Sunday, January 29, 2017

Review: Gold

Image courtesy of TWC-Dimension.
Stephen Gaghan's "Gold" tells an interesting and - supposedly or, at least, somewhat - true story about a Nevada man who, in the 1980s, unearthed a massive amount of gold in Indonesia and after a brief period of enjoying his riches saw a spectacular downfall. Gaghan's previous directorial efforts were the mostly forgettable thriller "Abandon" and the excellent "Syriana," although he also wrote the screenplay for Steven Soderbergh's "Traffic."

The story of Kenny Wells (Matthew McConaughey) and Michael Acosta (Edgar Ramirez) is an intriguing one, but rather than relying on the strength of the material, Gaghan has tried to present it in a style that is very obviously an homage to the work of Martin Scorsese or, more recently, David O. Russell's "American Hustle." The picture portrays the the duo as a pair of hucksters, but it makes the mistake of romanticizing their characters, rather than depicting them as the villains - which they mostly are.

As the film opens, Kenny works for his father (Craig T. Nelson in a cameo) in a mining business and, eight years later, the company has fallen on hard times. Kenny seeks out Acosta, once a legend in his field but currently in a rut, and convinces him that he believes that there is a large quantity of gold in a desolate region of Indonesia. Kenny raises the funds for the expedition and the pair head off to the jungle.

While in Indonesia, Kenny nearly dies from malaria but, after finding himself revived, he is told by his partner that they have found their hidden treasure. The discovery leads to Kenny getting mixed up with ruthless gold mining barons, the son of a despot and all manner of Wall Street crook. Naturally, his glorious rise is followed by a massive fall - and one that involves a plot twist, of sorts, that I won't give away.

McConaughey does a fine job with the role and it's one seemingly tailor-made for him - he gets to be the wild eyed, motor mouthed good time Charlie that you'd expect from the actor. The problem is that the character is underdeveloped. He seemingly exists only to discover gold and raise the profile of his father's company, while his relationship with his wife, Kay (Bryce Dallas Howard), is mostly one-note. The film makes the mistake of trying to get the audience to root for him, whereas other pictures - such as Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" and the recent "The Founder" - have a better sense of the nature of their lead characters.

"Gold" is often amusing and its performances are good, although the writers mostly just scratch the surface of the characters. I can see how Kenny Wells's story could be one that would make for an interesting movie, but this picture merely follows a time honored trajectory for a story of this sort, rather than presenting it in such a way that makes it stand out. In other words, you could do far worse than "Gold" for an evening out at the movies - but judging it against many of the great films released at the end of 2016 that are likely still playing at a cinema near you, you could also do better.

Review: The Salesman

Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
Similar to his 2011 masterpiece "A Separation," Asghar Farhadi's latest picture also deals with an incident from which conflicting perspectives arise, but it's also a drama about a marriage in jeopardy and, to an extent, a thriller.

As the film opens, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and his wife, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) are actors in a troupe performing "Death of a Salesman," although due to Iran's restrictions, some of the play's scenes are being edited out. Emad is also a teacher, whose students appear to love him. During the film's tense opening scene, the building in which Emad and Rana live begins rattling and the tenants are told that it will soon collapse. The couple is then left searching for a new place to stay.

But Emad and Rana luck out as one of their friends in the troupe provides them with an apartment where they can temporarily live. However, one night the door to the couple's apartment buzzes and Rana, who is alone in the apartment, assumes that it is her husband ringing the bell, so she presses the buzzer, unlocks her front door - leaving it open a crack - and goes to take a shower.

Upon his arrival home, Emad finds that his wife has been attacked - or, at least, hurt - and there's no question that another person was in the apartment with her. But for a reason not quite explainable, Rana does not want Emad to go to the police. As time goes on, Rana begins to become more and more fearful of being left alone, while Emad becomes obsessed with finding out who attacked his wife.

In the film's final third, Emad stumbles upon a suspect and while I won't give away what happens, suffice it to say that the picture becomes less about Emad revenging the violation against his wife and more about satisfying his own pride and ego. In the process, his marriage to Rana becomes even more frail that it had been previously.

Farhadi's films are intimate dramas that, first and foremost, provide a fascinating look into Iranian culture - and it differs vastly in his pictures than from the image in which the nation is often portrayed. Secondly, his films - from the masterful "A Separation" to the powerful "About Elly" and "The Past," which was set in France - explore the differences between men and women, most notably in their responses to stressful situations.

"The Salesman" is a powerful drama that could be technically described as a thriller, albeit one that is more interested in psychological terrain than mystery. Although "A Separation" remains Farhadi's greatest work, the director's latest is further proof that he is the most accomplished filmmaker working in his native country today.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Review: The Founder

Image courtesy of The Weinstein Company.
All may be fair in love and war - but certainly not in business, a maxim that Ray Kroc (portrayed here by Michael Keaton) would likely take pride in advertising. Kroc was a failed Illinois salesman who, at age 52, stumbled upon the restaurant McDonald's in San Bernadino and ended up snatching it out from under the two brothers who founded it and franchising it into the empire it is today.

As the film opens, Kroc is traveling across the U.S. in 1954, attempting to sell milkshake machines to mostly uninterested restaurant owners. During an inventory call, he is surprised to find that a San Bernadino burger joint has ordered eight of the machines from him, so he personally makes the trip to California, where he charms the two brothers - Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) - who bear the eatery's name.

Kroc immediately sees dollar signs and after convincing the brothers to tell him how they came up with their system of mass producing burgers, fries and shakes in 30 seconds, he attempts to convince them to franchise the restaurant. They eventually relent, but almost instantly begin to regret so as Kroc attempts to insert his own ideas into the method in which the restaurant operates.

Keaton gives a fine performance as Kroc who, at first, comes off as a Willy Loman type, but eventually grows to become a corporate monster who is vindictive, ruthless and greedy - attributes that eventually extend to fellow business associates and even his wife (Laura Dern).

The film's strongest moments are those involving the people whom Kroc screws over - namely, Dern's Ethel, who gets some bad news from him during a particularly devastating dinner scene, and the two McDonald brothers. Kroc frequently proclaims that his business is all about family, but it's Dick and Mac who actually appear to treat their employees as such and run their business in a manner that could be described as familial.

In business meetings - and particularly during a scene in front of a mirror recalling "Raging Bull" at the film's end as he prepares to meet with then-California governor Ronald Reagan - Kroc relies on platitudes in which he makes capitalism sound friendly, comparing the McDonald's arches to the flag and the cross and using buzzwords - such as "persistence" - to make excuses for ruthless business practices.

While "The Founder" isn't a great movie on such matters - as "There Will Be Blood" is - it is a consistently entertaining and well acted character study about a man whose attributes are recognizable in a certain someone who just took the highest office in the land this past weekend and is, therefore, strangely timely in its tale of a ruthless opportunist making his fortune on the backs of the little guys. I'd recommend it, but it's a meal that is far from happy.

Review: Split

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
The occasionally creepy and often silly "Split" is M. Night Shyamalan's most successful effort in 15 years, although the caveat is that it's still just partially effective and some strong material therein is not utilized to its maximum effect.

The film spends a minimum amount of time with its characters before jumping right into the action. Three teenage girls - Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and Marcia (Jessica Sula) - are kidnapped in a parking lot by a man known as Kevin (James McAvoy), who has 23 distinct personalities functioning in his body, several of which are malevolent.

The girls awaken in a locked room in a dungeon-like basement where Kevin or his alternate personalities - the boy Hedwig, the woman Patricia and sinister man Dennis, all three of which are among the evil ones - tend to them and make reference to the arrival of The Beast, a 24th personality to which they will be sacrifices.

Meanwhile, Betty Buckley's Dr. Fletcher, a good hearted psychoanalyst who specializes in patients with multiple personalities, believes that there is something amiss in Kevin and that he is, perhaps, purposefully hiding away some of his darker personalities from her during their meetings.

The three girls, all the while, are attempting to plot an escape, mostly via appealing to Hedwig's "innocence" and tricking him into leading them out of the underground maze where they are kept. After two of the girls make their own attempts at escape, they are locked into separate rooms and Casey - who is given a backstory involving molestation that is as intriguing as it is tastelessly revealed - realizes that she has to take the lead on overcoming Kevin and his multiple personalities.

McAvoy's characters run the gamut. Dennis and Patricia are creepy personalities that the actor carries off effectively, while an obviously gay fashion designer character isn't quite as believable and Hedwig is the most annoying. If there were an award for the most acting, McAvoy would surely win it. It's easy to admire his dedication to the role - um, roles - even if several of them are not particularly believable.

There's also a twist in the very last scene of the picture that connects it to a previous Shyamalan picture. The moment is simultaneously inspired and ridiculous, which also describes "Split" as a whole. After more than a decade of flops - from the mediocre "The Village" to the outright bombs "After Earth" and "The Last Airbender" - it's nice to see Shyamalan getting back to the spooky thrillers that originally gained him acclaim. But "Split" is appropriately titled - it's partially successful and, on occasion, foolish.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review: The Bye Bye Man

Image courtesy of STX Entertainment.
Provoking more chuckles than screams, "The Bye Bye Man" aims to unveil a new horror villain for the 21st century that can take the place of Freddy Krueger, Jason Vorhees and Michael Myers, who have long deserved a restful retirement. But while the picture has an intriguing concept, the execution falls flat, thanks to scenes intended to scare playing as ridiculous, some hammy acting, shoddy special effects and a villain whose origin is entirely too vague.

The film opens on an unsettling note. On a sunny day in 1969 in Madison, Wisconsin, a man strolls up to the lawn of a house, asks the woman who answers the door if she has spoken aloud a name to anyone else, retrieves a shotgun from his car and proceeds to slaughter several of his neighbors. The scene - although absurdly devoid of blood for the brutal carnage on display for the purpose of receiving a PG-13 rating - is the scariest in the picture because it takes place in such a blase manner.

Jumping to the present, a group of teens - a studious young man, his girlfriend and an athletic pal - move into the house where the opening sequence took place. Shortly after their arrival, they begin to find coins on the ground - one of many elements in the film that goes completely unexplained - and eventually discover a dresser where the words "don't think it, don't say it" are scrawled over and over again.

As it turns out, a malevolent spirit known as The Bye Bye Man - a creature for whom we get virtually no origin or history, thereby making him merely a dull, hooded figure with an inexplicably preposterous looking, digitally created demonic dog as a companion - resides within the walls of the house and after you speak his name, you can't get it out of your head, thereby bringing him into the world, where he distorts his victim's visions and leads them to undertake heinous acts of violence. The rule is that you can't repeat his name to anyone else or you'll infect them as well.

Conceptually, this film could have been a decent horror movie. Much like 2015's terrific "It Follows," this film - directed by Stacy Title - has a philosophical notion at its core - in this case, that people can will things into being by becoming obsessed by them. Therefore, by allowing something to completely take you over, you've enabled the thing that you fear.

But "The Bye Bye Man" has little on its mind other than cheap jump scares, unexpectedly slammed doors and things that go bump - or, in this case, scratch - in the night. Throw in a few poor line readings, some chintzy special effects (re: the dog) and characters who only exist to fill out horror movie archetypes and you've got a wasted effort. The movie's ending sets up an inevitable sequel and, as I've mentioned the concept here could make for a decent genre outing but, perhaps, it's better to follow's the film's own advice as to returning to this material - don't say it, don't think it.

Review: Sleepless

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
My first question is: why is the new action film starring Jaime Foxx as a cop mixed up with some nasty drug dealers and criminals whose son gets kidnapped titled "Sleepless"? The action of the film appears to be set during the course of a single day and unless the characters are, unbeknownst to us, persistent nappers, then it's unclear who is losing sleep and when.

As the film opens, Foxx's cop, Vincent Downs - who could be a dirty one or merely pretending to be one - and his partner (rapper T.I.) steal some drugs that are supposed to show up at a casino owned by a sleazy Dermot Mulrooney and then passed on to the heinous heir (Scoot McNairy) of a kingpin. Meanwhile, an ambitious internal affairs officer (Michelle Monaghan) believes that there are some shady dealings in the Las Vegas police department and she sets out to crack the case herself.

After Downs pulls off his heist, he picks up the son to whom he never pays attention - because, in these types of movies, there's always one of those - from the estranged wife (Gabrielle Union), who's tired of her ex-husband's flakiness. No sooner than Downs and his son hit the road than they are pulled over by some thugs who proceed to stab Downs and kidnap his son. The rest of the film involves the cop tracking down the villains involved in the kidnapping and attempting - but repeatedly failing after Monaghan's detective shows up at the casino, where much of the story takes place - to return the drugs.

Anybody who has seen John Carpenter's classic "They Live" will likely recall the infamously long fight scene that involved a pro wrestler, an equally imposing opponent, a pair of sunglasses and a trash can. Well, imagine that for nearly 90 minutes. Literally every time Foxx's Downs turns a corner in the casino, he finds himself in fisticuffs, whether it's with Mulrooney's beefy bouncer, Monaghan's IA agent, her partner and other random individuals mixed up in the case. Tables get broken, extras run screaming, assorted kitchen objects are used as weapons, a hot tub gets made a mess - you get the picture. Despite the film's nonstop violence, I often found myself chuckling.

Foxx has screen presence and he's a charismatic actor. So, it's a shame that his character - as well as those of virtually everyone else in the picture - are so underdeveloped that it's difficult to care much for their plights. This is a by-the-numbers action movie filled with all the cliches - both visual and in the narrative department - that you'd expect from the genre with few surprises. The picture's most mystifying element is its inexplicable title.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Review: Hidden Figures

Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Rousing and crowd pleasing, "Hidden Figures" is a well written and very well acted drama following the stories of three black women who made a mark on NASA during the early years of the space program. Typically, when Hollywood movies aim to be inspirational, they often end up coming off as maudlin, but Theodore Melfi's film is an irresistible period piece that manages to be an uplifting and thoughtful story of the civil rights era.

As the picture opens, the film's three leads - Katherine (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) all work in the computing section - that is, the colored computing section - of NASA in Virginia. Despite Katherine's brilliance at math, Dorothy's obvious managerial skills and Mary's engineering abilities, the women aren't given the respect or opportunities they deserve because they are black women in the south in the early 1960s.

But when a position opens up to work under Al Harrison (Kevin Costner), the fictional leader of the team that plans to send John Glenn orbiting around the earth, it is determined that Katherine is the best person for the job, so she lands a seat in the all-white and all-male room where the plans for the orbit are being hatched.

Meanwhile, Mary wants to take a night class at a local segregated school so that she can qualify to become an engineer at NASA, so she decides to take her case to court, while Dorothy combats casual racism as she attempts to officially become a manager since she actually performs managerial duties without being credited with the title. To do so, she butts heads with her boss (Kirsten Dunst) who, like many whites during that era, very likely didn't consider themselves racists, but also didn't feel comfortable seeing blacks being elevated in the workplace.

There are a number of subplots - most of which are handled well and don't feel as if they are crowding for attention - including Mary's attempts to get her husband to appreciate her struggle to attend night classes, Katherine's burgeoning romance with a military man (Mahershala Ali, always great) and Dorothy's being forced to explain to her sons why the law isn't always right after she isn't allowed to search for a book in the whites-only section of the library.

While the film's writing is strong and the sequences involving John Glenn's orbit are exciting, it's the performances that make the movie work so well. Henson gives a commanding performance as the shy - but gradually confident - Katherine, while Monae is the liveliest of the bunch as the occasionally smart assed Mary. Spencer and Ali are both solid and Costner delivers the type of understated supporting work that probably won't attract awards notice, but is deserved of it.

"Hidden Figures" is an irresistible crowd pleaser and it couldn't have come at a better time. Following an election season of nonstop sexism and bigotry, here is a film showing that the history of innovation in the United States is much more diverse than people may have been taught to believe. It combines a potent civil rights story with a tale of the space race that makes for a highly enjoyable viewing experience, one that was actually cheered by the audience with which I saw the picture.

Review: A Monster Calls

Image courtesy of Focus Features.
Although based upon a novel by Patrick Hess, "A Monster Calls" seems just as much influenced by Guillermo del Toro, to whom this film's director, J.A. Bayona, is a protege, of sorts. Blending fantasy with real life trauma, "Monster" is an often powerful film about a young British boy who creates a gigantic tree-like monster in his imagination to help him deal with his mother's wasting away from a disease that is never named, but appears to be cancer.

The boy, named Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is loaded down with problems, including that he is shy and a target for bullies, his father (Toby Kebbell) loves him but clearly gives preference to his family abroad in America, his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) is a bit of a task master and it's pretty clear that Conor will end up living with her once his mother is no longer able to care for him and the kid is lonely.

Conor's mother (Felicity Jones) was once an artist and her son has taken up her penchant for drawing, a fact picked up on and used against him by a trio of kids who cruelly torment him at school. One day and shortly after watching "King Kong" with his mother, Conor looks out of his window at the churchyard - about which he often has vividly horrifying dreams - where a large yew tree stands and imagines that it comes to life.

The monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) tells Conor that it will relay to him three stories if the boy will eventually agree to tell a fourth story, that is, to analyze his own nightmares in which he fails to save his mother from the churchyard crumbling into the earth. The stories are relayed mostly through animation and all three confuse the boy as they are tales in which human beings are not portrayed as good or evil, but rather in complex shades of grey.

Although this is a movie in which a young boy submits to a fantasy world to escape his present day reality - similar to del Toro's remarkable "Pan's Labyrinth" in which a young girl flees her horrific existence by creating a series of tests involving fantastical creatures - this is not a movie for kids. "A Monster Calls" is ultimately moving, but it goes to some dark places and deals with subject matter that is, at times, pretty wrenching.

As the film comes to its close, Conor's monster forces the boy to reveal his own truth and, as it turns out, his story involves flaws in his own character that are, similar to the protagonists of the monster's three stories, entirely human. And other than Conor's bully, most of the flawed individuals in the boy's life are not villains as he originally frames them. There's a particularly effective sequence during which he and Weaver's grandmother talk in the car as they are delayed at a train track crossing on the way to the hospital.

Bayona's previous films are the creepy "The Orphanage" and the well-made tsunami drama "The Impossible." Although his latest bears some resemblance to del Toro's work, especially "Pan's Labyrinth," it's an emotionally resonant coming of age story that deftly blends fantasy with human drama in a surprisingly effective manner.

Review: Live By Night

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
For his fourth outing as a director, Ben Affleck has aimed to make an ambitious, sprawling period gangster drama, but while the film is stylish and features a few decent set pieces, it ultimately feels as if it is missing some of the ingredients that can be found in the best mob pictures.

In the film, Affleck plays Joe Coughlin, the son of a Boston police captain who turns to crime, getting bounced back and forth between two mob families - an Irish gangster named Albert White (Robert Glenister) and an Italian one known as Mr. Pescatore (Remo Girone) - before being sent by the latter to Florida, where he takes over a Tampa-based operation in which he works with a local Cuban gang.

But while Coughlin's rise in the mob - as well as his clashes with the KKK in Florida - make up some of the film's dramatic bits, there are also three women whose presences influence him. The first is Albert White's girlfriend (Sienna Miller), with whom he has a dangerous liaison that nearly results in his death, while the second is the sister (Zoe Saldana) of a Cuban gangster in Tampa and the third - although with this woman he has no romantic relations - is the religious daughter (Elle Fanning) of a local police chief (Chris Cooper).

The film is stylish and makes great use of its Florida locales and there are several set pieces in the film that are pretty impressive, most notably the raiding of a mansion by a group of thugs that slightly recalls the finale of "Scarface," which was also set in Florida. And as he has shown with his other pictures - "Gone Baby Gone," "The Town" and "Argo" - Affleck once again proves that he has talent behind the camera. This film, although flawed, feels assured.

The problems with "Live By Night" mostly come via the script department. For starters, Coughlin is a bit of a cypher. He is an occasionally ruthless mob enforcer with ambitions of taking over Tampa's crime scene, but we are simultaneously supposed to believe that he's a decent guy at heart - take, for example, how he refuses to bump off a woman who is getting in the way of his creating a casino ordered by Pescatore.

And the film's three women - Miller's moll, Saldana's romantic interest and Fanning's naive religious convert - aren't fully developed, but rather serve as symbols that further Coughlin's story rather than their own. Similarly, the - spoiler alert - deaths of two of them are used for Coughlin's obligatory emotional arc.

"Live By Night" is a halfway decent gangster picture. Robert Richardson's cinematography helps to create the vibe of a classic Hollywood picture, albeit one that is more colorful and lush than your typical noir. The film is a larger canvas than Affleck has tackled with his three previous films, so he earns points for ambition, but the movie never quite reaches its full potential.