Sunday, December 20, 2015

Friends With Benefits (2011) **

This Mila Kunis/Justin Timberlake vehicle came out the same year as the similarly-themed “No Strings Attached,” which starred Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher in a movie that appears to be about the exact same subject, friends who decide to try having a casual, sexual relationship. It was impossible to tell these movies apart based on the previews, but reviews at the time seemed to favor “Friends With Benefits.” This film may be better than “No Strings Attached” (which I haven't seen), but that doesn't mean it is great.

Kunis plays Jamie, a corporate recruiter who draws Justin Timberlake's Dylan to New York to be an art designer for GQ magazine. The two hit it off and become best friends. When they both find themselves in a cold spell romantically, they decide to become sexual partners, while remaining “just friends.” You can fill in the rest of the plot for yourself.

You don't go into this kind of romantic comedy expecting the unexpected, though. You watch these movies for the charming actors and the chemistry between them, and that's where “Friends With Benefits” falls short. As great-looking as both these actors are, they really aren't given much to do. The story plods along, taking forever to establish their friendship. When they get down to business, the montage of sex scenes is mildly sexy, but the humor is sophomoric, and Kunis uses a body double. The movie gets slightly more interesting when Patricia Clarkson shows up as Jamie's flaky mom, but otherwise it's a drag. Kunis and Timberlake are both good actors, and their chemistry is believable, but the script doesn't give them anything interesting to do or say.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Nightcrawler (2014) ****

What would you do to get what you want? For Louis Bloom, the answer is, “Absolutely anything.” Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou as a well-spoken, oily sociopath with no compunctions whatsoever. When we meet Lou, he is a low-life of indeterminate age, stealing scrap metal and hustling unsuccessfully to find a job. When he happens upon a flaming car-wreck, he sees a couple of guys filming the gore, and he learns about the world of freelance, TV news gathering. Lou scores himself a camcorder and a police scanner and starts hustling to the scenes of car wrecks and shootings to get footage that can be sold to the TV stations. It turns out that Lou has a talent for this sort of thing. With absolutely no scruples, he is willing to crowd paramedics, cross police lines, and sneak into houses to get the best footage. Lou gets so good at his trade that he starts beating the police to some of the scenes, and he starts down an increasingly darker path. First, he re-arranges things a little to frame a shot better. From there, the line between filming the news and creating the news starts to blur.

With his slicked-back hair and gaunt features, Gyllenhaal's Lou is a dead-ringer for Robert De Niro's character in “Cape Fear,” and just as sociopathic. Lou is articulate and driven, and it's rather a mystery why he is unemployed at the beginning of the film. We are given no background on the character, so we are left to assume that previous employers were as repulsed as we are by his sleaziness. Rene Russo's TV news director, Nina, isn't bothered by the sleaziness at all. She is a more polished version of Lou, willing to air anything, no matter how lurid, that will attract viewers. As she tells Louis, “Think of our news coverage as a screaming woman running down the street, with her throat slit.” Lou and Nina are a perfect match, and together they give viewers all the carnage they can handle. Like those “Parental Advisory” stickers that used to make records so attractive to teenagers, the news anchors' warnings that their footage “will be disturbing to some viewers” guarantee that no one will change the channel.

It took me a while to get around to watching “Nightcrawler” for some reason. I'm not sure what I thought it would be, but what it is is a tightly-crafted, modern Noir. The film explores the consequences of the public's thirst for increasingly graphic, violent content. Whatever the public demands, there will always be someone out there willing to get it for them.

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, November 26, 2015

American Sniper (2014) *

It really isn't much fun reviewing movies that are middle-of-the-road. You either want to be gushing over how great a movie is or absolutely ripping it to shreds. The problem is that these days I don't have the patience to watch the really bad ones all the way through. Life's too short, and if I get 20 or 30 minutes into a movie and find that I hate it, I'm out.

I only lasted about 30 minutes into “American Sniper.” The film was so unutterably boring that I gave up at that point. Bradley Cooper plays war hero Chris Kyle, the legendary Navy SEAL sniper who holds the American record for confirmed kills, at about 150. The film flips back and forth between Kyle's time in Iraq and earlier events, including his hunting experiences as a boy, his rodeo days, being inspired to join the military by the bombings of American embassies, SEAL training, and so forth. This is presented in the blandest, corniest manner imaginable. The film is based on Kyle's autobiography, and its salt-of-the-earth depiction of Kyle suggests that director Clint Eastwood was too awed by Kyle's hero status to give us anything other than Kyle's own version of himself. That would be forgivable if the battle scenes were as gripping as those in, say, “The Hurt Locker,” but Kyle's sniper work is presented as rather workaday. The only scene I saw that had any sort of tension was the opening scene, where Kyle has to decide whether or not to shoot a woman and small boy who, with a grenade, are approaching a group of Marines.

That's just in the 30 minutes I watched. “American Sniper” might get really exciting in it's second or third acts. It was certainly a hit, especially among churchgoers, who flocked to theaters to see that rare bird, a Hollywood movie about someone who is openly Christian. Reviewers seemed to like it, but they couldn't agree on whether it is pro-war or anti-war. Me, I just think it's boring.

1 star out of 5

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) **

This final installation of Peter Jackson's Hobbit trilogy represents one of the worst anticlimaxes I have seen in years. Make no mistake, the first two films in the series, “An Unexpected Journey” and “The Desolation of Smaug” had their share of faults. In attempting to stretch the single novel The Hobbit into a trilogy of films, Jackson had to put in a fair share of fluff. Action sequences get stretched out interminably, with a numbing array of special effects that morph from spectacular to boring as they drag on. It's the same with the battle scenes, in which orcs and goblins get killed by the thousands, yet the main characters never seem to get touched. In truth, the original “Lord of the Rings” series had this problem, too, but with them, the ratio of epic cool to cheesy was pretty high. That ratio is considerably lower in the first two “Hobbit” films, but those movies were still cool enough to keep me interested. In “The Battle of the Five Armies,” the cheese finally overtakes the cool.

The first two films established the tale of Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a hobbit who joins a company of dwarves who are trying to reclaim their ancestral, mountain fortress and treasure from a dragon named Smaug. Led by the dwarf king, Thorin Oakenshield, the group treks across Middle Earth, getting into various scrapes involving spiders, elves, orcs, trolls, and goblins. During one of these adventures, Bilbo gets his magical ring, which will go on to feature in the “Lord of the Rings” series. Despite his small size, Bilbo proves his worth, helping the dwarves get to their mountain. He sneaks in and confronts Smaug, enraging the dragon so much that the beast stirs from his pile of treasure for the first time in years.

This is where “The Battle of the Five Armies” picks up, with Smaug destroying the nearby Lake Town while Thorin and his dwarves slip into the mountain to regard their ancestral treasure. It's pretty ridiculous. The gold and precious stones are piled so high you could drown in them. According to the law of supply and demand, anything in such profusion can hardly be termed treasure. Nonetheless,Thorin gets infected with gold madness, jealous of every coin and stone as he feverishly searches the piles of loot for the main prize, the Arkenstone, the ancestral gemstone held by dwarfen kings. As he searches for his stone, he ignores the cold, hungry survivors from Lake Town massed outside his walls, and he forgets that he had promised them a share of the treasure. Then an elf army shows up, looking for a piece of the action, and Thorin has to send a call for dwarf backup. When a couple of orc armies join the fray, you have your five armies.

Epic battle, right? Meh. Including the “Lord of the Rings” films, this is Peter Jackson's sixth movie about Middle Earth, and he has mastered the art of CGI hordes clashing bloodlessly. From endless repetition, his spectacles have lost the power to hold my attention. As humans used swords to kill armored orcs twice their size by the hundreds, I grew bored. In the first two “Hobbit” films, there was just enough plot and character development to hold my attention. These things are lacking in “The Battle of the Five Armies,” leaving us with meaningless, endless action sequences.

Jackson himself admits on the DVD (detailed in this article)  that his “Hobbit” trilogy is basically a mess. It's a shame, because The Hobbit is a charming little piece of storytelling. If Jackson had simply turned the single book into a single film, and if he had maintained the lighter tone of the book rather than adopting the darker, apocalyptic tones of the “Lord of the Rings” series, we would be a happier audience.

2 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Que Pena Tu Vida (What a Pity, Your Life) (2010) ***

I hadn't watched a movie from south of the border in a while, so I was psyched to see this pop up on Netflix with a few stars. This very serviceable, Chilean, romantic comedy turned out to be just what I was looking for.
Javier (Ariel Levy) is a callow, young dude whose life is falling apart. He is heartbroken from his breakup with the lovely Sofia, which we eventually learn was his own doing. He is also unemployed due to the economic crisis. The only people he can count on are his kooky mom and his high-school chum, Angela. These two bail him out time and again from various sticky situations, as he figures out how to quit feeling sorry for himself and get his act together.

Don't expect any surprises from “Que Pena Tu Vida.” Once you get oriented to which scenes are flashback and which are in the present, and figure out who is who, you pretty much know how the plot is going to go. It's a fun ride, anyway. The movie is funny and poignant, with solid, comic acting and beautiful shots of the city of Santiago, Chile. It's fine as a date movie or if you just want a laugh.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Chinese Puzzle (2013) ****

“Chinese Puzzle” is one of those truly cosmopolitan films that features so many spoken languages that there is no place it can be shown without subtitles. Mostly in French and English, there's also some Spanish, and I think there might even be some Chinese in there somewhere. In some scenes, one character is speaking English and the other French. I found it exhilarating!

This film is also the third in the Spanish Apartment series. The first film, 2002's “The Spanish Apartment,” introduces Xavier (Romain Duris), a young Frenchman who shares the titular apartment in Spain with other young students during a very formative semester. --Spoiler Alert-- 2005's “Russian Dolls” catches up with Xavier, who has become a writer, as he reunites with some of his friends from the apartment for a wedding in Russia. He and Wendy (Kelly Reilly), the student from London, wind up falling in love.

“Chinese Puzzle” (2013) picks up the story 8 years later, as Xavier and Wendy's relationship is falling apart. Wendy takes their kids and moves to New York to be with another man, and Xavier, now a somewhat successful writer, follows them. He crashes there with his old Spanish apartment roommate Isabelle (Cecile de France), who is a lesbian, but with no legal way to stay or work in New York, he has to scramble to create a life there, where he can be near his kids. Meanwhile, his old girlfriend Martine (Audrey Tautou) comes to visit.

I thought it would be awkward watching “Chinese Puzzle” without having seen the first two films, and I probably did miss out on some subtext related to these characters' long, dynamic history. Nonetheless, the story stands well on its on. It's a hilarious and genuine continuation of Xavier's story. Reading about the other films in this series, it strikes me that this is just a really long coming-of-age tale, the point of which is that you never truly come of age. Xavier's story doesn't end when he achieves this or that goal, or when he falls in love. Life continues to throw new challenges at him, and, with his huge heart, he keeps adapting to them, embracing the changes.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, October 03, 2015

Tracks (2013) ***

One could be forgiven for confusing 2013's “Tracks” with 2014's “Wild,” that other recent movie about an emotionally damaged woman going on a trek. It's a mystery to me why Hollywood keeps coming out with twin projects like this, but it happens again and again. Years later, can anyone remember the tiny differences between 1998's “Armageddon” and “Deep Impact” or even 2013's “Olympus has Fallen” and “White House Down”? The website has an article that offers a couple of possible explanations for this phenomenon, as well as an exhaustive list of “twin” movies.

“Tracks” and”Wild” are definitely twins in the sense of Hollywood timing, and truth-be-told, the stories and the storytelling styles are remarkably similar. (See my review of “Wild” for the story on that one, which covers Cheryl Strayed's hike of the Pacific Coast Trail.) “Tracks” tells the story of Robyn Davidson's 9-month-long trek across the Australian outback. With her dog, four camels, and a rifle, she set out from Alice Springs and hiked west 1700 miles, all the way to the ocean. She crossed various flavors of desert and encountered a surprising number of remote villages and homesteads. I had imagined that she was totally alone for months, crossing uninhabited land, but it turns out there are dirt roads and people in the Outback, just not a lot of them.

For me, “Wild” is the better and more substantial of the two films. Reese Witherspoon portrayed her “Wild” character with a lot of angst and fire, and the movie has a strong narrative arc. Mia Wasikowska does a serviceable job in “Tracks,” but we never get much of a sense of the character beyond the fact that she wants to get out and away from people. I get that Davidson felt more comfortable with animals than with people, but the movie holds the audience at arm's length, too. (I do like the way she interacts with the Aborigines she meets, though. With them, her quiet and reticence seem perfectly natural.) Comparisons between “Wild” and “Tracks” may seem unfair, but given the timing of their releases and the many similarities, even down to their one-word titles, comparisons are inevitable. Regarded on its own merits, however, “Tracks” is still a worthwhile movie, beautifully filmed, and a reminder that all who wander are not lost.

3 stars out of 5

Friday, September 25, 2015

It's Such a Beautiful Day (2012) ****1/2

Y'all really need to give this one a chance. Animated with primitive, yet subtly expressive stick figures, “It's Such a Beautiful Day” is a profound, tragicomic commentary on the absurdity of life. The film tells the story of Bill, who is sick and lonely. Slowly, the story reveals aspects of Bill's illness, which appears to be some kind of brain tumor. We also see his childhood and some stories from his family history, which appears to be full of mental illness and train accidents. As Bill increasingly endures memory loss and bouts of delirium, we wonder if this is his family history catching up to him or just symptoms of his tumor. Either way, it is clear that Bill's days are numbered.

It sounds like it could be a downer, but “It's Such a Beautiful Day” is so chock-full of absurd humor that you will laugh more than cry. The movie starts with a hilarious scene where Bill recognizes someone walking down the street, but as they approach on the sidewalk, neither is certain whether they will just nod, give a verbal greeting, or actually stop to talk. The awkward scene is a spot-on satire of how mixed-up humans are in even our simplest interactions. In a Seinfeldian scene, Bill only picks produce from the back side of the bin, because the produce at the front is right at the crotch level of all the other shoppers.

This film started out life as a collection of three shorts, which creator Don Hertzfeldt has cobbled into an hour-long feature. The chapter titles that still separate the three components feel a bit arbitrary, and the feature perhaps struggles a bit to maintain its narrative arc while fitting these three pieces together, but it mostly works. I absolutely loved this film, but it's not for everyone. The primitive animation style is going to feel weird for many viewers. It sometimes looks like one of those short-film art installations you see in museums. The humor is also very dry and intellectual. Nonetheless, this little movie stands as a powerful piece of existentialist contemplation full of hilarious social satire.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, September 13, 2015

What We Do in the Shadows (2014) ***1/2

I quit watching Mtv a long time ago, but not before seeing a little bit of “The Real World.” One of the early reality-TV shows, “The Real World” placed a bunch of twenty-somethings in a house together in some big city, then let cameras record their interactions. It spawned a million copy-cats and parodies, including “Big Brother” and the Dave Chappelle “Mad Real World” skit.
“What We Do in the Shadows” carries on this tradition with a mockumentary about a group of vampires sharing a house in New Zealand. Jemaine Clement plays Vladislav the Poker, who was once known for “poking people with implements.” Jonathon Brugh is Deacon, the bad-boy of the group, who refuses to wash dishes. Taika Waititi plays Viago, an “eighteenth-century dandy” who tries to keep peace in the group. Down in the basement lives Petyr, the most ancient of the group, who no longer goes out or even speaks.

These vampires spend their nights looking for victims and trying to get into cool dance clubs, which is difficult because, as vampires, they can't go in unless they are specifically invited. Occasionally they will run into the local werewolf pack, which always leads to tension. Then Petyr turns one of their victims into a new vampire, totally disrupting the group's dynamics.

I was attracted to this film by the involvement of Jemaine Clement, of “Flight of the Conchords.” Bret McKenzie isn't in it, so this is no Conchords reunion, but Rhys Darby (who played Murray on Conchords) does have a small role, and the tone of the humor is similar, if slightly more broad. The film has fun with various pieces of vampire lore and with the posturing inherent in group dynamics. If you are a “Flight of the Conchords” fan, or if you enjoy “This is Spinal Tap,” then this movie is for you.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Last Night (1998) ****

Filmmakers, creators that they are, love to destroy things. Blowing up a car, or even better, a building, must be a huge thrill. And if those are fun, then how much more fun to destroy the entire earth? Thus, end-of-the-world movies are a recurring theme. Unfortunately, most of these movies focus on the asteroid or whatever, when the really interesting thing is the people. How does humanity react when the end is nigh? More than any Armageddon-themed film I've seen, “Last Night” dispenses with the science-fiction stuff and focuses on how several people face the last few hours of existence. (I'm talking here about the independent Canadian film from 1998, not the 2010 relationship drama by the same name starring Keira Knightley.)

While we aren't told exactly what is going to destroy the world, we soon understand that the end has been anticipated for months, and that society has already worked itself through quite a few throes of unrest. Nonetheless, civilization remains largely intact in the Canadian city where the film is set, with people still enjoying electricity and telephone service as they face their last night. In fact, one of the characters, who manages the gas company, spends much of his final day calling every one of his customers, wishing them well and assuring them that the company will try to keep gas flowing right up until the end. Patrick (writer, director Don McKellar) is a depressed widower planning to meet the End alone. Sandra (Sandra Oh) braves the downtown, crawling with violent mobs, to plunder supplies for a last meal with her husband. When her car is destroyed by the mobs, she enlists Patrick's help to get across town to her man. They get some help from Patrick's friend, Craig, who is putting the finishing touches on a massive project of sexual conquest. Each of the characters, whose stories cross and re-cross, is facing the end in his own way.

End-of-the-world movies resonate because they so readily serve as a metaphor for our actual human condition. The End is coming for us all. The difference in a movie like “Last Night” is that everyone is meeting their End at the same time. I'm not sure which option is scarier, but in any case, “Last Night” approaches the end of the world with the right balance of pathos and humor. The film is actually quite well-done. My only complaint is that the digital cinematography is rather ugly.

The down-side to a movie like this is that it gets you thinking. Any night could be your last night, and if tonight were my last night, how would I want to spend it? Probably not watching this movie, or any movie for that matter. But there's a limit to this kind of thinking. You can't go moonlight BASE-jumping every night. Sometimes you just want to unwind and watch a flick. A funny, cool flick like “Last Night.”

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Edge of Tomorrow (2014) ****

A few months ago, I watched another sci-fi movie starring Tom Cruise where he helps save the earth from aliens. That movie was 2013's "Oblivion," and at the time, I totally had it confused with “Edge of Tomorrow.” As it happens, both movies are excellent, and Cruise is excellent in both. In fact, I have really come to appreciate Cruise as a solid actor who is at his best doing fast-paced action. He really classes up any project he appears in.

In “Edge of Tomorrow,” Cruise plays Major Cage, a military public relations guy with no real soldiering experience. Earth is in the midst of an alien invasion, and Cage is a spokesperson, appearing on the news to laud the heroic soldiers fighting the beasts, and to drum up new volunteers. Cage balks, though, when he is ordered to actually accompany troops on a second Normandy invasion to retake France from the aliens. He winds up on the front lines anyway, in the midst of a bloody battle, and he gets killed. At the moment of his death, though, he wakes up again the previous day, and finds himself re-living all the events leading up to his presence on that battlefield. He gets killed again, and the cycle repeats, over and over. Why this is happening to him, and what he does to deal with the situation, well, that's all part of the fun!

And this movie is fun! It's so nice to see an action movie that doesn't make me loathe myself for watching. Tom Cruise really commits to this role of a cowardly pretty-boy who has to man up, and he is blessed with a tight supporting cast. Emily Blunt is impressively badass as a fellow soldier who helps Cage. Bill Paxton hams it up in a small role as a field sergeant. Kudos also go to the screenwriters for a well-crafted story that keeps you on the edge of your seat.

It would be easy to glibly describe “Edge of Tomorrow” as a sci-fi “Groundhog Day,” but this movie is something completely different. “Groundhog Day” was all about Bill Murray's character learning to accept his situation and to be at peace with his endlessly-repeating day. “Edge of Tomorrow” is constantly moving the action forward. As Cage relives his day, he is constantly changing his strategy as he unlocks different aspects of the situation. In some ways, the story is like a video game, where you keep starting over at the beginning every time your character gets killed, and you get further along each time. “Edge of Tomorrow” doesn't have any of the lameness of a video game movie though. This is a tightly-crafted, well-paced story that won't make you groan with exasperation. It's true that the time travel aspects don't make any more sense than they do in any time-travel movie. Once you suspend your disbelief for the basic premise, though, the characters' actions make sense. “Edge of Tomorrow” isn't going to change your view of the universe, or anything. It's just good, solid action entertainment. Watch it yesterday!

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Urban Cowboy (1980) ***1/2

It's easy to get lost in the mythology of this movie, the way it was said to take Country music and western wear mainstream, and the way it turned a beer joint on the outskirts of Houston called Gilley's into a nightlife mecca. The movie also revived the career of Country star Mickey Gilley, and it added considerably to the stardom of John Travolta, who was already a big deal after “Saturday Night Fever.” Lost in all that mythology is the fact that “Urban Cowboy” is a pretty good movie that holds up well to multiple viewings.

John Travolta plays Bud, a country boy who moves to the Houston area to work in the oil fields. His Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin) hooks him up with a job and introduces him to Gilleys, the local country bar, where Bud fits right in. It's there that he meets Sissy (Debra Winger), and each of them is dumber, more inexperienced, and more good-hearted than the other. They rush into marriage and set up house in a little trailer, where it quickly becomes apparent that neither has a clue how to take care of themselves, let alone a partner. Things go okay, however, until Gilley's introduces a mechanical bull, along with a rodeo veteran and ex-con named Wes Hightower (Scott Glenn) to run it. Bud finds that riding that bull is his calling, but his chauvinism makes him forbid Sissy from trying it. Sissy gets revenge by flirting with Wes, and everything falls apart. Sissy winds up living behind the bar with Wes, who turns out to be a pretty rough customer, While Bud takes up with Pam, a rich girl who likes to slum it with cowboys. It takes a big mechanical bull contest to get everything sorted out.

“Urban Cowboy” is completely predictable, but it's an honest enough tale to be fun despite that. Travolta is rather over-earnest as an actor, but that plays perfectly in the character of the callow, self-serious Bud. Scott Glenn is perfect, playing Wes with a dangerous, creepy sexuality and a prison-toughness that fascinates Sissy. For my money, however, Debra Winger is the real star of “Urban Cowboy.” Her Sissy is immature, but fiercely independent. She has a feminist streak, but in the setting she's in, she has no idea what to do with it. She knows she wants more out of life than to be slapped around by some beery cowboy, but she's still figuring out what that is. She's also smoking hot, if you dig a tight-bodied, flat-chested babe with curly hair.

It would be easy to take a feminist view of the film and wonder why Sissy doesn't just get the hell out of this working-class, cultural backwater, but that misses the point. Sissy IS working class, she just doesn't accept all the assumptions about gender roles that predominate in that world. It turns out that Bud, for all his mistakes, is capable of learning from experience, and he is finally able to put aside some of his chauvinism and appreciate Sissy's independent streak. I just think the movie should have been called “Urban Cowgirl.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Bamboozled (2000) **

I must have read somewhere that this was an underrated gem or something, because it wound up on my Netflix DVD queue, only to sit there forever with a “very long wait.” Then suddenly it had moved up my list, and then one day it arrived. After all that buildup, I suppose I had some expectations, but they were quickly dashed.

Damon Wayans plays Pierre Delacroix, a TV writer. He is the only black writer at the network, and he is very non-street, speaking proper English with a clipped accent that is some kind of bizarre mix of British and Robot. His ideas for shows about middle-class black families keep getting shot down in favor of shows that play into America's ghetto-based perceptions of black people. Frustrated, he decides to get himself fired by proposing a show based on the ultimate stereotype, blackface. Shockingly, the network loves his idea for a show about a “couple of real coons” in an Alabama watermelon patch. The show is a hit, and black and white fans alike start wearing blackface.

To say that “Bamboozled” is bad probably misses the point. The film isn't meant as comforting entertainment. Like most of Spike Lee's work, it's meant as a sharp satire on race relations in America. It is discomfiting to see whites and blacks laughing uproariously at blackface humor, based on a portrayal of blacks as ignorant and foolhardy. It doesn't matter that there have been white comedies with equally stupid characters (think “Laurel and Hardy” or “The Honeymooners”), because in the case of blackface, the stupidity is explicitly linked to the characters' race. When you think about it, though, much of rap music isn't different in spirit from blackface, peddling images of black thugs in low-riders and gold chains drinking Crystal champagne, to the delight of white, teenage audiences. Many of our hip-hop artists are actually educated, middle-class, young black men and women, but they have to put on this “blackface” in order to sell records. Then you get a white artist like Iggy Azalea, who raps with a ghetto-black-sounding voice which is completely different from her speaking voice. Is that any different from white entertainers who performed in blackface?

It's interesting to watch the audience as they see Delacroix's minstrel show for the first time. They are stunned, and the white audience members look nervously at the black people in the audience. As the show goes on, and turns out to actually be kind of funny, the black audience members start to laugh, which relaxes the white folks, and soon everyone is enjoying a good time at the expense of those silly coons. I think that Lee was trying to point out how white people look to black people to see how they respond to the portrayal of blacks in entertainment. If black people seem to be enjoying gangsta-rappers using the N-word, then white people figure this must be acceptable.

“Bamboozled” succeeds to the extent that it gets you thinking about these issues, but the movie could have been much better. Some reviewers, like Roger Ebert, have posited that the blackface itself ruins the film, that any message is drowned out by the sheer offensiveness of the blackface. I think this is an overly prissy attitude, though. Blackface perfectly depicts the cultural hypocrisy that “Bamboozled” clumsily tries to expose, and this could have been a smart, cult classic if it were better executed. Unfortunately, Damon Wayans is ill-cast in this role. His bizarre, constantly-shifting accent and uptight demeanor make Delacroix look like a buffoon himself, which sort of goes against the message of the entire movie. Jada Pinkett Smith, on the other hand, refuses to get into character at all. The movie is also filmed with a digital camera that makes it look distractingly awful. Still, it is mostly Wayans's performance that ruins what, with a more talented actor, could have been a legendarily sharp satire.

2 stars out of 5  

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) ***

If you have kids, then you are going to have to take them to the movies once in a while, and you could do a lot worse than “Shaun the Sheep Movie.” While it isn't exactly “Wall-E” level, this animated film is funny and cute, and it won't make you groan.

The “Shaun the Sheep” clay-mation TV show is a “Wallace & Gromit” spinoff, featuring the same style of stop-motion animation. It's been around on the BBC since 2007, chronicling the antics of a clueless farmer and his farm animals. There's the faithful dog, always trying to keep the barnyard orderly, a trio of villainous pigs, and of course, the herd of sheep. Shaun is the de facto leader of the herd due to his penchant for cooking up crazy schemes, usually aimed at getting a delicious treat or at getting back at those pigs for something. The cool thing about the show is that there is no dialogue. Everything is told via action, and at most the characters produce the occasional unintelligible grunt.

It turns out these characters hold up reasonably well to a full-length feature. In “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” the animals find themselves getting tired of their daily farm routine, so Shaun hatches a plan to get them a day off. When the scheme goes awry, the farmer winds up in the Big City with amnesia, and the animals have to navigate the concrete jungle to get him back home.

I won't lie. There where times when I got a little bored, but I was never downright disgusted by the movie. The one baby sheep is perhaps a bit cutesy, and there are a couple of fart jokes to keep the kids happy, but the movie never stoops to the level of kid-pandering that you get in, say, an “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie. They never break out into a hip-hop dance number, as has become standard in most cartoons. Shaun the sheep is mostly delightful, with his sideways grin and double-thumbs-up. Also, I like the way the story is told without dialogue, like an old silent film. Do kids like it? Of course they do. They like everything.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 02, 2015

While We're Young (2014) ***1/2

Josh (Ben Stiller) is a documentary filmmaker with a great debut who has now spent the last 10 years working on a second documentary that is going nowhere. He and his wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) are a couple of mostly happy New Yorkers in their mid-forties. They have some regrets about being childless, but as they watch their friends deal with a new baby, they congratulate themselves on how free they still are, although truth be told, they live a pretty routine life.

Then Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) enter their lives. Josh meets the young couple while giving a lecture on film-making. Jamie is an aspiring documentarian and a fan of Josh's one film. Jamie and Darby are classic Hipsters, modern-day Bohemians who live with a hot roommate and a chicken, collect vinyl records, and hike the empty subway tracks at night. Everything about them seems to scream freedom and spontaneity, and their life is very seductive to Josh and Cornelia. As the friendship progresses, Josh starts to help Jamie with his own documentary. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that much of Jamie's charm is a facade, and he is all about using Josh's connections to further his own career.

Despite a strong performance from Adam Driver, the Jamie storyline ends up being a weak point in “While We're Young.” I did like how it deconstructs the way every generation has to try to re-invent life but mostly ends up doing all the things they despised their elders for doing. Jamie tells Josh, “Hey man, success is YOUR thing.”, but Jamie ends up being willing to do just about anything to achieve success. In a poignant summation of this storyline, Darby says, “Jamie and I would always wonder about how we would grow old. It turns out we'll do it just like everybody else.” This plot-line is uneven, however, and writer/director Noah Baumbach does not wrap it up very well.

The much stronger theme in this film is about what it's like to be in your mid-forties. By definition, that is “middle-aged,” but that term has connotations of over-and-done-ness that clearly do not apply to Josh and Cornelia. They are both good-looking and healthy. Sure, they get a few more aches and pains than they once did, but the life-style ossification they suffer is based purely on perception. Josh says, “I'm 44 years old, and there are things I will never do, things I will never have. What's the opposite of 'The world is my oyster?'” While their friendship with Jamie and Darby ends up being a disappointment, it helps break loose their rusty parts and shows them they can still start something new. The title, “While We're Young” ends up being very appropriate, as their flirtation with younger people helps Josh and Cornelia see that they still have a lot of life left in them.

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes, 2014) ***1/2

Six short stories, all centered on the theme of revenge, make up this Spanish-language film from Argentina. Better translated as “Savage Tales,” the stand-alone short films are written and directed by Damian Szifron.

“Pasternak” is the tale of a plane full of travelers who discover, to their rising horror, that they share something in common. “Las Ratas” (The Rats) tells the story of a waitress who is presented with the long-hoped-for opportunity for revenge. “El Mas Fuerte” (The Strongest) is about road-rage that escalates out of control. “Bombita” (Little Bomb), starring Ricardo Darin (“The Aura”, “Nine Queens”) is about an explosives engineer with a short fuse who gets fed up with his city's parking enforcement. In “La Propuesta” (The Proposal), a rich kid commits a hit-and-run vehicular homicide, and his parents try to pay someone to take the blame. In the final tale, “Hasta que la Muerte Nos Separe” (Til Death Do Us Part), a bride discovers, during her wedding, her new husband's infidelity, and she wreaks a revenge as dramatic as it is hilarious.

I was highly anticipating this award-winning film, and for the most part I was not disappointed. The stories explore revenge from a variety of angles, with sometimes unpredictable results. They don't always follow the standard Hollywood message about revenge being a futile and destructive enterprise. Some of these characters actually enjoy their payback. The film is, perhaps, a bit uneven. The black humor sometimes just turns black, and the characters in “El Mas Fuerte” and “La Propuesta” are so uniformly unlikeable that those stories are a bit harder to watch. “Bombita,” on the other hand, is a beautiful morality tale that boldly subverts its own premise. The best of the bunch is the finale, “Hasta que la Muerte Nos Separe”. The bride's transformation from heartbroken princess to wild-eyed, wanton Fury is delightful and hilarious.

Montage films like this often link all the stories in some way, sometimes getting a little too cute with it. I like that Damian Szifron didn't do that. Other than the common theme of revenge, the stories here truly stand alone, yet they go quite well together. I had lately been in a drought when it comes to Spanish-language films, and “Wild Tales” was just what I needed.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 25, 2015

All is Lost (2013) **** -Spoilers-

This is one that I put off watching for a long time because it sounded pretty grim. It was billed as a story of a lone sailor battling the elements and, based on the title, presumably losing. So I'm going to break my usual rule against spoilers by saying that all is not necessarily lost. The sailor gets rescued at the end, although it's possible to interpret the ending as a dying hallucination, maybe even a metaphor for entering the afterlife. Director J.C. Chandor has said that audiences are split roughly 50-50 in terms of which interpretation they choose. He seems perfectly satisfied with this ambiguity. I found it thought-provoking, but I think some viewers may feel cheated by an ambiguous ending, which is why I am giving you fair warning.

Robert Redford plays the sailor, a grizzled but fit old guy sailing alone in the Indian Ocean. The story begins with an accident. The sailor wakes up to the sound of a crash, followed by water gushing into his cabin. Out in the middle of nowhere, where he should have been perfectly safe, his boat has crashed into one of those metal shipping containers, which must have fallen off a cargo ship at some point. There shouldn't be anything in this section of ocean, but there this container is, gouging a hole in his boat.

Our sailor sets to work dealing with the situation, getting his boat separated from the container, then working to patch the hole, pump out the water, and dry out all his damaged electronics. With no radio or navigation equipment, however, he wanders into the path of a massive storm, which ultimately damages his boat again. He never gives up, but despite his best efforts, the situation continues to worsen.

Robert Redford is the only actor in the movie, and he hardly uses his voice at all. I always thought it must be hard for actors to memorize all those lines, but I think what Redford does here is much harder, conveying everything through facial expression and body language.

“All is Lost” deserves the prize for Most Existentialist Film of 2013. The point of the film is summed up in a letter the sailor composes for his family, where he says, “I want you all to know that I fought until the end, if that matters.” No matter how dire things get, how bad the storm, he keeps trying, and he even takes a moment to appreciate the beauty around him. It may not matter how you interpret the ending, because the point is not the end, but how he comports himself along the way. The important thing is not how he dies, but how he lived, because even if the sea doesn't take him, something eventually will, and the fact is we all have a shipping container waiting for us out there.

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Life Itself (2014) ****

How do you write about a movie about a guy whose life was spent writing about movies? In this case, you do it with gratitude for a film that beautifully and sometimes heartbreakingly celebrates one of America's most beloved writers. “Life Itself,” based on film critic Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name, is Ebert's life story, focusing on his career as a film critic and on his end-of-life struggle with throat cancer. Given that Ebert essentially wrote it, this is an impressively warts-and-all biopic. The audience is not spared Ebert's history of alcoholism, his legendary petulance with his frenemy Gene Siskel, nor the gruesome facial disfigurement of his cancer surgeries.

Almost everyone is familiar with Roger Ebert's name, but if you have never read his movie reviews, you should do yourself a favor and check out his website. ( Ebert once said that “movies are a machine for generating empathy.” By this he referred to the process of sharing human stories, of seeing not just the consequences of characters' actions, but also their struggles and motivations, of seeing the humanity of the villain and the frailty of the hero. A good movie doesn't just lull us with sex and violence, it helps give us the language to understand ourselves and each other; it generates empathy. All art is designed to do this, but I think film may be the most accessible to the masses of people, and thus it has the greatest overall potential to increase the amount of empathy in the world.

Ebert certainly believed this, and thus his writing, while always intelligent and literate, was essentially populist. He didn't talk down to his readers, but he wrote with an understanding that the movies and his reviews of them were available to a wide audience, and he attempted to consider the tastes of his entire audience in his reviews. “Life Itself” shows a clip from “Sneak Previews” in which Siskel and Ebert argue about the movie “Benji the Hunted.” Siskel hated the trite movie, but Ebert defended it, pointing out that it was aimed at children and should be evaluated in that light. That belief informed all of his reviews.

At a full two hours, “Life Itself” may be just slightly longer than it needs to be, but I only wound up feeling restless at one point, and that quickly faded. Audiences should also be prepared to see the grim results of Mr. Ebert's throat surgeries, which finally left him without a lower jawbone and with no connection between his mouth and his throat. Despite that, his face is still surprisingly expressive, his eyes still sparkle, and his warmth still shines through.

If I came away from “Life Itself”with a warm, fuzzy feeling about Roger Ebert's life, it isn't because of all he accomplished as a film writer. It's owing to the dignity and optimism with which he and his family are shown facing his death. I suppose we should keep in mind that Ebert had some creative control here, so we are seeing him as he wanted to be seen. Nonetheless, having read his movie reviews for years, I know that the humor and empathy are real. Roger Ebert was a man who loved movies and loved people, and loved helping people enjoy movies.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Lock, Stock,and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) **

There was a moment there at the turn of the century when director Guy Ritchie seemed poised to be the next Quentin Tarantino. He followed up his debut “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” with the insanely fast-moving, generally enjoyable “Snatch.” Somehow, though, Ritchie never turned into a Tarantino-esque film-god. I think that the problem is that his movies never felt as consequential as what Tarantino was doing. There was lots of fast-paced action, with speeded-up film shots, and cockney accents that required subtitles, but there was no heart.

“Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” is a good case in point. The movie has several story lines filled with potentially interesting characters whose stories wind up intersecting. Ritchie never does anything with these scamps, however, other than to establish that they are lowlifes engaged in ripping off other lowlifes. He never made me care enough about any of them to care much what happens in the story.

The main characters, the ones we are theoretically supposed to root for, include Tom (Jason Flemyng), Soap (Dexter Fletcher), Eddy (Nick Moran), and Bacon (Jason Statham). These are low-level scumbags who hawk stolen wares and such. Eddy fancies himself a card player as well, and the boys pool their funds to get Eddy into a high-stakes poker game run by a gangster named Hatchet Harry (P.H. Moriarty). The game is a racket, as any idiot should have known. Harry not only cheats, he bullies Eddy into accepting credit in order to call a hand, which Eddy goes on to lose. Owing Harry a quarter-million pounds, Eddy leaves the game in a daze, and explains to his friends that Harry and his goons will be holding all of them responsible for the debt.

There's no way these guys can scrape up that kind of money on either side of the law, but when they overhear their neighbors planning a robbery, they hatch a plan to rob the robbers. Hijinks ensue.

There are several different groups of hoodlums, who are hard to tell apart at times, and much of the dialogue is unintelligible due to the thick, Cockney accents. The movie could still be quite good, however, if any of the characters had any sort of saving grace, which they don't. They are not only wicked, they are stupid. Fortunately, many of these assholes wind up killing each other off, which is about the only satisfaction the audience gets.

The problem with “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” as a debut for Guy Ritchie is that its failures are not due to low budget or cinematography. Those are weaknesses you would expect in a first-time director, and easily fixable on future projects. “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” however suffers from a lack of heart, which I think is why Ritchie never lived up to his hyped potential.

2 stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Re-Animator (1985) ***

I'm not sure it's possible to adapt an H.P. Lovecraft story to film without making a cult classic. I mean that in the sense of both words: The movie is likely to become a classic, but only for a certain cult of horror fans. As good as Lovecraft's stories are, there's a single-mindedness to them, an innocence, and an of-their-time element that may not translate well to a blockbuster film. As much as I love stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and “At the Mountains of Madness,” it's hard to imagine a bunch of big-name actors making a straight movie version of them. To make a good film out of these tales, the filmmaker needs to be able to smile sheepishly at the audience and say, “We all know these stories take themselves too seriously, but we love them anyway, so let's just have a good time.” The 2005 movie “The Call of Cthulhu,” for example was made as a silent film, which somehow takes the over-earnest elements of the story and makes them work quite well.

1985's “Re-Animator” works by reveling in its 1980s campiness. We meet Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott), Miskatonic Medical School's “most promising medical student.” We never see Dan doing regular med student stuff like studying, sitting in lectures, or seeing patients with a big team of other students and medical residents. Instead, he has loads of time to wheel bodies down to the morgue and bang his girlfriend, Megan, who happens to be the Dean's daughter. Megan (Barbara Crampton) is '80s-hot, by which I mean she's adorable, but she wears high-waisted pants.

Dan gets a new roommate in the form of Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), a medical student transferred in from Switzerland after his mentor died during a bizarre experiment. Herbert's secretive behavior vexes Dan and Megan until they discover, to their horror, that he is conducting experiments in re-animation. He has a green, glowing chemical that, when injected into the brainstem, can bring the dead back to life. The problem is that the re-animated being, whether a cat or a human, tends to be murderously insane. The answer, according to Herbert, is to find ever-fresher subjects. In Lovecraft's tale, this led the scientist to commit murder in order to have the freshest corpse possible, but the movie “Re-Animator” doesn't take it's protagonists down that road. They simply sneak into the morgue to experiment. Nonetheless, they run afoul of both Dean Halsey (Robert Sampson) and Professor Carl Hill (David Gale), who is jealous of Herbert's science and lusts after Dan's girlfriend.

“Re-Animator” looks like it was filmed on the same camera they used for the old “Incredible Hulk” series starring Bill Bixby, which means it looks dated even for 1985. Enough time has passed, however, that that cheesy, soft-focus look actually makes the film seem somewhat timeless. The movie doesn't have any of that knowing, 1990's snarkiness (think “Scream”). The actors play it straight, letting the plot and the decidedly non-CGI special effects provide the humor. With many cult-classic movies, it's hard to know what the filmmaker was thinking. Did they mean to make it campy, or is it a happy accident? With “Re-Animator,” it seems pretty clear the director, Stuart Gordon, followed the standard B-movie formula: throw in some titties, some gore, and some humor, and keep the overhead low. He just classed it up a bit by getting some decent actors.

My only complaint about “Re-Animator” is that it isn't really scary. It's gory, yes, but it neither startles nor instills dread. I seem to recall that “The Evil Dead” and “The Evil Dead 2”, similarly campy, low-budget gore-fests, managed to at least be startling. “Re-Animator” broadcasts every death well in advance, and there is never any doubt as to how the protagonists will react to a death. They're gonna get out that green stuff and start re-animating!

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) **

For years, the cable channel Cinemax has filled its late-night schedule with soft-porn offerings, inspiring the nickname “skinemax.” This is basically what you have in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” movie: a titty-flick, although with a bigger budget and probably better acting than most.

Dakota Johnson plays Anastasia Steele, a virginal college student studying English Lit and living in the social shadow of her vivacious, blond roommate. When the roommate is too sick to perform her journalism class interview with businessman Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), she dispatches Anastasia to ask the questions for her. Anastasia and Grey wind up hitting it off, bonding over the banality of questions like “What is the secret to your success?” and “Are you gay?” Soon, Anastasia is being wooed by the crisply-dressed billionaire, who reveals his taste for sexual sadism and offers her a contract detailing what her role would be like as his submissive sex-slave.

First of all, let's hear it for those names: Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey. I haven't heard such awesome character names since Brock Landers and Chest Hardwell, from the movie “Boogie Nights.” If you can keep a straight face when these two characters introduce themselves, that's a good sign that this is the movie for you. If you can't keep the chuckles in, well, you can enjoy laughing your way through the unintentionally hilarious scenes of this film while you wait for them to get around to the kinky sex. They definitely take their time getting to it, spending time on helicopter and glider rides, and dragging out the nonsense about the contract forever. Once sexy-time finally arrives, the soft-core action is fairly good. Don't be expecting full-frontal nudity, but Anastasia spends a fair amount of time with her arms stretched over her head, wearing nothing but her panties, getting smacked with a riding crop.

The worst part about “Fifty Shades of Grey” (besides the self-loathing you will feel for watching it) is Jamie Dornan's acting. Dakota Johnson actually puts out some effort, and makes her character somewhat interesting despite the lame lines she has to recite. Dornan, on the other hand, plays Grey with absolutely zero personality, gazing at Anastasia with dead, shark eyes as he presents his contract to her like he's selling an insurance policy.

So should you rent “Fifty Shades of Grey?” Why not? It probably won't be the most miserable thing you do this week. Just know what you are signing up for: 30 minutes of soft-porn plus an hour and a half of laughable filler.

2 stars out of 5

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Imitation Game (2014) ***

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, the mathematics professor and electronics whiz who helped England crack Germany's Enigma code during WWII. “The Imitation Game” tells the story of how Turing and his team cracked the code. Jumping back and forth in time, the film also shows how Turing became interested in code-breaking as a nerdy, semi-autistic teen, and how in his later years he was convicted of indecency for being gay.

The story of Turing's persecution is certainly sad, but the movie is not a downer. I found “The Imitation Game” to be thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish. This is partly because Benedict Cumberbatch is such a compelling actor that it is simply impossible not to watch him. He gets assists here from an excellent supporting cast, including Keira Knightley as a fellow code-breaker, Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister on “Game of Thrones”) as the commanding officer, and Mark Strong as a shifty MI6 agent.

The code-breaking part of the story is exciting, with Turing's machine clicking and whirring, but the film doesn't do a good job of explaining the machine and how it works. Also, the brilliant insight that finally allows them to crack the code seems patently obvious, the kind of thing that any code-breaker would think of from the start. More interesting to me is that after the code is cracked, MI6 (England's intelligence service) puts the team to work using statistics to guide them in how to use all those de-coded messages. They can't simply start thwarting every German attack, of course, or the Nazis would quickly figure out that Enigma had been compromised. MI6 also uses the existence of a Soviet spy in the service to leak carefully chosen information to the Russians when it serves England's purposes. I found these insights into the layered intricacies of intelligence work fascinating, and wish they had explored them more.

Ultimately, “The Imitation Game” is a nicely-done, enjoyable film, but it does require you to turn your brain off a little, which is surprising given that it is about brilliant people doing brilliant things. Somehow all the mathematics doesn't translate onto the screen, and we are left with a movie about personalities. I get the feeling Turing would not have approved.

3 stars out of 5

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

9 to 5 (1980) ***

This is another of those cultural touchstone movies that I somehow failed to see back in the day. Thirty-five years later, I finally gave it a watch, and I have to say that it's pretty good. It's fairly predictable, and the humor is broad, but writer/director Collin Higgins (“Harold and Maude”) gives the movie something that makes it stand out from the other silly comedies of its time.

In the very first scene, “9 to 5” let's you know that it intends to be more than just a dumb comedy. Rather than immediately introducing the stars, Higgins shows a montage of a variety of women hustling through the streets of New York to get to their jobs. I found that poignant, like he was dedicating the film to all working women.

Then we meet Violet, a low-level supervisor at the Consolidated Company. She is smart and competent, but she can't break through the glass ceiling at Consolidated, because the men she trains keep getting promoted ahead of her. This includes Franklin Hart (Dabney Coleman), an egotistical, sexist jerk who takes credit for Violet's good ideas and sexually harasses his secretary, Doralee (Dolly Parton). Jane Fonda plays Judy, a recent divorcee new to the workforce. These women bear, as best they can, the indignities of working under Hart, but they share with each other their fantasies of doing him in. When one of these fantasies comes true, things get wacky.

“9 to 5” succeeds because it has a genuine social message packaged as comedy. The film got its start as a project of Jane Fonda's production company. The movie was originally to be a drama, but Fonda and her team found it too preachy, so they switched gears to comedy. The humor lightens up the mood surrounding serious issue like sexual harassment and equal pay for women. The movie gets in some biting satire, as when Doralee fantasizes about forcing Hart to endure the constant pawing and innuendo that he subjects her to. There's nothing like a little role reversal to show how messed-up a situation is.

The years have lent some bitter irony to this film. Violet manages to get a policy of equal pay for equal work instituted. The male executives mutter to themselves that that is a step too far and that they will have to reverse the policy. The joke was simple satire in 1980, but I'll bet the filmmakers didn't think that this would still be an issue 35 years later.

3 stars out of 5

Monday, May 25, 2015

Wall Street (1987) ****

“Greed, for lack of a better word, is Good.” These words, spoken by Michael Douglas's character Gordon Gekko, are some of the most famous words of the 1980's. What's amazing is that even now, when the quote has long since passed into the realm of parody, Douglas manages to make it sound plausible when you hear it in the context of the film. He delivers the line at a stockholder's meeting, where he is trying to win over the other stockholders for an important vote. He goes on to explain that greed, whether for money, for love, or for life, is the force driving mankind's advancements, and that it is the profit motive that will allow them to cut out the excess fat at the company they all own and turn it into a lean, successful business again. At this point in the film, we know Gekko is sleazy, but his argument seems to have some merit.

Later in the film, we see just how far Gekko's dishonesty goes, and that his form of greed is only a destructive force, not a creative one. As he explains to his protege, Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), “I don't create anything...I just transfer wealth from others to myself.” Bud, a hungry,young broker hoping to emulate Gekko, has placed himself in orbit around the great man, helping Gekko engage in insider trading on a regular basis. In exchange, Gekko makes Bud rich and hooks him up with Darien (Daryl Hannah), the kind of high-class beauty that only rich men can afford. When Gekko finally stoops lower than even Bud will go, Bud is forced to choose between his fancy new life and his tattered conscience.

“Wall Street” has come to be considered a defining film of the 1980's, but the movie is really timeless. Michael Douglas and Charlie Sheen fit these roles perfectly. Martin Sheen (as Bud's working-class father) and Hal Holbrook (as a senior stockbroker) can be perhaps a bit preachy at times, but they serve their purpose as representatives of traditional, hard-working values in the face of Gekko's amoral, short-cut-taking greed. The only weak link in the film is Daryl Hannah, and I've read that Oliver Stone regretted casting her. Apparently, she couldn't reconcile herself to her character's amorality.

I'm always interested in why some movies age so well. “Wall Street” is about guys who wear slicked-back hair and dark suits all the time, a style which really doesn't change much over the decades. In fact, the only time this film looks dated at all is when Daryl Hannah rocks some big shoulder pads. What really makes the film timeless, though, is it's theme of greed and consequences. It's easy to see how this film plays well now, in the receding wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, caused as it was by the greed of Wall Street bankers. Audiences in 1987 had their own reasons to despise fat cats, with the headlines full of high unemployment, insider trading scandals, and failing Savings and Loans. The truth is, it isn't in the American nature to be embittered towards the rich. We are much more likely to want to emulate a rich man than to begrudge him his wealth. Our respect for Capitalism, however, is predicated on the image of a capitalist as someone who invests money in a worthy enterprise, then profits when that enterprise is successful. In this scenario, everyone wins, because the growth of that enterprise expands the total wealth of society. Guys like Gekko, though, make their living off of arbitrage and speculation, which are zero-sum games. For Gekko to win, someone else has to lose, and the total wealth is not increased. If a guy like Gekko gets a tip that you are headed to the store to buy milk, he'll swoop in ahead of you and buy up all the milk, then jack up the price when you arrive. He would never stoop to actually milking a cow. These Wall Street guys claim that their activities create liquidity in capital markets and make our economy run more efficiently. It seems, however, that the headlines of every era are full of stories about these guys lying and manipulating until, repeatedly, they manage to break the economy. That's why “Wall Street” has aged so well. It's a tightly-woven story about this form of greed, and there isn't a decade in the last century in which this story wouldn't resonate.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

La Notte (1961) ***

Like a less dramatic, more boring “Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe?,” Antonioni's “La Notte” explores the resentments and discontent of a dysfunctional marriage. Marcello Mastroianni plays Giovanni, a successful author, and Jeanne Moreau plays his wife Lidia. “La Notte” (Italian for “The Night”) begins with the couple visiting another author, a long-time friend who is dying in the hospital. At the hospital, Giovanni is accosted by a beautiful but crazy young woman who draws him into her room and seduces him, although the nurses burst in before consummation. He later confesses the experience to Lidia, who seems coldly unconcerned about the near-infidelity. Giovanni is worried by her reaction, as are we, because everyone knows that it's a bad sign if your lover doesn't care enough to get jealous.

Later, Giovanni glad-hands the public at a book reading, and Lidia slips away to wander around Rome, visiting old haunts. Later still, on Lidia's request, the two go out to a nightclub, where a couple put on an interesting, gymnastic strip show. This show is the coolest thing in the movie, but Giovanni and Lidia are bored and restless, and Lidia finally suggests they attend the party of an acquaintance, a wealthy industrialist. They party the night away, each pursuing a possible infidelity, before finally hashing out their deteriorating marriage in the light of the new dawn.

“La Notte” is considered an important film by critics, part of the great period of Italian film roughly corresponding to the French New Wave. Then, as now, the film was lauded for the subtlety of its storytelling. There is a lot of talking, but “La Notte” could probably work as a silent film, as so much of the movie consists of silent, beautifully photographed scenes of the characters walking or leaning up against walls. These scenes focus on the inner life of these characters, and we are often left to speculate on the content of their thoughts and emotions, with subtle clues from these two excellent actors.

All of this subtlety comes at a price, however. Without mincing words, I have to say that I was bored for much of the 2-hour run-time. The scenes are long and slow, and one wonders if Antonioni couldn't have edited it to a more watchable length while preserving the tone. You wait and wait for something big to happen, then finally realize that nothing will. It's a slog, a movie that feels like work.  Towards the end of the film, a character tells Giovanni and Lidia, "You two have worn me out tonight."  I understood how she felt at that point.

Plenty of film fans disagree with me, and I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from seeing “La Notte.” It is quite thought-provoking, and Antonioni puts together some amazing-looking camera shots. I would not, however, suggest that someone watch this as their first experience of classic foreign cinema. For a film of the same period that explores similar emotional content, but in a more dynamic, entertaining way, I would recommend de Sicca's “Marriage Italian Style.”  For a movie with Marcello Mastroianni staying out all night exploring his existential angst, “La Dolce Vida” is an essential film, and much easier to watch than “La Notte.” For those who are as enthralled by Jeanne Moreau as I am, she is riveting in “La Notte,” but “The Lovers” or “Jules and Jim” are much more watchable introductions to her work.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Three Kings (1999) ***

Somehow I had gotten it in my head that Spike Jonze directed this film. Maybe it's because the actor/director is so hilarious as the idiot, redneck character Conrad. “Three Kings” is, in fact, directed and partly written by David O. Russell (“Silver Linings Playbook,” “American Hustle”), and it is better than it has any right to be. On the one hand, Russell has written a highly implausible heist movie combined with a rather preachy morality tale, all set in the first Iraq War. On the other hand, the combined performances are so compelling that the movie somehow works.

Troy (Mark Wahlberg), Conrad (Jonze), and Chief Elgin (Ice Cube) are army reservists finishing up an almost action-free stint in Operation Desert Storm. While processing Iraqi POWs, they find a map that appears to lead to one of Saddam's secret bunkers full of stolen Kuwaiti gold. Before the guys can even process the possibilities, Special Forces Captain Archie Gates (George Clooney) has sniffed out the situation and muscled his way into it. This is just as well, as none of the other guys would have a chance of putting together a way to steal that loot. Under Archie's guidance, they find and steal the gold, relying on the reluctance of the defeated Iraqis to instigate hostilities with American soldiers.

During the heist, the men discover that with the fighting officially over, Iraqi forces are concentrating on suppressing those Iraqis who tried to rise up against Saddam during the brief war. They are rounding up and torturing rebels and starving out entire villages. Faced directly with this reality, the men have to chose between completing their heist as planned or intervening.

While Wahlberg and Clooney get top billing in this film, they are far from the most memorable characters. The interaction between Spike Jonze's moronic, racist Conrad and Ice Cube's Chief easily steals the show. Nora Dunn provides some excellent comic relief as a war reporter hustling for a story. Best of all, however, are the actors who portray the Iraqis. Cliff Curtis, who is actually of New Zealand Maori descent rather than Arab, is a magnetic presence as the rebel leader. Said Taghmaoui is unforgettable as an Iraqi officer who tortures Troy while calling him “my main man.” His “What's the problem with Michael Jackson” speech may be the best part of the movie.

Ultimately, “Three Kings” is about individuals making hard choices in the face of a hypocritical U.S. foreign policy and an uncaring military machine. The movie addresses a little-discussed aspect of America's Iraq wars. America encouraged Iraqi dissidents to rebel against Saddam, and they did so thinking we would be invading to back them up. When we stopped the war instead, they were left exposed to torture, disappearances, and execution. Is it any wonder that America has trouble finding reliable friends in Iraq now?

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, May 14, 2015

My Summer of Love (2004) ***1/2

Life in small-town England is no idyll for teenaged Mona (Natalie Press.) With her single Mom dead, she has only her brother, an ex-con turned born-again Christian. He is too busy speaking in tongues with his prayer group to provide any meaningful guidance to her in her adolescence, including when her older, married boyfriend dumps her. Life takes a turn for the better when she meets the rich, alluring Tamsin (Emily Blunt.) Tamsin is home from boarding school, where she was expelled for “being a bad influence on people.” Despite their differing backgrounds, they are quite simpatico. Over the summer, the girls become close friends, then lovers.

“My Summer of Love” reminds me a bit of a more recent movie, “Blue is the Warmest Color,” although the sex scenes in “My Summer of Love” are not nearly as graphic. It's still quite sexy, and an excellent coming-of-age movie. The viewer gets swept along in the intensity of these teenaged girls' emotions. The camera work is mostly hand-held, and some viewers may find the film too talky. Honestly, I barely noticed the occasionally shaky camera; I was too busy enjoying the story and the two beautiful actresses.

3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, May 01, 2015

Tron: Legacy (2010) *

This is one that I can't truly review, because I could only stomach 15 minutes of it. I had mentioned wanting to see it in my review of “Oblivion” , because the movies share a director, Joseph Kosinski. I enjoyed “Oblivion,” so I had high hopes for “Tron: Legacy,” despite its dubious, belated-sequel status. Hopes = dashed!

The movie starts out with computer programmer Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges, reprising his role from the original “Tron”) telling his son, Sam, the story of how he entered the virtual world back in “Tron.” It's the lamest piece of movie exposition ever. Kevin goes on to disappear, leaving his software company in the control of money-grubbers who care nothing about his noble goal of making digital information free for the masses.

Skip ahead a decade, and we meet Flynn's rebellious son, Sam (Garrett Hedlund), who likes to speed around on his motorcycle and create mischief for the greedy board that runs his missing dad's company.

This is where I gave up. The movie is just one stock scene after another, a total turd. I'll give Kosinski credit for good cinematography, but a lame script is going to turn into a lame movie, no matter how well it is shot. I can't really remember whether the original “Tron” was any good, but I definitely wouldn't waste any time on the sequel.

1 star out of 5

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Wild (2014) ****

At first glance, “Wild” sounds like another of those literary stunts that have become so common: Girl heals psychological wounds by hiking the Pacific Coast Trail, then cashes in with a book about the event. That characterization is not just, however. Cheryl Strayed, the subject of the film and author of the book on which it is based, is not a serial puller of stunts. She already had a career as a writer when, many years after the event, she decided to tell the story of her PCT hike.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl in the film. We meet Cheryl as she embarks on her long-distance trek, with an overloaded pack and ill-fitting boots. As she makes her painful start, we learn through flashbacks that since her mom (Laura Dern) died of cancer, Cheryl has been spiraling out of control, drinking and drugging with a series of random men. The hike started as an impulse purchase of a PCT trail guide, and it blossomed into a backbreaking, blister-inducing reality, an opportunity to start over and clean up her act.

“Wild” does a nice job portraying the hardships of backpacking, including the blistered feet and the bruised hips (from the pack straps.) The film is also beautifully shot, stunningly depicting the various landscapes through which Strayed hiked. Witherspoon gamely allows herself to appear as grubby and sweaty as one does after several days on the trail without a shower. She also displays the very realistic wariness with which a woman, alone and unarmed, would approach any men she encountered in the wilderness. Overall, Witherspoon does a nice job with Strayed's ups and downs, and I think she probably deserved her Oscar nomination for the role.

It goes without saying that Cheryl's Odyssey proves to be a life-changing experience, one that helps get her life back on track. “Wild” is perhaps guilty of wrapping this narrative a bit too neatly, but overall I think the film (and presumably the book) deserves credit for not overplaying Cheryl's salvation. Men are a bad habit for Cheryl, and at the beginning of her hike, we see her considering picking up yet another guy. Later, however, towards the end of her trek, Cheryl hooks up with a guy she meets in town. In a lesser film, this scene would have led to a scene depicting shame and a resolution to never have another one-night-stand. In “Wild,” Cheryl doesn't have to be punished for her sexuality. Similarly, we see that Cheryl has a history of drug use, including heroin, but the movie doesn't indulge in a withdrawal scene. Ultimately, Cheryl's problems are not drug addiction or promiscuity, but her underlying grief and loneliness, and her journey is really about coming to terms with those.

4 stars out of 5