Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Only Living Boy in New York (2017) **1/2

Callum Turner plays Thomas, a young man adrift in New York City, on hiatus from college and stuck in the friend zone with his crush Mimi (Kiersey Clemons). Thomas bounces from art gallery to bookstore to his parent's artsy dinner parties, wasting his intellect dropping aphorisms like, “The most vibrant neighborhood in New York is Philadelphia.” Thomas is sick of being clever and sick of himself, when a fresh wind blows into his life in the form of new neighbor W.F. (Jeff Bridges). W.F. counsels Thomas that to get Mimi,he needs to let life happen, and soon enough, it does.

Thomas discovers that his dad (Pierce Brosnan) is having an affair. Thomas stalks the mistress, Johanna (Kate Beckinsale), and winds up having an affair of his own with her. In its own time, this situation blows up, leading Thomas to discover some deep family secrets and to find his own inspiration.

Will you enjoy “The Only Living Boy in New York”? Well, despite the Simon & Garfunkel song, it's no "The Graduate". It's a serviceable enough coming-of-age tale, but rather forgettable. The excellent cast mostly cover for the limited storytelling and general lack of very much happening. Keep in mind that this is a talky movie about a bunch of New York intellectuals. If you like that sort of thing, and don't feel like re-watching something by Woody Allen or Whit Stillman, then you won't hate yourself for watching this.

Available on Amazon Prime.

2.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Watchmen (2009) ****

I first saw this film a few years ago, and honestly, I had forgotten how good it is. The film takes place in a 1980's where superheroes exist, but they haven't made much difference. They helped America win in Vietnam, but all that did was get Nixon another term. The cold war still rages, worse than ever, and the world edges closer and closer to nuclear war.

Meanwhile, the superheroes, who call themselves “Masks”, have become personae non grata. Outlawed by congress, they live quiet lives, their costumes and gadgets gathering dust. Despite following the rules and laying low, the retired Masks find themselves being hunted. Someone is working their way down a kill list of Masks, someone with access to their secret identities.

Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley), a vigilante who refuses to retire, sets out to find this killer. He enlists Nite Owl (Patrick Wilson) and Silk Spectre II (Malin Akerman), but they can't seem to interest Dr.Manhattan (Billy Crudup), the blue, glowing, godlike superman who can see the future and manipulate time, space, and matter. They also can't get much of a rise out of Ozymandias (Matthew Goode), the lightning-fast super-genius, so the three set off with the resources they have, to track down a killer. In doing so, they discover a massive, worldwide conspiracy that threatens the lives of millions.

“Watchmen” is a cross between a noir film and a comic-book movie, heavy on the noir. The look is dark, filmed at night, preferably in the rain, and the outlook is very noir. The characters have dark pasts, and seem to have dark futures. Dr. Manhattan, for example, can see the past, present, and future, and can manipulate matter at will, but he is losing the ability to connect with other humans. “Watchmen” presents these characters in their full complexity. The Comedian was a heavy-drinking womanizer and misogynist, but he had a certain charm, and the original Silk Spectre, now an alcoholic herself, still carries a torch for him.

In a sense, “Watchmen” is an anti-comic-book movie. The story declares that superheroes may be able to catch a few criminals, but they have no impact on the societal forces that create rampant crime. They can rescue a few individuals here and there, but they aren't able to stop nations from sliding towards nuclear annihilation. The message is that humanity can't wait around for a superhuman savior. We have to solve our problems with the regular humans we have.

4 stars out of 5

Tuesday, November 07, 2017

The Signal (2014) **

There's something about seeing a movie at a film festival. Excitement is high, but expectations are moderated. There's a sense of community among the audience, and everyone is rooting for the filmmaker. This energy makes movies seem better than they really are.

“The Signal” is a case in point. The movie debuted at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and had I seen this low-budget, sci-fi thriller there, I probably would have loved it. The plot holes, cheap gotchas based on spelling and arithmetical gimmicks, and general lack of originality would have been swept away by the thrill of seeing something so beautifully-filmed, not to mention the Question-and Answer session at the end, where the director would have charmed us all. But I didn't see it at Sundance. On HBO, the movie has to stand on its own, and it just barely limps along to a slightly annoying conclusion.

Nic (Brenton Thwaites), Jonah (Beau Knapp), and Haley (Olivia Cooke) are college friends on a road trip, moving Haley cross-country. The big move is putting a strain on Nic and Haley's romantic relationship, as is the unnamed degenerative disease that requires Nic to use crutches. On the trip, they are taunted by a computer hacker who previously hacked them and their school. Nic and Jonah use their own skills to figure out where the hacker, who calls himself Nomad, is logging in from, and they decide to take a detour to track him down and expose his identity. The trail leads to a shack out in the desert, which the guys explore in a scene straight out of “The Blair Witch Project.”

Then all hell breaks loose, and the next thing he knows, Nic is waking up in some sort of hospital facility, where all the staff are wearing hazmat suits. He meets Damon (Laurence Fishburne), apparently some kind of doctor, who reveals that Nic may have come in contact with aliens. Damon won't explain much, and he wants to run all kinds of tests on Nic. Meanwhile, Nic learns that his two friends are also in the facility, and he hatches plans to get them out. The questions of where they are, what happened to them, and whether Damon can be trusted all get answered in time, in sort-of surprising ways.

Writer/director William Eubank more or less succeeds in keeping you glued to the screen, living this disorienting experience through Nic's eyes. The pace of the film is a bit too slow, though, especially given the limited payoff at the end. Eubank could have skipped a lot of the flashbacks to Nic's running days, and really, the story would have been better served up as a 1-hour Black Mirror episode. (Although it still would have been the weakest episode in that series.) As long as the film feels (it's actually only 1h 37m), there are still major plot points that are poorly explained. Meanwhile, the explanations that are finally delivered tend to be lame and/or derivative. The acting is a strong point, both from the young stars and from Laurence Fishburne, who lends the film an air of gravitas, and they all do the best they can with the script they are given. Overall, “The Signal” doesn't look bad for a $4 million independent film, but it serves less as a fully-realized film and more as a demo tape from a promising, young writer/director who still needs to iron out some wrinkles in his craft.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Al Final del Tunel (At the End of the Tunnel, 2016, Spanish) **1/2

Joaquin is a physically and emotionally crippled computer expert, mourning his dead family and living alone in a house that he is unable to afford. To stave off foreclosure, he rents out a room to a hot, single mom. Berta (Clara Lago) and her daughter Betty upset Joaquin's quiet life, an invasion he initially resents but eventually accepts, as he and his aged dog come to like the newcomers.

Meanwhile, something is going on downstairs, in the adjoining building. Joaquin hears strange conversations through his basement wall, sometimes mentioning him. He discovers a criminal gang burrowing a tunnel under his house to the bank on the other side. Using his electronics skills, the wheelchair-bound Joaquin learns the gang's plan and hatches his own scheme to get the money for himself.

Argentinean writer/director Rodrigo Grande has created a tense, claustrophobic thriller that is full of plot holes. The character's actions make little sense, and Clara Lago is too much a poor-man's version of a dark, Spanish movie star to be really compelling. Fortunately, the two male leads, Leonardo Sbaraglia as Joaquin and Pablo Echarri as the gang-leader, carry the movie. Federico Luppi also makes a sinisterly convincing appearance as a shady policeman. Grande does a good job putting you in Joaquin's place as he overcomes his paraplegia to pull off his scheme, and the scenes in the tunnel are cool. Unfortunately, the plot falls victim to lazy writing, and no amount of good acting or cinematography can overcome that.

2.5 stars out of 5

Monday, September 04, 2017

Sing Street (2016) ***1/2

More than any working filmmaker I know of, writer/director John Carney makes films that are love letters to music, and specifically songwriting. In “Once”, “Begin Again”, and now “Sing Street”, Carney lets us in on the process as his characters write and perform original songs. The results can be a little uneven in terms of storytelling, but absolutely enjoyable musically.

In “Sing Street”, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo plays Conor, a disaffected, Irish schoolboy who plays music to distract himself from his parents' constant bickering. With the crappy 1980's Irish economy, the family has to tighten its belt, so Conor has to switch to a cheaper school. Fitting in at the new, more working-class school is tough. Plus, there's a girl Conor would like to impress, so he does the only logical thing: he forms a band.

Conor and his band of misfits are a bit rough around the edges, but they possess a young, punk energy and Conor's talent for songwriting. Armed with some good advice from Conor's older brother, Brendan (Jack Reynor) (“You don't need to know how to play. Who are you, Steely Dan?”), they set to work making music videos, which is the perfect excuse for Conor to get to know Raphina (Lucy Boynton). Every music video needs a pretty girl, and Raphina is a stone fox. She's also a complicated girl. Conor works on wooing her as he and the band work their way through a variety of 80's musical and sartorial styles, trying on everything from Duran Duran to The Cure.

As his filmmaking career has progressed, John Carney has taken a greater hand in writing the songs for his films. The songs in “Once” were written by his stars, Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, whom you may remember won an Oscar. In “Begin Again,” Carney himself gets a couple of co-writing credits, and for “Sing Street” Carney contributed to almost all of the original tunes. They are surprisingly good songs for what is essentially '80s pastiche.

Unless you are a 15-year-old boy trying to decide whether or not to start a band (Do it!), “Sing Street” isn't going to change your life. Little effort is wasted on a believable plot or on character development. The point of this film is the music, and between the original songs and the '80s classics, it is guaranteed to make you feel good.

3.5 stars out of 5

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Adaptation. (2002) *****

Some books are easier than others to adapt to the screen. Susan Orlean's “The Orchid Thief” is a sprawling, ruminative meditation on life, flowers, and a Florida horticulturist named John Laroche. Laroche is a toothless plant-poacher with an endless willingness to expound on his philosophy of life. He's a great interview subject for a New Yorker journalist like Orlean, and he's the kind of singular character who belongs in a movie. If Laroche is movie-ready, however, Orlean's book is not. A genius was needed to mold “The Orchid Thief” into a screenplay, so the movie studio turned to the genius behind “Being John Malkovich,” screenwriter Charlie Kaufman.

As the story goes, even Kaufman developed writer's block in the face of “The Orchid Thief.” Out of ideas, he finally decided to write a movie about his own writer's block. “Adaptation.” is the story of fat, balding screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage), a guy so awkward that he can't even use his status as a working screenwriter to hit on a waitress. In Hollywood! This is a guy who could fall into a barrel of tits and come out sucking his own thumb! Kaufman, stuck in his own head, awkwardly lurks on the set of “Being John Malkovich” while struggling to come up with a way to faithfully adapt “The Orchid Thief”. Meanwhile, his (fictional) twin brother, Donald (also Cage), successfully loafs through life, sleeping in Charlie's spare room, hitting on makeup girls, and annoying Charlie by embarking on his own screenwriting project.

Charlie becomes enamored of orchids and develops a crush on Susan Orlean, but his screenplay is still nothing more than the tale of a New York reporter interviewing an eccentric horticulturist. He needs something exciting, some kind of story arc, some kind of drama, but there's nothing in the book that provides that. Then Charlie and Donnie start to suspect that there is something Orlean isn't telling us, that she discovered more than a story idea down in Florida. They set out to find out what she is hiding, and the story takes a wild turn.

At one point, Kaufman describes himself as a snake swallowing its own tale, and that's exactly what his narrative does for a while. The on-screen Kaufman starts to write his own writer's block into his script, then he writes about himself writing his writer's block into the script. The decision to investigate Orlean is what breaks Charlie out of this dead-end cycle, and astute viewers will recognize this as the point where Charlie gives up on being faithful to the book and begins to employ serious artistic license.

Charlie gets an assist from a screenwriting seminar by Robert McKee (played brilliantly by Brian Cox). The real-life McKee is a creative-writing professor and author of the unofficial “screenwriter's bible.” The on-screen McKee tells Charlie, “The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you've got a hit.” By the time Charlie is done, a story that wasn't supposed to have sex, guns, car chases, or characters “learning profound life lessons or growing or coming to like each other or overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end” winds up having all of those things.

Directed by Spike Jones, “Adaptation.” is meta, funny, sexy, and mind-blowingly brilliant. And it wows us in the end.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, August 06, 2017

Passengers (2016) ***1/2

An interstellar vessel hurtles through space, full of hibernating colonists and crew, on a 120-year journey to a new planet. An unexpected asteroid field puts a strain on the ship's shields, causing one of the sleep pods to malfunction and wake up its passenger, Jim (Chris Pratt). Imagine Jim's growing horror as he discovers that 1) He is the only person awake on the ship. 2) They are still 90 years from their destination. and 3) There is no way for him to go back into hibernation. Jim goes through all the stages of despair as he exhausts every possible way to reactivate his sleep pod, get a message to earth, or break into the secure crew quarters to wake one of them up.

After a year of this frustration and solitude, Jim is bearded and depressed. Only two things keep him going. One is the robot bartender, Arthur, who can not only converse, but dispense bartenderly advice. The other is his growing infatuation with a sleeping fellow passenger (Jennifer Lawrence), a writer named Aurora Lane (I know, it's a stripper name. Just go with it.). Jim agonizes over what to do about Aurora. He can't reactivate a sleep pod, but he has figured out how to wake someone up from one. He could wake Aurora up and have a companion, but then he would have damned her to live out her life in deep space, missing out, like him, on the colony they are all destined for. Spoiler alert: He does it, and then has to live with the guilt. On top of that, there's a problem with the ship.

“Passengers” is beautifully filmed, with impressive space imagery, but at its core, it isn't science fiction. Jim's ethical dilemma is the beating heart of the story. Essentially trapped on a desert island, he has the opportunity to have someone join him on the island, but then, of course, she will be trapped there, too. How much solitude could you endure before you gave in to that temptation?

In the end, Jim and Aurora face the same existential questions we all do. We all at some point have to make the best of a situation that isn't what we wanted. When our dreams are utterly out of reach, how do we find a new dream? How do we forgive those who wrong us, and how do we forgive ourselves?

Considering the weight of the questions it deals with, “Passengers” doesn't have quite as much gravity as it should. You could rightfully accuse the plot of being a bit predictable, and wrapped up too neatly and too quickly. There's a lot of food for thought, but you have to cook most of it yourself, as the end of the film feels hurried. Still, this is a decent story with charming actors. Most of the reviews I have read on it were negative, but I think it's well worth a watch.

3.5 stars out of 5

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Performance (1970) ***

“Performance” is ostensibly a crime drama, but what it is really about is sexual identity, or just identity in general. James Fox plays Chas, a British gangster who spends his days brutally intimidating people. He enjoys his work, perhaps too much. When he pushes the wrong guy's buttons, he winds up having to kill him, which puts Chas in trouble with his boss. On the run from the London underworld, Chas dyes his hair and rents a basement room in what turns out to be the home of a faded rock star named Turner (Mick Jagger). Turner lives there with his girlfriend Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and the androgynous Lucy (Michele Breton).

Turner and Chas don't hit it off at first. Chas describes his new housemates as “long-hairs, beatniks, druggers.” Still, Chas can't help but be attracted to the ladies in the house, and he becomes fascinated, as well, with Turner's artistic energy. As he dallies with them, Chas starts to open his mind to his own artistic, and feminine, side.

This is definitely one for when you're in the mood for some art-house fare. The camera work is shaky, the acting is iffy, and the plot is really just a weak excuse to get to the orgies, gender-bending, and naked Anita Pallenberg. Still, “Performance” has a certain artistic spirit that can't be denied. James Fox is like a British Steve McQueen, tough and iconically masculine, which makes it rather trippy to watch Anita Pallenberg get him to dress like a girl. The chemistry between Chas and Turner is also interesting. The thrill that Chas gets from violence is not unlike Turner's artistic drive. These two complete opposites recognize a kindred spirit within each other.

As interesting as the movie itself is the controversy surrounding it. The rumor is that Mick Jagger and Anita Pallenberg had actual intercourse during the sex scenes. That wouldn't be all that scandalous except for the fact that Pallenberg was Keith Richard's girlfriend at the time. Meanwhile, the movie studio thought they were bankrolling a Rolling Stones version of one of those happy-go-lucky Beatles movies. Instead they got this weird, psychedelic experiment that was banned in many venues. It seems you can't always get what you want.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Chinatown (1974) *****

Born of the marriage of German Expressionism and American, hardboiled detective fiction, film noir is a genre that keeps coming back around. The 1940's and '50s are considered the classic noir era, but directors to the modern day have continued to make starkly-lit, cynical movies about complicated men in suits who get sucked into the darkness of greed, corruption, and betrayal. Among the greatest of these is Roman Polanksi's “Chinatown.” 

 Filmed in 1974, in an America wracked by self-doubt, the movie is set in the hot, L.A. Summer of 1937, during a drought. The city of L.A. is fighting with rural farmers over every drop of precious water. During what starts as a standard cheating-spouse investigation, private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) discovers that someone is secretly dumping fresh water into the ocean. The cocky Gittes soon finds himself in over his head in a story with all the classic noir elements: a murder investigation, a scheming millionaire, an irritable police force, and, of course, a femme fatale (Faye Dunaway).

“Chinatown” could easily have been simply an homage to noir movies, but the perfection of its execution elevates it to a noir classic in its own right. Polanski's direction is spare and taut. The plot is complicated, but if you pay attention, it makes sense. Jack Nicholson appears in every scene at his charismatic best.

“Chinatown” is about many things, not least of which is the impossibility of being a good man in a system that makes it impossible to do good. As the story unfolds, we learn that Jake used to be a police officer, working in Chinatown. He found it to be a place where no one was interested in solving crimes, just in lining their own pockets and keeping things quiet. When he tried to do one good thing in the midst of all that, he failed, so he left the force to become a private eye. Now, Jake once again finds himself in a position to do something good, if only he can.

If you haven't seen “Chinatown,” it's really imperative that you check it out. The movie stands as one of the greats, alongside films like "The Third Man" and "The Long Goodbye". It holds up well to repeat viewings, and the nihilistic, final line, “Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown.” will haunt you forever.

5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Entonces Nosotros (2016, English title "About Us") ***1/2

We took a chance on this movie knowing absolutely nothing about it. The risk paid off! This turned out to be a really charming, little Costa Rican romantic dramedy. It turns out it was Costa Rica's submission for the 2017 Academy Awards.

Sofia (Argentinean actress Noelia Castano) and Diego (played by the writer/director, Hernan Jimenez) are a couple in a 3-year relationship that has turned rocky. Diego, in particular can't get over the fact that Sofia hooked up with another guy during a period when they were on a break. He suggests a beach vacation where they can get away from all their old issues and reconnect. At the beach,however, they run into Malena (Marina Glezer), an old friend of Sofia's. The gorgeous Malena insinuates herself into their vacation and threatens to ruin everything, including Diego's plans to propose.

That's all there is to it. No one has superpowers or gets blown up. It's just a good, basic story about complicated love. The scenery is beautiful, as are the women. All three actors are excellent, especially Noelia Castana, who can speak volumes with a subtle change in facial expression. Jimenez, who is a professed fan of Woody Allen's work, put a lot of heart into the $400,000 film. The humor often induces more cringes than belly laughs, but it's enough to mellow the emotional honesty of the story. It might be a little TOO honest to be a good movie for a first date, but it's a great choice for a 100th date.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) *** --Spoilers!--

The struggle is over. Wonder Woman has finally made it to the big screen! Gal Gadot plays Diana, daughter of Zeus, raised by the Amazons to fight Ares, the god of War. Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) teaches her history, while her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) teaches her to fight. Living on the magically-protected, man-free island of Themyscira, the Amazons assume that the defeated Ares is still off on his millenia of exile. When Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane through their magical barrier, they learn that Ares has risen again, in the form of WWI (“the war to end all wars,” LOL!) Diana leaves Themyscira with Steve, hoping to find and destroy Ares, thus putting an end to war and suffering.

I'm not really sure what to think about “Wonder Woman.” On the one hand, we are supposed to celebrate the gender-victory of the film's having been made at all. The studios have been very reluctant to invest in a comic-book movie with a female lead, especially after the failures of films like “Catwoman” and “Elektra.” Then there's the star, former Miss Israel, Gal Godot, who is so ridiculously good-looking that I would watch a film of her reading the phone book. Seeing her make things blow up while wearing go-go boots and a Wonder-Woman micro-skirt is probably worth the ticket price right there.

On the other hand, I can't look at Gadot without thinking that she has probably had a nose job, and maybe that sort of sums up my feelings about the movie. There's an inorganic feel to it. The plot and casting have clearly been carefully calibrated to draw in the largest audience possible. After all, Warner Bros. and DC Comics are counting on Wonder Woman and the larger Justice League universe to become a multi-billion dollar juggernaut to rival the Avengers franchise. They aren't going to risk a billion here or there to make a character or a movie more nuanced or complex.

Thus, “Wonder Woman” nips at the heels of some complex and controversial topics, but it never sinks its teeth into anything. We hear Steve's secretary (Lucy Davis, from the British “The Office”) mention women getting the vote, but then that's the last we hear of it. We hear a couple of characters of color briefly mention racial injustice, but ironically, their small, undeveloped roles represent the only people of color in the film.

The greatest missed opportunity in “Wonder Woman,” however, strikes at the very heart of the story. Diana sets out to defeat Ares, whom she has been taught is responsible for all war and evil. If he is defeated, she believes, mankind will return to its original, Edenic state. As she walks the earth learning of the evil that men do, she continues to blame it all on Ares. Steve tries to explain to her that things aren't as simple as “good” human nature and “evil” influence from some dark god, that every person carries within them the potential for kindness or for savagery. Even War and Peace are concepts that should not be oversimplified. As terrible and destructive as War is, it is also sometimes the lesser of two evils. Then, too, as the villainous General Ludendorrf explains, war gives man purpose. Meaning. A chance to rise above his petty mortal little self and be courageous, noble, better.

“Wonder Woman” could have skipped the numbing boss-battle at the end and instead explored these themes more deeply. Ares would have been more effective if he had remained a disembodied force, encouraging mankind's warlike tendencies, but ultimately more a manifestation than a cause. When Diana defeats General Ludendorrf, then is bewildered to see battle preparations continue, that is a great lesson for her character. It's a lesson that is undermined when she winds up engaging in fisticuffs with the actual Ares, a fight that we in the audience should know is pointless. WWI was not, as we know, the war to end all wars.

Superhero stories have done well in the last decade or so, and well they should. On the surface, they appeal to the fantasy of transcending human limitations. On a deeper level, the characters have tremendous allegorical potential. Part human, part superhuman, these characters are able to be archetypes in the same way that the mythological gods once were. The stories we tell about them help us learn about and define who we are. “Captain America” is the definition of patriotic, but he has concerns about massive government surveillance and control. Ironman Tony Stark is a brilliant billionaire who constantly struggles with the question, “Should I build powerful weapons to fight evil, at the risk that those weapons may someday be turned to evil ends?” These modern gods are all about contradictions, just as we humans are. For Diana's part, she wants to end all fighting, but she is, herself, a weapon, made to fight.

Unfortunately, Warner Bros didn't make “Wonder Woman” to explore these contradictions; they made it to make money. There is a better movie hiding in there somewhere, but fortunately it's still decent, blockbuster entertainment, if you can ignore the limited range of the actors, the mustache-twirly villains, the sometimes-sketchy CGI, and that tacked-on ending. I do recommend you watch it; just turn off your brain and enjoy your popcorn.

3 stars out of 5  

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Don't Breathe (2016) ***1/2

I feel like there has been a crop of high-quality horror films in recent years. Maybe I'm just finally giving the genre a chance. This past year I have caught up on "It Follows," "Green Room,"  "Cloverfield" and "10 Cloverfield Lane," as well as the more recent "Get Out", all outstanding movies. Next up was “Don't Breathe,” by Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez. Alvarez's rise as a director is classic. In 2009, for about $300, he made a short, action film called “Panic Attack.” The film caught the attention of Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead”), who knows a little something about making high-octane horror films on a low budget. Raimi tapped Alvarez to direct his “Evil Dead” remake; the guy knocked it out of the park; and now Alvarez gets to write and direct his own projects.

The first of these projects is “Don't Breathe,” about a group of thieves who break into the wrong house. Rocky (Jane Levy) and her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), are a couple of Detroiters with no money or job prospects. What they do have is their friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose dad works for a private security firm. Alex is able to get access to alarm codes and house keys, which the trio use to commit small burglaries. They keep the crimes small at Alex's insistence, to limit police interest in them. Then Money gets a tip about a blind war veteran who may have a ton of cash in his house. The kids figure this is an easy way to make a score big enough to start new lives.

As you can guess, it isn't so easy. The blind vet turn out to be a badass, who knows his house like the back of his hand. In the dark, he is the one with the advantage, and it leads to a very rough night for Alex, Money, and Rocky.

You wouldn't think the story would work. To enjoy a horror movie, you need to identify with the terrorized characters, and who wants to identify with people who would rob a blind guy? It turns out, the movie takes time to develop the characters of Rocky and Alex enough that you actually sympathize with them a bit. Then they discover the blind guy's secret, which really turns the tables on the question of whom to root for.

“Don't Breathe” doesn't break new ground or subvert any of the classic horror tropes. The scares are of a type that we have seen before: The bad guy keeps coming back to life. There's a damsel in distress. You know the drill. Fortunately, thanks to very tight directing and charming performances, especially from Dylan Minnette and Jane Levy, “Don't Breathe” is a thoroughly enjoyable, scary good time.

3.5 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Suicide Squad (2016) *

Margot Robbie is distractingly pretty, which is a good thing for “Suicide Squad.” She helps to distract, just a little, from the lame plot, brain-dead dialogue, and otherwise crappy acting in this rush-job film about D-list comic book anti-heroes.

Robbie plays Harley Quinn, the mentally ill former psychiatrist who is the Joker's gangster moll. She gets recruited, along with a handful of other bad guys, to form a super-squad, a-la “The Dirty Dozen.” Other members of the team include Deadshot (a sharpshooting assassin played by Will Smith), Killer Croc, Diablo, and the Enchantress (an ancient witch-spirit inhabiting the body of model Cara Delevingne). This takes place after the death of Superman, and the U.S. government is nervous about not having their super-soldier anymore. Nervous enough to sign off on Agent Amanda Waller's (Viola Davis) plan to reform this group of super-villains and get them to fight for truth, justice, and the American way.

Before Waller can even assemble the team and put them to work against an outside threat, one of their own provides a crisis. The Enchantress breaks free of Waller's tenuous control and sets to work destroying Midway City. Rather than giving Waller and the government second thoughts about Suicide Squad, this disaster provides the impetus for Waller to spring her other pet villains from prison and send them on their first assignment. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Joker (Jared Leto) is working to get his girlfriend, Harley Quinn, back.

I find it remarkable that “Suicide Squad” is written and directed by David Ayer. Ayer wrote the screenplay for 2001's “Training Day,” which is an excellent, tightly-plotted film. “Suicide Squad” is a complete mess. The film rushes through the origin stories for these villains, then becomes completely incoherent about basic things like the passage of time, the order of events, and basic character motivations. When some character development is belatedly attempted, it fizzles. Most of the actors, including Jared Leto, wander through the film like they are on sedatives. Will Smith and Margot Robbie make an honest attempt to give some life to their characters, but the script gives them little to work with, and Robbie's on-again-off-again Jersey accent is almost as distracting as her beauty.

To the extent that you can extract any theme from this incoherent plot, it is that the whole idea behind the film is ill-advised. Agent Waller should have known she wouldn't be able to maintain control of the Enchantress, who can travel through space and time in an instant. Unsurprisingly, she has minimal control over the other squad psychopaths as well. Suicide Squad is a bad idea for fighting evil, just as watching “Suicide Squad” is a bad idea for being entertained.

1 star out of 5

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Handmaiden (2016) ****

Park Chan-wook's “The Handmaiden” represents a Korean re-telling of Sarah Waters' “Fingersmith,” an erotic, lesbian tale of crime and romance. Full of intrigue and surprisingly graphic sex scenes, the film represents that rare genre: a truly erotic movie that actually has a good story.

Tae-ri Kim plays Sook-Hee, a Korean pickpocket who gets a chance to move up in the world of crime. Con-artist Count Fujiwara recruits her to become a handmaiden to the rich, beautiful Lady Hideko (Min-hee Kim). The plan is for Sook-Hee to spy on Hideko and help the fake Count seduce her. He will marry her for her fortune, then have her placed in an insane asylum. Sook-Hee is happy to go along for a share of the spoils, and Hideko should be easy enough to lure away from her cruel uncle, who makes her read rare, erotic books out loud to a kinky cadre of wealthy book collectors. Complications arise, however, when Sook-Hee and Hideko fall in love.

Sarah Waters is known for her erotic stories about women, such as “Tipping the Velvet.” In “The Handmaiden,” she tells a tale of two women who decide to do an end-run around a system where they are at the mercy of cruel men. The Count uses Sook-Hee to try to cheat Hideko out of her fortune and her freedom. Hideko's Uncle uses her to titillate the old men who bid on his books. These two women look around and see a world of men, who will use them up, then toss them away. So they turn to each other.

“The Handmaiden” is listed as “Unrated” in the U.S., and it has several beautiful, intense sex scenes that would probably earn it an NC-17 rating. The film deserves more, however, than to be known only for its titillation factor. This is a beautifully filmed, beautifully acted grifter's tale, full of intrigue and double-crosses that will keep surprising you all the way to the satisfying end.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Coraline (2009) *****

“Coraline” is, to put it bluntly, one of the best animated movies, ever. Child or adult, you owe it to yourself to check out this gem. Based on the novella by Neil Gaiman, it is the story of a tween girl whose family moves to a big, old house. The place is so large that she and her parents only rent one floor. The other levels are occupied by a bizarre menagerie of characters, including a pair of old Vaudeville performers and a gymnast who trains mice. Then there are a stray cat and Wybie, an annoying boy who rides a motorbike.

Exploring her new home, Coraline finds a tiny door. When she finally gets it open, she is disappointed to find nothing but bricks behind it. Late one night, though, Coraline revisits the door, finding that it opens to a tunnel. On the other side she finds an alternate reality, one where her mother and father are much more entertaining and obliging, where everything is more enchanting. She soon discovers a dark side to this dreamworld, however, and it takes all of her wits to save herself, her real parents, and her real life.

“Coraline” works as both a straight, fantasy-horror story and as a metaphor for coming-of-age. Coraline's boredom and her dissatisfaction with her busy parents will be familiar to any tween or teen. The dark lure of a more exciting world without parents is a potent theme for a horror story aimed at a tween audience, but “Coraline” can be enjoyed by all ages. It is as close to a perfect movie as you will find.

It should come as no surprise that “Coraline” is so delightful. Besides originating with author Neil Gaiman (“The Sandman”, “American Gods”), the film is directed by Henry Selick, who is best known for the stunning “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Like “Nightmare,” “Coraline” is filmed using stop-motion animation. I don't want to be one of these crusty, old Luddites carrying on about how the old animation styles are better than the new CGI stuff. There are some outstanding CGI-animated films out there, including the “Toy Story” and “Monsters, Inc.” films. Nonetheless, there is something lush about the imagery in “Coraline.”

Beautiful animation, a rich story, and inspired voice acting from the likes of Dakota Fanning, Terry Hatcher, and Keith David (stealing every scene as The Cat). What's not to love?! Along with “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” “Coraline” stands as one of the great animated films.

5 stars out of 5

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Get the Gringo (AKA “How I Spent My Summer Vacation”) (2012) ***

There once was a time when Mel Gibson was a Golden Boy: young, handsome, faithfully married with a large family, and the apotheosis of conservative values in an otherwise Liberal Hollywood landscape. He was the guy Hollywood could point to and say, “Look. We aren't all a bunch of degenerates.”

It's been a long time since those days. Gibson is now the guy infamous for an anti-Semitic rant during his drunk-driving arrest. He cheated on his wife, fathering an illegitimate child, and is now divorced. He isn't young and beautiful anymore, either. Now his face is craggy and world-weary. Now he's another degenerate.

He's also a better actor now. As I discussed in the entry for the movie "Payback Straight Up: The Director's Cut", Gibson's tarnished status has freed him to take roles and do things that he couldn't do as a Golden Boy. Like play a true, gritty criminal.

In “Get the Gringo,” Gibson plays an unnamed criminal who steals from other crooks and lands  in a very gritty, Mexican prison called”El Pueblito.” The prison is truly a little town, where inmates' families are allowed to come and go, bringing them all sorts of contraband. Some prisoners are even allowed furloughs, including the drug-lord, Javi, who rules “El Pueblito.” Gibson's character has to use all of his skills to survive in this world, while figuring out how to escape and get his money back.

“Get the Gringo” isn't by any means a classic, but it's a decent-enough crime-thriller. The movie gets its story told in about 90 minutes, which is way more efficient than most films today. The scenes are taut and terse, and the film doesn't waste much energy on sentimentality. Gibson's character is a hard guy with a decent side, but the film doesn't beat us over the head with that; they just let him do his thing. The movie went straight to video-on-demand here in the U.S., but it is tighter and more entertaining than most of the films that get cinematic releases.

3 stars out of 5

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Dodgeball (A True Underdog Story) 2004 ***1.2

Looking for a hilarious movie that won't change your life, but might make your night? “Dodgeball” could be your medicine. The movie features a rogue's-list of comedy stars and character actors from the 20-oughts, including stars from comedy classics like “Office Space,” “Zoolander,” and “Arrested Development.”

Vince Vaughn plays Peter, the like-able, easygoing owner of “Average Joe's”, a struggling gym. He can't bring himself to demand payment from his members, so it shouldn't come as a surprise when the bank shows up to foreclose on the place. Fortunately for Peter, the bank's representative is the impossibly-cute Kate (Christine Taylor). Kate is actually sympathetic to Peter's plight but can only do so much to help Peter. The bank has a ready buyer for the property, White Goodman (Ben Stiller), the intense, mullet-sporting owner of a competing gym. Facing the loss of their beloved gym, Peter and his friends enter a dodgeball tournament with a $50,000 prize, just enough to pay Peter's delinquent debts.

“Dodgeball” has an absolute blast with its “Bad News Bears” premise, with a combination of clever writing and a stellar cast. Supporting players include Rip Torn, as a crusty old dodgeball coach, Alan Tudyk (who played Wash on “Firefly”), and Stephen Root (an amazing chameleon of an actor who played Milton in 1999's “Office Space”). Vince Vaughn and Christine Taylor basically play straight-men ably enough, but it is Ben Stiller who really makes the movie. He fully commits to his goofy, mulleted character to hilarious effect.

“Dodgeball” doesn't break any new ground in comedy or explore anything deep. It just has a great time and invites you to do the same.

3.5 stars out of 5

Friday, March 31, 2017

Night of the Comet (1984) ***

On a balmy, 1980's night in L.A., crowds gather to watch the sky as earth passes through the tail of a comet. They are expecting a spectacular meteor shower, but get more than they bargained for. Everyone watching gets turned into dust. Those who are only partially exposed become zombies. Only people who were completely shielded by metal are saved. This includes Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), her sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney), and a few others, who must now navigate this (almost) empty world.

1984's “Night of the Comet” is a sci-fi-ish cult classic along the lines of “Repo Man” and “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension,” and it succeeds for the same reasons those films succeed. It doesn't take itself too seriously and spend a lot of time trying to make its wacky premise make sense. On the other hand, this isn't some self-aware parody, constantly winking at the audience to let us know that it is in on the joke. “Night of the Comet” is a B-movie that worked hard for its “B” and is proud of it. It isn't trying to be an “A” movie, but it doesn't try to make fun of the B-movie genre either. It just puts its half-baked, low-budget story out there and says, “This is the best we could do on $700,000.”

It turns out, their best is not all that bad. The film is shot quite beautifully, with colorful shots of the sky against L.A. skyscrapers, and expansive shots of the empty cityscape. (They shot many of these scenes on Christmas Day, when downtown L.A. was relatively empty.) The acting is nothing to write home about, but then the script doesn't really demand much of these actors. They run here, they get shot at there, they show a little leg in this scene here, and everyone goes home happy.

3 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005) **

There's no reason that “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” shouldn't be a perfectly delightful noir comedy, with stars like Val Kilmer and Robert Downey, Jr. Unfortunately, all that talent is wasted on a tale that doesn't really amount to much.

Downey plays Harry, a small-time thief who stumbles into an acting opportunity. He is whisked out to L.A. to rub elbows with pretty people, and there he stumbles into a murder mystery, or a pair of murder mysteries, to be precise. The first involves the daughter of a famous actor ( Corbin Bernsen). The second involves the sister of his old, schoolboy crush (Michelle Monaghan) from Indiana, whom Harry randomly runs into at one of those L.A. parties. Helping Harry sort through all these corpses is Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), a private-eye/tough-guy-for-hire, who guessed it, gay. For some reason this is supposed to be hilarious. “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” is full of more gay jokes than a junior high locker room. Maybe this sort of thing was funnier in 2005.

Even with the dated gay jokes, this movie should be a good time. Kilmer and Downey are both witty as hell, and play well off each other. Michelle Monaghan is pretty as can be (although it's the typical Hollywood bullshit to cast a woman 11 years younger than Robert Downey, Jr. as his high school classmate.) The story just never earned my interest, however, and at the end of the second act, I seriously considered just popping the DVD out of the player and going to bed. It's sad when you've watched more than half of a movie, and don't really care about how it ends. I did stick around for the ending, though, and it wasn't worth it.

“Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” expends tremendous effort being clever, and no effort on an interesting plot, or building characters we can care about. It tries to be a winking parody of noir cinema, with its Raymond Chandler references and pulp fiction plot, but I think it's mostly a mess. If you want a more genuine homage to the noir genre, check out another film from 2005, Rian Johnson's "Brick" or the outstanding 1973 Chandler adaptation, "The Long Goodbye".

2 stars out of 5

Friday, March 10, 2017

Cloverfield (2008) ***1/2 and 10 Cloverfield Lane *****

It helps to know that “10 Cloverfield Lane” is not a sequel to “Cloverfield,” nor are the two movies directly related or even similar other than both being produced by J.J.Abrams. The word Cloverfield, in fact, has nothing to do with either movie. It's the name of a street where Abrams used to work, and the name is simply a brand, like “The Twilight Zone.” Based on these two films, I'd say it's a brand worth watching.

2008's “Cloverfield” is a found-footage movie about a monster attacking New York City. The conceit is that you are viewing a videotape found in some rubble. The footage is captured by a group of friends who are celebrating at a party when the attack hits. In the midst of the devastation, four of them (including Lizy Caplan and TJ Miller) have to make their way across Manhattan to rescue a friend. Director Matt Reeves does a pretty good job with the found-footage approach, if you can ignore the fact that TJ Miller's character is supposedly filming everything while running for his life. The monster is really cool-looking, and the film teases us with only brief, partial glimpses of it for quite a while. This is a pretty tightly-wound action movie that will keep you on the edge of your seat. It's well worth 3.5 stars out of 5.

“10 Cloverfield Lane” is something completely different, a claustrophobic, psychological potboiler with a cast of only three. Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays Michelle, a girl leaving her boyfriend in south Louisiana. As she hits the open road, she gets in a crash and wakes up in a concrete room, wearing a knee brace that is chained to the wall. She is terrified, of course, and when she meets her rescuer/captor?, Howard (John Goodman), she is not reassured by his bizarre manner. Howard is gruff and paranoid, and he eventually explains to Michelle that she is in his bomb shelter, hiding out from some sort of chemical or biological attack aboveground. The tension in the little shelter builds, as Michelle tries to figure out if Howard is a psychotic monster, or if his story of an attack is true, which of course, is even more horrifying.

This movie can best be described as “tight.” The performances, the visuals, the pacing, everything is perfectly calibrated to create dread and keep you guessing. This is one to get on DVD in case you're ever stuck on a desert island, or in a bomb shelter. 5 stars out of 5!

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Get Out (2017) ****

I want to be careful not to tell you too much about the plot of “Get Out.” The surprises in the film are too juicy to ruin them for you.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are a young, mixed-race couple in love. They embark on a weekend trip for Chris to meet Rose's parents for the first time. The parents don't know, yet, that Chris is black, but not to worry, Rose says. “My dad would have voted for Obama for a third term.” Sure enough, Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy (Catherine Keener) Armitage fall all over themselves to show Chris how accepting they are, calling him “My man!” and referencing the story of Jesse Owens. It's mostly the usual awkwardness that occurs between well-meaning members of different races, and Chris is pleasantly resigned to it. Still, things seem a little strange at the Armitage estate. The only two black people there, the maid and the groundskeeper, are absolutely bizarre in their smiling, mannequin-like politeness. Then a bunch of family friends show up for a yearly get-together, and things start to get really bizarre.

And scary. “Get Out” establishes early on that it will be delivering some frights. Writer/director Jordan Peele maintains a constant level of creepy dread, punctuated by the occasional well-timed startle. The movie also delivers a healthy dose of laughs. Kaluuya is the perfect straight man, but his friend Rod (LilRel Howery) provides tear-inducing comic relief. Bradley Whitford is also quite funny as a white liberal straining to show how open-minded he is.

“Get Out” enjoys quite a few laughs at the inappropriate things that come out of the mouths of even well-intentioned people. The jokes are perhaps a bit too on-the-nose at times, and I think it's fair to say that white people come off pretty poorly in the film. In this day and age, racial comedy has pretty much been done to death, and Peale could be accused of some laziness in this aspect of the film. Technically, however, “Get Out” is superb, beautifully filmed and perfectly paced to keep you on the edge of your seat. It's just scary enough to be a true horror film, but funny enough that even non-horror-fans will love it.

4 stars out of 5

Monday, February 27, 2017

Green Room (2015) ****

If you thought Oregon was just hippies and homebrewers, think again. The Pacific Northwest has a thriving White Supremacist scene. “Green Room” is a smart, backwoods horror flick about a punk band that runs afoul of some of these Neo-Nazis.

Living desperately from gig to gig, siphoning gas to keep their van going, and sleeping wherever they can, the punk band, the Ain't Rights, can't really afford to say no to a paying gig. They are leery of an offer to play a rural,White Supremacist venue, but they are assured they will be out before dark, and skinheads are really nothing new to a punk band, anyway. When a member of the band witnesses a murder, however, things get complicated. The Ain't Rights find themselves hostage, locked in a dressing room. While the skinheads, led by a chilling Patrick Stewart, figure out what to do with them, the band try to figure out an escape, assisted by the dead girl's friend (Imogen Poots).

“Green Room” earns a hard-R rating for the kind of violence that will give you nightmares. It isn't just the gore that will get your heart rate up, the constant menace is terrifying. Don't expect everyone to make it out alive or un-mangled. For those willing to deal with some serious horror, however, you are in for a treat. This is a smart, thrilling horror flick, beautifully filmed, with excellent performances. Patrick Stewart is terrifyingly convincing as the head neo-Nazi, and not just because of his shaved head. Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov on the new Star Trek movies and died this past year, is outstanding.

By definition, characters in horror movies make bad decisions. The difference between good and bad horror is whether those bad decisions are character-driven or plot-driven. Character-driven decisions are made by characters who have been developed so that their mistakes make sense for that character and that situation. Plot-driven decisions, the product of lazy storytelling, are frustratingly nonsensical, and only occur because the progression of the plot demands them. In “Green Room,” the characters do some stupid things, but they are the kind of stupid things young,inexperienced people might do. Their bad decisions are character-driven, and that's what elevates this film above its genre.

4 stars out of 5

Sunday, February 05, 2017

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) ***

“Everybody Wants Some!!,” the newest film from Richard Linklater, has been touted as a spiritual sequel to the 1993 classic “Dazed and Confused.” It is not a true sequel, in that none of the “Dazed and Confused” characters appear, but rather a film in the same vein, about a bunch of young people experiencing high times to good music. Where “Dazed and Confused” followed several different characters on the last day of high school, “Everybody Wants Some!!” is all from the perspective of a baseball hotshot named Jake (Blake Jenner) as he shows up to start college. In the wild, move-in weekend before classes start, Jake gets to know his new baseball teammates, gets hazed by them, and parties with them at various bars and houses. He also meets a cute chick.

“Dazed and Confused” became a classic, in part because it viewed this single day of high school from so many different perspectives. You got to hang out with jocks, brains, stoners, and cheerleaders, and the takeaway was “We're all kind of the same.” “Everybody Wants Some!” takes a swing at that universality, as Jake and his friends party with punks one night, theater people the next, but they only scratch the surface. This movie is funny, and well worth watching, but it's no classic. Still, you'd have to have a heart of stone to dislike this film about a bunch of buff, young jocks hooking up with sexy chicks, to a soundtrack of classic rock, disco, punk, old-school rap, and even some country. The movie truly has something for everyone.

3 stars out of 5

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Bad Moms (2016) ***

Psychologists have a concept called “Good Enough Parenting,” which states that kids don't need perfect parenting. They just need a certain amount of love and care, and anything beyond that doesn't provide any additional benefit in terms of life success, mental health, etc. It's hard for parents to accept that, though. We always think that if we could spend a little more quality time, provide a little more enrichment, and push a little more for academic success, that all that work will produce a proportionally better outcome for our kids. The pressure is enormous to do MORE, and it seems to fall most heavily on the moms.

In “Bad Moms,” Mila Kunis plays Amy, a mother whose efforts to run her kids around to activities, do their school projects for them, and work a part-time job, while remaining active in the PTA are driving her to exhaustion. When she catches her husband (David Walton) having an online affair, it's the last straw. Amy has a meltdown at the PTA meeting, which puts her at odds with power-mom Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), but wins her a couple of new friends, Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and Kiki (Kristen Bell.)

With her new compadres, Amy decides to pursue a new ethos. Since nothing they do ever seems to be enough to qualify them as “good moms,” they should just celebrate being “bad moms.” The ladies indulge in microrebellions like daytime movie breaks, making the kids fix their own breakfasts, and hiring the occasional babysitter. Small as these transgressions seem, they wind up costing Amy her exploitative, part-time job and they trigger all-out war with Gwendolyn. Amy winds up challenging Gwendolyn for the PTA presidency, becoming a champion for imperfect moms everywhere.

Written and directed by Jon Lucas and Scott Moore, the minds behind “The Hangover,” “Bad Moms” is in the modern vein of raunchy-comedies-with-heart. The film does take on a bit of after-school-special stink in the third act and isn't as tightly-scripted as it could be, it's still a barrel of fun. Mila Kunis is always easy to look at, and all these actresses are good at comedy, especially Kathryn Hahn. This film is not on the level of “The Hangover” or “Bridesmaids,” but still it's a raunchy good time.

3 stars out of 5  

Saturday, January 21, 2017

No Country for Old Men (2007) **

I had heard that “No Country for Old Men” was bleak and violent, but it also got a lot of critical praise. I love me some Coen brothers, so I had to give the movie a shot. The messed up thing is, the movie actually fools you for a while, making you think it is a really awesome crime thriller. You wind up really invested in some of the characters before the film totally pulls the rug out from under you.

Josh Brolin plays Llewelyn Moss, a guy who is out hunting when he stumbles across the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. He finds a bunch of dead and dying men, a truck full of drugs, and a satchel of cash. Llewelyn makes off with the cash, but winds up with a crew of unsavories on his trail, including the creepy Anton Chigur (Javier Bardem). The relentless Chigur carries a pneumatic bolt gun, and sometimes decides whether or not to kill someone with it by flipping a coin. Meanwhile, Sheriff Ed Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) tries to find Llewelyn before Chigur does.

The first two thirds of “No Country for Old Men” is outstanding. Besides beautiful photography of the west Texas landscape, the film is chock full of tight performances. Llewelyn, it turns out, is a lot smarter and tougher than anyone would have guessed, and you start to believe that he may be a match for Anton Chigur.

Then the movie gets needlessly depressing, and you wind up wondering why you invested two hours in it. You know, coming in, that a Coen brothers movie is going to be violent, and that people are going to die. What I didn't expect was the utter bleakness, the nihilism of the conclusion. Rarely have I seen a movie expend so much effort to make me like a character, only to discard them so perfunctorily. Ultimately, this is a crappy story told by two very talented filmmakers. Ethan and Joel Coen have made some of my favorite movies, including “Miller's Crossing” and “The Big Lebowski”, but they really screwed us over on this one.

2 stars out of 5

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

La La Land (2016) **1/2

Most films that come out this time of year, angling for Oscars glory, are serious affairs. Some of them can be hard to watch because of their ponderous themes, like the Holocaust. The new musical “La La Land” is exactly the opposite. This light and fluffy confection is about almost nothing. Its scenes float away like notes on the air.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling play an actress and a jazz musician trying to achieve success in modern-day L.A. They fall in love, but wind up having to chose between love and success. And that's it. Absolutely nothing else happens. Sure people break out into song and dance on a regular basis, and everyone looks just lovely, but after two hours of fidgeting in my seat, I felt like I had seen nothing at all. “La La Land” is a great example of tremendous star power and beautiful cinematography wasted.

“La La Land” indulges the same “follow your dreams” tropes that so many Hollywood films do. The film also implicitly promotes another familiar Hollywood conceit, which is that the only dreams worth having are artistic dreams.

The point of a musical, of course, is the music, and 30 minutes after the film, I couldn't recall the songs at all. There is an attempt to give jazz music some love, and I suppose that works to some extent. Bottom line: “La La Land” is not going to enter the pantheon of great movie musicals.

I am definitely in the minority here. Audiences and critics alike seem to love this movie, and the awards and nominations are pouring in. Maybe in a time when half the country hates the other half, a movie that says nothing, and thereby offends no one, is the only thing we can all agree on.

2.5 stars out of 5

Friday, January 13, 2017

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (2016) ***1/2

Actor Christopher Abbott (Charlie from the show “Girls) has the most poignant line in the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.” When his young, Afghan character Fahim says, “I was a doctor,” speaking in the past tense, it speaks volumes about what a mess Afghanistan is. There is simply no place on earth where it is normal for someone with medical training to be working as a translator. The film never makes clear whether he was displaced from his profession by the Taliban or by the American invasion. As one injured soldier points out later in the film, if you want to start laying blame for the state of things in Afghanistan, you'll have to work your way through Osama bin Laden, to the Taliban, to the Russians, and all the way back to the British Empire.

Fortunately, this film is not constituted wholly of such serious stuff. More comedy than drama, the movie hums with the wry humor that Tina Fey brings to all her projects. Fey plays Kim Baker, an American journalist who,bored with her life as a news copy writer, accepts an assignment as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan. There she finds that in addition to danger, there is opportunity, both professional and sexual. As fellow reporter Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) explains to Kim, “In New York, you were a 6 or a 7. Here you're a 9, maybe 9 ½.” In addition to having her pick of men, Kim gets on-camera opportunities that she never had back home. Reporting by day and partying by night, Kim finds love with another reporter (Martin Freeman) and friendship with her translator Fahim. Always, there is the danger of kidnappings or bombs, or just the danger of getting swallowed up in a place where the unacceptable comes to seem normal.

With poor box office and mixed reviews, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” never seemed to find its audience. I think people were expecting either a straight-up comedy or a much sharper satire. Many reviewers seemed irked that the film didn't do more with some of its serious content, such as the horrors of war or the plight of women in the Middle East. It's true, the film never pokes too hard at any of these targets. Rather than the weakness of a script afraid to offend its audience, I found this to be the strength of a personal story that didn't give in to some tidy, preachy narrative. The film is based on the memoir “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” by Kim Barker. The story is not about discrimination or military incompetence, it's about Kim and her own personal experience, and the biggest lesson she learns is that you have to embrace change. She made a change when she moved to Afghanistan, and after a few years there she realized she needed to make a change again and move back to the U.S. It's not about setting up the perfect life, then maintaining that. Success comes from embracing the changes that inevitably come your way, or, as one injured veteran tells Kim, “Embrace the suck, and move the f--- forward.”

3.5 stars out of 5