Sunday, June 18, 2017

Review: Cars 3

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.
Pixar Studios' latest, "Cars 3," is appropriately enough, the type of family movie that zigs when you're sure that it will zag. And that's a good thing. Considered by many to be among the studio's lesser offerings, the "Cars" franchise - at least, for the first two pictures - followed a trajectory that wasn't particularly surprising.

But this third entry takes the "Creed" route and, surprisingly, becomes the second major blockbuster (along with "Wonder Woman") this summer to include some much needed girl power during a season that is typically centered around teenage boys.

As the film opens, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) is having to contend with old age and finds that his spot at the top is increasingly being challenged by younger, faster models - namely, Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), a car that is designed to be a champion and has the cocky attitude that comes with such a creation.

For the picture's first half, "Cars 3" sets viewers up to believe that this will be another in the long line of "Rocky" inspired movies in which an elder statesman gets one more shot at the throne and shows the younger generation how it's done. Instead, the film finds McQueen spotting talent in his trainer - a spunky yellow vehicle known as Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who once dreamed of becoming a racer, but has settled for helping others become champions of the racing circuit.

With the introduction of Cruz, Pixar has given young women moviegoers another hero for whom to root this summer following the recent success of "Wonder Woman." Little has been made about the female empowerment angle in the advertising for "Cars 3," so I don't know if that is because Disney executives are afraid it will scare off young men (if so, shame on them) or if it's being withheld as a genuine plot twist. Regardless, it's a breath of fresh air and the film's storyline emotionally resonates.

So, while the "Cars" films aren't as stylistically radical as "Wall-E" (still my favorite Pixar movie) or inventive as "Inside Out," this latest entry sneaks into its story a theme of empowerment that breathes some new life into the series. It's an enjoyable addition to the Pixar canon and one of the few studio movies I've actually enjoyed during this mostly middling summer movie season.

Review: All Eyez On Me

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
Tupac Shakur is long overdue for a movie about his life - and with the recent critical and financial success of "Straight Outta Compton," another biopic about hip hop legends, it would seem that a film about the controversial and rap icon would be a no brainer. Unfortunately, "All Eyez on Me" bears more similarity to "Notorious," the Biggie biopic misfire, and comes across as a superficial, Wikipedia summary of Shakur's life, rather than the deep dive into his upbringing and career that he deserves.

To be fair, the film's earliest passages are the best. These involve Shakur's boyhood in the Bronx, Baltimore and, eventually, Oakland, where he moved with his sister after his mother became hooked on drugs. Earlier, Afeni Shakur (played here with aplomb by Danai Gurira) had been a Black Panther and outspoken revolutionary who challenged the U.S. legal system and her advocacy could be among the things that sparked outspokenness in her son.

As he grows up, Shakur is played by Demetrius Shipp Jr., who - despite being forced to contend with a script that prefers speechifying and melodrama over characterization - does a pretty decent job of capturing the rapper - in his anger, occasionally surprising tenderness and swagger.

One of the film's greatest faults is using an interview Tupac gave in jail to a journalist as a framing device throughout the picture. In the hands of a stronger filmmaker, this type of device could work, but director Benny Boom mostly uses it as a means to allow Shakur to provide running commentary on things that we already knew about him.

Even more poorly thought out is a sequence during which Tupac dances at a club with a young woman who later accused him of rape - this film charges that several of his entourage were involved in the assault while he slept in the next room. The most unfortunate element of the sequence is that Tupac dances with the woman to R. Kelly's "Seems Like You're Ready." Regardless of the truth of the situation, I'd imagine the filmmakers could have found a better song to accompany the scene.

Also, one of the most fascinating elements of Tupac that goes unexplored is his contradictory persona. As a young student, he was fascinated by Shakespeare and studied ballet, poetry, jazz and acting. His lyrics displayed a thoughtfulness and political consciousness that many of his peers attempted to plagiarize. In one song, he might brag about rendezvous with loose women, while in the next tell single mothers to keep their heads up or praise his mother - as in the heartfelt "Dear Mama" - for her struggles and even admit that he was wrong for how he had previously perceived her. In "All Eyez on Me," Tupac is merely reduced to an impersonation.

The element that made "Straight Outta Compton" so invigorating was not only its chronicle of N.W.A., a highly controversial hip hop group that gave birth to the careers of Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, but how their rise came at a time when race relations appeared ready to explode (Rodney King, the L.A. riots and, shortly thereafter, the OJ Simpson trial). Their story was set against that backdrop, making the film not only the best hip hop biopic to date, but also the best music biopic (in my opinion) since Todd Haynes' adventurous "I'm Not There."

But "All Eyez on Me" is merely content on focusing on the drama - especially that which takes place at Death Row Records under the watchful eyes of Suge Knight (Dominic L. Santana, oozing menace), who runs the business like a gangster. Other such figures - Dr. Dre, for instance - get brief walk-on parts, while the guy who plays Snoop Dogg merely does a great job of imitating his voice. Even the devastating feud between Tupac and Biggie seems like an after thought.

In other words, Tupac Shakur deserves a better biopic than this one. It's not a bad film - and has some decent moments, especially between Tupac and his mother - but a missed opportunity. Shakur is among the most fascinating hip hop icons and his story is so multi-faceted that it would appear difficult to capture his entire essence in one movie. My hope is that someone else tries and has better luck.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Review: The Mummy

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
This month's prize for the most unnecessary reboot goes to "The Mummy," a particularly silly overdose of special effects that certainly won't bolster the career of Tom Cruise, nor likely be the kick-off that Universal Pictures hopes for its Dark Universe series - which means that we'll be seeing more of Dracula, Frankenstein, the Invisible Man and whoever else during the next few years.

In the film, Cruise plays Nick Morton - a character whom he probably should have played 20 years ago or, perhaps, not at all - as an adventure loving military guy who shows up at a spot in Iraq, where he believes a treasure is buried. Shortly before meeting Nick, we are privy to a flashback during which a particularly nasty Egyptian princess is buried alive for murdering her family after making a pact with Set (as one does), the Egyptian god of death, and - countless centuries later - a British scientist played by Russell Crowe discovers a tomb in England containing some artifacts that may relate to the princess.

But back to Nick Morton, who enlists a pal (Jake Johnson) to help him find a treasure in Iraq, resulting in the duo running from a group of angry jihadists and accidentally stumbling upon the grave of the angry Egyptian princess, whose name is Ahmanet (played by Sofia Boutella). As it turns out, Ahmanet, was captured during a moment of coitus interruptus, during which she intended to stab the man she was with and allow Set to take over his body (as one does). Or something like that. Now, Ahmanet has set her eyes on Nick for the same purpose.

Amid all this, Nick befriends an investigator named Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) and her boss (Crowe). The film's biggest groan - and there are many of them, trust me - occurs when Crowe's character reveals his last name. When people complain of blockbuster films' attempts at "world building" and how corny it can be, this is a prime example.

Another unfortunate element of "The Mummy" is that Johnson's character, who dies early on, reappears as an undead friend who occasionally pops up to give Cruise's character clues, much in the vein of "An American Werewolf in London," although - in this case - it's not particularly funny.

There are special effects galore in this film - Cruise and Wallis dodge flying buses, flying cars (more than once), flying pieces of buildings, flying creatures, flying body parts from undead soldiers, flying rocks - well, you get the picture. Although, I'll give credit for one sequence, during which Ahmanet has first escaped from her tomb, kills two British cops and turns them into zombies. The special effects and cinematography during this one inspired sequence feel more like those of an old Lucio Fulci movie than your typical CGI'd-to-death summer blockbuster.

But "The Mummy" is otherwise a misfire. The original "Mummy" reboot with Brendan Fraser from the late 1990s was also spectacularly silly, but also sorta fun, although the sequels mostly stank. So, in other words, there is no particular reason to have rebooted this series yet again, other than - as Mel Brooks would call it - the search for more money. And as I said before, this is only the beginning. Dracula and other classic villains of yesteryear are about to get rebooted yet again. God help us.

Review: It Comes At Night

Image courtesy of A24.
Trey Edward Shults' "It Comes at Night" feels like a horror movie - and, for the sake of categorization, would likely be called one - just as his debut "Krisha" was a dysfunctional family drama that also felt nightmarish. The director has a knack for using relatively confined spaces - in "Krisha," a house hosting a family reunion and, in his latest, a house hosting two families during what appears to be the end of the world - to create significant tension. In other words, the guy has talent.

But similarly to his debut film, "It Comes at Night" is the type of picture I'd recommend because it is undoubtedly well-made, although it's a movie that inspires more admiration than enjoyment. I can appreciate the film's performances and minimalist use of space to create unease, while at the same time being slightly exhausted by its relentlessly bleak and grim tone.

The film is set in an undisclosed place during a time that could be the present or future. Joel Edgerton plays Paul, a former teacher who lives in a wooded home with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). As the picture opens, the family is executing Sarah's father, who has become ill and starts to look like one of the walking dead. We assume that some sort of disease has struck humankind and this family is living as isolated as possible in a home filled with gas masks, guns and boarded up windows.

One night, the trio are awakened by loud noises and discover that a man named Will (Christopher Abbott) has broken into the house to look for supplies. He tells Paul that he assumed the home was abandoned and was seeking food for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough) and young son, who are hiding out in a house down the road. To be safe, Paul ties Will up against a tree and leaves him there overnight. The next morning he questions him and agrees to help Will bring his family back to the house in exchange for some farm animals that Will claims to own.

After the two families are living under one roof, all is well - at least, for the moment. A fraught feeling remains throughout the story, but - for a time - the families coexist together peacefully. But another bump in the night that involves Paul's family dog - which may or may not be infected - leads to suspicions between the household members and, eventually, an untenable situation.

On the one hand, the cast does a solid job, despite the material itself being slightly thin. We know little about any of the characters, other than that Paul was once a teacher, Will a construction worker and that Travis might have a crush on Kim, who likes bread pudding, by the way. Regardless, the cast does a solid job of reacting to the tense situation in which the characters find themselves. On the other hand, Shults is probably smart for not providing much information as to why the couples find themselves in the predicament. In other words, there's no meaningless attempt to explain what has gone wrong out in the world.

Shults is impressive as a filmmaker for utilizing what appear to be low budgets - in both films that he has directed - and creating tense atmospheres. While I haven't loved either of his works, they are both well directed, acted and unsettling. So, while "It Comes at Night" isn't quite the horror masterpiece that some have proclaimed it, it's a better than average genre exercise that took some obvious skill to make.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Review: Wonder Woman

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
In a culture overpopulated by comic book heroes and blockbuster franchises, "Wonder Woman" stands a little above the pack - mostly, due to the talent behind the camera (Patty Jenkins, director of "Monster") and a rousing leading lady played by Gal Gadot.

Much like many of the other superhero characters, Wonder Woman - AKA Diana - has a fairly routine and occasionally silly origin story. She lives among the Amazonian women - created by Zeus to be protectors of the world against that god's son, Ares (the god of war) - on a secluded island, where she trains with the army's leader (Robin Wright Penn) of her civilization to be a warrior, much to the chagrin of her queen mother (Connie Nielsen).

The outside world doesn't exist for Diana - that is, until one day a plane crashes carrying a man named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for the British during World War II who has stolen secrets from the Germans, including a nasty chemical weapon that a Nazi general named Ludendorff (Danny Huston) and a mad scientist with a disfigured face known as Dr. Poison (Elena Anaya) want to drop on soldiers at the front line, but have no problem tossing it on civilians either.

Much like Superman, another of DC Comics' roster who has gotten the cinematic reboot in recent years, Diana is a noble individual somewhat disconnected from the human world who sees good in mankind, but struggles to understand its cruelty. Her bravery is first displayed during an action sequence that ranks among the film's best when she's down in the ditches with soldiers during a battle and, against their suggestions, crosses over into a "no man's land" that she is told is impossible to save. 

During another sequence, Diana storms into a room filled with strategizing British generals who make orders from behind closed doors, while men are sent out to die in their names - although this might have been more pertinent in a World War I picture, but I digress. Regardless, Diana's refusal to be bossed around by men makes her an interesting figure in the mostly male-dominated comic book universe. She's a strong woman with a moral compass who doesn't take marching orders from her male counterparts - or female ones either, honestly.

The film is filled with the typical action sequences, including one against Ares at the finale that, perhaps, utilizes CGI a little too heavily and features one too many large objects (tanks, pieces of concrete) being flung back and forth between the Amazonian and the god. But nevertheless, "Wonder Woman" is a mostly entertaining blockbuster. It helps that its hero is upright without being boringly so, amusingly naive and well played by Gadot, who is a charismatic and sympathetic lead. 

The recent entries in the DC canon have ranged from flaming misfires ("Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" and "Suicide Squad") to pretty decent ("Man of Steel"), although none of them can touch Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. However, "Wonder Woman" is the second best of that bunch as well as one of the few big budget action spectacles this year that I can recommend.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Review: War Machine

Image courtesy of Netflix.
David Michod's "War Machine" is a film with a personality crisis. It has been described as a satire, although its critiques of U.S. military policy are missing a satirical sting. The picture is set amid the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, but there's only one actual combat scene. And while the film follows the story of Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt), a badass general who is brought to Afghanistan in 2009 to help win the war, and finds himself butting heads - although it could be argued that, in this case, it's a good thing - with bureaucracy, the picture is only moderately interested in how politics work. So, how could one classify "War Machine"?

For starters, it's all over the place. As the movie opens, Pitt's McMahon has arrived in Afghanistan with a whole team of yes men in tow - these include the dedicated Greg (Anthony Michael Hall), PR guy Matt (Topher Grace), right-hand-man Cory (John Magaro) and nutcase Pete (Anthony Hayes). It's never exactly clear whether we are supposed to relate to this entourage. The film, however, is narrated by Sean (Scoot McNairy), a reporter with Rolling Stone whom we don't see in the flesh until a ways in to the film, which is another of its flaws. For much of the movie, we have no idea who is narrating the story or why.

Pitt is a very good actor who often shines when given the right material. But McMahon is a character whose only seeming character trait is that, much like a certain someone in U.S. politics, feels the need to win all the time. To make matters worse, the filmmakers have Pitt doing a strange impression of his character from "Inglourious Basterds." The character seems like someone who would have been better suited to a Coen Brothers movie as opposed to a film that isn't even quite sure whether it's a satire.

The film - which is based on Michael Hastings' "The Operators: The Wild and Terrifying Inside Story of America's War in Afghanistan" - takes a dim view of all involved in the war on terror. Everyone from Washington, D.C. is portrayed as feckless, while the military characters are seen as true to their cause. However, that cause happens to be McMahon's obsession with conducting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, a move that is portrayed in the picture as being foolhardy. There's a good movie to be made about U.S. intervention in foreign countries - in fact, there have already been some good ones - but "War Machine" never settles on a tone or, for lack of a better word, thesis.

Michod is a talented director, although I'm basing my praise for him primarily on his debut, the gritty Australian crime drama "Animal Kingdom." His post apocalyptic "The Rover" was visually stimulating, but didn't add up for me and "War Machine" is a mixed bag.

There's one sequence late in "War Machine" that nearly puts the film on track. In the picture's one combat scene, a group of young soldiers are sent in to a particularly rough spot and one soldier, temporarily losing his bearings, heads off by himself, discovering along the way the cost of war. It's a powerful sequence that provides an example of what had previously been missing from the picture. Otherwise, "War Machine" is a series of ingredients that could have made for a better movie, but never pay off.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: Baywatch

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Not even the charming presence of future presidential candidate Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson can quite save "Baywatch," a film that aims to be a tongue in cheek reimagining in the vein of "21 Jump Street," but considers as wit scenes that involve ubiquitous raunch comedy star Zac Efron checking the undercarriage of a dead man - whose genitalia is the star of multiple shots - or another character getting their junk stuck in a beach chair.

The film update of the popular 1990s TV show replaces the cheesiness of its predecessor with a nonstop onslaught of adults-only gags and a standard plot thread involving drug dealers that might have felt more at home on "Miami Vice."

In the picture, Johnson plays Mitch, the head lifeguard at a popular California beach who takes his job seriously. His staff includes the attractive CJ (Kelly Rohrbach) - whose body the camera takes every opportunity to ogle - as well as Ronnie (Jon Bass), whose physique doesn't quite match the beach's other lifeguards and, therefore, gets to be the butt of many of the film's jokes.

In an effort to draw some publicity to the beach, Zac Efron's spoiled former Olympian Matt Brody gets hired and immediately draws all eyes to his constantly exposed abs. Previously, Brody had fallen from grace after drinking too much before a relay race, during which he barfed in the pool.

The film includes a rudimentary subplot regarding a local businesswoman named Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra) who moonlights as a drug smuggler. One could be tempted to praise "Baywatch" for its diverse cast, although most of the minority characters are villains working for Leeds' drug operation - oh right, there's also that bungling cop.

There are, admittedly, a few laughs to be had during the course of "Baywatch" and Johnson can be fun to watch. It's obvious he's committed to the picture, without taking it too seriously. And Efron proves again - after the moderately amusing "Neighbors 2" and execrable "Dirty Grandpa" - that he's game for some outlandish scenarios - including that one where he has to dig around a dead man's scrotum.

So, no, "Baywatch" isn't as bad as you might think. It pokes fun at itself and even brings in David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson for cameos. The film knows, to an extent, that it is ridiculous - which is not to say that it's good either. It makes jokes at the expense of the cliches involved in such a storyline, but peddles them all the same.

Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

Image courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures.
"Dead Men Tell No Tales" is the fifth entry into Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" series and it's a step up from the previous few entries, although still not exactly necessary and somewhat lacking in inspiration.

In this latest picture, Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) has fallen on hard times and lost his mojo. As the film opens, he makes a failed attempt at robbing a bank and his crew, fed up with inability to deliver the goods, bails on him.

Meanwhile, a young woman named Carina (Kaya Scodelario) is attempting to follow a map of the stars to an unknown destination; a young man named Henry (Brendon Thwaites) is in search of Sparrow to persuade him to help free his father (Orlando Bloom), who has been taken captive by some sort of undead pirate ship; an otherworldly captain known as Salazar (Javier Bardem) hellbent on revenge aims to pay Sparrow an unwelcome visit; and Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) seeks to make a deal with Salazar.

In other words, this is a film of many meanwhiles. There's entirely too much going on in "Dead Men Tell No Tales" and only some of it is diverting. Bardem is a wonderful actor and - based on his work in "No Country for Old Men" and "Skyfall" - prime villain material, but here he is asked to ham it up and twirl his undead hair slowly through the air. Rush's character, on the other hand, finds himself with a plot thread that takes a turn for the interesting - albeit overly familiar - toward the end and Bloom is able to reunite with another former cast member during the finale.

The attempts at playful banter between Thwaites and Carina that is aimed at building chemistry mostly falls flat and Depp is left to keep everything afloat by, well, just being Sparrow - a drunken swashbuckler who skirts the line of being a hero or a knave.

"Dead Men Tell No Tales" is loaded down with special effects. Some are good, such as the gigantic gap in the ocean during the end of the picture, while others are just overkill - for example, the statue on the front of Salazar's ship that comes to life and chases Sparrow around during one of the film's many boat battle sequences.

Basically, this has all been done before and better - the picture pales in comparison to the 2003 original, although it's an improvement over several of the soggy sequels that followed. This is a character that Depp could play in his sleep, but he continues to have fun with it and it's one of the elements that makes "Dead Men Tell No Tales" watchable. But regardless, this is another sequel that didn't need to exist, other than to line some pockets.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review: Alien: Covenant

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Ridley Scott's "Alien: Covenant" feels familiar - despite the director's inclusion of a plot thread involving the act of creation and its consequences that gives this latest entry into the franchise some much needed oomph - and that is because it not only follows the similar trajectory of previous "Alien" movies, down to the crew members being picked off one by one by slimy extraterrestrials that burst through their victim's stomachs and other body parts, but it also gives a shout-out to "Blade Runner," although I didn't immediately catch it.

That being said, "Covenant" has more in common with "Prometheus" - the underrated Scott film that explained the origins of this series' universe - than the numerous other "Alien" sequels of the 1980s and 1990s. It's more philosophical and while there are more than a few scenes of blood splattering due to attacks by the titular creatures, this prequel is more interested in exploring the idea of the God complex.

The film opens with David (Michael Fassbender, the android from "Prometheus," having a discussion with his creator (Guy Pearce) on the nature of what it means to create. We cut to the Covenant and its crew, who are undertaking a mission to relocate to a new planet with 2,000 colonists in tow who happen to be sleeping. But an accident results in the death of the ship's captain - and involves a brief glimpse of James Franco in one of the strangest cameos I've seen in recent years - who is then replaced by Billy Crudup's Oram, who appears unsure of his leadership qualities.

Other crew members include Katherine Waterston as Daniels - a stand-in for Sigourney Weaver's Ripley - as well as the pilot, Tennessee (a restrained Danny McBride), Walter (an upgraded android, also played by Fassbender) and minor characters played by Demian Bichir and Carmen Ejogo. Upon receiving a message from another planet, the crew veers from their mission to respond to the call, much to Daniels' discomfort.

After arriving on the planet, the crew is attacked by the creatures - known as xenomorphs - but then saved by David, who now has long, flowing hair, wears what can be described best as a Jedi robe and occupies a large cavern all by himself. At first, the crew members trust David, but Walter appears to find the whole scenario fishy.

A conversation between the two androids regarding their own limitations and those of human beings as well as the concept of what it means to be a creator makes this latest "Alien" picture an often fascinating piece of genre filmmaking. Then again, it also relies heavily on the beats of the first pictures - bursting stomachs and backs, an alien stalking the corridors of a ship, a tough heroine in a tank top, etc.

David's storyline in "Covenant" accounts for the existence of the previous "Alien" movies and, quite often, when a sequel attempts to explain away the earlier films, it falls flat (for example, the psychoanalysis of the later "Halloween" sequels). However, in this case, the explanation is more philosophical by nature and, therefore, more interesting. Scott's original 1979 picture and James Cameron's ultra-violent 1986 sequel remain the standard bearers for this series, but "Covenant" is a well made, intense and thoughtful addendum to the franchise.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Review: Snatched

Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.
Jonathan Levine's "Snatched" wants to be multiple things at once - a mother-daughter bonding comedy, a raucous fish out of water story and a showcase for comedian Amy Schumer - but, unfortunately, the picture fails on all three fronts. Despite Schumer's presence as well as a game Goldie Hawn in her first movie appearance in some time and a bevy of great supporting actors (including Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack), the film is a mostly unfunny bust.

As the film opens, Schumer's Emily is an unambitious clothing store employee with a wannabe rock star boyfriend. She loses both the job and the guy in the picture's opening scenes, leaving her to run back home to her mother, Linda (Hawn), who spends much of her time alone with her cats and is obsessed with keeping her home's doors locked and bolted.

Emily was supposed to take a trip to Ecuador with her boyfriend, so after she is unable to convince any of her friends to tag along, she invites Linda, who doesn't seem to want to leave her house, much less the United States. Emily also has a clingy, grown up brother (Ike Barinholtz) who lives with Linda.

Emily and Linda travel together to Ecuador, where they meet another guest (Sykes), who warns them about not wandering too far away from the resort where they are staying. Sykes is accompanied by a pal (Cusack) who is a former special ops. Of course, the duo end up wandering off and quickly find themselves in trouble because, first of all, this is a comedy, and secondly, Hollywood has a history of peddling the concept that going overseas will get you into trouble.

The two women are kidnapped by a group of villains led by a long-haired heavy whose portrayal is, to say the least, culturally insensitive - then again, much of the film's material might leave you in the uncomfortable zone. Also, the movie is not particularly funny. Aside from a sequence involving a clay statue that Hawn's character molded, I barely found myself even snickering for much of "Snatched."

Schumer is a funny and talented comedian, while Hawn has elevated silly material more than a few times in her career. Sadly, neither actress is given much to do, other than run from absurd caricatures of scary foreigners and spout mostly groan inducing one-liners (OK, I admit that Schumer's quip regarding the movie "Powder" made me laugh and shake my head).

Levine has also seen better days - his "50/50" and "The Wackness" combined humor and heart, whereas "Snatched" has more in common with his previous feature, the woefully unfunny "The Night Before." In other words, everyone involved here has more talent than is on display in this film. Schumer's previous film was titled "Trainwreck," but that name better applies to this picture.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Image courtesy of Disney Studios.
"Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2" is, much like its predecessor, a little too pleased with itself - and yet, it has more personality and doesn't take itself as seriously as the other Marvel Comics cinematic ventures of recent years. In other words, you've sort of seen it all before, but for the first of many movies this summer in which heroes will likely save the planet or galaxy, it's not half bad and often pretty fun.

Similar to the first entry in the series, this second "Guardians" movie is loaded with wisecracks - some funny, others groan inducing - as well as plenty of 1970s musical nuggets (hey, when's the last time you remember hearing Silver's "Wham Bam Shang a Lang" in a movie, amirite?) and a few too many visual effects.

As the film kicks off, the Guardians - Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, whatever that means) and Drax (Dave Bautista) are taking on a mission to stop some gigantic beast during a credit sequence that makes nice of use both Groot and ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky." As it turns out, the alien race who employed them for the job is easily offended and find themselves so after Rocket steals some batteries - don't ask, I couldn't possibly explain - from them, leading to the Guardians being pursued to a planet known as Ego.

One of the planet's two inhabitants is a man named Ego (get it?), who is played by Kurt Russell and, as it happens, is Quill's father. The other inhabitant is a woman named Mantis (Pom Klementieff) - for obvious reasons - who appears to want to tell the Guardians that something is amiss on the planet.

In some ways, "vol. 2" bears similarities to "The Empire Strikes Back" in that it features a father-son story, although there's also a twin sister plotline, another involving a stepdad and an overall exploration of what it means to be a family, a theme that makes for some nice touches, but also a little banging over the head in its delivery.

But mostly, this second "Guardians" offers more of the same irreverent humor regarding its respected genre as the first in the series and its protagonists fit into the Batman anti-hero mold, although they can tell better jokes. The film's final battle on planet Ego is a near headache inducing CGI onslaught that nearly kills the film's vibe, although the scene that follows it - set to the tune of Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" - is a more fitting culmination.

Much like most of the summer blockbusters that arrive between May and August, "Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2" isn't particularly necessary. That being said, it's a fun tentpole movie that, thankfully, isn't as stone-faced as some of the other comic book films of recent years that fancied themselves topical. In other words, if this movie is your type of thing, you'll likely be amused. I mostly was.

Review: The Lovers

Image courtesy of A24.
Azazel Jacobs' "The Lovers" spends its first half as a fairly routine story of marital infidelity that follows a couple (playwright Tracy Letts and Debra Winger) whose marriage has long grown stale and later transforms into a drama about rediscovery and generational misunderstandings that works much better than the picture's first half.

As the film opens, Letts' Michael and Winger's Mary are both office drones who spend more time having affairs - Letts with Melora Walters' Lucy, a dancer, and Winger with Aidan Gillen's Robert - than being around each other. It's probably for the best as they have little to say to each other and their interactions are barely transactional.

However, one morning they awake facing each other and something seems to click. Thereafter, the two rekindle their spark and, well, have sex all over their house. Whether this has anything to do with the fact that their son, Joel (Tyler Ross), will be arriving for a visit in a few days with his girlfriend, Erin (Jessica Sula), is questionable. During the only scene in which we see Joel prior to his arrival, he is warning Erin that his parents hate each other. So, you can imagine his surprise when he arrives home and finds the situation to be otherwise.

The first two halves of the film are polar opposites - the first is routine almost to the point that you begin to lost interest in the characters and the second half perks up significantly, not only due to a family blowout, but also because you begin to see the characters more as people, rather than indie movie caricatures. The film's first half contains some stilted dialogue - especially a sequence during which Letts, while on the phone, pretends to see someone he knows - while the second half does a better job at capturing how people actually talk.

So, could I recommend "The Lovers?" Almost. Winger gives her best performance in years and Letts, mostly known for his writing, also provides some solid work. The supporting cast - Gillen, Walters, Ross and Sula - are also effective.

But the film's first half is sluggish and much of the drama in the picture feels manufactured - in other words, fights occur between characters at the right points to move the plot forward and some of them don't feel natural or are too exaggerated. All in all, "The Lovers" has some nice moments - including a charming ending - but it's the type of movie that nearly works, but doesn't quite.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Review: The Circle

Image courtesy of EuraCorp USA.
The ingredients for a good film are all there in "The Circle." The picture was directed by James Ponsoldt, whose "The Spectacular Now" was in my top 10 a few years ago, while his previous picture, "The End of the Tour," also drew critical acclaim. The film's cast includes Emma Watson, Tom Hanks, Ellar Coltrane (of "Boyhood"), John Boyega (of the new "Star Wars" films), the late Bill Paxton, the funny Patton Oswalt and a rare appearance by Glenne Headly.

And yet "The Circle" is an absolute mess. When its characters aren't spouting expository dialogue or taking part in unbelievable heart-to-hearts, they're finding themselves tangled up in a contrived and far fetched conspiracy thriller plot.

In the film, Emma Watson's Mae works a dead-end job performing customer service over the phone. She lives with her parents - a father with multiple sclerosis (Paxton) and mother played by Headly - and has an ex-boyfriend (Coltrane) who apparently spends much of his time carving items out of wood (don't ask) and, unfortunately, finds himself delivering some of the film's worst lines, which is saying something.

One of Watson's friends (Karen Gillan) lands her an interview at the titular company, a cult-like media outfit in the Bay Area that has a mission to make everything transparent, which involves placing cameras everywhere and knowing what everyone is up to at all times. How do we know this? Because the film makes sure to spell this out for us over and over again during the course of the picture. It's one of those films in which characters say things that sound creepy and unconscionable, but do so with a big smile plastered on their faces, so that we know that Something Is Very Wrong.

Mae starts at the company with some nebulous type of sales position - by the way, what type of sales gig requires you to live in a compound with all of your fellow employees? - and, seemingly within a few weeks, graduates to being one of the company's top minds with a level of autonomy that only exists in movie workplaces.

Mae agrees to take part in a program at The Circle that involves complete transparency - in other words, people watching her every move and listening to whatever comes out of her mouth. She becomes a web sensation in a plot thread that feels ripped right out of "The Truman Show," that is, until she begins to realize that the whole endeavor is sorta ghoulish.

If "The Circle" gets anything right, it does a decent job of capturing the cult-like aura of some modern new media and technology companies. Everyone working at The Circle is just - as Chris Farley once said, so excited! - to be there.

At the same time, this is yet another movie in which the world wide web is the villain - the other two heavies being Oswalt's glowering second in command and Hanks' Steve Jobs-type character, who is slightly unnerving since the actor plays him with the same level of good naturedness that you'd expect from him.

Other than that, the picture is a bit of a disaster. One character's accent is barely recognizable and later laid on thick, seemingly for no reason. A death scene involving a supporting character is completely ludicrous and its aftermath - or lack thereof - is laughably inept. Ponsoldt's previous films were character driven dramas with naturalistic dialogue, but the writing in "The Circle" feels flat. And even the end is hazy in terms of the direction in which Mae points her talents and whether it's a good or bad thing. A lot of talented people worked on this film, so it's astounding that it turned out to be such a misfire.


Image courtesy of High Top Releasing.
J.D. Dillard's "Sleight" is a low budget coming of age thriller for which the advertising gives off the impression that it's some sort of comic book movie in a minor key. Thankfully, it's a little more subtle than that and features an impressive lead performance and some genre elements amid a bildungsroman story that focuses on the concept of self improvement.

As the film opens, Bo (Jacob Latimore) is a street magician from a bad neighborhood in Los Angeles whose parents are both dead. Bo is in charge of taking care of his younger sister, so not only does he collect some pocket change from the impressive magic tricks that he performs on the street, but he's also a low level drug dealer for a guy named Angelo (Dule Hill), a man who tries to play the role of a big brother, but is actually ruthless and sadistic.

Bo meets a young woman named Holly (Seychelle Gabriel), who works at a bakery, and he tells her how he plans to save up enough money from drug dealing and then flee L.A. with his baby sister. The film begins with a former science teacher of Bo's reading a recommendation for the young man and there's an odd, infected-looking gash on his arm that we know is there for some reason, but we don't find out until late in the film. In other words, there is more than meets the eye to the film's protagonist.

"Sleight" works both as a coming of age drama and thriller. Latimore gives an impressive performance and we come to care for Bo, his sister and Holly, all of whom - as one character puts it - deserve better. The film is also tense, at times, especially during a sequence in which a character is kept in the trunk of a car. Another scene, in which a man who angered Angelo is punished, is pretty harrowing.

Although Bo displays his difficult-to-explain tricks throughout the film, it's not until the end that he puts his powers to maximum use. However, the special effects during the finale are scarce, which is a relief. Anything else might have felt out of character with the picture's low budget aura.

"Sleight" is an example of a well-made origin story, although I'd hope that the filmmakers wouldn't cheapen the experience by turning it into a franchise - that is, assuming that it makes enough money to warrant one. The film's final scene hints that more could be in store for these characters. If so, I'd hope that its creator would keep any future installments low budget and as personal as this one.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Review: Free Fire

Image courtesy of A24.
There are too many cooks and virtually no broth in Ben Wheatley's "Free Fire," a crime drama mostly set in a warehouse in Boston circa 1978 that liberally pilfers Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," from the setting and elements of the plot to the use of 1970s musical nuggets and a copycat finale.

Wheatley's work, thus far, has involved dabbling in various genres. "Down Terrace" was a gangster film that occasionally felt like a horror movie, "Kill List" was a crime movie that eventually becomes a horror film, "Sightseers" was a horror movie that thought it was funny (but wasn't), "High Rise" adapted a classic science fiction novel and "A Field in England," well, let's just leave that one as unclassifiable.

But "Free Fire" wears its influences - or, rather, influence- on its sleeve. The filmmakers are either hoping for an audience who loved "Reservoir Dogs" and wants to see a film that mimics it or an audience who doesn't know that Tarantino's film exits and, therefore, hopes to be mistaken for something original.

To give credit where it's due: Wheatley has assembled a great cast of supporting actors - Armie Hammer, Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Cillian Murphy, Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Noah Taylor and Jack Reynor, who was charming in last year's "Sing Street." The bad news is that most of them are left to mumble dialogue that is often barely audible.

While Tarantino's characters pontificated on Madonna's "Like a Virgin" or argue over the colors representing their aliases, Wheatley's creations merely shout back and forth that they've been shot. One character apparently has a great John Denver story, but he is killed before he's able to tell it.

The film's setup is - shall we say - minimalist. A group of criminals converge on an abandoned warehouse where a weapons deal is supposed to go down. However, a beef between two characters - Riley's sleazy Stevo and Reynor's Harry - sets a series of shootouts into motion. And that's pretty much it. Much of the rest of the picture involves characters crawling on their bellies across the warehouse's dirty floor and either firing or receiving bullets.

In the hands of a lesser filmmaker and screenwriter, "Reservoir Dogs" could have also been a bust. But what made that film magical was Tarantino's gift for gab, brilliant direction and the fact that nothing quite like that movie had ever been seen before. Whereas, not only has "Free Fire" been done before - right down to the location, the semi-ironic use of a 1970s AM radio classic (in this case, Denver's "Annie's Song," which seemingly fails to comment on the action, while "Stuck in the Middle with You" did in Tarantino's film) and the nobody-gets-out-alive ending - and done much better by others.

Wheatley is talented and has a pretty firm handle on genre. "Down Terrace" was an unsettling film and "Kill List" is the type of picture that can blindside you if you go into it with little knowledge of what it's about. But "Free Fire" is merely a pastiche and - I'm sorry to say - not a particularly good one.

Review: Unforgettable

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Not campy enough to recommend nor adequately creepy to work as a straight-out thriller, "Unforgettable" is mostly a showcase for the series of absurd catfights that take place between Rosario Dawson and an obviously vamping Katherine Heigl.

The picture is one in a long line of thrillers in which a woman becomes romantically involved with a man only to find out that his ex-wife (or girlfriend) is an insane stalker who can set you up and make your life miserable. At the film's beginning, Dawson's Julia is leaving her nebulous office job as an online editor for some type of publication to move to small town California, where she plans on marrying the affably bland David (Geoff Stults), the founder of a brewing company.

David has a young daughter and an ex-wife named Tessa (Heigl), who is seemingly lurking around every corner to spoil the fun for the two lovebirds. Nearly every time we spot her with a glass of wine in hand, we know she's up to no good. This typically occurs when she's stalking Julia online, setting up a Facebook account in her name and luring the abusive ex-boyfriend against whom Julia has a restraining order to the home that she shares with David. You know, as such things are done.

This is one of those films in which Julia begins to look like the crazy one because - as chance would have it - literally everything works against her - David's daughter briefly goes missing at a carnival, Tessa falls down some stairs - to make her look bad.

The film's best scene follows a meeting between Julia and Tessa, during which the latter tells the former that she and David used to have sex in public places, giving Julia the idea to pull David into a private room during a meeting regarding his brewing company. All the while, Tessa hilariously masturbates while having an online conversation with Julia's abusive ex. The two scenes edited together make for one of the most ridiculous sequences since Cameron Diaz had sex with a windshield in "The Counselor."

Dawson has the more thankless job of portraying the relatively normal Julia, while Heigl gets to have all the funny as Tessa, who is one of the most over-the-top villains of recent memory. She's an absurd character, but Heigl is clearly enjoying herself.

Regardless, it's pretty easy to see where the story is going. Julia will have to face her ex-boyfriend again. Tessa will go off the deep end and put everyone in danger. And there's a hilarious finale that I saw coming from a mile away, but it still managed to be preposterously amusing. "Unforgettable" has an accurate title - but not for the reasons it likely intends.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Review: A Quiet Passion

Image courtesy of Music Box Films.
Few filmmakers are as capable of portraying the past - mostly that of England, but on at least two occasions, the U.S. - as Britain's Terence Davies, whose films also typically chronicle the stories of strong women who struggle against the times in which they exist. For those unfamiliar with Davies' work, I'd urge you to check out his two gorgeous post World War II elegies "The Long Day Closes" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives," although his powerful "The Deep Blue Sea," adaptation of "The House of Mirth" and last year's terrific "Sunset Song" are equally worth seeing.

His only previous journey to America was 1995's "The Neon Bible," but his latest - "A Quiet Passion" - tells the story of one of the nation's most iconic literary figures, the great Emily Dickinson. In the picture, the poet is portrayed by Cynthia Nixon in a career changing performance, but when we first meet Emily, she is played by Emma Bell as a schoolgirl who clashes with the strict religious teachings at the private school she attends in New England.

It's not that Emily doesn't believe in God - she just has different views on his relationship with human beings than do her teachers, who fixate more on doctrine than independent thought. It's that word - independence - that is both liberating and a lifelong crutch for Emily, who spends her entire life at home with her family - a father (Keith Carradine) who entertains her anti-authority tendencies with a smile, shy mother (Joanna Bacon), caddish brother (Duncan Duff) and sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle), who doubles as her best friend. The only person with whom Emily regularly socializes is Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), a bawdy young woman who is the polar opposite of the reclusive poet.

In the first half of the picture, the mood is mostly light as Emily, her sister and Vryling trade wry quips and witticisms. Emily's father also appears to take some amusement in his daughter's behavior, most notably during a scene in which he notices a dirty spot on a plate that she proceeds to smash on the table and then continue eating.

But the film's second half, as Emily becomes more reclusive to the point that she hardly leaves her room and only communicates with guests by shouting down from the landing, is significantly bleaker. For those familiar with Dickinson's poetry, it's this second half that will seem more in tune with the work she produced - poems that were hardly recognized until after her death.

History passes the family by. The Civil War breaks out, but it is referenced as if it were taking place a world away, much like how Americans likely speak of Syria today. Some family dramas ensue - Emily has a falling out with her brother after she catches him cheating on his wife, who is Emily's friend, with a society woman - and Emily eventually begins to succumb to disease. As she withers, Emily starts to lash out at those close to her, but it appears that - and her sister recognizes this - she is also turning her own anger inward, most likely for the sacrifices that she imposed on herself.

Due to Nixon's strong performance and the near-chamber piece style of the film, "A Quiet Passion" is a unique entry into the biopic genre. It doesn't quite tell the full story of Emily Dickinson that one might expect, but it provides a view into how the viewer can corroborate the poet's lauded - and often hauntingly morose - work with the life she led. The film is well worth seeing.

Review: The Lost City Of Z

Image courtesy of Bleecker Street Media.
Rigorously old fashioned, James Gray's visually gorgeous "The Lost City of Z" tells the story - in semi-Herzogian fashion - of Col. Percival Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam), a British explorer who disappeared in the Amazon in the 1920s while searching for a supposed lost city. Gray's previous film, "The Immigrant," was also a stunning period piece but, this time, he really breaks out of his comfort zone - his pictures are typically set in New York - both in terms of setting and tone and the result is a hypnotic and occasionally mysterious epic.

Fawcett is a military man at the turn of the 20th century who has been stationed in Ireland, but his career is seemingly going nowhere. One of his superiors suggests his taking a trip to the Amazon for mapmaking purposes but, once there, Fawcett becomes fascinated with a rumored lost civilization in the jungle that he comes to call Zed. During his first trip, he finds some ancient pottery that he believes is a clue to finding the city. For much of the rest of his life, he keeps returning to seek out the lost city, much to the chagrin of his wife (Sienna Miller) and three children whom he hardly knows.

"The Lost City of Z" tells the story of an obsessive's quest, much like Herzog's "Aguirre: The Wrath of God." The older he gets, the more determined Fawcett is to realize his dream of discovering Zed, which he intends to use as proof to the British society from which he hails that the Amazon has a culture as unique, ancient and complex as his own. His companion in travel is Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson), who shares Fawcett's obsession - at least, up to a point.

On his second quest into the heart of the jungle, Fawcett finds a nemesis in James Murray (Angus Macfadyen), who formerly took part in one of Ernest Shackleton's expeditions to the North Pole. Murray's pomposity and foolish behavior near destroys Fawcett's second expedition and their quarrel is later revived after their return to England.

Gray's films meticulously provide a sense of place, whether it's in New York milieus of the 21st ("Two Lovers") or early 19th century ("The Immigrant"), and "The Lost City of Z" is equally as immersive. During Fawcett's travels, there is always a sense of unease - the jungle is, after all, a place that can eat you alive - but the filmmakers don't make the mistake of portraying the story of a pious white man amid the savages. For all purposes, Fawcett abandons his family for his explorations, while Murray and his ilk are near insufferable and care little for the natives through whose land they travel.

"The Lost City of Z" is often spellbinding and it ends on a mysterious and slightly open ended note. It's often visually breathtaking and Hunnam's performance here is easily his best to date. Pattinson also continues to prove that he appears more at ease in independent films than in big budget Hollywood extravaganzas and he disappears into his role. Gray's film is an old fashioned - and I mean that as a compliment - story of the type that is rarely made these days. It's not a film for short attention spans, but those who give themselves over to it will be duly rewarded.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Review: Salt and Fire

Image courtesy of XLrator Media.
Seemingly concocted while filming his volcano documentary, "Into the Inferno," Werner Herzog's "Salt and Fire" is the rare misfire from the great - and prolific - filmmaker. That's not to say that the picture isn't intermittently interesting - it is Herzogian in every way.

The film bears some similarity to the director's other narrative features of recent years - namely, "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans" and "My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?" - although it's not as successful as the former or as macabre as the latter. However, it is as batshit insane as both.

Clearly not aiming for anything resembling realism, "Salt and Fire" concerns a group of scientists, including a German scientist (Veronica Ferres) who has been summoned with several others in her field - including a short, apparently kung fu-trained German colleague and an Italian (Gael Garcia Bernal, not aiming to be Italian in the least) with roving hands - to travel to Bolivia, where they are expected to examine an active volcano.

Instead, they are kidnapped by a group of men led by Michael Shannon, whose bon mots include such truisms as "the noblest place for a man to die is the place he dies the deadest." In the meantime, one of his kidnapping colleagues pontificates about alien abductions, Bernal suffers through "the mother of all diarrhea" episodes and Ferres is left alone in the salt flats with two partially blind children, with whom she plays games. You got all that?

"Salt and Fire" ranks high on the scale of weirdness, even for a Herzog film, although it comes nowhere near the delirium of "Bad Lieutenant," which was also significantly better. And although it features a man versus nature theme that we've come to expect from the director, it doesn't hold a candle to such masterpieces as "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" or "Grizzly Man," which both explored that concept to much better effect.

The picture's strangeness and clearly stilted dialogue held me in thrall - to an extent, at least - for the first half of film, but by the time Ferres has been left alone with the two aforementioned children, it was pretty clear that "Salt and Fire" had lost its way.

Herzog is a master filmmaker - one of the best in the world - and his resume is a long list of remarkable fiction and documentary movies. Unfortunately, this isn't one of them. The picture has its moments - a few of which are particularly bonkers - but it's a minor work from a major artist.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Review: Ghost In The Shell

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
The live action film of "Ghost in the Shell" combines some dazzling visuals with a moody electronic soundtrack that led me to believe that director Rupert Sanders has been watching "Blade Runner" lately. However, while the picture follows the story of a body - part woman, part machine - with a soul trapped inside it, the film has the opposite conundrum. Its soul is lost somewhere in the matrix.

Based on the manga of the same name by Masamune Shirow, but also the 1995 anime film of the same name by Mamoru Oshii, the story takes place in the near future where a cyborg with a soul known as Major (Scarlett Johansson) tracks down criminals and eliminates them. She works with a team that includes a scientist (Juliette Binoche), cop partner (Pilou Asbaek) and commander played by the great 'Beat' Takeshi Kitano.

For much of the film, Major is chasing a terrorist, Kuze (Michael Pitt), who warns her that the way in which she came to be in her present body - that is, how her brain became embedded in the half-robotic, half-human form it inhabits - was, perhaps, not by way of consent. This is the simplest way to describe the plot of "Ghost in the Shell," which goes out of its way to make itself appear complex, but isn't particularly.

There are some visual wonders to behold in the film. Gigantic holographic advertisements float through the futuristic Japanese air, a geisha turns into a robotic spider and climbs backwards up a wall and slow motion shootouts are presented in the typical balletic form we've come to expect in these types of pictures. In other words, "Ghost in the Shell" often looks great when, in fact, there's very little actually going on.

Most of the cast appear to be - at least, at times - bored. Then again, many of them are cyborgs and aren't likely to emote too much. Sanders' previous film, "Snow White and the Huntsman," had a similar problem in that its impressive visual effects were bogged down by the ho hum storytelling and that description is just as apt here.

In fact, the cast is a smorgasbord of great indie actors - with the exception, of course, of Johansson, who is no stranger to big budget action filmmaking - but they are given little to do. The only memorable trait among any of the characters is that Asbaek's Batou likes to feed stray dogs.

Johansson has, of recent, been involved with films that have explored challenging terrain involving otherworldly or futuristic stories about characters who are not exactly human - such as the marvelous "Her" and "Under the Skin" - so, "Ghost in the Shell" would seem to be an obvious fit for her. But her character is merely one in a long line of action heroes who are dedicated to work, with little personality outside of it.

Also, while remaking a film provides creative license to its filmmakers to take the story where they see fit, this live action update is mostly a routine action film, dropping much of the complexity - and storyline - from the original comic book and film. For a movie that ponders what it means to have a soul - or ghost, if you will - this one feels more robotic than human.

Review: The Zookeeper's Wife

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Based on the incredible story of Antonina (Jessica Chastain) and Jan Zabinski (Johan Heldenbergh), Niki Caro's "The Zookeeper's Wife" is a well-made and powerful Holocaust drama, even if it relies on World War II movie cliches on a few occasions and omits some of the most pertinent details - for example, Jan's involvement in the Polish Underground is only briefly, and slightly haphazardly, referenced here - from Diane Ackerman's book that is based on the lives of this brave couple.

Antonina, Jan and their son, Ryszard (Timothy Radford and, later, Val Maloku), live a happy life as caretakers for the Warsaw Zoo in late 1930s Poland. Antonina impresses guests at a dinner party by her hands-on work with the zoo's animals, especially when she saves the life of a baby elephant near the film's beginning. At one point later in the picture, she tells a young woman who has fled the Nazis that she loves animals because you can "look into their eyes and see what's in their hearts."

But the Zabinskis' tranquility is interrupted when Germany invades Poland and, in one of the film's most heartbreaking scenes, the zoo is bombed, killing or setting free a majority of the animals. Antonina meets Lutz Heck (Daniel Bruhl), the owner of a Berlin zoo who has been made a chief zoologist by Adolf Hitler, and the two enter into a forced friendship, one that makes Antonina clearly uncomfortable.

When Lutz tells the zookeepers that he will take their prize stock and "protect" them in Berlin, the couple knows that they have no choice. However, Antonina and Jan devise a plan to raise pigs for meat for the German Army at the zoo, but this is merely a distraction as the couple begins to sneak Jews into the zoo via Jan's truck and then help them to escape. Among those hidden at the zoo include an old friend of Jan's with an insect collection and a feral young woman who has been raped by Nazis.

The film, although a moving Holocaust drama, also plays as a fairly intense thriller. Will Jan and Antonina get caught? And will she have to consummate her friendship with Lutz in order to protect those who are hiding in the zoo?

In fact, the film is at its best when it plays like a thriller. A scene during which the animals at the zoo can sense that something bad is about to happen - which is followed by the animals roaming free on the streets of Warsaw, much to the shock of its denizens - is particularly well done as are the scenes when Jan smuggles people out of the ghetto. The film's most powerful moment is when Jan is asked to lend a hand by hoisting young children onto a train that is most surely headed to an extermination camp.

And although too much attention is, perhaps, focused on Lutz's appearances at the Zalinski's home and Jan's jealousy driven by a misunderstanding regarding Antonina and Lutz's relationship, "The Zookeeper's Wife" is, on the whole, a solid addition to the canon of Holocaust films. It's the type of picture for which some reviews could - and have - made a decent case that it's a Hollywoodized version of the Holocaust, but its strong performances and unique story make it one worth watching.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Review: Life

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
In space, nobody can hear you yawn. Daniel Espinosa's "Life" takes a solid cast of leading and character actors and makes them suffer through a creaky "Alien" ripoff that has a few genuine moments of tension and a whole lot of the same old thing you'd expect from a film of this type. And to make matters worse, it features one of those - sort-of spoiler alert - nihilistic types of endings that tend to go better with grim horror movies.

As the film opens, a group of scientists and engineers are aboard a space station as they await a capsule that possibly contains proof of life on Mars to arrive. Once it does, they discover a life form that they come to refer to as Calvin for reasons with which I won't waste your time. The characters are given meager introductions - there's space cowboy Rory (Ryan Reynolds), a pilot with Major Tom Syndrome named David Jordan (Jake Gylenhaal), intelligent Miranda (Rebecca Ferguson), obligatory Russian Ekaterina (Olga Dihovichnaya), brainy and paralyzed scientist Hugh (Ariyon Bakare) and tech guy Sho (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Hugh is fascinated by Calvin and takes an interest in playing with the life form, which starts out small before becoming a large tentacled creature with a creepy face. But while attempting to get a reaction out of the creature by prodding it with electricity (bad idea), things suddenly run amok.

It's at this point that the film goes full "Alien" as the crew members attempt to survive as Calvin - referred to as all muscle and brain, no doubt making him a popular match on Tinder - attacks and attempts to feed off them. Most of the obvious steps are attempted and scenes utilized - a failed quarantine, a sequence during which an astronaut is trapped outside the ship, another in which the creature has made its way into a character's body, etc. You know the drill.

Unlike such heady, recent trips to the cosmos - "Gravity" and "Interstellar," for instance - Espinosa's film has no intention other than to be a B-movie and acting as a possible means of tiding over genre junkies until the new "Alien" film gets released in May. But it's a pretty mediocre substitute. There are a few skillfully made sequences during which the crew members attempt to outwit Calvin, but "Life" is mostly, well, lifeless.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Review: Song To Song

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
Terrence Malick is one of cinema's most unique poets. There are no other films quite like his - other than, that is, those that rip off his trademark style. His films are visually gorgeous, increasingly experimental in nature and seemingly attuned to a realm that could best be described as spiritual.

The reclusive director hit a creative peak with 2011's "The Tree of Life," which at the time I called the most ambitious American film since "2001: A Space Odyssey," at least in terms of the film's attempt to ponder our place in the world and universe. Prior to that, the director was responsible for no less than three other masterpieces - his brilliant debut, "Badlands"; the visually rapturous "Days of Heaven" and the remarkable war picture "The Thin Red Line."

In the years since "The Tree of Life," which stands as one of the decade's very best films, Malick has been uncharacteristically busy. He's released four films in the past four years and while there have been many things to praise regarding his recent work, they have been less coherent than his first five films (which also includes the very good "The New World").

"To the Wonder" was, as usual, visually stunning, but at the time I wrote that it was my least favorite of his films. But the two films that followed - the highly experimental "Knight of Cups" and the kinda IMAX documentary "Voyage of Time" - were even less successful. However, I still recommended all of these films because their visuals were stunning and they still felt, to an extent, of a piece with Malick's previous work, albeit on a lower tier.

"Song to Song" is the first Malick film that I can say just did not work for me. It has some breathtaking shots - an early morning sunrise, numerous scenes of people walking through gorgeous scenery, a few inspired concert shots - but it never comes together.

The film's cast is full of beautiful people - Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and Ryan Gosling - as well as cameos from some faces we haven't seen in a while (Holly Hunter and Val Kilmer) and some rock icons - most notably, Iggy Pop and Patti Smith - but they are left with little to do other than wander around and ponder via voiceover in the manner one would expect in a Malick film.

Although story tends to come at a minimum in Malick's films, it's particularly sparse here. Fassbender, a record producer, and Gosling, a musician, vie for the attentions of Mara, that is, until Gosling becomes involved with an older woman (Blanchett) and Fassbender falls for a waitress (Portman). Meanwhile, the South By Southwest music festival seems to be on a never-ending loop in the background. A death occurs (or, then again, maybe it doesn't), relationships end (often without any reason) and friendships sour (but are later intact, again without explanation).

The film's title may be a reference to the Bible's "Song of Songs," which celebrates sexual love. And there's plenty of that to be found in "Song to Song," where gorgeous actors kiss, fondle, cuddle and fornicate all over the place, albeit in a Malickian manner.

Malick's previous three films have all been set in the present and, at the same time, been his least effective. His next project follows the story of a conscientious objector who refused to fight for the Nazis and my hope is that the film finds him back in top form. "Song to Song" has some elements that deserve praise - terrific camera work by Emmanuel Lubezki and some inspired cameos - but it never worked for me in the way that Malick's finest features have.

Review: T2: Trainspotting

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
The saying you can't go home again isn't exactly right. You can go home again, but it won't be as you remember it and you'll likely be unable to successfully relive the past. This is certainly the case for Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), the star of Danny Boyle's 1996 classic "Trainspotting," as he returns home to make amends with his mates, from whom he stole a boatload of cash following a drug deal in the previous film's climax. As this new movie opens, we find Renton running again, but this time on a treadmill. He suffers a heart attack and collapses and we next see him arriving in the Edinburgh airport, ready to face his past.

Boyle's original film - which was the director's second and a UK answer to "Pulp Fiction" - followed the adventures of everyman heroin abuser Renton; his best pal, Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller), who now goes by Simon; sad, sweet Spud (Ewen Bremner), putting his emotive face to terrific use in this sequel; and psychotic Begbie (Robert Carlyle, terrifying as ever the second time around). In "T2," the drug usage is significantly dialed down - Spud is an on-again, off-again addict, Simon snorts cocaine and Begbie, in one of the picture's funnier jokes, uses Viagra. However, the film - while itself nostalgic, deftly utilizing footage from the original picture - makes the case that nostalgia can be just as addictive as heroin.

As three of the lads pay a visit to the Scottish hillside during one scene, Simon tells Renton that he is a "tourist in his own youth." Renton looks back fondly on his past, but Simon is quick to remind him of some of the darker passages of their youth - in response, Renton recalls a particularly harrowing moment for Simon.

And early in the picture when Renton returns to his childhood home, he drops the needle on the record and just as the first licks of "Lust for Life" rev up, he shuts it off. The song plays again near the film's end, but in a more slowed down version - Underworld's iconic "Born Slippy" also pops up, but also in a slower mode at several points. In the original film, Renton and his pals had youthful vigor - despite all the drugs they put into their systems - but now, they have slipped into a middle age with little direction and life has worn them down.

After an expected brawl early in the film between Renton and Simon, the two make amends and Mark admits that he is in the middle of a divorce, childless and has flimsy job security. Simon has a Bulgarian girlfriend named Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova) - to whom Mark takes a fancy - but makes his money blackmailing men who sleep with her. His dream is to open a brothel, a scheme into which he ropes Renton and Spud, who nearly commits suicide at the film's beginning before being saved by Renton.

Meanwhile, Begbie escapes from jail and, upon arriving home, attempts to school his teenage son in the criminal lifestyle, although the boy is more interested in attending college to study hotel management. After tracking down Simon, Begbie plots to find Renton and kill him for betraying him 20 years prior. Kelly Macdonald pops up in a cameo sequence as Diane, Renton's former girlfriend, but she is now a high powered lawyer, while Shirley Henderson returns for a few scenes as Gail, Spud's ex-wife, on whose face can be seen the hardship of years spent with a junkie.

All of the actors effortlessly slip back into their characters, although it's Bremner who is the most effective as Spud, who takes Renton's advice to channel his addictive behavior into something more productive, so he takes up writing, chronicling the stories from the earlier film that we can expect will turn into the novel "Trainspotting."

To get this out of the way - no, "T2" is not as good as "Trainspotting," most likely due to the fact that lightning rarely strikes twice. However, living up to the first film is a tall order and Boyle's sort-of sequel is still quite good. The first "Trainspotting" was a wild, stylish and morbidly funny breakout film by a young filmmaker, while "T2" is a somber and thoughtful follow-up from a director who has put some years on the books. So, I can say without hesitation that, yes, you should most definitely choose "T2: Trainspotting."

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Review: Kong: Skull Island

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
"Kong: Skull Island" has an impressive cast and some decent special effects - so, it's a shame that the former often get lost within the latter. No, this is not your grandfather's "King Kong" movie. Littered with special effects from nearly start to finish, the picture looks good and has a vibe slightly different from other pictures of this type - mostly due to the period in which it is set - but there's too much going on at once on screen and much of it is digitally created.

The picture opens in 1973 and features President Richard Nixon's announcement that the Vietnam War is being wound down. Two good laughs can be found during this scene - the fact that the number of protesters seen outside the White House during the scene is unlikely as the anti-war movement had all but thrown in the towel at this point and a quip by John Goodman that is directed right at the camera regarding his thoughts on how Washington will never likely be in as much turmoil as it was then. If he only knew.

Goodman's scientist convinces a senator (a brief appearance by Richard Jenkins) to fund a trip to a remote island where strange things are apparently afoot. He rounds up a group of soldiers who are about to be shipped home from the war - led by Samuel L. Jackson's Preston Packard (where do they come up with these names?), a commander who's not quite ready to give up the fight - a tracker (Tom Hiddleston), photo journalist (Brie Larson) and several other scientists.

The group makes a crash landing on the aforementioned island, where they are greeted by an angry King Kong, who smashes up some of the group's helicopters and incurs the wrath of Packard. Since this is a blockbuster movie, the characters are all separated and must find their way back to the rallying point to escape. In the meantime, Hiddleston and Larson stumble upon a village of natives, where a downed World War II pilot (John C. Reilly) has been living for years.

Outside the village lies danger at every turn - gigantic spiders and ants, nasty lizard-like beasts, massive creatures that look like mules and, of course, Kong, who is the island's protector - in other words, he prevents the lizards from taking over. In terms of plot, the film is thin. As for period ambience, it's not too bad - or, at least, it features a soundtrack with tunes by Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane, The Stooges, The Hollies and others. Larson's anti-war commentary fills in the rest.

"Skull Island" is, for the most part, a means of cashing in and an apparent attempt to revive the gigantic monster genre (I'm pretty sure there's another Godzilla movie on the way, a King Kong vs. Godzilla picture and, who knows, perhaps Mothra will have his day in the sun as well). In other words, it's not particularly high on inspiration, that is, unless you count the collection of dividends.

That being said, there's some nice work from some of the cast - Jackson does his thing and some of the supporting players (Shea Whigham and Thomas Mann, for example) have some solid moments. But it's Hiddleston who fares best, although his character is mostly a caricature. Regardless, he makes the case as an action movie leading man.

And the special effects, as I've mentioned, are good enough - however, there are just too many of them. If you've seen one digitally enhanced battle between gigantic creatures, you've seen them all. The actors mostly find themselves running from flying objects and monsters in pursuit. Dialogue is shouted - most of it is either "look out!" or "run!" It's not a bad blockbuster - in fact, it earns points for its period backdrop and great casting - but it doesn't exactly break the mold either.

Review: Personal Shopper

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
In their second collaboration, director Olivier Assayas and actress Kristen Stewart have created a mysterious, spooky and cerebral horror movie that not only concerns itself with things that go bump in the night, but also loneliness, grief and the need to escape oneself. "Personal Shopper" might frustrate those looking for a more straightforward genre exercise that purposefully doesn't wrap its storylines up in neat bows and culminates in one of the great open ended finales of recent memory, but filmgoers seeking a thought provoking, distinctly European and often creepy horror movie will be duly rewarded.

As the picture opens, Stewart's Maureen is pulling double duty as she examines an abandoned country home in France. Maureen is a medium and she's scoping out the place for potential buyers who don't want to live in a haunted house, but she's also attempting to make contact with her twin brother, Lewis, who died several months prior in this particular house due to heart problems. When asked by others what she is doing in France, Maureen cryptically answers, "I'm waiting," and we know that it is a sign from her dead brother for which she is holding out hope.

However, what Maureen is technically doing in France is working as a personal shopper for a high maintenance model named Kyra (Nora Von Waldstatten), who is hilariously introduced in the middle of a phone call in which she is bickering over a plan to save endangered gorillas. Maureen travels to high end stores in France - and even London - to pick out expensive outfits for Kyra and, despite being told not to, trying them on herself when no one's looking.

Maureen has a boyfriend who is currently working in Oman and she occasionally takes part in video chats with him. She also has a few other friends who are practicing mediums. Otherwise, Maureen is primarily alone, despite being surrounded by faceless strangers as she walks - or often rides via scooter - the streets of Paris. "Personal Shopper" is a ghost story, but in more than one sense of the word - Maureen is haunted by the death of her brother, the non-present Kyra (who only makes one appearance) has an apparitional presence in the story and Maureen herself is clearly ignored by Kyra as she were a spirit.

In Assaya's previous film, the marvelous "Clouds of Sils Maria," Stewart also played an assistant to a well-known person - in that case, an actress played by Juliette Binoche - and approximately two-thirds of the way into that film, her character literally vanishes into thin air. In "Personal Shopper," Stewart may be tracking a ghost - or more than one, for that matter - but she's spectral herself.

A number of elements come into play to possibly throw the viewer off guard - Kyra's boyfriend pops up in an early scene where he appears innocuous and a later one where he's sinister, a brutal murder takes place and, during one of the picture's most ingenious moments, a ghost may or may not be riding a hotel elevator and exiting its front door.

But the film's centerpiece is an epic length conversation carried out via text between Maureen and a mysterious figure. Could it be the ghost of Lewis finally making contact with Maureen? Or has she summoned another otherworldly presence? Perhaps it's neither, but rather a real-life stalker who appears to be tracking her every move.

Although one of the film's storylines appears to come to a conclusion, it also opens the door for the film's mysterious ending, which possibly changes the nature of the story if taken literally or adds further depth to the picture's themes of solitude and mourning if taken figuratively. The final line that Stewart half-whispers halfway around the world from where the movie began will, regardless, leave you with much to ponder.

Assayas is one of French's finest filmmakers, from his 1990s output ("Irma Vep" and "Late August, Early September") to his more recent pictures ("Sils Maria" and the remarkable "Carlos"). "Personal Shopper" bears some similarity to his jet-set thrillers "Demonlover" and "Boarding Gate," but it's also unique in that it's a rare example of the director directly taking on genre material, albeit blending horror scares with some of the themes that have long been present in his work.

And Stewart's work here proves that she is a long way from "Twilight." Between her work here and her previous role in "Sils Maria" - for which she became the first American actress to win a Cesar - it's clear that Stewart is a gifted actress and a terrific muse for her French collaborator. This is a fascinating film for the cinematically adventurous.