Archive for August, 2015

“The Man from U.N.C.L.E.”, heretofore referred to as “Uncle” for ease of typing, is a light and breezy spy movie that looks, moves and feels like a 60s era piece of entertainment.  It never takes itself seriously, not much is at stake (despite a plot involving possible nuclear annihilation), the characters are likeable and charming, and everything feels rather weightless as you’re watching it.  As a result, it never rises above the level of “fun”.  This isn’t a “good” movie, it’s certainly not profound, and it is easily forgettable, but while you’re watching it the film will amuse and occasionally delight you.

I was perhaps a tad predisposed to liking certain aspects of the film.  In have been to Berlin and seen the remnants of the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie.  I am a person who is highly interested in the old Soviet Union, and I identify myself politically as a Marxist Socialist.  Naturally, a film that takes place at the height of the Cold War, involves traveling to East Berlin, and features a likeable Soviet agent as one of the two protagonists (Armie Hammer) teaming up with an American (Henry Cavill) to fight fascists is going to tickle my fancy a little bit.  Hammer is, as a movie star, still wounded by the giant bomb that was “The Lone Ranger” (unseen by me), but he shows a deft humor in portraying a somewhat uptight KGB agent with anger issues.  The film makes mentions of Stalin’s crimes and the gulags (Hammer’s character’s father was sent to one for embezzling Communist Party funds), but it allows Hammer’s character, Illya Kuryakin, to be a likeable and capable guy, and not just a foreign bozo for the American to upstage.  Cavill, playing ex-black market art dealer-cum-CIA agent Napoleon Solo (the TV series the film is based on can be blamed for that ludicrous name), looks and sounds the part of an old Hollywood movie star, and has the charisma of a Cary Grant.  His chiseled features and the old-time Hollywood cadences of speaking dialogue really show that Cavill would have been right at home in a 60s Hollywood picture, and his presence in this film grounds it in the time frame in which it takes place.

The production values of this film go a long way to selling that this is the 1960s, from the fashions to set design to music choices.  Director Guy Ritchie even uses editing styles that give the entire film the feel of the 1960s filtered through a pseudo-Tarantino lens. While I miss the Guy Ritchie who made films like “Snatch” over a decade ago, the Ritchie who made this film is miles better than the one who made the lackluster “Sherlock Holmes” films.  It’s obvious from watching the film that Ritchie was aiming not so much to emulate the 60s, but to make the film look as if it were actually a PRODUCT of the 60s.  Some wonky CGI establishing shots of European cities aside, he largely succeeded in his goal.

As mentioned, the plot involves an American CIA agent teaming up with a Soviet KGB agent to stop Nazi sympathizers from attaining and detonating a nuclear device.  This hinges of both agents helping an East Berlin auto mechanic named Gaby (Alicia Vikander, who was so good in this year’s “Ex Machina” and does a bang up job here too) reach her father (Christian Berkel), a scientist that Hitler had forced to work for him during WWII.  This leads to infiltrating the ranks of the fascists, who are mainly lead by Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki), the wife of a Central American shipping magnate who is also a fascist.  “Uncle” is a bit more forward-thinking in the gender department than most spy films by having its main, intelligent villain being a woman.  Also, Gaby is a headstrong woman who is very capable herself. Compared to our two main male characters, who are occasionally buffoons, the women come off looking much better in the long run than the men.

The film isn’t quite parody of the “Austin Powers” or this year’s “Spy” variety, but the film has a breezy humor throughout and the drama never really takes hold.  That may be why, while I had fun during the film, I never really CARED all that much, and during a third act chase scene, despite it not being heavily CGI, I still found myself kind of bored and would have preferred more quippy dialogue.  I also would have preferred more politics and Soviet-related pot details, but that’s a complaint likely limited to myself and some history buffs.

“Uncle” isn’t going to be a film you remember, but it’s a fun film that works while you’re watching it.  It looks and sounds great, is well acted, the characters are likeable, and you’ll have a good time when you see it.  I just wish it had been more…well…just MORE.  The film at least serves to show that Cavill is a much better actor than “Man of Steel” was capable of showing us, Alicia Vikander is going to be an actress to watch as she now has two performances under her belt this year that were above and beyond what anyone was likely to expect from those characters, and that Guy Ritchie may be on the upswing in his career after a string of lackluster films. Good job, cowboy. B-

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“No Escape”, a film which should have kept its original name of “The Coup” instead of taking a name used by a number of films prior, is a liberal film working within a conservative genre.  The genre isn’t quite that tidily defined, but it’s a 90s-feeling action film that tries to keep the violence and action within realistic limits.  Actions films to one extent or another tend to be conservative, from the pro-gun and pro-vigilantism 80s action films to the downright fascist 70s films like “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish”.  It’s obvious that the makers of “No Escape” are somewhat leftist, but if you’re going to make a film about an American family who get caught up in an anti-Western imperialism coup in Asia, there’s going to be some xenophobia and racism going on.  The question becomes, are those negative traits even avoidable when making a film with this premise.

The premise is intriguing, and quite frankly preys on one of my own fears.  One of the big things I’d like to do with my life is travel more, especially internationally.  Unfortunately, because America idiotically decides not to teach foreign languages to kids until high school when all research shows they’re more likely to pick them up the earlier you start teaching them, I and many Americans can’t speak a second language.  That’s okay when traveling to many European countries, because English is commonly spoken in them.  When you start getting into Slavic and Asian countries, however, you’re dealing with both a population that doesn’t speak English, and peoples who use a different alphabet.  I mainly want to visit Moscow, but in addition to not speaking Russian, they also use Cyrillic, which I cannot read.  There’s a little bit of fear when going to a place where you don’t know the language and can’t read basic signs.  Now, take that basic anxiety, and imagine you’re in this foreign land when a violent civil war breaks out.  That is a frightening thing to think about, and makes for a great set-up for a film.

Since I really like this set-up, I’m hesitant to chastise the film for being xenophobic because, well, I don’t think any film made with that concept cannot be xenophobic, and I’m not willing to say a mere IDEA should not be filmed because of that.  The question remains as to whether every citizen of the foreign country is portrayed as an evil savage (as Chris Kyle seemed to think of all Iraqis in “American Sniper”, a film with inexcusable xenophobia among its other sins) or if the film attempts to balance the portrayal.  The answer is that, well, yes, it does.  “No Escape” does give us many, many, many shots of interchangeable Asians shooting, blowing up, hacking, and smashing people. This is a very violent film.  However, the film also goes to great pains to show other Asians who attempt to stand up to rebels, to block the rebels from entering buildings, who try to help Americans not get killed, and who provide hiding places for the Americans.  It’s admittedly hard to differentiate between the good citizens and the evil rebels of this unnamed country, but they are not ALL portrayed as evil.  But, due to the parameters of the set-up, most are.

Perhaps more plot details are needed here.  The film involves Jack (Owen Wilson), his wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two kids.  The kids in the film are annoying and act idiotically, even for children.  If you are maybe 9 or 5 years old and you’ve seen dozens of people brutally murdered before your very eyes, you would not at all act the way the children in this film act.  I get that the film needs to make its protagonist a family man, but it becomes increasingly far-fetched that two adults lugging around two children can successfully make their way through city streets undetected by rebels for as long as they do.  The film gave us two children when one would have sufficed for the needs of the plot, but whatever.  This family is moving to the unnamed Asian country because Jack’s previous company went belly-up, and now he’s taken a job for an international firm to help build a facility to clean up this country’s water supply (Jack’s an engineer of sorts).  It just so happens that within a few hours of their arrival, this coup takes place because, and some SPOILERS are needed here, the country was loaned money by western interests to build the facility, the country cannot pay back the debt, and now western interests will essentially own the country’s water and make their citizens slaves forced to buy water from them and work for them as local help.  Yeah, you can see the rebels point, even if their methods toward the innocents are inexcusable.

So, Jack and his family try to get out of the country alive, trying a variety of tactics, like reaching the American embassy, before finally realizing their only hope is to cross the border to neighboring Vietnam for asylum.  That’s right, Americans who are being hunted because of their country and their economic system’s imperialism only hope of being saved is to be granted asylum by a pseudo-Communist country that American lost an imperialist and unnecessary war to.  That is so fucking loaded with commentary that I can’t even begin to unpack it, and it’s one of the ways in which the filmmakers wear their leftist beliefs on their sleeves even as they make a movie about evil Asian hordes with guns and machetes.  As for the knowledge that Jack’s company is committing the evil, and the film’s insistence that western influence in the 3rd world has lead to this violence?  This is given to us directly, in dialogue, by the character of Hammond (Pierce Brosnan) whose origin isn’t quite explained but seems to be either MI6 or a former military officer turned corporate mercenary.  Hammond is kind of a human dues ex machina who shows up to save jack and his family when they need saving, and deliver much needed exposition when there’s no other way for the other characters to learn the information.  Brosnan, for his part, seemed to be having fun doing this, so the artificial nature of his character didn’t grate on me too much.

Politics aside, this film is mostly about connecting various sequences of Jack and his family running, hiding, and fighting back. Some of these sequences really work, like one in which Annie is looking through the peephole in her hotel window and, in an audio-free one shot, watches as a hooded man murders someone with a machete in the room across the hall from her.  That shot is glorious, and the tension as you put yourself in her no-win situation is taut and intense.  Some other sequences, like ones involving cheesy slow-mo and one in which the entire family, all four of them, navigates their way through an angry mob on a moped, strain credulity and are too far-fetched to really enjoy.  However, because the set-up of this film hits a nerve with me in general, and I’m easily able to place myself in their shoes, I more often than not felt feelings of fear and dread as I watched the film.  The realistic nature to the violence, save for a helicopter sequence, added to the effect.

The film doesn’t work when it tries to create family moments between sequences of tension.  The conversations Jack has with his wife, or the attempts to verbally take his kids minds off of the violence, just seem unlike anything that would actually transpire.  I know the filmmakers are going for how shared trauma can bring two people together (with the wife), but I don’t think after a night of running where the wife is almost raped that they can lie quietly in a clam before the next storm and express their love for another.  Also, while a father trying to comfort his child from the horrors of a situation worked in “Life is Beautiful”, which took place during the holocaust, it worked because the kid didn’t see anyone die in front of him.  if that kid had seen a group of people gassed to death, I doubt any of Benigni’s attempts to calm him down would have worked.  After seeing people shot in front of you, and after being throw across a chasm between rooftops, I don’t think making jokes a few minutes later would ever work.  The filmmakers should have cut two children down to one, and they should have just kept the tension going and not tried to build family dynamic between carnage.

Admittedly, the film gets a little repetitive at times.  The family is chased, they hide, one of them leaves hiding for some reason, there’s a struggle where the family takes a couple of the rebels down, and they run again.  Some sequences work really well, though, and those bang-up sequences carry the film through its lamer moments.

The director of this film is John Erick Dowdle, who cowrote the film with his brother.  He’s largely done middling horror films up until this point, such as “Quarantine” (an American remake of “Rec”) and the crappy Shyamalan-produced “Devil”.  However, his first film was the mostly successful “The Poughkeepsie Tapes”, which inexplicably was pulled from release without warning only to be dumped directly on to VOD with no fanfare many years later.  That film was a faux documentary splicing in “real” footage a serial killer shot on VHS and Super8 with fake interviews.  The interview portions suffered from actors not knowing how to deliver non-actorly-sounding dialogue, but the killer footage had a raw, disturbing, cinema verite feeling to them that made them hard to watch despite not being particularly violent or shocking.  “No Escape” is his best film since, and while it has many flaws, it takes a genuinely good concept, tries to ameliorate the racist and xenophobic issues inherent with the concept as much as he can, and delivers at least 2/3rds of a great movie and 1/3 of a fair movie to make a result that is, in my estimation, pretty damn good.

A word about the setting of this film.  While it was filmed in Thailand, it does not take place there.  A Google search reveals that three countries border Vietnam: China, Laos, and Cambodia.  “No Escape” obviously doesn’t take place in China (the country has a prime minister, for one) and the language written on signs in the film seems to be upside-down versions of the Cambodia language of Khmer.  This, combined with Cambodia’s violent history with the Kmer Rouge, lead me to believe the film is supposed to take place there.  I can understand not naming a particular country, but one thinks they should have made the place more fictionalized if they were afraid of offending an entire nation-state.

Lastly, why do the Vietnamese speak English to the rebels?  I understand them speaking English to the Americans, but then they speak English to the rebels, most of whom the film has shown us do not know English, yet the rebels still listen?  Weird.

I liked “No Escape” more than I should have based on its obvious issues (the very last scene is unnecessary and horrible), but I’m not going to lie and say it didn’t viscerally effect me as I watched it.  The film delivers what you want to see and feel going in to it. B+.

“Straight Outta Compton” is a movie good enough to make a person who hates rap music (i.e. the author of this review) like the film and respect what the band N.W.A. did to the music industry and, in a larger sense, race relations.  When unarmed black men being gunned down by police officers constantly makes the news these days, it’s hard not to look back on N.W.A.’s song “Fuck Tha Police”, and events like the Rodney King beating, and know that we’re still in the same goddamned place we were almost thirty years ago.  “Compton” serves as a time capsule to point out what has changed (rap is maybe less gangster-oriented and far more mainstream), what hasn’t (racial inequality in the criminal justice system, particularly with regard to how law enforcement chooses to act), and plot a course for how we got from the point A of the late 80s to the point B of now.

Gang violence hasn’t gone away.  One need only look at the Chicago murder rates to know that.  However, it seems that rap music moved away from explicit gangster imagery sometime after the murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls, and is now, from the viewpoint of a guy who doesn’t like rap music and only hears so occasionally, about rappers bragging about themselves and/or talking about the accumulation of wealth and sexual conquests.  What “Straight Outta Compton” shows is that, despite the vivid gangster imagery of N.W.A.’s lyrics, the only member who was explicitly in the gangster or drug trade was the late Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell).  Eazy-E, as the film tells it, was somewhat forced by producer Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) to rap to his beat and Ice Cube’s (O’Shea Jackson Jr, the real-life son of Ice Cube) lyrics, and then became the arguable front man of the band.  Part of Eazy’s front man status is due to him crossing paths with a former manager named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) who had some old connections in the music industry and was able to get Eazy and N.W.A. through the door to get a record contract.

Look, I don’t have much respect for rap artists.  They don’t even need to SING as long as they can talk fast and rhyme.  So, I don’t have much in the way of respect for Eazy-E.  Dr. Dre, though the film and the music industry seem to view him as some sort of musical and entrepreneurial genius, seems to just sample other pieces of music, take some beats that could have come preprogrammed in a Casio keyboard, and call that a musical track, so I have no major respect there.  The only member of this group I can call talented is Ice Cube, who seems to have written most of the song’s lyrics. Honestly, it appears from watching the film, and hearing some of the songs, that the lyrics are the only thing differentiating N.W.A.’s music from any of the other contemporaneous rap music that was out there at the time, so any credit this band gets belongs to Ice Cube. Granted, the film pretty much ignores the members of N.W.A that are not Eazy, Dre, or Cube, and Mc Ren (Aldis Hodge) co-wrote many of the songs in real life, but Cube is the stand out character in the film.

It makes sense that the film elevates Dre and Cube, though.  The real life Dre and Cube are producers of the film, so they obviously had a hand in shaping the film’s narrative.  Why else is Dre’s history of beating women ignored, but a completely superfluous subplot of him meeting his wife is left in the film? Cube seems to play it a little more fairly, as his association with the Nation of Islam and accusation of anti-Semitism are left in the film, along with his responses courtesy of a scene in which he’s interviewed by a reporter.  As for Eazy, well, he’s dead now and can’t voice his version of events, but Dre and Cube clearly want it to be known that they all made up just before he died, and to blame all of the band’s troubles on Heller, who in the film comes across as your general, clichéd sleazy manager from a musical biopic.

So yes, the film is hagiography and follows the clichéd beats of a music bio, from the groupies (all of the women in this film are either mothers, romantic partners, crack whores, or sex objects/groupies…not the most gender forward film, to say the least) to the squabbles about money and publicity, to recreations of infamous incidents, like Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor) pistol whipping a guy over taking his parking space.  The film lacks originality from a screenplay standpoint, and its accuracy is questionable given the guiding hand two of the main characters’ real life counterparts had in shaping this film, to the point where one man is played by his own son.

Those quibbles are not small, but the film still succeeds in spite of them because it does two things very well: it clearly shows how rap transformed from music like “The Humpty Dance” to the hardcore stuff we later saw in the works of Tupac and Biggie, and it paints a good portrait of the heightened racial tensions of the early 90s, at the end of the Reagan-Bush era, and how similar they are to the current racial tensions that have birthed the Black Lives Matter movement.  We even get small roles for actors playing people like Tupac (Marcc Rose) and Snoop Dogg (Keith Stanfield) so that the film can hint at the next generation of rap that came after the N.W.A folks all went on to solo efforts.

It’s odd to watch this film and know how Ice Cube and Dr. Dre are like today. Ice Cube in this film is an intelligent young man who, while never actually participating in gang life, is still the kind of guy to challenge the police when they order him not to play a song, and also the kind of guy to take a baseball bat to a record producer’s office to get his just compensation.  The Ice Cube we know today is the guy who makes bad comedy films (“Ride Along”) and is neutered enough to star in kids’ movies like “Are We There Yet?”  Dr. Dre is probably more well known for the careers he launched and selling those Beats headphones than for any music he made himself.

One thing that also stands out to me is how damned thin-skinned everyone in the film is.  The slightest insult, or even shadow of an insult, inevitable leads to a physical altercation.  Why on Earth are these people so unable to keep their cool?  It’s almost enough to think everyone who grows up in the projects needs mandatory anger management classes.  The need to respond to any slight with immediate violent retaliation is something that seems common in prison (or at least films ABOUT prison) but the characters in this film live that way even when they’re wealthy celebrities.  Luckily, the film gives us Suge Knight because, well, no matter how violent or short-tempered a character in the film may look, no one is as fucking crazy with violence as Suge Knight.  The film actually shows us Suge arranging dog fighting in a recording studio. Dog fighting!

The director, F. Gary Gray, has a mixed track record as a director. He directed the real Ice Cube in “Friday”, a film Cube also wrote and which became a cult classic of sorts. He made the middle-of-the-road “The Negotiator”, “The Italian Job” remake, and “Law Abiding Citizen”.  He made some bad films, like “Be Cool” and “A Man Apart”.  Ultimately, he’s not that good of a director, and “Compton” doesn’t do much directorial-wise to distinguish itself from any other biopic. There is one shot, where Dre is chilling to some music and there are some light lens flares in the corners, to convey a dream-like feel.  Then his mother turns the record player off, the lens flares disappear instantly, and he’s back in the real world.  That scene is visually interesting for about 30 seconds.  Otherwise, there aren’t any shots of angles or anything to distinguish this film from a TV movie visually.

So yes, “Straight Outta Compton” is specifically designed to make Dre and Cube look as good as possible within the generally known knowledge about them in the public sphere.  The screenplay hits all of its beats in the most conventional and Introduction to Screenwriting-ish way.  It treats women poorly, and reduces two of the five members of N.W.A. to practically cameo roles.  Still, as a general cultural study of race relations and the modern history of the music industry, it is in its own way invaluable.  And the film, for its flaws, is entertaining, even if you despise rap music. B.

“Ricki and the Flash” is a film mainly concerned with giving us clichéd character tropes, and then making their characteristics contain the opposite of what we expect the trope to have. I’m not sure if the message of this is against being judgmental, exactly, but it’s at least trying to be original. Our main character, Ricki (Meryl Streep) is an aging female rock singer who abandoned her family in the midwest to try and find fame and fortune in Los Angeles, only to cut a single album and be relegated to fronting a cover band, playing night after night in a small bar for a group of happy regulars. Quick, what do you expect the politics of this woman to be? Well, she’s an Obama-hating, military-loving, somewhat homophobic Conservative who voted for George W. Bush twice.  Her Midwestern family who are still peeved over her abandoning them? They live in a McMansion and are organic food-eating, limousine liberals with a mild hippy tendency. When one of Ricki’s sons (Sebastian Stan) sends out wedding invitations, they’re made of seeds and the invitation can be planted. As one character remarks, “That’s some Bourg-y (as in Bourgeois) shit right there.” That wedding? All of the servers at cocktail hour are lesbians, transsexuals, or gender fluid people. These same apparently liberal and accepting people look upon Ricki, in her black leather jacket, with disgust.  Ricki herself works at the film’s fictional take on Whole Foods, a store owned by an insanely Libertarian businessman that employs the poor to serve overpriced luxury groceries to largely upper class liberals and hipsters. Whole Foods is the almost the embodiment of contradictions that “Ricki and the Flash” wants to show off in movie form. A rich, right-wing business owner (okay) starts a store with supposedly more environmentally friendly food products (um…) who employs the poor and then underpays them and doesn’t want to give them health insurance (making sense again) but caters to liberals, hippies, hipsters, and green people (wait, what?) but charges so much that their products are often priced out to all but the most bourgeois liberals out there (*scratches head*)

I don’t mean to rag on Whole Foods, which does sell a number of products I enjoy occasionally (though their anti-GMO hysteria isn’t helping anyone), but to explain that “Ricki and the Flash” is trying to be the Whole Foods of movies. This attempt, by writer Diablo Cody (she of “Juno”, “Jennifer’s Body”, and the excellent “Young Adult”) keeps the film from becoming a movie you’ve seen a million times before.  Her main objective, however, is less about politics and class, though those are made explicitly clear, but about gender. At one point in the film, Ricki takes the mic between songs of her set and talks about how society says it’s okay for Mick Jagger, a man, to neglect his family and abandon his kids (not sure if this is accurate, the film mostly just points out the number of kids with different mothers, he may not have abandoned them…I love the Rolling Stones and have read Keith Richard’s autobiography, but I’m not too familiar with the particulars of Jagger’s life) but Ricki, who is a woman, is scorned for it.  I think Ricki, and perhaps Cody, are missing a key point here, though.  It’s easier for me, the Rolling Stone fan writing this review, to focus on the work of Jagger and not focus on his lack of good parenting skill because, well, I’m not one of Jagger’s kids.  I have no vested interest in whether Jagger went to his kids’ graduations or cooked them breakfast.  My interest in Jagger begins and ends with whether he plays a good rendition of “Paint it Black” in concert. Ricki seems to think the difference is that Jagger can get away with it because he’s a man and she cannot because she’s a woman, and we as society place a larger burden on motherhood than fatherhood.  That argument holds some weight, but in this case it’s not about that. It’s about how those in the family view it, versus those outside of it.  We see Ricki’s fans, mostly old but some young, dance it up and enjoy her music, but when she turns to talking about her personal life, they are confused and turned off.  The fans never care as long as the entertainment is good.  This is the same reason Woody Allen and Roman Polanski can get away with their indiscretions, as long as they keep churning out “Midnight in Paris” and “The Pianist”. Jagger’s kids might not be as forgiving of him as a Rolling Stones fan, and Ricki’s family is not as forgiving as her fans.  The character of Ricki, and possibly Cody, don’t seem to understand this differentiation.  If someone abandons their family to follow their own selfish dream, they’re not a “free spirit” who needs to run free.  They’re just a selfish asshole.

This doesn’t make me hate Ricki. She’s an interesting and entertaining character to spend 100 minutes with.  It just means the intended message of the film is a tad off.  Regardless, it’s an entertaining film that is often funny, and contains a decent number of extended concert sequences of classic rock cover tunes. The director, Jonathan Demme, who is most famous for directing “Silence of the Lambs” (1991), is no stranger to concert films, having directed the seminal Talking Heads concert doc “Stop Making Sense” (1984). When Ricki and her band play Tom Petty’s “American Girl” (in a much better cover than the horrible one that opened “Hot Pursuit” earlier this year) or Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”, they sound really good. I don’t know if Streep did her own vocals, or her own guitar work, but I know she was backed up by Rick Springfield, who plays her bandmate and boyfriend Greg, and Springfield has always been underappreciated as a musician because of his 80s hit “Jessie’s Girl” and his acting turn on a soap opera.  Recently, Springfield has played a skewed version of himself on “Californication”, wrote an entertaining if self-serving autobiography (he has not treated women very well in the course of his life), and apparently has written a novel (unread by me).  Here, he plays a character who works in part to ground Ricki, but to do so in a way that doesn’t stifle her the way a house in the Midwest with 3 kids might.

The plot involves Ricki’s daughter, played by Streep’s real life daughter Mamie Gummer, being left by her husband and spiraling into depression. Not knowing what to do, Ricki’s ex-husband (Kevin Kline) calls her to fly out and maybe help their daughter past this hard experience.  Ricki’s return is not taken all that well depending on which family member she’s speaking with, especially her ex-husband’s new wife (Audra McDonald) or her gay son (Gabriel Ebert). The daughter, after some initial hostility and very Diablo Cody-esque snarkiness, eventually comes around to Ricki and actually seems to be improving. The film is then largely plot-less, and mostly focused on Ricki’s guilt, whether the family can forgive her and what obligations come with familial love.

The story is maybe a bit weirdly structured, with the first half traditionally plotted and the second half a bit more meandering and indie, only to end with the clichéd Big Wedding and all of the film’s conflicts being tied up in perhaps too neat of a package.  What makes the film work are the little character moments, like Ricki and her ex high on pot, Ricki getting a pep talk from Greg about parenting, and the confrontation with the daughter’s ex and his new woman.  At the end of a long summer movie season full of spies, superheroes, and special effects, it was refreshing to see a movie about PEOPLE doing things human beings actually do, speaking and acting in a realistic manner and not bogged down in exposition about dinosaurs or shrinking suits.  The true test of real movie-lover is when you get more excited for fall movies than summer ones, I’ve learned over time.

“Ricki and the Flash” doesn’t break any new ground, but it has some modest ambitions and accomplished some of them. It has a killer soundtrack, some good humor, and you’ll walk away from the film happy that you’ve seen it. B.

The Gift (dir. Joel Edgerton)

Posted: August 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Gift” is an uncommonly smart thriller and mystery. Most films that revolve around big questions often telegraph their clues with a shot or a music cue that practically yells to the audience “PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!”  Not so with “The Gift”, which  allows clues to float by until, afterward, you realize how things fit together, and that the film still leaves you not knowing some things.

Bullying is starting to become a theme in films again.  Earlier this year we had “Unfriended”, which was pretty much an anti-bullying PSA masquerading as a horror film, and now “The Gift”, which is being marketed as a horror movie despite not at all being one (there are exactly two jump scares, but the film is more firmly a “psychological thriller” to use modern parlance), takes on a new angle. Most horror or thriller films about the victim of past bullying make that victim a one dimensional monster (slasher films) or simply a person out for revenge. Here, we have a person who both feels like the real adult result of severe bullying, as well as a potentially real life monster.  That man is Gordo, played by the film’s writer and director, Joel Edgerton.  Gordo is socially awkward, and feels like every real person you’ve ever known who is nice enough, but just painful to actually be around.  The original title of “The Gift” was, in fact, “Weirdo”, and whether Gordo the Weirdo is as awkward or as simple-minded as he at first appears to be is one of the film’s mysteries.

The plot involves Simon (Jason Bateman, at his smarmiest) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall).  They’ve moved from Chicago to California, near to where Simon grew up, following Robyn’s miscarriage, which was either caused by work related stress, or by abuse of prescription anxiety medication and alcohol caused by stress, we’re never made clear which.  One day, while shopping for house wares, Gordo, an acquaintance of Simon’s from high school, “runs in” to Simon and there’s a short, polite exchange, where the usual social pleasantries are given about needing to catch up and such.  The film does a very accurate job of capturing the empty speech real people share during social interactions with strangers and acquaintances, as well as how people, particularly couples, realistically talk about other people that are not present. Edgerton has an ear for naturalistic dialogue that is quite impressive.

Soon after, Gordo is delivering gifts to the couple, like a bottle of wine or a can of glass cleaner (the couple’s new house is full of windows…a glass house…kind of on the nose, but okay) and Robyn, wanting to be polite despite finding Gordo’s generosity a but peculiar and maybe even sad,  invites him over for dinner.  After some time, Simon gets more uncomfortable with Gordo’s visitations while he (Simon) is at work, and tells Gordo to back off.  Then the couple’s dog goes missing, the koi fish Gordo gave them die off, and Robyn is back to being really stressed, which doesn’t help since she and Simon want to try again to have a baby, Simon is reluctant to let Robyn get back to work despite Robyn’s desire to do so because of this stress, and the secret taking of prescription pills might be making a comeback.

Eventually, Gordo agrees to back off, but the letter he sends saying he’ll do so includes a mention to getting beyond the past and letting “bygones by bygones”. Robyn draws from this that something went on between Simon and Gordo back when they were in high school, but Simon refuses to tell her. To go into any more of the plot would require massive spoilers.

There are a number of issues at play in this film.  Bullying, sure.  Lying, and how false narratives believed by others can fundamentally shape the rest of our lives for the worse is another.  There’s also the concept of victims becoming monsters, the petty rivalries and macho posturing of men spilling over to hurt innocent women, the controlling nature of men over women, etc.  The movie doesn’t drive home one particular message, but rather seems to want to incorporate small asides to issues of justice, gender, class, and relationship dynamics all within the package of a deft and skillful and authentic-feeling thriller.  Despite the rather intense and perhaps outlandish twists of the plot, the film never feels unreal.  I believed every turn of the film COULD actually happen, and that nothing which transpires is outside the realm of believability, and all of the characters feel like real people who make the decisions they would make in real life based on the personalities that are presented to us. Edgerton can write authentic, real-feeling characters, even ones as out-there are Gordo is revealed to be.

The ending will turn off many people. It doesn’t provide a clear answer as to whether a certain act happened, and even if a simple blood test could solve one aspect, which still wouldn’t necessarily prove definitively that the act did not take place.  We also are left to ponder how much of Gordo, as he presented himself to Simon and Robyn, was the true Gordo, as well as how long he’d been planning the thing he plans.  Some will feel that the character of Robyn is dealt with unfairly because of the ending, and the film ultimately leaves us with no one to root for but her, and it make have made her a victim solely to punish a man. Even if the act didn’t take place, this may still count as a girl-in-the-fridge moment. In a way, the uncertainty is the point.  Once an idea is planted in someone’s head, unless it can be definitively proven or disproved, that idea will always remain.  I think of the recent spate of police shootings of unarmed persons. Did Michael Brown charge at that police officer, or did he surrender only to be gunned down in cold blood?  Both ideas are presented to us, and unless one can be solidly proven over the other (like if a secret videotape were to surface) we’ll never know which one was true.  The same can go for rape cases. Unless there’s evidence, they often boil down to he-said-she-said, and whichever narrative takes hold will have a profound effect on the parties involved for the rest of their lives, especially if it’s the false narrative.

In “The Gift”, a character has been forced to live under a widely believed false narrative for 25 years, one that ruined his life and almost killed him.  The revenge plot is a bit more maddening, because at least that character KNEW the truth, even if others did not. The revenge is to present two possible narratives (maybe 2 and a half possible).  One of those narratives would leave the new victim mentally at peace, but his life is still in shambles from his own actions.  The other narratives would destroy him from guilt, among other emotions.  The not knowing, however, is nothing less than mental torment.  The idea that a woman may have been reduced to a mere method of delivering torment to someone else is despicable, but whether that anger should be reserved for a fictional character within the film, or the film itself, I honestly don’t know.  I do know that ending of the film is disturbing in a way I find unusual from most others.  “The Gift” is a film rated R only for language, and contains no on screen violence save for a couple of short fist fights, and yet it disturbs the audience by building characters and suggesting that something may have happened to one of them because of the actions that another did to get back at the third.

This movie’s kind of fucked up.  I loved how damned simple it was, though. A tight, clever, intelligent script and well drawn characters is all this film needed to deliver one of the bigger gut-punch endings I have seen in some time.  As a mystery it is superb in that way it delivers information without making the audience aware of when that information is important.  The film doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, and it always feels authentic and not manipulative. B+

“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” is the fifth film in the “Mission: Impossible” series of films, and it seems like Tom Cruise goes back to these movies when he has a string of bombs. Perhaps “bombs” isn’t a fair assessment, but after three underperforming films (“Oblivion”, “Edge of Tomorrow”, “Jack Reacher”) he probably needed a safe haven, even if this film is written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who write and directed “Reacher”, and co-wrote “Edge of Tomorrow”. In fact, McQuarrie, who once wrote the phenomenal screenplay for “The Usual Suspects” (1995), has pretty much just been Cruise’s lackey lately.  Then again, considering McQuarrie’s other scripts include “The Way of the Gun”, “The Tourist”, and “Jack the Giant Slayer”, I think McQuarrie fits into the category of screenwriters who only had one good script in them. Ehren Kruger, who once wrote the great “Arlington Road” went on to ruin the “Scream” franchise (now relegated to a mediocre MTV show) and has become the worst screenwriter in Hollywood, is also in this category.

That paragraph is probably making it sound like I hated “Rogue”, which I didn’t. I still think J.J. Abrams’s “Mission: Impossible 3” (2006) is the worst of series, to the extent that I barely remember what happened in that film.  Still, coming of the surprisingly good “Ghost Protocol” (2011), “Rogue” is a big step down, and it’s hard not to blame the screenplay. Tom Cruise plays Ethan Hunt, the main character, and he produces these films, but Hunt has never been more than a bland cipher to take us from action and heist set pieces. Cruise’s job is to engage in stunt work and deliver exposition. He has no character, really.  So while Cruise makes for easy cheap shots because of his creepy devotion to the Scientology cult, he’s not to blame for “Rogue” being mediocre. Nope, this is all McQuarrie’s fault.

Some plot information is needed to explain why. These films deal with the IMF, which in this universe doesn’t mean International Monetary Fund like it does in our world, but rather Impossible Mission Force. In “Rogue”, the CIA Director (Alec Baldwin) wants the IMF shut down and folded into the CIA.  Seeing as how the IMF pretty much does whatever the hell it wants on the taxpayer’s dime whilst having almost no oversight and being successful generally based as much on luck as on skill or intelligence (brain type or spy type), the guy has a point. The Senate agrees with him and does so. This doesn’t please Hunt, because right as this is happening he finds (well, more is DELIVERED) evidence that an organization known as The Syndicate is real.  The Syndicate, as an organization, seems to have as its goal dismantling the work of imperialist Western governments’ work in third world countries and killing bankers and capitalists. If you’ve ever read any of my reviews, or know anything about me, you will begin to understand why this film didn’t work for me.

So, on side of the equation, the film presents to us as our bad guys a group of people who used to work for the intelligence agencies for a bunch of countries (the US, Britain, Israel, Germany, and Russia are specifically name-checked) but became disenfranchised by the havoc these countries has them commit in the name of keeping the status quo (keeping Western governments and capitalists in power) and decided to perform secret operations to cause trouble that will lead to world change. Honestly, I have no issue with the Syndicate’s goals, just that innocent people die for them.  On the other side, as our good guys, we’re presented with the IMF, who also cause havoc, but in order to keep Western interests afloat and no have any social change beyond what their governments want. They also act without any real oversight at “protecting” America. The film never shows the IMF harming innocent people, which seems disingenuous considering all the damn car chases, gun fire, and explosions these guys are responsible for. So this film is about a Conservative security state fighting against left-wing idealists, and then it stacks the deck w/r/t innocent deaths to make us think that the film’s equivalent of the NSA or drone warfare are the indisputable good guys.  No wonder the trailer for Michael Bay’s upcoming, sure-to-be-shitty Benghazi movie played before this film.

Okay, most people are not going to “Rogue” for its politics. They are going for action sequences. I will admit that it is cool that Cruise was actually on a plane taking off, with CGI merely used for wire-removal. I enjoyed a motorcycle car chase sequence a bit. Still, the main set pieces for this movie are an underwater holding-your-breath scene, in which the CGI is painfully obvious and the scene is too damn fast to be thrilling, and an assassination attempt at an opera, which is not edited tightly or suspenseful enough to be as De Palma-esque as it’s obviously trying to be. Remember, De Palma actually directed the first “Mission: Impossible” back in 1996. He’s the guy who made “Dressed to Kill” (1981), “Body Double” (1984) and a whole slew of very suspenseful, Hitchcockian thrillers since the 1970s. McQuarrie can’t hold a candle to De Palma, and probably shouldn’t have even tried.

Also, on a story level, why try to play up a will-they-won’t-they possible romance with the new character of British double-agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson)? While De Palma’s film and John Woo’s “Mission: Impossible 2” (2000) were mostly self-contained movies, the films starting with the third film have had more overlapping continuity, with the addition of characters like Simon Pegg’s Benji and Jeremy Renner’s William Brandt.  “Rogue” even mentions the events of “Ghost Protocol” in the Senate committee scene. This means, hey, Hunt has a wife (played in films 3 and 4 by Michelle Monaghan) and he specifically left her to keep her safe. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t still love her (he stalked her at the end of part 4 so we’d remember he had a wife).  These movies can choose to be self-contained, like most of the James Bond films, or they can be a continuing series, but it needs to pick one.

If you divorce yourself from the politics of “Rogue Nation”, what you have is a mediocre action/heist film that is overlong, has little-to-no character development or character-based-drama, and is sort of bland.  C+

If you grew up in the 80s, or the 90s, I’m sure you love at least one of the “Vacation” films. I always had a special place in my heart for the second film in the series, “National Lampoon’s European Vacation” (1985), partly because I had always wanted to go to Europe (I eventually did in 2014) and partly because seeing ignorant Americans exposed to Europe is always fun for me.  In the midst of the rest of the great things the late John Hughes was doing in the 1980s, he wrote three “Vacation” films.  The original “Vacation” (1983) is perhaps rivaled only by Hughes’s own, later film “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” (1987) as the best road trip comedy of all time. Chevy Chase, playing the smiley faced patriarch with anger always bubbling beneath the surface and a horndog’s appetite for women, was the quintessential lovable dope that we could all imagine being our Dad. Beverly D’Angelo played the loving, doting wife who always walked on eggshells to try not to hurt her poor dope husband’s feelings, and the kids, Rusty and Audrey, were played by a revolving door of child actors.

After “Vacation” and “European Vacation” there was “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989), in which the family didn’t actually go on a vacation, but the resulting film was exceptionally funny and has become something of a Christmas classic, being shown annually on TV alongside Christmas classics in marathon cable showings.  Eight years later, dropping the National Lampoon label and having no involvement from the then-retired John Hughes, “Vegas Vacation” (1997) arrived and was scorned by critics and audiences.  I kind of enjoyed “Vegas Vacation” as a goofy little PG comedy that in no way measures up to its predecessors, but many people don’t even know that the film exists in the series.  Even more forgotten is a horrible made-for-TV spin-off sequel called “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation 2: Cousin Eddie’s Island Adventure” (2003) which centered on Randy Quaid’s character from the first and third films.  Quaid has since left Hollywood to be crazy and make cringe-inducing sex tapes with his wife while exiled in Canada.

Now we have a reboot of the “Vacation” series, with Ed Helms playing an adult Rusty Griswold with two young boys of his own and a blonde wife (Christina Applegate) who is too good for him.  Helms partially channels Chase in his portrayal of Rusty, but also channels his character from “The Office”, who was also a likeable dolt with anger issues. Applegate is less doting and has more repressed and not-so-repressed disappointment in her wife than D’Angelo ever did, but she’s largely effective in her role here.  The kids, played by Skyler Gisondo and Steele Stebbins, are largely one-note as the older lovesick, sensitive brother and the younger violent, sociopathic brother.  They each bring some laughs, but they lack the appeal of the young Rusty and Audrey from the other films.

The plot this time has Rusty wanting to take his family to Wally World when he notices they’re not as close as he’d like them to be, and that his wife hates the same, boring vacation they take every year.  On the road trip they hit a number of adventures that I can’t describe without ruining jokes, but suffice it to say they encounter weird truck drivers, Audrey’s (Leslie Mann) uber-Conservative weatherman husband (Chris Hemsworth clearly having fun) cannibalistic animals, raw sewage ponds, late night orgies at roadside attractions, more supermodels in Ferraris, a drunken sorority house with surprisingly little nudity, and cameos from Chase and D’Angelo, who run the laziest bed & Breakfast ever.

This new “Vacation” won’t become a classic, but it’s good enough. It has a decent number of medium-sized laughs evenly distributed throughout the film, and has some meta-jokes (Helms dangles some keys, indicating he’s going to show us a new car, only for the music to cut out and the other characters to stay in place, not taking the hint to move on to the next scene for a reveal) for the film savvy.  The film sometimes can’t decide if it wants to be a gross-out comedy in the Farrelly Brothers vein, or if it merely wants to be an 80s-style raunchy R-rated comedy (the tones are more different than you’d think) and so sometimes the film goes for unrealistic vomit humor, and other times for more subtle verbal humor (Helms not knowing what a rimjob is).  I also have gotten tired of end credits with poor photoshop. Make the photos more convincing, or cut that shit out.

The writer/directors of this film are John Francis Daly and Jonathan Goldstein. Daly is perhaps most famous for playing Sam on the great TV series “Freaks & Geeks”, but together these guys wrote the decent “Horrible Bosses”, the sub par “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone”, and the direct-to-VOD and unseen by me “Rapture-Palooza” (bad timing that it came out around the same time that “This is the End” did, though they have a shared cast member in Craig Robinson).  They are also writing the new “Spider-Man” reboot, though I’ve seen nothing in their filmography indicating they can pull that one off.  As writers they guys seem to have potential, but their films tend to be ones of better concept than execution. “Vacation” is their funniest and strongest film, but it has  some weak moments as well (would four cops form four different states really mock-fellate each others guns in a fight?)

If you’re not expecting a classic and just want a light, fun little movie that will be fun while you watch it, “Vacation” does the basic trick. B.

Southpaw (dir. Antoine Fuqua)

Posted: August 5, 2015 in Uncategorized

“Southpaw”, for much of its running time, works really well as an examination of profound grief and guilt.  The film is so mired in sadness and hopelessness, centered around a character who is a slave to his background despite having monetarily risen up from it by using his personality weaknesses as strengths in his profession, that I was briefly reminded of the great film about grief “21 Grams” (2003).  “Southpaw” never reaches the heights of that particularly great film, but for the first two acts I thought that maybe “Southpaw” would be eschewing the traditional boxing movie in favor of being a deeper character study of the ineloquently named Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal).  Then the third act happens, and the film shifts into autopilot by giving us a finale that every boxing movie has (the training montage, the big fight, etc) and that finale feels wholly unsatisfying given what is actually unresolved, and how seemingly tidy the conflicts of the film are supposedly rectified.

Gyllenhaal, who was robbed of the Oscar nomination and win he deserved last year for “Nightcrawler”, plays Hope really well by committing to the character.  Hope is not a bad guy, but he is clearly of a below-average level intellect and, after a childhood raised in orphanages, has a lot of rage.  He got lucky, in a way, by finding boxing, which required little intellect and allowed Hope to channel his rage into beating others to a pulp and making millions of dollars for it.  Hope is man who found upward mobility by using his lower class flaws in a way the upper classes wanted to see.  Hope also gets hit a lot, as being angry and not very bright means he has no defense in the ring, and he pretty much just hits and GETS hit as hard as he can til the other guy falls down.

The saving grace of Hope is his wife, Maureen (Rachel McAdams, doing a good job of playing someone with little class but much intelligence in a way that feels organic and not wholly fictitious), who looks after him and loves him deeply.  They also have a daughter (Oona Laurence) who is taking after her mother’s in the brains department but seems devoid of the lower class sensibilities of her parents, having been raise din their sports-garnered affluence.  Maureen is sometimes at odds with Hope’s sleazy boxing promoter, Jordan Mains (50 Cent), in deciding how Hope’s career goes, especially after Maureen convinces Hope to take some time off even though Jordan would like to get Hope back into the ring to fight a hungry, showboating fighter who challenged Hope at his last press conference, Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez).

If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, then you know that Miguel challenges Hope at an event, Hope lets his anger get the best of him and attacks Miguel, and then a scuffle happens wherein one of Miguel’s entourage fires a gun and kills Maureen.  This leads to Hope spiraling into depression, briefly attempting to murder Miguel (not finding him), and attempting suicide.  This all leads to Hope having his daughter taken away from him and then, after Jordan convinces Hope to fight again even though Hope is not ready (Hope’s lack of financial acumen in the wake of his wife’s death also means he’s hemorrhaging money), Hope injures a referee and is suspended from professional boxing for a year.

For a while, the movie is very good as it shows us Hope’s convincing fall and mental breakdown.  The weight of his grief is so powerful that the film almost becomes painful to watch from the sadness oozing out of the screen.  Director Antoine Fuqua and Gyllenhaal do a phenomenal job by balancing Gyllenhaal’s raw performance with an unforgiving gray-washed color scheme to create a world without color or happiness or, well, hope. Hope loses his house, his wife, his daughter, his money, most of his friends, and it’s all shown in a way that feels realistic and not some Job-like piling on.

Then the movie begins, sometime in the late second act, of becoming a by-the-numbers boxing movie in which a wise trainer (this time Forest Whitaker) tells the boxer exactly what is wrong with him (the boxer) and how to fix it, and all of the problems of the film are solved in a montage and a big ol’ boxing match at the end.

Except that it’s NOT all solved.  Whether Hope beats Miguel in a boxing match or not is neither revenge for nor justice for the death of his wife.  Even if Miguel loses, the losing boxer in a big Title match still walks off with a lot of money. The murderer goes unpunished, and Maureen is still dead.  Hope may walk away from the match no longer poor, and he may have his daughter back, but in that sense he’s right back where he started just after Maureen died, minus the mansion.  Sure, Hope may have learned to humble himself, check his anger a bit, and has grown as a person, but his wife is still dead, the murderer is unpunished, his sleazy promoter is still making money, the boxer who covered up for the murderer and instigated the confrontation leading to the murder walks away with more money in his pocket regardless and, well, the ending is a sham of a happy ending.

The film was written by Kurt Sutter, who is known for writing TV series with a hard edge featuring brutish but well developed male characters, like “The Shield” and “Sons of Anarchy”. I’ve never watched a single episode of either of those shows, but their general critical acclaim is known to me. If I assume Sutter is a good writer, and the first 80 minutes of “Southpaw” seem to point to this as a fact, then how does one account for the film going on autopilot for the last third and leaving us with a sham of a happy ending?  Why does the film so cowardly cop out when it was doing so well?  The ending could have been happy, or devastatingly downbeat, either one could have worked.  Instead, the film decided to go the paint-by-numbers route, and what could have been a very good film becomes a merely pretty good film.

Fuqua has shown himself to be a good director for the most part. I enjoyed his little-seen Jaime Foxx film “Bait” (2000), and of course “Training Day” (2001) was his breakout film. “Brooklyn’s Finest” (2010) was a film that had the balls to drown in misery and not cop out with a happy ending.  That film was brave in a way that “Southpaw” is not.  Granted, “Southpaw” is much better than Fuqua’s worst films, like “King Arthur” (2004) and the execrable “Olympus Has Fallen” (2013), but it’s lacking in ways that Fuqua normally doesn’t allow his films to lack.

“Southpaw” is still more a lot more good than bad. B.