Saturday, July 26, 2014

Review: Magic in the Moonlight

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
It's hard to argue with those who contend that Woody Allen goes back and forth these days between very good pieces of work and more lightweight pictures. His latest, "Magic in the Moonlight," certainly falls into the latter category, although it has its charms. Look at the track record: the brilliant "Match Point" was followed by "Scoop" and "Cassandra's Dream," "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" was followed by "Whatever Works" and "You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger," "Midnight in Paris" was tailed by "From Rome with Love" and, now, "Blue Jasmine" has been followed by this latest one.

"Magic" tells the tale of a grumpy Englishman named Stanley (Colin Firth), who poses as a Chinese magician named Wei Ling Soo in Berlin circa 1928, enlisted to debunk an American mystic, Sophie (Emma Stone), who claims to be able to speak with the dead and read minds.

Stanley believes in that which he can see and prove, not magic or religion, and is known as a bit of a curmudgeon among his friends. Upon meeting Sophie and her mother (Marcia Gay Harden), whom he believes is in on a scam with her daughter, he is immediately impressed by the supposed mystic's capacity for trickery and also becomes a bit smitten by her.

There are some interesting ideas at play in "Magic in the Moonlight," especially as Stanley and Sophie discuss science vs. magic and religion and the concept that people are happier when they allow themselves to believe simple lies that make life easier to endure. And the eventual - and somewhat obvious - courtship that develops between the two has its charms.

But this is undoubtedly a minor Woody Allen movie. It's cute and funny when it needs to be, but unlike other more recently successful comedies by the filmmaker - "Midnight in Paris," for example - this one mostly remains content with being skin deep.

You can't really fault Allen for not knocking out a great movie every time he goes to bat. The director is now 79 years old and still releases a film each year. Many of them are very good, some are just pretty good and a few are just OK. "Magic in the Moonlight" falls somewhere between the second and third category. Of the 46 films he has directed, 23 of them are very good to great and another dozen or so are solidly in the "good" category. In other words, this year's Woody Allen movie might be a little more lightweight, but there's a decent chance that next year's selection could be a whole lot better.

Review: A Most Wanted Man

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Anton Corbijn's "A Most Wanted Man" is a moody thriller that, at the very least, gives us an opportunity to see the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman one more time. But the picture, based on the novel by John le Carre, is also a subtle, ambiguous thriller that provides no easy answers.

Hoffman plays Gunther Bachmann, a German spy who understands how to seek out and capture his targets better than his bosses, who are primarily concerned with making arrests for the sake of headlines. As he puts it, "it takes a minnow to catch a barracuda and a barracuda to catch a shark."

In this film, the minnow is Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), a Chechen national who has stumbled into Hamburg and may or may not be involved with terrorist activity. The barracuda is a prominent Muslim man whose donations to worldwide charities might possibly also fund Al Qaeda activities. Issa enlists the help of Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lawyer sympathetic to his cause who attempts to assist him in obtaining a $10 million inheritance left by his father through a bank executive named Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe).

Gunther and his team - who must grudgingly comply with a CIA agent (Robin Wright) - track Issa and Annabel and eventually get the latter into their custody, occasionally using methods that might be frowned upon in some circles. Wright's CIA agent ensures Gunther that such tactics are necessary to ensure that the world becomes a safer place, but it's unclear whether he completely agrees with her.

The picture is only partially a character study since we primarily watch all of these folks as they go about their daily work, but it's also only somewhat a thriller. "A Most Wanted Man" is a procedural that raises questions about how nations conduct the business of keeping citizens safe, but does leaves them dangling in the air for us to answer.

Hoffman's performance is a restrained one, but that's what is called for here, while screenwriter Andrew Bovell and Corbijn, who also directed the Joy Division biopic "Control" and the thriller "The American," makes the characters' true motivations and personalities a shade ambiguous, although Gunther's true thoughts on how to run the war on terror become pretty evident during the surprising climax.

This is a thoughtful espionage thriller. There's hardly any violence and the intrigue comes mostly from how characters decide to play their cards, making it suspenseful without actually being a potboiler. It's an understated genre film in a season typically bereft of subtlety.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review: Mood Indigo

Image courtesy of Drafthouse Films.
Michel Gondry is a director of immense talent who has his own distinct visual style, so it's a shame that his latest - and, to an extent, last few films - haven't measured up to his best work, including his masterpiece "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and the affably eccentric "The Science of Sleep."

"Mood Indigo," his newest film, deploys every trick in the Gondry playbook - animated contraptions, distorted human bodies and eccentricity to spare - to tell a love story. But whereas "Eternal Sunshine," a heartbreaker of a film about a relationship coming undone, used these cinematic tricks to dig deep into profound territory, "Indigo" feels as if not only the director's imagination, but also his storytelling ability, has run wild.

The film kicks off with a series of typewriters sliding across a number of desks as those seated at the desks frantically type out the story's narrative, which follows the tale of Colin (Romain Duris), who has no job but, for reasons mostly unexplainable, has enough money to live on.

He resides with a porter named Nicholas (Omar Sy), who whips up all manner of gourmet treats for the both of them, utilizing strange contraptions such as a table that wheels itself back and forth from the kitchen, and teaches Colin how to do a peculiar dance in which the legs become as long as stilts. The pair also have a miniature pet mouse with a man's head who scuttles back and forth through pipes in the walls.

Colin, who is shy, spots Chloe (Audrey Tautou, who once starred in "Amelie," a film that used whimsical elements to brilliant, rather than distracting, effect) at a party and the two eventually end up getting married.

A snowflake - or something of the sort - floats in through the window one day as the couple sleeps and lodges in Chloe's lungs. Much of the rest of the film involves Colin attempting to heal his wife through bizarre methods, some of which are recommended by a doctor played by Gondry himself.

As I'd mentioned, the film is often marvelous to look at with its plethora of strange gadgets and visual non sequiturs, including a buzzer that scampers around like a gigantic cockroach, a painting with an arm coming out of it and a television cooking show in which the featured chef is able to pass spices through the screen to Nicholas. And there are moments when the film's emotional elements nicely gel with all the set design and visual artistry - a final sketch of a car zooming off into the sunset is poignant, for example.

But mostly, "Mood Indigo" is Gondry's opportunity to tinker with all of his obsessions, from the handmade special effects, peculiar characters and behavior and circus-like atmosphere we've come to expect of his films. And, unfortunately, these elements overshadow everything else.

There have been other directors (Wes Anderson and Jean Pierre Jeunet, for example) who walk a thin line between forced eccentricity and genius (Anderson recently put forth his best film in 13 years with "The Grand Budapest Hotel," while Jeunet's latest has yet to hit the states) - and I believe Gondry can create another film as wonderful and strange as "Eternal Sunshine." His latest looks great, but it's missing the je ne sais quoi that made some of his earlier work so special.

Review: Sex Tape

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
This summer's major studio releases have included a fair amount of mediocrities, but "Sex Tape" is the first all-out catastrophe. Here's a movie intended to be a comedy starring two likable people who, when given the right material, can be very funny. And yet this picture strains for laughs and bends over backwards to be as crude as possible, but without ever being remotely humorous.

Its stars, Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel, previously worked together on director Jake Kasdan's "Bad Teacher," which also sprung from a one-joke concept, but to better effect. In "Sex Tape," which has also been directed by Kasdan, they play Annie and Jay, a married couple with two kids whose only discernible personality traits are that she writes a blog about being a mother and he holds some sort of job at a radio station and that, early in their relationship, they spent a lot of time in the sack, but are now too tired to be frisky.

So, to spice things up, Annie suggests they make a sex tape with Jay's iPad and he is all for it. Annie asks Jay to delete the video, but he doesn't and it ends up being sent to all of the iPads that, in one of the narrative's more contrived plot devices, he has given away to people, including Annie's mother, their best pals Robby (Rob Corddry) and Tess (Ellie Kemper), the mailman and the owner (Rob Lowe) of a family-friendly company who intends to purchase Annie's blog.

The couple spend much of the film hunting down the iPads and destroying them to prevent their video from hitting the Internet, but two problems arise - Jay has been receiving text messages from someone who clearly got a kick out of the video and does not intend to destroy it and the sex tape has been sent to YouPorn, a YouTube of sorts for, well, you know.

The big reveal of who has been sending Jay the texts is not particularly funny and, admittedly, a little creepy. And a sequence during which Annie and Jay speak to YouPorn's proprietor - which involves the type of celebrity cameo that Hollywood loves to dish out in these types of comedies - leads to one of those groan inducing moments when a character literally has to spell out the movie's theme - which, in this case, is pretty flimsy anyway.

All of these problems - or, at least many of them - could have been forgiven if "Sex Tape" were funny, but it's not. Diaz and Segel try to make the material work, but it's not enough - the film is devoid of laughs.

There's one particular scene that appears to have been the big comedic set piece that involves Jay and Annie dropping by Lowe's home to retrieve his iPad, but results in Jay begin attacked repeatedly by a guard dog, Lowe's "family values" guy blasting Slayer records and Annie snorting cocaine. The scene is antic and plenty crass in the way you'd expect in a picture of this type, but it's more likely to get a smirk out of you than a laugh.

The best comedies allow us to get to know and care about the characters before humiliating them or making them the objects of jokes. "Sex Tape" is paper thin and just not very funny.

Review: The Purge: Anarchy

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
This sequel to the surprise hit "The Purge" still feels like an interesting concept in search of better execution. However, "Anarchy" is a small step above its predecessor due to an expanse in scope, a handful of pretty intense set pieces and a more pointed social commentary. It's not a great movie by any means, but rather an occasionally gripping piece of summer pulp.

Director James DeMonaco appears to be taking his cues here from John Carpenter, who is obviously a great filmmaker to mimic when making a politically driven, low budget horror film. The first "Purge" was set almost completely in a home, whereas "Anarchy" takes place all over the streets of a barren and creepy Los Angeles, giving the picture an "Assault on Precinct 13" vibe as its group of protagonists must fend off hordes of violent purgers during a 12-hour time period.

For those unfamiliar with the concept, the rulers of a futuristic United States known as the New Founding Fathers have allowed citizens to live out their most violent fantasies for one night with no fear of repercussion. Shops close down and the police are nowhere to be found. Citizens barricade themselves in their homes in the hope that no purgers will attempt to beat down their door and kill them.

The first film was a case of a unique concept with a mediocre execution. In this sequel, DeMonaco expands his horizons. The lead characters in this picture are an Hispanic woman named Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and her daughter Cali (Zoe Soul), who are dragged out of their housing project building and nearly killed before being saved by a man known only as Sergeant (Frank Grillo), a fully loaded and combat-ready individual who appears to be on some sort of mission of vengeance. There's also a bickering couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) on the verge of a split.

Also playing out in the background - and, eventually, the foreground - is a plot line about a group of revolutionaries led by a man named Carmelo (Michael K. Williams, of "The Wire"), who calls upon the people to fight back against the one percenters who are protected from purging by their wealth and prey upon the poor. Carmelo argues that it's the lower class citizens who are the real victims of The Purge since they cannot defend themselves. Throughout the course of the picture, we also spot a group of paramilitary types breaking into lower income housing projects, stealing away its citizens and delivering them to the homes of the rich, who then slaughter them.

For a low budget genre film, "Anarchy" delivers some pretty sharp commentary - aside from the rich/poor divide witnessed in the picture, there's also some thoughtful reflections on our violent, weapon-obsessed culture. At times, the film spells these elements out a little too much for its audience, but it's a rare thing to see a studio release during the summer months taking on such topicality.

Although it's often intense and quickly paced, the issues that plagued the first film - the villains being entirely too broad and without much motive and holes in the logic of the world that's been created by the filmmakers - are still present here. And I nearly laughed out loud when - via electronic billboard - one of the New Founding Fathers refers to their "regime," a word that even the most crooked despots would avoid when describing themselves.

On the whole, "The Purge: Anarchy" is an improvement over the first film in the series. There's still some work to do on the part of the filmmakers to make this concept truly work. Here's to hoping that it won't take another couple sequels to figure it all out.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Here's the latest entry in a franchise that gets increasingly better, proving that a blockbuster can still have a brain in our age of attention disorder summer tentpole movies.

"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" may be the third of the series since the beginning of the 21st century - Tim Burton's so-so "Planet of the Apes" being the first of the franchise since the 1970s - but this third film is more of a sequel to 2011's surprisingly good "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

In this sequel, which is set some 10 years later, James Franco has been replaced by Jason Clarke ("Zero Dark Thirty") as a member of a colony living on the outskirts of San Francisco following a devastating simian virus that wiped out much of the planet.

Malcolm (Clarke) lives with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) amid the other members of the walled-in commune, which is led by Gary Oldman's Dreyfus. During an expedition, Malcolm stumbles across the community of apes that sprung up following the events of the 2011 film and is now led by Caesar (Andy Serkis).

One of the more interesting elements of "Dawn" is how humans and apes are paralleled, but without the film beating us over the head about it. For instance, there are good humans and bad ones as well as noble apes (Caesar, his family and a friendly orangutan named Maurice) and evil ones (Koba, who is rivaling Caesar for leadership).

Another curious element of the picture is how unlike most blockbusters it actually is. While there are a few action sequences and the set design was obviously costly, much of the film is comprised of dialogue - between the humans and themselves, the apes and themselves and the apes and humans. The picture's opening 15 minutes or so are especially bold for a film released during this time of year in that much of it involves the apes communicating amongst themselves via sign language or subtitled grunts. It would appear that director Matt Reeves - who was previously responsible for the enjoyable "Cloverfield" and the woefully underrated remake "Let Me In" - has Stanley Kubrick more on the mind than the typical blockbusters churned out by the studios during the summer season.

In many ways, "Dawn" plays like a prelude to the next film, setting up a war between apes and humans, but it's uncommonly smart in the way it does this. Not only are the humans in the film given a little more depth than you might expect from a blockbuster, but the apes have distinct personalities as well.

And it should be noted that Serkis's work as Caesar and the effects involved in creating the other apes' facial expressions are pretty astonishing. Here is a film that utilizes multiple special effects - but subtly and for the purpose of developing the apes' characters, rather than bombarding the audience with eye candy. "Dawn" is a picture that is visually impressive, but leaves you with something on which to chew. This is a rare thing for a blockbuster and I think that those behind the reins of this franchise are really on to something.

Review: Boyhood

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
"Look at the stars, look how they shine for you," sings Chris Martin as we catch our first glimpse of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the young protagonist of Richard Linklater's enormously ambitious and overwhelmingly wonderful new film, as he stares up at the sky while lying in the grass. Indeed, this dreamy opening shot captures youth in all its hopefulness when days are long and it seems that anything - even the stars shining for us - is possible.

Although cinematic experiments on growing up - Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries and Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films - have been done before, I've never seen anything quite like "Boyhood." In 2002, Linklater picked a young boy from Texas (Coltrane) and filmed him every summer for 12 years as the fictional Mason. But while the picture's title references Mason's experiences from the age of 7 years to his heading off for college, the film pays just as much attention to those around him, especially his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) and divorced parents Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette).

The film is especially poignant, not only due to the changes - Linklater aims for subtle shifts rather than dramatic scenes announcing the next stage of life - the characters go through during these 12 years, but also our capability to physically watch how time makes its mark on their faces and figures. The movie is a bold experiment for the director, who I'd imagine must have fretted as to whether all involved would stick it out for 12 years, but also its cast, who allow us to bear witness to their aging processes.

One of the elements that makes the film so unique and special is that, despite one fairly dramatic plot line about Olivia's alcoholic second husband, "Boyhood" mostly focuses on the ordinary facets of these people's lives. For example, there are no scenes of Mason's graduation, but rather we see him with one of his pals in a car heading home after graduation, where a party is waiting for them. And there's nothing to tell us what year it is other than the fact that Mason and Samantha look a little older, a popular song from a particular time is playing on the soundtrack or a sign for a presidential candidate appears in a front yard.

The film plays out in chronological order - we first meet Mason, his mother and Samantha as they are planning to move out of the home in which the kids grew up. Mason is painting over marks on a wall that showed the progression of his growth up to the point at which we've met him. The film itself then becomes that marker as we watch him age.

At the film's beginning, Mason's parents have long been divorced. Olivia is the parent who has been forced to primarily raise the kids and attaches herself to a string of bad husbands and boyfriends. Mason Sr. is the fun father who shows up with gifts, but forgets to make sure that his kids have completed their homework and eaten more than a few French fries at the bowling alley where he takes them.

It's amazing to watch these characters who essentially remain versions of themselves throughout the course of the picture's two hours and 45 minutes but, at the same time, become different people in the most subtle of ways. And despite a few minor characters whom it's very difficult to like, the four main characters of "Boyhood" are people with whom it's a pleasure to spend time. They are all basically people with their hearts in the right place.

It's the commonplace depiction of everyday life that makes "Boyhood" feel so real and, ultimately, so moving. It may seem as if not a whole lot happens during the film - there are no deaths, but one baby is born - but when looking at the sum total of changes that occur in these characters' lives during the 12 years we follow them, it's pretty astounding. The film is an emotional experience without the filmmakers even particularly aiming for it to be such a thing. There's no tugging at the heart strings or speechifying, but rather familiar milestones - grade school, middle school, high school, the mention of prom, first heart break, an awkward discussion of sex with a parent, a first experience with alcohol, birthdays, a graduation, etc.

Linklater's films have often played with the concept of time: "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker" took place within the course of a single day, while "Waking Life" included discussions on time as well as numerous other philosophical matters. The director's trilogy of "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight" allowed us to watch a couple (Hawke and Julie Delpy) as their relationship matured over a period of years. "Boyhood" is the filmmaker's most unique study of the effects of his time and, I can say without a doubt in my mind, his best work to date.

This film makes most other American movies appear lazy by comparison. Here's a picture with the highest ambitions - the chronicling of lives over a long period of time - and an unprecedented level of commitment from its cast. "Boyhood" is a lovely film, one that just might make you reflect on your own upbringing and wonder where all the time went.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Review: Tammy

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Here's a movie filled with talented people that just doesn't click. The cast of "Tammy" includes Melissa McCarthy, Susan Sarandon, Allison Janney, Dan Ackroyd, Sandra Oh, Kathy Bates, Mark Duplass and Toni Collette. And yet the film, which for a comedy is pretty muted, feels as if it's missing something.

McCarthy plays yet another version of the boisterous, but loud mouthed, characters she played in "Bridesmaids" and, to lesser effect, "Identity Thief." In this picture, she has just been fired from the fast food chain at which she works after being late due to hitting a deer with her car. And her lout of a husband (Gary Cole) has taken up with their neighbor (Collette). What does all this add up to? Road trip!

Tammy and her grandmother (Sarandon) hop in the car with plans to see Niagara Falls. Along the way, they meet men at a bar (including Duplass as a potential love interest for McCarthy), drop in on a lesbian couple (Bates and Oh) that culminates with a viking funeral (don't ask) and get thrown in jail. All of this is presented in a way that is meant to be humorous, but while the film occasionally warrants a few smiles (and one or two genuine laughs), it's just not that funny.

Of course, the story - which includes some plot twists involving Sarandon's character's alcoholism and promiscuous past - is intended to act as a mother-grandmother bonding tale, although the two characters are mostly clashing right up until the obligatory happy ending.

McCarthy is pretty funny when given the right material, but her last few movies have sort of boxed her in as an obnoxious character when, in fact, she is fairly likable. And Sarandon is given little to do here than to act as a wild older woman - as if the thought alone of that is funny.

"Tammy" is pleasant enough and has a few moments here and there, but it's mostly a wasted opportunity to get more out of the abundance of talent onscreen. It's not a bad movie - and, quite frankly, not as irksome as some of the other Hollywood comedies inflicted on viewers this year - but it could have been a whole lot better.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Review: Deliver Us From Evil

Image courtesy of Screen Gems.
* Dear Movie Studio press folks,

Kindly refrain from adding the hashtag and film title (which we know since we happen to be visiting your publicity websites) from all the provided images. It makes it appear that I'm shilling for your movie, which - regardless of whether I liked it - I'm not.

"Deliver Us From Evil" combines the slow burn police investigation and supernatural possession genres, though not very well. It's the type of film that continues to alert you that something vaguely spooky is going to jump out of the dark and then waits a few seconds after you're expecting said jump scare to occur before - wham! - something darts in your face before retreating into the background. It's a trick from the old cinematic arsenal that's becoming quickly tiresome.

This is one of those films that purports to be based on a true story and, sure enough, is drawn from the experiences of one Ralph Sarchie, a former NYPD detective-turned demonologist who claims to have come into contact with the beyond and whatnot.

In the film, he's played by Eric Bana as a guy who's in a perpetually cranky mood - and for good reason: bodies literally fall from the sky and land on his car, a possessed woman takes a good bite out of his arm, creepy little kids keep chanting in his head and his daughter is taunted by a gigantic stuffed owl. As one of Bana's fellow NYPDer's might say, "Whaddya gonna do?"

The film opens with a relatively murky sequence involving three soldiers in Iraq who stumble into a tomb and unleash - well, that's a bit unclear, but it ain't good. Some time later, Sarchie gets the call about a woman throwing her kid to the lions - no, seriously, she actually throws her kid into the lions' den at the zoo at the behest of some creepy dude with a skull-looking face. Turns out, he's one of the soldiers from Iraq. One of the other soldiers later pops up as a possessed wife beater, while the third is found decomposing in a basement during one of the film's many stomach churning grotesqueries.

When "Deliver Us From Evil" plays as a straight-up police mystery, it's not half bad - a little scary when it needs to be and understated in a good way. But once a rogue priest (Edgar Ramirez, always great to see) pops up to let the healing begin, it goes a little off track. A final scene involving an exorcism at a police station is like Leland Palmer's last stand on some sort of psychedelic drug.

The picture, directed by Scott Derrickson ("Sinister"), mostly plays by the rules of its genre, which have admittedly gotten a bit stale by now. Derrickson's resume includes "The Exorcism of Emily Rose," which covered some of the same ground, but much more effectively.

Review: Life Itself

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures. 
"Life Itself" is a wonderful documentary about one of the movies' great heroes - film critic and writer Roger Ebert, who died from cancer in 2013. The film has been put together by Steve James, whose "Hoop Dreams" Ebert championed at the time of its release in 1994, and is made up of excerpts from the critic's book "Life Itself" as well as archival footage from his sparring with Gene Siskel and extremely candid sequences filmed in the hospital where Ebert received treatment in 2012.

As a critic, Ebert often brought elements of his personal life into his reviews, so I'll do the same here. Some people object to critics drawing upon their own personal experiences when reviewing something, whether it's a movie, record, book, piece of art, theatrical production, what-have-you. Frankly, I quickly tire of critics who do not bring a personal element to their work and have a hard time believing that anyone who spends their life writing criticism could be so detached.

Ebert was a long-time inspiration to me, even during his later years when I found myself disagreeing with his opinions more and more. And that's not to say that I was always on the same page with him all along. But for me to love a critic's work, I don't have to agree with him (well, at least some of the time, maybe). What I loved about Ebert's work (and J. Hoberman's and Glenn Kenny's and AO Scott's, etc.) is that he always brought a unique perspective to what he was writing about. He enabled you to discover things in a movie that you might not have seen. And his love for cinema was obvious and infectious. Growing up, I read his film review books cover to cover, inspiring myself to seek out all the pictures he reviewed, from the great ("Paris, Texas") to the truly awful ("The Lonely Lady").

In James' picture, Ebert is quoted as saying that the movies are an "empathy machine" that help viewers to better understand the world in which they live and the people accompanying them on their journey. Movies, much like any other type of art, are meant to challenge the way we see things and teach us a little something about what it means to be human.

"Life Itself" takes a warts-and-all approach. In other words, the film is not meant to canonize Ebert and, apparently, this approach was exactly what he wanted. In his early days, the critic - who started out as a newspaper man, writing an eloquent response to 1963's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and covering sports - was said to have been cocky. He loved to hold court at the local bars and didn't like people to challenge him.

As the years passed by and Ebert first battled alcoholism and then met the love of his life, Chaz, whom he married in the early 1990s, he became a kinder, gentler person. Toward the end of his life, he was known for his generosity, going out of his way to get the word out for small films and helping their makers earn a chance at the spotlight as well as being supportive to critic hopefuls, many of whom became contributors to his blog.

James interviews a number of filmmakers for the film, including Gregory Nava, Ramin Bahrani and Errol Morris. Comic relief comes in the form of Werner Herzog and a sequence dedicated to Ebert's work as the screenwriter for Russ Meyer's notorious cult classic "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls," whereas an interview with Martin Scorsese takes a turn for the poignant.

At the center of the film is the love-hate relationship between Ebert and Siskel during the making of their nationally syndicated review show. This makes for more than a few hilarious clips of the two trading barbs. But what began as a competitive relationship eventually became a brotherly one, despite that the two men likely would never have admitted it.

The film's most difficult passages are those in the hospital, where we get no holds barred scenes of Ebert having his throat drained. The critic, who eventually lost his jaw to cancer, is clearly suffering during these scenes. Yet, Ebert wanted them included in the film, most likely due to his decision not to hide his illness as Siskel, who died after undergoing surgery for a brain tumor in 1999, did during his last year of life. The film argues that these painful moments we witness are part of life and that the film, which is, after all, titled "Life Itself," is meant to capture Ebert's entire experience.

If any topics are slighted, it's that of the brief feud between Ebert and Richard Corliss that followed after the latter panned Siskel and Ebert's thumbs-up-thumbs-down system in Film Comment. It's mentioned in the film and Corliss - along with Chicago critic Jonathan Rosenbaum (who also once slightly bemoaned Ebert's populist criticism) - makes a brief appearance for the seemingly sole purpose of showing that there was no love lost.

Otherwise, this is a powerful film about a great writer, a wonderful critic and a truly decent guy. The picture is also a testament to a time gone by as critics now struggle to find paid work. Here's a story about a guy who was at the right place at the right time, found an opportunity and impacted film criticism more so than any other writer of his generation.

Review: Begin Again

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
John Carney's "Begin Again" is built upon a premise that feels a little contrived and the film, at times, is a little too cute for its own good. That being said, it still manages to charm. This should come as no surprise since the filmmaker's previous picture was "Once," the lovely 2007 film about an Irish folk singer and a Czech girl who can play a mean piano meeting up on the streets of Dublin and recording a few songs together.

In this film, Keira Knightley is Greta, a songwriter whose boyfriend (Adam Levine of Maroon 5) is a famous musician who has just scored a hit with some songs he contributed to a movie. Their relationship goes awry during a business trip to New York, resulting in Greta ending up at a dive bar with a friend who convinces her to perform one of her songs on stage. The tune catches the attention of Dan (Mark Ruffalo), a heavy drinking record producer whose own company has just been snatched away from him, after he wanders into the bar.

In one of the film's more creative sequences, Dan imagines the other instruments that would accompany Greta's acoustic performance in a recording studio. He introduces himself and, eventually, convinces her to join him in a visit to his company, where he plans to persuade his former partner to sign the singer-songwriter.

But Greta does not have a demo, so Dan concocts an idea to record her songs on the streets of New York, rather than in a studio, with the sounds of cabs, trains and construction work to act as ambience. The film nearly falters at this point as it is a little unbelievable that Greta, who has music industry connections, would go along with Dan's ploy, considering how drunk and out of sorts he is on their first meeting.

But the film's script issues are redeemed by the performances of the two leads, who manage to flesh out these characters properly. A side story in the picture is Dan's relationship with his estranged wife (Catherine Keener) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and it also contains a fair amount of cliche, but eventually manages to work once more due to the chemistry between the actors.

As was the case with "Once," Carney's latest picture is a musical and the film provides a fair amount of it - and some good tunes at that. There's a nice sequence during which Dan and Greta walk the streets of New York, sharing an iPod and commenting on how music changes the narratives of people passing them by.

So, while "Begin Again" may not stir the soul quite as much as the director's previous film, it's a breezy, enjoyable movie about music. And I like the way that the director handles Dan and Greta's relationship as well as the fact that the film leaves a shade of ambiguity in the finale. While the film's premise is centered a few cliched story lines, you might find some of the directions in which it goes a little unexpected.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Call it faint praise if you like, but Michael Bay's "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is one of the least awful of the popular franchise based on Hasbro Toys.

Which is not to say that it's good. The film, much like the others in the series, forgoes characterization of any sort for bombastic explosions and sound effects, frenzied editing, one-liners bordering on the nonsensical and, of course, as many shots of American flags billowing in the wind that the director can squeeze into this picture's bloated two hours and 45 minutes.

Yes, "Age of Extinction" finds the filmmaker at his most Bay-ishness, ogling women's backsides in tight fitting shorts - mind you, this time it's an underage teen at whom the camera leers - and letting his macho male characters spout off all manner of expository dialogue and threat-making whilst fire and brimstone caused by gigantic metal aliens rages in the background.

This picture has been labeled a reboot - which, in this case, means new characters, rather than any sort of narrative or visual changes to the series - one that relies on repetitiveness (explosions! big fighting robots! chase sequences!) as its main sell. It's the cinematic equivalent of comfort food for those who find this sort of thing comforting, what with the endless barrage of flying scrap metal and clangs on the soundtrack.

The film is not without its merits. To his credit, Bay manages to capture more than a few great magic hour shots of the sun's descent in the Texas locale where Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) - by the way, where do they come up with these names? Is that a full time job? - and his family live. The clan has replaced Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and company, but the new cast is basically given the exact same duties. Yeager, an inventor, discovers Optimus Prime - who has been hiding out after he and his fellow Autobots have been hunted down by the CIA for reasons mostly unexplainable, considering that Prime and the gang saved the earth from a Decepticon attack in the previous film - in an abandoned movie theater and brings him back to his junk shop to work on him.

A CIA higher-up played by Kelsey Grammer sends out his goons to hunt down Yeager and his family, openly shooting at them in public and leaving numerous innocent bystanders wounded in their wake in the film's most ridiculously unbelievable sequence. I suppose you must take such scenes with a grain of salt when watching a movie about intergalactic robot warfare.

Prime and his remaining Autobots protect Yeager all the while hunting down a bomb, of sorts, known as "the seed," which they intend to keep away from Grammer and an inventor with a slightly larger budget than Yeager's, who is played by Stanley Tucci, the only actor here who appears to be having a little fun.

The film's final hour is a near-onslaught of special effects - some good, including a pretty knockout sequence involving a gigantic magnet in the sky - and fight sequences. My favorite of the latter involves a random Chinese guy in an elevator who, of course, is a martial arts expert. Then again, the "Transformers" films are not exactly known for their racial sensitivity. At least Skid and Mudflap are nowhere to be seen, thank God.

Anyway, the target audience for this type of thing knows who they are. I'm clearly not in it. So, while "Transformers: Age of Extinction" is probably my least favorite of the summer's blockbuster selection so far, it's at least not as awful as the series' second and third entries. So there's that.