Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Directed by: Jeannot Swarzc
Starring: Christopher Reeve, Jane Seymour, Christopher Plummer, Bill Erwin, Teresa Wright
Time travel is usually a subject that will perk up my interest in a movie. The idea of somehow being able to defeat time and move it backward instead of forward is one that I enjoy. The hero in Somewhere In Time, playwright Richard Collier (Reeve), uses self-hypnosis to travel back in time to 1912 to meet the woman whose portrait hangs in a hotel lobby. He is in love with the woman in the photo. This is a man who goes to great personal pains to essentially get laid. The woman, a stage actress named Elise McKenna (Seymour) is a near flawless beauty, and I suppose nothing ventured then nothing gained.
Somewhere In Time is naturally silly and preposterous, but it is still a well-made, beautifully photographed romantic drama with a powerful, haunting John Barry score. I admire the way the cast leaps headlong into it and takes it seriously. Since they are convinced, so are we. There are plot holes and questions, such as did Richard's body or soul travel back to 1912? The film kinda sorta explains that, but since the movie can not move forward without the time travel, we go along with it and ask questions later.
This was Reeve's first post-Superman film (he filmed parts one and two back to back) and he shows genuine dramatic chops. He has conviction and that goes a long way in absorbing us into his love (or obsession) with Elise's 68 year old picture. Seymour's Elise is an American actress with a strong British accent, but let's not quibble. She is stunning. Besides, Richard's romantic possibilities seemed limited in 1980, so why not give time travel a shot? His former college professor convinces him that it is possible. I think he even wrote a book about his methods, which involve putting everything modern out of sight and hypnotizing yourself into believing that you will wake up at the exact moment you want to go back to. What happens if your mind wanders and you start thinking about 1812 instead of 1912? What happens then? You'll be very disappointed that you missed Elise McKenna by one hundred years. It seems kind of easy to succeed or fail with this method.
I know it sounds like I'm bashing the film, but I truly did like it. What's not to like? I am fond of unabashed romances that aren't afraid to be bold. Now a confession. When I first saw this movie, I was 10 years old. I think I even attempted the professor's self-hypnotic time travel method to travel back to who knows when. It didn't work. Maybe it's because I was lazy and didn't put away my Star Wars toys.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Directed by: Dan Fogelman
Starring: Al Pacino, Annette Bening, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, Christopher Plummer, Giselle Eisenberg
Danny Collins is the story of a famous singer who attempts to redeem himself after decades of booze, cocaine, debauchery, reckless spending, and phoning in concerts in front of crowds of mostly older females. When Danny complains about the audience, his longtime friend and manager Frank replies, "You can't choose your fans Danny". Danny Collins is more or less a comedy, but a touching one containing Al Pacino's best performance in years.
The film opens in 1971 with a young, up and coming Collins being interviewed for a music magazine and being touted as the next John Lennon. Fast forward to 2014, where Collins hasn't become the next John Lennon, but is very rich, famous, and restless. He hadn't written a song of his own in thirty years, but he is playing sold out dates everywhere. "The woman who has to breast feed entire villages in Africa has problems, you don't," says Frank, who has the knack of giving Danny the most straightforward advice possible exactly when he needs to hear it. Maybe it's because they know each other so well.
Danny's impetus to change his life comes when Frank presents him with a letter written to him by John Lennon shortly after Danny's interview with the magazine. John tells Danny to stay true to himself and to contact him. Although contacting Lennon is no longer possible, Danny decides to adhere to the spirit of the letter and fly east to visit his son whom he has never met in person. He checks into a Hilton in a small North Jersey town, moves his piano in, and sets off to meet his unfamiliar family.
His pregnant daughter-in-law Samantha (Garner) and granddaughter Hope (Eisenberg) are more accomodating than his son Tom (Cannavale), who invites Danny to get out of his life. Tom underestimates Danny's persistence, who spends his days ingratiating himself into his new family's life. Tom eventually lets Danny in, but keeps his guard up. Cannavale, who memorably played ruthless gangster Gyp Rosetti in Boardwalk Empire, is at first defiantly angry, but softened by Danny's generosity and the fact that he may have cancer himself. His anger doesn't turn to spite. He knows Danny showing up in his life may be a blessing in disguise, but can't help but wonder when the other shoe will drop.
Danny also persists in asking the hotel manager Mary (Bening) out to dinner. She doesn't go to dinner, but she accepts his invitation to his hotel room to watch him write his first song in 30 years. I enjoyed the surprises of her relationship with Danny. Bening projects caring and a love for the artist formerly known as Danny Collins, but holds her ground, acting more as a muse than a lover. Thank goodness they don't end up in bed together and have to sort out that headache.
As I mentioned in the first paragraph, Pacino delivers his best performance since Angels In America. Many of Pacino's recent performances were interesting, but borderline hammy, but here he finds the depth he hasn't found in years. His Danny Collins is searching for redemption that was much harder for him than he realized. He is a nice enough guy and someone you could have a few drinks with, but is he someone you would trust any deeper than that? Frank provides the answer to Tom in a moving scene in which we learn how long and deep his friendship with Danny goes. We sense that underneath the money and the partying, Danny Collins has a sweet side ready to leap forth. It's just that he didn't have anybody to show the sweet side to.
The ads for Danny Collins makes it appear to be a generic family comedy, but the performances and the willingness of writer-director Dan Fogelman not to pigeonhole his story into formula is what puts it over the top. Who knew that the final scene would involve Danny hugging and holding hands with someone, but not with Mary? How refreshing is that?
Directed by: Chris Rock
Starring: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, JB Smoove, Gabrielle Union, Tracy Morgan, Cedric The Entertainer
Top Five is Chris Rock's third feature as a director and he still is unable to transfer his stand-up mastery to the big screen. He is a fine comic actor with plenty of the same instincts that make him a successful stand-up comedian, but he should read his scripts more carefully. Especially the ones he writes himself, like Top Five.
Rock plays Andre Allen, a recovering alcoholic stand-up comic and actor who eschews his comedic hits such as Hammy The Bear (1,2, and 3) in order to star in serious fare like Uprize! Yes, there is a raised fist standing in for the i in the title. It is a guaranteed flop. He wants to be a serious actor, but shouts of "Hammy" are forever directed his way whenever he appears anywhere. At a press junket, the interviewers ask him when the next Hammy The Bear movie is coming out. He is forced to endure ridiculous interviews on radio and TV promoting a film no one wants to see.
At the strong urging of his agent, Andre agrees to be profiled by the New York Times. To say the Times critic has been unkind to his films is a massive understatement. "When will Andre Allen be brought to justice for his crimes against humanity?" Ouch, I didn't even say that about the makers of Caligula. Instead of the regular movie critic, the Times sends Chelsea Brown (Dawson), who follows Andre around all day asking him questions the other reporters don't ask.
We learn a lot about Andre. He is about to be married to a reality TV star (Union) on her TV show. Her only talent seems to be the ability to get on reality TV shows. Andre isn't thrilled about the fact that his fiancee altered his wedding ring at the behest of her network. He is also four years sober, thanks to his bottom in Houston four years earlier in which strange things happen after a long night of drinking. I won't explain what those are, but they involve Cedric The Entertainer's character and two women. On this day, however, his sobriety will be severely tested.
Chelsea is not without problems of her own. Her boyfriend won't return her calls and she herself is a recovering alcoholic. One well done scene involves Chelsea browsing through a liquor store while telling Andre about her boyfriend's sexual quirks. She dances close to the flame of relapse as Andre subtly tries to dissuade her from it. I also liked Andre's relationship with his childhood friend/bodyguard Silk (JB Smoove), in which their mutual loyalty is touching.
Top Five suffers from being painfully uneven. There are thoughtful scenes like the ones I just mentioned and the one in which Andre runs into his father, but there are others you are at a loss to account for. The bachelor party scene featuring Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, and Whoopi Goldberg in cameos as themselves doesn't develop into a payoff. A DMX cameo is supposed to be an inspiration for Andre but I'm left ambivalent towards it. Also, DMX can not sing, which I'm sure he knows. We also see a visit with his family and old neighborhood friends from the projects that doesn't go anywhere either.
Rock's film is strongest when it dissects show business unmercifully, but weakest when it tries to shoehorn in a predictable romance between Andre and Chelsea. There is also a plot swerve in there that was unnecessary to begin with. Couldn't Chelsea had been honest about her identity from the beginning, adding an extra layer of complications she and Andre would have to work out? I think that would've been more substantial than yet another romance detoured by a white lie just as things were heating up.
Rock and Dawson are intelligent comic actors who honestly should not go there when it comes to having a romance. We see from miles away how it will play out, but I would rather have seen them depart as friends. Anything else seems forced. Top Five plays best when it is merciless satire and is flattest when it threatens to turn into a movie romance as old as the hills.
Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Directed by: Joel Coen and Ethan Coen
Starring: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, Justin Timberlake, Adam Driver
Inside Llewyn Davis is a film with lots of buildup in search of a payoff. Plenty of events happen inside and outside Llewyn Davis, but to what end? It's not funny, witty, or engaging. It is mostly harmless and forgettable. The actors, other than Isaac, don't really stick around long enough to be memorable. They show up, say a few things, and then leave the scene. The Coen Brothers have made films like Fargo, No Country For Old Men, A Serious Man, and The Big Lebowski. How do they account for this egg?
Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is a folk singer in 1961 Greenwich Village who is struggling and unhappy. He was once part of a duo and his partner left to pursue a solo career. His records go unsold and he has to beg his agent for money owed to him. He spends his nights on friends' couches and his days with his belongings in hand walking around the frigid city streets. He was once a Merchant Marine and may consider becoming one again if he can't soon buy a winter coat.
Gigs are like island onto themselves for Llewyn. He is a talented singer and songwriter, but so are many others fighting for the same gigs. He just doesn't have any real advantages over his peers. A club owner tells him, "Jim and Jean draw crowds because half of them want to fuck Jean and the other half wants to fuck Jim." Count Llewyn among those who fuck Jean. She informs him she is pregnant and now Llewyn needs to scrape together money for an abortion. The fact that it might not even be his child is one more turn of the screw.
Davis is not meant to be successful. Every situation he is involved in hammers that point home. He is sometimes his own worst enemy. There are parallels to the Coens' A Serious Man (2009), which was a portrait of a schlub that was presented with humor and pathos. We feel for the guy whose life is one misadventure after another. Inside Llewyn Davis keeps us on the outside. We see what happens to Llewyn but don't really empathize.
The actors do their own singing and play their own instruments. There are numbers played in their entirety in the film, which runs mercifully at about 95 minutes. If the songs were removed, there would barely be enough running time to qualify for feature length, which wouldn't be a problem either. The songs drone on and have the emotional impact of filler. Like most of Inside Llewyn Davis, the numbers are forgettable.
I've seen Oscar Isaac now in this film and A Most Violent Year (2014). He is an intense actor of quiet desperation and power. He does the best he can, but the film really doesn't give him much help. I'm predicting big things for Isaac, who will be in the next Star Wars film. My guess is he won't be singing in that one.
Friday, March 20, 2015
Directed by: Jaime Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Common, Bruce McGill, Boyd Holbrook, Genesis Rodriguez, Vincent D'Onofrio
I know what you're thinking, because it was the same thing I was thinking. I saw the trailers. Here's yet another movie where Liam Neeson carries a gun and kills a dozen people with the energy and skill of a man half his age. Will Run All Night be a Taken 4? Or a Non-Stop 2? Neeson these days could be an honorary NRA president. To my relief, Run All Night is not simply mindless action. It is grounded in depth, shadows, and characters who are forced to make tough moral choices. I enjoy movies where situations and decisions are not black and white. Neeson's Jimmy Conlon isn't a good man forced to protect his son from an evil villain. The trailers make it appear that way. In fact, Conlon isn't a good man at all. He is an alcoholic mob enforcer haunted by his wicked deeds who has left a trail of bodies and broken lives in his wake. His nemesis is his boss and best friend Shawn Maguire (Harris), who is attempting late in life to go legit, but finds it difficult when his son brings Albanians to the table wanting to put together a lucrative heroin deal.
Run All Night has its share of chases and shootouts to be sure, but the characters and performances carry the film. The day doesn't start well for Jimmy, who wakes up hung over in a bar and is laughed at by onlookers. He stumbles downstairs, begging to borrow money from Shawn's son Danny (Holbrook), who is forever trying to push into the big time as a career criminal and impress his father at the same time. Danny agrees to the loan, but forces Jimmy to play Santa Claus at Shawn's Christmas party. Jimmy once was Shawn's right-hand man. How the mighty have fallen.
Jimmy's son Michael (Kinnaman) is worlds apart from Danny. Michael has cut his father out of his life. His children nor his wife ever met Jimmy. Michael provides for his family as an honest limo driver who has the misfortune of picking up the Albanians as clients. The Albanians travel to Danny's house and Michael is a suddenly a witness to a murder and on the run from Danny. This leads to unfortunate consequences in which Danny is killed and thus both Jimmy and Michael are reluctantly on the run together from Shawn. Shawn also hires a Terminator-like hitman named Price (Common), who wears glasses and stalks his targets relentlessly.
You think you know how things will play out, but Run All Night pulls subtle surprises. The history and friendship between Jimmy and Shawn is felt in nearly all of their scenes. Shawn knows he must avenge Danny's death, but wishes it wasn't Jimmy he was hunting. Jimmy is trying to pull himself together for one last rally and one last shot at love from his angry son. Jimmy and Shawn's final showdown is very poignant, just watch Shawn and Jimmy's body language here and you learn all you need to know about their feelings toward each other.
Also lurking in the mix and on Jimmy's tail is Detective Harding (D'Onofrio), who has forever been trying to pin murders of 17 underworld figures on Jimmy. One of these murders is of special significance to Jimmy, which is what fuels his drunken, sleepless nights. Michael certainly has legitimate reasons to be angry with his father, but he learns that perhaps he wasn't entirely right about him. The film does this without going the overly sentimental route.
Run All Night is full of complex performances of people who now have to sleep in the beds they made, especially Jimmy and Shawn. Neeson and Harris turn what could've been trite retread characters into originals. There are two scenes which reminded me of Road To Perdition, where Tom Hanks played a mob enforcer attempted to shield his profession from his family. The difference between Hanks' enforcer and Neeson's is that Hanks' drank less.
Monday, March 16, 2015
Directed by: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney, B.D. Wong
We first meet Nick (Smith) in a restaurant dining alone. A stunning blonde named Jess (Robbie) sits down suddenly, asking Nick to pretend he is her boyfriend in order for her to avoid the advances of a drunken buffoon. Most men would not resist such an offer because Jess is a knockout. Nicky is no exception, although he sees things that other men wouldn't. This is especially helpful during the payoff scene of this encounter.
Focus is about Nick, who is a professional con artist, and Jess, who is not as she first seems. Movies like Focus can be maddening to review because, like many movies about cons and scams, there are many plot points that you don't want to give away. Discussing the plot can be very vague, but maybe that's a blessing in disguise. This way, I don't have to get wrapped up in too many details.
Let's just say that Nick goes to New Orleans during Superbowl week (although the movie refers to the game as "Major Football Championship"-it seems the NFL wouldn't give their blessing to use its property). Jess follows him there, or was she expected? Nick agrees to show Jess the ropes on being a con artist, including petty theft and ID theft. Jess is a natural, mostly because men believe whatever a beautiful woman in a low cut dress says. Nick and Jess attend "the big game", which isn't simply for fun. There is a nice payoff here which I wouldn't dream of revealing. One minor distraction is the championship game itself, played between the Sharks and the Rhinos...I think. Very few things break the rhythm of a scene like the fact that this game, very clearly intended to be the Superbowl, isn't referred to as such. Was this the championship game for the Any Given Sunday league? I halfway expected Al Pacino to make a cameo as one of the coaches.
Nick jumps Jess, who has fallen for Nick and the two find themselves in Brazil three years later involved with the same person, although for different reasons. Nick is scheming against an arrogant Formula One racer (Santoro) by promising him that he can get a hold of technology which will make his car a few seconds faster. Jess is dating that same racer and this becomes a tangled web. The racer's henchman is a codger named Owens (McRaney), who distrusts Nick from the start and for good reason.
Like many films about con artists, Focus sinks or swims with the appeal of its stars. Smith is cool, but wounded and perhaps searching for the one thing that has eluded him his whole life...love. As one character puts it, love is the deadliest thing in Nick's profession. Smith inhabits his scenes with an easy grace and charm. Robbie isn't just gorgeous, but someone who we can't quite make heads or tails of. She has innate mystery. We can't tell if she is playing or being played. I also enjoyed McRaney's gruff, curmudgeonly demeanor. He isn't fooled by much and isn't afraid to ruffle feathers.
Focus, of course, is a film about cons with the expected and sometimes unexpected twists and turns that such films always have. We watch these films anticipating when the Big Reveal will be and still being blindsided when it does come. Focus reminds me of walking through a haunted house in an amusement park. We know someone will jump out at us at a certain point. We anticipate it, but we still get a jolt when it does finally happen.
Wednesday, March 11, 2015
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
The story behind the making of Boyhood is a remarkable one. Writer-director Richard Linklater filmed the story over 12 years with the same actors in the key roles, so we witness the children grow up before our eyes and the adults mature also. I don't believe any such undertaking has ever occurred in the history of cinema (at least for a fiction film, not counting docuementaries). I can praise the efforts of all involved here while also pointing out the film is overly long and rather dull. Linklater is a writer/director in love with dialogue. His characters talk and talk, but strangely nothing much of substance is said.
The only Linklater movie I can say I enjoyed is The Bad News Bears (2005), which was a remake and practically Linklater-proof. All Linklater had to do was follow the already laid-out path and he did that. There is nothing wrong with the idea, while much is wrong with the execution. There is a reason why dialogue in movies can sometimes be real, but not too real. There should be something theatrical even if the most realistic situations and dialogue. Otherwise, home and cameraphone videos would be something theaters charge admission for.
The film begins circa 2002, where we see a young boy named Mason (Coltrane) staring wide-eyed at the afternoon sky. We don't know what he is thinking about, but like many young boys he is probably daydreaming about any variety of things that occupy a boy's mind. It could even be how to beat the latest Mario Bros. game. Mason's strong, resourceful mother Olivia (Arquette) takes him back home to a small suburban Texas rental home. She soon moves to Houston in search of a better job and a better life. Her children, which includes Mason's sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater) are not happy with this, but this will be the first of many moves Olivia will make in her life. Arquette won an Oscar for her performance as Olivia. She is resourceful, proud, articulate, and determined to give her family a better life. Arquette conveys these exceptionally well.
I also admired watching Mason Sr (Hawke) grow from unmotivated, layabout weekend dad to a wise patriarch who remarries and has another child of his own. It is easy to see why Olivia and he didn't see eye to eye, although their relationship remains cordial. Olivia has some missteps, such as marrying a rich, abusive alcoholic who was once her college professor. At least the film perks up in these scenes.
Boyhood tracks the growing up of the children from elementary school to college, yet they are the least interesting people of the bunch. Mason Jr. seems like a nice enough kid, but is he really someone I wanted to watch grow up? I can't recall much about him that stood out. The same goes for Sam. It is here where Boyhood falters and becomes a bit of a slog. We see "ordinary" conversations which stretch on too long. I found myself not becoming entrenched as a witness to these people's lives. I was acutely aware of Linklater's filmmaking method, which while briefly compelling is not enough to hold my attention long. It's a pity the movie stretches this out to gargantuan length.
Monday, March 2, 2015
Directed by: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland
Starring: Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish
Still Alice is about a Columbia linguistics professor named Alice Howland (Moore), who is caught in the grips of early onset Alzheimer's Disease. We think we are in for lots of overwrought melodrama, but Still Alice directors Glatzer and Westmoreland treat their subject and their people with realism and dignity. Watching the conversations occur about Alice's future, we sense these are the conversations real people would have. As cold as it may seem, Alice's husband John (Baldwin) must also look at the bigger picture for himself and his family.
Alice has a happy home and career when the movie begins. At first, she experiences common forgetfulness which can be chalked up to anything. Then she becomes lost while jogging around the Columbia campus and sees her doctor. The disease will slowly seize her memory and then her motor skills from her. It is irreversible. Alice will be stripped of the things she loves over a gradual process. Her memory will grow so futile that she will forget instructions she leaves for herself during a critical moment.
It is impossible not to feel for Alice and her family, which consists of her husband John, a son who is in medical school (Parrish), and two daughters (Bosworth and Stewart), the latter a struggling actress. They take the news with shock and sadness, but don't know fully how much the disease will steal Alice from them. They will discover this, in some cases sooner than they realize.
Julianne Moore recently won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance. It is a humanizing, intelligent portrait of a wife and mother who tries to outwit a disease that can not be defeated. She takes medications and plants reminders on her phone and computer to test her memory daily, but soon these will be fruitless also. Her doctor suggests she may have been experiencing the symptoms for longer than she realizes, but was intelligent enough to outsmart them. Baldwin also handles his tricky role with compassion and practicality. Despite John's instincts to abandon everything, including his career, to tend to Alice, he knows that he must soldier on because someone has to pay the bills.
Still Alice could have stepped wrong in many ways. It wisely avoids them. Perhaps the fact that co-director Westmoreland suffers from Lou Gehrig's Disease plays a part in that. We are a witness to Alice's decline. The fact that little of the emotion is forced makes it all the more impactful.