Remarkable and stirring even in the long shadow cast by its… MoreRemarkable and stirring even in the long shadow cast by its predecessor, The Magnificent Ambersons might fall short of writer-director-harshest critic Orson Welles high expectations but it still pains a fascinating portrait of love and loss. 2015 markw what would've been Orson Welles' 100th birthday. His fellow filmmaker and friend Peter Bogdonavich once smartly pointed out that, if his CV got reversed, his career would prove to be the most successful of all time. Think about it: voicing a planet gobbling machination in Transformers: The Movie through writing-directing film noir classic Touch of Evil to auteuring his cinematic masterpiece, Citizen Kane. His Kane follow-up, however (long unavailable on DVD and finally released in conjunction with Kanes 70th anniversary in 2011), also proves to be a master stroke worthy of a viewing during this, his centennial week. Welles himself decried the studio's final cut of his adaptation of Booth Tarkington's 1918 novel about the spoiled heir of a prominent turn-of-the-19th-century family. Reportedly at the studios insistence, his assistant director, Robert Wise (who would go on to direct The Sound of Music and Star Trek: The Motion Picture), re-ordered Welles narrative and edited out the original ending (forever lost, much to the chagrin of film historians). What remains, however, still proves nothing short of one of the Golden Age of HWoods most beautiful productions. If Welles never made Kane, this film would doubtlessly be hold up as an auspicious debut.
In this unrated drama, the spoiled young heir to the decaying Amberson fortune (Cotten) comes between his widowed mother and the man she has always loved.
Everything that makes Kane so indelible gets enhanced here. And yet, the style and storytelling couldnt be more different. Having cut his teeth on that particular gem, Welles imbues this nostalgic love letter to the Age of Innocence getting lost amid 20th century technology (the automobile makes a perfect foil here) with breathtaking blurred edge cinematography. The deep focus photography evokes an almost sepia tone feel that makes the Currier and Ives-style Midwest winters feel tangible. The set design and Welles amazing stable of actors (most of them Mercury Players returning from Kane) complete the job, giving heart and hearth to what amounts to an incredible character piece. Indeed, Agnes Moorehead was robbed of a Best Supporting Oscar. Of course, the central character grows up and remains unlikable but thats how Tarkington presented the privileged rascal, silver spoon warts and all (surely, Welles stayed behind the camera because in not also portraying him the wunderkind identifies with the protagonist). And sure, Welles was right, the editing gives the uneven unfolding of story a sometimes clunky exposition (just check out that party scene), but Ambersons nonetheless nearly perfectly sums up the emotional groundswell that rises up from any senior who utters In my day in sad reverence to a simpler time lost amid the hubbub of life. In an age when most everybody whiles away their hours in the glow of a smart device as life passes them by, this Magnificent film perhaps makes more sense than ever. Theres no denying that the tacked-on ending proves that Ambersons remains well short of perfection but such is film history. Shoulda coulda woulda. We may never have Welles definitive version, so hold fast to whats endearing here.
Bottom line: Citizen Vain
As Hot as revenge served on a witch's teat, this wasted team-up of… MoreAs Hot as revenge served on a witch's teat, this wasted team-up of good talent goes too big too always. Perhaps, the music used over the opening credits provides the best review of all. At first, it sounds like Tom Petty's "American Girl." Soon, however, you realize that this is not the jangly rocking guitar of the Heartbreakers but a cheap karaoke knock-off. Note for note a cover of something familiar and better, Hot Pursuit tries wringing comedy out of tired buddy comedy jokes. One is straight laced and Wonderbread white and the other is a feisty person of color. A car breaks down at a particularly inopportune time. Upon spotting the square cop's granny panties, we hear the gem "That's not underwear, that's a diaper." They inject a girl-on-girl kiss not because its warranted but to make homosexuality a pulse-racing punchline. They shoehorn in a love interest completely out of left field. Regardless, this hot mess features mismatched pair who learn to love each other a la 48 Hours, Lethal Weapon, and Midnight Run.
In this PG-13-rated comedy, an uptight and by-the-book cop (Witherspoon) tries to protect the outgoing widow (Vergara) of a drug boss as they race through Texas pursued by crooked cops and murderous gunmen.
This broad broad comedy might star two very capable players but the material holds zero potential of generating laughs. Reese Witherspoon remains one of H'Wood's most versatile actresses but this Grade-Z shtick only asks her to run the gamut from A to lowercase "a." Her partner in this crime scene, Sofia Vergara, possesses one strong character type that she goes to over and over on the small and big screens (Carmen Miranda, minus the fruit hat). Here, saddled with lines like (to the diminutive Witherspoon) "You're like a little dog I can put in my purse," this Colombian spitfire comes off as funny as a one-note funeral dirge.
Bottom line: Bloated Weapon
A pristine apparatus where all of the parts rise and spark with near… MoreA pristine apparatus where all of the parts rise and spark with near perfection, awe-striking automation Ex Machina puts story ahead of SFX but both prove fine-tuned enough to mark an auspicious directorial debut for screenwriter Alex Garland. Android films come in many different faces and with many different infrastructures but all deal with the same theme: the human factor. Such A-Level tales as Westworld and Blade Runner put humans - not robots - at the forefront. Ex Machina, however, dares to put a machine on the very same level playing marquee as the main human character. It's not just a gimmick though. This film puts forth clockworks of a much different kind. This is Thinking Man's sci-fi, glossily shot and cut with stellar acting to boot. Ex Machina arrives at a time when such machinations seem more than plausible...they seem inevitable. Programming in a Turing Test as the fulcrum, however, builds an amazing amount of suspense.
In this R-rated sci-fi drama, a young programmer is selected to participate in a breakthrough experiment in artificial intelligence by evaluating the human qualities of a breathtaking female A.I. (Vikander).
Alex Garland gave audiences high fallutin' concept sci-fi in his scripts for 28 Days Later and Sunshine. Here, he gives his most streamline thought-provoker to date. Directing wise, he nails every scene with a polished finesse that seems somewhat distant from the frenetic style of the skilled craftsman who's helmed most of his screenplays, Danny Boyle (uh, both of the flicks listed above among his credentials, though he also penned the Pete Travis-directed Dredd). As always, Oscar Isaac (following in the footsteps of Inside Llwelyn Davis and A Most Violent Year) delivers a brilliantly nebulous performance. Domhnall Gleason (Anna Karenina, About Time), meanwhile, continues his wonderful trend of portraying weak-kneed do-rights with great emotional depth. There's the gi-normous matter of Alicia Vil\kander though. Portraying a breathtaking faux human intent on establishing her own identity, this actress moves like a machine but plays our strings like a concert violinist.
Bottom line: Beautiful Machine
Assembling an active story that's twistier than it needs to be but… MoreAssembling an active story that's twistier than it needs to be but nevertheless a Hulk smash, Age of Ultron entertains more than it enlightens but it's a comic book movie of the second highest order. As sequels go, this one faces a villainous challenge. The Avengers wasn't expected to be nearly as awesome as it ended up being. So how does a multi-billion studio like Marvel accomplish this? By making everything bigger, faster, stronger. And so, Age of Ultron gets stuffed with numerous busy action sequences that clock in at an inordinate amount of the time. Also, a lot of exposition gets accomplished via magic science (i.e., the script explaining away plot points via technology that Stark or others built). Call it: Duh ex machine. Most importantly, in planning ahead to a third phase of films, this overstuffed chapter expects the audience to be expertly versed on every Marvel film to hit screens thus far. The story pits moviegoers right into the action and rarely lets up for plebes to catch their bearings with an ever increasing cast of characters to boot. Still, though it never reaches the rarefied air of its predecessor, Age of Ultron nonetheless earns your respect.
In this PG-13-rated Marvel comics sequel, Tony Stark (Downey) tries to jumpstart a dormant peacekeeping program, but things go awry and it becomes up to Iron Man, Captain America (Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) to stop the villainous Ultron (James Spader) from enacting his terrible plans.
If you thought that Captain America: The Winter Solider asks a lot of your noggin, Age of Ultron asks the universe...the Marvel Universe, that is. Thankfully, a superb cast keeps everything moving. Operating as a well-oiled automation, Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, and Mark Ruffalo continue to color their comic book counterparts shades deeper than ever thought possible. Scarlet Johansson and Jeremy Renner, meanwhile, make the most of beefed-up screen time though this chapter seems to have possibly written them into a corner going forward. Only time will tell. Granted, not all of writer-director Joss Whedon's witty lines generate the sheer volume of laughs on display in the first, but the whole funtastic package impresses even the most mud-stuck viewer.
Bottom line: From Hero to Boffo
Digitizing found footage horror into a gripping real-time slasher… MoreDigitizing found footage horror into a gripping real-time slasher flick, Unfriended plays fast with every cliche in the book but in a scarily twisty way. There's techno-thrillers (3 Days of the Condor, Enemy of the State), there's found footage thrillers (Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity), and slasher movies (Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street). Unfolding second by second as you watch, this slice of horror mixes all three into a frightfully entertaining blend. Moviegoers witness our protagonist plays the soundtrack via her iTunes account and switches back and forth from Facebook to Instagram to confront the killer as her friends get offed "live" on Skype. Moreso, Unfriended deals with such of-the-moment topics as bullying and identify theft. And ALL of this clocks in at less than 90 minutes. Of course, looking ahead to the day when we're downloading entire lives onto a wristwatch or through telepathy, this thriller is dating poorly before our very eyes. By the next time you watch it, well be interacting differently in cyberspace and the wow factor (and thrills by proxy) will seem as outdated as the digital effects on a Commodore 64.
In this R-rated horror flick, a group of online chat room friends find themselves haunted by a mysterious, supernatural force using the account of their dead friend.
From top to bottom, this flick smartly gets stacked with no-name talent who look the part and make the scenario palpable enough to convince moviegoers that the terror is unfolding in real time. Its a hat trick that might turn into a one-trick pony for director Levan Gabriadze and screenwriter Nelson Greaves. For now, however, their clever real-time/online hook brings a welcome twist to the found footage thriller, a horror sub-genre so overdone as of late that the thrills usually feel phoned in from a landline.
Bottom line: Control.Alt. Delight.
Presenting not so much an Age-less epic romance as a harmless… MorePresenting not so much an Age-less epic romance as a harmless decades-spanning flirtation, Adaline fails to handle the themes of love or immortality with any lasting effect but some game performances at least ground the drama. An interesting story about the loves and losses of a seemingly immortal 27-year-old, Age of Adaline travels us through time but is not a time travel movie...though it almost qualifies. It plays with one of the same themes featured in the best of them, however: an inability to get close to someone as the sands of the hourglass slip away and separate them more and more. Even though it's science and fiction, the movie nonetheless strives more to be a romantic drama instead. Because it accomplishes neither sci-fi nor drama to any successful degree, however, the Age of Adaline falls far short of greatness. A gem of an idea in need of polishing, the script still manages to be entertaining. The title character's transformation gets explained away by phony baloney science, but (like Midnight in Paris' unexplained rift in time at the appointed hour) this plot point remains part of the proceedings' quirky charm. It's the heavy exposition-spouting narration that does more harm to the mind's eye.
In this PG-13-fantasy romance, a young woman (Lively) rendered ageless by an accident and forced to live a solitary life meets a man (Huisman) who might be worth losing her immortality for.
Blake Lively imbues the titular 80-year-old 20-something with appropriate amounts of grace and gravity in one fell swoop. Remarkable yet reserved, you believe she's weathered the ages. The fact that she throws more sparks with Harrison Ford (seriously, after following 42 with this superb supporting turn, he needs to do more hard-hitting projects of this ilk) than with young hunky Michiel Huisman is indicative of the flick's indecisiveness. Just as with its genre, it doesn't fully know what it wants to be or where it wants to end up. The theme of mortality gets lost in the fray but the journey keeps your interest despite this wrinkle in time.
Bottom line: Somewhere in Timey Wimey
An offbeat and odd morality tale that burns in your memory, Tommy Lee… MoreAn offbeat and odd morality tale that burns in your memory, Tommy Lee Jones' film nonetheless bleeds with all of the bullets and brawn masculinity exhibited in such Sam Peckinpah western classics as The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. Two years before No Country for Old Men (which Jones starred in) gave filmgoers an instant 21st century classic, one of that film's stars nailed the same serio-comic tone and stripped bare violence in a similar tale of the American West. Topical on the subjects of geopolitics and the Mexican quotient of Mexican-American without being a tutorial, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada excellently pits the very U.S. of A genre of western in a very Latin American context.
In this R-rated modern western, Ranch hand Pete Perkins (Jones) looks to fulfill the promise to his recently deceased best friend by burying him in his hometown in Mexico with the help of the careless man who shot him (Pepper).
From premise to fulfilling the protagonists promise, Tommy Lee Jones delivers an A-Level directorial debut. You can hear the pitch black humor and laid-bare honesty of Cormac McCarthy in dialogue that's exchanged like bullets in a shootout...but it's screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga and not the author of No Country for Old Men, All the Pretty Horses, and Blood Meridian, who's dreamt up this world that's at times stark and raving mad but never completely stark raving mad. Jones' Pete is a man of scruples, as is the actor's direction. He tames Arriagas rugged dusty landscape and nails a role that's just as much a scrupulous oddball.
Bottom line: All the Pretty Horsesense
Intelligent, entertaining, and effectively scary, It Follows might ape… MoreIntelligent, entertaining, and effectively scary, It Follows might ape some classic '80s thrillers, but it's a masterstroke of modern horror cinema all of its own. Sure, we've seen virginal teens stalked by homicidal maniacs but never by the stigma of losing one's virginity. This young adult rite of passage proves scary and anxiety-inducing enough without a lead-footed specter attached to it! The title boasts a true Truth in Advertising moment, with this sex-related affliction passed along in the form of a form-changing foot-dragger who never stops moving toward the protagonist. The material works on many levels but stops short of becoming too Meta because it is - at its jackrabbit-paced heart - a brilliantly staged straight-ahead horror flick. It makes you think but not too much because it would take away the fist-pumping fun of having the Bejesus scared out of you. With long takes and synthesized music that would feel at home on USA's Up All Night 30 years ago, It Follows waxes nostalgic but somehow feels timeless. The rotating faces of the unknown terror makes for a monster for the ages, especially considering the fact that the chased (not chaste, mind you) find themselves in a particularly vexing and highly emotional time of their lives. Judgement and comeuppance comes from any direction in an unrecognizable form as your hormones are red-lining? Scary beyond belief.
In this R-rated horror flick, a young woman (Monroe) gets followed by an unknown supernatural force after getting involved in a sexual encounter.
With an ace cast filled with fresh faced actors devoid of big names and marquee faces, John Robert Mitchell's lean atmospheric thriller nails the genre with every terrifying beat. It Follows looks cheap but the exquisitely staged frights are top shelf. Plus, it takes a skilled hand to make a digital flick purposely look like an 80s video rental creature feature. Youll follow this horror gem anywhere.
Bottom line: Teenage Wraith-Land
Blart-ing out any trace of entertainment value, this unwanted,… MoreBlart-ing out any trace of entertainment value, this unwanted, unnecessary, and undesirable comedy cop-out mauls any laughs thanks to recycled material so juvenile that the Disney Channel would reject it for airtime. Loud, broad, and god-awful, Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 plays out like a bad kid's movie mistakenly marketed to adults. An incompetent, he pratfalls about while facing basic challenges. An annoyance, he embarrasses his daughter while being overbearing. An unfortunate, he stumbles into victory purely by accident. An irritant, he gets rendered unlikable by putting him - and audiences - through the same sad paces as in the last go-roundwhich was pure garbage. The script renders him so incompetent, annoying, unfortunate, and irritating that moviegoers end up hating this ne'er-do-well--not sympathizing with him unfunny failure. A forced second helping of a cold dish that few people enjoyed to begin with, this sequel re-heats and adds more of the Z-grade shtick that made 2009s Paul Blart: Mall Cop so utterly painful to watch.
In this PG-rated comedy, mall cop Paul Blart (James) heads to Las Vegas for a Security Guard Expo with his teenage daughter (Rodriguez), only to discover a heist that hes intent on foiling.
A poor man's Chris Farley, Kevin James fills the fat funny man vacancy in Adam Sandler's stable of stars. A frequent Sand-man collaborator, this former star of CBS's King of Queens realized this lovable lunk role again (I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry) and again (The Zookeeper). In fact, with Grown Ups, which was filled with just about ONLY ex-SNL castmates (Sandler, Chris Rock, David Spade, Chris Nealon), he took on a role that would've been Farley's for the taking had he lived (unlike James, Farley was an SNL cast member from the same period as the aforementioned). The difference? Farley killed both slapstick and cerebral comic patter. James nails only the former...and barely. Relegated to PG-rated buffoonish clowning thats not entertaining to neither children NOR adults, his Paul Blart: Mall Cop is an unfunny failure as both a character and as a comedy.
Bottom line: Mall Rots
Thanks to the high notes hit by an engaging lead performance, any sour… MoreThanks to the high notes hit by an engaging lead performance, any sour chords struck by the sometimes heavy handed pseudo-musical Danny Collins mostly get forgiven. The film plays out a lot like classic AM Gold, a harmless lulling ditty that deals with heavy issues by layering it under saccharine strumming and sugary lyrics. You're hooked by the medley and it stays in your head, however, because the singer sells it so damn well. A drugged out and liquored up music legend cliché, the titular performer gets relegated to playing his greatest hits catalog to accommodate a rock star lifestyle thats improbably lasted well into the pensioner years. When he tries to seek out the son he never met and write new music for the first time in 30 years, Danny Collins becomes a tale of redemption. Granted, its a tale we know almost note for note but some fresh tweaks keep audiences vested. Most important of all, his singing voice notwithstanding, Al Pacinos rumpled charm gives the character a believable lived-in feel. Getting his hair dyed, having his gut tucked into a girdle, and blaming his craggy vocals on an often soused lifestyle, the 70-something actor perfectly embodies a grizzled mega-star plugging away in the music industry long after reaching his sell-by date.
In this R-rated dramedy, an aging rock star (Pacino) decides to change his life when he discovers a 40-year-old letter written to him by John Lennon.
Also of great note, soundtracking the film with John Lennon songs gives the proceedings some appropriate up and downbeatsCold Turkey for sobering up and Beautiful Boy for father-son bonding (this helps, because despite 40+ supposed years in the business, only two Collins songs get presented for filmgoerson repeat). Lastly, screenwriter Dan Fogelman (Crazy Stupid Love) makes an impressive debut as feature writer-director, injecting the story with some rich supporting characters. Of course, some of them come from stock but, brought to life by vivacious performances from Annette Benning, Bobby Cannavale, Jennifer Garner, and Christopher Plummer, its easy to connect with them even when they accept Collins rough edges too easily.
Bottom line: R-O-C-K in the AARP