ON TOP OF OLD HOKEY - My Review of EVEREST (2 1/2 Stars)
I read Jon… MoreON TOP OF OLD HOKEY - My Review of EVEREST (2 1/2 Stars)
I read Jon Krakauer's harrowingly detailed bestseller, INTO THIN AIR, about the 1996 Mount Everest climbing disaster, when it first came out, and was struck by the vivid, scientific detail he employed to describe the effects of oxygen loss at high altitudes on the human body. Thin on characterization, but rich in visceral intensity, the book did for mountains what JAWS did for oceans. Now comes EVEREST, which has gone to great lengths to distance itself from Krakauer's novel, despite recounting the same events and even including him as a minor character. Written by William Nicholson (UNBROKEN) and Simon Beaufoy (SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE) and helmed by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur (2 GUNS), EVEREST suffers from an unwieldy cast and structural and tonal issues, but still manages to put you right up on that mountain for maximum impact.
Its huge cast includes Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Emily Watson, Robin Wright, and Keira Knightley, with its many moving parts assembled F-A-S-T in a desperate attempt to just get us up on that massive hill as quickly as possible. Faster than you can say CLIFFHANGER, you're looking at North Face jackets, oxygen tanks, and sherpas. The music and vibe is strangely jaunty for a while, much like that of the opening scenes in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE when little Eric Shea cutely braved a storm to make it to the front of the ship. While the characters are painted in brushstrokes, many of them still connect due to the actors' talents. Josh Brolin, playing a rich, Texas Republican is settling well into his "curmudgeonly Jeff Bridges" phase of his career, and Hawkes makes an impression by standing out as an economically and health-deprived kind soul. Clarke is required to carry the film as its main protagonist, and his convincingly sturdy expertise does the job. Gyllenhaal unfortunately coasts through the film on his slight charm. The typically thankless female roles, however, lend the film its moments of believable emotion, which is odd considering most of them are safe on the ground and literally phoning it in. Despite this, Watson, Wright and Knightley got to me.
In a season where competing adventure companies all wanted to get their clients to the top of the highest place on earth, EVEREST recounts the difficulties brought on by such a logjam and combine it with a sudden storm that claimed many lives. Criss-crossing between many different camps, the storytelling becomes quite confusing and disjointed, yet somehow retains a nice docudrama feel. I believed the communities established and the agro-jockeying for position among them. I felt every gust of wind and intense gasp for breath.
Cinematographer Salvatore Totino creates fantastic images here, impressing us less with majestic vistas but with an apt brutality instead. None of this looks like it's fun, and the motivations of the climbers is hastily detailed in a brief scene in which their answers range from a "because it's there" point of view to one of dodging the depression of their home lives. It's as if everyone willingly marched to their deaths. It creates a strange relationship between the film and the audience. Part of EVEREST wants to be a sensational, IMAX-like travelogue, but the other part assaults you with the terrors of nature. Call it an existentialist adventure where the characters and coherence barely exist. That's neither good nor bad here, as a gripping struggle in and of itself is sometimes enough. I can nitpick and say I wish the big set pieces were given a grander scale, but when things go really small and our cast of characters huddle frozen on the ground, it's affecting. The final shot of the film of a man sitting on the mountain overlooking a view of stunning beauty is quiet and haunting as is the footage of the real people over the end credits. The motivations may be vague, but the struggle, my friends, is real.
MAY I BE BLUNT? - My Review of SICARIO (3 Stars)
Denis Villeneuve has… MoreMAY I BE BLUNT? - My Review of SICARIO (3 Stars)
Denis Villeneuve has demonstrated an effectively slow-burning, formalist approach to filmmaking in such features as PRISONERS and ENEMY, allowing suspense to build and screws to turn slowly to ratchet up the maximum levels of tension. In many ways, his somewhat classical style reminds me of M. Night Shyamaylan's, only with better scripts.
His latest, SICARIO, from a script by Taylor Sheridan, feels of a piece with his prior films, but with more kinetic sequences and a cipher of a lead character highly reminiscent of Jessica Chastain in ZERO DARK THIRTY. Emily Blunt plays Kate, an FBi agent who is enlisted by a mysterious group of men, led by Josh Brolin and Benecio Del Toro, to fight the drug cartels near the Texas/Mexico border. If you're thinking this sounds a whole lot like the short-lived series, THE BRIDGE, you're pretty close. Nothing is what it seems, loyalties seem to shift constantly, and the notion of good guys vs. bad guys goes out the window. Drawn into this plot with a murky plan, Blunt seems to be the driving force of the film, until it starts to dawn on you that as good as she is, there isn't much of a character here for her to play. We know she's divorced, smokes, is great with a gun, and experiences horniness as a weakness...and that's about it. What's missing is the shattering of her world view. Sure, she's world weary, but the rug gets pulled out from under her so frequently in this film, that I expected a shivering mess or a deep catatonic state by film's end. Instead, we're given as rich and emotional performance as is possible when dealing with such thin details.
In all actuality, she's our window into this world, but the action is mostly driven by Del Toro's Alejandro. He's great in the role as a Hitman whose actions and motivations reveal layers to his character. He's a brutal man you come to truly understand, and he runs away with the film. Brolin gives a delightfully relaxed performance that lives somewhere in the Lebowski universe, surprising us with a memorably incongruent approach to what is usually a stern, stock character. In fact, there's so much that's great about this film, from the taut, tense opening raid to the night-vision voyage into a scary tunnel, which feels like a nod to ZERO DARK THIRTY's big set piece. Roger Deakins, who shot Villeneuve's PRISONERS, does another great job with this film. You feel as if you know these dusty, burned out landscapes and your stomach is in knots with each taut, stomach churning composition. Jóhann Jóhannsson's score also adds immeasurably to the tension, reminding us that his Oscar nomination for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING was no fluke. Here is a composer completely in sync with a director, adding a feeling of dread to almost every scene.
Despite surprising scenes, shocking turnarounds, and a fairly propulsive yet controlled style of storytelling, SICARIO comes up a little short for me. There's nothing here that we haven't seen in other drug trade exposés such as TRAFFIC and MARIA FULL OF GRACE. Yes, we know there is no easy solution to the problem and that innocent victims are continuously caught in the crossfire. I applaud Villeneuve's commitment to his unique style, finding the breathing room he gives his scenes to be refreshing in this time of attention-deficit filmmaking. Had he insisted on spending a little more time and care with his leading female character, this could have been something even more emotionally devastating than what we're given.
MIDNIGHT COWGIRL - My Review of TANGERINE (4 Stars)
I spent the years… MoreMIDNIGHT COWGIRL - My Review of TANGERINE (4 Stars)
I spent the years from 2000-2005 working as a health educator inside the LA County Mens Central Jail, primarily in its notorious "K-11" dorms where LGBT inmates were housed. I've often been asked to describe it, and my go-to answer has always been, "It's as if they rounded up everyone on the corner of Santa Monica Blvd. and Highland and threw them in a cell together." For those out of the loop, that intersection is notoriously where transgender prostitutes ply their trade, with Donut Time being a place to rest their feet.
I share this to contextualize the opening minutes of writer/director Sean Baker's (along with co-writer Chris Bergoch) propulsive, engaging, hilariously grimy TANGERINE. Just out of jail and sharing a Christmas Eve morning donut with her pal and co-worker Alexandra (Mya Taylor), Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) quickly learns that her pimp boyfriend Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her. Immediately, I thought, "This film is soon K-11", expertly capturing the lingo, confidence, smarts and outrage of its inhabitants. Like any good screenplay, the story is expertly set in motion as Sin-Dee and a drama averse Alexandra hurtle their way through the tough, sunlit streets of Los Angeles in search of the pair who did her wrong.
Shot on tricked-out iPhones by Baker and Radium Cheung), TANGERINE may be a no-budget indie, but its style and feel for the streets of LA couldn't be more dead-on. Basically one long extended chase sequence, our cinematographers keeps the cameras moving and swooping around our subjects, a perfect way to capture our strutting divas. This is the underbelly of the city, you know, where people do more walking than driving and are actually used to interacting with each other. Along the way, Alexandra continuously hits up acquaintances to come to her show that night at Hamburger Mary's, while Sin-Dee badgers anyone and everyone as to the whereabouts of Chester and a woman whose name begins with a "D". Yep, that's all Sin-Dee has to go by, yet this ferocious survivor knows how to find her way.
A somewhat random "B" story emerges involving a taxi driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian) and his many fares. For a while, I didn't know why we were watching these vignettes, but I was glad I stuck with it, as connections start to emerge. Regardless, there's an unforgettable moment when the driver encounters the worst kind of drunk passengers imaginable, which will force me to bring 409 with me whenever I get into another cab. Eventually, Razmik's story helps weave the fabric of the story together as everyone faces the inevitable question of whether they prefer to be alone in this world or not.
Believe me, it's a tough world at best, and TANGERINE captures anger, desperation and the need to connect with another human being in ways I haven't experienced since John Schlesinger's classic MIDNIGHT COWBOY. Like Ratso and Buck, Sin-Dee and Alexandra need each other more than they know. The glaring light, street sounds and reliance on percussion on the soundtrack evoke an LA more common than its glamorous cinematic counterparts. I felt every bead of sweat and every step of their journey. There's a bravura sequence in which Alexandra busts into a seedy motel room and literally drags one of its occupants all over the city. The push-pull of their relationship is fascinating, never knowing which one is really playing the other.
The emotions in this film play on so many different levels, I was astounded. Our leading pair can be quite theatrical when necessary, but there's real tenderness underneath the surface, especially during the stunning final scene. As the harsh light of day turns to desolate night, your heart comes to ache for this pair. If you're gonna live in a world where everything and anything can be your enemy, you could do worse than have a Sin-Dee or an Alexandra on your side. Laughing one minute and then cringing at how dark and combative their world can be, I came to care about the people of TANGERINE. It's a buddy movie with street smarts.
SLIGHTLY APHRODITE - My Review of SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY (2 Stars)… MoreSLIGHTLY APHRODITE - My Review of SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY (2 Stars)
Peter Bogdanovich directed my favorite movie of all time, PAPER MOON, as well as the indelible classics, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and WHAT'S UP DOC? He's made pretty good movies as well (MASK, THEY ALL LAUGHED, THE CAT'S MEOW) and some absolute lousy ones (DAISY MILLER, TEXASVILLE, and ILLEGALLY YOURS) but three great movies in a career that has spanned 6 decades still merits attention. When I learned that Bogdanovich co-wrote the script to SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY with his then-wife, Louise Stratten, almost 15 years ago, I sensed a long-simmering passion project and couldn't wait to see the results.
Clearly positioned as an homage to Preston Sturges' screwball comedies such as HOTEL HAYWIRE and Woody Allen's all-white-all-the-time minor Manhattan-set comedies of manners, SHE'S FUNNY THAT WAY is a loving reminder of films from another time and place, yet it fails utterly with one poor casting choice and a not-quite-funny enough script. Small pleasures are still to be had, but the sense of retread begins right away with Irving Berlin's CHEEK TO CHEEK playing over the opening credits and an old-fashioned title card typical of the silent era.
Imogen Poots plays Izzy, a former prostitute turned famous actor, who recounts her journey to a cynical reporter, Ileana Douglas. Told in flashback, Izzy's dreamlike rise to success plays out in true screwball fashion with secrets piled upon secrets, astounding coincidences, and a strong, driving pace. Owen Wilson plays Arnold Albertson, a Broadway director who orders Izzy up to his hotel room via a "Call Girl Service" run by Debi Mazar. I put that in quotes for emphasis, since the anachronism of using the term "Call Girl" is just one of the many dated elements, intentional or not, here.
Wilson's first big scene, where he's juggling one phone call with Mazar and another with his wife (a hilarious Kathryn Hahn) is an example of how a delicate soufflé such of this can deflate with the wrong actor. Wilson lacks the zippy timing needed to pull this off, relying on his usual stoned-out, California surfer vibe to navigate a comedy style which would have been better served by someone like George Clooney. Poots, on the other hand, despite putting on a way-too-cartoonish Brooklyn accent, is a charming lead, the ray of light in a sea of insane characters. Her performance, down to the profession, echoes Mira Sorvino's Oscar-winning turn in Woody Allen's MIGHTY APHRODITE, but the verve and snap don't reach those levels.
Rhys Ifans as the star of the play Wilson's directing, becomes an important character when he spies Wilson kissing Poots. Long carrying a torch for Wilson's wife, Ifans keeps the dramatic engine churning, and clearly he's having a good time. Also in fine form is Jennifer Aniston, as the world's worst therapist (ok...she's a close second to her former FRIENDS co-star, Lisa Kudrow's brilliant portrayal of Fiona Wallace in the unjustly cancelled WEB THERAPY). Aniston seems to be connected to so many characters here and seemingly has time for none of them, considering her dismissive attitude, aggressive control of any situation, and shattering snap judgements she inflicts on anyone unlucky enough to get in her way. I loved every second of her performance and felt she could have/should have taught Wilson a thing or two.
Always loyal to his past colleagues, Bogdanovich lets none of than Tatum O'Neal, Austin Pendleton and Cybill Shepherd pop in with cameos, along with Quentin Tarantino, Tovah Feldshuh and many more. This is old school comedy with such an old school mentality, you wonder if Bogdanovich insisted everyone use land lines on purpose or if he forgot to update his script. The farcical elements are all here and they pile up in clever fashion, but when all is said and done, it feels like an exercise or an homage and not an inspired piece in its own right. It's breezy, sweet yet forgettable, and when you've achieved greatness before, a throwaway good time just isn't enough.
ABORT LAST NIGHT - My Review of GRANDMA (3 Stars)
Although… MoreABORT LAST NIGHT - My Review of GRANDMA (3 Stars)
Although writer/director Paul Weitz (ABOUT A BOY, AMERICAN PIE) will most likely never be accused of being a visionary auteur, he knows how to move and entertain an audience. GRANDMA, which could easily be dismissed as a totally unambitious, artless slice of life, still managed to hold me in its dry, acerbic spell for its brief 80 minute running time. One of my friends loathed this film, calling it completely unconvincing and poorly acted, and I could have so easily leaned in his direction were it not for my deep, blind love for Lily Tomlin. Even with her terrible films, and yes, I never drank the BIG BUSINESS Kool Aid, I've always appreciated Tomlin's delightfully bitter world view. Her killer smile, commanding voice, and take no prisoners attitude has a special place in my cold, cold heart. She's a comic genius who earned her dramatic chops with her stunning performance in the 1975 classic NASHVILLE.
It's been such a long time since Tomlin has starred in a movie and even longer since she's tackled a drama, so I went to GRANDMA ready to savor every delicious minute of it. Sure, she still leans on comedic beats here, but having her front and center in every frame was enough to get me through its "small time" feel. Taking place over the course of a single day, Tomlin's Elle Reid has just broken up with her much younger short-term girlfriend (Judy Greer) when her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner from THE AMERICANS) knocks on her door. Needing an abortion that evening and unable to shoulder the cost, Sage has come begging Elle. A broke ex-poet turned teacher, Elle takes Sage on a journey to drum up the funds, encountering people in their lives with the potential to help. It's an extremely clean, simple premise, giving Tomlin one opportunity after another to rail against anyone who gets in their way.
I won't spoil what happens, but the cast of characters they meet consist of some great up-and-coming and established names, including Nat Wolff (PAPER TOWNS) as the idiot who knocks Sage up, the late Elizabeth Pena who is gets to match Tomlin's anger in an amusingly explosive scene, Colleen Camp, who proves that you can mine comedy out of a single line of dialogue, Marcia Gay Harden as Tomlin's severe daughter, Laverne Cox, who unfortunately does very little with her tattoo artist role, and best of all, Sam Elliott, as a man from Elle's past. Most of these characters merely exist to shine a light on Elle's tortured, petty, cruel and stagnant personality, which is ok, because the film, after all, is called GRANDMA, not A BUNCH OF PEOPLE.
Moreover, while I would watch Judy Greer in almost anything (which means I did see JURASSIC WORLD), and I find Julia Garner to be a strong, self-possessed young actor, the main attraction is Tomlin. Depending on your stomach for her brand of comic bile, you may end up savoring every moment or end up looking for a moist towelette to wipe the somewhat sitcom-like machinations off of you. I'm, of course, with the former camp, loving that Tomlin has been freed up here to "dyke out" for the first time on film, instead of having to pretend to actually enjoying kissing John Travolta, her lookalike in the execrable MOMENT BY MOMENT. Elle's take-no-prisoners brand of feminism along with her Mother Cub protective instincts make her encounters bristle with the energy of a person who's sifted through enough crap in her life. Elle is a complicated character in that she doesn't always do or say the right things, yet Tomlin's command keeps you in the game.
There's a fine line between being too Sundance-like and too populist, and GRANDMA walks the tightrope quite well between the two. Yes, it's artless, often obvious, and pretty clear from the start where the whole thing will end up, but that quiet, subtle, long final shot of Tomlin feels earned. You may not know what comes next for this unstable, unreasonable, yet wholeheartedly caring person, but you'll feel confident she can handle it by the end.
THE BORED IDENTITY - My Review of AMERICAN ULTRA (3 Stars)
It's… MoreTHE BORED IDENTITY - My Review of AMERICAN ULTRA (3 Stars)
It's strange to give something as high as 3 stars to a film with that review title, but maybe I'm just as confused as this tonally messy but wonderfully performed movie. From the Director of PROJECT X (Nima Nourizadeh) and the Writer of CHRONICLE (Max Landis) comes a film wrongfully marketed as a Stoner Comedy. This is an action thriller in the BOURNE IDENTITY vein starring two characters who admittedly smoke a lot of pot, but we're not talking THE JEFF SPICOLI EXPERIENCE here.
Jesse Eisenberg is Mike, a convenience store clerk prone to severe panic attacks, who when we meet him is freaking out over an upcoming vacation and marriage proposal to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kirsten Stewart). Both have tremendous chemistry and fully commit to their roles, perhaps due to their comfort levels after working together on ADVENTURELAND. I loved an early scene where they're spooning and a tilt down to their feet reveals tattoos that only make sense when they're intertwined. Stewart shows such loving patience with Mike most of the time, and it's gorgeous and real. Her blowups mean so much more because we've seen her holding it in more often than not. Had the film simply been about Mike's anxiety disorder as he navigates his way through this relationship, I think I would have enjoyed this more.
Unfortunately, we live in a world of high concepts, and soon enough, Mike discovers a scary level of strength and agility when he encounters two assassins outside his store one night. Dispensing with them in record, bloody speed, his whole world is turned upside down when he and Phoebe find themselves on the run from a lot of people who want them dead. Early on, there are some laughs as Mike can't comprehend where he's getting his skills, but Eisenberg goes so deep into his character, that his sweetness and pain supercede any bong-related chuckles at hand.
Making matters worse are the all-over-the-map performances of the supporting players. Connie Britton is all icy glares and clipped strides as a CIA Operative gone rogue when her much younger, smarmier boss (Topher Grace) orders her to kill Mike. Both yell a lot in a somewhat one-note fashion. John Leguizamo plays Mike's dealer, and he's clearly going for comedy when everyone around him is dead serious. It doesn't work. Much worse is Walton Goggins as an assassin known as Laugher, because he peppers every line with a cackle not out of place in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS' nitrous oxide scene. It's cartoonish and annoying.
Once the film shifts into its Boom Pow phase, it never lets up. This leads to successful moments such as when another assassin (Monique Ganderton) wreaks havoc on a police station. Action junkies won't be let down by this movie. Me? I got a little bored by the time the umpteenth explosion came around.
Fortunately, Eisenberg and Stewart save the day. It's truly worth seeing because of this wonderful pair of actors. Eisenberg has been praised to the end of the earth and back so far in his young career, but Stewart has (rightfully) been harshly criticized for her somnambulant TWILIGHT performances. Take those off her resume and she's damn impressive, from INTO THE WILD, PANIC ROOM, and the aforementioned ADVENTURELAND, to such showstoppers just this year alone in THE CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA and STILL ALICE. With their incredibly soulful performances in AMERICAN ULTRA, I'm willing to forgive the sloppiness and the repetitiveness because, gosh darn it, these kids are going places!