Tuesday, June 30, 2015

John Wick (2014) * *

John Wick Movie Review

Directed by:  Chad Stalhelski and David Leitch

Starring:  Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrienne Palicki, Dean Winters, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick

Thanks to Keanu Reeves and some interesting art direction, John Wick nearly transcends its story of a hitman seeking bloody revenge against those that wronged him.    Nearly.    However, as the body count rose and John Wick proved to be unstoppable and indestructible, I grew weary and numbed from the violence.    Shootings and stabbings in multitudes are boring, no matter how stylishly portrayed.   

Reeves stars as John Wick, a retired hitman who left the business in order to marry the love of his life.    I would have liked to have seen the conversation between them when he told her what he did for a living.    She apparently had no qualms about it, or he conveniently left that part of his life out.    Either way, they marry and she dies from an unspecified disease.    Reeves convincingly grieves the loss.     His real life sad story of losing his child in childbirth compounded by the death of his girlfriend a short time later in a car accident added depth to these early scenes.    Soon after, he receives a package from his late wife.    It's an adorable beagle.    Mrs. Wick thought the dog would help him through his grieving, which isn't a bad idea.   

Wick is confronted at a gas station by Russian thugs who want to buy his 1969 Mustang.    He refuses to sell, which pisses off the ringleader Josef Tarasov (Allen) enough to make him and his cronies invade Wick's home in the middle of the night, beat up Wick, and kill the poor dog.    It isn't long before Wick unburies his stash of weapons and begins the hunt for the assailants.    Josef is the son of Russian mob boss Viggo Tarasov (Nyqvist), who once employed Wick and has a deep fear and respect for him.    "You had better assemble your men," he tells his second-in-command, who asks how many he should assemble.    "How many do you have?" Viggo replies.

John checks into an exclusive hotel which caters to the underworld.    He is waited on by the unflappable desk clerk (Reddick) who caters to the specific needs of his guests.    The only currency accepted is gold coins one may gather up during a game of Super Mario Brothers.   One rule of the hotel is that "business" is never conducted there.    We see the grisly aftermath awaiting those who break this rule.    This must hurt repeat business.     When the hotel buys Wick a new car as an apology for his inconvenience, one wonders how the hotel makes a profit if it treats its other guests so charitably.    This also may not be the sort of question to ask either. 

Up to this point, I'm with John Wick.    Reeves makes a sympathetic antihero who only wanted to leave his old life behind, but was dragged back in.    I found the d├ęcor of the seedy nightclubs and hotel to be interesting.    Even the subtitles translating Russian into English are displayed in ways I haven't seen before.     I was reminded of a noir comic book. 

Then, Wick kills every poor, nameless henchman that dares confront him and the movie loses steam.    Watching schnook after schnook getting shot in the head disengaged me and put my brain on autopilot.    This was fresh when Bruce Lee was whooping people's asses by the dozens in Enter The Dragon, but by now it is played out.    John Wick is high on style and predictably low on substance.    By the time Mr. Wick avenges his dog, there are bodies and blood everywhere and John finds a way to keep on living.    I hear there is a sequel in the works, which means the number of bodies left in Wick's wake will be substantially higher.    







Monday, June 29, 2015

Love and Mercy (2015) * * * 1/2

Love & Mercy Movie Review

Directed by:  Bill Pohlad

Starring:  Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Jake Abel

Love and Mercy tells the story of Beach Boy Brian Wilson in two separate, yet distinct periods of his life.    He is also played by two different actors which turns into one seamless look at this tortured artist.     Bedeviled with mental illness since his early 20's, Wilson nonetheless was the driving force behind The Beach Boys early songs, slowly evolving to Pet Sounds, and then Good Vibrations, which I personally consider as their masterpiece.    Wilson's mind continually worked on overdrive.    Ideas, thoughts, and voices run in and out of his head at a dizzying pace.    While the rest of The Beach Boys were touring Japan, he stayed behind in California composing the expansive and complex instrumentals for the group's next album.    Wilson saw The Beatles as both an inspiration and measuring stick.    The Pet Sounds album was a direct attempt by Wilson to top them.    The rest of the band was happy making simple tunes that went gold.    Brian was well past writing Surfin' USA by that time.

Paul Dano and John Cusack both play Wilson.    Dano plays him during The Beach Boys years in which he was evolving into a distinct musical force.    Cusack plays him in the mid-80's, years in which he is no longer performing or writing and under the tyrannical care of Dr. Eugene Landy (Giamatti), who exerts a Svengali-like control over him.    Brian meets a pretty car salesperson named Melinda (Banks) who under normal circumstances would be his girlfriend.    Landy makes it quite clear that her welcome will wear out soon.     He sees Melinda as more of a threat to his control over Wilson than anything else.    She begins to realize that Dr. Landy keeps Brian overmedicated and sees him as a meal ticket.    Is Dr. Landy's diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia even accurate?    We have to wonder.

In both Dano's and Cusack's performances, we see a man at war with his inner demons.    His battle is lonely and quiet.    He keeps within himself.    He is not prone to violence or outbursts.    He does not become insufferable, just desperate and confused.    His relationships with both his father and Dr. Landy are abusive.    He sees Melinda through his haze as a way to a possibly normal life.    (Or as normal as a Brian Wilson could envision).    She is sweet to him and cares for him, but also cautiously falls for him, knowing full well he is no position to carry on a meaningful relationship under heavy sedation and under Landy's thumb.     It is touching and almost altruistic how she fights to wrest control of him from Dr. Landy.    Her motives are not selfish.    She knows full well that Brian's mental health is more important than any future relationship. 

Watching Brian create the sounds of Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations take on a fascination of their own.    Few films would have the patience to watch an artist coax a creation out of himself and others.    The studio musicians he hires are among the best in the world and are instructed to play their instruments in ways they didn't think possible.    Most movies' view of the creative process show an external inspiration which leads to a flash of genius.    Voila!!  A song is created as if dictated from the heavens themselves.    Wilson's vision of his songs were understandable to him and he painstakingly made others understand it.    This took time.   Good Vibrations took seven months to record.    No wonder.    Wilson's frequent arguments within The Beach Boys are with his cousin and co-founder Mike Love (Abel), who would love nothing more than to write safe pop songs that would continue to enrich the group's wallets.     Is he wrong for thinking this way?    Not at all.    The movie doesn't turn Love into a villain while putting Wilson on a pedestal.    We see that their visions of the group no longer meshed as time went on.    "We feel like we are backup singers in the Brian Wilson Band," he tells Brian.    We also feel for Brian's brothers' concerns about his well-being.   

I confess I didn't know much of Brian Wilson's story except for the outlines, such as his battles with mental illness, drugs, and his estrangement from his family and The Beach Boys.    While certainly there are scenes here which are exaggerated for dramatic effect, Love and Mercy is a superior biopic.    It is rare a biopic takes such care to show why Brian Wilson is heralded as a pioneer in rock music.    It takes as much care in showing why the same demons that drove him to create are the same ones that led to his isolation.  











 

   

  

Jurassic World (2015) * 1/2

Jurassic World Movie Review

Directed by:  Colin Treverrow

Starring:   Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vincent D'Onofrio, BD Wong, Judy Greer, Nick Robinson, Ty Simpkins

Jurassic World feels like a retread of an idea that exhausted its dramatic possibilities after the initial Jurassic Park.    We see more CGI dinosaurs running amok and thinly characterized humans fleeing from them.    Dinosaurs attack humans.    Humans attack dinosaurs.    Some dinosaurs even attack each other.     It all wears thin very quickly.    Cloning dinosaurs only to hunt them or kill them all over again just seems like a missed opportunity for humankind.     Let's say humans were able to clone dinosaurs and they would be alive again after 65 million years in extinction.     Is it wise or practical to train them like dogs or keep them in captivity in a theme park?    Shouldn't we learn about them?   

The intended audience for Jurassic World is not interested in such questions.    They want to see dinosaurs running free and putting humans in mortal danger.    If that is what you want, then you certainly get it in abundance in Jurassic World.     The people and the plot are immaterial anyway.    There is as little backstory as possible involved.    Why bother with such trivialities?     There are engaging actors who will either kill or be killed.     Does anyone remember any of the characters' names from Jurassic Park (or parts 2 or 3?)    The names here will fade into obscurity as well.   

The world's population in this film has a very short memory.    They ignore the events of the first three films and attend the Jurassic World theme park by the tens of thousands each day in a Costa Rican jungle.    Aren't they a tad afraid of being on safari with raptors?    Wouldn't it be depressing traveling thousands of miles just to see a reborn species trapped in cages like average zoo animals?   
Do we really need to see a Sea World like attraction in which a giant dinosaur emerges from the water to eat sharks?    The costs to fly to Jurassic World and spend one day there would make Disney World seem like a bargain.     And don't even get me started on how long the waiting times must be for each attraction.     How much would it cost to feed just the dinosaur that eats sharks?   Not to mention the other dinosaurs?

The actors here have been appealing before and will be again.    The characters are introduced and then hastily thrown into danger.    Owen Grady (Pratt), who could be Indiana Jones in a better movie, is on hand as a dinosaur trainer thrown headlong into a plot involving a corporation's plan to transform raptors into soldiers that will take the place of humans in wars.    Will they be trained to fire automatic weapons?    Or throw grenades?    Or follow orders?    What would their basic training consist of?    The ringleader of this ridiculous premise is played by Vincent D'Onofrio, who seems convinced that this may fly.    This is an actor who played Pvt. Pyle in Full Metal Jacket and is now trying to convince Owen Grady that dinosaurs would make great soldiers.    I would have liked to sit in on the board meeting that approved this harebrained scheme.  

How does someone even begin the process of becoming a dinosaur trainer?     Pratt's co-star is Bryce Dallas Howard, who is the operations manager of the park and goes by the name Claire.    She is not even given a last name and manages to go through the entire film without losing her heels.     They team up to thwart the dinosaurs and escape safely from their clutches.     I'm sure at one point they will be in a romance, but they barely share even a kiss in this film.     We don't want the kids watching corrupted by actually see two adults kissing.    Yuck!   Not when there are dozens of unimportant people to be terrorized, eaten, and killed by dinosaurs.   

Those who plopped down money for Jurassic World to be entertained by chases and humungous dinosaurs will likely get their money's worth.    I saw the 3D version, but the film really didn't need to be in 3D.    It adds little.   I didn't expect a lazy, tired retread of Jurassic Park.    I think it's sad to see SWAT teams dispatched to track a hybrid dinosaur that really only wants to be left alone.     You mean to tell me dinosaurs waited 65 million years to return to Earth only to be shot at?    They would likely pray for another asteroid to come along.     Those who don't believe in Evolution finally have the proof they need that dinosaurs and people indeed inhabited the Earth at the same time.  









Friday, June 26, 2015

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) * * * 1/2


Directed by:  Elia Kazan

Starring:  Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden

In many ways, the characters of Blanche Dubois (Leigh) and Stanley Kowalski (Brando) are performances within a performance.    Blanche regales whomever will listen with grandiose, long-winded tales of suitors who desire her hand.    She speaks as an affected Southern belle you would see in Gone With The Wind.     This is likely why Vivien Leigh nails the role.    She has given this performance already, although Blanche's desperation lurks with every syllable.     One of the most powerful moments in A Streetcar Named Desire occurs when Blanche drops the high-fallutin' affectations and her voice register lowers to almost a growl.    She is the real, sad, tortured Blanche, even for just a few moments.     

Stanley, a loud, sweaty brute has it in for his sister-in-law Blanche, who visits her sister Stella (Hunter) in New Orleans.    Stanley calls Blanche out.    He suspects there is more to her than she lets on.    If there wasn't, they why would she be associating with losers like him?    Stanley's rage towards Blanche and the world is a rage at himself.     He desires Blanche and tries to drown it with alcohol.   Being mean to her is like a cold shower for him.    Perhaps he doesn't desire Blanche as much as he wants to punish her for acting superior to him.    We all know she is not superior in any way, but does he? 

Brando is the only major cast member not to win an Oscar for this film.    Leigh won Best Actress while Hunter and Malden won Supporting Oscars.    This doesn't diminish the power and sheer agony of his Stanley Kowalski.    He behaves brutishly to cover up his feelings of inadequacy.    In between outbursts and drunken rages, he simmers in the heat.    I especially liked the way he cries for Stella after an incident in which he hits her.    He is on the ground, looking up to the flat above and screaming "STELLA" in a mix of agony, sorrow, and confusion.    Stella comes out, sees him, and descends the steps slowly with a face of sheer desire and arousal.    She never takes her eyes off of him.    She is once again unable to stay away.     We sense this isn't the first time this has happened.
This scene alone was worthy of an Oscar for Kim Hunter.  

Karl Malden also commands the screen with his usual authority.    His Mitch is a lonely soul who thinks he found the love of his life in Blanche.     When he discovers the truth about her past, Mitch realizes he didn't love Blanche but the idea of her.    He thought she would be his ticket out of living and caring for his ailing mother.    We see his heartbreak because Blanche is not going to be able to fulfill his need.   

The people in A Streetcar Named Desire are wounded.    Each masks a pain that all of the alcohol in the world can't dull.    There is plenty of drinking, like in many Tennessee Williams plays, but the alcohol bottle is just something to occupy their hands.    Each suffers under a delusion about themselves or each other.    The alcohol won't mollify that.    In the end, one character finds the courage to at least attempt to break away from the miserable path she has taken.    Will it last?   We don't know.   




Jersey Girl (2004) * * *



Directed by: Kevin Smith

Starring:  Ben Affleck, George Carlin, Raquel Castro, Jason Biggs, Liv Tyler, Stephen Root, Jennifer Lopez

Jersey Girl's production occurred smack dab in the middle of the nation's "Bennifer" obsession circa 2003.    The tabloids documented every move either Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez made.    Soon, it became a backlash and Jersey Girl's box office suffered.     People stayed away from what turned out to be a pretty darn good movie.     It is an intelligent and gentle family comedy written and directed by Kevin Smith, whose previous films did not prepare us for the touching moments that occur here.    Clerks was funny, but certainly not gentle.     The same holds true for any movie that featured Jay and Silent Bob.    They are absent in Jersey Girl and maybe that's for the better.   

Ben Affleck, a Kevin Smith mainstay, stars as Ollie Trinke, a high-powered Manhattan publicist who deals with subordinates and the media brusquely.    He meets, falls for, and marries Gertrude (Lopez).    Lopez was reportedly in more scenes, but they were left on the cutting room floor.    A short time later, Gertrude dies in childbirth, leaving Ollie to raise his daughter.     Consumed more by his career than his child, he pawns off the parenting duties to his father Bart (Carlin) until Bart finally puts his foot down on the day of a major press conference for Will Smith to promote his burgeoning film career.    (The film opens in the mid-1990s).    "Like the Fresh Prince will ever have a movie career," Ollie scoffs.

Ollie is forced to bring his infant daughter to the press conference.    It goes horribly wrong and Ollie is fired for openly trashing Smith to the throng of reporters.    He is persona non grata in the public relations field, so Ollie moves to suburban North Jersey to live with his father and come to terms with his parenting responsibilities.     He does so in a moving scene.  

7 years pass.   Ollie works with his dad in the local public works department and loves to take his daughter on rides in the street sweeper.    He is a doting and loving father, keeping the promise he made to her when she was just an infant.    He meets Maya (Tyler), who works at the local video store, and notices his frequent porno rentals.    She learns he hasn't had sex since his wife died and sympathizes.     She even offers to give him a mercy lay.    Ollie and Maya's relationship is not handled in the usual love at first sight manner.     Maya is all too aware of the shadow Ollie's late wife casts over things and they proceed cautiously.   

Ollie yearns to return to the world of Manhattan public relations.    He applies for jobs, but is only brought in for interviews just so the executives can find out if he indeed is the same Ollie Trinke who trashed The Fresh Prince.    "We admire you.   You said what all of us have wanted to say at one time or another, but you're not getting hired."    Ollie's former assistant Arthur (Biggs) throws Ollie a lifeline by setting up a legitimate interview at the firm he now works for.    Conflict ensues when Ollie's career goals potentially interferes with his daughter's happiness.  

Jersey Girl was written and directed with a tender hand by Smith.    Smith would later say he was making Jersey Girl as a kidding tribute to family films.    Nothing here suggests that.    The actors perform the material with rich sincerity and the plotlines develop satisfactorily with some well-earned sentiment thrown in.    What puzzles me about Smith sometimes is his inability to stand by his own work.    He distances himself from bombs like Mallrats (he apologized for it publicly) and Jersey Girl when he should have embraced them.    He made them after all.    He should have apologized for Red State.    Jersey Girl is his best film.    It is a pity that outside forces contributed to people being turned off to it before giving it a chance.





Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Leap Year (2010) * * *

Leap Year Movie Review

Directed by:  Anand Tucker

Starring:  Amy Adams, Matthew Goode, Adam Scott, John Lithgow

We don't watch a movie like Leap Year to be surprised by plot twists.    It is a dependable romantic comedy which serves to reconfirm our faith that such movies can, and do, work.    It does work.    The considerable charm of its leads, Amy Adams and Matthew Goode, carry it along.    Sometimes all you need are good actors to take us where we want to go.

As Leap Year opens, Anna (Adams) and her boyfriend Jeremy (Scott), a local doctor, dream of purchasing a condo in the most exclusive building in Boston.     The condo board prefers the two at least be engaged, although never spells it out.    Jeremy, who for the most part seems like an ok guy, is called away on business to Ireland and has not proposed to Anna as yet.     Anna hears of an Irish tradition in which if she proposes to Jeremy on Leap Day, he must accept her proposal.     What Jeremy thinks of this is immaterial to the plot.     So Anna takes the next plane to Ireland in hopes of surprising him with a proposal, which he'll feel duty bound to accept.     That's a good way to start a marriage:  to essentially strong arm the guy into it via some obscure Irish tradition.

The plane is diverted to Wales due to weather and Anna is able to ferry her way across rough seas to Cork, Ireland, which seems a million miles removed from Dublin in more ways than one.     The local hotel/bar/restaurant/taxicab service is run by bearded, ruggedly handsome Declan (Goode), who doesn't care for Anna and cares even less for Dublin, but agrees to drive her there for 500 Euro (don't know the exchange rate-but it sounds like a lot).    As expected with road movies, the two start out at mutual dislike, move to a guarded truce, become friends, and eventually fall for each other.    The travel issues they encounter only serve to move the aforementioned progression forward.   

Amy Adams is so sweet, vulnerable, and romantic that we just want to hug her.    She has more smiles than other actresses have expressions, like a 2010's version of Meg Ryan.    Her sweetness is a nice counterpoint to Goode's Declan, who has a chip on his shoulder and a hard exterior which only someone like Anna can penetrate.    It takes a lot of work, but she is up to the task.    Watch the scene in which Declan wakes up to think Anna has jumped on the next bus to Dublin.    She walks up quietly behind him holding two cups of coffee.    She sees through his body language how disappointed and heartbroken he is.    He doesn't know she is behind him.   It's the type of moment in which no words are said and none need to be.    It is the moment we wait for in movies like Leap Year.

   





Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Blackhat (2015) * *

Blackhat Movie Review

Directed by:  Michael Mann

Starring:  Chris Hemsworth, Viola Davis, Tang Wei, Leehom Wang, William Mapother, John Ortiz

Blackhat moves faster than such Michael Mann films as Miami Vice, Public Enemies, and Ali, which are paced like they were stuck in quicksand.    Blackhat is a more, vaguely satisfying, conventional thriller from Mann.   It never makes the leap into being anything but ordinary, but  I'll take it over the gloomy Miami Vice or the endless Public Enemies, while it ranks below Heat, The Insider, and Collateral in the hierarchy of Mann's work.

Blackhat begins with a meltdown of a Chinese nuclear reactor.    Before you ask whether Homer Simpson works there, we learn that the meltdown was caused by a hacker with more ambition than just average identity thief.    The Chinese government is at a loss on finding this untraceable hacker, so they turn to an imprisoned American hacker named Hathaway (Hemsworth), doing time for stunts similar to what the villain in Live Free or Die Hard pulled.   

Hathaway is intelligent and tough to deal with, but he quickly falls for one of his team members Chen Lien (Wei) who is the brother of another team member (Wang), who was Hathaway's college roommate.    The team is rounded out by an FBI agent Carol Barrett (Davis) under intense scrutiny to keep tabs on Hathaway and find the hacker.  

The search for the hacker takes the team all over the world, including scenic places like Hong Kong, Jakarta, and a piece of land in Malaysia that looks as habitable as the planets in Interstellar.    The hacker is not just interested in mayhem, but cornering the stock market due to the incidents he causes.    He makes $74 million in soy and is looking for a bigger payday with his next stunt.  

Hemsworth is a capable lead and is physically imposing, so much so that we can believe it when he takes down baddies mano a mano.     Even those who are special forces types.    His character, like the others in the film, are only superficially drawn, but he can bang away at the keyboard with the best of them.     A key conflict the film sidesteps in one fell swoop is when Hathaway is ordered to be returned to the States because he hacked into an NSA system which can recreate destroyed files.    His team is ordered to send bring him in.    Will they disobey orders and continue with Hathaway?   The film takes care of any potential moral and ethical dilemmas in one key shootout. 

Mann's film is well-paced and serviceable.     The conclusion flies in the face of convention in a way because, well, you'll see for yourself.    Usually Roger Ebert's Law of Economy of Characters plays a part in films in which the heroes are trying to identify a mystery villain.    The law says (paraphrasing) that any seemingly unnecessary character is usually the villain.    Does that apply here?   Let's just say when the villain is revealed that I was underwhelmed.  













 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Into The Woods (2014) * 1/2

Into the Woods Movie Review

Directed by:  Rob Marshall

Starring:  Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Lucy Punch, Chris Pine, Christine Baranski, Tracy Ullman, Daniel Huttlestone

What a waste to assemble all of this talent and strand them in a dismal musical.    Based on the award-winning Broadway play, you not only will not be humming any of the songs in Into The Woods, but you won't remember if there are any songs.    Into The Woods is one of those productions in which even the dialogue is mostly sung, so it's hard to differentiate what is actually a song and what is dialogue.    No matter.    The film is a collection of sung words up against a morose set which are the deep, dark woods everyone sings about.    The actors try mightily to have fun and make it fun for us, but they have to overcome too much.

Set in that time when fairy tales took place (the 1500's, 1600's?), Into The Woods dovetails the stories of Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella, Rapunzel, Little Red Riding Hood, and a baker who can not conceive a child with his wife.    If that is a fairy tale, I don't know of it.    The baker (Corden) is promised that he will be able to conceive with his infertile wife (Blunt) if he finds four items and delivers them to the witch (Streep) who cursed his house over an old property dispute.    Cinderella (Kendrick) is abused by her nasty stepmother and stepsisters, but is able to go to the ball and run out on the prince (Pine) on consecutive nights the ball is held.     The prince is enchanted by this woman who runs out on him and launches a search for her.    Rapunzel, she of the long blonde hair people can climb on, is kept captive in a tower by her adoptive mother, the witch.    Another prince falls for Rapunzel.    Then we have the Jack and the Beanstalk angle, which fits into the events.     Oh, and don't forget the Big Bad Wolf (Depp), who is in the film for little more than a cameo.   

If you're bored yet by my recap of the film's events, well, I guess I'm guilty of being bored writing it.    You may be even more bored watching them unfold before your eyes.     Some musicals have songs that catch your ear and make you feel.    Grease, Les Miserables, West Side Story, and Rock of Ages are examples of such musicals.    They also have interesting stories, so we care about what everything is singing and dancing about.     Into The Woods is thin soup, even with various subplots and stories mixed in.     Virtually every song references "the woods", which is said to be dark, mysterious, and otherworldly.    It looks like a dreary swing club for ticks to me.

I admit I perked up at about the 75 minute mark, when it looked like Happily Ever After was upon us and everything would be tidied up.    Alas, the film kept on going like an unwanted Energizer bunny.    There was 45 minutes more of singing and drudgery still to go.    With a skilled musical director like Rob Marshall (Chicago) and this cast, Into The Woods should have been a home run.    I just don't think the underlying material is good.  



Friday, June 19, 2015

Miami Vice (2006) * *



Directed by:  Michael Mann

Starring:  Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, John Ortiz, Luis Tosar, Barry Shabaka Henley, Ciaran Hinds

Michael Mann's Miami Vice, based on his popular 1980s TV show, is far less flashy and colorful than his television creation.    Both are high on style, but the movie is darker, plodding, and very, very serious.    It moves slowly and there isn't a payoff for our patience.   

The Miami Vice TV series was slick, stylish television which highlighted the Miami lifestyle of fast cars and faster women.   Crockett (Don Johnson) and Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) could barely contain their smiles as they busted drug cartels week after week.    They seemed to be having a great time.    The Crockett and Tubbs of the movie, played respectively by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, are intense and I don't recall a smile between them.    The movie depicts their jobs as vice cops with much more seriousness.    Crockett drives a fast car, but hardly seems to be enjoying it.    

The opening scenes show the Miami skyline on a Saturday night.    Underneath the clouds which hover menacingly over the city, we see the lights and feel the pulsating beats of dance clubs.    Mann's exterior shots capture both the beauty and tempestuous nature of the city, sometimes in the same frame.    The film also travels to Havana and Colombia, with many days of gray skies and storms threatening to engulf everything.    It is one of the few movies depicting Miami which actually acknowledges the possibility of hurricanes.

Within the dancing, drinking, and partying, Crockett and Tubbs work undercover to expose a drug cartel.    Crockett is scruffy looking with a permanent five o'clock shadow.    Tubbs is clean cut and stylish.    Then Crockett receives a call from a scared informant that a drug deal will soon go very bad for the cops.    It does go bad.   Many cops and FBI undercover agents are killed and the FBI's involvement is compromised.

Crockett and Tubbs, both covers intact, are recruited by the FBI to continue exposing the cartel.    They go in deep with sinister guys who are suspicious of everything and do background checks.    Crockett, however, makes a play on a woman who is the cartel leader's lover and a power broker within the organization.    They hook up, but soon fall in love, which can lead to deadly consequences for both.   

There are numerous plot intricacies that add to the plot, but not the intrigue.    Miami Vice is a somber film.     The series may have been superficial, but at least it was somewhat cheesy fun, which can not be said for the movie version.    I wasn't an avid watcher of the series, but when I did tune in I had a pretty good time.    Did Mann attempt to do the opposite of everything from the series, including tone?     Why did he throw a wet blanket over the proceedings?     The only connection to the series is the names of three of the characters.    Mann could have easily just changed those names and created a whole new enterprise.     By throwing Miami Vice in as the title, we expect more and don't get it. 








Thursday, June 11, 2015

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) * * *



Directed by:  Stephen Daldry

Starring:  Thomas Horn, Sandra Bullock, Tom Hanks, Max von Sydow, Jeffrey Wright, Viola Davis, John Goodman

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close covers a lot of ground in the wake of 9/11.   It is at the same time uneven, moving, and unusual.    We don't lose interest, even if we shake our heads at some of the film's preposterous revelations and coincidences.     When you have a mixed bag like this one, you're bound to hit and miss.   I can't say I've seen a film quite like it.    You can interpret that as you will.

The film's trailers and posters give Tom Hanks and Sandra Bullock top billing, but the film's true lead is Thomas Horn, who takes on a complex 11-year old boy struggling to deal with the death of his beloved father in the Twin Towers.    His character, Oskar Schell, is quite a load for Horn to shoulder, but he does so admirably.    Oskar is chock full of anxieties, intelligence, and possesses a keen analytical mind.    Maybe too analytical.   There are times when we think he will collapse under the burden.   His father Thomas (Hanks) suspects he may have Asperger's Syndrome and arranges almost daily adventures, searches, quests, etc. for Oskar to fulfill.    Hanks once again is imminently likable, almost saintly in his treatment of Oskar and his wife Linda (Bullock).   

Thomas is trapped on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center on 9/11 and ultimately perishes.    Some time later, Oskar finds an envelope with the name "BLACK" written on it hidden in a vase.   Inside it is a single key.   Oskar, thinking this is one last quest designed by his father, decides the key must be meaningful in some way and sets out to find into what lock the key fits.    Undaunted by the enormity of the task, Oskar plans to visit everyone with the last name Black in the five New York boroughs.     The key must certainly belong to one of them.    There are 472 of them to be exact and Oskar wants to walk to each one.   

Oskar enlists the help of a kindly old man who lives with his grandmother.    He is known only as "The Renter" (von Sydow), who does not speak even a word.    He writes messages to converse and has the word yes tattooed on the palm of his left hand and no tattooed on the right palm.    Von Sydow (Oscar nominated for his work here) is a towering, genial presence who is able to suggest more with a shrug and a facial expression than others can with speeches.    He is also conceals great pain and a secret or two.    His scene in which he hears Thomas' message on Oskar's answering machine left shortly before the tower collapsed is especially gripping.

I won't reveal how the search turns out, except that Oskar is able to discover things about his loved ones he didn't know before.    His relationship with his mother is distant since Oskar believes the wrong parent died on 9/11 (and says so out loud).    She loves him, but is unable to reach him and is consumed in her grief over such a senseless act which killed her husband.     "You're trying to make sense out of something that never will make sense," she tells Oskar.    His quest to find the lock for the key is proof positive of that.  









Whiplash (2014) * * * 1/2

Whiplash Movie Review

Directed by:  Damien Chazelle

Starring:  Miles Teller, JK Simmons, Melissa Benoist, Paul Reiser

Whiplash's general plot outline is similar to The Paper Chase (1973).    A first year student is in awe and fear of his tyrannical teacher.    While John Houseman's Professor Kingsfield's reign of terror consisted mostly of verbal putdowns, Whiplash's Terence Fletcher (Simmons) combines verbal abuse, colorful name calling, threats, and even occasional slapping of students in order to push his students to "greatness".    His definition of greatness is measured by the brief life of Charlie "Bird" Parker, who according to Fletcher had a cymbal thrown at him in order to "inspire" him.    Parker died at 34 of a drug overdose, but that's of little consequence to Fletcher.    At least we squeezed every ounce of greatness from him before he died (my tone there is sarcastic).

Both Houseman and Simmons won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor for their respective performances.     The role of a teacher who rules his students through fear and constant verbal beatdowns is a juicy one.    Simmons clearly sinks his teeth in and creates a memorable presence even when he is not on screen.     We sense Simmons' love for music borders on obsession.    He hears whether a drummer is "rushing" or "dragging" and takes drastic measures to make a student recognize it.    This includes throwing the cymbal.     His rationale for his extreme methods lies in his quest to discover the next Charlie Parker.     "The two worst words you can ever say to someone is 'good job',"  he tells the drummer Andrew Neyman (Teller), who finds he is in way over his head in dealing with the likes of Fletcher.

Neyman never expected to deal with the extreme Fletcher when he first meets him while practicing at Schaffer Music Conservatory in New York.    Fletcher invites him to play with the main band.    At first, he engages Andrew in an encouraging pep talk.    After a few minutes of playing, Fletcher is slapping Andrew repeatedly in the face demanding to know the difference between rushing and dragging.    Andrew is fearful of Fletcher and practices harder either to impress him or keep him off his back.    He pounds the drums until his hands are a bloody pulp.    Does this keep Fletcher at bay?   Hardly.

The relationship between Andrew and Fletcher is at the heart of Whiplash.    The motives of both men become clear as the film moves on, or do they?     Fletcher is way ahead of Andrew in the art of psychological manipulation, but by the end we are surprised to see Andrew may be capable of turning the tables.    Teller projects naivete and eagerness in early scenes, followed by coldness as he dumps his girlfriend (Benoist), then a surprising toughness.    He tells her he can't date her because he is focusing all of his energy on being a great drummer.    Is sacrificing his personal relationships a way of achieving the elusive greatness that Fletcher talks about?     He is close to his father Jim (Reiser), a teacher at a local high school who dreamed of becoming a writer.    Is Jim the antithesis of the greatness Fletcher demands of his students?   It is not beneath Fletcher to exploit this possibility when he rants against Andrew not being able to keep up with swing time.

Whiplash does not tell a new story, but does tell it with freshness and complexity.    In the closing scenes, as Andrew bashes away on his drum kit in an impromptu drum solo, both he and Fletcher both achieve what they want on some level.    We also have to question:  How much do the ends justify the means as Fletcher finds perhaps the next Charlie Parker?    At what cost are we willing to stretch to be great at anything?    Are we even willing to be degraded to one day be called great?  







Saturday, June 6, 2015

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) * *

Fifty Shades of Grey Movie Review

Directed by:  Sam Taylor-Johnson

Starring:  Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Jennifer Ehle, Marcia Gay Harden

"I don't usually like my filth this clean," - Tom Hanks in Bachelor Party

Yes, I quoted the raunchy 1984 comedy Bachelor Party because in my mind no other quote fits my feeling about Fifty Shades of Grey.    The erotica which is supposed to be the big deal in this film is so choreographed and packaged that it loses all of its eroticism.    We witness the various scenes of S & M between college graduate Anastasia Steele (Johnson) and billionaire Christian Grey (Dornan), but where is the feeling?    They play the notes without really knowing the music.    It is porn of sorts, but homogenized and tame.  

Ana and Christian are about as deep as a soap dish, but fortunately Johnson and Dornan are appealing actors who would have flourished with better material.    These are nice enough people who are wounded, but looking to be soothed.     The Fifty Shades of Grey novels became famous because of their explicit portrayals of the S & M sessions between Anastasia and Christian, but trust me, I've seen S & M porn much hotter than this.   

Director Taylor-Johnson succeeds in creating a sterile, cold look for the interiors of Grey's offices and home.    They have a museum feel, in which you can look around but can't touch anything.    Kind of like Grey himself.    Grey uses S & M as a way of masking his fear of intimacy.    He prefers not to sleep in the same bed as his lovers and doesn't reveal much about himself to Ana.    There is little to no memorable dialogue between the two, which the film doesn't care about anyway.    People paid to witness the rumpy-pumpy.    The character development here is nonexistent.

Dakota Johnson is a beauty with a sensual way of biting her lip to convey various emotions, including arousal, nervousness, and confusion.    Dornan is clean-shaven, slick, rich, and intense.    We sense somehow Anastasia can crack his steely exterior.    "You are changing me," he tells her, but sadly Anastasia isn't much more than a smile and doe eyes.    Christian is pretty much a suit.    There are two more sequels planned in this series based on E.L. James' novels and maybe then these two will become real people.

So we are left with sex scenes that are too safe and monotonous.     We see quick shots of Dakota Johnson's breasts (or are they of a body double?) and she writhes in pain/ecstasy as Christian whips her or caresses her sensually,   There is no spontaneity nor life in them.    They are perfunctory, just giving the audience enough of the novels' famous sex scenes to ensure its money's worth.    Without them though, we would have had to endure more wonderful conversation between Anastasia and Christian.     Better to get out the whips and chains.




Friday, June 5, 2015

Beaches (1988) * * 1/2



Directed by:  Garry Marshall

Starring:  Bette Midler, Barbara Hershey, John Heard, Spalding Gray, Mayim Bialik, James Read, Lainie Kazan

Up until the final half hour, I enjoyed Beaches despite its flaws, cliches, and Bette Midler bogarting screen time for full musical performances.     This happened at least four times, but who's counting?   The last half hour was set up for a walloping tear-jerking ending, but I was left ambivalent toward the events.    I didn't expect the impact of a Love Story or Ghost ending, but I expected to feel something.     The experience of watching Beaches is ultimately frustrating, because many times it threatened to work even though nothing in it should surprise anyone.  

Beaches tracks the 30-year friendship of CC Bloom (Midler) and Hillary Whitney (Hershey), who meet as pre-adolescent girls in 1957 Atlantic City.     CC is a budding stage performer from the Bronx who auditions for a role in a local musical.     Hillary, originally from San Francisco, is on vacation with her family.    They take an instant liking to each other and become pen pals over 10 years.    I hope there some phone calls mixed in also.

They meet again after years of correspondence in the Bronx.   Hillary became a lawyer and has abandoned her stuffy California life, while CC struggles to launch her singing career.     They move in together and become best of friends.    Their friendship is tested by the arrival of a fledgling theater director named John (Heard) whom they both have the hots for.    Hillary lands him first, but then conveniently moves back to California and he and CC marry just as conveniently.    CC outgrows John, who is content on being a small theater director, as her career takes off.    She lands a Broadway lead role in a play about bras.    Yes, bras.    You would think such a production would close in one night, but in a Producers-like twist, it is "held over for a second smash year."    Hillary marries a snobby lawyer who may as well be wearing a sign that reads, "I'M CHEATING ON YOU!"

The two have an inevitable fight which keeps them apart for a while.   CC writes letters to Hillary which are returned to sender.    A phone call or two would certainly save on the postage and writer's cramp.    They reconcile as CC's career hits a snag in a pretty effective scene.    The performances of both Midler and Hershey elevate the film's soap opera tendencies.     The film opens with CC rehearsing for a show at the Hollywood Bowl.    She receives a phone call (presumably about Hillary) and drops everything to go and be with her.    Hillary is ill with a heart disease of some kind which in no way affects her physical beauty.    Hillary's daughter and CC kinda sorta get along, but we know that they will be conciliatory once Hillary's inevitable demise occurs. 

Maybe that is why Hillary's death (and I'm sure I'm not spoiling anything) lacks such dramatic impact.    It is telegraphed in the beginning of the film and made perfunctory by the time it actually happens.    We also know the film will end with a Bette Midler number.    She's a good singer, sure, but do we really have to stop the movie so she could belt one out?    The pity is, the song most associated with Beaches, The Wind Beneath My Wings, is played over the soundtrack.    I would not have minded seeing Midler sing that one.    It may have had added some goose bumps.   



Thursday, June 4, 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron (2015) * *

Avengers: Age of Ultron Movie Review

Directed by:  Joss Whedon

Starring:  Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johannson, James Spader (voice), Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Jeremy Renner

Avengers:  Age Of Ultron is one crowded movie.   There are simply too many characters, too much plot, and too much action.     People say some movies are boring because "nothing happens."    Avengers: Age of Ultron is a movie where everything happens and is still rather boring.    Wall-to-wall noise, violence, and CGI make this film all sound and fury, signifying nothing as Shakespeare put it.

Describing all of the intricacies of the plot is a fool's errand, so I'll explain the basics.    Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Downey) and Dr. Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Ruffalo) create an artificial intelligence robot named Ultron (voiced by James Spader) who quickly overcomes his programming boundaries, turns evil, and hatches a plot to take over the world with the help of Scarlett Witch (Olsen) and Quicksilver (Taylor-Johnson), who have their own respective powers of telekinesis and speed which would make The Flash envious   What exactly would happen once the world is taken over?   Your guess is as good as mine.    I questioned why someone would want to take over a whole planet or universe.    After that, what evil is left to accomplish?    Guys like Ultron will get bored real quick, like General Zod did in Superman II.

As Ultron hatches his plot, the Avengers hole up in a farmhouse owned by Clint Barton aka Hawkeye (Renner) which is off the grid I suppose and the group can lick their wounds, hash out arguments and resentments, and reunite for one last push.    The original Avengers (2012) followed the same story arc.    Can't we all just get along?    We know ultimately that the good guys will come together and overcome their temporary squabbles, so why even bother?

More characters are presented in a film already saturated with them.    One is The Vision (Bettany), who we find is what the Ultron project was supposed to be.    Thor discovers him in his dreams, although how this comes to fruition is a mystery.    Alliances are shifted on a dime.    Whatever plans Ultron had become muddled, as does the Avengers' plot to foil them.    I suppose we are expected to go with the flow, but that becomes a Herculean task also.  

Avengers: Age of Ultron soon becomes a mind-numbing slog.    The original Avengers was silly, yes, but it was fun on its intended level.     Age of Ultron is not nearly as fun.    It is ponderous.    The superheroes are quickly losing their appeal.     They are becoming bores.     The credit cookie in this film hints at a future film uniting The Avengers with Guardians of the Galaxy.    My brain may explode trying to juggle all of those.   



Aloha (2015) * 1/2

Aloha Movie Review

Directed by:  Cameron Crowe

Starring:  Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, Alec Baldwin, Bill Murray, John Krasinski, Danny McBride

Aloha stars numerous appealing actors who will no doubt be appealing again, but here they are trapped in a dead zone.     It is a romantic comedy without romance or laughs.    There is little chemistry between Cooper and Stone, Cooper and McAdams, and McAdams and Krasinski.     The actors try mightily to elevate Aloha, but it is for naught.   

The film opens with aerospace contractor (I think) and former Air Force hotshot (I think) Brian Gilcrest (Cooper) landing in Hawaii after many years away.   He works now for a private contractor run by scruffy Carson Welch (Murray), who looks like he needs a shave and a nap more than anything.    Gilcrest's job is to convince locals to allow a satellite to be placed in the sky above their airspace.    He does that, although is it anyone's place to be bargaining over where to place a satellite?   Which is usually placed somewhere in Earth's orbit?    Gilcrest is accompanied by Allison Ng (Stone), who has an Asian last name but of course looks like Emma Stone and not an Asian woman.    Cameron Crowe recently apologized for casting Stone in the role and not an Asian actress.     He should apologize for the film itself, although considering how underdeveloped these characters are, it makes little difference who is cast.  

Ng's job is to keep Gilcrest out of trouble (I think), but mainly she is but a budding love interest for him.    Gilcrest's eyes, however, may be diverted elsewhere, as he has unfinished business with his former flame Tracy (McAdams), who is married to a pilot/man of few words named Woody (Krasinski).    Brian and Tracy hadn't seen each other in thirteen years and Tracy's oldest daughter is around that age.    Is Brian the real father?    Does a bear do its business in the woods?

I don't wish to go on and labor about the film's plot and subplots.    And believe me it is labor.    Why would I bother describing something that is so uninteresting anyway?    Watching Aloha is like attending a party in which everyone knows each other and you know no one.    You try in vain to keep up with stories and fit into the conversation, but ultimately you feel left out and you have a lousy time.

The people here change their minds and feelings so fast you get whiplash, but no matter what the actors can't find the right tone for them because they are at the mercy of the plot anyway.   It is a shame to assemble all of this talent in one place and thoroughly waste it.