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!
MAMIE MIA! - My Review of RICKI AND THE FLASH (3 Stars)
If there was… MoreMAMIE MIA! - My Review of RICKI AND THE FLASH (3 Stars)
If there was ever a film where the review titles just write themselves, it's gotta be RICKI AND THE FLASH. Consider the also-rans:
JOSH GETTING MARRIED
NOT WITHOUT MY DAUGHTER
SILENCE OF THE HAMS
MARRIED TO MY MOM
RICKI LOSE THAT NUMBER
DREADS BECOME HER
FLASH IN THE PAIN
START MAKING SENSE
SINS OF THE FLASH
JU NO? NO, JU DON'T KNOW!
Written by Diablo Cody (the just-referenced JUNO) and directed by Jonathan Demme, RICKI is almost a carbon copy of Demme's RACHEL GETTING MARRIED and shows him once again dipping into the well of films about women who can't go home again. While slight, snail-paced, and Nora Ephron-esque in its high suburban, big kitchen island milieu, RICKI isn't the disaster it's been reputed to be...in fact, I thought it had real heart and charm despite its shortcomings.
Meryl Streep is Ricki, the leader of a Tarzana dive bar's house band and all-around Deadbeat Mom. Her boyfriend and lead guitarist, Greg (a terrific, low key Rick Springfield), spends most of his time talking Ricki off the ledge and clearly loves her despite her many flaws. Together, they sell their love of music, even if they're a low rent cover band, with such songs as "American Girl" (a sly callback to its use in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), "Drift Away" and even Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance".
Unfortunately, like most musicians, Ricki needs her day job. As a cashier at a Whole Foods knockoff, she can barely afford the trip to Indiana to visit the children she abandoned long ago. One child in particular, Julie, played by Streep's real life daughter Mamie Gummer (more on her later), needs help. The film's inciting incident involves Julie's suicide attempt after her husband leaves her for another woman. Inconsolable and bitter, she resents her mother's presence as she shuts herself in at her father's mansion. Kevin Kline (Pete), reuniting with his SOPHIE'S CHOICE co-star, is the tightly-wound ex who has been married to Maureen (a wonderful Audra McDonald) for so many years, they're essentially the parents to Ricki's three grown children. In addition to Julie, there are her two sons, Josh (Sebastian Stan), who is about to get married and would prefer Ricki not attend, and Adam (Nick Westrate), gay and appalled by Ricki's Tea Party Republican leanings.
There's not much of a story, and what little there is just sits there at times, but Streep mines the pathos of a mother trying to connect with her children so well, that I lost myself in her cutting, specific performance. Allowing us to resent her for her absence while empathizing with her open-hearted attempts to lift her daughter's spirits, Streep's Ricki feels reminiscent of Cher's indelible Rusty in MASK. Helping Streep is Demme's humanist touch, one that harkens back to MELVIN AND HOWARD. Cinematographer Declan Quinn keeps things naturalistic and Cody's dialogue occasionally hits its mark, but neither deliver memorable work.
The real show, however, is Mamie Gummer. She's so blazingly good, so brittle yet vulnerable, I'm convinced that Meryl took this film as a gift to her daughter. I can imagine her thinking, "Well, it's not an amazing script, but my role is showy and the Julie part is killer, so I'll only do it if Mamie can be in it too. Time to pass that torch, no?" One scene in particular, when Streep and Kline defend their daughter achieves such a loveliness simply by showing Gummer's reaction. I don't think we need to say that the daughter of the greatest living actress of all time is one to watch, but damn, she's one to watch!
Surrounding these performances, (McDonald shines in one killer scene as well) is a second-rate RACHEL GETTING MARRIED, with its full song performances and wedding setting. Sure, it's a little lazy and overextended, but the fact that I felt something truly took me by surprise. I loved the chemistry between Streep and Springfield, although she and Kline underwhelmed. It's all a big class struggle mishmash, but Streep blazes through her songs like an old pro, reaching a lovely crescendo by the end. We may look back at this film in 10 years as a messy dud, but we'll also be saying it's that one where Mamie Gummer stepped out from her mother's considerable shadow.
BATTERY NOT INCLUDED - My Review of THE GIFT (3 1/2 Stars)
Home… MoreBATTERY NOT INCLUDED - My Review of THE GIFT (3 1/2 Stars)
Home invasion thrillers have a long history of scaring the bejeezus out of me. Take Audrey Hepburn as a blind woman terrorized in WAIT UNTIL DARK, add a dollop of Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman answering a haunting 4:30am knock at the door and blend in both versions of Michael Haneke's FUNNY GAMES and you get me peeing in my pants. Joel Edgerton has made his mark as an actor in such films as WARRIOR, ANIMAL KINGDOM and ZERO DARK THIRTY, but I suspect his best contributions may be a result of his writing and directing, if THE GIFT is an indication.
Not perfect by any means, but the film does succeed in turning the genre on its head while still managing to fill you with a sense of dread from the very first image to its last. The premise is 90's simple. Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) move into a heavily-windowed Hollywood Hills home, because let's face it, windows are scarier than walls if you're making a scary movie. There's a striking and slightly ominous first image of Simon baring his teeth and exhaling onto a window to draw a heart for his wife that made quite an impression on me. Edgerton likes to play with the separation windows provide. This motif is no accident, with the images being signifiers for what's at play.
Shortly thereafter, they encounter an old high school classmate of Simon's named Gordo (Edgerton). Gordon is socially awkward and a master at making people feel sorry for him and uncomfortable all at once. Edgerton plays the ambiguity very, very well. Bateman has also become quite adept at portraying an entitled suburban everyman, and here his world-weariness carries a hint of anger, much like that of Michael Douglas in FATAL ATTRACTION. Hall, who has been stellar in VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA and THE TOWN, does a great job making Robyn's too-trusting nature believable. It would normally be too easy to yell at the screen, "Don't let him in!", but Hall grounds her character so well, you forgive the slightly implausible moments.
Although Simon is a tad aloof during this chance meeting, Gordo starts bringing over housewarming gifts and insinuating himself into their lives. It's all very clean and efficient storytelling, but there are a few things set up in the first act that don't ever seem to pay off. Some are slight, such as the introduction of their next door neighbors (a wasted Alison Tolman and Adam Lazarre-White), who are shown oddly covering their infant from head to toe while seen waiting in their car. Others are more significant, such as Hall's backstory, which doesn't really deliver in the way it seems it will.
Admittedly, Edgerton is going for something different. By upending the thriller conventions, he stays focused on his characters while keeping the twists and turns coming. Bit by bit, he reveals different layers to his characters and uses a current hot topic to expose a type of villain I wasn't expecting. Without spoiling anything, I will admit to being a bit let down by the insertion of this of-the-moment subject. Sometimes you just want to be thrilled without getting a lecture. Granted, it's handled well in the movie, but I can't help but feel the air was let out of the tires a little.
Same goes for the third act, which, while unpredictable, doesn't go all grand guignol like so many of its predecessors. Just when you were hoping the backstory and the little setups would catch up to the present and explode, THE GIFT goes in another direction. I wanted mayhem! I wanted madness! I wanted assault and battery, and there was only a hint of that. While I applaud Edgerton for this fresh twist, the little kid in me wanted to spill popcorn all over the place. For about 100 of its 108 minute running time, my stomach was in knots. Edgerton knows where to put the camera and deliver maximum anxiety, and I have no doubt he will make other terrific films, but psychological thrillers without the psycho are simply logical, and that's not always as fun.
IN DE PALMA THEIR HANDS - My Review of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE… MoreIN DE PALMA THEIR HANDS - My Review of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION (4 Stars)
Sometimes, and I mean rarely, a blockbuster well into its franchise just works. Think about how CASINO ROYALE reinvigorated the 007 Series, with Daniel Craig and director Martin Campbell bringing a healthy dose of gravitas to something that had long-before resorted to trashy silliness. But, again, that kind of thing happens as often as Halley's Comet. Imagine my surprise then when writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and Tom Cruise reunited for this fifth installment and went in guns blazing. This is a thrilling action movie, effortlessly jumping from set piece to set piece with deliciously shifting loyalties and some tightly-wound suspense. It's not going to change the world, but it definitely sends a warning shot to all the other Studio Tentpole makers to up their game and at least stay engaged with the swill they're shilling.
MISSION picks up a short time after the Kremlin-destroying events of GHOST PROTOCOL, with our hero, Ethan Hunt (Cruise) desperately trying to get to a plane before it takes off. Yes, the filmmakers blow their poster wad within the first five minutes, giving us that indelible and real shot of Cruise dangling from the side of a plane in mid-air. My instant thought was, "That's pretty ballsy. I hope they have more tricks up their sleeves or else this thing is an early climaxer!"
Turns out, it was just an appetizer, and when we come back from credits, we find the IMF (Impossible Mission Force) in disarray and losing its power, with Hunt having gone dark in the field. A perfect time for the Syndicate, a band of terrorists hellbent on world domination, to set their plot in motion. Of course they have to go through Ethan and his loyal band of spies, and we all know how that tends to work out for the bad guys. Joined again by Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, Cruise and company find themselves in a race against time to save the world.
The story, as usual, is somewhat irrelevant, but the execution of the thrills and chills thoroughly won me over. Without spoiling anything, we're treated to torture, an attempted assassination at an opera, a thrillingly-edited underwater sequence, and a good half dozen more scenes before the film almost literally dumps you out, spent and exhausted. Bringing an ambiguous dose of tension is Rebecca Ferguson, excellent as the femme fatale who may or may not be on Ethan's side. It's this push-pull that gives the film its effervescent kick.
I've enjoyed Cruise's performances in recent years because he's become more willing to give us the aging action star who suffers aches, pains, and real fear. He may ultimately prevail, but there's a cost nowadays. Battle fatigue often plays better than superhuman strength, something the world of MARVEL and DC COMICS could stand to learn.
Beautifully shot by master cinematographer Robert Elswit, who ruled 2014 with stellar work on NIGHTCRAWLER and INHERENT VICE, and edited with rare patience by Eddie Hamilton, ROGUE NATION seldom resorts to the style of seizure-inducing scenes in most giant CGI nightmares. Instead, much effort has been put into understanding each location and who is doing what to whom. Trust me, that just does not happen much anymore. McQuarrie also gets credit here, using alternate scenarios to get what's normally droning exposition across to the viewers. The preparation for the underwater scenes, for example, made great use of dispensing complicated information by way of showing Simon Pegg suffering the outcome of a mission that could go horribly wrong. This and the stunning opera scene reminded me of vintage Brian De Palma, who in addition to making such suspense classics as DRESSED TO KILL and BLOW OUT, happened to direct the first MISSION installment. De Palma understands screen geography better than most and he's always infused his scenes with a somewhat winking, knowing, dreamlike energy. McQuarrie seems to pull from the same playbook, perhaps to honor his predecessor's work on the series, or maybe it's because he just thinks De Palma has done cheese correctly. Either way, what we have here is very De Palma-esque. For a director like De Palma, who has often been criticized for being too Hitchcock-esque, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: ROGUE NATION seems to give him his long-deserved due...even if he had nothing to do with it.
IT'S A BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD GIRL - My Review of PAPER TOWNS (3 Stars)… MoreIT'S A BAD, BAD, BAD, BAD GIRL - My Review of PAPER TOWNS (3 Stars)
If it's at all possible to go into a movie with less than zero expectations, my experience with PAPER TOWNS, the new film from the author and screenwriters of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, started out as rocky as the relationship of its central protagonists. I didn't emotionally buy into the sub-LOVE STORY machinations of FAULT and was especially put off by our dying couples' makeup scene in the Anne Frank house. I enjoyed 500 DAYS OF SUMMER, but I feared that writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber had gotten into bed with the wrong author, John Green, who seems to traffic in the trials and tribulations of overly-financed, somewhat bland, suburban teens. So in I went, with every fiber of my being telling me to jump ship and see an edgier teen film like DOPE.
I'm happy to admit I was glad I stayed, because PAPER TOWNS, while not great and certainly not on a par with THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER, ultimately won me over. Starting off on shaky ground with overly serious voiceover and an air of "the summer when everything changed for me", we meet our teen hero, Quentin (Nat Wolff), who has fallen in love with his mysterious neighbor Margo (Carla Delevingne). His is a case of blind love, as he knows so very little about her, yet will seemingly do anything for her. One fateful night, he assists her on an epic quest for revenge against anyone who helped her cheating boyfriend. This being an upper crust world we're in, the teens eschew guns and ammo for spray paint, Nair, prank calls, and anything else in the toilet paper stunt family. What director Jake Schreier (ROBOT AND FRANK) does well in these early scenes is establish a woozy, dreamy mythology surrounding Margo. She enters windows like a distaff Spider-Man and has the gruff, raspy voice of a sultry screen siren like Kathleen Turner. Delevingne has a distinct look with her bushy eyebrows and hint of danger lurking in there somewhere, and it's enough to get Quentin's and our attention. I wouldn't call it a great performance, but it's just right considering where all of this heads.
Anyone who has seen the trailer knows that Margo disappears and the rest of the movie features Quentin and his gaggle of friends on a clue-laden hunt to locate her. Seeing this as his destiny to find and be with his one true love, Quentin makes for a touching, deluded main character. He's helped immeasurably by the company he keeps, a quartet of quirky friends, well-played by Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, and Jaz Sinclair. I especially loved the racial diversity here which felt organic and not at all tacked on. I believed the casual interplay between the group and found myself rooting for them as they set off on a long trip from Florida to upstate New York in search of their missing friend.
The structure of the film is extremely simple with the first half consisting of Margo and Quentin's adventures and the second half being the search. The hunt plays out like a cross between IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD and an episode of SCOOBY DOO, emitting an air of graceful innocence. What this gang is searching for and why drives the subtext, allowing for an 11th hour surprise followed by an epiphany which did manage to awaken my tear ducts. All of the death and loaded speeches of FAULT couldn't manage to evoke such a response from me, whereas here, a realization and a sweet glance from Wolff was all it took.
The performances here, to be honest, feel naturalistic yet somehow undercooked. An overuse of voiceover and slow motion to indicate grand importance don't help the situation. There's a bland, flatlining to the tone here which works against the film at times, yet its themes and premise ultimately prevailed. Here's a story about opening your eyes to what's truly important and meaningful in your life. Margo is not and cannot be the ideal Quentin makes her out to be, yet the film is smart enough not to make her a villain either. She's just the perfect mess an over-mythologizing teenage boy will cling to until he reaches the "what was I thinking" period of his life. Sure, it all plays like first world problems, and the easy access our teens have to a car, gas, and money defies credibility, but one could do worse than see a film where things such as appreciation, kindness, and honesty win out.