Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels (1988) ****1/2

You'd be hard-pressed to find a movie from the '80s that has aged better than “Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels” or that is more fun. The film is a comedy classic, but I hadn't watched it in years. It popped up on Netflix, so I had to press “Play,” and I wasn't disappointed. If anything, the movie has improved with age. Steve Martin and Michael Caine are in perfect form, each contributing his own comic style. Caine's dry, British wit and Martin's goofy, physical comedy perfectly balance each other, and then they are spiced up nicely by the addition of Glenne Headly as the ingenue they try to swindle.

Caine plays Lawrence, a well-dressed smooth-talker who seduces wealthy women by claiming to be the exiled prince of a small, embattled country. Once he has bedded them and told them the story of his brave, resistance fighters, these women tend to foist money and valuables on him to support his valiant fighters. It's nice work if you can get it, and the scams maintain Lawrence in a beautiful ocean-side estate and a genteel lifestyle in the south of France.

The genteel part of Lawrence's life is threatened when Steve Martin's Freddy wanders into town. Freddy is an uncultured, uncouth, small-time con artist. His presence on Lawrence's home turf threatens to poison the waters for Lawrence's future schemes. Freddy has to go, but one scheme after another fails to hustle him out of town. The two finally wind up in a bet over who can first con money out of Janet (Headly), whom they believe to be a wealthy heiress. Janet, however, turns out to be other than she seems.

Long-con movies (where a con-man sets up an elaborate plot to cheat another con-man) are a favorite of mine, and “Dirty, Rotten Scoundrels” is one of the best. Even though it's actually more of a comedy, the multi-layered swindles are delicious, and the people who get cheated always deserve it. (It's worth noting that the women Lawrence habitually cheats are almost exclusively the unfaithful wives of wealthy men.) I can't say that this is Steve Martin's finest movie, because I think “Roxanne” deserves that honor. It's even more dangerous to try to pick a single best film out of Michael Caine's imposing career. Nonetheless, I think this film should fit into a Top 5 for both actors, and for Glenne Headly as well. It's a comedy classic, and even if you've seen it before, you should watch it again. You won't feel cheated.

4.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Wedding Crashers (2005) ****

So I figured out why I find it so hard to like actor Bradley Cooper. The first thing I would have seen him in is “Wedding Crashers.” In this film he plays a douchebag so well that they should have re-made all those 80's movies and cast him as the preppy villain with the up-turned collar. I've seen him in a lot of other movies now, and he's quite a good actor, but it's hard not to think of him as a jerk.

Besides the Bradley Cooper revelation, I found on re-watching “Wedding Crashers” that the movie has aged quite well. It's definitely one to get on DVD for multiple viewings. Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play John and Jeremy, a couple of boy-men whose hobby is sneaking into weddings to enjoy free food and booze and to pick up girls. The endless string of parties and one-night-stands is presented in a fun montage that makes it clear that these guys aren't merely free-loaders. Sure, they are un-invited guests, but they are the life of every party. They dance with little girls and old ladies. Every wedding would be more fun with these guys.

John, however, starts to feel the utter emptiness of all the hookups and partying. Then, at a high-profile wedding, John spots Claire (Rachel McAdams), and it's love at first sight. Jeremy hooks up with Claire's crazy sister Gloria (Isla Fisher) and the two get invited to spend the weekend at the family beach house. Jeremy spends the weekend trying to fend off the hyper-clingy Gloria, while John tries to separate Claire from her obnoxious fiance Sack (Bradley Cooper).

The plot would be intolerably improbable and trite if it weren't for the stellar cast, who simply bring the comedy in waves. Rachel McAdams and Isla Fisher are completely adorable and just as funny as Vaughn and Wilson. Bradley Cooper, as I said,is so good at playing a jerk that it becomes hard to imagine him otherwise. There's also a cameo from Will Ferrell, as the god-father of wedding crashing. He's actually funny, which goes to show that Ferrell's schtick is actually fun in small doses. Overall, “Wedding Crashers” is exuberant, funny, romantic, and slightly raunchy. It's the perfect date movie, and a guaranteed laugh at any time.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Moon (2009) ***1/2

Making a movie with just one actor may help keep the budget down, but it can't be easy for a single star to provide compelling storytelling for an entire film. This web article lists a few films that have tried it, with varying levels of success. With a bravura performance in “Moon,” Sam Rockwell proves that it can be done and done well.

Rockwell plays Sam Bell, an astronaut stationed on the dark side of the moon. He is nearing the end of a three-year mission there, maintaining harvesting machines that gather and concentrate an energy source, which is then rocketed back to earth. After three years of solitude, Sam is understandably growing stir-crazy, and looking forward very much to seeing his wife and daughter again. Then things start to get weird. I don't want to ruin the story by revealing anything else, but trust me, it's cool!

It isn't true to say that Rockwell is absolutely the only actor in “Moon.” Sam watches a few recorded video messages from earth. He also talks to a robot companion named GERTY, voiced by Kevin Spacey. GERTY is basically a benign version of HAL, from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” with that flat, robotic voice, so when it comes to emoting, Rockwell is still doing all the heavy lifting. For part of the movie, Rockwell acts opposite himself, which I would think is even more of a challenge. As an actor, Rockwell has a rather distinctive style, and given that he is in every scene of “Moon,” your enjoyment of the film will depend a lot on whether you like him. Me, I dig him.

“Moon” explores issues of identity, memory, and reality, all while building a palpable sense of dread. That such a cool film was made on a budget of only $5 million is a testament to first-time director Duncan Jones (who happens to be David Bowie's son). Jones reportedly has a sequel of sorts in mind, a story called “Mute,” set in the same future world as “Moon.” His original plan was to produce “Mute” as a graphic novel, then hopefully as a film. I haven't been able to find any evidence online that the graphic novel got made, but there is talk that if Jones's latest film “Warcraft” does well, “Mute” might happen in some form. I'll be keeping my eyes open, and definitely check it out if it does.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Shootist (1976) ****1/2

“I won't be wronged. I won't be insulted. I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people, and I require the same of them.” This is the memorable credo of J.B. Books, the gunfighter played by John Wayne in his last film, which happens to be one of the best westerns ever made.

As the tale begins, Books is diagnosed with cancer, with only a few weeks left to live. His physician, Dr. Hostetler (Jimmie Stewart), explains that the end will be very painful, not relieved even by the laudanum he prescribes. He wraps up this grim prognosis with the advice, “I would not die such a death...if I were as brave as you.” With this heavy weight on his shoulders, Books finds himself a room in a boarding house and settles in to die as peacefully and anonymously as he can. Unfortunately, Books's fame precedes him, and soon every hard case in town is out for a chance to kill the famous gunfighter.

Until I saw “The Shootist,” I thought that “True Grit” was John Wayne's best film, but I think “The Shootist” may be better. This was Wayne's last film, and he had already lost a lung to cancer. He was perfectly suited to play ”a dying man, afraid of the dark.” Wayne's gift to the film is that he underplays it, saying as much with silence or with his eyes as he does with words. The movie starts with a history of the Books character, using footage from old John Wayne movies to depict his many gunfights. After that footage it is fittingly shocking to see the wrecked, old gunfighter limping into Dr. Hostetler's office, clutching the pillow he has to sit on. Many fans may prefer to remember Wayne as the strapping, young hero of those earlier films, but I think he is beautiful in his age and infirmity, facing a grimmer enemy than any gunman.

“The Shootist” is great, but it is not a perfect film. Ron Howard gives an okay performance as a young man enamored of gunfighters and tough guys, who ultimately learns that violence is not the answer. That storyline is just a little trite. The other weak link in the movie is Harry Morgan, who plays the town marshal who wants Books gone. His character doesn't actually make a lot of sense, and neither does Morgan's performance.

Otherwise, the film is a catalog of great performances. Stewart's Dr. Hostetler is perfect. Laren Bacall is stunning as Bond, the widow who runs the boarding house. With her steely eyes and manner, she matches Wayne scene by scene. Even lesser roles are played by talented actors, such as Hugh O'Brien as the gambler Pulford, and Bill McKinney, who plays Jay Cobb with the perfect mix of meanness and cowardice. According to the the making-of documentary on the dvd, casting this film was easy. Everyone in Hollywood wanted a chance to be in what could be John Wayne's last movie. I am envious of Wayne. Not many people are lucky enough to have their last work turn out to be their best.

4.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Birdman (2014) ****

Where is the line between madness and genius? What is the difference between art and entertainment? Who has the right to make art? These questions and more are tackled in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's wild, free-jazz movie “Birdman.”

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor famous for having played the superhero Birdman. After establishing the Birdman franchise, Riggan had shocked Hollywood by refusing to make more sequels. If this all sounds familiar, it may be because Michael Keaton is famous for playing Batman and for walking away from the franchise. In the fictional Riggan's case, his career never again reached the heights it did in his Birdman days. Desperate to regain a sense of artistic relevance, he is in the process of putting on a serious play on Broadway when we meet him. Naturally, everything is going wrong that can go wrong, but he finally gets a decent actor for a co-star (Edward Norton), and the play might actually be good if Riggan can hold his sanity together.

We all sometimes hear within us a voice of negativity and criticism. In Riggan's case, that voice is relentless. He is constantly hearing the gravelly, haranguing voice of his Birdman character, mostly telling him to give up his stage aspirations and make another Birdman movie. Besides that, Riggan seems to secretly have telekinetic powers, including the power of flight, and we are constantly kept guessing as to whether these are real or simply part of his fantasy of having unrecognized gifts. Riggan, like all of us, wants to believe he is special, but as his daughter points out, he is blind to a whole world of people trying to prove every day that they are relevant enough just to survive.

“Birdman” deserves a place among the great films about making art. I'm thinking of movies like Spike Jonez and Charlie Kaufman's “Adaptation,” Bob Fosse's “All That Jazz,” and Fellini's “8 1/2”. All of these movies delve into the mind of the artist, exploring the mix of genius and madness, arrogance and self-doubt that go into the creative process. In “Birdman,” Riggan has some genuine talent, despite his self-doubt. He is also relentlessly self-destructive, however, and his talent and his self-destructiveness are constantly at war.

I haven't been attracted to any of Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's other films, which include “Babel” and “21 Grams.” I tried to watch”Amores Perros,” but turned it off because of the stomach-turning dog-fighting scenes. Inarritu must have some cache in Hollywood, however, because he was able to assemble a stellar cast for “Birdman,” including Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, and Naomi Watts, and he gets excellent performances from them.

Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also pull off a cool trick, creating the illusion that the film is shot in one, long take, even though we know that the story actually covers several days. Lubezki is known for pulling off similarly impressive, prolonged, one-shot scenes at the beginning of "Children of Men" and “Gravity”.  He had this to say about that process:

It felt contrived, like we were pushing it. I don't like it when a movie becomes a series of 'tour de force' shots, and in a way, I was disappointed that with Children of Men (2006), people noticed that the car scene was one shot with no cuts. If people notice that, it's like they're noticing my trick, you know what I mean? I'm doing it so people will get immersed in the movie, not to show off...

In “Birdman,” I think the trick is worthwhile, as it helps us identify with Riggan's manic, disoriented mental state. The camera moves us and Riggan from one crisis to the next, seemingly with no rest in between.

I don't expect “Birdman” to be a massive hit, or even a cult classic. This is the kind of arty, meta project that is simply never going to draw people in droves. A few people actually walked out of the theater. I'm not sure why. Nothing particularly offensive occurs; I guess they just weren't expecting something so weird and thought-provoking. Maybe they were expecting a superhero movie.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cuban Fury (2014) ***

I like a deep, finely-crafted movie as much as the next guy, but I'm also an advocate of the occasional fun, silly, predictable piece of fluff, as long as it's done right. “Cuban Fury” is a nice specimen of the genre. 

 Nick Frost, whose name I usually say in the same breath with Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), stars sans-Pegg in this one. He plays Bruce, a doughy, mousy designer of industrial lathes whose meek exterior hides the fact that, as a boy, he was a salsa-dancing sensation, with a promising career in competitive dance. The young Bruce gave up dancing after bigger boys beat him up and teased him for it, and now he lives a boring, lonely life, still pushed around by bullies like his co-worker Drew (Chris O'Dowd). When Bruce and Drew get a pretty, new boss (Rashida Jones), Bruce doesn't even consider trying to hit on her (“She's a 10 and I'm a 2.”) until he discovers that she is a salsa-dancing enthusiast. This awakens something in Bruce, and suddenly he is strapping on the dancing shoes and challenging Drew for their boss's heart.

“Cuban Fury” isn't going to surprise you. The plot proceeds exactly as you would expect. The movie also doesn't waste time exploring the inappropriateness of Julia (Rashida Jones) dating either of these guys who work under her. You just have to go with it, and focus on the fun music and dancing. Rashida Jones is as cute as ever, especially in her feminine, salsa dresses. She plays Julia with a nice edge of nerdiness that explains how a hottie like her might actually go for Bruce. Frost acquits himself well, and Chris O'Dowd, who usually plays such wholesomely likeable guys (“Bridesmaids” “The Sapphires”) is fun to watch playing a jerk. 

 One word of warning: O'Dowd is shown in his underwear, and it's not a lovely sight. Why couldn't it have been Rashida?!

3 stars out of 5

Monday, November 17, 2014

Rush (2013) ****

Fast cars, big money, beautiful women. Formula 1 racing is THE glamor sport of Europe, and its drivers are superstars. These guys court death by racing at close to 200 mph in open-topped, open-wheeled cars.

In this legendary sport, 1976 is a legendary year. That season, Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda engaged in a rivalry for the world championship. Ron Howard's “Rush” tells the story of that landmark year. Hunt and Lauda are presented as polar opposites, with Hunt the handsome playboy and Lauda the serious, technological genius. Lauda, the sitting champ, held a healthy lead in points by mid-season. Then, on Germany's Nurburgring racetrack, Lauda had a horrific crash, suffering serious burns to his face and lungs. While Lauda fought for his life in the hospital, Hunt made up points in race after race. Thus, after only six weeks, with his skin grafts still oozing, Niki Lauda got back behind the wheel to defend his lead and his championship. The two rivals were able to duke it out to a legendary finish of the season.

“Rush” surprisingly doesn't show all that much car racing action. The focus is on the rivalry and how it serves as a goad to higher achievement. In one sense, Hunt bore some share of blame for Lauda's accident. Lauda had tried to convince the other drivers to cancel the race due to wet conditions, but Hunt pushed for the race to go on. Lauda doesn't express bitterness towards Hunt over that, however, as he says it was seeing Hunt win races in his absence that drove him to heal faster. Sometimes an enemy is just what we need to motivate us.

Like any great sports film, “Rush” works by transcending the sport to find what is universal and human. The racing scenes, in truth, are only marginally interesting. It's the personalities of the racers and their relationship that makes this excellent film so gripping. In real life, Hunt and Lauda's rivalry was always friendlier than as depicted in the film, but otherwise the movie is very historically accurate for a story with such a great narrative arc. I'm not much of a racing fan, and I wasn't sure about watching “Rush,” but Ron Howard, with help from superb performances by Chris Hemsworth (Hunt) and Daniel Bruhl (Lauda), has made a thrilling movie that anyone can enjoy.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013) *

What a letdown! Based on reviews and a very cool premise, I had high expectations for “Snowpiercer.” Turns out it isn't even mediocre. This crapfest displays a mix of bad acting, gratuitous violence, and lame plot that suggest an utter contempt for the audience.

The cool premise is this: In the near future, humanity attempts to fight global warming by releasing some sort of chemical into the atmosphere. The stuff works too well, turning earth into a frozen wasteland. The only humans who survive are those who crowded onto an indestructible, globe-spanning train. It's never clear whether the train was built as a refuge from the cold or was already in existence. In any event, the last couple of hundred humans exist on this train, which circles the globe once a year, in a tightly regimented society. The folks at the front have good food and lux accommodations, while those at the back are overcrowded and filthy. Those at the front eat steak, while in the back they eat unappetizing protein bars and are given just enough to survive. Even worse, guards from the front come occasionally to kidnap some of the children for unknown purposes.

Under the leadership of Curtis (Chris Evans), the tail-dwellers plan a revolt. From the train's prison, they free a security expert, who helps them open the doors between cars one-by-one, as they work their way forward to the engine.

It was that intriguing premise that drew me to the film, and for the first twenty minutes or so, the film seems poised to deliver on it, as the tail-dwellers plan their attack. The film gradually falls apart, however, as neither the back story nor the actions of the characters make any sense. Even the concept of the train-as-refuge turns out to make no sense. I had assumed that this must be some super-fast train that circled the globe in one day to stay in the sun and avoid the devastatingly cold nights. It turns out, though, that it circles the globe once a year, which means there is no conceivable advantage to having the train keep moving. Even if we make the ludicrous assumption that this train is more resistant to the cold and weather than all the military bunkers and bomb shelters on earth, it would still make more sense to just park the thing somewhere near the equator at a low altitude, and just run the engines to generate heat and electricity.

Even if we accept this moving train concept, the characters' actions also exceed the limits of my suspension-of-disbelief. Curtis witnessed cannibalism in the early days on the train, but he acts horrified to learn that the protein squares are made from bugs. After some of Curtis's fighters are hurt in a huge melee, he leaves almost his entire fighting force behind to continue the advance. When he finally gets his hands on some guns and live ammo, he squanders them ridiculously. The security expert's daughter turns out to be clairvoyant, but after figuring that out,Curtis makes no further use of her skill. It's a dumb plot that forces the characters to do dumb things.

I wish I could point to a single performance as providing a bright spot in the film, but in this turd, even good actors look bad. Ed Harris plays Willard, the God-like conductor, but his villain-explains-himself scene comes off as a weak parody of itself. Tilda Swinton plays her character with such bizarre mannerisms that she is hard to watch. Even Oscar winner Octavia Spencer is made to look ridiculous.

“Snowpiercer” left me with many unanswered questions, but the biggest one is, “Why did so many reviewers like this movie?” Yes, the film is “symbolic,” holding a dark mirror up to our own society of haves and have-nots, but so many other movies have done it so much better. If you want social commentary, watch Fritz Lang's “Metropolis” or the original “Planet of the Apes.” Unless you will be satisfied with a lame, half-baked action-fest, don't board the “Snowpiercer.”

1 star out of 5

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) ***1/2

Wes Anderson is known for making the kind of film you will like if you like his kind of film. Starting with “Bottle Rocket” and “Rushmore,” his storytelling has relied on exaggerated, even bizarre characters. As he moved into the years of “The Royal Tenenbaums” and “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” his characters, costumes, and backgrounds became increasingly weird. Anderson's is a world of bright, primary colors and bright, primary people. Everything is so removed from real life that at times it is hard for me to get invested. His films remain watchable, however, due to his sense of humor and his compassion for the absurdity of the human condition.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is very much a Wes Anderson movie, and you can largely predict whether you will like it based on your response to his other films. This belongs in the top half of his works, largely due to excellent work by Ralph Fiennes, who plays Monsieur Gustave, the perfectionist concierge of the titular hotel. M. Gustave demands the best from himself and his staff, taking time off from his work only to bed the rich, elderly women who frequent the hotel. He isn't a gold-digger. He seems to view making love to these women as part of providing the absolute best experience for clients of the Grand Budapest. In any event, he likes older women. As he explains to his young protege, Zero (Tony Revolori), “When you're young, it's all steak filet, but when you get older you have to go for the cheaper cuts, which, anyway, I find more flavorful.”

When one of these wealthy dowagers dies, leaving M. Gustave a priceless painting, he is thrust into a web of intrigue with her greedy children (including Adrien Brody), an assassin (Willem Dafoe), and the police (including Ed Norton). Gustave is framed for the woman's murder, escapes with fellow prisoner Harvey Keitel, then crisscrosses the country to prove his innocence.

“The Grand Budapest Hotel” is action-packed, but it is the kind of brightly-colored, Keystone Cop action that dominates Anderson's movies. I was rarely on the edge of my seat. The action and characters were too cartoonish for me to suspend disbelief. I couldn't shake the feeling that all these excellent actors had gotten together for a dinner party, raided the closets for costumes, and were putting on a silly play for the entertainment of the other guests.

The real charm of the film is its story-within-a story framework. The movie starts with a young woman approaching the grave of a famous writer, then sitting down to read one of his books. That book is “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” and in it the writer describes how he visited the hotel in its decline and met its mysterious owner, Mr. Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). Moustafa is the aged Zero, and he relays to the writer the tale of his adventure with M. Gustave, who wound up owning the hotel and ultimately passing it on to his loyal protege Zero/Moustafa. Intertwined with the tale is the tragic story of Mr. Moustafa's one, great love. Having these characters look back on the story from different perspectives over the decades lends the tale a poignancy that belies its cartoonish look. In this light, the stylized look of the film represents the way our memories look to us, and these tragicomic characters seem very real and beautifully human.

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Gone Girl (2014) ****

“Deliciously twisted” is a term that seems to come up repeatedly in descriptions of David Fincher's “Gone Girl,” based on the novel by Gillian Flynn. I won't argue with the “twisted” descriptor, but “delicious” is up for debate. In gustatory terms, I would describe the story as more like one of those bizarre ice cream flavors, or one of those sour beers brewed with bacteria instead of yeast. The flavor is “interesting,” and you respect them for making something so outre, but you don't necessarily want seconds.

The story structure is fabulous. The doomed marriage of Nick (Ben Affleck) and Amy (Rosamund Pike) is presented as two competing narratives moving along different time lines. We follow Nick as he comes home to find his wife missing, with signs of a struggle in the house. As the clues pile up, the police, the cable news harpies, and even the viewers come to suspect that Nick has murdered Amy. Meanwhile, we see, through entries in Amy's diary, how the two met five years earlier, fell in love, lost their jobs, moved to Missouri, then watched their marriage spiral into bitterness and fear.

I hate to sound like one of those lame, internet links, but “You won't believe what happens next!” Things get weird. Then they get twisted, and even more twisted.

Much as with the film “The Crying Game,” it becomes very awkward to discuss this movie without ruining the surprises. (Don't worry, the only on-screen penises in this one belong to male characters.) What I will say is that not since “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?” has there been such a brilliantly horrifying critique of marriage. The film, like the novel, is an ugly story, beautifully told. The ending, by the way, is essentially the same as in the novel, despite some interviews in which Gillian Flynn suggested otherwise. Unfortunately, it's an ending that most viewers will find unsettling and unsatisfying. Our sense of justice is not rewarded in this tale. In one sense, it's a commentary on how we all pretend to be better than we are to impress others. Eventually, if we are lucky (or unlucky, in some cases), one of those people marries us. What happens when the charade fails, and they see who we really are? “Gone Girl” suggests that one option is to simply agree to go back to pretending, and to pretend even harder.

I'm honestly a bit torn as to how to rate this one. It's as well-crafted a film as David Fincher has made, perfectly cast and perfectly paced, but damn, it's bleak. There's certainly nothing to criticize about the acting. Affleck and Pike are perfect for their roles and in their roles. Same for Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's obsessed ex-boyfriend and Tyler Perry (Yes, THAT Tyler Perry) as a Johnnie Cochran-esque lawyer. For me, the warped ending was a bit of a stretch plot-wise, but the film keeps things humming along so that you hardly notice until it's over. It's an excellent film, and I recommend it, but it sure doesn't have anything close to a happy ending. You'll have to decide for yourself if “deliciously twisted” is something you're up for.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

This is Where I Leave You (2014) ****

We've all heard the old trope about how happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are each unhappy in their own way. I don't know if that's true, but I do know that no one wants to write books or movies about happy families. Unhappy ones are way more interesting.

The Altman family is quite interesting, even though on the surface their tragedies are all pretty mundane. Siblings Judd (Jason Bateman), Paul (Corey Stoll), Phillip (Adam Driver), and Wendy (Tina Fey) are called home for their father's funeral. Judd's life is a mess, because he caught his wife sleeping with his boss (Dax Shepherd). Paul has a chip on his shoulder as the elder brother who stayed in town to run the family business but can't get his wife (Kathryn Hahn) pregnant. Phillip, the youngest, is an immature mess who has gotten engaged to his shrink (Connie Britton). Wendy, in a loveless marriage, carries a torch for her old boyfriend, whose life was stunted by a head injury.

Sounds like a downer, right? Well don't worry. Based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper, who also wrote the screenplay, “This is Where I Leave You” is absolutely hilarious. The Altman matriarch (Jane Fonda) convinces the sibs that their non-religious father wanted them all to sit Shiva, a Jewish tradition that involves sitting in the house together for seven days. It's a white lie that gives them all a chance to re-connect, get in fist-fights, and work through a few of their issues.

If “This is Where I Leave You” is an example of what happens when you allow an author to adapt his own book for the screen, then Hollywood should do it more often. It's amazing how cleanly Tropper captures the spirit of his book while compacting the story for the screen. Of course, with a cast like this, it's hard to go wrong. Jason Bateman disappointed me with "Bad Words", but here he is back to his charming self. He has excellent chemistry with Rose Byrne, who plays an old love-interest. Tina Fey is beautiful and pitch-perfect, and Jane Fonda is hilarious as the fake-boob-sporting mother. Dax Shepherd's role is small, but after watching him play such a nice guy in "Hit and Run", I'm impressed by how well he can play a jerk. Then there is Adam Driver, who perhaps plays the incorrigible Phillip a little too wise at times, but is absolutely magnetic. You cannot look away from him.

It isn't often that I come away satisfied from a movie based on a book I like. It's hard to catch the lightning of a great book in the bottle of a film, but “This is Where I Leave You” does it in spades. If they gave an Oscar for Date-Movie of the Year, “This is Where I Leave You” would be a top contender.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, October 03, 2014

The Way Way Back (2013) ***

Halfway through this movie, my wife turned to me and asked me if I found Toni Collette at all attractive. Newsflash, guys, these can be dangerous questions! You gotta think before you answer. Honestly, though, there is simply nothing sexy about Toni Collette, at least not in her movies. I think she's an excellent actress, and certainly not ugly, but in her film roles she always plays these characters whose life has gone to crap, and her face seems designed to express misery. When she smiles, it seems to take a massive effort of will to move her facial features up from their natural, hang-dog position, and the effect is always one of smiling through the pain.

In “The Way Way Back,” Collette plays yet another single mom struggling to smile through the pain, but the movie isn't really about her. The protagonist is her 14-year-old son, Duncan (Liam James), who is miserable at having to spend the summer with his mom, her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and the boyfriend's bitchy teenage daughter. The thing about Trent is he's a bully, but not the typical, get-drunk-and-slap-your-woman bully. He comes across as a nice guy, but he's really all about himself. He constantly undermines Duncan in the guise of acting as a father figure.

To escape, Duncan wanders the beach town where they are spending the summer, and he winds up meeting the staff of the local water park, including Sam Rockwell and Maya Rudolph. This kooky bunch become like a family to Duncan, and their kind acceptance allows him to blossom and become a man.

The plot is entirely too “After School Special,” but the strong cast manages to pull this one off. Carrell plays a very convincing jerk, and Toni Collette, of course, is right in her element as an aging single Mom whose last great romantic prospect isn't really all that great. Sam Rockwell is really charming as the irreverent water park manager. It's the star, Liam James, who really carries the movie though. He starts the film as a slumped-over wallflower, and by the end he has literally found a backbone. His use of posture to portray Duncan's transformation reminds me of Kevin Spacey's work in “American Beauty.”

What is the way, way back? The title refers to the rear-facing seat in the far back of Trent's station-wagon, but it is also a metaphor for Duncan, his water-park friends, and anyone else who doesn't exactly fit in. It turns out that when the misfits of the world support each other, the way way back isn't such a bad place to be.

3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut (2006) ****1/2

The theatrical version of “Payback” came out in 1999, and while I enjoyed the movie, I wasn't completely satisfied. The film is loosely based on the Richard Stark book “The Hunter,” and loosely is the operative word. I'm a big fan of the book, and while the movie is a decent action/crime flick, it forsakes the noirish, amoral tone of the book in favor of a more audience-friendly, heroic story.

It turns out director Brian Helgeland did make a movie with the stark tone of the book, but Mel Gibson and the studio didn't think it would sell. Helgeland was fired, new writers were brought in, and an entirely new third act was shot, with the overall effect being a movie more like the Lethal Weapon movies, with explosions, one-liners, and a sympathetic hero.

In 2006, Brian Helgeland was given the opportunity to use the original footage of “Payback” to put together a director's cut, and man, is it awesome! Not only did Helgeland do away with the cheesy, blue film wash of the theatrical version, he stripped out all the lowest-common-denominator stuff that was put in to ensure that Porter, the protagonist, would be the kind of consistently sympathetic outlaw that audiences expected of Mel Gibson in 1999. What's fascinating is that Helgeland has put together, out of old footage, a movie that is perfect for modern-day, tarnished Mel Gibson. The drunk-driving, anti-semite, mug-shot, divorcee Gibson is finally free to play this character as Richard Stark wrote him, amoral and ruthless.

The story starts with Porter, in rumpled clothes, entering New York City on foot. Through a series of small rip-offs, he gets himself some cash, some clothes, and a weapon, and starts to hunt down the people who betrayed him. It turns out Porter is a heist artist. He plans and executes robberies. On his last job his partner and his wife double-crossed him, shooting him in the back and leaving him for dead. He sets out to even the score and get his money back, and not even the power of the Mob can stop him.

The attraction of Porter (known as Parker in the book series) is that in any given situation, he can be counted on to do what makes sense. Surrounded by sadistic sociopaths, druggies, and egomaniacs, he is always cool-headed and rational. A character like this has a pleasant, moderating effect on the plot of any story he appears in. He keeps the author or screenwriter honest. And yet, in order for there to be a story at all, we have to accept that in the big picture Porter may do something irrational when a principle is involved. Else why go up against the Mob for a mere $70,000?

Porter lives by a code. Someone betrays him; he gets even. Compromise isn't part of his DNA. Director Brian Helgeland apparently has a code as well. In 1999 he wasn't able to make the compromises that would please the movie studio, so in 2006 he was able to put together a crime movie of integrity, one that is destined to be a cult classic.

4.5 stars out of 5

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Lunchbox (2013) ****

In Mumbai, there is a lunchbox delivery service called the dabawallas. These men pick up hot lunches either from customers' homes or from restaurants, and deliver them to workers at lunchtime. Then they pick up the empties and haul them back home. It's a fascinating system that utilizes bicycles, trains, and men on foot. Many of the workers are illiterate, so a system of colors and codes is used on the boxes to get them where they belong. Mistakes are supposedly rare.

“The Lunchbox” is the story of one such mistake and how it changes two people's lives. The lovely Nimrat Kaur plays Ila, a lonely housewife who hopes to win back her husband's love by cooking him delicious lunches, which she sends to him at work via dabawalla. With advice from her upstairs neighbor, she prepares the most beautiful food I have seen on-screen since “Eat Drink Man Woman.” It's entirely possible these meals could cure her husband's wandering eye, but unfortunately he never gets to eat them. The dabawallas mistakenly deliver his lunches to Saajan (Irfan Khan), a dour, lonely widower in a government office. Saajan simply thinks that the restaurant that usually provides his meals has suddenly experienced a dramatic improvement in quality. On the other end, Ila quickly figures out the mistake when she gets no reaction from her husband regarding his lunch.

The obvious thing to do would be to tell her husband that a mistake was made and get things sorted out with the dabbawallas. For Ila, however, feeding her husband is an intensely intimate act, and she feels betrayed that he “ate someone else's food and didn't even notice.” Indeed, it feels like a corresponding act of infidelity when Ila continues to send lunches to Saajan, along with little notes. Saajan starts sending his own notes back in the empty lunchbox, and the two gradually get to know each other.

I'll tell you right now that there are no sex scenes in this film. No one gets shot or blown up either, and yet a great deal happens. Ila finds the courage to leave her loveless marriage, a very difficult act in a culture where un-married women are not valued. Saajan, meanwhile, finds himself at a crossroads, where he will either quietly fade into retirement and old age or find the energy to jump back into life.

“The Lunchbox” is incredibly rich in cultural detail, and it's fascinating to watch these people live out their personal crises amidst the throngs of Mumbai. Without hitting you over the head with it, the film makes you think about how, even in a city of millions, each individual is living his own story, and how easy it is to be lonely among the masses. Khan and Kaur provide understated performances of incredible depth, and the food is a performance all its own. The acting and the food combine with the sight, sounds, and practically the smells of Mumbai to make “The Lunchbox” a satisfying meal.

4 stars out of 5

Friday, September 19, 2014

Much Ado About Nothing (2012) ***

This hybrid Shakespeare update is a low-budget, black-and-white project directed by Joss Whedon that proves once again that you don't need to spend a lot of money to make great art. I call it a hybrid, because while the film features a modern, California setting and modern dress, the actors use the original Shakespearean lines. The effect is unsettling at first, and the language is hard to follow (as you may recall from high school), but the acting is so good that you very quickly get used to it.

The action in this classic comedy centers around two couples. Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Hero (Jillian Morgese) already fancy each other, and while they are young and shy, it is light work for their families and friends to bring them together and arrange a marriage. Benedick (Alexis Denisof) and Beatrice (Amy Acker), on the other hand, seem on the surface to despise one another, and constantly trade clever barbs. Their animosity seems to stem at least in part from a one-night-stand that ended awkwardly, which we see at the beginning of the film. We being a wise audience, however, it is obvious to us that their animosity masks a powerful chemistry, and that their oaths of single-hood are doomed to end in marriage.

The fly in the ointment is the bastard John (Sean Maher), half-brother of Don Pedro (Reed Diamond.) The Don is bosom-buddies with Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is Hero's father and Beatrice's uncle. The Don, therefore, is overjoyed to see both these ladies betrothed to his friends Claudio and Benedick, which makes his scheming brother John determined to upset the nuptials.

I won't give away anything further, but you can rest assured of a happy ending. As anyone who has studied Shakespeare knows, he only made two kinds of plays: tragedies, in which the protagonist always dies, and comedies, in which things always work out as they should, despite the obstacles. “Much Ado About Nothing” is one of the comedies, and aptly named in that nothing of any weight really happens. Characters get upset and fly off the handle over the slightest of misunderstandings. Nonetheless, it's a charming and funny tale.

I would call this little film-making experiment a success. The use of modern dress for the characters knocks the dust off of Shakespeare's dense comedy and lets its sexiness shine. The cast is chock full of excellent character actors, many of whom you will recognize from other Joss Whedon projects like “Firefly.” Nathan Fillian is particularly good as a bumbling, self-important policeman. Sean Maher, who played the doctor on “Firefly,” is delightfully wicked as the evil John. I had only seen Alexis Denisof before as the cheesy news anchor Sandy Rivers on “How I Met Your Mother.” It's fun to see him here as the clever rogue Benedick.

At the end of the day, Whedon's “Much Ado About Nothing” is a fun piece of fluff. This will not live as the definitive version of the play, but then again, it was filmed for almost nothing at Joss Whedon's house, with no budget for costumes and presumably friends-and-family salaries for the actors. This isn't for everyone, but for those who love the Bard and Joss Whedon, it's a fun couple of hours.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, September 18, 2014

No (2012) **1/2

As rare as democracy is in human history, it is even more rare when it is achieved peacefully.  Tyrants are loathe to give up their power, and even in places that hold nominal elections, the rule tends to be that the party in power cheats in order to stay in power.  This is why it was such a miracle of history when George Washington handed over the Presidency to John Adams, and why it is still a miracle each time a political party wrests the reigns of government from its opposition through the peaceful means of an election.

Former Chilean President Pinochet never had any intention of giving up his hold on power, but he and his junta did eventually craft a constitution that created the illusion of democracy and rule of law.  Under it, the junta would nominate a candidate for President, and the people would simply vote “Si” or “No.” The nomination, of course, went to Pinochet, so in 1988, the Chilean people were allowed to vote on the question of whether he should remain in power.  With control of the polls and the media, Pinochet and his government clearly held the advantage, but they did grant the opposition a 15 minute television spot each night to make their case for the “No” vote.  Surprisingly, the “No” ticket prevailed, and Pinochet, with the world watching, was forced to gradually hand over power to a democratically elected leader.

The Oscar-nominated, Spanish-language film “No” is a fictionalized account of the advertising campaign that helped make that result possible.  Gael Garcia Bernal plays Rene, an advertising guy whose work experience involves selling soda.  As the leaders of the “No” campaign prepare to focus on the torture, disappearances, and other abuses of the Pinochet regime, Rene convinces them to try a more optimistic, marketing-based approach.  People will be turned off by all the negative imagery, he tells them, so you have to give them a catchy jingle, positive images, and promote the idea that voting “No” is really voting “Yes” to a better Chile.

Like all historical movies, and perhaps more than many, “No” sacrifices authenticity and complexity in the name of narrative.  Rene Saavedra never existed.  He probably represents an amalgam of the marketing whizzes who created the “No” campaign. The film also oversimplifies the election, crediting the victory to the slick ad campaign, while downplaying the nationwide grassroots efforts that also played a role.

 My complaint about films based on historical events and people is that the power of the story comes from the idea that it actually happened.  The more we become aware that artistic license has been taken to make the narrative better, the less power the story has.  For viewers who aren’t aware of the oversimplifications, the situation is even worse, because they come away from the movie thinking they have just seen history.  That is not only unjust, but dangerous, as people may be trained by such entertainment to view the world through a simplistic, black-and-white filter.

Filmmakers aren’t about to stop, however.  History is full of too many compelling stories.  As movies based on history go, “No” is just alright.  The characters are underdeveloped, and the story feels small compared to the events on which it is based.  I can’t help thinking that the Oscar nomination was more about the subject matter than the quality of the film itself.

2.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) **

If you only see one smart-alecky, sci-fi, action movie this year, it should be 2013's “Star Trek: Into Darkness.” Or you could just watch the movie “Serenity” again, or maybe “The Empire Strikes Back.” “Guardians of the Galaxy” shoots for the combination of heart, memorable characters, snappy dialogue, and irreverence that those films have, but it fails to pull it off.

Expectations were high for this one. It's the surprise hit of the summer, and most reviews I have seen are positive. Everyone seems to love Chris Pratt's performance, love the raccoon, love the tree thing, and think that this rag-tag bunch of reluctant heroes is the perfect antidote to the typical comic-book movie. I found the movie to be largely targeted at 13-year-olds, with lots of cuteness, way to much sentimentality, and so-so acting.

The sentimentality starts right away, with a young boy (the future Starlord) watching his mom die of cancer in a very over-wrought scene. Then the kid gets abducted by aliens, and the movie gets fun for a while. We meet the grown-up Starlord (Chris Pratt), a handsome rogue of a smuggler who likes to listen to his mom's old mix-tape on the Sony Walkman she gave him. He picks up some type of powerful orb from an abandoned planet, and immediately finds himself the subject of pursuit. The orb is coveted by a psychopathic terrorist named Ronan, who plans to trade it to a Titan named Thanos in exchange for destroying a planet. Ronan sends the green assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana) after the orb, but it turns out she has plans to double-cross the terrorist. Meanwhile, Starlord's old partner, Yondu (Michael Rooker, playing the exact same Merle character he plays in “The Walking Dead”) puts out a bounty on him, which puts him in the sights of bounty-hunters Rocket (a genetically-modified, talking raccoon voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Groot (a walking, talking tree whose only words are “I am Groot.”) Later, this motley crew meets Drax the Destroyer, a hunk of muscle played by professional wrestler Dave Bautista. These guys wind up teaming up to stop Ronan, of course.

There's no reason this setup couldn't be plenty of fun, and for 20 minutes or so it is. The misanthropic raccoon is hilarious, and Starlord shows some Han Solo-esque potential. Then the movie takes a sappy turn and never looks back. Where Han Solo was a reluctant hero and lover, Starlord signs on for both roles with little resistance. (In fairness, I suppose you could point out that the raccoon is really the Han Solo character, and Starlord is more like Luke Skywalker, but the plot still sucks.) Gamora, who was never really impressive as an assassin anyway, spends the rest of the film whining to her adopted sister to join her and “not let all those people die.” Even the raccoon turns sentimental. It seems the screenwriters got too lazy to create a plot in which the characters would have semi-credible motivations for teaming up, so they made “friendship” the motivation for guarding the galaxy.

Ironically, we went to this movie thinking I would love it, and my wife would just tolerate it. Turns out that while I was bored, she thought it was delightful. She liked the soft-hearted Groot and the lost-70's soundtrack, and she didn't think it was too sentimental at all. She isn't alone. This film is a massive hit, and my grumpy opinion is definitely in the minority. But hell, there were people who liked “Return of the Jedi” better than “The Empire Strikes Back,” too.

2 stars out of 5

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Juan of the Dead (Juan de los Muertos, 2011) **1/2

It's 2014, and we have spent the last few years fighting a zombie invasion. They are in our books, at the cineplex, and on our TV screens. All of us survivors now know the basic tropes of zombie fighting: They hunger for flesh. They are mostly slow, but sometimes fast. You kill them by destroying the brain. Finally, zombie-ism is spread by a bite or scratch, like rabies.

The horror of having our loved ones rise from the dead to devour us has become a cliché, and it's time we retire the genre, but not before we talk about “Juan of the Dead.”

Much like 2004's “Shaun of the Dead,” the hilarious Simon Pegg/Nick Frost comedy, “Juan of the Dead” riffs on the original of the genre, George Romero's 1978 “Dawn of the Dead.” “Dawn” is a pretty easy word to rhyme, and one could imagine this going on indefinitely: “Levonne of the Dead” (blacksploitation), “Don of the Dead” (a Mad-Men-themed version), “Lebron of the Dead” (zombie basketball) and so on.

Juan, a thief and general layabout, considers himself a survivor. He has persisted through poverty, prison, and the ups and downs of Cuban life. Thus, when the neighbors start rising from the dead as bloody biting machines, Juan takes it all with an insouciance that is at once fatalistic and pragmatic. While other Cubans flee the island in droves, Juan enlists his fellow shady characters to start a business. For cash, they clear people's houses of zombies. They are raking it in for a while, but eventually it becomes clear that the zombie outbreak is not a self-limited infection. The entire island is being overtaken, and the only intelligent option is to build a raft and flee.

As a comedy, “Juan of the Dead” mostly misses the mark. There are moments of humor, but the jokes are mostly broad. Where the movie succeeds is in its commentary on Cuban history, turning the zombie invasion into a metaphor for life in Cuba. Looking down from a rooftop as zombies attack the living on the street, Juan's daughter points out that “You can't tell the good ones from the bad ones.” Juan replies, “Things in Cuba haven't changed.” Later, after a night of zombie-fighting, Juan and his crew wait at a bus stop, because “No matter how bad things get in Cuba, public transportation runs, no matter what.” As things get worse and worse, more people flee on makeshift rafts, but Juan stays, figuring that sticking with his home is better than trying to build a new life elsewhere. Whether he is a hero or a fool depends on your point of view, and I imagine Cubans would give you a variety of answers to that question.

2.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 13, 2014

I Don't Want To Be A Man (Ich Mochte Kein Mann Sein, 1918) ***1/2

This is the kinkiest, most twisted movie I have seen in a while, and I loved it! The great German director Ernst Lubitsch was known for imbuing his films with a cheeky, sexual humor, and his “Lubitsch Touch” is fully displayed in this short, silent film, one of his earliest productions.

In this strikingly feminist piece, Lubitsch presents Ossi (Ossi Oswalda), a tomboyish, rebellious girl who drives her uncle and governess crazy by gambling, smoking, drinking, and flirting with men. When her uncle travels out of town, leaving her in the care of a handsome, younger new guardian, Ossi figures it is party time. The new guardian, however, turns out to be even stricter than Ossi's uncle. Ossi decides that the only way to achieve any freedom is to pose as a man, so she has a suit tailored, and after bed one evening sneaks out on the town. As a man, Ossi get attention from women and feels exhilaratingly free, but she soon finds that men have it tougher than she thought. On a train she is forced to give up her seat to a woman, and when her foot is stepped on, she is told not to cry about it, to “be a man.” At a dance hall, Ossi runs into none other than her new guardian, who doesn't recognize her in her man's garb. After almost getting in a fight, the two become drinking buddies, then progress to some very un-buddy-like kissing.

I call the movie feminist, because the point of the story seems to be that Ossi doesn't want to be a man, she just wants to enjoy the freedom and independence that would be hers if she were a man. Some have described the movie as ahead of its time, but in fact there was a robust feminist movement in Germany at the time. Much as in the U.S., many of the gains made by the women's movement were undermined by the worldwide Great Depression, (and in Germany by the Nazis). Before the Depression (and the Hays Code), however, many films featured strong-willed women.

Many films from this period also featured scenes of cross-dressing and implied homosexuality. In “I Don't Want to be a Man,” the guardian's actions are not technically gay, since he is making out with a woman, but he sure does think that Ossi is a man when he is kissing her. There's also a scene where the guardian wakes in Ossi's room, wearing her sleeping cap, suggesting that the cross-dressing goes both ways. Perhaps the title, “I Don't Want to be a Man” can also be interpreted as a plea from the guardian. Maybe it is he, not Ossi, who is struggling with gender-identity issues.

3.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, September 04, 2014

Bad Words (2013) **

“Bad Words” has almost all of the elements of an interesting story. There's a unique premise. There's a flawed character, and at the end he has changed a little bit. What's missing is the part in between where he faces some crisis and has an epiphany that explains the change in him. The story arc of this film is like a bridge that has collapsed in the middle.

Jason Bateman plays Guy Trilby, a wounded man-child who is nursing some kind of grudge that drives him, at the age of 40, to enter the Spelling Bee circuit. Because he dropped out of school in eighth grade, he technically qualifies for the tournament, so the outraged parents and Bee officials are forced to let him compete. Kathryn Hahn plays a reporter who sponsors Trilby and tries to pry some of his motivations out of him for her story. At the National Bee, Guy is befriended by a big-eyed, adorable, little Indian kid (Rohan Chand), who turns out to be his biggest competition.

Bateman does achieve the feat of being unlikeable in this film, which I wouldn't have thought possible. His Guy is the sort of misanthropic jerk whose antics might be amusing if he weren't directing his slurs and dirty tricks at little kids. The film attempts to capture some of that hilarious one-upmanship that worked so well between Jason Schwartzman and Bill Murray in “Rushmore,” but here it falls flat and is ultimately aborted. What we keep waiting for is that moment where Guy is forced to examine himself and change. Instead, Guy simply changes his behavior right at the end. We never know whether this was his plan all along, or if he changed his plan, and why. Ultimately, the characters and the relationships between them are never developed properly, and one wonders if the rest of the movie didn't get lost in some editing accident.

It's a shame, because this film has a great premise and excellent actors. Rohan Chand isn't the most inspiring child actor, but he is serviceable, and really, Jason Bateman and Kathryn Hahn should have been able to carry this film by themselves. I think the fault lies with the director, who, as it happens, is Jason Bateman. This is his first film to direct, and while I enjoy him as an actor, he doesn't show much promise here as an auteur.

2 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Hit and Run (2012) ***1/2

I don't know how this movie snuck past me before this. I remember liking the trailer, but then I forgot about it until it popped up on Netflix the other day. I'm glad it did, because this movie is nothing but fun! Kristen Bell, of course, is adorable. I would watch her in anything. Dax Shepard, who co-stars, co-directs, and wrote the screenplay, is very naturalistic and likeable. It's Bradley Cooper in dreadlocks, however, that puts the movie over the top.

Shepard plays Charles (AKA Yul), a pleasant guy living in a sleepy town as part of the witness protection program. His world gets turned upside down when his girlfriend, Annie (Kristen Bell), is offered her dream job in the one place he can't safely visit, Las Angeles. Throwing caution to the wind, Charles whisks Annie off to L.A. in his classic Lincoln Continental, trailed by all kinds of trouble in the form of Annie's ex-boyfriend, Charles's police liaison (Tom Arnold), and Charles's old partner-in-crime Dmitry (Bradley Cooper).

“Hit and Run” is ironically titled, because all the characters are trying not to hit and run, but to build a stable relationship with someone. Charles and Annie are on the classic, relationship-testing road trip. Dmitry has his own committed relationship with his bank-robber girlfriend and their collection of dogs. Even Tom Arnold's U.S. Marshall finds love in the end.

Fortunately, with all this lovey-dovey stuff getting passed around, the movie manages to avoid sentimentality. “Hit and Run” gets it right by taking time to develop the characters as individuals, not just as chess pieces that have to be moved around in fast cars to serve the plot. There are fast cars, however. This is an action-comedy, after all, and “Hit and Run” strikes a nice balance between the two.

Another thing the movie gets right is the dialogue. Reminiscent of a Tarantino movie, the conversations in “Hit and Run” are treated as genuine events that matter to two people, not just as exposition or plot devices. Whether they are debating the use of homophobic slurs or the virtues of buying better dog food, the characters talk to each other like people who actually have something to say.

3.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Bad Santa (2003) ***1/2

Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) may just have the best job in the world. He gets to spend eleven months out of the year lazing about, doing whatever he wants. Then, each December, he meets up with his friend Marcus (Tony Cox) to pull a burglary. Marcus, you see, is a dwarf, which makes it easy for him to get a seasonal job as one of Santa's elves. Willie, who is also a safe-cracker, plays the Santa role, and the job gives them easy access to whatever mall or department store they work in. Once they have cased the joint, they clean it out, then spend the rest of the year enjoying their earnings.

The beauty of this setup is lost on the alcoholic, perpetually-depressed Willie. His drinking and nihilism are gradually making him less reliable as a mall Santa and as a partner-in-crime for Marcus. Then Willie meets a girl. Sue (Lauren Graham) is way too cute for an alcoholic bum like Willie, but apparently she goes for him because she has a Santa fetish. (Also, Billy Bob Thornton married Angelina Jolie in real life, so maybe we are just meant to understand that this is his superpower.) You would think that a hot, new girlfriend might inspire Willie to clean up his act a little, but he pretty much keeps on drinking and trying to screw everything up. It isn't until Willie gets involved with a weird, little, fat kid that he starts to feel some empathy and grow as a person. The kid's parents are gone, leaving him in a fancy house with his demented grandmother. At first, this just gives Willie a great place to hide out and party with Sue, but eventually these four form a twisted family.

“Bad Santa” is an example of how a lot of cinematic sins can be forgiven if a filmmaker gets the tone of a movie right. There are tons of holes in this plot, but the darkly comic tone is maintained consistently without getting TOO dark or resorting to sentimentality. The result is a fairly hilarious little dark comedy. As holiday films go, I'll take “Bad Santa” over “Miracle on 34th Street” any day.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Lego Movie (2014) **1/2

I've come to have high expectations for animated films. Spoiled as I am by a decade of Pixar films like “Wall-E” and “Monsters, Inc.,”I have little tolerance for weak plots and acting. “The Lego Movie” and all of its hype crashed into those expectations, and the results were rather disappointing.

“The Lego Movie” tells the story of Emmett (voiced by Chris Pratt), a generic, Lego construction worker who spends his days with the other workers, building things exactly according to the Lego instructions. Everyone in Legoland follows the instructions, in obedience to Lord Business (Will Ferrell), an OCD, control-freak micro-manager. Emmett is the most boring Lego person in town, with absolutely nothing to distinguish him, but he gets thrust into an adventure when he accidentally finds a legendary hunk of plastic called the Piece of Resistance. Rebel Lego-people bring Emmett into their movement, believing him to be the prophesied Master Builder, who will use the Piece to defeat Lord Business and save Legoland.

Given that all the characters and backgrounds are made up of Legos, you might think this would be a true stop-action animated film. Nope, this is another CGI-fest, which freed the animators up to make “The Lego Movie” one long, frenetic action sequence. Oh, every now and then they slow down for a brief lesson about “believing in yourself,” but mostly everything just MOVES, exhaustingly.

It isn't until the end, when Emmett meets the Man Upstairs, that things get really meta and interesting. At this point, all your assumptions about the story get turned on their heads, and the movie becomes quite open to interpretation. This segment explores the value of play and creativity versus structure and control. It would be possible to find some commentary here on regimented societies like China versus individualistic, more chaotic societies like the U.S. Going deeper, one could view the relationship between the Man Upstairs, his son, and the Lego world as an allegory of Christian theology. Truth is, there's all kinds of potential religious symbolism in this film. Emmett, himself, could be viewed as a Christlike figure, a promised savior who turns out to be different from what the people were expecting. The film also asks whether prophesy is real or just made up to serve as a self-fulfilling guide to future generations. Some might find the movie to be Existentialist. I can't divine, though, whether the filmmakers intended all this subtext or not, because they can't seem to wait to get back to the mind-numbing action. That's the problem with “The Lego Movie,” they don't slow down to offer any thought or meaning until it's too late,your mind is already mush from all the seizure-inducing kinetics.

When I first heard they were making a Lego movie, I thought it was the dumbest idea ever. Then I started hearing positive reviews and buzz, and my expectations rose to Pixar levels. Now, having seen it, I feel pretty “meh” about it. The ending does somewhat redeem the movie and provides some interesting fuel for discussion. Truth be told, though, I was bored while watching it, and for a movie like this, being boring is the one unforgivable crime. Even worse than not following the instructions.

2.5 stars out of 5  

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mud (2012) ***1/2

One thing you can count on is that when Hollywood sets a movie in Arkansas, it isn't going to be about lawyers, or university professors, or company executives. It'll be about backwoods, country-talking, toothless rednecks. “Mud” is no exception. That's my only real complaint about “Mud,” however. It's a funny, strangely entertaining coming-of-age tale.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are a couple of 13-year-old boys whose lives are wrapped up with the Mississippi River and its tributaries in the Arkansas delta. Everything in their lives is covered in mud, but the movie is named for a drifter (Matthew McConaughey) they meet on an island in the river. The boys sneak out to the island to check out a boat that has been lodged in a tree by floods. They find Mud living in it, and he ropes them into his world of superstition and romance. Mud is hiding out, waiting for a chance to meet up with his trashy girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). The boys, especially Ellis,can't help but be impressed by such a romantic situation. They help Mud out, even when doing so runs them afoul of the law and a gang of bounty-hunters.

I like that “Mud” isn't about any big issue or theme. It's just a good story, well-told. Matthew McConaughey has fully left behind his lightweight, pretty-boy rep. He does take off his shirt in “Mud,” but he also sports bad teeth, looking as greasy and dirty as anyone should hiding out on an island in the summer. Equally fearless is Reese Witherspoon as Mud's trampy girlfriend, Juniper. She trashes up even better than Blake Lively did in “The Town.” It's the teen actors who really impress, however, especially Tye Sheridan. Sheridan only had one movie role before “Mud,” playing in Terence Malick's “Tree of Life,” which is not a bad start, artistically. Jacob Lofland had even less experience. “Mud” was his first movie role; he was chosen because he is an Arkansas boy who knows how to ride a motorbike and drive a boat. Both actors have been working steadily since.

It's true that “Mud” is overly optimistic, and certainly predictable, but the humor of the movie makes up for any weaknesses of story. The boys riding around town trying to sell fish, Ellis's fumbling attempts at romance, and Neckbone's wetsuit-wearing uncle are all comedy gold! It's also a testimony to how much love, or the lack of it, can mess you up. It's like the song says, “Love is like oxygen. You get too much, you get too high. Not enough, and you're gonna die.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Thursday, June 26, 2014

American Psycho **Spoilers** (2000) ****

There's no way I can discuss this film without giving some things away. If you haven't seen it yet, then I recommend you watch it before reading any further. And I do HIGHLY recommend you watch it. It's an adeptly drawn modern fable full of dark humor and social satire.

Christian Bale plays wall-street trader Patrick Bateman. We know Bateman is on Wall Street because he tells us, but we never see him actually doing any real work. This is part of the story, that Bateman and his “friends” are all about spending money in the most extravagant ways possible, but none of them produce anything of value. These 20-something suits spend their days going out for expensive meals and drinks, one-upping each other with fancy stationery, and cheating with each others' Ivy League girlfriends. These alpha males live in a world devoid of any trace of human connection or empathy. Bateman narrates our journey through this world, describing to us his exercise and skin-care regimens, ultimately telling us:

There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman; some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me: only an entity, something illusory. And though I can hide my cold gaze, and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable... I simply am not there.

Bateman deals with his emptiness through violent fantasies and possibly bursts of murderous violence, and this is where the film gets vague, because it's hard to tell where fantasy leaves off and reality begins. Viewing the storyline literally, we see Bateman abuse prostitutes, then later murder them. He murders a colleague and hides the body, making everyone think the guy disappeared on a trip overseas. We eventually see that he has filled an apartment with dead bodies, and he finally engages in a shootout with police in which he wins by blowing up a squad car with a single shot. It's here that it becomes obvious (even to Bateman, who looks disbelievingly at his pistol) that some contact with reality his been lost.

I will try to leave off here in describing the plot, because I really don't want to ruin the delight of watching this fable. The upshot is that Bateman is clearly psychotic, and there are a variety of interpretations as to how much of the violence is real versus what takes place in his mind. I prefer to believe that it all takes place in his head, and that Bateman is in reality just another bland, American male, going through his day having one violent fantasy after another. What separates him from the rest of us is not the content but the extremity of his thoughts, and his growing inability to distinguish them from reality. This would make “American Psycho” a scathing commentary on the Western, male mind.

As it happens, director Mary Harron has indicated that she regrets making the plot so vague, and that we were really meant to understand that Bateman is an actual murderer. With this more literal interpretation, the film is still a hilariously dark send-up of '80s, Wall Street culture, but I like my interpretation better. The good thing is that the film works either way. Art, after all, is not what the artist creates, it is what happens when you experience the artist's creation.

In the perfect end to the film, it is made clear that nothing real matters in Bateman's world. Even a confession of murder is considered interesting only as an ironic jest. Nothing matters except an Ivy League pedigree, a good suit, and picking the right restaurant.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Arbitrage (2012) **1/2

The definition of arbitrage is:

The simultaneous purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from a difference in the price. It is a trade that profits by exploiting price differences of identical or similar financial instruments, on different markets or in different forms.”

In other words, arbitrage is yet another way of making money without actually producing anything of value. In the film “Arbitrage,” securities trader Robert Miller (Richard Gere) has grown rich this way, but his latest scheme has not worked out well. In order to hide the losses from a bad bet that was against his own company's rules, he is selling the company. With altered account books and with secretly borrowed money in the bank, he hopes to fool his potential buyers and leave them with the losses. Miller needs everything to remain stable and quiet until the sale can go through, but fate is against him. First his daughter becomes suspicious of the company's books, then Miller gets into a car accident in which his mistress dies. This random mistake threatens to kill the buyout deal, which would leave Miller with no way to cover his losses, and ultimately lead to jail time for fraud. With the clock ticking, Miller scrambles to protect a web of lies that grows to threaten his family, his friends, and his freedom.

“Arbitrage” would never work without an actor of Richard Gere's caliber, because, really, there is nothing to admire about Robert Miller. His self-image and the image he projects to the world is of this patriarch, this wise lion of the financial industry. Really, though, he's just a guy who gambles with other people's money and likes to screw a young woman on the side. He's a fraud, and cheering on his efforts to maneuver his own labyrinth is ultimately an un-rewarding experience. Robert Miller is surrounded by people who are much better human beings than he is, but alas, he is the protagonist, so it's him we have to follow as the sordid tale wends its way. More unfortunate is that while Miller is lousy, he isn't evil enough to be really interesting. Even with Richard Gere trying desperately to liven the guy up, he isn't nearly as compelling as the Frances Underwood character from “House of Cards.”

As ably acted and directed as it is, “Arbitrage” is ultimately a milquetoast thriller. Nothing in it will make you groan, but there's nothing in it to compel you to watch it either.

2.5 stars out of 5