navigation map after he’s lost all electronic support. And he does it all without saying a word. Well, there’s one, but it’s more of an anguished roar than the swear word we probably would have been screaming throughout a less crucial ordeal.
I love the fact that Chandor wrote all this without dialogue. It’s chancy stuff, of course, but as the box office Gods have planned it, you can’t help but compare this movie to its survivalist cousin, Gravity. While Sandra Bullock was made to jabber on throughout, Our Man, also very alone, does not. And whatever his backstory, we don’t get the gory details. Doesn’t matter. There are no dead children here to wrench us; it’s a man who has chosen to go it alone and, consequently, fights to survive. Slim yet profound, this movie’s a knockout.
Can an American hero have any greater film tribute than to have Tom Hanks play him?
Here, as Captain of the container ship hijacked off the coast of Somali, Hanks not only gives one of the finest performances of his career, but represents Richard Phillips as an admirable man of strength, dignity and keen intelligence. Of course, per Billy Ray’s screenplay (based on Phillips’ own book), we see he was not the only hero in this true, harrowing story, one which many might remember watching unfold on our TVs back in 2009.
Director Paul Greengrass brings the same kind of honorable but compelling feel here as he did in his superb United 93. This, of course, is an easier film to make, in that we know we’re heading toward a much happier ending. Societal complexities and globalization are explored, giving the pulse pounding action an honest depth. We meet the Somalis on the beach, men desperate to attack passing cargo ships and we find out why they are so driven. And as we meet Phillips, being driven to the airport by his wife, we find out why he, too, keeps returning to a job that separates him from the family he loves. The crew of the Maersk Alabama, we are reminded, was not a group of soldiers; they were union members. And when the Navy Seals show up, well, that’s just awesome.
There are many remarkable scenes throughout and action even more arresting than what’s in those Bourne movies. But the finest and most memorable moments come at the film’s end, once Phillips has been rescued and is being debriefed onboard a Navy ship. I won’t give what happens away, but it is even more impressive to realize these scenes were not in the original script, but were improvizations, inspired when Greengrass and Hanks spoke to some of the actual officers involved in the real life mission. Asked at a recent New York Film Festival press conference what it was like for Hanks to shoot that unscripted bit, he recalled being “loaded for bear”, anxious to do it. What a payoff.
An intimate movie of vast proportions, Gravity is a spell bounding groundbreaker that transforms the movie going experience.
Alfonso Cuaron’s thriller is a technical marvel, taking us in a way no one has before, to outer space. Meshing live action with not just state of the art effects, but also a whole bag of unique new tricks, we’re seeing (and hearing) a technical marvel. What makes it all the more effective, though, is not its newness, but its subtlety. You come out of this experience not marveling at how a tear, spilling from someone’s eye, doesn’t zoom out and make you feel wet, but at how it slowly rolls off the cheek and into unbridled space, its echo, perhaps, living forever.
All of this, of course, would actually mean little were it not for the ambition of the script and its actors. Cuaron, who wrote the piece with his son, tells the story of two astronauts, stranded in outer space. Veteran Matt Kowalsky is pretty smooth; Dr. Ryan Stone, a medical engineer on her first mission, isn’t. Not the oddest couple, but these two are set up as very different personalities. Because this is, after all, a movie, it’s not totally surprising when those differences jigsaw together under the most impossible of experiences. Initially, I found George Clooney’s Matt almost a cheat, it’s so easy. But, no spoilers here, I was wrong. Clooney hits all the right notes for all the right reasons it turns out. And then there’s Sandra Bullock. In a role that was reportedly written for a man, she’s as much of a knockout as are the cool things floating around her. Lean, intense and open, Bullock’s Ryan is a hero for the ages and the sexes. It might have been even more interesting if Stone’s backstory hadn’t been written as emotionally as it is - cleaner, perhaps, as a single human struggling to survive, but I quibble.
Brilliantly conceived and executed, Gravity’s, in a word, awesome.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes an auspicious filmmaking debut with this somewhat risky romantic comedy.
The writer, director and star (yes, he’s all three) takes a rather traditional story line, boy meets girl, but is she the “right” girl, and runs with it. Not only is his Don Jon a Tony Manero-ish type of working class lover boy, but he’s also got an issue. Our Mr. Cool has an addiction. To pornography. And even the most beautiful girl in his world can’t rock his world the way his movies on the computer can.
What could have been a one-note movie does go for more than that, though, to mixed results. Ms. Perfect is Barbara Sugarman, played by a splendidly luscious Scarlett Johansson. This character, stereotypical gorgeous, rich, demanding, is made far more appealing by Johansson’s talent than she is by the way she’s written, which is as irresistible bait, offering a real alternative to Jon’s backround. As Barbara’s luster begins to fade in Jon’s eyes, we may intellectually understand the problem, but the script makes far too little of that. Julianne Moore, slipping into the fuzzy role of the older woman in the hippie peasant shirt who understands, handles it all nicely, but haven’t we seen her play this part again and again?
As the lead actor, Gordon-Levitt relies on his considerable on-screen charms, to good results. And his scenes with parents Tony Danza and Glenne Headly are pretty much of a hoot. Even sister Brie Larson, who barely utters a word through the whole movie, gets a moment that packs a terrific punch. Clearly, this is a director who not only loves his actors, but brings out some of their best stuff.
Do you have to love racing to love this movie? Absolutely not.
Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan deliver a pulse pounding sports movie that thrills and illuminates. Recreating the intense rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda, who vied for the Formula One Championship in 1976, this sleek and smart film balances the drive on the track with the one off of it, making us not just get these men’s need for speed, but their need, as well, for one another.
In the flashier of the two roles, Chris Hemsworth does more than have a blast with the legendary playboy James Hunt. Sure, he flashes his smile and whips around his long blond locks, but this James has his own version of commitment. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is a short one, where he is spied lying on the ground, intently rehearsing a course in his head, feet pressing imaginary pedals. It’s almost a meditation, and, caught in the act, Hemsworth’s Hunt bounces up, startled and embarrassed, shaking it off. This is a smart, impressive performance, but it’s Daniel Bruhl, as the steely Lauda, who steals the show, captivating all of us, even though none of us really like him. Tricky and great work.
Of course, the costumes, cars and hairdos reflect the 1970’s here, but so, too does Howard’s direction. There’s the lean, economic pacing, somewhat grainy look and an allowance of ambiguity (unanswered questions, no total good or bad guys) that reminds me of what made so many of the films of that era so, well, great. It’s a real change-up for Howard, whose best films have worked on a more clear, clean and approachable level.
Naturally, racing buffs, who know the story and love their cars, will be a sure (and satisfied) audience. But, admirably, Rush delivers, not just for racing fans but for fans of top notch filmmaking, too.
This is one hell of a movie. And yes, you can interpret that in more than a few ways.
We first meet Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover as he is teaching his son how to shoot a deer in the woods. Proud of the kill, he reminds the boy, as they ride back to the subdivision, carcass bleeding in the back of the truck, always be prepared. You never know what’s coming. Ain’t that the truth.
Aaron Guzikowski’s script takes a rather traditional Hollywood story line, vigilantism as revenge for a kidnapped child, and flushes it out with admirable depth. We watch, horrified, as the Dover family, along with their friends the Birches, discover their young daughters have disappeared during Thanksgiving dinner. Our anguish grows as theirs does, seeing Jake Gyllenhaal’s detective have to let a suspect go free, even as the clock ticks away, approaching the hours a starved, dehydrated child might die. Keller, desperate, takes action. The other father tries to swallow his conflicts and assist. And we are left with the obvious question. What would we do if that were us?
What’s most impressive here, though, is not that first reflective puzzle. It’s the ones that come around and after it. Keller, we discover, is a religious man, a loving husband and father, a contractor who’s having a tough time making ends meet. And what’s with the carefully organized supplies shelved up in the basement? The Birches, long time friends who are doing better in this economy, happen to be African American. Suspect Alex Jones appears a haunted young man, loyal to the aunt who took him in. And Detective Loki, quiet and determined, sports some serious looking body art for a play-it-by-the-books guy.
Director Denis Villeneuve delivers a masterfully made edge of your seat thriller that’s as potent as any drama out there. An all-star cast complements the ambitious intentions. Gyllenhaal gets better and better with each picture: he’s excellent here. Hugh Jackman, though, is sensational, giving the best dramatic performance of his career.
Understandably, this lengthy twister may prove tough going for some; it is still a true achievement in reimagining the popular idea that revenge is sweet.
No matter how you look at it, there’s no question this one delivers a strong punch to the gut.
Beginning with the true story of an African-American butler who served eight Presidents in the White House, this ambitious epic strives to recount a nearly hundred-year fight for civil rights, hitting a bunch of key events along the way. We first meet young Cecil as he’s picking cotton, witnessing the murder of his father by the man who had just raped his mother. Later, as our hero works his way toward his eventual remarkable career milestone, we witness Presidents wrestle with controversial legislation, the assassination of JFK and Martin Luther King, sit ins, race riots, the birth of the Black Panther movement, the Vietnam War and, yes, the election of the country’s first black Commander in Chief. Most interesting is depiction of the inter-racial schism that divided the movement by the differing approaches to a common goal of equality. All of this is told through the intimate story of Cecil, his wife and two sons. This Zelig-like technique can and has worked beautifully in several films, but it can also feel manipulative and asks for a real leap of faith from the audience. I found myself alternately charmed and dubious this time around. What the episodic storyline lacks is made up for, though, in the telling. Daniels knows how to grab his viewers, insisting on their attention with vivid scenes, star-quality cameos, and a dandy atmospheric sense, all enhancing the fine actors at the movie’s center.
Forest Whitaker is wonderful as the savvy Cecil. Having been instructed on how to play the game, he obeys the rules while never sacrificing his dignity. A fine David Oyelowo is a great foil, the son determined to find his own path. Daniels has surrounded their story with a huge all-star group, which, at times, pulls us out of the moment as we wonder how they got Robin Williams to look so much like Dwight Eisenhower or John Cusak, Richard Nixon. Cuba Gooding, Jr and Lenny Kravitz are spot on, as Cecil’s fellow White House butlers, and even though you can’t help but watch Oprah Winfrey through the prism of her “Oprah-ness”, she does deliver a smartly modulated and ultimately lovely performance.
For those of us who lived through some of what is depicted here, even with its faults, this is a remarkably affecting movie. And yes, I cried. But I also couldn’t help but remember, as emotional as Obama’s election is here, we still all have a way to go to real victory. In the movie’s earliest scenes, we are told back in the 1920’s, a white man could kill a black man and get away with it. Even though the filmmakers swear this was in the script before Trayvon Martin was shot, that one line sure does pack quite a wallop.
Neill Blomkamp’s follow up to the extraordinary District 9 has a bigger budget, bigger stars and lots more references to classic hits, but this visionary filmmaker still isn’t dazzled by Hollywood. In fact, here, he just about blows the place up.
We begin in Los Angeles, circa 2154. As it did in Blade Runner, the place looks like hell. And the proletariat’s simmering: it’s clear class warfare is about to explode. After all, the rich have flown the coop, almost abandoned the place, having created their own clean, beautiful and bright nirvana literally hovering above. Jodie Foster, sleek and simmering, is Elysium’s ambitious defense secretary. When Earthlings invade her strict Homeland Security, even in the desperate search for the health care so easily accessible to her citizens, she commands they be corralled and returned to where they came from. It’s not so easy, though, when Max, an ex-con who’s been surgically transformed into a mutant alien, shows up. He’s not just out to save his own skin (what’s left of it), he’s, to his own surprise, out to change the worlds.
In lesser films of the ilk, some bulked up Dolph Lundgren or even “The Rock” type might have played Max, barking out a little dialogue and cracking a joke or two. Here, however, Matt Damon hit the gym. Sure, he looks amazing, but this fine actor also gives a wallop of a star turn, bringing a humanity that pulls us all in. An international supporting cast is fine, but it’s District 9 alum Sharlto Copley who steals it, giving the best bad guy performance so far this year.
Clearly, Blomkamp has an agenda and the socialist messages do get a bit loud, making sure we Get The Message. Love interests, sick children, sweaty underworld bosses, metal bound heroes and factory worker abuse range from standard plotting to unnecessary film homages. But there’s no denying the magnificent look of the thing, the breathtaking pacing and the undeniably absorbing storytelling, even if we’ve heard most of that story a couple of times before.
Even though its best scene doesn’t happen until halfway through the ending credits, this sequel is, at least, better than its predecessor.
Hugh Jackman has once again pulled off one of those physical marvels, bulking way up from Jean Valjean to re-rip into the Logan/Wolverine character. We begin with a few set up scenes: one, in which our hero rescues one of his Japanese captors during the attack on Nagasaki, the other, a recurring dream of his beloved Jean. He’s vowed never to kill again, but thank God he gets over that fast or there’d be no movie. After taking revenge on some local game hunters, Logan is whisked away to Japan, on the pretense of visiting the deathbed of the soldier he saved so long ago. Soon, it’s obvious there’s a lot more to it than paying respect.
Jackman has always had a tough assignment here. It’s not just the physicality, it’s the dour nature of Logan’s personality. Try as he may, it feels flat to watch this naturally magnetic star sober it down so low. When he’s allowed a sneaky joke or a sly glance, we’re all a lot happier. Students of these miserable superheroes might enjoy comparing this with the relatively more interesting performances offered by Christian Bale and even Henry Cavill, but, like the rest of the movie, the performance is ok.
Yes, there are some big fighting sequences and samurai swords fly with panache. Director James Mangold takes pains to make sure this movie is great to look at the rest of the time, too, surrounding Jackman with evocative scenery, snazzy Audi sedans and lots of beautiful women. Two models turned actresses dress the set. The very beautiful Tao Okamoto, may not emote much, but she’s got a great face and a figure so teensy, I’m amazed she didn’t slip through Wolverine’s talons. Newcomer Rila Fukushima fares better, bringing spitfire energy to her impressively athletic sidekick.
The 3 D effects are minimal, but make sure you stay to watch the nifty little scene tucked into the final credits. Yep, it’s tantalizing, but also wonderfully acted and a hoot to boot.
Woody Allen’s elegant skewering of a Madoff-ish wife is so precise, so exquisitely brought to sizzling life by Cate Blanchett, the characters, cities and world around her suffer in comparison. Some have written that off to lopsided focus in the script. I’m looking at it a different way. Jasmine is a narcissist. And when you’re that self-absorbed, everybody and everything else shrivels in your wake.
We first meet Jasmine as she is chatting up her virtually silent elder seatmate on a plane. Their cross country trip gives our agitated Chanel clad, Vuitton carrying heroine a perfect chance to reflect on her terrible fate. Why did she drop out of B.U. to marry the dashing money manager? Why did he have to turnout to be such a shit, cheating on her and mismanaging his multi million dollar funds to not only ripped off investors but leave her virtually penniless? And now all she has is that sort of sister, the other one her parents also adopted, who’s offered up a bed in the tiny flat she, now a single mom, rents after said shit ripped her off, too.
Other people come and go in Jasmine’s world. A few who try to help are brushed away like a stereotypical dirty fly. Magnificent venues in New York and San Francisco appear flat. An appropriate suitor, whose new house over looking the Bay does entice, is played like a ticket out of hell. Popping the pills the doctor at the institution prescribed, Jasmine insists Ginger dump that greasy fiancé of hers and, once again, tries to offer her sister a peek into the life Jasmine had and is determined to get in on again.
It’s no easy feat to pull off a picture of what surrounds someone with a very focused tunnel vision. This balancing act doesn’t always work. Yet even with their back burner characters, Bobby Cannavale, Louis C.K. and especially Sally Hawkins glow. But Blue Jasmine is, after all, a movie about and dominated by Jasmine. It’s clear Woody Allen doesn’t like her very much and writes her a shockingly Greek tragic twist that took my breath away. In the hands of the extraordinary Cate Blanchette, Jasmine becomes a fluttering lioness: terrifying, captivating and impossible to forget.
Could it be director James Wan was just a little too reverential? Because just when we couldn’t need a chill down the spine more, this carefully made horror story delivers way too late in the game.
Based on the remembrances of real life paranormal investigators, this is yet another haunted house movie. And that’s ok. The sweet young family moves into the big, creepy house in the woods nobody else wanted to buy. Pretty soon, well, like immediately, they begin to suspect there’s something up. Family dog keels over right where a bunch of dead birds are lying. Odd noises emanate. And then there’s that dusty old stuff in the basement. No, they’re not valuable antiques.
Wan, whose credits include two of the Saw franchise, knows how to set up a story. Carefully, he introduces us to each character, encouraging our emotional investment. His attention to detail, especially as it is memorable (for some) 1970’s period, is impressive and affectionate. We don’t want to see anything happen to these nice people. And yet, well, yeah, we kinda do. After all, that’s what we showed up for.
But, somehow, Wan misses his opportunity. He lets the cool stuff hitting the fan moments start far too late, by the time we get to see all the excitement, we’re already slumping in our seats. Or whipping out our phones to check our e mails and start texting. There was a lot of that happening at the screening I attended.
It should be said some fine actors are on board here: Vera Farmiga’s ethereal beauty is put to good use, as are Ron Livingston and Patrick Wilson’s relatable every man qualities. I love Lili Taylor in just about everything but found myself laughing along with the others, who looked up from their apparently more interesting mobile communications just long enough to see her spinning and writhing with committed enthusiasm.
Before there was Trayvon Martin, there was, among too many others, Oscar Grant. His tragic shooting by BART police rocked the San Francisco Bay area on New Year’s Day, 2009. The fact that Ryan Coogler’s film about Oscar is being released just as the nation is gripped by the Zimmerman trial makes this already stunning picture all the more pungent.
A wonderful Michael B. Jordan stars as the charming but complicated Grant. 22 years old, with a family to support, the chronically late ex-con is fired from the only legitimate job he can get. Bills are mounting, his girlfriend suspicious. But it’s New Year’s Eve. Oscar makes a decision. He’s going to be a better person. And it will all start tonight.
History tells us the rest of the story. Riding the subway home from the festivities, a fight breaks out. Transit police pull Oscar and some of his male friends off the train, forcing them down on the ground as they await backup. Shocked and angry, the young men protest. Their remaining friends and fellow passengers watch, shocked and afraid. Some use their phones to take pictures. Soon, a gun goes off. Grant is hit. His is a death that haunts his city and Coogler, who grew up there, wants it to haunt the rest of us, too.
It is not just the death that makes this film so hard to shake. Wisely, Coogler (and Jordan) present Oscar as a complex man, one who loves and enjoys, yet also cannot at times contain his furious anger. He’s a person who might be termed “marginal” by some who look for easy excuses, such as ‘well, he was a drug dealer with a record, he must have done something to get shot’. Maybe people who think in those terms won’t be the type who would choose to go see a movie like this one, but for everyone who does, this spare but powerful film summons up our own morality, compassion and outrage.
White House Down
Director Roland Emmerich throws everything he can into this popcorn blow ‘em up: yes, there is even a kitchen sink.
Channing Tatum stars as Cale, a well intentioned single dad aiming for a job on the President’s security team. Taking his daughter along for his White House interview, the two become immersed in the blasting action when terrorists take over Washington. James Vanderbilt’s script calls for relentless action, peppered with a few political overtones and more than a few attempts at humor. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Like so many of these types of movies, it is what it is. Me? Maybe it’s battle fatigue. After all, there are so many of these kinds of “entertainments”, at least one per week, it seems. I’m tired of watching people, places and things being attacked and decimated in the name of good fun.
Emmerich, who meshed all of the above pretty well in Independence Day, puts his pedal to the metal after a short introductory scene or two, setting up Cale as a good, if kinda messed up guy. We also are not at all subtly reminded that Washington, D. C. is a awe inspiring, magnificent place, a city of such emotional power President Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) requests unadvised flyovers just to see the place. So, of course, as the music begins to grow more and more intense (hitting us like a ton of bricks), we are set up to 1, feel terrible as we watch the Capitol and White House explode and 2, worry about those nice people inside.
OK, not everybody’s nice. James Woods does a solid job with the only meaty supporting role, Jason Clarke, who was so fine in Zero Dark Thirty, gets to do little here except snarl and kill people. Maggie Gyllenhaal is ok as the smarty pants security exec, Foxx, too, does ok with what he’s got. Joey King, who’s a terrific young actress, handles her role with aplomb but it’s Tatum who’s the star and, star he does: talking sweetly, brandishing every weapon known to, well, not me, and filling out a sweaty T shirt. If the guys who find it entertaining to go, for fun, and watch our nation’s capital being blown to bits in any way leave this movie trying to channel their inner Channing, I don’t think there are very many of us who mind that a bit.
Well, it’s no ‘Bridesmaids’. But, mostly thanks to the game and magically paired Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, a predictable script delivers some real good laughs.
Since it’s already been announced a sequel is in the works, let us look ahead to what can be improved upon for next time. Allow Katie Dippold, who has done some nifty writing for TV, to depart from the formula. It’s been established Bullock and McCarthy are an odd couple pairing of cops: now, let ‘em really rip with a storyline that hasn’t been told a million times before, albeit with men in the leads. Let Paul Feig, a director who clearly loves his actors, have more time to let them shine. I’m not talking running time (The Heat’s 117 minutes is plenty sufficient for a comedy), I’m talking quality scenes with not just the two stars, but also the nicely cast supporting players. Actors like Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans and a wonderful Thomas F. Wilson (Biff from Back to the Future!) have a lot more to give than what they are allowed to here. And Jane Curtin! Her first scene, as McCarthy’s mother, is a speechless hoot: too bad she was rendered practically mute after that. I was practically salivating to see what these two women could do together: please let them give it a whirl!
And, of course, don’t lose Bullock or McCarthy. Alone, both these stars have proven to be smart, gutsy and winning leading ladies. The work that they do together, or should I say share together here is a joy to behold. Although playing competitive characters that are wary of one another, there is not a trace of any ego between the two actresses on the screen. Each not just holds her own, but truly supports one another, bringing camaraderie that not just improves the product, but reminds us what real, selfless friendship can be.
Man of Steel
A Superman for the 21st Century, this sweeping epic soars, bursting with ambition, a keen sense of drama and some knockout special effects.
Director Zack Snyder knows how to stage a mythic grabber (see: 300); here, his awesome visuals are enhanced by The Dark Knight trilogy’s Christopher Nolan (credited both as producer and story) and many from his Batman team. It’s a wonderful mix. As they did with that series, both screenwriter David S. Goyer and Nolan offer a new, deeper look at a legendary character and his story. Plot points and personality issues, dealt with sketchily before, are more fully explored. The film begins with a lengthy, developed explanation of how and why the baby was released from his biological parents, on planet Krypton. This Clark Kent, also known as Kal-El this time, isn’t just a cute boy with special talents, discovered in the fields of Smalltown, USA. Now, those unique strengths truly frighten not just the boy, but also his well-meaning adoptive father, who soberly advises Clark to keep it all a secret. This is not the sweetly comic Superman who dashes into phone booths for a quick change when he sees a little old lady have her purse stolen. This is a haunted hero, possessed of superhuman powers he is told can change the world, at a tremendous cost. There are those who find this kind of exploration a reward onto itself (count me in) but this huge production isn’t just all angst and planetary annihilation. The fun comes through Snyder’s staging: each and every scene is beautifully, meticulously designed. And the special effects (which have been upconverted for those who insist on 3D) are quality and quantity. I thought, in fact, there’s a little too much quantity. The climactic war scenes could have been trimmed, their impact greater.
An all-star cast weaves in and out (much of the story telling comes though flashback scenes). Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, Richard Schiff and Christopher Meloni are quite effective. Ayelet Zurer brings new energy to the term ‘otherworldly bitch’. In the two best-written character roles, Michael Shannon embodies the evil Zod with Shakespearian relish and Kevin Costner, as Jonathan Kent, is simply grand. Even in such illustrious company, Henry Cavill is impossible to look away from. Yes, he’s handsome, but his magnetic performance is well, just super. Unfortunately, Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne are given short shrift. That is one of the few mistakes that will be rectified the next time around. Because we all know there will be a next time and that’s just fine with me.
A perfectly amiable comedy, this internship actually pays more benefits than we might expect.
Wedding Crashers’ Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn reunite to co-star as watch salesmen whose time has passed. Unemployed, unmarried, unhappy, these children of the 1980’s find themselves in very much of a 2013 dilemma. How do you create a second chapter when the social economics of the world around you frankly, suck? Vaughn stares blankly into his computer screen. And there’s the answer. Go work for Google. And it just so happens the company is looking. For interns.
Vaughn, who co-wrote the screenplay, comes up with a cute way around the old internships for college students only problem. Together, the two are accepted begrudgingly into the program and, naturally, find themselves in way over their slightly graying heads, competing with razor sharp kids, all of whom, we soon discover have their own issues, too.
Wilson, appealing as usual, actually gets to romance a lovely partner here (Rose Byrne), and the landscape is dotted with familiar, mostly TV, faces. Among the young stars, all of whom do what they are supposed to nicely, I liked Josh Brener, who also recently made quite the auspicious debut as a recurring character in a wonderful episode of Marc Maron’s IFC series (it’s called Dead Possum….check it out). The moments here belong to Vaughn, who, sporting a Tom Petty T shirt and spouting endless 1980’s pop culture references, still manages to win everybody over, both on screen and in the audience.
Sweetly intentioned and sporadically funny, this not especially surprising story taps not just into the zeitgeist, but also into the same kind of underdog goofiness that made The Revenge of the Nerds so popular. Don’t remember that movie? Google it.
Much Ado About Nothing
If you don’t find yourself happily swept up by this slim yet immensely charming adaptation, maybe you’re not the movie fanatic you thought you were.
Joss Whedon has stepped away from The Avengers to mount a sweet Shakespearian tale of romance and, well, those who avenge its true path. Shot on the grounds of a manor home, in a matter of a few days, this low budget production is as creative in nature as was Whedon’s last critical hit, The Cabin in the Woods. And that familiarity isn’t by budget alone: Whedon has brought along a few of the actors from that film to stop screaming in the dark and now spout iambic pentameter. And yes, you’ll recognize some of the other actors from other of Whedon’s movies, too. It’s like a very cool ensemble company, one which insists on digging into some artistic adventures in between smashing box office records.
A fine, if not necessarily headline cast has great fun telling the twisty love story of Benedick and Beatrice, two adults who’re just so sure love is not for them. Beatrice, in fact, is one of the Shakespearian women young actresses love to play, thanks to her feisty independence and glowing self confidence. Amy Acker does a lovely job, as does Alexis Denisof. The biggest and happiest surprise here comes from a downright wonderful Nathan Fillion, who steals the whole thing with his few scenes as Dogberry, the blustery neighborhood police captain. Most productions gloss over the somewhat comical character, but not this time. Fillion flushes out the deluded but sincere constable and becomes a character of character: a goofy guy we laugh at and can’t help but love.