Thursday, December 18, 2014

Foxcatcher (2014) * * *

Foxcatcher Movie Review

Directed by:  Bennett Miller

Starring:  Steve Carrell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Sienna Miller, Anthony Michael Hall, Vanessa Redgrave

I liked Foxcatcher without loving it.    I was intrigued by some portions, while held at arm's length in others.     Yet, Foxcatcher is beautifully photographed, cold, desolate, and tragic.    It is not the type of movie one would "enjoy" like an action thriller or a romantic comedy, but it can be admired nonetheless.   

Based on true events, Foxcatcher tells the story of two Olympic gold medalist wrestling brothers, Mark and David Schultz, whose lives become tragically entangled with millionaire John Dupont (Carrell).    As Foxcatcher opens, Mark (Tatum) is living a life of lonely solitude.   He trains with his older, more lauded brother Dave (Ruffalo), while living in a dumpy apartment eating ramen noodles and earning a meager living speaking at elementary schools.     Late one night, Dupont's assistant calls and flies him first class to Foxcatcher, Dupont's vast horse farm near Valley Forge, Pa.    Dupont offers Mark a job training his stable of wrestlers for the 1988 Olympics.    "Name your price," Dupont says, and Mark blurts out "$25,000".     Mark has little idea that Dupont would've likely paid much more.    Dupont also wishes to lure Dave into the fold, but Dave refuses to uproot his family.   

Dupont is a strange man with a big, misshapen nose who speaks and behaves under a fog of cocaine and mental illness.     Carrell's performance is all the more frightening, not only because I knew what would eventually happen, but because we sense he is a lonely man forever trying to please his disapproving mother and failing.    This rejection builds up inside him until he finally acted on it in January 1996, killing Dave in front of his family.    "I had one friend when I was a child and I found out at 15 that he was paid by my mother to be my friend," he confides in Mark.    We witness his mother (Vanessa Redgrave) express her disapproval of Dupont's love of wrestling.   "Wrestling is a low sport and I don't like to see you that low."

We learn soon that Dupont loves wrestling because he uses it as a way to indulge his repressed homosexuality.    He intently watches men rolling on the mat, acting as a coach, but really just preferring to watch.     Dupont does very little coaching.    The one time he attempts to coach is done so ineptly that it causes snickers within his stable.     Because he pays for the facilities and puts his group up in nice quarters on the property, Dupont sees himself as a coach, father figure, and friend, especially to Mark.    Dupont hooks Mark on cocaine, even briefly becoming his lover, which is implied if not ever seen.    Throughout it all, Dupont wishes Dave would be in the fold, mostly because Dave is Dupont's Moby Dick.    Like Captain Ahab, pursuing Dave gives Dupont something to strive for.    Dave eventually comes aboard, but notices Dupont's strange behavior rather quickly.    He also believes his brother is not well physically or mentally either and manuevers him away from Dupont.

The performances are strong.    Carrell's presence casts an eerie pall over the entire movie effectively.   Tatum is physically imposing, and naive to Dupont's motives.     Tatum projects a man starved for love and approval.   Dupont gives him the approval he has forever sought.    Dupont easily manipulates Mark, saying that he has lived in Dave's shadow his whole life.     The most fascinating performance is Ruffalo's.    He is a student of wrestling who has learned to move on with his life after his active wrestling career was over.    He is intuitive and cares deeply for his younger brother.     He is a good man who did not deserve to be murdered.    Ruffalo provides the most well-rounded character, one we can relate to more easily than Mark or Dupont, who both are scarred and tortured in their own way.    Much of the action takes place on Dupont's large, spacious, yet cold estate.     There is no happiness there, only a cold exertion of power and influence.     

Because Dupont was wealthy and a member of the famed Dupont family, this story grabbed headlines in 1996 because we witnessed a rich man who has it all nevertheless become unhinged and give in to his base desires.    His desire was to kill.   Why was that?    We can speculate that he knows
that, aside from money, he has little self-worth.     He enters an over-50 wrestling tournament which he sponsors and wins because his opponents are paid to lose.    He can not accept that he is a failure as a coach, friend, and son.     This eats at him until he acts out on unsupecting Dave one winter morning.

When Foxcatcher was over, I was aware the movie didn't delve into Mark's feelings on his brother's death.    He is seen becoming a cage fighter, which he did successfully, but how did he feel about his benefactor murdering his brother?    Dupont was convicted of murder and died in prison in 2010.    Foxcather is chilling, sometimes sterile, and a very quiet film, with occasionally the simple piano score breaking the silence.    We know everything is building to the eventual murder of Dave Schultz.     I admired Foxcatcher even if ultimately it wasn't fully engaging.      Foxcatcher is presented in such a fashion that the people never can truly penetrate their cold surroundings.     Maybe that is the point.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Get Smart (2008) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Peter Segal

Starring:  Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Terence Stamp, Alan Arkin, James Caan, Dwayne Johnson

Last week, the name of the next James Bond movie was announced.    It will be titled SPECTRE, no doubt referring to the terrorist organization which is never quite able to fulfill its dreams of world domination thanks mostly to Bond.    Let's face it:  SPECTRE is a group of screwups which, no matter how hard it tries, cannot dispose of one man.    Why should any world leaders take SPECTRE seriously, considering its dubious track record?    They should just wait for James Bond to show up.     Even Dr. Evil's organization is more threatening. 

With that in mind, is KAOS, the group battling Maxwell Smart and company in Get Smart, any different?    KAOS is meant to be a sendup of SPECTRE, but in actuality, they are both similar.    How can KAOS be a spoof of SPECTRE when SPECTRE is as equally adept at fucking up as KAOS?    Actually, KAOS simply provides the plot on which to hang the gags for Get Smart.     The results are very funny and witty.    Director Segal and his cast weren't content with a silly adaptation of the 1960's TV series, but wanted to put its own stamp on things.     There are plenty of sly one-liners to be sure, but we can't help but root for the underdog Smart, who succeeds at times despite himself and at times because he can be pretty darn brilliant.

KAOS orchestrates a new plot in which it builds a nuclear weapon to blow up half of Los Angeles during the President's trip there.     A Moscow bakery is used as a front to create the weapon.     At least KAOS didn't go through the trouble of stealing a warhead.     When CONTROL, the agency Smart works for as an analyst, is blown to smithereens, Smart is made an agent and is teamed up with the mysterious, sexy Agent 99 (Hathaway), who at times has to bail Smart out of trouble and may even wind up in love with him when all is said and done.

Agent 23 (Johnson) is also put on the case.    Carrell carries the load, but Hathaway and Johnson also prove to be deft comic actors.    Alan Arkin can be funny without even seeming to try.    "Anyone who is thrown in jail and then breaks out of jail to save the same people who jailed him is either a double agent or not an idiot.    And you are not a double agent," he tells Smart at one point.     Sounds pretty logical to me.     Terence Stamp is on hand as Siegfried, the head of KAOS who bemoans that he is stuck with dopes working for him.    He gets his comeuppance in a very funny sequence in which he makes the wrong guy angry at the worst possible time. 

Get Smart took great care to be a smart comic action film.    We care about the outcome, mostly because we like these slyly goofy characters so much.     An initial showdown between Smart and Siegfried is a microcosm of the film's wit.

Siegfried:   If you were CONTROL, you would already be dead.

Smart:   If I were CONTROL, you would already be dead.

Siegfried's henchman:   It actually makes sense.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Italian Job (2003) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  F. Gary Gray

Starring:  Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Edward Norton, Jason Statham, Seth Green, Franky G, Mos Def, Donald Sutherland

The Italian Job is a superior example of a slick caper/chase film.    There are even a few ingenious moments which are thrilling.    It is not quite as good as Ocean's Eleven, which also depicts a group of thieves stealing lots of money, but it is definitely in the same league.    Here, the coveted prize is millions of dollars worth of gold bars, but money is money.

These days, most thefts occur online, where someone has to simply hit a few buttons to swindle someone out of their money.    Or, like in the case of Bernie Madoff, a thief can run a pyramid scheme which bilks clients out of millions.    They wouldn't dream of cracking a safe or speeding a Mini-Cooper through LA traffic and down the steps of Union Station.    Why go through all of the intensive labor?

The Italian Job begins with a Venice heist in which a group of thieves steal millions in gold bars only to have one of the group, second in command Steve (Norton), betray them, kill the group leader (Sutherland), and swipe the gold for himself while leaving the others for dead.    The surviving members are Charlie (Wahlberg) the mastermind, Left-Ear (Def), an explosives expert, Handsome Rob (Statham) who drives a mean getaway car and seduces women, and Lyle (Green), the computer whiz who insists he is the true creator of Napster. 

Charlie brings in Sutherland's daughter Stella (Theron), a safecracker with revenge on her mind.   They plan to find Steve and steal the gold back.    This, of course, does not happen without plenty of plot twists and unexpected developments.     F. Gary Gray proved with The Negotiator (1998) that he can make a thriller which crackles with suspense.     The Italian Job is an extremely well-crafted film full of car chases, thefts, double crosses, and a very, very creative way to make a truck full of gold seemingly disappear from the street.    I especially enjoyed that.

The Italian Job isn't heavy, deep, or meaningful.     It is a great way to spend a couple of hours having fun watching a cheerfully preposterous film.    That beats wasting two hours on similar films that go on autopilot and are not in any way made special by the filmmakers or cast.     We have seen films like The Italian Job a hundred times.    What makes it work better is the energy expended to at least try and stand out from the crowd. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Theory Of Everything (2014) * * 1/2

The Theory of Everything Movie Review

Directed by:  James Marsh

Starring:  Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, David Thewlis, Charlie Cox, Emily Watson

The Theory Of Everything is the story of Dr. Stephen Hawking, one of the world's most brilliant scientists confined to a wheelchair since the late 1960s due to Lou Gehrig's disease.    He was given two years to live when first diagnosed, but he is now 72 and continues to be among the most revered people in the scientific community.    His fame has even entered mainstream media, including a recent cameo appearance on The Big Bang Theory.    His mind is as sharp as ever, even though his body has failed him.    His communication with the world is done through a computer which "speaks" his thoughts.

Hawking's story as presented here lacks power.    I found myself enjoying the performances and hoping for a spark which never arrives.    The film concentrates not only on Hawking, but on his first wife Jane (Jones), who loved him and nursed him as his motor skills and normal daily functions slowly ceased.     They first meet at Cambridge in 1963, before Hawking earned his doctorate.    He is gawky and awkward, as if he is behind the wheel of a body that he can't quite control.    One day his legs give out from under him and we learn the sad truth.     Yet, Jane has fallen for him and promises to conquer his disease together.    They marry and have three children, but soon Jane has the unenviable task of caring for three toddlers and her husband who can barely feed himself.     They move the bed to the kitchen so he doesn't have to fight his way up and down stairs to get to the breakfast table.    However, the burden is relentless.

As Hawking, Redmayne is physically convincing.    We witness him shrivel up in his wheelchair and stare into space, seemingly seeing nothing but observing everything.    It must have been draining to play Hawking physically, but Redmayne does so with humor and warmth.     The screenplay doesn't really provide us with much insight into Hawking's feelings as his body fails.    There certainly had to be moments of anger and sadness that Hawking felt, but the movie sidesteps them.     Jones is sweet, caring, and kind as Hawking's wife, but even though she dutifully tends to Hawking, the love for him is never adequately conveyed.     Nor is the continued stress on her as the caretaking of her family overwhelms her.    

A subtext of the film is both Stephen and Jane's tacit approval of each other having lovers.    Since Stephen can no longer physically satisfy his wife, she turns to the kindly local church choirmaster (Cox), who assists Jane in the caretaking of her family and then becomes her lover.    He is the epitome of kindness and gentle anguish as he struggles with his feelings for her.    He wants to Do The Right Thing.     Except for some brief scenes, we never really see Hawking as a near-genius scientific mind.     We sense he is a genius because others tell us he is.    We rarely even see him working and struggling to prove his lauded theories.     The only way we know he worked at all is when we see his books put on display in store windows.    

It is hard to fault the performances in The Theory Of Everything.     The trouble is more at the screenplay level.    The film is happy to cover the surface of things, but doesn't delve too deep.    A lot of ground is covered, but not really explored.      What we have here is skilled, but ultimately perfunctory.   

Friday, December 12, 2014

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994) * 1/2

Directed by:  Tom Shadyac
Starring:  Jim Carrey, Courteney Cox, Dan Marino, Sean Young, Tone Loc
When Jim Carrey is playing hostile, aggressive, in-your-face characters like Ace Ventura, he is as pleasant as fingernails dragging across a chalkboard.     He has the range to play better roles and thankfully he has branched out as his career progressed.      Carrey puts a whole lot of energy into Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, but the results aren't funny.     Many people laughed hysterically at Carrey as he mugged his way desperately through scene after scene.    I didn't and still don't understand what is so funny.     Twenty years after seeing Ace Ventura the first time, I'm happy to see that my sense of humor hasn't changed.
The title character is a Miami-based pet detective who finds lost animals.    He is assigned by the Miami Dolphins to find Snowflake, their dolphin mascot kidnapped from its pool shortly before the Super Bowl.     The thought of the Miami Dolphins playing in the Super Bowl may be funnier than anything else in the movie.    Then again, it was released in 1994 when Dan Marino was the quarterback.    Marino also goes missing, which further complicates the case.
Ace also has to put up with Lt. Einhorn (Young), who busts Ace's balls every chance she gets because she thinks he is a lousy detective.     He proves her wrong even though he is a slightly better detective than Jacques Clouseau.     Ace is so obnoxious and unlikable we almost wish he wouldn't solve the case, which we care little about anyway.    The film's success rests on Carrey, which means that the film is not a success.
Carrey's methods at surgically removing laughs include facial contortions, phrases like "Alrighty then", and generally being a loud, boorish creep.     The other actors stand around waiting for Carrey to stop his act so they can utter their lines.   Courteney Cox (pre-"Friends") is on hand as the Dolphins employee who hires Ace and acts as the potential love interest.    Her role is thankless, as are most of the supporting roles.  

Carrey has talent and should do his best to avoid playing roles like Ace Ventura.    I remember once watching his standup act from the early 80s in which he employed numerous vocal impressions and facial expressions of famous people.    That was pretty funny.   

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Road To Perdition (2002) * * * 1/2

Directed by:  Sam Mendes

Starring:  Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Daniel Craig, Jude Law, Tyler Hoechlin, Stanley Tucci, Ciaran Hinds

Road To Perdition is a film that rises above mob movie cliches.    It is not simply about mobsters whacking each other for business or personal reasons, but about a father wishing to shield his son from a life he himself can not escape.     It is also about the old adage "there's family...and then there's family."    The Paul Newman character is forced to make a decision to kill his biological son or the man he loves "like a son".    Or in his world, have one or the other killed.   The choice isn't as easy as it may seem.

Directed by Sam Mendes (American Beauty), Road To Perdition is a film with similarities to American Beauty, including a similar score and lots of rain.    Road To Perdition doesn't have intermittent showers, but torrential downpours.     We hope there were dry clothes and a lot of coffee nearby.    This is a beautiful looking movie, photographed by Conrad Hall, who won a posthumous Oscar for his work here.     Even the scenes without rain are shadowy and menacing, thanks in large part to Hall's work.    It underscores everything.    The look is gloomy even if the action is not.  

We are so engrossed by the drama that we forget Road To Perdition is without much comic relief.     Unlike American Beauty, which played like satire, Road To Perdition is deadly serious.     It opens in rural Illinois in the winter of 1931, an area ruled by Irish mob kingpin John Rooney (Newman), whom Mike Sullivan (Hanks) works for.    Sullivan is a hitman mostly, but tries his best to conceal this information from his sons.    This does not dissuade their curiosity.    "Do you know what Dad actually does when he goes on missions for Mr. Rooney?", Sullivan's youngest son asks his older brother Michael (Hoechlin).    Michael, who feels distance from his father, decides to find out and stows away in his father's car when he treks out on one of his "missions".   

Michael witnesses mob killings, perpetrated by Rooney's son Connor (Craig), who thinks he will take over the family business one day.     Michael's father thinks his son won't talk, but the Rooneys aren't quite sure.    Soon, Connor kills Sullivan's wife and younger son, forcing father and son to flee, unable even to be present at the funeral of his family.     While on the road and desperately trying to find Connor (who is under protection not only by his father but the Capone family in Chicago), Michael and his son bond.    There aren't any wordy speeches or declarations of love, but small, touching moments in which each is able to finally understand the other.     We learn the father's distance and coldness were an attempt to shield his family from his job.   

There are inner conflicts as well.    Sullivan feels betrayed by Rooney, whom he viewed as a father and almost worshipfully at that.    Rooney, understanding he has to allow for Sullivan to be killed, says, "God help me," in sheer agony.    We understand the nature of their relationship which ultimately has to be sacrificed.      The key scene between the two occurs later, when Rooney tells Michael in no uncertain terms that his loyalty is with his son.     "There are only killers in this room.    One thing is for sure, none of us will ever see heaven," Rooney says.  "Michael can," responds Sullivan, as if it would matter.  

Road To Perdition is rarely less than gripping.    Tom Hanks may not seem like the actor to play a cold hitman, but he is subdued, conflicted, and identifiable even as we don't approve of his profession.    He hates his job, but does it out of loyalty to Rooney.    It is quite a good performance, also because we sense there is a moral compass in him as he protects his son.    This was Newman's final on-screen role (and he received an Oscar nomination for his work).    He lends such gravity and power to his scenes that we don't realize he is not onscreen that much.     His presence occupies scenes he is not even in.    Also on hand is Jude Law as Maguire, who is hired to kill the Sullivans and sells photographs he takes of his victims.     Law is effectively creepy.

The overall feeling the film conveys is coldness, not just temperature-wise, but within the characters themselves.    I read that the temperature dipped as low as -30 F during some of the scenes.    These characters have compartmentalized and rationalized so much that there is little joy in them.    Road To Perdition is the opposite end of the spectrum from Goodfellas, where the mobsters loved being in the mob.     People like Mike Sullivan probably wish they had sales jobs instead. 


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Nightcrawler (2014) * * *

Nightcrawler Movie Review

Directed by:  Dan Gilroy

Starring:  Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed, Rene Russo, Bill Paxton

Louis Bloom (Gyllenhaal) is a sociopath who stumbles across the perfect career as a "nightcrawler", a term for a free lance video cameraman who listens intently to police scanners and sells footage of grisly car crashes and homicides to the highest bidding TV stations.    Bloom is scary, not necessarily because he behaves violently towards others, but because we imagine the lengths he will go to satisfy his egotistical career goals.    "It's not that I know people.   It's that I don't like them," he tells his assistant Ricky (Ahmed), who begins to understand the true nature of his boss all too well.

Bloom behaves cordially, almost too cordially,  and with a disarming smile for everyone he meets.    If Norman Bates were not satisfied with running the motel and ventured out into the streets of Los Angeles, he would likely behave like Bloom.     We witness the ingratiating Louis turn into manipulative and scheming Louis on numerous occasions, especially when attempting to entice the news director he works with (Russo) to sleep with him.     She tries the old line, "I wouldn't want to ruin our friendship," in order to dissuade him.    Louis responds with, "What if you telling me no ruins our friendship?"    Guys, I must say this may be the perfect comeback line for that age-old excuse.    If a woman tries to lay it on you, channel Louis Bloom and see how it goes.    Or better yet, don't.

Nightcrawler succeeds primarily because of Gyllenhaal's relentless performance.     Slight of build, but not slight of ambition, we see Louis learn the art of nightcrawling.     If you think he would be above staging a crime scene or perhaps messing with the brakes of a competitor's van so that it would be involved in a gruesome accident, then you would be wrong.    Gyllenhaal is tightly wound, almost sounding like a walking, talking MBA online course when discussing his goals and future prospects.    He never assaults anyone or turns into a psychotic killer.    However, we also know he is so beyond ordinary human feelings that what remains is a shell of a person.    In the TV news business, where the unspoken (and sometimes spoken) rule is "If it bleeds, it leads",  a nightcrawler's job, in a sense, is to film the most blood so it will capture the lead story slot.    

This is the perfect job for Louis, who isn't bothered by gore, violence, or ruthlessness.    The only thing that seems to rankle him is when his news director chastises him for not giving her better material.     That is enough to make him smash his bathroom mirror.     Nightcrawler is a character study about the type of person MBA online or even classroom courses seem to spit out.    We hear the MBAspeak about motivation, goals, personal development, performance reviews, and longterm business plans.    What we don't hear, especially from Louis, is any semblance that there is a human being inside.    Louis, and many like him, are flesh, blood, and smiles, but there is really no one home.     Certain aspects of Nightcrawler play like black comedy, a la Network, in which we think some of the satire is over the top, but upon reflection we realize that it is just barely ahead of the facts. 

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Interstellar (2014) * * *

Interstellar Movie Review

Directed by:  Christopher Nolan

Starring:  Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, John Litghow, Wes Bentley

A good portion of Interstellar is gripping and emotionally powerful.    Then, it hits a wall from which it never quite recovers.    The film could easily be trimmed by about 20 minutes and still maintain its original vision.    Christopher Nolan attempts to stuff a lot of ideas into this space epic, which overall is an ambitious, thought-provoking project for about 3/4 of its running time.     We see Einstein's Theory of Relativity put into practical use, which turns out to be a very sad ordeal, although if my belief is correct there has to be something traveling at the speed of light in order for the theory to work.   

Interstellar opens on Earth at an unnamed time in the future.    The planet is beginning to die.    All other crops except corn can no longer be grown.     There are frequent massive dust storms and fires.    The population has dwindled so much so that the New York Yankees now play on a Little League field somewhere in the middle of the nation's heartland.    There are also no more armies, mostly because money is directed to saving whatever life is left on Earth.    

I will tread lightly while describing the plot so I don't give away too many plot points.    Part of the wonder of Interstellar is its scope.    The early scenes create a sad tone.    We see a planet dying and the likelihood that people will die with it.    As George Carlin once said, "The planet isn't going anywhere.   We are."    A former astronaut named Cooper (McConaughey), along with his near-genius daughter, stumble across a site used by NASA and run by Dr. Brand (Caine).   NASA's mission?    To send astronauts across the galaxy to find another planet which Earthlings can inhabit so they can move there and save the human race.   The catch?    Since it takes years to get to the edge of the galaxy, the astronauts will likely never see their loved ones again.     Can the ones chosen for the mission place the needs of the many ahead of the needs of the few?    Most can not. 

It is this central question that pulls along Interstellar and creates genuine, touching moments.     Nolan, with limitless technical expertise and resources at his disposal, is deftly able to envision a future growing bleaker by the moment even as the sun still shines.     Then, Instellar digresses into almost a homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey.    Plot developments come up that aren't really necessary or even relevant.      Things are concluded not with a wallop, but with a more muted, stunted ending unworthy of all the emotional investment that came before.

Interstellar is visually stunning as it takes us into the deepest recesses of space to uninhabitable planets.    What we mostly feel is the sense of time lost as the astronauts discover new worlds.    It takes so long to get there and back (even through a black hole) that many years pass on Earth.    Loved ones grow older and die.    This is likely why we send robots and machines into space instead of humans.     Machines don't have family attachments and people they miss.    The feelings of loss would be just too intense for humans to sacrifice for the greater good.     Interstellar works best when it focuses on that.     When it turns a little too sci-fi, it loses its way.     That is a strange thing to say about a sci-fi drama.