Nerve (2016)


Isn't it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

Isn’t it hip to stroll into a party fashionably late?

(2016) Thriller (Lionsgate) Emma Roberts, Dave Franco, Emily Meade, Juliette Lewis, Miles Heizer, Kimiko Glenn, Marc John Jeffreries, Colson “Machine Gun Kelly” Baker, Brian Marc, Ed Squires, Rightor Doyle, Josh Ostrovsky, Eric D’Alessandrio, Samira Wiley, Albert Sidoine, Chris Breslin, Wesley Volcy, Damond McFarland, Deema Aitken, Michael Drayar, Kim Ramirez. Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

 

In this age of instant Internet gratification, it seems sometimes that those of a certain generation are fame-obsessed. They document every aspect of their lives, as if they were famous; some achieve a kind of fame on YouTube or Instagram or other websites with videos, music and art. Some even become mainstream media sensations as well.

Vee (Roberts) – short for Venus but nobody calls her that – is a high school senior in Staten Island and if there is a metaphor for boredom that’s better than that, I don’t know what it is. She is a bit of a milk-toast, unwilling to take chances. She’s been accepted at Cal Arts but is too afraid to tell her clingy Mom (Lewis) the news. Instead, she prepares to go to college locally with her mother as her “roommate.” You can imagine how enthusiastic she is at the possibility.

Her best friend Sydney (Meade) is much more of a risk-taker. She introduces Vee to an online game called Nerve in which you sign up either as a player or a watcher. Players are given time-sensitive dares to perform on camera of increasing difficulty and danger with cash awards increasing the more dangerous the dare. Watchers pay $19.99 for 24 hours and can suggest dares to be performed and follow their favorite players; the most popular players end up in a tournament of champions where the players can win big money – and everlasting fame.

Vee impulsively signs up as a player after she is embarrassed in front of the guy she’s crushing on. Despite her nerd friend Tommy’s (Heizer) misgivings (and let us not forget that he is crushing big time on her) she goes on her first dare – to kiss a stranger in a diner for five seconds. That stranger turns out (perhaps non-coincidentally) to be Ian (Franco), another player. Vee and Ian are thrown together in another dare which involves trying on ridiculously expensive clothes in Bergdorf’s before they are forced to leave the store in only their skivvies – although the clothes they were modeling mysteriously turn up for them to wear outside, bought and paid for.

As Vee’s popularity grows, the dares begin to get more and more serious – including riding on a motorcycle at 60 MPH with the driver blindfolded – and her popularity grows, becoming an instant Internet sensation, which infuriates her friend Sydney who has always been the attention-getter in their relationship. Still, as the stakes get higher and higher Vee discovers that leaving the game isn’t an option for her – and what seemed to be harmless fun has become something far more sinister. How far will she go to take the game down?

Let’s get something straight right off the bat; this movie is seriously aimed at an audience that is likely no older than 20. It is aimed at a generation that thinks anyone over that age is hopelessly techno-illiterate, hopelessly uncool and hopelessly clueless. The arrogance of youth is in perfect representation here; the feeling of invincibility that comes with someone who has a 1 or a 2 in front of their age (single digits only, wise-asses).

The look of the film is part of that. It’s cool and slick, almost like live action anime. This is the prettiest B-movie you’re likely to ever see; the lighting is superb. Roberts and Franco are perfectly cast; Roberts the good girl with a bit of a dark side and Franco the wisecracking player who’s kinda cute and kinda sweet. Both actors play what are essentially archetypes (and I don’t know if the characters come off that way in the Jeanne Ryan-penned young adult novel) and sadly, have about zero chemistry together. You never get a sense of attraction between the two of them which is one of the main faults of the movie. Perfectly cast individually yes, but the two actors can’t seem to forge a connection that is perceivable on the screen.

A lot of the stunts that the players are supposed to do don’t really generate a lot of tension; crossing between buildings on a ladder which plays to Sydney’s fear of heights seems almost anti-climactic. You never get a sense of jeopardy The same goes with the motorcycle stunt. By the time the final confrontation comes with the “evil” player TJ (Baker) there doesn’t seem to be any sort of tension whatsoever. Joost and Schulman are excellent directors visually, but this won’t go down as one of their best works. Something tells me that there are better things down the road for these guys. I certainly hope so.

REASONS TO GO: The look of the film is very cool and modern.
REASONS TO STAY: A very shallow look at fame, a very shallow subject. None of the stunts were really all that convincing.
FAMILY VALUES: The film espouses risky and dangerous behavior as entertainment, condones teen drinking, drug use and sex. There is also some brief nudity and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kimiko Glenn and Samira Wiley appeared in Orange is the New Black as a romantic couple.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gamer
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT: Tallulah

Cafe Society


On the Boardwalk.

On the Boardwalk.

(2016) Romantic Comedy (Lionsgate) Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Steve Carell, Corey Stoll, Ken Stott, Jeannie Berlin, Sari Lennick, Sheryl Lee, Paul Schackman, Richard Portnoy, Stephen Kunken, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Kat Edmonson, Tony Sirico, Paul Schneider, Don Stark, Gregg Binkley, Anthony DiMaria, Shae D’Lyn, Taylor Carr. Directed by Woody Allen

 

Finding love and a life you can live with are never easy propositions, even in Hollywood during the Golden Age. There are all sorts of detours and obstacles, not to mention the comfortable ruts we find ourselves in from time to time. There is also a question of timing – being in the right place at the right time. No, finding a place where you fit in and a person you fit in with is no easy task, no matter what the era.

Bobby Dorfman (Eisenberg) is a good Jewish boy from the Bronx. It is shortly after the war and America is in its ascendancy and Hollywood defines America. His uncle Phil (Carell) is a high-powered agent with such clients as Ginger Rogers and Adolphe Menjou and studio chiefs kiss his butt to curry favor. Bobby heads out for Southern California to see if he can make a career out there; Phil isn’t enthusiastic about the idea but after some dithering finally gives his nephews a job.

He also enlists his personal assistant Vonnie (Stewart) to show him around town. The two hit it off but when Bobby is eager to take things further, Vonnie gently rebuffs him. However, his sweet charm wears her down and eventually she gives in and the two become something of an item. However, Vonnie has a secret that she’s been keeping from everybody and when it surfaces, it effectively ends their romance. Disheartened, Bobby returns to New York.

There he is given a job by his brother Ben (Stoll), a gangster, to run his tres chi chi nightclub known as Les Tropique. It becomes the place to be seen in Manhattan, with politicians, Broadway stars, sports heroes and gangsters all rubbing elbows. Bobby also meets Veronica (Lively) who charms him and eventually the two get married and have a child. Everything is going exactly the way Bobby envisioned it – until one night Vonnie walks into his joint…

Woody Allen is in many ways the embodiment of a niche filmmaker. His area of interests is fairly narrow compared to some, and he tends to stick with those subjects pretty much without exception. When he is at his best, there are few better. However in the last couple of decades, it has become evident that his best work is likely behind him and some of his worst much closer to 2016 than his best stuff, much of which was made in the ‘70s and ‘80s. He has had flashes of brilliance since then but perhaps his torrid pace – he generally churns out a new film every year – might well have hurt him quality-wise.

Still, Woody Allen’s worst is far better than most people’s best and this is far from his worst. While I found one of the romances a bit disingenuous, there is also one relationship that you almost root for. The problem I have with the movie is that I really ended up not caring about either Bobby or Vonnie. Bobby’s sweetness could get cloying and after awhile he reminded me of a slingshot that had been pulled back just a hair too far back and I was just waiting for him to snap. On the other hand, Vonnie is crazy shallow and despite all of her apparent aspirations towards depth, at the end of the day she chooses the easy path every time. Bobby and Vonnie are a couple far better together than they are individually so this is really a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

Allen has always known how to make his movies look their best and that starts with hiring the best cinematographers in the business, from Gordon Willis to Darius Khondji to now Vittorio Storaro here. Storaro is one of the most gifted cinematographers in the business and he makes the Golden Age look golden, both in Los Angeles and New York. Like all Woody Allen movies, it is beautiful to look at in ways you wouldn’t think of for a film that is mostly set in a big city of one coast or another.

Mostly you’ll want to see this for the supporting cast, who are wonderful, from the luminescent Lively to Carell in one of his meatier roles, to Stoll as the good-natured gangster but especially Stott and Berlin as Bobby and Ben’s long-suffering parents. They are quite the hoot and supply a lot of the best comedic moments here.

The movie ends up being a little bit bittersweet and doesn’t really end the way you’d expect it to, but then again Woody Allen has never been in making the movies people expect him to make. He’s always been a bit of a maverick and done things the way he wanted to rather than the way the studios wanted him to do it. He doesn’t make blockbusters and I don’t think he’s ever really been interested in breaking the bank from that perspective, but he makes movies that as a body of work will be long-remembered when some of the box office hits of the last fifty years are long forgotten.

REASONS TO GO: It’s Woody Allen and you don’t miss an opportunity to see a master. Beautifully shot and captures the era perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The romantic leads are two people you end up not caring about.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexually suggestive content, a little bit of violence and a drug reference or two.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first movie that Allen has shot digitally. It’s also the first time in 29 years that Allen has narrated a film without appearing onscreen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/10/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hail, Caesar!
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Ghost Team

The Bank Job (2008)


Would you buy a used car from this man?

Would you buy a used car from this man?

(2008) True Crime Drama (Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Saffron Burrows, David Suchet, Stephen Campbell Moore, Daniel Mays, James Faulkner, Alki David, Michael Jibson, Richard Lintern, Peter de Jersey, Keeley Hawes, Hattie Morahan, Craig Fairbrass, Gerard Moran, Colin Salmon, Georgia Taylor, Peter Bowles, Alastair Petrie, Julian Lewis Jones, Andrew Brooke, Sharon Maughan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

We’re all out to simply survive in a world that isn’t always conducive to survival. We occasionally take risks, hoping to better ourselves but sometimes those risks can be devastating simply because we don’t always know the whole story behind them.

Terry Leather (Statham) is a small-time crook who has been trying his damnedest to lead a life on the straight and narrow, but he just can’t get a break. He is in debt to the sort of people who send out big guys with small intellects and crowbars to make their collections at his used car dealership. Eddie (Jibson), one of his long-time mates and employees, is getting married and most of his close friends who have lived life on the dodgy side – Dave (Mays) and Kevin (Moore) – are there. So is his wife Wendy (Hawes) with whom Terry is deeply in love, and it’s for her he’s trying to tread the path of the righteous.

Enter Martine Love (Burrows), a former flame of Kevin’s and, as we find out later, of Terry’s as well, with an offer that sounds too good to be true. There’s a little neighborhood bank that is getting its security system upgrade, but during the upgrade apparently the vault alarm has been getting tripped by tremors caused by the nearby underground, so until things get squared away the alarm has been turned off. The safety deposit boxes are completely vulnerable, a little-known fact that she’d found out from her boyfriend, ostensibly the contractor doing the security upgrade. Naturally, she thought of her old pal Terry to do the job which could be the big score he and his circle have been dreaming about all their lives.

However, things aren’t necessarily what they seem. Love’s strings are being pulled by an ambitious MI-5 agent (Lintern) who is out to get some potentially catastrophic photos from one of the safety deposit boxes in the bank, this one owned by Michael X (de Jersey), a would-be Black Power revolutionary who is in fact a drug dealer and a criminal who is blackmailing the government with those photos. There is also a pornographer (Suchet) whose ledger of payoffs to crooked cops have not only the straight-and-narrow police looking for the thieves, but also every corrupt cop in London as well. Terry is entering waters infested by sharks in a leaky boat, and doesn’t know it. The action here is all the more incredible because it is based on actual events.

Ever since I saw Statham in Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and The Italian Job I thought he was destined to be a big star. At this point in his career, he was more of a B-level star, making mainly European action films although a couple of American films like Crank were on his resume as well. He remains to this day one of the most sought-after action stars in the business but this movie gave us notice that he could be much more.

Most of the rest of the cast are for the most part not well known to Americans, although Burrows has starred in Boston Legal and Deep Blue Sea and Suchet has been seen as Hercule Poirot in the PBS series. I did love the characterizations here; there is guilelessness to most of the blokes in the gang that is charming. When contrasted with the sophistication of those in the government and in the underground. It makes for an interesting juxtaposition.

Director Donaldson keeps the pace moving along; the nearly two hours of the movie went by very quickly for me. He doesn’t resort to using the fashionable hand-held camera or slo-mo action sequences which seem to dominate action movies these days, but prefers to allow the characters and their actions to tell the story, a very refreshing touch if you ask me.

Statham plays Terry as a devoted family man and far from a criminal mastermind, but street-smart, clever and tough enough to make it all work. As you watch events unfold, there is a certain inevitability that things are going to get very bad for the gang of thieves and that creates a good kind of tension as they spiral into an unavoidable morass that is not of their own making but are the unwitting catalysts for.

The villains here are absolutely hateful and are clearly not messing about; during an interrogation scene, there isn’t a lot of chit-chat or cliché, just a brutality that you would expect from desperate men. The story is compelling and keeps our interest throughout, and while the lines are clearly drawn, the motivations for everyone concerned are equally as clear, which makes this movie work as a rich tapestry. There is enough comedy here to give the movie a kind of light touch, but Donaldson never lets it get away from the action-driven tone. He understands what side of his bread is buttered.

Although the movie is set in the early 1970s, the filmmakers don’t really set the period as well as other movies have, so at times you’re almost fooled into thinking the movie is set in a modern time frame. Also, the coda is a little bit unfulfilling; you want to know what became of some of these characters you’ve been rooting for, as well as perhaps wanting to know more about the actual robbery itself but to be fair, much of the details of the actual crime have been suppressed by British authorities and while the filmmakers claim to have information detailing why that is (which is revealed here), their sources have never been revealed and as far as the truth goes this may merely be clever marketing on the part of the producers.

This is a well-made heist movie that moves at a comfortably quick pace without being so frenetic it makes you dizzy. The twists and turns are nicely done and Statham does a terrific job. You may wind up comparing it to The Italian Job or the Oceans movies, but I think you might rule favorably for this movie as opposed to the others I’ve mentioned.

WHY RENT THIS: Statham stakes his place as a big star. A real sense of impending tragedy. Nicely paced, keeping you on the edge of your seat throughout.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Doesn’t set period as well as it might have. Ending is a bit unfulfilling.
FAMILY MATTERS: There is a great deal of nudity, sexual innuendo and a gruesome and disturbing torture scene.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: If you look carefully, you can catch a cameo by Mick Jagger as a bank employee.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on the actual 1971 Baker Street heist.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $64.8M on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Google Play, M-Go
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Lamb

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2


Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

Katniss Everdeen has a thing about Snow.

(2015) Science Fiction (Lionsgate) Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Julianne Moore, Willow Shields, Sam Claflin, Elizabeth Banks, Mahershala Ali, Jena Malone, Jeffrey Wright, Paula Malcomson, Stanley Tucci, Natalie Dormer, Evan Ross, Elden Henson, Wes Chatham, Eugenia Bondurant. Directed by Francis Lawrence

When a franchise comes to an end, the hope is that it goes out with a bang. Everyone wants a Return of the Jedi but there’s always a danger of a The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part II. On which side will this girl power young adult franchise lean?

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) is distressed that her erstwhile boyfriend Peta (Hutcherson) has been brainwashed by the evil minions of President Snow (Sutherland) to hate her to the point that he goes berserk at the sight of her. Although the rebel medical team is trying to break his conditioning, he remains a danger to Katniss and even a visit by baby sister Primrose (Shields) leads to another foaming at the mouth segment.

The timing of that is not so good, as the rebels are preparing to make their final assault on the Capital. Rebel President Coin (Moore) and her adviser Plutarch (Hoffman) are wary of allowing Katniss, who was brutally injured at the hands of Peta in Part 1 of the concluding volume of the franchise and then again during a raid on the District 2 armory, anywhere near the front although she continues to be valuable as a propaganda tool.

Nonetheless, Katniss heads to the Capital against direct orders and accompanied by her Hunger Game friend Finn (Claflin), her former boyfriend Gale (Hemsworth) and Boggs (Ali), a veteran warrior. She is ordered to steer well clear of the battlefront and to stay far behind the lines and make propaganda videos. President Snow has peppered the Capital with lethal traps designed by the Hunger Games designers. Some turn out to be more lethal than others.

As Katniss gets closer and closer to the Presidential palace and the confrontation between the two looks to be inevitable, she will discover the price for revenge may end up being incredibly high and that there are people close to her who have motives of their own that may well not include Katniss’ survival as part of the plan.

The production design for the movie is superb – it looks sleek and wow-inducing. The special effects are solid and the action sequences are thrilling. For many viewers, that’s all the movie really needs. For me, though, while there are a few scenes that contain emotional payoffs (none of which I’ll use here to illustrate as I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, although fans of the book will know what they are), the movie didn’t have an emotional resonance with me that the conclusion of an epic series should.

I could say part of the problem is that there are too many characters, many of whom I couldn’t keep straight, but that was true of the Harry Potter series as well and I had no trouble figuring out who was who. I could also say that the movie relied overly much on action rather than character, but that was true of the first Star Wars trilogy and that movie resonated with emotion at the end.

I think the problem is a blend of both issues; too many characters, many of whom had little development. To author Suzanne Collins’ credit, she didn’t rely on the love triangle that many young adult franchises with female heroines tend to utilize. However, there are too many extraneous pieces in the puzzle and the movie would have been better off leaving them out entirely, which might have been bad news for fans of Claflin and Hemsworth but good news for Lawrence’s fans, because I think the primary problem here is that Lawrence really gets short shrift here.

I sometimes wonder if Katniss Everdeen is really a good role model for young women; there’s a fine line between being headstrong and being mulish. There is also a fine line between being spontaneous and being foolish, as she takes a lot of chances that put lots of other people at risk, some of whom pay the ultimate price for it. Yes, that weighs heavily on Katniss’ soul but I guess our heroes these days have to be a little self-centered to be relatable.

The worst part is that there seemed to be no momentum, no fire. Certain cast members, particularly the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone and Donald Sutherland, did their level best but for the most part this felt very emotionally flat to me. Judging from the box office for the movie which has been okay but not what was expected, some of their fans haven’t had that connection either. I’ll admit that maybe I woke up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw this, but for whatever reason the movie didn’t connect with me and I really wanted it to – I’ve generally liked the series but it felt like it ran out of steam here rather than finishing with a flourish.

REASONS TO GO: Plenty of eye candy. Some emotional payoffs.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. No momentum.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence as well as some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene near the end when Haymitch reads a letter from Plutarch to Katniss was supposed to be dialogue from Plutarch, but actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who played the role, passed away before the scene could be filmed.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 70% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Divergent Series: Insurgent
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: The Peanuts Movie

Sicario


Josh Brolin is just happy he's not on Mt. Everest right now.

Josh Brolin is just happy he’s not on Mt. Everest right now.

(2015) Drama (Lionsgate) Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Victor Garber, Jon Bernthal, Daniel Kaluuya, Jeffrey Donovan, Raoul Trujillo, Julio Cedillo, Hank Rogerson, Bernardo P. Saracino, Maximilliano Hernandez, Kevin Wiggins, Edgar Arreola, Kim Larrichio, Jesus Nevarez-Castillo, Dylan Kenin, John Trejo, Marty Lindsey, Alex Knight, Sarah Minnich. Directed by Denis Villeneuve

One of the casualties of any war is human decency and nowhere is that more apparent than in America’s war on drugs. Of course, the enemy that’s being battled – the Latin American drug cartels – are particularly vicious. How do you fight an enemy who will go to any lengths to win – beyond the pale of anything that could even be called human?

FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) leads a raid on a home that may be owned by a high ranking member of a Mexican cartel in Arizona. There she, her partner Reggie (Kaluuya) and her boss Dave Jennings (Garber) discover horrors that boggle the imagination, as well as a nasty surprise. Her work on this raid gets the attention of Matt Graver (Brolin), a breezy government agent theoretically with the Department of Justice but that part is pretty murky. He’s putting together a cross-organizational team to take down one of the cartels that’s been making lethal inroads to American cities and he wants Kate on it.

Also on the team is Alejandro (del Toro), a mysterious figure whose allegiance could be to anybody on either side of the conflict. In going after Manuel Diaz (Saracino) whose brother Silvio (Hernandez) runs the cartel, they’ll have to make a dangerous prisoner transfer from Mexico to the U.S. that will lead to a deadly shootout, traverse a drug runner tunnel with numerous gunmen guarding its secrets, and eventually lead to the discovery that neither side in this war has clean hands – and maybe that’s the only way to fight it.

Villeneuve, who is probably best known in this country for Prisoners (although Incendies is in my opinion a much better film) is enormously talented and has nearly unlimited potential. Every film he makes is at least interesting, and a few are stellar. This is one of the latter; he has an economy of camera movement as well as of image; everything is important and nothing goes to waste. He knows also how to use silence; some of the best moments in the film have little or no dialogue.

Blunt who has been on the radar since Edge of Tomorrow further cements her standing as the thinking person’s action star. She isn’t the invincible killing machine that is a Schwarzenegger or a side-of-the-mouth quipster that is a Willis; instead, she’s a little vulnerable (being nearly strangled by Jon Bernthal as a corrupt cop midway through the film) and a little fragile (there are times that she literally is shaking after things go south), yet she’s as tough as nails and at the end of the film has a moment in which she asserts that she does have control – and chooses to go her own way. It is one of those silent moments I spoke of earlier that is used to great effect.

Del Toro, who often gets slotted behind Javier Bardem when it comes to Latin actors, is magnificent here, a brooding presence whose gentle voice belies an inner rage which is kept under wraps until the very end. His motivations also remain murky until we discover what is driving him late in the film. Brolin, who has been appearing in supporting roles in some very good films lately, adds another solid performance to his resume.

This is one of the better-written films of the year, one in which Villeneuve is able to thrive with. He creates a tension that begins from the amazing and shocking opening sequence and never lets up until the final frames. Sicario defines intensity pretty much, from the actions of the onscreen characters to the offscreen political aspect.

The war on drugs continues apace in a non-fiction world where bad things happen to good people and those who dare to stand up to the cartels are made gruesome examples of – wee see some of that here. It is a world that those in the Southwest are terrified might make its way up into the Estados Unidos and with good reason. Walls may make it difficult for illegals to emigrate here but it won’t keep the cartels out.

This is part political thriller, part police procedural and part action movie. There is likely to be some Oscar consideration for it down the line but to what degree remains to be seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if it gets some Best Picture consideration come February. There are a lot of movies to come out before anyone hands out statuettes but one thing is for certain; this is a feature worthy of any serious filmgoers attention.

REASONS TO GO: Intense and riveting. Extremely well-written. Strong performances from Blunt, Brolin and del Toro.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing feels a bit jumpy.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence, some fairly gruesome images and a whole lot of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The thermal vision scenes were actually shot with a thermal vision camera and the optics were not added in post-production.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/12/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Traffic
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: He Named Me Malala

Shaun the Sheep Movie


Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

Shaun the Sheep reads the early reviews.

(2015) Animated Feature (Lionsgate) Starring the voices of Justin Fletcher, John Sparkes,  Omid Djalili, Richard Webber, Kate Harbour, Tim Hands, Andy Nyman, Simon Greenall, Emma Tate, Jack Paulson, Sean Connolly, Henry Burton, Dhimant Vyas, Sophie Laughton, Nia Medi James, Stanley Unwin, Nick Park. Directed by Mark Burton and Richard Starzak

Variety asserts that Shaun the Sheep is comparable to the legendary French comedian Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot and while that is a bit of a stretch, I can at least see where the reviewer is coming from. Certainly Shaun is about as loquacious as the French comedian.

Shaun the Sheep (Fletcher) made his first appearance in a Wallace and Gromit short before getting a series of 7-minute shorts of his own, more than a hundred of them most of which have been broadcast on TV. This is the first full-length feature and it follows the storyline of most of the shorts, to wit Shaun and his fellow sheep try to get out of doing any farm work, having to outwit the dog Bitzer (Sparkes) and the unnamed balding Farmer (Sparkes). The shorts are clever and cute.

This time, however, things get a little out of hand when after lulling the Farmer to sleep by jumping over a fence until he nods off, they store him in what the Brits call a caravan and we call a trailer. When Bitzer gets wind of the deception, he goes to wake up his master, only to send the Caravan on a beeline for the city – London although not specifically named. Upon arrival the farmer is bonked on the head and loses all his memories. Having no ID on him, he wanders the streets, trying to find some sort of clue as to who he is and what he does for a living. He ends up mistakenly figuring out that he’s a hairdresser and uses the clippers to sheer the heads of his celebrity clients, recreating the same sorts of styles he used to give his sheep.

Shaun knows he needs to go retrieve the Farmer so he heads out to the City, only to be followed by the rest of the flock and Bitzer. A super-zealous animal control catcher named Trumper (Djalili) is on the prowl for Shaun and his friends and eventually captures Shaun and Bitzer, imprisoning them in a dog shelter which looks much more like death row. There they meet the world’s ugliest dog who has no hope of being adopted. Their new friend helps them escape and eventually hide out, where Shaun comes up with a last-ditch plan to get their Farmer back home to the farm – and put everything to right.

I have to admit that my hopes weren’t high for this, as it is the first Aardman animation feature in awhile to arrive with little or no fanfare and quite frankly, it may very well be one of the best things the studio has ever done. One thing I’d worried about is that there is absolutely no dialogue – the animals communicate with gesture, look and an occasional bleat or woof. Humans speak in an unintelligible gibberish that puts the “WAH WAH WAH” spoken by the adults in the Peanuts cartoons to shame.

There is obviously a great deal of affection for the rustic way of life; the farmhouse is one of those beautiful old stone farmhouses that dot the English countryside, the meadow is beautiful and even the “work” that is done doesn’t seem all that taxing. The bucolic setting and the obvious affection the sheep feel for the farmer and vice versa is kind of moving. You would think that a farmer who has grown to middle age without a human partner might get unutterably lonely but that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

Like most of Aardman’s animations, this is clever as all get out. It certainly seems to be aimed at a very young audience, certainly toddlers on up but unlike a lot of American entertainment aimed at the very young, this is just as easily digested by adult viewers. It’s very short as you might expect (barely over an hour) and not for a moment did I ever feel bored or talked down to. The opening sequence, done as a Super 8 film of the Farmer as a young man with Shaun as a baby and Bitzer as a puppy establishes the mood; it’s a rather sweet sequence and while critics have praised it, some might find it too treacly. Those who don’t like cute movies for kids would be well-advised to move on.

The charm here is undeniable and quite frankly although it doesn’t have the lofty aspirations of Inside Out or the epic setting of Minions this certainly belongs with those two films as the very best family films of the summer. Some families might be unaware of the character or the movie, but this is one I’d highly recommend for an afternoon out at the movies with the kids.

REASONS TO GO: Super charming. Clever like all Aardman films. Good for adults and kids alike.
REASONS TO STAY: Might be a little over-sentimental in places. Those who don’t like kid movies that are cute will not like this.
FAMILY VALUES: Some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Twenty animators worked on the film, each producing about two seconds of footage per day.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/27/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Mr. Holmes

The Age of Adaline


Blake Lively is lovely.

Blake Lively is lovely.

(2015) Romantic Fantasy (Lionsgate) Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Kathy Baker, Amanda Crew, Lynda Boyd, Hugh Ross (voice), Richard Harmon, Fulvio Cecere, Anjali Jay, Hiro Kanagawa, Peter J. Gray, Izabel Peace, Cate Richardson, Jane Craven, Noel Johansen, Aaron Craven, Primo Allon, Darren Dolynski, Alison Wandzura. Directed by Lee Toland Krieger

Immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. For one thing, you get to watch all your friends and family grow old and die as you remain young and vibrant. You also get to worry about secret government agents kidnapping you and turning you into a lab rat. After all, when you have eternal life everybody’s going to want what you’ve got. I would imagine that eternal life would be exceedingly lonely.

Adaline Bowman (Lively) doesn’t have to imagine; she knows. Born at the turn of the century in the San Francisco area. Widowed at 29 (in the early 1930s) with a daughter Flemming (Pearce – Age 5/Richardson – Age 20/Burstyn) to raise on her own, she is involved in a freak car accident during a freak snowfall in Northern California in which a freak lightning bolt hits her freakin’ car after she skids into a stream and dies of hypothermia or drowning, take your pick. All this freakishness serves to stop her from aging and she remains eternally 29.

At first this is just a cause of amusement; how is it possible that Adaline looks young enough to be her daughter’s sister? Then as her contemporaries grow into middle age and she doesn’t, the wrong word is whispered into the wrong ear. This being the McCarthy era, some firm men in dark suits come calling. Adaline manages to escape but realizes that she has to stay on the run for the rest of the life. Move constantly, then change identities once a decade or so.

Still, she can’t stay away from her beloved San Francisco, working as an archivist at the San Francisco Public Library at the tail end of her current incarnation as Jenny Larson. She has only one friend – a blind pianist (Boyd) who doesn’t realize the woman she believes to be middle aged is actually still in the full flower of her youth. Only her daughter Flemming, now in her 80s and considering a move to a retirement home, knows Adaline’s secret. Other than those two and a series of dogs, Adaline has formed no attachments to anyone; any attempt at love is eventually rebuffed although she came close during the 1960s.

However, on New Year’s Eve she meets Ellis (Huisman), a hunky dot com millionaire who loves books and is really, really into Adaline. At first she repulses all his attempts to flirt and to ask her out. When he plays a little dirty, threatening to revoke a donation to the library, she relents. Soon the two of them are sleeping together although she knows that in a short time she’ll be leaving but she is drawn to him like a moth to the flame. When he takes her up to Sonoma to meet his parents, he discovers that his dad (Ford) is 1960s jilted guy, who is now celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary to Ellis’ mom (Baker). Awk-ward.  Especially since he recognizes her.

So Adaline is ready to run again, but she is beginning to tire of the chase. All she wants to do is stay in one place, with one guy and Ellis looks to be that guy. But how can she stay with someone she is going to outlive…by a LOT? Is it truly better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all when you’re immortal?

The premise here is an interesting one but by and large it is wasted. Being an ageless immortal must have an upside as well as a downside but all we really see here is the down, and perhaps to appeal to a certain kind of audience, the movie centers on Adaline’s romantic history. We see none of what other things she does, what careers she undertakes, the things she witnesses. It is as if the filmmakers figure that the only thing that matters in a woman’s life is for her to fall in love. Kind of myopic and maybe borderline misogynistic when you think about it.

For that reason Adaline is written as a cold and distant woman, rarely speaking in a tone that isn’t devoid of warmth or possessed of any humanity whatsoever. Therefore the brunt of why this movie doesn’t work falls squarely on Blake Lively’s shoulders and the sad part is that it really isn’t her fault. She is given direction to be icy and unreachable – so she is that to the audience as well. Lively is one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and she has shown that she is capable of being a charismatic onscreen presence in other roles but because of the coldness that she is made to possess here, rather than generating audience sympathy for her plight she actually repels it.

There are other problems besides Lively, most of which I’ve already mentioned. There are a couple of plot lapses; for example, Adaline theoretically changes her identity every ten years and yet Ellis’ dad recognizes her and calls her Adaline. So she used her own name one decade just for kicks? Doesn’t seem to be in her character.

Fortunately, Ford is here to give a sympathetic performance that will remind you why he has been for 35 years one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. Burstyn and Baker, both getting on in age, are both dependable actresses and they don’t disappoint here. Maybe the biggest star of the movie is San Francisco and Northern California. The beauty of the City and its environs takes center stage.

Still, this is merely marginally entertaining, a rote romantic fantasy that could have been so much better. We really don’t get any insight to who Adaline is and how her immortality affects her as a person, other than to put her on the perpetual lam. With longevity must come at least some sort of insight into the world but we get none here. There are a lot of reasons why immortality would suck, but hopefully one of them won’t be that we remain as shallow as a saucer. If I knew I was going to be eternally young but would neither grow nor learn well, I think I might turn down that particular gift. Yes, I think that I definitely would.

REASONS TO GO: Ford, Burstyn and Baker are solid. San Francisco utilized nicely.
REASONS TO STAY: Lively is beautiful but ultimately empty here. Wasted opportunity.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexuality and a suggestive comment.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Burstyn also played a daughter older than her parent in last year’s Interstellar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 54% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Gemma Bovery