Saturday, January 24, 2015

Catching Up: "The Judge"

 3.5 / 5 

The Judge takes two fine actors, casts them in a compelling courtroom drama with familial underpinnings, and develops a mesmerizing story about the way we think we know all there is to know about our fathers, our sons, our selves -- only to find we've never really looked.

Then, it waters down all of that good stuff with cutesy scenes of Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) trying to adjust to an extended stay in his podunk hometown.

Now, this is a major studio film, so his podunk hometown isn't filled with depressing Walmarts and Best Buys and gas stations and Mimis Cafes; this little idyllic slice of heaven in Indiana is the kind of place where slightly overweight white kids pile into the flatbed of a battered old truck to go fishing and wave at all the neighbors who drive by.  Other cherubic white kids ride their bikes down the middle of the street, and bunting and garden lights are always artfully hanging from the storefront awnings.  These are the towns that production designers need to find because ready-made studio backlots don't exist anymore -- and neither do towns like this, except in movies.

Everyone knows everyone, everyone offers cheery hellos, everyone's friendly and white and wealthy.  It's nothing at all like Chicago, where Hank normally practices law.  There, he's become a scheming, fast-talking defense attorney who takes guilty clients with deep pockets.  Here, he's a fish out of water, the slick-willy small-town-boy-made-good who left home back in the late '80s and never looked back.  Not even to come visit his family.

He returns now because his mother has died, leaving his father, the respected Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) to watch after Hank's older brother Glen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and their mentally challenged younger brother Dale (Jeremy Strong).  Hank makes a point of looking up his old flame, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), who owns the local bar and has a 20-something daughter (Leighton Meester) who flirts a lot with Downey.

Eventually -- very eventually -- a story comes into focus.  It takes a long time to get there. You could argue that the story, which is in part a mystery and in part a standard legal thriller, needs to be set up properly, and that might be true except that the "character study" parts of The Judge -- about Downey's impending divorce, his relationship with his daughter, and his dread of being back in his podunk hometown -- have very little to do with the story and add a good half-hour to its bloated 2½-hour running time.

It's John Grisham meets On Golden Pond, and while the central (and most interesting) relationship between the old judge and his cocky lawyer son is integral to the plot, the rest is filler, and makes The Judge feel too cutesy and sweet -- a feeling not helped by the sun-dappled, overly sweeping camerawork -- before it gets going.

But when it does get going, it's a gripping thriller, one that may not exactly be original, but feels fresh with the masterful performances by Duvall (a deserved Oscar nominee), Downey and Billy Bob Thornton as the prosecuting attorney from way out in Gary, Indiana.

Vera Farmiga is appealing but mostly wasted in the love-interest plot that really doesn't lead anywhere, and as the scenes with the two of them dragged on and on, I grew resentful; I wanted to get back to the two better stories the movie was telling, the one about how Judge Palmer might have murdered a man he once imprisoned and how Palmer's estranged son was committed to ensuring the old man wouldn't go to jail; and the one about the Palmer men, senior and junior.  There is a lot of compelling interpersonal drama in The Judge, it just would better have been left to the Palmer men instead of its tentative steps into romance.

Still, fans of courtroom thrillers will find The Judge one of the better examples of the genre in recent years, and it's nice to see the old tropes move back off of the TV screen and into the movies.  The Judge is a handsome, finely made movie that would have been better focusing on The Judge, not the town.  We've seen this town before, Atticus Finch lived in a place just like it, and as one character says, "Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there's a hooker in the bathtub."  I'm not sure movie audiences need Atticus Finch anymore, just great stories.  The Judge gets it half right, and maybe even a little bit more.

Viewed Jan. 24, 2015 -- DVD

"The Interview"

 1.5 / 5 

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un has committed atrocities that defy description or explanation, but if he and his country did, indeed, somehow manipulate Sony Pictures to withdraw The Interview from theatrical release, it can be viewed as an unprecedented act of kindness and charity.

The Interview is an attempt to be Dr. Strangelove to an audience that has grown up with Beavis and Butthead, South Park and The Hangover, except that Beavis and Butthead, South Park and The Hangover are funny.  The Interview is not funny.  It is not even mildly amusing.  It does not know how to be a satire.  It is both puerile and sterile.  There is not one laugh in the movie, something I know because I saw the first 25 minutes of The Interview twice.  The first time, I fell asleep.  The second time, I got through to the very end, which often involved acts of conscious effort like sitting up, stretching, and shaking my head violently.  Watching The Interview requires dedication.

Whether the attempted political satire of The Interview was at the root of the massive cyber-attack on Sony Pictures that created an international diplomatic emergency, I don't know.  I certainly hope not.  I would like to think that even the most self-serving, aggressively secretive, cruelly violent dictator would have some taste.  To be offended by The Interview would require the emotional maturity of a sensitive third-grader who gets called names by the schoolyard bully.  I was such a third-grader, and if the bully were as pompous, ridiculous and mindless as The Interview, I have to believe I would have been able to shrug it off.

The Interview is a bad movie.  It has virtually no redeeming values except, perhaps, for some surprisingly sophisticated photography and some relatively endearing performances by (ironically enough) Randall Park as Kim Jong-un and Diana Bang as his propaganda minister.  I don't know how they managed to keep their senses of humor, especially when playing against the shrill, mugging James Franco, who has to have gained a lot of weight during the making of The Interview considering all the scenery he tries to chew.

To be effective as satire, Franco's character needed to be played straight, he needed to be more than a third-rate talk-show interviewer who gets the chance to interview Kim Jong-un -- and is recruited, along with his producer (Seth Rogen), to assassinate the dictator.  Franco plays it as a bumbling buffoon, and he's proves shockingly inept at comedy.  He is not, as satire requires, in on the joke.  He does not even know that there is a joke.

Rogen, who inexplicably allowed himself to take on-screen credit for co-writing and co-directing the film, fares a little bit better, but not much, as the duo's allegedly smarter half.  He has the right comic instincts, but it would take a far greater talent to find the humor in self-anal penetration with a military weapon and losing not one but two fingers to a raving North Korean TV producer.  Those scenes were not funny when they played on screen, and they do not strike me as funny now.  If they sound like scenes you would find amusing, then by all means, see The Interview, and best of luck to you.

The filmmakers find it endlessly amusing to find ways to work anal sex into scenes, and delight in making jokes about gays -- not to mention creating homo-erotic gags -- at every opportunity.  They think, I guess, that they are being hip and cool by making fun of homosexuality in some kind of ironic way.  Here again, they come across more as moronic schoolyard bullies than funny guys.

But The Interview never rises to the level of being intelligent or sophisticated enough to cause offense to anyone of any sexual orientation, political ideation or nationality.  To be offended in any way would be to give credibility to The Interview, and it is not a credible film.  It is also not an entertaining film, or a funny one.  While I don't mean to belittle or dismiss the crime that someone committed against Sony Pictures, the crime The Interview commits against its audience is, from a certain perspective, equally heinous.

Viewed Jan. 24, 2015 -- Netflix

Monday, January 19, 2015


 2.5 / 5 

Cake is a performance in search of a movie, a concept that overlooks one critical element of success: plot.  Jennifer Aniston gives a thoughtful, careful performance, but in honor of what, exactly, it isn't quite clear.

When Cake opens, Claire Bennett (Aniston) is taking part in a therapy group for women who have chronic pain.  One member of the group, Nina (Anna Kendrick), has committed suicide in a particularly violent, grisly fashion, and while the other members are grieving, Claire is having none of it.  She heaves a sigh, rolls her eyes and dismisses the emotion with a gruff disregard for anyone else in the room.

This is the basic concept we are asked to sympathize with in Cake -- that Claire's physical pain and its emotional cause are more important than anyone else's.

Claire lives in an expensive, mid-century home in the Hollywood Hills where her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) tries to cope with her angry, embittered boss.  Although the awards buzz is all around Oscar-snubbed Aniston, Barraza gives the best performance in the film.  Silvana has a big, kind heart and lets Claire heap abuse on her because she knows the real reason Claire is in such pain.

Cake tries to hide that reason until the last few minutes, but any astute moviegoer will correctly guess it within the first few.  What happened to Claire left her broken both in body and in spirit, and most of Cake is devoted to watching her suffer.  Aniston walks gingerly, with an exhausted bend in her body, sits carefully as if every movement is impossible.  She has the physical appearance of Claire down pat, and wants to convey the anger that comes with it, but that's where things get problematic, either for Aniston or the screenplay by Patrick Tobin -- or, perhaps, both.

Claire lacks something crucial; she has no inner grace despite the pain, and she's not outwardly callous enough to be jaw-droppingly inappropriate.  Cake wants us to marvel at just how mean-spirited, embittered and filled with rage Claire is, but Aniston (or, again, maybe it's the screenplay) never pushes her over the edge.  It's impossible to be disgusted with Claire, just mildly annoyed.

Most of Cake revolves around Claire seeking one cure or another for her pain.  Occasionally, the ghost of Nina shows up, because we're led to believe Claire has developed an unhealthy obsession with the woman -- going so far as to befriend Nina's grieving husband (Sam Worthington).  But these scenes feel more like diversions, detours around the core of the story, which is how Claire refuses to confront the emotional reality of what happened to her.

The movie doesn't want to confront that reality, either, so it misses a chance at real power and settles for mild interest.  Aniston is very good, and occasionally finds the grieving, aching woman a Claire's core.  But it's rarely within the power of an actor to overcome an ill-conceived script, which is the unfortunate case with Cake.

Viewed Jan. 17, 2015 -- DVD

Friday, January 16, 2015

"Still Alice"

 4 / 5 

In the end, we will all lose everything.  It is one of the great puzzles of life, and I would do this ultimate mystery a disservice by trying to quote philosophers I have barely read.  But philosophers only expand on what we all know inside ourselves: Life is temporary and will fade away to nothing.

For Alice Howland, this most meaningful and meaningless of all truths takes on a different dimension, and the short arc of the remainder of her days are he subject of Still Alice, a remarkably focused and vivid movie that follows a successful, well-regarded university professor from the time she learns she has early onset Alzheimer's disease to a point that may not be the end of Alice but is at least disturbingly close to it.

To explain Still Alice as "the movie in which Julianne Moore plays a woman with Alzheimer's disease" does this beautiful, elegiac film a huge disservice.  Yes, it is about a woman diagnosed with a terrible disease, but it is more passionately about a woman who refuses to go gently into that good night.  She does not follow poet Dylan Thomas' instructions to rage against it, but she does resist.

Alice is a college linguistics professor who is only too aware of the way the brain learns and processes language, how it decodes sounds and visual cues into meaning, and how communication -- with or without words -- is the only common language that human beings have.  In the world in which Alice has spent her professional career, every object, ever word, ever choice is ascribed with meaning.  Eliminate those meanings, and a cup is a cup that has no value other than being a cup.  It is not the cup out of which you drank a sip of coffee on your way to get married.  The notebook is not the notebook you were writing in the night you got tragic news.  They are cups and notebooks, and that is all.  The meaning comes from our interpretation of them.

Slowly at first, and then with vicious force, Alice's world loses its meaning.  Stairs are stairs, not the steps she and her husband John (Alec Baldwin) trotted up and down every day for decades.  A woman who waits for Alice backstage after a show is just a nice-looking young woman, she is not Alice's daughter -- at least not anymore, not for Alice.

Though no one is exactly adept at it, we all have more practice dealing with more socially acceptable forms of slow death: As Alice says to  John at a particularly aware moment, "I wish I had cancer, I do.  Then I wouldn't have this embarrassment."  How do you explain the captivating, intelligent 50-year-old woman who can't remember the name for a duck, who doesn't realize you met her just moments ago?

"I am not suffering," a defiant Alice proclaims in a deeply moving speech she gives to Alzheimer's patients and family members. "I am struggling ... struggling to be connected with who I once was."

Isn't that, in a sense, what we all do?

The beauty of Still Alice is that even within a specific story about a specific woman's struggle, writer-directors Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer, adapting a novel by Lisa Genova, find a way to relate Alice's rare condition to everyone: Our constant struggle is to reconcile who we were and what we did with who we are.  We live our lives in emotional retrograde; the now makes sense only because there was a then.

In her quiet, tremulous performance, Moore brings this essential impossibility of Alzheimer's disease into stark, painful contrast.  She is losing herself.  Despite the film's title, she is not "still Alice," she is someone else, someone no one -- including herself -- recognizes.  But she is still there.  And as long as she is, her condition must be managed.

Still Alice is not a hopeful film -- there is no miracle cure waiting with her name written on the vial.  The only way out is through.  In time, we learn the toll this realization takes on the rest of her family, including her romantically optimistic actress daughter (Kristen Stewart), her less adjusted daughter (Kate Bosworth) and her stalwart son (Hunter Parrish).  Each, along with their father, responds in a classically Marxist way: Each according to his abilities.  Their family will be destroyed soon, by a woman who wants her family to remain unharmed.

No, Still Alice offers little hope, but it does provide a glimmer of acceptance, of peaceful understanding.  Through the generous, never histrionic, performance of Moore, who is in almost every shot of the film, there is a determined, beautiful soul at its core -- a soul ravaged by misfortune, but that seeks to rise nonetheless.

While many may feel Still Alice is a little too cold, a little too distanced to be truly effective, I found it a wondrous movie.  It remains grounded in the realities of day-to-day life, the realities that will go on even when Alice does not remember what they are -- and even when she has ceased to go on herself.

It's a quiet, thoughtful movie, letting its actors act in plentiful master shots that linger and allow them to convey their characters without the incessant cutting that plagues so many films and builds an unintentional wall between the actors and the story.  Still Alice presents its story plainly, so plainly it is easy to see that it could be any story, because such a tragedy could befall any of us.  It does not try to be graceful, though it contains moments of real grace; it does not try to be tender, though it contains scenes of great tenderness and compassion.

Hampered a bit by the miscasting of Alec Baldwin as Alice's husband -- they never seem to have real chemistry -- Still Alice's minor weaknesses are offset by an unexpectedly strong performance by Kristen Stewart as Alice's ne'er-do-well actress daughter.  But in Julianne Moore, the film finds a fearless, hypnotic actor who creates a well-realized character, one we are just beginning to warm up to despite her inherent coldness, and allows her to slide down a steep and treacherous path that has only one possible outcome.  As we watch her struggle, the effect on the audience is not embarrassment or discomfort -- it is admiration, appreciation and deep empathy.

Alice will live as long as she can.  She will hang on to as much as she can until the end.  She is not ready to go, especially not this way.  She wants to remember everything, but can't.

In that, Alice is not all too different from any of us.

Viewed Jan. 16, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, January 10, 2015

"American Sniper"

 3 / 5 

There is an Iraqi sniper, a lethal one, in American Sniper, but little more than a passing mention that he was once an Olympian.  There is also Iraqi militant known as "The Butcher," who uses power drills to mutilate his victims.  They are not presented as men.

American Sniper sees them as little more than targets; they are humanized only to the extent that they are seen doing evil, terrible things.  They are to be killed.  They are to be destroyed.  They are threats to the American way of life, so they must be eradicated.  The movie is a true story about a man named Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), who was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history.  The lives he takes are numbered in the hundreds, but he goes back to Iraq four different times because despite all the other humans he has killed, he has not achieved his goal of eliminating the other sniper and The Butcher.

In other words, it often seems in American Sniper, he needs to finish playing the video game because he hasn't beaten it yet.  His need to destroy these other people becomes an obsession, and he sees things in Iraq that no human should ever see; the bloodshed, the violence, the destruction and the mayhem take their toll, and he becomes worn down.  When he returns home, he cannot focus on his wife and his growing family, he can only think about how his job is not yet finished and he has to go back.

Early on, before the Twin Towers fall on 9/11 and before he has been deployed to Iraq to ensure the safety and protection of all American men and women, Taya, the woman who will become his wife (played by Sienna Miller), asks him about his considerable expertise at target practice. How is Chris going to feel, she wonders, when there's a living person at the other end of his gun?  Chris shrugs off the moral question.

There is no moral question at the heart of American Sniper.  The Americans are good.  The Iraqis, those "savages" (as the movie calls them over and over) are bad.  The film is mind-bogglingly simplistic.  With Cooper in the lead role and direction by Clint Eastwood, whose examinations of morality have often been striking, I waited for the moment when the question of people killing people, of the mindlessness and impossibility of wartime slaughter, would be raised.  I waited, and waited, and it never happened.

Was I expecting a different movie?  Maybe so.  Because American Sniper flirts again and again with deeply troubling questions, but never actually asks them.  This is a movie in which a man goes to war, kills a lot of people, goes back to war, kills even more people, then goes back two more times until he finally gets it right and kills the people he really wants to kill -- and the primary motivation it gives him is nothing more or less than patriotism.  He was enraged by the bombings of U.S. embassies, he was shaken to the core by the fall of the Twin Towers, and he's going to get those bastards.

We are meant to cheer him when he does.  American Sniper makes no judgment about the need for war, does not question (though it shows with almost fetishistic admiration) the trillions of dollars spent to outfit our men and women in uniform, and presents them as the finest the world has to offer.  There are no soldiers from other countries, the war in American Sniper is between America and the infidels.

In one of the film's quieter moments, openly gay actor Jonathan Groff (and I note that he is openly gay because he plays a character whose sexuality would have been forbidden in the U.S. military at the time) plays a wounded veteran who professes nothing but admiration for Chris Kyle, adding that his missing leg does not bother him because there are so many who came back wounded not just in body but in spirit and soul.

It is deeply troubling to American Sniper that so many U.S. veterans were emotionally ravaged by the war in Iraq.  It is not at all troubling that they were, likewise, the cause of destruction and death.  The Iraqis deserved everything they got; we, conversely, did not.  Chris Kyle targeted and destroyed individual lives, but only because it was his job, and his job wouldn't have been necessary if the savages hadn't tried to destroy liberty.  What an unfair world.

American Sniper is an assiduously apolitical film, presenting the war not as a battle over ideologies but as extended action sequences, and on that level, it's an undeniably well-made movie -- it's impeccably crafted, actually, hardly a surprise given Eastwood's extraordinary skills as a director.

Consider, though, that Eastwood made the memorably disturbing anti-war film Letters from Iwo Jima, which took remarkable care to show World War II from the point of view of Japanese soldiers and, coupled with Flags of Our Fathers, offered a nuanced, thoughtful exploration of heroes and enemies. There is no such nuance in American Sniper.

That makes Cooper's genuinely extraordinary and sympathetic performance feel empty, it makes the film feel less than whole.  American Sniper goads half of the audience into cheering and applauding when Cooper kills the bad guys, but doesn't address the discomfort the other half of the audience feels to hear those whoops and hollers.  True, it doesn't have to be responsible for the way the other half of the audience feels, but there's at least a hint that part of Chris Kyle felt that way, too.

American Sniper is a masterful, viscerally jarring movie, there's no getting around that.  The way the Iraqis swarm and attack, dodge and hide, like faceless nameless monsters -- which is exactly what the movie presents them as being -- makes it a gripping experience.  But American Sniper is about as emotionally nuanced and thematically balanced as an action-thriller.  Judging by this film, Clint Eastwood would make a heck of an Alien sequel.

Viewed Jan. 9, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Sunday, January 4, 2015

2014: My 10 Favorite Films

Galactic guardians, endlessly questing hobbits and deadly hunger games may have featured in the top grossers of the year, but jazz drums, hiking boots and heating oil were the unlikely ingredients of my favorite films of 2014.

Theses movies generally didn't have the biggest budgets, the most creative marketing initiatives, or the hottest stars, but they are the films that stuck in my mind -- and, frequently, heart -- as the best of the year, all wildly different in tone, but equally rewarding as movies.

These are my 10 favorite films of the year:

  #10 - The Imitation Game 

The Imitation Game is a top-notch spy thriller, and on that basis it makes my Top 10 list.  Its merits as  a treatise on the political rights of gays is substantially more dubious, even though it ends with an oddly unconvincing effort to reveal Alan Turing's story as a milestone in gay history.  It is, however, convincing and utterly absorbing as a thriller, a fantastic story told marvelously well, with top-notch performances by Benedict Cumberbatch and, more especially, Keira Knightley.

  #9 - The Theory of Everything  

The Theory of Everything looks and feels like a very proper, very safe Masterpiece Theater version of the life of Stephen Hawking, but it has some sly ideas in its head (quite apart from Hawking's theories, which it never really addresses in any meaningful way): What are the limits of love?  What damage is done when the physical and emotional needs of two people in a relationship are unequal?  It's in these dicey emotional waters that The Theory of Everything finds its real heading.  Filled with remarkable performances, The Theory of Everything isn't quite as emotionally uplifting as it thinks it is -- but is unexpectedly emotionally intriguing.  It floats some curious theories indeed.

  #8 - The Skeleton Twins

Grief and loss are likewise integral to The Skeleton Twins, which places them in a very different context than The Babadook.  In The Skeleton Twins, Milo and Maggie Dean (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) contend with a lifetime of anguish and disappointment that has left them emotionally stunted and confused.  Given the cast, it's no surprise the movie finds levity in their predicament, but what is most unexpected is the way the melancholy mood never quite lifts, even in the made-for-a-TV-commercial moment when the twins burst into a lip-synched version of an uplifting '80s song.  There's always a sharp undercurrent of very real pain in The Skeleton Twins, a recognition that life doesn't get any easier as you grow up.  It's one of the year's hidden gems.

  #7 - The Babadook  

Horror movies typically aren't my thing, but The Babadook isn't a typical horror movie.  It's an unsettling, skillful exploration of the nature of grief and depression.  Those unavoidable human conditions are frequently described as a dark and sinister shadow that won't leave the suffering alone, and The Babadook brings form to that idea.  There have been scarier horror movies, to be sure, but few as rooted in humanity as The Babadook.

  #6 - Force Majeure  

Here's something curious: I didn't care for Force Majeure at all when I saw it.  I found it as slow, plodding and impenetrable as one of the glaciers upon which the family at its core might spend a skiing holiday.  I found it a struggle, at the very least.  But Force Majeure refuses to leave my head. Its exploration of the disintegration of a marriage never really seems to take hold on screen, but it leaves behind a bitter, poisonous aftertaste that would be funny if it weren't so real.  This challenging movie isn't easy to sit through, but if you do, I defy you to forget it.  The more I think about it, the more I think Force Majeure is some kind of weird genius.

  #5 - A Most Violent Year  

Writer-director J.C. Chandor finds a moment in time when businessmen and gangsters met -- and became each other.  New York City in 1981 is in the throes of the worst violence in its history, a backdrop well-suited to the story of a corrupt, soulless immigrant who insists he is neither corrupt nor soulless.  A Most Violent Year is a reminder than movies can be both smart and thrilling, both complex and rewarding, both thoughtful and suspenseful.  Most young moviegoers don't realize there was a time when movies this intelligent were the norm on screen, when both studios and stars gravitated toward them; here's hoping A Most Violent Year signals the start of another such time.

  #4 - Boyhood  

Richard Linklater's unprecedented drama was shot over the course of 12 years, but it's no gimmick; Boyhood has the loose, sprawling, personal feel of a very private life.  Boyhood has the loosest of plots, the beauty is in the casting and the heartfelt, sincere direction.  It's a project that both in design and structure seeks to capture the subtle rhythms and sometimes sorrowful unpredictability of everyday life.  Through the eyes of Mason (actor Ellar Coltrane), Boyhood explores what it is to grow up, to grow aware and, most hauntingly, to grow apart.  Despite a running time of nearly three hours, Boyhood left me wanting to see even more.

  #3 - Selma  

David Oyelowo doesn't simply give an extraordinary performance as Martin Luther King in Selma, he finds the man at the core and lets us see exactly why King and his eloquent, passionate rhetoric became one of the most important figures of the 20th century.  It sounds cliché, but Oyelowo brings King to life in a film that makes every struggle for recognition feel necessary and urgent.  Selma is infinitely more than a historical drama; it's an absorbing, affecting movie that avoids the pitfalls of biography by focusing on one pivotal moment and allowing the whole of a legacy to shine through.  The real accomplishment of Selma, though, is that the film itself is equally good as the performance.

  #2 - Whiplash  

Furious camera work and equally fierce lead performances by J.K. Simmons and Miles Teller make Whiplash one of the most original and exciting movies in a long time.  (Wild edges it out of the top slot for me purely on an emotional level.)  It's a mean, caustic movie that doesn't try to blunt its impact by providing a feel-good ending, though I was intrigued by how many people claimed it was an inspiration; it seems to me more of a cautionary tale about the terribly high price of perfection and its staggeringly low rewards.  The virtuosity and intensity of Whiplash are unnerving.  It's a jolting, stunning film.

  #1 - Wild  

No film moved me with such force and intensity as director Jean-Marc Vallée's vision of a woman who literally has nowhere to go.  In the finest performance of her career (not to mention one of the best acting accomplishments of the year), Reese Witherspoon brings dignity, compassion and humor to her depiction of Cheryl Strayed, on whose memoir the movie is based.  But it's far from a one-woman show, and Wild gains its greatest emotional resonance in flashbacks -- a device frequently misused but here handled with precision -- that give depth to the grievous loss that sent Strayed over the edge and put her on a punishing path.  Wild is a beautiful movie that moved me to tears; it's a film with a generous heart, a quality enhanced by its not-insignificant technical accomplishments.  In 2014, most people seemed to have preferred big-budget outer-space spectacle, but they would have found an far more thrilling experience with Wild, which looks within and finds more grace and awe in a lone woman walking along a trail than all the galaxy's guardians put together could have hoped to impart.

"A Most Violent Year"

 4 / 5 

Muted in every possible way, cold and frosty in setting and tone, A Most Violent Year chronicles the struggles of a gangster who genuinely believes he is a businessman in a city -- not to mention, perhaps, a country -- that genuinely believes it has not been built by criminals.

The dichotomy proves to be too much for the city, which in 1981, the year in question, has devolved into a crime-ridden, graffiti-filled urban wasteland.  But Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) still clings to his delusion that hard work and good, old-fashioned high-pressure sales tactics have kept his family's business growing and strong.

Abel, whose name is pronounced with a stress on the last syllable, isn't stupid; he knows that corruption is everywhere, but imagines himself to be slightly cleaner, slightly more sophisticated and above-board, than his competitors, the kind of people who operate their multi-million-dollar businesses out of trailers with plywood walls.  Abel and his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), have just bought the kind of suburban mansion that was in vogue in the late 1970s, with plate glass windows, sharp edges, and lots of Formica in the kitchen.  Abel is proud of what he has accomplished.

"I've spent my whole life trying not to become a gangster," he says, a line that more than echoes Michael Corleone's Godfather III lament, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."  A Most Violent Year echoes the Godfather movies in other ways, but also bears a strong resemblance to the New York dramas of Sidney Lumet.  Writer-director J.C. Chandor, in a major rebound from last year's over baked and underthought All Is Lost, works hard to create a mood of suspicious regret -- Abel isn't dumb enough not to know what's happening, he just wishes it weren't.

Abel's business is heating oil, a fact I intentionally failed to mention earlier because it's the rare moviegoer who will be intrigued by the come-on that one of the year's most accomplished and intriguing films is about the competition for New York's home-heating business in 1981.  Trust me on that count; A Most Violent Year will tell you everything you need to know about its setting, and will do so in the way it does everything else -- in time.  This isn't a film for impatient viewers.

That's something it shares with Foxcatcher, a movie I found remarkably over-praised and under-played.  Chandor takes a similar tone but finds genuine intrigue and, in the end, enormous suspense by playing his hand with deliberate even-handedness.  Despite his camelhair overcoat, expensive shoes and neatly trimmed hair, Abel is not nearly as much in control as he thinks, which he begins realizing as soon as he makes a move to expand his business empire.

Soon, he's learning that a deputy district attorney (David Oyelowo) is digging into his books, and that his crisply efficient wife knows much more than she's been letting on.  Meanwhile, someone is hijacking his company's trucks, leading to a fateful decision to arm the drivers.  Abel begins to suspect he knows a lot less about the dealings than he should, leading to a car-versus-truck set-piece that may not be as flashy as William Friedkin's work in The French Connection but is equally suspenseful and deserves comparison.

While there were moments in which the languid pace (along with the murky, intentionally flat cinematography) of A Most Dangerous Year began to wear on me, they passed quickly, and I found myself more absorbed than I could have reasonably expected by a story about a war over heating oil. At the end of a most depressing year for films, ruled by noisy explosions and effects-heavy sequels, A Most Dangerous Year is made for adult audiences; it treats them like grown-ups, and expects to be treated the same way in return.  It earns and deserves that kind of respect.

Viewed Jan. 4, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Overrated in 2014

The good news: 2014 was no 2000.  Fourteen years ago, the nominees for Best Picture were Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonErin BrockovichGladiator and Traffic, while What Women Want, Dinosaur and How the Grinch Stole Christmas were among the top box-office performers.  Maybe we were just too high on the idea of a new millennium to care about the quality of our cinematic entertainment.

Comparatively, 2014 at least tried, though its massive output resulted in movies that might not have been demonstrably bad but were, at the very least, wildly overrated -- sometimes puzzlingly so.

In the next few days, I'll get to my list of my 10 favorite movies of 2014 (I'm still hopeful I can manage to find 10 that deserve the moniker), but here are the five films I found most curiously lauded by both critics and audiences.  They weren't the very worst movies of 2014 -- as a moviegoer who isn't a professional critic, I don't need to worry about seeing every movie, so I avoided stuff like Annie, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Are they truly the worst movies of the year?  Who knows -- I certainly never will.

But these five are movies that received glorious accolades, enough critic's quotes to fill a newspaper ad, and achieved a certain success (some much more than that) with audience, in defiance of my own assessment of them.  They are the depressing disappointments and big head-scratchers I experienced during 2014 (and are presented here in alphabetical order):


Start with a compelling backstage drama about a washed-up movie star who wants to turn around his public persona.  Pair it with a director as intriguing as Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu and the stylistic choice to use digital trickery to make the entire film seem like one very long tracking shot -- that's a great combination, no?  Well, no.  OK, yes, to a certain point.  But Birdman perches itself uncomfortably, and unsustainably, between reality and fantasy, between magic and the mundane.  It stands on the high wire confidently -- and falls.  Birdman has many fans, and to the extent that they focus on Michael Keaton's fearless performance, I'm with them.  But those last few minutes don't work for me, not at all.  They don't inform what's gone before, they undermine it.  Birdman scores points for degree of difficulty, but it can't clinch the landing -- and when it doesn't, everything falls atop its wobbly legs.  It's interesting, to be sure; it's also phenomenally disappointing.


Drama can sometimes be found within words unspoken, within actions untaken.  And maybe it's all there, but Foxcatcher doesn't find it.  Calm and methodical, cold and clinical, dispassionate to the point of inertia, Foxcatcher mistakes chilly scenes of winter for a visual commentary on its characters' hearts and minds.  It's a near-miss, but a miss nonetheless, a movie about a heat-of-passion murder that contains neither passion nor heat.  There's no two ways about it, it's dull.  And dull does not make good cinema.

Guardians of the Galaxy

True, it's one of the only movies since the original Star Wars that comes close to catching its bouncy vibe, but Guardians of the Galaxy can't sit still even for one moment.  It careens and bounces and flies off to the next scene before anyone knows exactly what's going on.  Many loved its hyperactivity; I found it always exhausting and sometimes confusing, like watching every great sci-fi action-adventure since 1977 thrown into a food processor.  The results have been assembled and screened with little regard to coherence.  That it became the highest-grossing movie of the year says less to me about its own quality than the dearth of quality and original stories within the entertainment industry at large.  Listen up! We need something new, not just another retread of the stuff that gets the highest rating with focus groups.


An overlong shaggy-dog joke, Interstellar touched on the same basic premise of Contact: The greatest force in the universe is love, is how the poster's tagline might put it.  There's nothing wrong with love, but Interstellar strained storytelling credulity by presenting everything with an overconfidence that bordered on incomprehension.  Its vision of another dimension might very well be what happens when space and time are folded in on each other, but that doesn't mean audiences need to be confused about what's going on, and Interstellar is so story-driven that it never transcends pure narrative the way 2001: A Space Odyssey, its clear inspiration, did.  Confusing, noisy, needlessly hokey, and at times almost embarrassing (a fistfight on the edge of the universe!), Interstellar is at least an ambitious film -- it's just not, in the end, a particularly good one.


The reason villains aren't the stars of their own fairy tales is that they're one-dimensional.  "I'm the witch, you're the world," Stephen Sondheim's lyrics observed -- and the world, let's face it, is far more nuanced than the witch.  But Maleficent goes into the woods to uncover a hidden past behind the baddie of Sleeping Beauty and ends up with not much new to show.  Maleficent was once beautiful, had her wings clipped when she was young, and she resents the world for it -- but the movie can't find inspiration in this backstory, because it needs to square everything away with the Disney version of Perrault's fairy tale, so it mostly winds up as a live-action remake with some unnecessary battle scenes along the way.  (Another CG fantasy-war sequence!)  Maleficent was an inexplicable hit, proof positive that Disney has a brilliant marketing team who can sell just about anything, even lackadaisical reworkings of the very movies that made Disney what it is today.  At this rate, Lady and the Tramp from the point of view of the spaghetti can't be far behind.

Friday, January 2, 2015


 4.5 / 5 

Anchored by a vivid, urgent performance by David Oyelowo, Selma charts a course similarly navigated by Steven Spielberg's Lincoln by examining the spirit and courage of its subject not through a sweeping cinematic birth-to-death biography but by focusing on one key period.

I thought Lincoln foundered in those waters, coming across as dull, stodgy and pretentious, but Selma is altogether different.  In large part because of Oyelowo's intensity and conviction, Selma is a period piece but feels vital and modern, it is a history lesson -- but one in which history comes alive in ways both thrilling and maddening.

The highly politicized issue of racial equality in America has been portrayed many times on screen, and Selma itself has already become a political target.  But whatever historical liberties it might take are to its benefit: Selma is a magnificent movie, directed with assurance by Ava DuVernay.

Although it has a shaky, slow start as it sets up the players; for those in the audience (like me) who aren't students of the civil-rights movement, the exposition can be confusing, though the decision to include a fatal 1963 church bombing early on is galvanizing, not only for viewers but for King and the country.

As the movie shows King organizing non-violent protests, and the devastating impact they have, it gains confidence and Oyelowo comes to the forefront.  Through its evocative production design and focus on building the dramatic tension between King and political leaders, Selma becomes increasingly engrossing.

That's the most important objective a movie can have -- and one that Tony Kushner's screenplay for Lincoln neglected.  Selma never forgets its most important mission as a movie is to tell a great story, and as it moves forward with King's determination, it finds a surprising amount of sympathy and even suspense in the ways King remains recognizably human.  Selma is an inspired reminder that Martin Luther King was a husband, a father and a fallible man, one whose leadership was impeccable, but who wasn't above doubting himself or, at a key moment, retreating in order to forge ahead.

The sacrifices are enormous ones, and the death and violence on screen are shocking and affecting.  Selma doesn't try to paint a sainted portrait of a perfect hero, nor to tell a story about minorities through the lens of kindly white people -- or, worse, to present history with the sentimentality of a Hallmark card as the ridiculous The Butler did last year. It puts Martin Luther King front and center -- it's his story about his conviction.

If you come away wanting to know more about how King came to be the leader of the U.S. civil rights movement, or what led to his assassination three years after the events depicted in Selma, that's the point: Selma is inspiration to learn more about him because Oyelowo's performance is so vibrant and real.  His performance is both human and heroic.  It's a staggering achievement in acting precisely because it doesn't feel like acting; there's not a false note (nor one of mimicry) in his performance, and he makes you long for the kind of public leadership that is so lacking today.

Selma effortlessly avoids the earnest "good-for-you" style of historical drama (I'm looking at you, Lee Daniels), neither is it whitewashed apology nor pious hagiography.  It's just a damn good movie all around, one that never loses sight of its important mission to entertain -- and because of that focus, becomes all the more inspiring and effective.  It certainly ranks as one of the year's best.

Viewed Jan. 2, 2015 -- AMC Century City


Thursday, January 1, 2015

"Top Five"

 3.5 / 5 

In Top Five, a comedian well-loved for his "funny movies" serves as the writer, director and star in a Manhattan-set exploration of the ways in which an artist feels limited by the public perception of his work and finds New York City is a much better place to explore his anxieties, failures and exasperations than the false exaggerations of Los Angeles.

Is it a surprise that the last name chosen for this fictional character is Allen?

Chris Rock may seem an unlikely successor to Woody Allen, but Top Five is an Woody-inspired examination of the neuroses, loves and career of an actor that owes more than a little to movies like Annie Hall and Manhattan. It compares most favorably with them, replacing jazz with hip-hop and allowing for a jolt of black culture that makes Top Five feel unexpectedly fresh and uncommonly intelligent, particularly given Rock's big-screen resume of movies like Grown-Ups and Pootie Tang.

Top Five takes place on a single day that finds Andre Allen in New York on a publicity tour for his latest film, Uprize!, a dramatic exploration of an 18th century slave rebellion in Haiti.  It's the film he wanted to make, but not the film his audience wants to see; they'd prefer another one of his implausibly popular Hammy the Bear cop-bear buddy movies (there have been three so far).

After an appearance on Charlie Rose's show, Andre's publicist wants him to do an interview with The New York Times, which leads him to reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson), a last-minute substitute for harsh Times critic James Nielson, a writer who hates everything Allen has done.

Meanwhile, out in L.A., Andre's fiancee Erica (Gabrielle Union) is making final preparations for their imminent wedding, which she has turned in to a Bravo reality show, and insists that the alcoholic Allen be at his star-studded bachelor party later that night.

As they make their way around Manhattan, Chelsea tries to get Andre to open up, promising a fair and candid interview that will make him look good, while Andre tries to make sense of his career and his ambitions, while crossing paths with his extended family.

It's a whirlwind day, and a whirlwind movie -- fast, incisive, surprisingly accessible considering that the problems it ponders are the specific ones of an elite, self-absorbed man whose concerns are hardly representative of his audience or, judging by what the film shows us, his own family.  But, much like Woody Allen's 1970s work, Top Five is appealing precisely because its leading man is willing to expose his insecurities in ways that make him feel familiar and real, even to those who have never wed a reality TV star, been arrested for alleged rape, or fretted about a public image.

Top Five may try a little too hard, integrating the different set of problems that Times reporter Brown faces, particularly in her choice of men.  When Top Five focuses on her, the comedy works well, but the film loses a little focus.

Still, this is a movie not only inspired and informed by Woody Allen's work but that emulates its jazz spirit fully (despite the hip-hop vibe) -- it appears to be loosely structured, improvisational, meandering, but that only hides how tightly constructed and carefully plotted it is.  Top Five may not be the weightiest of year-end films, or the most cutting of sophisticated comedies, but its charms are real and it's a surprisingly accomplished work from a most unexpected source.

Viewed Jan. 1, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood