Saturday, December 31, 2016

April and the Extraordinary World (2015, English version 2016) ***

I like a movie that is audacious enough to completely let its imagination run wild, and “April and the Extraordinary World” is such a movie. This French, animated movie, based on a graphic novel by Jacques Tardi, imagines an alternate history where the Franco-Prussian war doesn't happen, and neither do WWI and WWII. Sounds great, but there's also this situation where the scientists of the world have been disappearing, and without the advances they would have brought, Europe is stuck in the steam age, burning up first its coal, then its trees, for energy.

Meanwhile, the Franklins, a multi-generational family of scientists, are working on an invulnerability serum. They work in secret, because the French Empire is conscripting scientists to build weapons for the coming energy war. Thus far, all they have done is create a talking cat named Darwin, but they feel they have finally perfected their serum. Then the law busts in, led by the bumbling Inspector Pizoni. Grandfather “Pops” escapes, while Paul and Annette either disappear or die, leaving their daughter Avril (voiced by Marion Cotillard) to fend for herself. Avril ekes out a living on the streets of Paris while trying to continue her parents' work, until the mystery of the disappearing scientists catches up to her.

The film never explores the question of why the Franklins continue working on this invulnerability serum, which any thinking person must realize is a dangerous idea. One wonders why they don't work on an alternative energy source for their smog-choked society. Still, this is a movie for kids, and it is action-packed enough that they aren't likely to question its premise.

The Japanese seem to get all the animation cred, but for my money some of the best non-Pixar, animated films these days come out of France. Consider “The Triplets of Belleville” (2003), "A Cat In Paris"  (2010), “Ernest and Celestine” (2012), and my personal favorite, "A Town Called Panic"  (2010). I wouldn't quite put “April and the Extraordinary World” in the same class with those films. It's feels more kid-oriented. It's a decent film, though, better than most of what you could watch with your kid.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Captain America: Civil War ***1/2

“Civil War” presents the premise that as superheroes have risen to protect the world, ever-more-super villains have risen to challenge them. The very existence of enhanced individuals seems to be putting humanity in constant jeopardy. The superheroes have to rise to each challenge, and the ensuing battles always seem to create a lot of collateral casualties. The world is tired of it, and the U.N. demands that the Avengers submit to a multi-government oversight system. The Avengers would no longer be answerable only to themselves. They would become U.N. Soldiers following orders.

Ironman Tony Stark, feeling guilty about the people killed in his past battles, buys into the plan. Captain America, also known as Steve Rogers, doesn't. This is Cap's movie, so of course we side with him, but the film does a reasonable job of presenting both sides of the argument. The autocratic model under which these heroes have been operating does seem a bit presumptuous. They jet around the world, unleashing tremendous powers in various countries, without the consent of the people they are “protecting.” The U.N.'s proposal would place that power under the control of the world's citizens, at least to the extent that the U.N. and the governments controlling it represent those people. There's the rub, and the reason that Rogers won't sign on to the plan. The Avengers are imperfect, but they at least know each other and each others' motives, which are generally good. Rogers isn't willing to surrender his team's individual consciences to the control of a faceless, conscience-less entity like the U.N.

In a sense, this is where the Captain America story on film has been headed all along. The Avengers have squabbled amongst themselves from the beginning, and in this film all of that discord finally breaks out into a full-scale war, where everyone has to choose sides. Of course, this sets up the perfect fantasy scenario. Every comic fan has had the “Who would win in a fight?” conversation, and “Civil War” delivers that fight, allowing us to see the heroes pit their powers against each other. It's the perfect movie for a teenage boy, which of course is who these movies are largely designed for. There's a bit more meat in this film than most,though. This authority-versus-individual argument is a complicated one, and “Civil War” manages to convey some of that complexity without pretending to deliver any final answers. Not bad for a comic-book movie.

3.5 stars out of 5   

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Deadpool (2016) ***

It's amazing how much fun you can have with the superhero genre when you aren't constrained by a PG-13 rating. That rating, which is critical to getting large numbers of teens into the theater, means you can show a little skin, but not too much; a little cursing, but nothing too foul. Of course, there can be lots and lots of violence, but preferably the kind without consequences. We don't want those 14-year-olds to think that people die horribly when you shoot them. When a filmmaker resigns himself to an R rating, it opens up more than just the level of gore and tits that can be shown. It means the film will be marketed to an older audience, so the themes and dialogue and such may be, just maybe, a bit more intelligent.

“Deadpool” isn't exactly more intelligent than the X-men movies with which it shares a comic-book universe, it's just a lot funnier. Ryan Reynolds plays Wade, a former Special Forces soldier who now ekes out a living as a thug-for-hire and smart-aleck. He hooks up with a tough-as-nails street girl named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin, who played the companion on Firefly), and the montage of their sexual exploits through the year, accompanied by the song “Calendar Girl”, is comedy gold.

Then Wade gets terminal cancer, and in his desperation for a cure he signs up for a shady,experimental program that promises to cure him and give him superpowers. The program turns out to be run by a sadist named Francis (Ed Skrein), himself a product of the program. The experiments do cure Wade, but they horribly scar his skin, leaving him as a super-strong, indestructible burn victim. Haunted by the horrified stares of strangers who see his face, Wade adopts a mask and the Deadpool moniker, and goes hunting for Francis, seeking revenge and a cure for his mutilation.

Even as “Deadpool” gleefully pokes fun at the superhero movie genre, it is, itself, trying to establish yet another superhero franchise, and the movie even pokes fun at itself for that. For all the parody, “Deadpool” still has all the elements of the genre: the origin story, the fast-paced frenetic action, the endless martial-arts fighting, the violence that only has consequences when the plot demands them. What “Deadpool” lacks is any sort of greater theme. The movie is fun and funny, but it isn't really about anything. I really wanted to absolutely love it, but I found myself forgetting it almost as fast as I watched it. Wade rejects the usual conventions of society, as well as the superhero code that the X-men try to impose on him. He basically rejects everything except his girl. Maybe in future “Deadpool”movies we will find out what he accepts.

3 stars out of 5  

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Only Yesterday (1991, 2016) ***

“The past isn't dead. It isn't even past.” W. Faulkner

“Only Yesterday” is an animated Japanese movie from Isao Takahata that explores the ways in which a young woman's past sometimes seems more present than her present. The film is from 1991, but it was only recently dubbed into English and released here.

27-year-old Taeko (voiced by Daisy Ridley) is a single gal living and working in Tokyo. Her real passion, though, is going out to the country to work on a farm. The film picks up with her preparing for her second “vacation” at the farm. Meanwhile, she has frequent flashbacks to her experiences of 5th grade. (It takes a little bit to realize that we are jumping between 2 time periods.)

You would assume that something dramatic happened during Taeko's 5th grade year for her to be sharing all these flashbacks with us, but, in fact, it's just the usual 5th grade stuff. She has her first, awkward crush. The girls learn about menstruation, and the boys tease them about it. At home there is sibling rivalry, and Taeko's father is emotionally distant. These seemingly quotidian events were apparently a highly formative period in Taeko's life, and at the age of 27, she continues to replay these memories.

In the present, Taeko arrives at the farm, where she meets an intense, young farmer named Toshio (Dev Patel). The two fall in love, but it is difficult for Taeko to process the feeling without first working through some of these 5th grade memories and sharing them with Toshio.

Does it get tiresome for Toshio, listening to this girl prattle on about 5th grade? If so, he doesn't show it. I, on the other hand, got a bit restless during this 2-hour, action-free movie. Nonetheless, I can see the value of this quiet exploration of the persistence of memory and how small things make us who we are. Parts of the film are quite funny, especially the bit about menstruation, which may be the best handling of the subject since Judy Blume. All of Toshio's talk about organic farming goes on a bit long, but there's a fascinating bit about how safflower is used to make red cosmetics. The animated countryside is stunning, and Daisy Ridley's voice acting is quite good.

“Only Yesterday” is as talky as they get. It tried even the patience of a Whit Stillman fan like myself. It's worth checking out, though, if you are into introspection in a big way.

3 stars out of 5   

Monday, November 07, 2016

The American Astronaut (2001) *****

First of all, “The American Astronaut” is not science-fiction, even though it involves flying around the solar system. What it is is a bizarre, comedic musical, and one of the most fun movies I've ever seen. A guy named Corey McAbee wrote, directed, and starred in this gonzo, fever dream of a movie back in 2001.

McAbee plays Sam Curtis, a space cowboy roaming the solar system in a space ship that looks like a model train engine. In a bar on the asteroid Ceres, he trades a cat for a suitcase that supposedly contains “a real, live girl.” His plan is to take the girl to the all-male, mining planet of Jupiter, where he will trade her for a teenage boy. He will then take the boy to Venus as a lucky gift to the women who inhabit that planet, women who can reproduce without a man, but still need an infusion of male genes once in a while, lest they become “too high-bred and snippy for even themselves to stand.”

It's a good plan, but in wanders a complication in the form of Professor Hess, a psychopath with a powerful gun and a grudge against Sam. When Hess isn't blasting everyone Sam comes in contact with into a gray powder, he is announcing that it's his birthday. Or doing a song-and-dance. Did I mention the singing and dancing? The movie is full of funny, crazy songs written and performed by McAbee and his friends.

I could write a thousand more words, and you still wouldn't really have an idea what “The American Astronaut” is like. There just isn't anything to compare it to. (Perhaps the closest comparison would be "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension".) The movie is filmed in a stark, black-and-white that makes everything look sort of grimy, but makes grimy, weathered faces look beautiful. The songs are funny, and they stick with you. All laws of physics and reason are tossed out the window, and you are invited to completely sever your attachment to regular, literal storytelling, and just enjoy the ride. I first saw this at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival,where it earned a nomination for the Grand Jury Prize. I've watched it a few times since, and it is always hilarious. You can find it on DVD, and I highly suggest you do.

5 stars out of 5

Saturday, October 01, 2016

Sicario (2015) ***

Watching Emily Blunt in “Edge of Tomorrow,” it seems to me that she likes to play a badass. In “Sicario,” she plays a badass who is in over her head. In this neo-noir, we find her as FBI agent Kate Macer, highly competent and dedicated to doing things by the book. She is tapped to join a multi-agency team combating Mexican drug cartels. She quickly figures out that her team members, Matt (Josh Brolin) and Alejandro (Benicio del Toro), are probably CIA, and definitely willing to engage in non-traditional tactics.

As Kate and her FBI partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) get drawn further into Matt and Alejandro's operation, they face a quandary. The good work they have been doing with the FBI has yielded few results in the war against the cartels, which seem to be importing more and more drugs and death across the border. Matt promises results that matter, bringing down the big bosses, but his methods, and the cross-border scope of his plan is increasingly problematic for Kate.

I enjoyed “Sicario,” although I found Kate's squeaky-clean attitude tiresome. Emily Blunt is the star, but the film is stolen by Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro. The best part of the film, however, is the cinematography during the famous tunnel scene. It's worth watching for that, and to see what an absolute terror Alejandro turns out to be.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Lobster (2016) *

It isn't usual for me to hate a movie as critically acclaimed as this one, but the fact is, I was not entertained. “The Lobster” is an absurdist, allegorical dramedy about the state of human romantic coupling. In this imagined world, people are not allowed to live singly. Every single adult is taken to a hotel where they are given 45 days to find a partner. Those who fail get turned into animals.

Finding a partner at this hotel isn't as easy as you would think. Everyone's interactions are stilted and lifeless, and people are only supposed to partner with someone who shares their “defining characteristic,” e.g a limp or a lisp. Once people do couple up, if they have any quarrel or difficulty in their relationship, they are assigned children, “which usually helps.” Sex is allowed between couples, but a hotel maid services the needs of the single men, as masturbation is strictly forbidden. Sexual satisfaction is only supposed to be obtained with a partner, no matter how mechanical and joyless the act is.

“The Lobster” seems rather clever until you reflect that it isn't as original as it seems. From “Sex and the City” to “Bridgette Jones's Diary,” the humiliations visited upon single people in a society obsessed with coupling have been well-explored. The difference between those other stories and “The Lobster” is that the other stories are actually enjoyable, filled with funny, interesting characters to whom you can actually relate. “The Lobster” has something to say, but it says it in such a dreary, washed-out way that the “defining characteristic” of this film seems to be its contempt for the audience. From its flat affect to its bizarrely redundant voice-overs, the film is painful to watch, despite occasional flashes of humor.

I have to confess here that I didn't watch the entire film. We gave up when the dog got kicked to death. (Seriously.) I read some synopses, however, and it seems that the tone of the film remains consistent. You are either up for it or you aren't. It's as if director Yorgos Lanthimos wants to deliberately punish his audience. I'm familiar with the concept that an artist like Lanthimos may suffer for his art, but I see no reason that I should suffer for HIS art.

1 star out of 5  

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Creed (2015) ***

The first “Rocky” movie was one of the great films. It was one of those rare movies that wins awards and is also imminently watchable. It's timeless. The sequels that followed, most would agree, got progressively worse. “Creed,” the newest installment in the franchise, re-captures some of that early magic, although it still isn't as good as the original.

“Creed” basically repackages the original plot. Adonis(Michael B. Jordan), Apollo Creed's troubled, illegitimate son, wants to be a professional boxer. He seeks out his late father's old friend, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), and begs him to train him. Adonis displays some promise, and then, because of his famous name, is offered a championship fight. Everyone figures the world champion will beat this upstart easily, but we've seen enough Rocky movies to know that it won't go that way.

It's all very much the formula of the first Rocky, including the upstart boxer getting a shot at the title, falling in love with a quirky girl, and lots of great training montages. The lack of originality would be unforgivable if it weren't for the top-notch performances. Michael B.Jordan is simply magnetic. He commits 100% to every scene, and he is clearly going places. It's Sylvester Stallone, however, who really elevates “Creed.” Watching his aged fighter retreat inward as he is given a cancer diagnosis is truly gutting. Watching him hike out to the cemetery to sit by Adrian's grave and read her the newspaper is heartbreaking. This may be Stallone's best work.

The fight scenes are as rousing as those in any “Rocky” movie, way more fun than watching actual boxing. The training scenes mostly recycle stuff from earlier films, including the old, catch-the-chicken game. Still, for a movie that doesn't really have much new to say, “Creed” is way more entertaining than it has a right to be.

3 stars out of 5

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Straight Outta Compton (2015) ***

It's often been said that the best way to get the difference between East Coast and West Coast rap is to listen to the groups Public Enemy and NWA. The lyrics of East Coast group Public Enemy are political and a bit cerebral. NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), on the other hand, are raw and vulgar, rapping about the thug/gansta ethos of Compton, CA. Their groundbreaking 1988 album “Straight Outta Compton” is the definitive West Coast, gangsta-rap album. The single “Fuck tha Police” was an important part of the zeitgeist of what became the Rodney King era, either a defiant anthem against police brutality or a symbol of all that was wrong with black, inner-city culture, depending on where you stood politically.

F. Gary Gray's “Straight Outta Compton” tells the story of the group, starting with their early days in Compton, their meteoric rise, and their dissolution over money and contract issues, then continues to follow Eazy E, Dr. Dre, and Ice Cube into their solo careers. It's an expansive musical biopic that runs a bit long, but is definitely worth seeing for those who are into rap music.

The casting is visually accurate, with actors that look a lot like Dr Dre (Corey Hawkins), Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), and Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr, who is actually Ice Cube's son). These guys' acting gets the job done, but it's nothing inspiring. The best performance belongs to Jason Mitchell, as Eazy E, and the movie winds up being more his story than anyone's.

O'Shea Jackson, Jr. is fairly good as Ice Cube, particularly in the scenes where he pushes back against the media regarding the First Amendment battles surrounding NWA's music. His claim to be a type of reporter, honestly portraying poor, black culture, rings a bit hollow, though. These guys have every right to make their music, and they were right to fight censorship, but there is no denying that this music glorifies violence, drugs, and misogyny.

As raw as it is, I like this music, and “Straight Outta Compton” gives music fans what they want, with tons of songs from NWA and the solo projects, including some of the hilarious musical dueling that went on between these guys after they split up. I especially enjoyed one scene where Eazy E and the remaining NWA members listen to a track in which Ice Cube disses them and manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti). Jerry is incensed, but the other guys can't help laughing at Cube's lyrics.

One really striking thing about the film is the footage of the Rodney King beating, the riots over police brutality, and the many scenes of police harassing young, black men. I am struck by how little progress we have made 25 years later.

If you remember all the “Oscars So White” noise around this year's Academy Awards, this was one of the movies that protestors held up as an example of a black movie that should have gotten nominations. If you love the music, as I do, then “Straight Outta Compton” is well worth watching, but it isn't really Oscar-level. If you have an old album or CD of “Straight Outta Compton” (or better yet a cassette tape) in your collection, however, then you should definitely put this on your watchlist.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, August 04, 2016

The Big Short (2015) ***

I'm sure we all have our own stories from the economic crash of 2008, some of them incredibly sad. My own is relatively benign, but I'll never forget it. It was when my hair stylist told me he was getting out of the hair-cutting business to become a mortgage broker. This was before the crash, when housing prices were rising relentlessly, houses were turning over constantly, and anyone, no matter how little training or experience they had, could make money in real estate. Of course, I didn't recognize that for the warning sign it was, the sign of a bubble that was destined to burst. “The Big Short” is about the financial geniuses who did see the housing crash coming, and who figured out a way to profit from it.

In this film by Adam McKay, it starts with the one-eyed, socially-awkward Michael Burry, MD, a brainiac who left medicine to become a hedge-fund manager. He does something with mortgage-backed securities that no one else is doing: he actually looks at the mortgages behind those securities. He notices that many of them are behind on payments, many are to people with low credit scores, and that many more are adjustable-rate mortgages, with payments likely to rise in 2007. Despite these weaknesses, the banks have packaged these mortgages into bonds that are treated like low-risk investments. Burry sets up some insurance policies called Credit Default Swaps, policies that cost him money in the short term, but will pay off if those mortgage bonds fail. Everyone thinks he is daft, as the accepted wisdom says real estate is a rock-solid investment. Eventually some other financial wizzes notice what he is doing and take out similar policies, betting on the eventual demise of the housing market.

Where things get really messed up is when the banks themselves start buying some of these Credit Default Swaps. They are still selling the mortgage bonds to investors, but they are also betting that those bonds will fail. Eventually, as we know, the whole thing came crashing down, causing a worldwide recession.

“The Big Short” does a nice job dramatizing all of this for people who have at least a passing interest in things like economics and financial markets. It maintains a relatively high geek factor, which will drive away many mainstream moviegoers, but the movie sometimes winks at its own geekiness by having celebrities explain some of the concepts. Christian Bale is excellent as Dr. Burry, as are Steve Carrell as another investment manager and Ryan Gosling as a sleazy bond salesman. Really, the whole cast is excellent, and the film is paced pretty well. Inevitably, given its subject matter, “The Big Short” drags a bit at times, but overall it does an excellent job creating drama out of the ins and outs of bond trading. By the end, you will be mad at the big banks all over again.

3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Love and Friendship (2016) ****

Based on a little-known, Jane Austen Novella called “Lady Susan,” “Love and Friendship” represents director Whit Stillman's re-imagining of a comic tale of a classic scoundrel. Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is conniving, manipulative, and a notorious flirt, yet despite her notoriety, people still manage to get taken in by her charms. It's a good thing. She is a penniless widow with nothing but her looks and charm to depend on. She sets out to arrange a good marriage for her daughter, and perhaps for herself as well, although she finds it difficult to give up her sexual dalliances.

Lady Susan is a horrible person, yet she constantly has people in her orbit, defending her indefensible deeds. It seems to be a part of human nature to be attracted to a truly, un-self-consciously amoral person. Susan sometimes lies, but for the most part, her atrocities are right there in the open, and she practically dares people to call her on them. She reminds me of the two atrocious characters, Valmont and Merteuil from “Dangerous Liaisons.”

I never would have selected this movie on my own, but my wife dragged me to it, and good for her! This thing is a hoot! Whit Stillman, known for his talky, funny send-ups of modern, high society types is the perfect person to adapt Jane Austen. Beckinsale was born to play Lady Susan, who is similar in many ways to the harpy she played in “The Last Days of Disco,” an earlier Stillman film. You have to give this movie about 10 or 15 minutes to get used to the period language and figure out who all the characters are, but once the story gets going, it is hilarious. The screen really lights up when Tom Bennett shows up as the silly, borderline-retarded Sir James Martin.

I hesitate to use the F-word, but there is something feminist about Lady Susan. As deplorable as she is, her notoriety is based largely on the fact that, in 1790's England, she is a woman. Were she a man, she would use her intelligence to make a fortune, and she would be able to engage in her sexual dalliances as a sideline, with little or no judgment from society. As a woman in that time, however, the only way for her to survive is to find a new husband. As for her sexual peccadilloes, 18th-century England has trouble even conceiving of a woman with such appetites. As the doltish Lord Martin points out, “If a man strays, he's just following his biology. Such behavior from a woman, though, is impossible to imagine.”

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016) ***1/2

You cannot discuss the new “Ghostbusters” without making comparisons to the original, 1984 film, so let's just get something out of the way: The original “Ghostbusters” was not perfect. Like every other kid, I liked it when it came out, but when I re-watched it years later, I found it formulaic and lazy. (See my review of the original here.) These guys on the internet complaining that the new movie, with its female ghostbusters, is tarnishing the legacy of a classic movie are giving the original way more credit than it deserves. Bottom line, I think the new version, by Paul Feig (“Bridesmaids”), is better.

Kristen Wiig plays Erin, a physics professor trying to gain tenure and completely leave behind her past as an investigator of the paranormal. That past comes back to haunt her when her old ghost-hunting partner, Abby (Melissa McCarthy) re-releases their book on ghosts. Laughed out of her professorship, Erin has no choice but to join up with Abby and her assistant Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). The timing is perfect, however, as ghost sightings in NYC are on the rise. A sociopathic janitor (Neil Casey) is summoning ghosts and planning to unleash “the 4th Cataclysm.” With ghost-catching devices invented by Holtzmann, and with their new friend Patty (Leslie Jones), the Ghostbusters set out to prevent the Apocalypse.

It's the same basic story outline as the original, but Paul Feig and his stars really make it their own. There are four ghostbusters, as in the original, but they are not simply analogues of the original characters. It's a new set of human beings, and Feig actually takes the time to develop these characters, which the first movie did not do. Wiig and McCarthy are comic geniuses, and both get to shine here, albeit not like they did in “Bridesmaids.” Kate McKinnon is funny, and gorgeous in a butch sort of way, but she perhaps overplays her badassness a bit. I never got the feeling that she was fully inhabiting her role. For my money, the star of the movie is Leslie Jones, who plays Patty. She could have easily played Patty as a straightforward sassy-black-friend, but she has so much screen presence that she lends the character more heft, if not depth.

The movie's weaknesses are the weaknesses of every action-comedy. The film is so busy packing in jokes, sight gags, and scenes of mayhem that the plot suffers. I would say the ghostbusting team comes together a bit too conveniently. Sometimes the ladies flap their gums when they should be firing their proton guns. Speaking of those proton guns, sometimes they work on the ghosts, and sometimes they don't, depending on what is most convenient for the plot. That's just lazy writing. Chris Hemsworth is sometimes funny as the ghostbusters' dim-witted, pretty-boy receptionist, but I never felt like they got the tone quite right for his character, which is also the feeling I got from McKinnon's Holtzmann. Still, the original “Ghostbusters” had all of these weaknesses and more.

The one thing that the original movie did better than the reboot is the mythology. All that stuff about Sumerian destruction gods and the Keymaster and Gatekeeper from the original film was actually kind of cool. This reboot really isn't all that interested in the supernatural, and barely manages to throw in a little bit about ley lines and vortices.

One thing “Ghostbusters” is NOT, regardless of what trolls on the internet are saying, is sexist or racist. I never felt, as a white man, that I was being attacked. What I did feel was joy at seeing a summer movie that is actually funny and fun. “Ghostbusters” isn't going to change your life, and it isn't another “Bridesmaids,” but it's definitely worth the price of admission.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Look Who's Back (Er Ist Wieder Da, 2015, German) ****

A couple of years ago, if you had told me that what the world needed was a satirical movie about Adolph Hitler traveling through time to show up in 2014 Germany, I would have said you were nuts. In the light of the present day, I would say this film couldn't be more timely.

Hitler (Oliver Masucci) wakes up in a 2014 Berlin park completely disoriented after an apparently successful time-travel escape from his WWII bunker. People he encounters assume he is an actor, and they laugh and take pictures with him. He finds refuge in a news stand, where he starts to get his wits about him and embark on “the first step...gathering information.” Reading the news, he realizes that the world is perfectly ripe for him to make a comeback, what with economic troubles, unemployment, and immigration issues. A freelance documentarian discovers him and drives him around Germany, filming while Hitler chats up everyday Germans, commiserating with their troubles. He finds deep currents of disaffection with politicians and especially with immigrants. Once he gets on TV, his audience grows exponentially. People assume he is a comedian doing a Hitler act, but his message strikes a nerve nonetheless.

“Er Ist Wieder Da” is based on the best-selling, comedic novel of the same name, but the movie does something the book could not. Borrowing a page from the movie “Borat,” the director films real Germans talking with Hitler, expressing their resentment of immigrants in shockingly candid vignettes. Of course, not everyone is ready to board the Hitler-train. Several of these unwitting movie stars do themselves and their country credit by confronting his ideas. Nonetheless, it's disturbing to see so many Germans openly express support for a man who looks like Hitler, presents himself as Hitler, and promotes Hitler's racist, nationalist ideology. As Hitler says towards the end of the film, “I never presented myself as anything else.”

This is a refreshing, often hilarious cautionary tale, even if it feels a bit long at almost two hours. Star Oliver Masucci absolutely makes the film. He plays Hitler with a riveting intensity and charisma. He demonstrates how any idea, no matter how bad, can be appealing if it is expressed with absolute certainty and confidence. As Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

4 stars out of 5

Friday, June 10, 2016

Ant-Man (2015) ***

The title of this installment in the Marvel universe almost seems like a joke to me, like, “We've got Batman, Spiderman, and every other kind of “Man” there is. What's left? How about 'Ant Man'?” But Ant Man has been around for a while, dating back to 1962. The original Ant-Man was scientist Hank Pym, who invented the suit that allowed him to shrink to the size of an ant and communicate with ants. This 2015 film, part of the Avengers Universe, shows Dr. Pym passing the suit to ex-con cat burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd.) Pym has kept the Pym Particle, which is the secret to his shrinking ability, under wraps for decades. Now his old protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) has cracked the code, developing a shrinking suit that he calls the Yellow Jacket. Cross is marketing the Yellow Jacket as a weapon, and Pym recruits Scott to steal the new suit and destroy the research data behind it. Pym is reluctantly aided by his daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lily), who feels that she should really be the one wearing the ant suit.

“Ant Man” is, in some ways, one of the better of the Marvel Comics movies, but it also feels the least substantial. Iron-Man Tony Stark is a recovering alcoholic who invents powerful weapons and struggles to make sure they don't wind up being used for evil. Captain America Steve Rogers is a man severed from his own era, trying to dutifully serve his country, but ever on guard against authoritarianism. Ant Man Scott Lang, though, is just an unemployed ex-con who wants to get to see his daughter. The movie doesn't expend much energy convincing us that this sad sack would accept Pym's mission or that Pym would select him in the first place.

If the heroes are a bit under-developed in these movies, you can usually count on the villain to be memorable, but Corey Stoll's Cross is like a cardboard cutout of a villain. Evangeline Lily isn't much better in her black bob and wafer-thin emotional armor.

Fortunately, what a movie lacks in depth, it can make up in humor and charm, and Paul Rudd has both in abundance. It's simply impossible not to like him in a film. He gets an assist from a funny supporting cast, including Bobby Canavale as his ex-wife's new man. Michael Douglas and his iron jaw are also excellent, providing just enough gravitas to hold the film together.

At the end of the day, I'm not really sure what “Ant Man” is supposed to be about, but the movie provides enough laughs and action to make up for its lack of plot. Now that the character is established, I hope Paul Rudd will get to do something more interesting with him in a future movie.

3 stars out of 5

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

It Follows (2014) ****

After a couple of dates, Jay (Maika Monroe) has a back-seat hookup with a new acquaintance. She figures the date is going pretty well, until Hugh tells her the bad news. Their tryst has passed on to her the curse of a demon that will follow her until either she passes it on by having sex with someone else, or it gets its hands on her. The opening sequence of the film shows us what can happen when this thing catches up to someone, and believe me, it means business. The worst part is that you can never really be rid of this thing, because if it kills someone, then it just goes back after the person who passed it to that person, working its way back down the line. Relentless is the word that comes to mind.

I don't really watch many horror movies anymore. It's a generally accepted rule that horror films are made for teenagers, who are fascinated by exploring the possibility of their own mortality, partly because they don't fully believe in their own mortality yet. A grown person has plenty of genuinely scary things to worry about, with no need to stare into the celluloid abyss. “It Follows,” however, is not just a good horror movie, it is a good movie, period. The acting is excellent, and the characters' actions are believable, even if they don't always do the smartest thing at a given time. The writing is good enough that their actions make sense in terms of who they are and the nightmare in which they are trapped. The camera work in this film is beautifully framed as well, with some absolutely stunning shots. The film also creates a sense of timelessness by having the characters dress in vintage clothing and using cars from various eras. Even the seasons seem unstable, creating a nightmarish sense of disorientation. This movie is going to age well, and I suspect it will show up in some film school lectures.

When done properly, horror movies can teach us a lot about ourselves by making us examine what we fear. Is it fear of the “other”, or fear that the people we love aren't who we think they are. Maybe it's the fear that our sins will catch up to us. The demon in “It Follows” represents an unavoidable doom that is always coming for us, basically a stand-in for death. The characters can delay that doom by having sex with someone, but they know that it is still out there, potentially working its way back to them. Besides being a metaphor for mortality, “It” is, of course, a pretty obvious stand-in for sexually-transmitted disease, particularly the AIDS epidemic, which is interesting, because people who are today the age of these characters don't know much about the AIDS epidemic. Those who lived through that epidemic will recognize the sense of fear surrounding sex, and the necessary paranoia about one's sexual partner and their past partners created in this film.

It's a standard horror film trope to equate sex with death, but “It Follows” makes the connection much more explicit. In doing so, writer/director David Robert Mitchell has created a delightfully original tale that belongs in the cannon of great films like John Carpenter's “The Thing.” From the horrifying opening sequence, the movie creates an overpowering sense of dread with its thrumming score and the sense that “it” may appear at any moment, moving slowly but malevolently. “It Follows” is definitely one to check out, as long as you can handle a few nightmares.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Battle Royale (2000, Japanese) **

A group of teenage school kids are put on an island, given weapons, and instructed to kill each other off. Collars around their neck will explode in three days unless only one of them is left alive, so they cannot simply join together and refuse to fight. At certain points in the day, various parts of the island become danger zones that will make the collars explode, so the kids have to constantly move around. Only young love can help them survive. The ensuing bloodshed is promoted as entertainment to the Japanese populace.

If this movie sounds like a Japanese rip-off of “The Hunger Games,” be aware that the first “Hunger Games” novel came out in 2008, while the “Battle Royale”novel was written in 1996, with the movie released in 2000. If anything, the accusations of plagiarism should be going in the other direction, as the stories are remarkably similar. Whoever came up with the idea, the “Hunger Games” movie is a much better film. “Battle Royale” is full of nonsensical plot points and a distinctly Japanese style of acting that involves over-acting alternating with staring blankly. I suppose the movie has a certain culty charm, if you are into that sort of thing.

The paradox of movies like this is that even as we in the audience judge the sick society that creates entertainment out of kids murdering each other, we are also watching the killings, reveling in the action as our chosen players kill off the other characters. The director tricks us into cheering on the very violence that we condemn. While we're talking about exploitation, you can't help but notice that all the young actresses in this film wear short, little schoolgirl skirts.  So it isn't a complete loss.

2 stars out of 5

Monday, May 30, 2016

Grandma (2015) ***

Don't be thrown off by the title of this movie or by its twee-sounding Netflix description. “Grandma” is actually pretty decent.

Lily Tomlin plays Elle, once a famous poet, now sort of coasting. On the day that Elle breaks up with her latest girlfriend (Judy Greer), Elle's granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) shows up needing quick cash for an abortion. Elle doesn't have the cash, so the two start hitting up old friends and lovers, and Sage winds up learning a lot about her grandma.

That may not sound like much fun, but trust me that the excellent cast makes this little, film-festival-type movie work. Julia Garner, the curly-haired blond who plays Kimberly on “The Americans,” has a real career ahead of her. Judy Greer shows once again that she is one of the best character-actors working today. Sam Elliot is excellent as Elle's ex-husband. Lily Tomlin is wonderful, playing Elle with the perfect amount of frankness and occasional ferocity. Her strange-looking face is impossible to look away from, and at the age of 76, she still moves like a 20-year-old.

One thing that limits this film's audience is its very distinct cultural viewpoint. This is a movie about a lesbian helping her granddaughter get an abortion. People who are passionately opposed to anything in that sentence will probably want to give “Grandma” a skip.

“Grandma” is fair to all its characters, exposing each person's flaws, but giving each one's story a fair shake. The movie is really about Elle, though. Widowed by the death of her longtime lover, Violet, Elle is facing the fact that she is growing old alone. She has her moments of bitterness, but mostly she faces this with grace and stoicism. Elle is not defined by any of the labels that could be applied to her: not just a “writer,” not just a “lesbian,” and definitely not just a “grandma.”

3 stars out of 5

Monday, May 23, 2016

Warriors (1979) ***

“The Warriors” is the story of nine members of the Warriors, a gang from Coney Island, who travel to a huge gang parlay in Harlem. There, a charismatic gang leader named Cyrus preaches that all the gangs should unite and rule the streets. He is an attractive character, and his words find some appreciative ears, but he is assassinated, gunned down while making his appeal. No one apparently sees who fired the fatal shot, and Luther (David Patrick Kelly), the guilty party, randomly chooses the Warriors to pin it on. In the chaos that ensues, everyone pretty much accepts the Warriors' guilt, and they beat down and likely kill the Warriors' leader, Cleon. The other eight Warriors escape and spend the rest of the night running from one rival gang's territory to the next, racing to get back to Coney Island before the other gangs hunt them down.

The novel from which the movie is adapted is based loosely on the ancient Greek story “Anabasis,” the tale of 10,000 Greek mercenaries who had to fight their way back home from Persia. Like those Greek soldiers, the Warriors have to fight their way back to the sea.

During a lull in the violence, the Warriors discuss the merits of the fallen Cyrus's plan, and the difficulty in turning it into reality. “It's all out there for the taking. You just gotta figure out what's worth stealing.” When a group of well-off, young people boards the train, the Warriors see that what those kids have is what is worth stealing, that carefree life, but it's something beyond their grasp.
When one of the rich kids drops a corsage, Swan picks it up and gives it to Mercy, saying, “I just hate to see something go to waste.” You get the feeling he is talking about her, not the flowers, but the story itself is a lament to the waste of all these capable youths, who are going to waste as well.

The thing about this 1970s cult classic, like all cult classics really, is that you can't take it too seriously. The movie is sometimes so cheesy it's painful, but you have to view the film more like a comic book. The action is cartoonish, the characters are barely developed, they make stupid decisions, and the movie glorifies street gangs in a way that led to violent confrontations during it's 1979 theatrical run. Still, with its depiction of bare-armed tough-guys roaming the gritty streets of 1970's New York City, the film has a certain gumption that justifies its cult status.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Black Hawk Down (2001) **

I don't really have much patience for political correctness, and I'm not one who sees racism everywhere. It means something, then, when I say that “Black Hawk Down” may be the most racist movie I have ever seen. The movie is decently-filmed, frenetic war-porn, but the constant barrage of menacing, black faces charging at the white protagonists eventually takes on the feel of a video game for white supremacists.

“Black Hawk Down” is based on America's adventures in Somalia, in 1993. As clan warlords tore Somalia apart, American troops joined a multinational force of “peacekeepers.” During an operation to capture a some high-ranking militia leaders, everything went to shit, and American troops encountered more resistance than expected. Two helicopters were shot down, and the efforts to rescue those crews extended the short mission into a vicious overnight battle. The mission succeeded in its objectives, but 18 American soldiers died, with 73 wounded. At the time, this was America's bloodiest battle since Vietnam.

That we considered this a major defeat is a testament to our arrogance, considering that Somali casualties ran in the thousands. During this operation, American soldiers drove right into the middle of an enemy stronghold to take their leaders captive. The idea that we could do this without taking some casualties is pure hubris. Does “Black Hawk Down” do anything to correct that hubris? Not really. The movie simply revels in the violence, celebrating the individual heroism of the American soldiers, while treating the hateful, unexplained enemy as faceless avatars to be slaughtered. I have no problem with the film acknowledging each American death, but meanwhile,Somalis are being killed by the hundreds. I was curious why, after seeing their comrades mowed down by superior firepower, those Somalis kept charging in to kill and be killed. Instead of exploring their motivations, the movie gives us the captured arms dealer Atto (George Harris) another menacing black man, who smugly smokes cigars in American detention while lecturing General Garrison (Sam Shepard) that “This is our war, not yours.”

I don't call this movie racist simply because it depicts a black enemy. I also find it amazing that in this large, ensemble cast, there is only one black soldier (Gabriel Casseus), and his role is a minor one. The U.S army is 20-30% black, and yet out of the 20-or-so soldier characters whose faces we see more than once in this film, only one is black, and his is barely a speaking role. To quote everyone on social media, “I'm just sayin'.”

Even though we won the Battle of Mogadishu, it killed America's appetite for intervention in Somalia. Bill Clinton pulled our troops out of the country afterward, leaving it to chaos. It simply became clear that there was no way for us to win there. The only thing Somalis wanted to do more than kill each other was kill outsiders. There was an important lesson there about the limits of military power, but “Black Hawk Down” skips right over any opportunity to explore that lesson.

Technically, “Black Hawk Down” is awesome. Director Ridley Scott captures the chaos of battle, and keeps you on the edge of your seat the entire time. He also honors the sacrifices of some very brave American soldiers. It's a shame he didn't do it with a better, more thoughtful film.

2 stars out of 5

Saturday, April 09, 2016

Carol (2015) ***

I'm a bit behind on watching my Oscar-nominated movies this year, so I was psyched when the DVD for “Carol” became available on Netflix. You may have heard of this one. It's the quiet, period piece about a forbidden, lesbian love affair, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Some of you are already tuning out at this point, and I can't blame you. These movies can be tedious. I'll just jump ahead and tell you what you mainly want to know, which is “Is there any girl-on-girl action?” The answer is yes, but it takes them ages to get around to it.

For those interested in the actual plot of the movie, it centers around Carol (Blanchett), a rich, bored, 1950's woman in an unhappy marriage. Her husband loves her, but her history of “close” friendships with women is driving them to divorce. When Carol meets Therese (Mara) in a department store, the chemistry is immediate. Soon the two are hanging out as friends, and then Carol invites Therese on a vacation. Having just met Carol a couple of weeks before, you might think Therese would decline, and spend the holiday with her fiance, but she just packs a bag and heads out for what she probably figures will be some “Thelma and Louise”-style adventure. I wish it had turned out that way! Carol is actually packing a gun, so you figure maybe they will end up robbing a bank or something, but nothing like that happens. We just get to watch Carol being depressed and conflicted, because her husband is using her lesbian affairs as ammunition in their custody battle. She does make herself feel better by finally (FINALLY!) going to bed with Therese, but that's as wild as their trip gets.

I'm making the movie sound worse than it is. The performances are actually quite good, and the movie is filmed beautifully. It just feels very inert to me, this little time capsule about intolerance and closeted life in the 1950's. If you are into this kind of movie, then I don't think you will regret watching “Carol,” but it isn't a movie I can imagine watching again.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Let the Right One In (2008,Swedish) ***

“I'm just twelve, but I've been twelve for a long time.” This is how the mysterious new neighbor Eli responds to Oskar's question as to her age. But it takes them a while to get around to that question. First we meet the bookish Oskar, who is bullied at school and spends his evenings contemplating revenge with his hunting knife. Eli first finds Oskar practicing stabbing his knife into a tree. She initially tells him, “We can't be friends,” but both are lonely. Oskar seems to have a fraught relationship with his mom, and he rarely gets to visit his dad. Eli seems to have only Hakan, a grown man of uncertain motivations, who murders to bring home blood for her, because, as we gradually learn, Eli is a vampire.

This 2008 Swedish film is slow-paced and downright weird, but fascinating. Like Oskar, we are dying to find out what the deal is with Eli. Who and what is she? How does she live, and why is she shacked up in Oskar's housing project? “Let the Right One In” is touted as horror, and the older brother of one of the bullies IS a pretty scary figure, but the film isn't really scary in the classical sense. Director Tomas Alfredson just maintains a tone of suspense and dread throughout. Despite the movie's slow pace, I was perpetually on the edge of my seat.

There are aspects of the movie that I still don't understand, although one of them was cleared up by doing some reading on the internet. Rather than spoiling the mysteries, I will suggest you do the same after watching it, and I DO recommend the movie. It will be too slow for some, and of course it has subtitles, but it's a beautiful love story cloaked in horror.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Less Than Zero (1987) ***

Instead of all those school assemblies telling kids to “Just Say No To Drugs,” every teenager should just be required to watch “Less Than Zero.” No one wants to use drugs after watching this movie!

Loosely based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis, “Less Than Zero” is a tale of three high-school friends whose lives diverge after graduation. Clay (Andrew McCarthy), Blair (Jami Gertz), and Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.) are spoiled, rich kids from L.A. For high school graduation, Julian's dad gives him the money to start a music production company, an opportunity that he promptly blows. Blair skips out on college to continue her modeling career. Only Clay goes off to school. He returns for Christmas break to find his old friends with cocaine habits, and Julian in debt to a drug dealer. Blair begs Clay to save Julian from his downward spiral of drug and alcohol binges, but saving Julian from himself proves a daunting task.

There really isn't that much plot to describe in this film. It's a pretty basic story about drugs ruining someone's life, and the film doesn't delve much into motivations or backstory. There are a few things that make “Less Than Zero” memorable:
  1. An awesome soundtrack including the Bangles' kickass cover of Simon and Garfunkel's “A Hazy Shade of Winter”
  2. Gorgeous, noir cinematography
  3. Steamy sex scenes with Jami Gertz
  4. Finally, Robert Downey, Jr.'s powerfully ugly portrayal of a drug addict. Watching Julian circle the drain is horrifying and mesmerizing.
“Less Than Zero” feels really intense while you are watching it, but afterward there is a certain letdown when you realize the story didn't really mean all that much. The film is also marred by the tacked-on final scene, which was reportedly forced on the director by the studio. The movie is worth watching, but like its characters, it is more style than substance.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Hunger (1983) ***

David Bowie died recently, so I've been listening to his stuff a lot lately, and then the idea of watching “The Hunger” came up. All I knew about this movie is that Bowie plays a vampire, and that there's a lesbian sex scene between Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. What more do you need to know, really? If those two things aren't enough to make you want to watch it, then it probably isn't for you.

“The Hunger” dispenses with some of the tropes of vampire movies, including the stupid teeth. Deneuve's Miriam and Bowie's John just carry a little knife around their neck for when they want to open up someone's throat. They also have no problem with the sun. They do thrive at night, however, and the film starts with an artsy sequence of the two picking up a couple of victims at a nightclub where the band Bauhaus is playing “Bela Lugosi's Dead.” When they aren't drinking blood, Miriam and John spend their time playing music, being stylish, and taking hot showers together. John is looking forward to an eternity of this, so he is shocked to find himself starting to age. Miriam is not so shocked. She, it turns out, is the senior vampire, and for some reason, the junior vampires she creates only last a few hundred years. She has seen this happen to several lovers, but rather than supporting John through his painful dissolution, she distances herself from him. When John seeks help from Sarah, a doctor who does research into aging, Miriam starts to fall for Sarah. Without giving away any spoilers, I will just say that John's fate ends up being a powerful metaphor for how it feels to be dropped by your lover.

“The Hunger” is an art film, slow-paced at times, and not for everyone. It's a wonderful and intense movie, however, beautifully filmed in that gauzy, '80's style. The confusing ending was tacked on, presumably to suit a broader audience and to set up a possible sequel. Otherwise, though, the film is worth checking out, and that Sarandon/Deneuve lesbian scene alone is worth the price of admission.

3 stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Ex Machina (2015) ***

There's an amazing British TV show called “Black Mirror,” which explores, in Twilight-zone-like stories, how we interact with technology. “Ex Machina” star Domhnall Gleeson appears in an episode, which I remembered as I was thinking about how “Ex Machina” is like a longer version of a “Black Mirror” episode, although not as incisive.

Gleeson plays Caleb, a computer programer who wins a week's retreat at his billionaire boss's house. When he arrives at the remote complex, he learns that he isn't just there to vacation. His boss, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) wants him to help do a Turing Test on his new robot, Ava, to determine if it has true Artificial Intelligence. Caleb finds himself falling in love with Ava (Alicia Vikander), who turns out to be smarter than either Caleb or Nathan.

My complaint about “Ex Machina” is that it's twice as long as an episode of “Black Mirror,” but only half as interesting. That's not to say it's a bad movie at all; I just wish there were more to chew on. The best-developed character is Nathan, who is also the least sympathetic. He sees himself as a Bro, an athletic, beer-drinking, guy's guy who happens to be good with computers. He is, in fact, just another in a long line of mad scientists, with all of the megalomania and misanthropy of the breed. Actually, he is more of a misogynist. He views himself as simply an inventor, but he imbues his creations with clearly female qualities, then mistreats them. Caleb and Ava, ostensibly the most important characters, are never very well developed.

As retellings of the Frankenstein story go, “Ex Machina” is impressive primarily for its visuals, including Ava's feminine body, made up of transparent panels and glowing cables. We can see right through Ava, but it still feels like we don't get very far below her surface. We never get to delve far into the rich implications of Ava's existence. “Ex Machina” is a movie that never explores all its possibilities.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 14, 2016

The Martian (2015) ****1/2

It's Oscars-time again, which means opportunities to see lots of “elegantly restrained dramas,” not to mention movies about the Holocaust and gay people. Movies, as Eric Cartman would say, “about gay cowboys eating pudding.” Not that there's anything wrong with that. Many of those movies are actually quite good. It's nice, though, to see a quality picture that is forward-looking, funny, and full of action. I'm talking about a movie that doesn't sit on your Netflix queue while you psych yourself up to sit down and watch it. “The Martian” is that movie!

Matt Damon plays astronaut Mark Watney, who gets lost, presumed-dead, and left behind in a Martian storm. When he wakes up in a pile of sand to find himself alone on the red planet, the enormity of his situation is evident. Even if he can find a way to signal earth that he is alive, it will take four years to mount a manned-rescue operation, and he only has enough food for a few months. Mark doesn't just throw in the towel, though. He figures out ways to grow food, make water, signal earth, and so on. As he describes it later, “You solve a problem, then you solve the next problem, and if you solve enough problems, you make it home.” Meanwhile, the all-star cast back on earth tries to figure out a way to bring him home.

“The Martian” created a quandary for Golden Globe voters earlier this year. The movie is clearly a drama, but it's so full of humor that it wound up being nominated, and winning, for Best Comedy. Most of the credit for this goes to Matt Damon, who spends most of the movie acting by himself, and just kills it. He's funny, cool, and believable as an astronaut-scientist. He is also able to be poignant at times without sinking into sentimentality.

As good as Damon is, the movie gets a strong assist from its supporting players, including Sean Bean, Jessica Chastain, Michael Pena, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. The movie also looks great. The scenes of Martian storms, mountains, and canyons are stunning.

As for the science, this is a movie that gets it right. Andy Weir's novel, on which the film is based, is reportedly considered required-reading at NASA. It's remarkable that the book was self-published on Amazon, chapter by chapter, before getting discovered and becoming a best-seller. For the movie, NASA was consulted extensively, and they were probably delighted to be involved. “The Martian” is not just funny and thrilling, it's inspiring. The film really celebrates the adventure and the necessity of space exploration, so much so that I might say it verges on NASA propaganda if I didn't agree with its message so much. As it is, this is a refreshingly positive movie for awards season, a non-cheesy, hopeful movie about what human beings can achieve.

4.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) *****

Patrick Dempsey starred in a movie back in 1991 called “Run,” and the most striking feature of the movie was how aptly-titled it was. There was more running in that movie than in “Chariots of Fire.” His character literally RAN from the Mob for almost the entire movie. “Mad Max: Fury Road” joins this elite crew of perfectly-titled movies. It's full of fury, and almost the entire movie takes place on the road, in moving vehicles.

“Fury Road” finds Max (Tom Hardy) still wandering the post-nuclear wastelands, haunted by the memories of those he failed to save in the first three Mad Max movies. He gets caught and enslaved by a bunch of cancerous cult-followers who serve the emphysematous Immortan Joe. One of Joe's elite fighters, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) has had enough of his crap, and she helps Joe's harem of sexy ladies escape from his Citadel. Joe and his army of dune-buggy driving lunatics give chase, and Max is along for the ride.

I don't know if I've ever seen a movie this action-packed, and certainly not an action movie this good. People with heart conditions should stay away. 90% of the run-time is non-stop driving, crashing, and fighting. In most movies, so much action becomes numbing, but “Fury Road” manages to keep you invested with touches like the flamethrower-guitar player. It's thrilling, and yet the movie also manages to be about something. Imperator Furiosa isn't just making a stand against slavery, she is trying to reach “the green place,” the idyllic land of her youth. When she realizes she is never going to see it again, her despair resounds louder than any explosion in the movie. Max, for his part, starts out completely broken and amoral, interested only in his own survival, but ultimately he cannot resist helping the helpless. Then there's the Warboy, Nux, unrecognizable as Nicholas Hoult with his shaved head and white skin. He starts out as just one of Immortan Joe's many followers, but when one of the harem girls befriends him, he finds something more in himself than just a desire to die in battle.

There's been a lot of debate about whether “Fury Road” is a feminist movie. On the one hand, Furiosa is a strong, female figure, Max's equal in every way. On the other hand, some feminists are upset that the ladies still need Max, a man, to help them escape. I can tell you that when I was watching the movie, I wasn't thinking about any of that crap. This is just a great movie. Period. The acting is excellent, and the action is superb. In the old Mad Max movies, the bad guys on motorcycles just swung axes at the cars, and the road fighting never made a lot of sense. In “Fury Road,” the tribes seem to have perfected road-fighting, using grappling hooks, explosive harpoons, and these long, swinging poles that allow a fighter to board an enemy vehicle or even snatch someone out of it, all while racing pell-mell across the desert. As for being feminist, I would say “Fury Road” is more humanist. It's true that Immortan Joe's only use for a woman is if he can have sex with her or extract breast milk from her. It's no better for young men, though. He only values them if they can fight and die for him. This is a society that can only treat people like meat, earning their compliance with subsistence rations and the promise of a glorious afterlife. The message of “Fury Road” is that men AND women can and should rise up and fight for something better in this life.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) ***1/2

In “Captain America: The First Avenger,” we met Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), the little guy with a big heart who gets turned into a strapping superhero by an experimental serum. He fought Nazis and an underground organization called Hydra during WWII, then wound up getting frozen in suspended animation. Seventy years later, he was unfrozen and recruited by SHIELD to help the Avengers save the earth again in “The Avengers.”

“Captain America: The Winter Soldier” finds Cap, ever dutiful, working faithfully for SHIELD, even as he is troubled by the secretiveness of Commander Nick Fury. He is especially troubled by SHIELD's paternalistic, “trust us” approach to both its agents and the humanity it is supposedly protecting. SHIELD takes things a bridge too far when they build an armada of hovercraft gunships that can patrol the earth constantly, monitoring everything, and killing terrorist threats before they have a chance to strike. It's an incredibly powerful tool, with incredible potential for misuse. Captain Rogers is rightfully chilled by the prospect, and his concerns are proven justified when it turns out SHIELD has been infiltrated.

The Captain also runs into an old friend, now turned foe. I don't think it's a huge spoiler at this point to say that his childhood friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), didn't die in that fall in the first movie. It turns out he was rescued by Hydra and the Russians, who wiped out his memory and turned him into a metal-armed killing machine they called the Winter Soldier, storing him in suspended animation until they needed him to fight people like Captain America. The whole thing is highly improbable, but it's easy to just go with it.

That's the good thing about this movie. It's full-on popcorn action, but the plot and characters make just enough sense for a grown person to enjoy watching it. It's also that rare thing, a sequel that is probably better than the original movie. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, relative newcomers known for their work on the quirky TV comedy “Community,” the movie bears a sense of humor that is a little smarter than that found in “The Avengers,” and less smugly cynical than what you get in “Iron Man.” The earnest Captain is the perfect straight-man for Scarlett Johansson's sarcastic Black Widow. “The Winter Soldier” also introduces a new hero, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie.)

These comic-book franchises tend to have a motif in the midst of all that action. The X-men films are about a misunderstood minority fighting for the right to be themselves, basically a thinly-veiled allegory about gay people. Spiderman has that whole”With great power comes great responsibility” thing. Captain America explores the tension between individuality and collective authority. Steve Rogers' defining trait is his willingness to sacrifice himself for others, but the choice to make that sacrifice is always HIS choice. He fights against Hydra, which seeks to establish the kind of worldwide, totalitarian regime in which the State would decide who gets sacrificed for whom. “The Winter Soldier” is complex enough to allow Cap to butt up against SHIELD, which is supposedly benevolent, but is taking on ever more authoritarian overtones. Much like some of our government agencies today, SHIELD works behind the scenes to keep people safe. Since their intentions are good, the leaders of SHIELD believe there should be no limits to their activities. It's hard for Captain America (and for us in the audience) to know exactly where the line should be drawn between law enforcement and individual freedom, but he instinctively resists SHIELD's unlimited spying and lack of accountability.

Whether you watch it for the geopolitical commentary, the non-stop action, or Scarlett Johansson's skin-tight outfits, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is good entertainment for any season.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Mean Girls (2004) ***1/2

It's a shame that historical events have turned Tina Fey's “Mean Girls” into a movie most remembered for its sad commentary on the downfall of a child star. It basically marks the last moment when Lindsay Lohan appeared, in the public eye, to still be sweet, pretty, and fresh, and an upcoming talent. Re-watching it now, I can see that she wasn't a Streep-level actress, but she was more than competent enough for a comedy like “Mean Girls,” with potential to spare. Over the last decade, of course, Lohan has devolved into a cautionary tale of drugs and skankiness, but what of “Mean Girls”? How has IT aged? Pretty well, as it turns out. This is still a mostly tightly-woven critique of teenage girl culture.

Cady (Lohan) is the new girl in school. She has trouble fitting in until she is befriended by outsiders Janis (Lizzy Caplan) and Damien (Daniel Franzese). Cady is pretty hot, though, so eventually a group of pretty girls called the Plastics take notice of her. Janis encourages Cady to hang out with the Plastics just to spy on them. Cady is initially reluctant, but she finds herself enjoying being one of the pretty people, and striving for these girls' approval.

Then Cady gets interested in Aaron (Jonathan Bennett), a popular guy, and everything goes to hell. Cady is a good student, but she starts pretending to be dumb to get Aaron's attention. This actually works, and Regina (Rachel McAdams), the leader of the Plastics, gets jealous. Girl drama ensues. Soon these girls are sniping behind each others' backs and turning other friends on each other. The fight snowballs to involve most of the school, and a sensible teacher (Tina Fey) has to stage an intervention.

The film starts to get slightly preachy in that scene, but fortunately, Tina Fey, who also adapted the screenplay, is classy and funny enough to keep it out of Movie-of-the-Week territory. Everything else in “Mean Girls” is spot-on, with a tight plot and excellent acting, especially from Lohan, Caplan, and McAdams. Even though the film pre-dates the widespread use of social media, the sniping that goes on between these girls looks very similar to the bullying you hear about on Facebook and Instagram nowadays. It goes to show that the formats and even cultures change, but basic, human nature remains the same. There are always people like Regina who simply have an instinct for manipulating others, and for selecting whom to include and whom to exclude from the group. Weaker people follow these bullies, largely out of fear of being selected for bullying themselves.

“Mean Girls” is a funny movie, but it was striving to be a little more, to bring some awareness to the messed-up dynamic of bullying and insincerity that teenage girls have to deal with, even as they perpetuate it. Did the movie make a difference? I don't know. Maybe it at least became a part of the lexicon, a touchstone for explaining to girls how not to be. In the meantime, it made us laugh with lines like “He's too gay to function” and “Stop trying to make 'Fetch' happen. It's not going to happen.”

3.5 stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Star Wars Episode Seven: The Force Awakens (2015) ***

Well, the great miracle has arrived. The film that was prophesied is here, the one that will bring balance between the Old trilogy and the New. The new Star Wars movie is a spectacle for both young and old, beyond all criticism or judgment.

I'm a bit late to the party. I waited a bit for the crowds to die down (slightly), and three weeks into it's run, I'm just seeing it, while many of my friends are seeing it for the second or third time. The film seems to be universally beloved, but I have to admit to being underwhelmed.

The latest installment in the series takes place about 3 decades after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” Despite that great victory, in which the Evil Emperor Palpatine was killed and the second Death Star destroyed, the remnants of the Empire persist. The storm troopers now fight for something called the First Order, ruled by a shadowy, Dark-side Supreme Leader and his disciple Kylo Ren. Princess Lea is now a general in the Resistance, split up from Han Solo, who has gone back to his smuggler's ways. Luke Skywalker has disappeared entirely, and the Resistance is desperate to find him and enlist his help against the rising First Order.

The Resistance get some help from a disillusioned storm trooper named Finn and a scrappy desert-girl named Rey. These two find themselves in possession of a droid that contains a map to Luke Skywalker's location. They must not only get the droid to the Resistance, but help find a way to destroy the First Order's new weapon, a planet-sized base that can destroy entire star systems.

The whole thing is so derivative of the original films that it is hard to believe I am not describing the plot of Mel Brooks's “Spaceballs.” I mean, we have a desert-dwelling orphan, looking out over the sands with nameless longing. We have a droid that has to be delivered to the Resistance. Sound familiar? The movie actually acknowledges its retreaded nature in the scene in which the Resistance commander explains that the Starkiller Base is different from the old Death Star in that it is much LARGER. One of the pilots points out, “This thing must have a weakness,” and sure enough, the thing has a weak spot that x-wing fighters can go shoot at. When “The Force Awakens” isn't recycling old plot elements, it is manufacturing ludicrous coincidences to advance to the plot, such as the scene in which Han Solo rediscovers the Millennium Falcon.

None of this is to suggest that there aren't things to love in “The Force Awakens.” I love me some Star Wars, and this one is infinitely better than Episodes I and II (although you have to give those films credit for at least being complex. The Force Awakens, in contrast, is written on a third-grade reading level.) It's a real delight to see Lea and Han again, and Harrison Ford tries to bring some of the old swagger. John Boyega as Finn and Daisy Ridley as Rey are both charming, and Adam Driver is appropriately dark as Kylo Ren. I expect good things of these actors. Finally, the movie is action-packed enough to make most people ignore its flaws.

Maybe I had unrealistic expectations for this film. After years of hype, great reviews, and all those shattered box office records, I though this would be more than just an action film. I was expecting another “The Empire Strikes Back,” but what I got was “Transformers.”

3 stars out of 5