Friday, December 25, 2015

Concussion


CONCUSSION (Peter Landesman, 2015)

Pennsylvania’s Allegheny County Coroner’s Office seems like an unlikely place for a challenger to the National Football League to emerge, yet that’s where Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) makes an important discovery in CONCUSSION. The Nigerian immigrant and absurdly well-educated neuropathologist has no particular interest in or objection to the American sport until he performs an autopsy on former Pittsburgh Steelers great Mike Webster (David Morse). Omalu believes that repeated blows to the head are responsible for causing the early dementia Webster experienced. He publishes his findings on chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, and naϊvely believes the NFL will be grateful to learn about risks to their players’ health.

Fair or not, CONCUSSION does not compare favorably to SPOTLIGHT, another recent process film about exposing a systemic problem that leaders have hidden or ignored. CONCUSSION well-assembled but indistinct scenes of research in the first half show Omalu working at personal and financial cost to find out why professional football players are exhibiting such unusual psychological distress that result in premature deaths. He pursues the answer to a question not being asked and arrives at a conclusion that could threaten a hugely profitable corporation. When it sticks to the work Omalu does in the morgue and at his kitchen table, CONCUSSION grants a glimpse into the thankless efforts that go into producing such a study.

After Omalu and colleagues have published, CONCUSSION falls prey to the trap of needing to make the NFL into the proverbial moustache-twirling fat cat villains with pervasive menacing influence like one of James Bond’s SPECTRE foes. There are intimations that the league may have a hand in the FBI leveling trumped up charges at Omalu’s boss Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks) to remove him from office and coming after the good doctor too. CONCUSSION also suggests the possibility of he and his girlfriend-turned wife Prema (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) being followed. Such finger-pointing and dramatic turns pull CONCUSSION into thriller territory that is at odds with the research and policy matters at hand.

CONCUSSION succeeds in showing the toll football took on some gridiron heroes and their families, but ultimately the story belongs to Omalu. Smith portrays him as a gentle and generous man, but the film and performance struggle to develop him beyond being an honorable do-gooder. Omalu’s romance with Prema generates some nice moments, especially when he talks about being an outsider, yet these scenes stray from the film’s focus.

Grade: C-

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Spotlight


SPOTLIGHT (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

At the urging of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) in SPOTLIGHT the Boston Globe’s four-person investigative reporting unit directs its attention to the story of an area priest who molested children. The team, known as Spotlight, consists of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) begins work on the story in 2001 and soon learns that the abuse isn’t limited to one bad man in the Catholic Archdiocese. Rather, they uncover a pattern of institutional cover-up in which the problematic priests are moved among parishes.

SPOTLIGHT presents a thrilling examination of how journalists research and report a story. Although the film contains mystery elements, its attention is focused on the method and dogged determination to reveal the horrible truth that, in this instance, seems to have been an open secret among certain people in power. Writer-director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer excel at retracing the Globe reporters’ steps to connect information hiding in plain sight and gain access to documents that have been buried or removed. This may be the first and last time creating spreadsheets from rooting through old church directories can be described as compelling viewing.

Clearly the abusive priests serve as villains in SPOTLIGHT, but none of them are the ultimate targets of the reporting. To borrow video game terminology, the big boss awaiting the print heroes is the Catholic Church itself. The Spotlight team is squaring off against an antagonist without a face, yet McCarthy finds subtle ways to remind of the size and prevalence of their opponent. Cathedrals and their spires are often seen in the rear of shots as if ominously looming over the city and across the street from the publication. Church bells are heard in the background, one more indication of how it permeates the community.

The members of the investigative unit identify as Catholic, even if they may not be practicing. The majority of their newspaper’s readership is Catholic too. McCarthy and Singer do well at using the coded language groups employ to stress and enforce rightly held attitudes among those within a circle. The screenplay and the actors are also on point in demonstrating how reporters have to talk, almost as confessors, to their interviewees so they can extract key information. As a process film, SPOTLIGHT is exemplary.

Grade: A

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

In the Heart of the Sea


IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (Ron Howard, 2015)

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA tells the story purported to have inspired Herman Melville’s MOBY-DICK. The author (Ben Whishaw) shows up in the film’s framing device as he interviews an old Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the 1820s tragedy when a whale destroyed the ship the Essex. In the flashback scenes Tom (Tom Holland) is a boy who finds work on a whaling vessel along with experience-challenged captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and first mate Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA has the basics for a rip-roaring adventure yarn with the chase for magnificent beasts of the ocean and fight for survival in dire circumstances, but director Ron Howard and screenwriter Charles Leavitt are not able to locate a center for this incredible story. Although Tom is speaking with Melville, Hemsworth’s brawny sailor functions as the default main character, leaving the storyteller as a supporting player in his own life’s narrative. It’s likely why there’s a curious distance between the action and the emotional current. In his telling Tom doesn’t create much of an inner life for himself as a young man, let alone Owen or any of the various seamen aboard the Essex.

Howard demonstrates more interest in the day-to-day operation of whaling expedition. The most exciting sequence comes as the men capture and kill their first whale on the voyage. Howard pinpoints the dangers, from occupying tiny boats beside the enormous creatures to needing to allow for enough rope to a harpooned whale so it doesn’t drag them to their doom, and the disgusting reality of disassembling a whale into its saleable parts. It’s fascinating to observe what was required to succeed in this kind of living.

Toward the end IN THE HEART OF THE SEA strives to achieve meaning of some kind, but the attempt feels tacked on to a story that has never quite understood what or who it is about. The seafoam green visual palette, water level shots, and heavily scarred CGI whale add some verve to what is otherwise a frustrating account of tragedy.

Grade: C

Friday, December 04, 2015

The Night Before


THE NIGHT BEFORE (Jonathan Levine, 2015)

Fourteen years ago Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie) took out their grieving friend Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) on Christmas Eve for a night of chemically-enhanced celebration in New York City. Ethan’s parents had died recently, and he needed a boost to his spirits. In THE NIGHT BEFORE the three made this raucous time an annual tradition, but it’s agreed that this year’s holiday revelry will be the last. The guys are in their mid-thirties, and two now have other obligations upon them. Isaac will soon become a father. Chris is enjoying the benefits of fame from a breakthrough late in his professional football career.

Ethan, on the other hand, remains adrift in menial jobs and is moody about his break-up with Diana (Lizzy Caplan). He seems reluctant to let go of the Christmas Eve debauchery, but if this will be the final year of it, he’s prepared to do it up big. Employing sticky fingers as he works in a coat check, Ethan procures passes to the Nutcracka Ball, the city’s preeminent party at a secret location. Although the friends are looking forward to an evening of mindless fun, circumstances cause them to confront their greatest fears about the future.

Although Rogen doesn’t have a screenplay credit, THE NIGHT BEFORE touches upon a theme that pops up in several of the comedies he’s starred in, NEIGHBORS in particular. Rogen and his on-screen buddies wrestle with being responsible grown-ups while wanting to hang onto the freedom and recklessness that marked their young adulthood. Rogen’s Isaac has been taking impending fatherhood seriously, so his wife Betsy (Jillian Bell) grants him a free pass--and gives him a box of random drugs--for the good and supportive behavior he’s demonstrated through her pregnancy. Rather than letting Isaac cut loose, the permission to be irresponsible makes him face up to his anxieties about the major life changes that await and for which he feels ill-prepared. Filled with existential panic while in an altered state, Rogen is funny as he tries to keep his composure while high as a kite at Midnight Mass and in front of a friend’s mother.

As the guys’ pot supplier Mr. Green, Michael Shannon counters Rogen’s hysterical energy with a dry wit filtered through a typically intense performance. Mr. Green and his product serve a purpose akin to the ghosts in A CHRISTMAS CAROL, making Shannon ideal as someone whose presence indicates menace streaked with ribbons of humor to help his clients’ get through their cloudy mental states.

While THE NIGHT BEFORE produces a decent share of funny moments, it runs into a fair number of bumps in the road. Director Jonathan Levine and his co-writers can’t quite find the right mix of outrageous humor and dramatic material. Ethan is kind of a downer as the adventure goes deep into the night. The film’s hedonistic attitude gets tempered as THE NIGHT BEFORE advances toward a sentimental conclusion. That’s par for the course for films like this one, but it makes for a weird fit alongside Chris’s subplot regarding his steroid use to become a star toward the end of his football career. Like a sampler box of chocolates, some of it is good, and some is better left untouched.

Grade: C

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Creed


CREED (Ryan Coogler, 2015)

CREED’s Adonis Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) is the product of an affair and never knew his father, so he has plenty of conflicted feelings about the man the world knew and loved as heavyweight champion boxer Apollo Creed. Rather than going by his mythological name, he prefers to be called Donnie and doesn’t trumpet his heritage. He inherited physical gifts from his father, though, although he exhibits them on the sly by fighting on the weekend in Mexico than in a recognized organization.

Donnie decides that he must follow his heart to be a boxer, so he moves from Los Angeles to Philadelphia and tracks down Apollo’s old rival and friend Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the hope that this other boxing legend will train him.

As the seventh film in the ROCKY series, it would stand to reason that CREED might play like a retread. Instead co-writer and director Ryan Coogler delivers a familiar but dynamic offshoot. CREED takes a comfortable position in the tradition of these underdog sports movies and builds upon it. The story beats are similar, yet as a character study of a different up-and-comer and an icon who moves from inside ring to the corner, it is surprisingly affecting. Stallone, who did not have a hand in writing a ROCKY-related film for the first time, is critical to the film’s emotional tug. Rocky isn’t the last of his kind but is the last from his circle, and in part CREED is about coming to grips with that. Stallone plays Rocky with a sadness about him. He isn’t looking to regain past glories. He misses the people who used to be around him, not the titles. Stallone wears the heartache well, revealing the soft spots inside the warrior’s body he still possesses. Coogler conveys Rocky’s melancholy with subtle touches. Paulie’s old room in Rocky’s house remains the way it was when he died. Rocky keeps a folding chair in a tree at the cemetery, a sign that he’s a regular visitor at his trainer and wife’s graves.

Although it’s inevitable that CREED will build up to a big fight, Coogler is more interesting in Donnie’s internal struggle to reconcile where he comes from and who he is. The fight is with himself, which Rocky wisely points out in a training exercise in front of a mirror. Jordan plays Donnie as someone at once confident in himself and insecure about a background over which he had no control.

The emotional beats achieve the strongest reactions, whether between fighter and trainer or Donnie and Tessa Thompson’s Bianca, a singer that he falls for. Still, the boxing scenes pack their share of thrills, especially Donnie’s first billed fight that Coogler stages in a single unbroken shot. The technique dazzles while serving a dramatic purpose of understanding what it feels like to step into the ring for a first professional fight.

Grade: A

The Good Dinosaur


THE GOOD DINOSAUR (Peter Sohn, 2015)

THE GOOD DINOSAUR considers what might have happened if the extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs never occurred. In the animated film’s imagined millions of years after the devastating meteor misses Earth, talking dinosaurs have developed agricultural practices while non-verbal humans in roaming packs are among the pesky critters that try to swipe their stockpiled food. Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), an undersized apatosaurus among his two siblings, is tasked with catching and eliminating the pest. The feral boy is caught but gets away, leading Arlo’s father (Jeffrey Wright) to take the youngster in search of the thief and finish the job.

A flash flood sweeps away Poppa, so a grieving Arlo blames the boy for his father’s death. When he turns up again, Arlo shows no restraint in chasing after him, but he gets knocked out while in pursuit and awakens far from home. The boy proves to be Arlo’s means for surviving, as he provides him with food and protection. He shows dog-like loyalty to the dinosaur, thus leading to Arlo naming him Spot (Jack Bright). He’ll need the help as they encounter fierce creatures on the long journey home.

For better or worse, a new Pixar film bears the weight of expectations of being nothing less than great. With its visual elements THE GOOD DINOSAUR lives up to the high standards set by its predecessors. The natural scenery’s photorealistic rendering captures the beauty of land, vegetation, and geological formations untouched by civilization. It’s astonishing to compare how far computer animation has come since TOY STORY was released in 1995. Director Peter Sohn uses some lovely visual storytelling too, especially in the scene with Arlo and Spot finding a common language through sticks and sand to share their tragic family backgrounds.

As great as THE GOOD DINOSAUR is to look at, the story is a jumble of scenes in which a fearful dinosaur child matures through a daunting quest home. Arlo wanders through this archetypal western tale without clear markers of progress or picking up notable supporting characters. The narrative just sort of ends without any awareness of how close he’s getting to the homestead. The biggest threat on the journey come in the form of a trio of pterodactyls who aren’t as good-hearted as they initially seem. These nasty beasts introduce a fair amount of terror to their scenes but are in the film for so little time that their impact is diminished.

THE GOOD DINOSAUR doesn’t shy away from the hostile nature of the world and those encountered in it, which may make the film scarier for younger viewers than might be anticipated. Death and imminent harm hang over the film, yet the greater takeaways is the bond formed between a dinosaur and his pet boy as they face conflict. THE GOOD DINOSAUR does lighten the gravity of the situation with some loopy humor, such as Arlo and Spot’s awkwardness at bathroom time and their hallucinogenic visions after eating fruit. It’s unlikely to be anyone’s favorite Pixar film, but the majesty of its visuals and scattered idiosyncrasies are rewarding.

Grade: B-

Friday, November 20, 2015

Mr. Holmes


MR. HOLMES (Bill Condon, 2015)

93-year-old Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) has been long retired to a house in the country where he tends to his bees and tries to bolster his failing memory in MR. HOLMES. It has been thirty-five years since his last case. Dr. Watson’s recounting of the matter of a man who wished for the renowned detective to follow his grief-stricken wife strikes Sherlock as a fiction lacking motive for the identified culprit, yet he struggles to recall the details of the case. He draws encouragement to keep working on the mystery from Roger (Milo Parker), the sharp and inquisitive son of his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).

Sherlock is also using this time to reflect on a recent visit to postwar Japan at the request of Mr. Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada). Having written on the benefits of royal jelly, he has been summoned to help find the prickly ash, which, like the bees’ secretion, is thought to assist one’s memory. This encounter may have a connection with Sherlock’s past as well, although he dismisses ever knowing the man he is said to have consulted.

With Sherlock Holmes as the main character, the expectation is that MR. HOLMES will yield a good mystery. In this instance it is not so much within the case he is trying to solve but the enlightenment that he discovers regarding his nature. It is a film first and foremost about loneliness. Sherlock has devoted his life to the practice of logic, but in his current state he learns that it too has limitations. Nevertheless, screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher includes plenty of marvelous details indicative of a larger design that can crack the drama’s secrets through Holmesian deductive reasoning.

McKellen is splendid as a brusque logician who can seem heartless with offhand remarks yet takes such apparent delight in a boy who wishes to hone his mind in a similar manner. McKellen’s eyes dance with the spark of a keen intellect underneath the elderly make-up. His Sherlock enjoys being the smartest person in the room, yet he also shows a patient teacher who becomes aware of how his cold, calculating manner requires the warmth and understanding of social courtesies.

Grade: A-

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Experimenter: The Stanley Milgram Story


EXPERIMENTER: THE STANLEY MILGRAM STORY (Michael Almereyda, 2015)

In EXPERIMENTER: THE STANLEY MILGRAM STORY social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) studies obedience at Yale beginning in 1961. Volunteers in the experiment are given the role of teacher to a man they’ve met but who is not visible in the adjoining room during the test. This person is referred to as the learner, and he is asked to remember word pairings. If the learner supplies an incorrect answer, the teacher is instructed to give an electric shock of 45 volts. The voltage increases with wrong replies up to 450 volts. The learner is not actually being shocked but makes exclamations of pain and requests to stop, which can be heard through the wall. Although an observer in the room with the teacher will tell the participant to continue with the experiment, the teacher could quit. Milgram found that most do not. The experiment makes him famous but draws criticism that follows him through life.

EXPERIMENTER is staged as if it takes place within an artificial environment. Obvious chromakey backgrounds are used for period settings. The confines of the research space, the classroom, and other private spaces suggest the feeling that every action and utterance is presented for observation behind a one-way mirror. The muted visual strategy points to the clinical nature of this biographical portrait, although it’s not an outsider looking into who the experimental psychologist is. Sarsgaard as Milgram frequently addresses the camera directly, as if the film is the experimenter’s investigation into himself.

With this unconventional approach writer-director Michael Almereyda avoids the trappings of biopic cliches. While EXPERIMENTER touches upon Milgram’s most famous work, it isn’t a checklist of big life moments but a psychological probing of how his background and obsessions informed him to study the banality of evil. Sarsgaard conveys the seriousness of Milgram’s pursuit but retains awareness of the humor and absurdity that can emerge in such labor.

Grade: A-

The Peanuts Movie


THE PEANUTS MOVIE (Steve Martino, 2015)

THE PEANUTS MOVIE takes Charlie Brown and friends from the comics pages and traditional 2D animation to the 3D computer-animated realm, albeit with a look that is not drastically different with what is familiar from Charles Schulz’s work in strip, TV, and film form. The animation has sort of a plush toy quality about it rather than the sleek, hyperrealist plasticity that is often associated with textures in the medium. Those warmer surfaces allow THE PEANUTS MOVIE to be approached as a security blanket rather than some flashy novelty.

The film revisits many of the touchstones found in other PEANUTS properties. Charlie Brown remains a regular, angst-ridden boy who nevertheless sustains eternal hope that his day to be in the spotlight may yet arrive. His loyal dog Snoopy imagines pursuing the Red Baron in his biplane. The other kids view him as unexceptional but good-hearted. He wishes desperately to impress the little red-haired girl who moves in across the street.

The visual style goes hand in hand with the earnest, humane tone the film strikes. THE PEANUTS MOVIE is funny in a gentle way, but it’s also attuned to the fears and insecurities that children and, for that matter, adults carry. Charlie Brown fails and gets embarrassed. He worries about how things might go for him. Through it all, he displays a fundamental decency that others notice, even if they criticize and laugh at him sometimes. THE PEANUTS MOVIE recognizes these crucial aspects of Schulz’s work and renders them in a format considered more accessible to kids today.

3D animation is really the only thing that differentiates this from other PEANUTS ventures. Story-wise it feels like a greatest hits compilation rather than something new, but it’s a modest charmer that benefits from sticking to what we’re used to rather than being modernized.

Grade: B

Friday, November 06, 2015

About Elly (Darbareye Elly)


ABOUT ELLY (DARBAREYE ELLY) (Asghar Farhadi, 2009)

A weekend at a seaside villa turns tense when one member of a group disappears in ABOUT ELLY. Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani) arranges for three couples, their kids, an unmarried friend, and her daughter’s teacher to get away from Tehran for some relaxation. Her ulterior motivation for the trip is to introduce Ahmad (Shahab Hosseini), who lives in Germany and divorced his wife, to shy teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti). Although Elly appears to be having a good time, she insists that she can only stay one night. She may want to get back to her mother, who is recovering from a recent heart attack, or she may be uncomfortable with the jokes and subtle pressure to pair off with Ahmad.

When everyone realizes that Elly has vanished, the question is whether she walked to town to catch a bus or drowned trying to save one of the kids who had been playing by the shore and was pulled away by the turbulent sea. They have reason to believe that either outcome is possible, but with no body found and no way of contacting her, the answer remains elusive. As the friends scramble to determine how they should proceed in the situation, they act rashly and assign blame to one another.

The final shot of ABOUT ELLY features a car spinning its wheels as the friends try to push it out of a rut in the beach. The image rhymes with their actions throughout the film. The more effort they put into expedient resolutions of the problems they confront, the deeper they get stuck in them. Writer-director Asghar Farhadi creates the quagmire out of small lies and deceptions. This excursion is rooted in deceit. The individual untruths and misleadings may not seem problematic at the time they are uttered, but the accumulation of them forms a quicksand that tugs them further into the morass.

Farhadi’s intricate yet efficient screenplay showcases his watchmaker-like ability for setting a story in motion and having the moving pieces operate in accordance beautifully. ABOUT ELLY monitors eight adults plus kids and the dynamics among them. As it would be for Elly, a stranger among intimates, there’s a lot for the viewer to process in the introduction to these characters. Farhadi’s observational style doesn’t waste a shot in providing all of the information needed to understand the complex interactions.

The remarkable screenplay makes ABOUT ELLY seem like it could translate well to the stage, yet it boasts strengths particular to filmmaking. The roar of the sea reminds of the trouble that awaits but blends into the background until it must be dealt with. Editor Hayedeh Safiyari’s cuts from scene to scene aren’t confusing but raise some uncertainty of how the action advances from one point to the next. The technique reflects the disorientation the group feels upon realizing the mess they’ve ended up in. In a subtle but dazzling transition, the opening shot inside a charity box as money is dropped through the slot becomes light in a tunnel. Both images suggest the danger of not understanding what one thinks is seen with a limited perspective.

ABOUT ELLY debuted in 2009 but remained unreleased in the United States because of rights issues. Like Farhadi’s great subsequent film, A SEPARATION, this thriller thrives on how scenarios unravel as individuals take measures to protect their self-interests.

Grade: A

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Burnt


BURNT (John Wells, 2015)

After a few years in the proverbial wilderness doing penance for his substance-abusing and womanizing past, chef Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) turns up in London determined to earn a prestigious third Michelin star. He burned a lot of bridges in the Parisian culinary world, but by drying out and swearing off booze, drugs, and women, Adam hopes to be able to redeem himself. His composure and ability to escape a troublesome history are in question in BURNT, but his talent never is. It’s why he can appear years after making a mess of things for himself and colleagues and still be granted the opportunity to do something great.

Adam persuades his former maitre d’ Tony (Daniel Brühl) to let him take over the kitchen at his father’s hotel restaurant, even if it means submitting to a weekly blood screening to prove he’s living cleanly. He assembles a dream team of former associates willing to let bygones be bygones, including sous chef Michel (Omar Sy), and newly discovered top talent like Helene (Sienna Miller). Adam senses a kindred spirit in Helene, which is why he has no qualms about being merciless in criticizing her work when she initially fails to live up to his high standards.

BURNT plays like a dramatized version of one of the many reality cooking shows, particularly those involving volatile chef Gordon Ramsay. He’s a chef consultant on BURNT, which presumably means Ramsay suggested the fine dining dishes that are lovingly filmed rather than gave Cooper lessons on how to yell and throw food in the trash. Adam demands perfection and barks at those in the kitchen like a dog with its nose pressed against the glass as its explosive cries try to intimidate passing cars. That the staff tends to treat Adam as some bulletproof genius they’ll go to the mat for seems somewhat absurd based on temperament and history.

Cooper brandishes the chef’s swagger with gusto. Whether he’s getting in a jab at a competitor’s interior design or smashing plates bearing unsatisfactory food, he’s entertaining in his cockiness. Casting Adam as a tragic figure by his own hand doesn’t work as well. Adam’s backstory is often hinted at but never fully elucidated, which makes him an empty vessel for a redemption tale. The character’s trials and tribulations seem rote, if present at all, leaving Adam to rely entirely on Cooper’s charisma to feel for him.

Adam speaks of wishing to cook food so satisfying that it makes the consumer want to stop eating. BURNT is more like potato chips, something that is appealing enough to eat mindlessly but is otherwise insubstantial. Director John Wells and screenwriter Steven Knight keep events moving along briskly. They are most successful in detailing and depicting the workings of a kitchen and the trends that run through the business. There’s more drama in the contemplation between using the frying pan or sous vide than in Adam’s pursuit of his profession’s highest honor.

Grade: C+

Steve Jobs


STEVE JOBS (Danny Boyle, 2015)

As the title character in STEVE JOBS, Michael Fassbender is a prickly and ruthless assessor of those surrounding him, especially when others’ visions don’t match his in the computer business. Director Danny Boyle’s film is broken into three parts as Jobs prepares for product launches. The first, set in 1984, shows Jobs in the final minutes before revealing the Apple Macintosh. The machine’s voice demonstration isn’t working, which is thoroughly unacceptable to Jobs. Meanwhile, he has to deal with other Apple employees who want to talk and ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), who has brought along Lisa, the daughter that Jobs has vociferously denied is his. The film jumps to 1988 with Jobs, now on his own after Apple’s business struggles, preparing to introduce the NeXT computer. The final section takes place in 1998 as Jobs readies the debut of the iMac.

In adapting Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin treats the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple as an incomparable genius, jerk, and tragic figure of Shakespearean proportions. He’s brilliant and stubborn to a fault. These traits serve him well as he strives for excellence with the computer but cause friction with co-workers and friends. At Apple Jobs insists upon a closed system. Sorkin makes the leap that Jobs gained control in the devices his company manufactured perhaps as a substitute for that which he couldn’t exert in life.

STEVE JOBS mostly takes place backstage and in the auditorium, giving the protagonist big areas to move about, yet Boyle creates a visual sense of being self-contained similar to how like the plastic shells housing the computer hardware. The fly rigging in the background of one scene hints at being beside a massive circuit board. The papers Jobs lays out in a grid resemble a tile interface.

Fassbender portrays Jobs as believing he’s the biggest brain in a room with plenty of stiff competition. He speaks like a logician and bristles when what computes perfectly in Jobs’ mind doesn’t with yield the same calculation by others. The film’s verbal dexterity is one of its chief pleasures, with comedic insults and oneupmanship in great supply. STEVE JOBS touches upon the personal side of the business icon, but ultimately it gets to know him how he would have preferred: through his work.

Grade: B

Friday, October 23, 2015

Cop Car


COP CAR
(Jon Watts, 2015)

Two runaway boys stumble upon an unattended sheriff’s cruiser in the Colorado countryside and decide to take it for a joy ride in COP CAR. Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) appear to be ten years old at most. While that’s old enough to know better to make the choices they do, the gravity of their actions is lost on them. They have fun getting their first taste of driving a vehicle without a video game controller and attempting to fire the guns they find in the backseat.

The patrol car belongs to Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), and as is to be expected, he’s not at all happy to find it missing when he returns. The boys would be in a world of trouble no matter what police officer’s car they could have taken, but in this case they swiped one belonging to a lawman who was in the midst of disposing evidence that unmistakably proves his corruption. Something incriminating remains in the trunk, which makes the sheriff’s urgency to retrieve it all the greater.

The boys in COP CAR display the obliviousness of youth, especially to the real danger they put themselves in. It’s no judgment of their intelligence that they say and do the kind of stupid things that might occur to unthinking kids but a reflection of their impulsiveness and inexperience. Director and co-writer Jon Watts mines their actions humor and terror. Of course they assume they can drive the car because they’ve played MarioKart because it’s the kind of logic a preteen might employ. It’s horrifying when they play with guns or speed down a lonely country road because they aren’t aware of how reckless they’re being.

To a degree every character of consequence is a bumbler in a manner similar to those in Coen brothers films. While COP CAR can be funny as things unravel and stakes heighten, the tension that develops is its primary asset. Watts demonstrates his ability to construct scenes loaded with apprehension as events pile up and in miniature, as when the sheriff tries to use a shoelace to break into a locked car. The film’s narrative leanness is only a shortcoming in that it doesn’t quite have enough material for even a pared down running time.

COP CAR delivers no backstory because it isn’t necessary. The film lives moment to moment, and the suspense intensifies as it builds to the convergence of its relative innocents with the antagonists. COP CAR turns somewhat cruel in the final act, which is probably a more accurate reflection of how an incident like this might be resolved, but it leaves a bitter taste that comes across as contrary to the scenario’s tone for the majority of the film.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Walk


THE WALK (Robert Zemeckis, 2015)

THE WALK dramatizes an act that would be unthinkable for almost everyone. In 1974 street performer Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) went out on a tightrope he and friends secretly strung between the top of the World Trade Center’s towers.

Whether or not one knows Petit’s story or saw MAN ON WIRE, the 2008 documentary about his achievement, THE WALK makes no secret that Petit doesn’t die doing the seemingly impossible. The character narrates the story from the platform at the Statue of Liberty’s flame as if telling a magical tale to a child at bedtime. The danger is readily apparent in what Petit attempts, but the film’s tone treats the act as a flight of fancy that transforms the imaginative power of buildings some considered ugly. Gordon-Levitt plays Petit as a whimsical scamp, just the sort of plucky misfit who grants others the ability to see what is before them in a different light.

While THE WALK works from the knowledge that nothing bad befalls the protagonist, the act of viewing it, particularly in IMAX 3D, can be fraught with triggers for the acrophobic. When director Robert Zemeckis shows Petit balancing on a wire one hundred ten floors above the Manhattan ground, it gives an almost dizzying sensation despite being safely planted in a movie theater seat. I found even the build-up to Petit’s daring performance, as he and a collaborator skitter about the roof of one of the towers, to induce uneasiness regarding the height at which they are working. Like GRAVITY, which granted viewers the feeling of hurtling through space, THE WALK is marvelous as an experience that tricks the brain into what it is like to be in a precarious position.

Grade: B+

Crimson Peak


CRIMSON PEAK (Guillermo del Toro, 2015)

In CRIMSON PEAK Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring writer of ghost stories, although the publisher wishes she would come up with something more conventional and romantic. Edith admits that the ghosts are metaphors for the past, but she has been visited by the spirit of her mother bearing the warning not to go to Crimson Peak. She meets Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) when they come to Buffalo to find investors for his invention. Thomas and Edith become romantically involved against her father’s objections, but after tragedy strikes, Edith weds Thomas and accompanies him to his crumbling family estate in England.

Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has made it a point of emphasis while doing the publicity rounds that despite the film’s ghosts, CRIMSON PEAK is not a horror film but a Gothic romance in the tradition of JANE EYRE and REBECCA. In truth there’s not really much romance in it either. Edith and Thomas’s marriage is an arrangement of convenience and exploitation. Although feelings change, CRIMSON PEAK never boils with erotic passion between husband and wife or inside one of them.

And yet while CRIMSON PEAK lacks heat or surprises in its conventional story, del Toro captures the imagination with sumptuous visual treats throughout. The spacious, decrepit house is a marvel of production design and art direction. The intricate costumes manifest the emotional undercurrents, with Edith dressed as though she’s wearing a chrysalis while living at Allerdale Hall and Lucille bound in what she wears as tightly as she and her brother are connected to their home. The clay-reddened snow that looks like it’s been bloodied is such a striking image, especially with that imposing manor looming over it. These elements contribute to the mood, which del Toro treats with primary importance rather than investing energy into the familiar plot. The romance, it turns out, is with the look and feel of rotting mansions and scarred psyches. In that CRIMSON PEAK has more than enough to keep one captivated.

Grade: B

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Sicario


SICARIO (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Having been noticed for doing excellent work on the kidnap rescue team, Phoenix FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is invited to join an interagency task force in SICARIO. She flies with Department of Defense advisor Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and a lawyer named Alejandro Benicio Del Toro) to El Paso on a mission that isn’t exactly clear to her. The longer she’s with them, the more Kate begins to question the legality of what they’re involved in.

As SICARIO explores what is done in the shadows in the war on drugs, viewers share Kate’s lack of clarity about the situation she’s participating in. With the camera moving forward director Denis Villeneuve takes Kate as the audience’s proxy deep into spaces where safety is far from assured. The scenarios become more fraught as the film progresses. The tension in the opening attack on a house where abductees are suspected to be held is exceeded in Kate’s voluntary baptism by fire as the team goes to Juarez and back. Villeneuve continues to turn up the heat, whether it’s within the walls of a military base, secret border-crossing tunnel, or kingpin’s home. These scenes come with an adrenaline charge and the distinct dread of the dangers in tight quarters.

Villeneuve and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan capture the thrill and horror experienced when going along for a ride to the dark side. SICARIO isn’t concerned so much with considering if the tactics used to make an impact on the cartels are above board. Whether as an unwitting participant or informed objector, Kate isn’t really in a position to be able to alter the actions she witnesses. Chances are if she’s not willing to play ball, those calling the shots will simply find someone else anyway. Speaking out may make Kate feel better, but doing so is likely just the quickest way to put herself at even greater risk.

Blunt is convincing at demonstrating the mental and physical toughness to perform in the field with no certainty of what awaits behind the doors she enters and walls surrounding her. Kate feels frustrated that her legitimate efforts aren’t making a dent in the bigger fight, yet she doesn’t approve of the secret activities attempting to gain a semblance of control in the situation. Matt’s heedless disregard for challenges to his authority make him a frightening yet effective character, and Brolin intimidates and amuses with the cocky assurance of someone who has license to do as he pleases. SICARIO doesn’t flinch as it stares at the violence that’s part and parcel of cartel activity here and abroad and supplies no easy solutions in its tangled, gripping story.

Grade: A-

Friday, October 09, 2015

I'll See You in My Dreams


I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS (Brett Haley, 2015)

Retired widow Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner) likely still has plenty of good years ahead of her in I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS, but she seems resigned to being on a slow, uneventful march to the end even though it’s been twenty years since her husband died in an accident. Carol’s friends encourage her to move out of her house and join them in the retirement community. They also try to persuade her to go out with men again, an idea she begrudgingly humors at a disastrous speed dating event, but she prefers to keep her own place and ignore potential romantic possibilities.

Then out of the blue two men with whom she enjoys spending time pursue her company. Carol’s new pool cleaner Lloyd (Martin Starr) is intrigued that she was once a singer before settling into a career as a teacher. Although he’s a few decades younger than her, Lloyd identifies her as a kindred spirit drifting through daily life. Bill (Sam Elliott) is a charismatic new resident at the retirement village who takes a shine to Carol the first time he lays eyes on her. He possesses a palpable charm that attracts Carol despite her insistence that she doesn’t want to get remarried.

I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS is foremost a performance-driven film, and Danner makes a good anchor. She plays Carol as someone who can acknowledge the good things life has given her while feeling cheated that fate hasn’t always been kind. As Bill observes, there’s a bitterness at the core of Carol, even if it’s not a quality not necessarily on view at all times. Danner molds Carol into someone who is independent and, by all appearances, strong yet has a wounded nature that makes the character cautious. When she sings at karaoke and connects with the guys wooing her, she makes the hurt disappear.

Elliott maximizes his limited scenes with Danner, projecting the satisfaction and confidence that Carol often lacks. Bill has mystery about him just like she does, but Elliott doesn’t wear it like a shield. His rambunctious appeal leaves no question why Carol might take notice of him. As her younger love interest, Starr presents Lloyd as a mirror to her. The pull they feel toward each other comes from spotting their similarities, particularly in how they express themselves.There’s plenty stated and unsaid between them, and their awkwardness only gets in the way when they stop being in the moment.

Director and co-writer Brett Haley has a soft touch for letting items represent other things. A shot of flowers in the foreground perhaps elicits a stronger emotional response than if the characters involved shared the frame. Bill’s omnipresent unlit cigar is just a cigar, although it stands in for how he is approaching life at this later stage. The rat that lurks around Carol’s home is a regular reminder of the grief she still has not been able to eliminate from her surroundings. I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS provides a funny and moving glimpse of a slice of life that the recipient would rather trade for a different one.

Grade: B

Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Intern


THE INTERN (Nancy Meyers, 2015)

70-year-old widower Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) finds retired life unfulfilling, so in THE INTERN he looks for an apprenticeship opportunity that will put him back in the working world. Ben’s introduction to the high tech business environment comes via the senior intern program at a startup e-commerce fashion retailer in Brooklyn where he’s assigned to be the intern for the site’s founder Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Although Ben is well-liked and effective around the bustling office, initially Jules doesn’t see the value in letting Ben assist her with the zillion and one things keeping her busy.

Jules is justifiably preoccupied with maintaining standards and overseeing the growth of her eighteen-month-old operation . She’s also being pressured by investors to hire a chief executive officer. The rationale is that a more seasoned manager can ease her workload and continue the company’s expansion, but because she would be giving up some control, the request feels like a potential demotion.

Middle of the road crowdpleasers like THE INTERN are something of an endangered species at the movie theater. It’s too modest for those drawn to the almost-weekly spectacle films striving to be blockbusters and those looking for artier or prestige-driven fare. This type of film has virtues like telling a story simply and intelligently and being appealing without forcing it. Writer-director Nancy Meyers specializes in this kind of mainstream entertainment that doesn’t always get its critical due. With THE INTERN she produces one of her better creations. It’s a warm, funny film that fleshes out two engaging characters not bent according to the situation’s restrictions.

When De Niro has father or father figure types, he’s still usually a tough guy, but in THE INTERN he’s a delight playing the equivalent of the workplace’s grandpa. Through his dress and demeanor he carries a quiet dignity about the character. It’s critical that Meyers writes Ben as resource waiting to be tapped than an expert itching to spew the knowledge he’s amassed from a lifetime in business. De Niro embodies patience in THE INTERN. Ben truly is grateful to have the chance to work with Jules.

The harried thirtysomething businesswoman trying to balance career and family is often a thankless role, but Meyers is smart in demonstrating that Jules is right to want to be in command of her path, even if society’s expectations can be a burden. THE INTERN doesn’t hide the trade-offs or judge the decisions Jules must make. Hathaway conveys the strain of trying to have it all while attempting to appear in good spirits through the challenges.

THE INTERN soaks up the good vibes from De Niro and Hathaway acclimating to one another and finds room for humorous subplots that aren’t essential to the main storyline. A heist-like operation in which Ben and some other guys at the office break into Jules’ mother’s home to delete an e-mail may be the most amusing scene in the film.

Grade: B+

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Big Game


BIG GAME (Jalmari Helander, 2014)

Although exceptions exist, there should probably be a rule that the more self-consciously outrageous a film description sounds, the more likely that the synopsis is all it has going for it. That’s certainly true of BIG GAME, in which a Finnish boy on a solo rite of passage hunt protects Samuel L. Jackson as the President of the United States from would-be assassins. Writer-director Jalmari Helander isn’t striving to make an ironically bad film that winks nonstop at an audience presumably in on the joke. Instead this action comedy appears inspired by fantastical 1980s movies in which kids become involved with something much larger than themselves and grow through their adventures.

On the verge of his thirteenth birthday Oskari (Onni Tommila) is sent alone into a Finnish forest for one day and one night to track and kill his prey with a primitive bow and arrow. His father passed this initiation into manhood, and the same is expected of him, although he isn’t strong enough to pull the string back fully on his weapon. Deep in the wilderness he comes across an escape pod containing unpopular U.S. President William Alan Moore (Jackson). Disgruntled Secret Service agent Morris (Ray Stevenson) disabled Air Force One’s security system to permit his associates to blow the plane and its escorts out of the sky. Killing the President is on their agenda, but Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) wants to make a big show of capturing the leader of the free world before having him stuffed and mounted like a trophy.

After determining that the President is not an alien, Oskari brings William along on his expedition. They’re too far from anywhere for the President to get to safety on his own, and Oskari isn’t going to bail on his mission. Unbeknownst to them Morris, Hazar, and his men are in the forest looking for them with the intent of finishing what they’ve started.

As silly as the impression BIG GAME’s recap gives, the film resists following through with the campy concept. Jackson’s performance is restrained, which results in a tender moment with Oskari as he explains the difference between looking and being tough, but is a film this patently absurd when he should be holding back? And what are Victor Garber, Felicity Huffman, and Jim Broadbent doing in this? It’s as though they signed up to appear in a goof, but Helander forgot to make it funny out of concern for not being taken seriously as a filmmaker.

BIG GAME’s earnestness also confuses because of how cheap it looks. The cut-rate special effects are more in keeping with direct-to-video blockbuster knock-offs, which reinforces the absence of expected humor. The good and bad guys spend a lot of time walking and talking in the woods, so action scenes are few and unremarkable. Helander’s send-up of big-budget conspiracy thrillers and boys’ quests fails to register as anything but a wacky idea. It’s too mundane to entertain as a willfully bad effort with some name talent.

Grade: D+

Monday, September 07, 2015

Mistress America


MISTRESS AMERICA (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

In MISTRESS AMERICA eighteen-year-old Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke) is having trouble fitting in as a freshman at Barnard College, so she’s relieved to find someone to hang out with in New York City when she meets thirty-year-old stepsister-to-be Brooke Cardinas (Greta Gerwig). Brooke appears to live a glamorous urban life and dabble in seemingly everything. She works as an interior designer and SoulCycle instructor, came up with a t-shirt design that she claims her friend Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind) stole, is kicking around an idea for a television show, and is entertaining investors for a restaurant she plans to open.

When Brooke’s boyfriend pulls out of the restaurant deal, she is in desperate need of financing. Prompted by a fortune teller, Brooke goes to Greenwich, Connecticut with Tracy, her friend Tony (Matthew Shear), and his girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) in tow to make a pitch for money to her wealthy ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus), who’s married to her nemesis Mamie-Claire.

The soon-to-be sisters in MISTRESS AMERICA are simpatico in sarcasm and self-obsession. Their conversations consist of pathological feedback loops in which they speak disparagingly of those not of their caliber or who have wronged them in some way. Brooke spots a captive audience to dazzle in Tracy, probably because she has not bore witness to Brooke’s trail of professional flameouts. Tracy enjoys being around Brooke, who is fun, brash, and accepting of her company even as she doesn’t seem to listen, but in her the literature major also discovers a rich source of inspiration for the thinly fictionalized short story she has started writing. Both yearn to make their marks on the world. The comedy comes from the symbiotic relationship between these miserable people searching for the answers, reassuring each other of their superiority, and yet failing to achieve their dreams. They can virtually complete each other’s sentences, not so much from closeness but because of their shared disdain.

Gerwig plays Brooke as a force of nature, the type of person who becomes the center of attention in whatever situation she finds herself in. The character is a marked contrast from her notable roles in GREENBERG and FRANCES HA, her previous collaborations with director Noah Baumbach. As in those films Gerwig plays a young woman seeking where she belongs, but in MISTRESS AMERICA, which she co-wrote with Baumbach, she’s a screwball egotist. In a strange way she remains a sympathetic figure because her big talk is clearly indicative of compensating for feeling inferior.

Baumbach has always been very good at guiding actors to convey his caustic wit. With MISTRESS AMERICA he demonstrates a deft ability for choreographing farce. Relationships are tested after Brooke and company barge into Mamie-Claire and Dylan’s home and bring most of the film’s second half to a furious pace powered by incidents and accusations. The speed with which these scenes move relate to the flurry of distractions the protagonists bury themselves in to make it easier to ignore the failure of their pursuits. As unbecoming as Brooke and Tracy’s behavior can be, MISTRESS AMERICA emerges as a funny film about the painful path to maturity through accepting one’s shortcomings and committing to being a better person.

Grade: B

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Z for Zachariah


Z FOR ZACHARIAH (Craig Zobel, 2015)

After the apocalypse Ann (Margot Robbie) must fend for herself at the family’s apple farm in the valley. Her parents left to search for survivors. Eventually her thirteen-year-old brother departed to look for their mom and dad. Getting by day to day isn’t easy, especially without electricity and no companion but a dog, but Ann is resourceful and keeps the faith in a place the closest thing to Eden in Z FOR ZACHARIAH’s harsh, radioactive world.

One day she comes across the first person she’s seen in a year. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a civil contractor who was in a bunker a mile underground when the disaster occurred but becomes unwell from bathing in the poisonous water Ann finds him in. She nurses John back to health, and they become close, as might be expected of a man and a woman who may well be the only people around for a great expanse or anywhere. Although Ann shows desire for becoming physically intimate, John suggests they wait because it will change things.

Then Ann stumbles upon Caleb (Chris Pine), a miner who has traveled from fifty miles away and is planning to go south to the gulf where he believes others may be. Ann is glad to welcome more company, but John is suspicious of this newcomer. Caleb does not intend to stay long but grows comfortable there. He assists with John’s project to restore power to the house and bonds with Ann through their shared Christianity. While their situation has improved, a strained competition exists between the men for Ann’s affection.

Faith looms large in Z FOR ZACHARIAH. As the daughter of a minister who moved the family to this spot because he believed it would be protected, Ann has good reason to trust that God has a plan even in terrible times like this. Loneliness and winter’s coldness have made Ann question her will to continue, but her belief gives her the encouragement to press on. Despite the hardships, the land and tools available to her meet her needs. Ann recognizes that for all of the rewards promised in the Bible, the holy book never claims that life will be easy. Caleb’s view is less nuanced. He is convinced that they survived because they have faith, as though their convictions earn a kind of cosmic immunity, although his logic doesn’t account for a non-believing John.

There’s also a non-religious faith held by characters and the audience at work in Z FOR ZACHARIAH. Ann is the least guarded of the three, and thus there is no reason not to take her at her word. Robbie gives a strong performance in expressing the necessary toughness to endure this scenario while maintaining the youthful naiveté that may also be an asset to her mental well-being. The inclination is to rely on John’s story as being true while nurturing some skepticism about Caleb’s, at least at first. Ejiofor oozes decency and intelligence, yet he plays John as though an unspoken darkness gnaws at him. Pine challenges the first impression of Caleb, making him seem dangerous or authentic depending on the angle he’s seen from.

Director Craig Zobel’s previous film COMPLIANCE hinges on individuals accepting at face value what they’re being told and following through on it with horrible consequences. In Z FOR ZACHARIAH there is no way of knowing for certain if anyone is being honest, just the reliance on gut instincts. Zobel wrings tension from the scenario by toying with how actions might appear based on available information. John viewing Ann from a distance through a rifle’s scope brings his trustworthiness into question early on until we learn Ann suggested he watch her through it. Before their paths cross Caleb presumably is the one eavesdropping on Ann playing the organ, which, fairly or not, leads to a conclusion about his credibility. He also aims a gun near John while the two are out hunting, although he does so to hit his target, not his potential romantic rival.

For viewers the test of whether to believe the best or worst about Ann, John, and Caleb extends through Z FOR ZACHARIAH’s ending. Regardless of how the conclusion is interpreted, it seems to be an argument for giving people the benefit of the doubt. For the characters putting trust in each other may mean something as critical as the difference between living and dying or valuable as upholding social stability. In this extreme circumstance they have no one to place their faith in but one another. These are active players in determining their own fates. Whether their trust proves to be misplaced or not, they are likely better off giving than withholding it.

Grade: B

Friday, May 29, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road


MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (George Miller, 2015)

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD presents a vision of the future as an environmental hellscape, but in filmmaking terms it looks to the past for the rejuvenation of action cinema. From practical effects and stunt work to an editing strategy that allows the viewer to remain oriented in spite of some quick cutting, director and co-writer George Miller gives an audience what it needs to cleanse the system of a diet of CGI-cluttered action and chaos cinema transitions. Make no mistake that plenty of digital technology has been used to manipulate the images into the eye-scorching display that is MAD MAX: FURY ROAD. The difference here is that it is not employed at the expense of visual comprehension or awe-inspiring feats.

Neither a reboot or a sequel per se, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD functions as a continuation in the series of one man’s quest to deliver justice to a land where it is in short supply along with fossil fuels, cash crops, and water. The opening voiceover is reminiscent of how MAD MAX 2 briefly establishes how the Earth became barren and tribes fought for the dwindling supply of fuel. The difference in this instance is that Max (Tom Hardy), the policeman turned renegade, supplies the information while conceding he is losing his mind.

At the start Max is captured by the war boys under the command of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). Max is prized as a blood bag for these suicidal, starkly white warriors. When a convoy led by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in a war rig veers off course, Joe and some war boys take off in pursuit. Max is mounted like a hood ornament to provide transfusion for Nux (Nicholas Hoult) as he joins the car chase.

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD stands apart from much of contemporary action cinema with an unabashedly feminist perspective. Furiosa, who has degenderized herself, has attained a position of trust within a corrupt society and uses that privilege with a plan to transport Immortan Joe’s five sex slaves to the verdant community of women from which she and her mother were stolen many years ago. Furiosa and the those she’s trying to save seek shelter from where women are treated as livestock for breeding and milking. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD is a film of few words, and with an arsenal of looks Theron--who probably is more of a main character than Max, title notwithstanding--imparts the profound sense of rage and compassion that drives Furiosa.

In his souped-up action epic Miller also draws parallels to contemporary factions warring over fuel and the religious conviction imparted to those doing the fighting. The war boys do not fear death but welcome it with the promise of living again in Valhalla. The political aspects of MAD MAX: FURY ROAD sound blunter in description than in depiction, mainly because Miller lets the imagery and actors’ expressions do most of the talking. The screenplay is a model of efficiency, suggesting a broader world beyond what gets explained. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD pushes ever onward with an intense and dazzling display that engages the eyes, ears, and mind.

Grade: A-

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Lost Highway


LOST HIGHWAY (David Lynch, 1997)

LOST HIGHWAY follows the dual stories of tenor saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) and mechanic Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty) and the women in their lives who bring about their ruination. Patricia Arquette plays Fred’s brunette wife Renee and Alice Wakefield, a gangster’s blonde squeeze who initiates a torrid affair with Pete. Fred suspects his wife may be cheating on him and becomes disturbed when videotapes with footage shot inside and outside his house are left on his home’s front steps. Pete struggles to explain how he is found in prison having taken another man’s place.

In David Lynch’s singular style the Möbius strip of a film addresses the insecurities men have about women. Dark interiors hint at endless mental corridors to get lost in as these curdled souls obsess over the true motivations of the femme fatales they’ve fixated on. The low, persistent white noise on the soundtrack suggests a nagging concern hissing inside the protagonists’ heads that the women they love will do them wrong even as they are helpless to resist. The pale-faced Mystery Man (Robert Blake) who greets Fred and Pete familiarly seems like a manifestation of the anger and fear they’ve invited into their thinking. LOST HIGHWAY is suffused with dead of the night dread, a half-lucid, creeping sensation that one’s doom awaits in the shadows.

Lynch’s mastery of sustaining an unsettling tone carries the film through patches when the opaque plot confuses, yet watching this film not quite two decades later reveals his use of doubling and dream logic and atmosphere as a rough draft for the greater achievement to come in MULHOLLAND DR. LOST HIGHWAY’s mystery does not grow as it continues to befuddle. Pete’s section builds to confirmation of the horrible things both character’s believe their women are capable of doing to them, yet Getty doesn’t convey the torment inside of him as tangibly as Pullman does in Fred’s scenes.

When Fred has the police searching his house for signs of unlawful entry, he’s asked if he has a video camera. Fred responds that he hates the devices because he likes “to remember things my own way”. The tension in LOST HIGHWAY comes from the disconnect between the way things are and how they are recalled or imagined. With memorable and disquieting imagery, Lynch’s terror-fueled exploration of how latching onto the virgin/whore dichotomy can destroy men’s minds, but LOST HIGHWAY also plays like a less coherent version of the director’s better work.

Grade: C

Hot Pursuit


HOT PURSUIT (Anne Fletcher, 2015)

In HOT PURSUIT San Antonio police officer Cooper (Reese Witherspoon) grew up riding in the back seat of her father’s patrol car, so it’s deeply disappointing for her to be reassigned to run the evidence room after an embarrassing misunderstanding while working in the field. Cooper’s chance to prove herself again arrives when she is paired with a federal marshal transporting a drug cartel’s top lieutenant and his wife to Dallas in preparation for testimony to the grand jury against kingpin Vicente Cortez (Joaquín Cosio).

Shortly after Cooper and the federal agent get to the home of Felipe and Daniella Riva (Sofia Vergara), two pairs of killers descend upon it and kill Cooper’s partner and Daniella’s husband. The women escape in the Rivas’ red vintage 1968 Cadillac convertible, but trouble soon finds them when Cooper realizes two of her colleagues were masked assassins at the crime scene and are out to clean up loose ends. They pin the deaths on Cooper and spin the story that she and Daniella are on the run. In reality the two women are reluctant travel companions, as Daniella tries to slip away every chance she gets rather than be delivered to give testimony she refuses to offer.

Buttoned-up, by-the-books Cooper and the high-spirited and volatile Daniella make a classical mismatched pair in a road comedy, but HOT PURSUIT offers little in the way of humorous possibilities for their differences to produce laughs. Director Anne Fletcher and screenwriters David Feeney and John Quaintance focus on getting Cooper and Daniella from place to place at the expense of settling in with the characters. Content to let the co-leads exist as types, neither transcends the simple character descriptions to generate any legitimate comedic combustion or agreement.

Witherspoon and Vergara are up for whatever but don’t have much to work with. Half of the intended humor seems to reside in the accents. Witherspoon’s molasses-thick take on a Texas twang is a distraction. Vergara acts as though directed to crank up her Colombian heritage in a more exaggerated version of her MODERN FAMILY character. With both actresses it’s like the vocal equivalent of flop sweat. Who can blame them, though, when they’re forced into one unfunny scenario after another?

HOT PURSUIT’s regressive portrayals of women in film is more discouraging than its lack of subtlety. Comedy often flows from incompetent actions, but neither Cooper nor Daniella are shown to be particularly capable until the plot forces them to be. The low point comes when the women pretend badly to be lesbians to distract a good ol’ boy who’s about to call the cops on them. Rather than them being funny because they’re unconvincing, the scene plays as one of a few ill-conceived, pandering moments for which embarrassment for the performers is the main reaction.

Grade: C-

Friday, May 08, 2015

Mad Max


MAD MAX (George Miller, 1979)

The Halls of Justice are in shambles and anarchy reigns on the streets in the near-future depicted in MAD MAX. Roaming gangs terrorize citizens who risk straying far from home, especially those who dare to venture onto the roadways. Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is the Main Force Patrol’s top pursuit man on a skeleton crew of law enforcers. Despite his skill behind the wheel in taking down bad guys, Max considers walking away from his calling. He’s not fearful of the sociopaths, like the motorcycle menaces led by Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), but concerned that he may enjoy the chaos out there as much as the maniacs he’s chasing.

MAD MAX’s dystopian vision of the Australia of tomorrow puts a contemporary spin on the classic western. It’s easy to see director and co-writer George Miller’s film in that tradition by swapping the motorbikes and cars for horses and Max’s leather uniform for one including a cowboy hat and bolo tie. The townsfolk are too scared and officials too ineffectual to challenge the tormentors in their midst. It’s up to a reluctant Max as one of the last righteous men to try and bring some justice to a land where lawlessness has taken over.

Miller and co-screenwriter James McCausland use the familiar genre foundation as a means for delivering chases and stunts. MAD MAX lacks any semblance of explaining why society has broken down as it has. That information comes more in MAD MAX 2, although it’s equally as unnecessary for films that function best as car chase and stunt delivery systems. This is primal action predicated on survival of the fittest and fastest motorized transportation. The action scenes tingle with the thrill of feeling the weight, speed and danger as these vehicles careen across the asphalt hunting grounds. The damage inflicted on the cars is not done lightly. One scene of a hot rod being destroyed is shot and edited as if it’s a body getting dismembered. Revving engines provide a chorus of wailing souls.

MAD MAX plays like a dry run for a bigger and better film, which happens to be the case when comparing this to its first sequel. The economy of story and character and abrupt ending make it feel as though this is just the first two acts of a fuller narrative. The interval with Max, his wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel), and their son on vacation drags down the pacing even as it sets up critical motivation for its conflicted protagonist. As villains go, Toecutter lacks the defining qualities to make him a worthy adversary for the hero. The B-movie genetic code keeps MAD MAX from achieving greatness, but the action Miller choreographs so well compensates for such shortcomings.

Grade: B-

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria


CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA (Olivier Assayas, 2014)

In CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA middle-aged actress Maria Enders (Juliette Binoche) is en route to accept an award in Switzerland on behalf of the reclusive playwright and filmmaker who provided her big break at the age of 18 when news comes of his death. The occasion provides cause for reflection on her life’s work and faded youth, especially when a director (Lars Eidinger) wants Maria to commit to his restaging of the career-making play but in the older woman’s role. Opposite her in the part she made her name on will be 19-year-old tabloid regular and Hollywood ingenue Jo-Ann Ellis (Chloë Grace Moretz).

In the play within the film Maria broke through as an intern who seduces, uses, and dumps the 40-year-old married businesswoman who falls for her. Now she’s being asked to switch positions to the part that more closely reflects her age yet still identifies with the younger character. Writer-director Olivier Assayas layers CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA so that the script being rehearsed and parts being played within it explore the similarities between the characters doing the reading and the roles they are taking on. When Maria and Valentine are deep in a scene, they could just as well be discussing the dynamic between them. Assayas also introduces a meta level in which comments about the industry, image-making, and gossip could just as well apply to the lives of Binoche, Moretz, and especially Stewart. This blurring of the lines isn’t a cute postmodern trick but a profound means for looking at aging, power, and celebrity.

Binoche is predictably great. As Maria she makes clear how to strive to stay viable in a business that probably gives her a shelf life of twenty years tops before brushing many like her aside. Binoche handles the dialogue-driven portions with incomparable artistry, but the greatest pleasures are often found in seeing her react. Whether it’s the unforced nature of her laugh or fiddling with 3D glasses at a banal blockbuster, she lives in the character’s skin. Stewart matches Binoche’s intensity and technical skill with an affectless performance that her highest profile role in the TWILIGHT films never tapped. She hides her character’s ambition in her attentiveness to Maria, almost like a child to an elderly parent, yet Valentine is willing to push back when she feels unheard or unappreciated. CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA offers complex gratification as the story snakes along and enjoyment as a superior acting showcase.

Grade: A

Friday, April 24, 2015

White Bird in a Blizzard


WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (Gregg Araki, 2014)

Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) is 17 years old in the fall of 1988 when her mother Eve (Eva Green) disappears without a trace in WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. Eve was unhappy in her longtime marriage to Brock (Christopher Meloni) and did not disguise it. Kat’s father even tells her that her mother never loved him. Although Kat doesn’t appear overly distressed about Eve vanishing, Brock insists that she speak to Dr. Thaler (Angela Bassett) to deal with the unexplained loss.

Kat recalls her mother as anything but a maternal ideal. Eve could be brusque and seemed to resent a maturing Kat when she reminded her of her younger self. As Kat reflects on the last days when Eve was around, she admits that it is possible her mom could have been having an affair. In retrospect it certainly seems as if Eve was flirting with Kat’s stoner boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez).

Writer-director Gregg Araki presents WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD’s sometimes lurid story as a mix of 1950s melodramas, 1980s teen movies with a decidedly harder edge, and a little bit of camp. Outsized emotional currents sweep the drama along to where words and developments can be tragic and laughable. Taking notes from John Hughes, Araki douses the film in a post-punk/New Wave soundtrack emblematic of feeling like wanting to dance and cry.

The suburban southern California settings look as if they have been preserved in Lucite. Araki maintains the spaces as though the homes and communities are hermetic places as inescapable as one’s inner conflict about the unremarkable life. The bright and glossy visual texture lends an artificial feel to scenes no one will mistake for the epitome of domesticity. In Kat’s memories Eve resembles Joan Crawford with her glamorous appearance and ability to wreak emotional havoc. Green gets just a moment here and there to leave her mark and indeed makes a striking impression as if Kat’s mother is a star of the silver screen trying to steal the spotlight in her daughter’s life. She’s a presence even when unseen.

Eventually Woodley will age out of these coming of age roles, but again she does good work playing a teenager trying to sort out a murky future. Kat is not naϊve about her sexuality and the power it gives her, but when it comes to understanding who her parents are, WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD shows her to be more sheltered. Kat’s narration, which is hard to place in time, carries the wisdom of years later when she has processed revelations about her parents’ dreams, passions, and disappointments. Perhaps it comes when she can empathize with her 42-year-old mother because she recognizes the mental state and worldly knowledge inaccessible to her as a high school student.

Grade: B+

Thursday, April 23, 2015

While We're Young


WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (Noah Baumbach, 2014)

Each generation tends to look at the next one with some suspicion that they don’t live up to the standards they hold dear. As the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young. With Generation X in middle age, the time has come for them--us, in my case--to judge the habits, interests, and attitudes of millenials. In WHILE WE’RE YOUNG 44-year-old documentarian Josh (Ben Stiller) and his 43-year-old producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) strike up a friendship with 25-year-old couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh and Cornelia are childless and feeling increasingly alienated from their friends because of it, so they are drawn to the burgeoning filmmaker husband and his ice cream-making wife. Josh is especially taken with Jamie’s relentless optimism, DIY ethos, and unconstrained tastes and tries them on for size.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach opens WHILE WE’RE YOUNG with a passage from Ibsen’s THE MASTER BUILDER about being fearful of young people outside but encouraged to open the door followed by James Murphy’s toy box-sounding cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years”. The film ends with the Bowie original and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” on the soundtrack. The quotation and songs provide mirror bookends representing the aspirations Josh and Cornelia examine when faced with younger adults’ ways. Are they serious and cultured or sentimental and domesticized? When discussing their lives early in the film, Josh says, “Maybe the point is we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t so important.” The pointed comedy of the comment is that the freedom they profess to cherish is really just a wasted resource they cling to rather than admit they’ve entered another time in their lives.

Baumbach mines the humor in the resistance to adapting to a new life stage, the foolishness of trying to act younger, and the perceived ridiculousness of how millenials assert their independence and preferences. Editor Jennifer Lame cuts Cornelia attending a mommy and me music class as if she’s entered a house of horrors. Josh suffers the indignity of looking older than he is by borrowing today’s youth fashion as if it suits him. WHILE WE’RE YOUNG practically drips contempt for what twentysomethings consider cool. Baumbach obliterates some easy targets, but the film is no less funny because of it.

Driver’s embodiment of a stereotypical hipster is a consistent source of jokes. After Josh’s infatuation with Jamie has ended, he describes his counterpart as imitating a sincere person he once saw. Baumbach doesn’t withhold any criticism of a younger generation he thinks can be vacuous and disingenuous, yet he doesn’t spare those in middle age. Where Jamie lacks boundaries and hides his careerism, Josh prizes the purist notion of not selling out and retaining authenticity, which are fine ideals until they become stifling to the point of inaction. WHILE WE’RE YOUNG soaks in the bitter comedy that comes in realizing that everyone is searching for answers.

Grade: B+

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ebertfest 2015: Opening Night


Ebertfest holds a special place in my moviegoing life because it was the first film festival I attended. The experience could not have been better. The 2001 festival, it’s third edition, featured an exceptional mix of good to great films, was hosted by a film writer I admired and aspired to be, and was down to earth in a way that felt identifiably Midwestern. This was not an industry event but a populist celebration of cinema in a university town. I was hooked, and It’s why I’ve come to Champaign, Illinois every April for fifteen years now.

It may seem strange to see a movie before going to opening night of the 2015 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, but the Art Theater, a short walk from festival central at the Virginia Theatre, was playing GREY GARDENS, which I hadn’t seen. Ebert mentioned the Art as being important to him , and he certainly encouraged locals at the festival to patronize it those weeks when Ebertfest wasn’t co-opting their moviegoing time. Inside the lobby over the entrance is a mural with the hometown critic sitting in the front row to the side next to Groucho Marx. The seating location isn’t where you were likely to find Ebert when he was at the movies, but it seems right for him to have such a place of prominence, if not the best viewing angle, in a picture featuring stars of the screen. When he attended his own festival, Ebert was always the biggest star in the room no matter what Hollywood performer or filmmaker was present.


Perhaps it was my own reservations about this year’s festival lineup--I’ll explain those feelings on another day--but opening night felt more muted than any other year I can recall. It could be that the lack of a “big” film or guest tamped down some of the excitement in the crowd. Maybe it was that I knew what was coming. To start things off, a 3-D film was being shown for the first time in the festival’s history. Not just any 3-D film, mind you, was beginning the 17th festival but Jean-Luc Godard’s GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (ADIEU AU LANGAGE). Unlikely as it seems to me, I’d seen it twice before. While I have enjoyed it primarily as an aesthetic experience, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE struck me as a uniquely terrible choice to start the festival. Late Godard can be hard to penetrate intellectually. Playful as it can be, this rigorous cinematic essay fits the description of a difficult film to a tee. I did not expect GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE to go over well with this audience, which isn’t to say that I doubt their tastes but that this is no one’s idea of a widely appealing film that might ordinarily fill the first slot on the festival schedule.

On viewing GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE a second time I found it extremely helpful to have read David Bordwell’s unpacking of the dense film. Knowing how to watch can make a huge difference in appreciating it. My third viewing didn’t yield any major revelations, but it confirmed that Godard captures images of exceptional beauty. The shot of one hand washing another looks clearer than reality. During a shot of a boat going away from the dock the undulating water looks so blue and welcoming. The doubling and overlapping of images and use and locations of sound make for a thrilling cinematic experience even if I have a hard time making heads or tails of it. To the Ebertfest crowd’s credit, I noticed just a few walkouts from my vantage point in the balcony. Opinions may be voiced more strongly against it while folks wait in line to enter the theater over the next few days, but on this evening my impression is that people wrestled with the challenging work rather than dismissing it outright. Could it be my doubts about the film's reception were unfounded?

Todd Rendleman, Peter Sobczynski, Goodbye to Language's Héloise Godet, and Matt Zoller Seitz
The night’s second session was also something unprecedented at Ebertfest. Instead of showing a film, a Harold Ramis tribute took place. Clips were shown from ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, BACK TO SCHOOL, CLUB PARADISE, GHOSTBUSTERS, and GHOSTBUSTERS 2. Ramis’ widow Erica Ramis and producer Trevor Albert then joined Chaz Ebert and critics Glenn Kenny and Susan Wloszczyna to discuss his work from the earlier half of his career. Following the conversation were clips from GROUNDHOG DAY, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY, ANALYZE THIS, MULTIPLICITY, THE ICE HARVEST, BEDAZZLED, ORANGE COUNTY, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, KNOCKED UP, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY, and YEAR ONE. This portion was capped by a clip of Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewing GROUNDHOG DAY on their television show. The same people returned to the stage to talk about this part of Ramis’ filmography.

Context-free clips don’t exactly serve the work well, so I could have done without them even though I realize why they were incorporated into the program. I would have been content to listen to those Ramis knew and those who appreciated his talents talk about him. I really enjoyed seeing the Siskel and Ebert clip and would suggest knitting them into the festival when possible. How great would it be to watch the films at Ebertfest and follow them with pertinent reviews from the long-running TV show? Granted, these won’t exist with every film selected, and if there was a disagreement between the critics, some of the reviews might make for uncomfortable situations with a festival guest. Still, if done with care, this seems like a natural way of keeping Ebert’s voice in the festival.