Rules Don’t Apply


Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

(2016) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Hart Bochner, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Chace Crawford, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Marshall Bell, Ron Perkins, Alec Baldwin, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Joshua Malina, Louise Linton. Directed by Warren Beatty

 

Most of us have to live within the rules. The rules after all are there for a reason. There are a fortunate few – or perhaps an unfortunate few – who for one reason or another are exceptions. The rules don’t really apply to them. It can be very liberating – and very lonely.

Marla Mabry (Collins) has come to Hollywood in sunny 1958 to make her fame and fortune as an actress. No less than Howard Hughes (Beatty) has put her under contract. She and her devout Baptist mother (Bening) are met at the airport by Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), a driver with ambitions of his own.

She discovers that she is one of 26 girls under contract to Hughes, all of whom he is insanely jealous towards. In fact, “insane” is a word that fits his behavior which has grown increasingly erratic as paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder have begun to take hold of his life like a dog with a bone. Forbes’ boss Levar (Broderick) shows Frank the ropes, but even though it’s forbidden he begins to have romantic feelings for Marla, feelings which are returned. In the meantime, Hughes begins to fall for the pretty, talented singer-songwriter-actress, but he is under siege as there are those who wish to declare him incompetent and take his company away from him. Those closest to him – including Frank – are determined not to let that happen.

First, this isn’t really a biography of the billionaire. Certainly some of the events depicted here actually happened, but Marla Mabry and Frank Forbes are entirely fictional; so is most of the rest of the cast in fact, although a few historical figures make appearances now and again. This is more of a fable of the Howard Hughes myth than anything else.

Beatty, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in 15 years or directed a film in 18, does a terrific job with Hughes keeping him from becoming a caricature of mental illness. Hughes feels like a living, breathing person here rather than an interpretation of an encyclopedia entry. Often when Hollywood brings real people to the screen, they feel more mythic than actual. I always appreciate films that utilize historical figures that feel like human beings rather than animatronic renditions of legends.

The cast is made up in equal parts of veteran actors, some of whom rarely appear onscreen these days (like Bergen and Coleman) and up-and-comers with huge potential (like Ehrenreich and Collins), with Beatty leaning towards the former in his casting decisions. It is certainly welcome watching some of these pros who are either semi-retired or fully retired plying their craft once more. Of particular note is Bergen as the matronly (and occasionally curmudgeonly) but ultimately kindly secretary/personal assistant to Hughes.

The issue here is that the movie is long and the plot bounces around from scene to scene with an almost manic quality, sometimes giving short shrift to subtlety and other times leading up blind alleys and locked doors. I get the sense that Beatty is trying to craft a parable about the nature of wealth and power and its corrupting influence. Hughes seems like a nice enough guy but his money and influence tends to corrupt everyone around him, including those who didn’t start off cynical. One of the characters gets out before any real harm is done to them; another gets sucked into the vortex.

While this is something of a passion project for Beatty (he’s been trying to get a film made about Hughes since the early 70s) it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a bit bloated and self-defeating, but there’s enough that is interesting going on to make it worth a look. It’s mostly out of the theaters by now – critical indifference and an audience that is attracted to movies about superheroes and aliens more than about those who shaped the world we live in (as Hughes surely did) have hurt the film’s box office receipts. What the movie lacks in spectacle though it makes up for in genuine affection for its subject and that’s something you can’t get with all the CGI in the world.

REASONS TO GO: It’s lovely to see some of these veteran actors in action here..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bo Goldman, who gets story credit on the film, also wrote Melvin and Howard about Hughes’ supposed encounter with Melvin Dummar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Café Society
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Monster

New Releases for the Week of November 11, 2016


MoonlightMOONLIGHT

(A24) Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, André Holland, Trevante Rhodes, Jharrel Jerome, Edson Jean, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jaden PinerDirected by Barry Jenkins

This highly acclaimed film focuses on a young African-American man at three different points in his life, his experiences with love and connection and how he handles his oncoming sexuality. The movie won a huge buzz at this year’s Toronto Film Festival and has been getting some legitimate Oscar buzz.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Regal Winter Park Village

Rating: R (for some sexuality, drug use, brief violence and language throughout)

Almost Christmas

(Universal) Danny Glover, Gabrielle Union, Omar Epps, Mo’nique. The patriarch of an extended family is about to gather his family together for their first holiday season without their mother. His family is on the dysfunctional side and all he wants for Christmas is for them all to just get along for once. However if this family can pull itself together without tearing itself apart it would be a kind of Christmas miracle.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Holiday Comedy
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for suggestive material, drug content and language)

Arrival

(Paramount) Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg. When ginormous spacecraft land on sites throughout the globe, a team of world-class scientists – including an expert linguist – are assembled to make contact with the aliens inside the craft. However, with the world teetering on the brink of global war, the linguist will take a chance to find the answers that might just keep humanity from destroying itself.

See the trailer, clips and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Science Fiction
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for brief strong language)

Come and Find Me

(Saban/Lionsgate) Aaron Paul, Annabelle Wallis, Garret Dillahunt, Zachary Knighton. An idyllic romance comes to a baffling halt when David’s girlfriend disappears without a trace. Frantic, he goes out searching for her, finding her trail to be increasingly perilous. Realizing that he didn’t know his girlfriend at all, he reaches a point where if he’s going to see her alive again, he’s going to have to take an enormous risk…but is she worth it?

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC West Oaks

Rating: R (for language and some violence)

Dog Eat Dog

(RLJ Entertainment) Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook, Louisa Krause. Based on the book by Eddie Bunker and directed by Paul Schrader, this movie follows a trio of ex-cons trying to eke out an existence in the underbelly of Los Angeles. They are hired by a Cleveland mobster to kidnap the baby of a rival. When they botch the kidnapping, they find themselves on the run from both the mobsters and the cops, vowing at every turn that they aren’t going back to jail.

See the trailer and a clip here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Thriller
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Don’t Look Down

(Gravitas) Richard Branson, Eve Branson, Per Lindstrand, Mike Kendrick. Richard Branson is best-known as a billionaire who founded Virgin Records and later, Virgin Airlines. He is also a long-time hot air balloon enthusiast who has made his life goal to break world records on that front. This documentary follows his attempts to do just that.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Documentary
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

Shut In

(EuropaCorp/Relativity) Naomi Watts, Oliver Platt, Charlie Heaton, Jacob Tremblay. A widowed child psychologist cares for her comatose son and a troubled young boy. When the patient turns up missing, the psychologist blames herself for his disappearance but soon begins to believe that his ghost is haunting her and her son. When a vicious storm traps her in her house, she must find a way to defend herself and her defenseless son from something she can’t explain.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for terror and some violence/bloody images, nudity, thematic elements and brief strong language)

New Releases for the Week of September 2, 2016


MorganMORGAN

(20th Century Fox) Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Paul Giamatti, Boyd Holbrook, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Michelle Yeoh, Brian Cox. Directed by Luke Scott

A corporate troubleshooter is sent to a remote lab to investigate a recent accident and to evaluate whether the program being conducted there should be continued. When she arrives, it soon seems that the culprit behind the chaos is a seemingly innocent whose facade hides enormous potential – and incredible danger.

See the trailer, clips and a featurette here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Horror
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for brutal violence and some language)

Don’t Think Twice

(The Film Arcade) Mike Birbiglia, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Micucci, Keegan-Michael Key. When the member of a popular New York City improv troupe gets a big break on an SNL-like late night sketch show, the others in the group – all friends – begin to realize that the odds are that not all of them are going to make it after all. And maybe, none of them will.

See the trailer and clips here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: R (for language and some drug use)

Kickboxer: Vengeance

(RLJ) Alain Moussi, Georges St-Pierre, Dave Bautista, Jean-Claude van Damme. After his brother is killed in the ring by a brutal fighter, a young man swears vengeance upon the man that killed him but in order to beat him, he’ll have to get training from the best of the best – a kickboxer by the name of Durand.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.
Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Martial Arts
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: NR

The Light Between Oceans

(DreamWorks) Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Jack Thompson. Just after the First World War, an army vet takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on the rugged, isolated Australian coast, two days ride from anywhere and only seeing a supply boat once a season. Here he brings his strong-willed wife and here they try to bring a baby into the world, but meet with miscarriages and a stillbirth. One day she hears a baby’s cries on the wind and finds a baby in a lifeboat with a dead man. Believing this to be a sign from God she keeps the baby for her own against her husband’s better judgment. However, when they return to the mainland, they discover that their choice may have been devastating for someone else – a woman who may well be the true mother of the child.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic material and some sexual content)

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax

(Miramax/Summit) Jamie Dornan, Sarah Gadon, Aaron Paul, Oliver Platt. After surviving eight near-death experiences, a little boy plunges off a cliff – and miraculously survives, but is left in a coma. In order to find out what really happened, an acclaimed neurologist tries an experimental procedure to get inside the boy’s mind – and finds something sinister lurking there.

See the trailer, clips, interviews and B-roll video here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Supernatural Thriller
Now Playing: Wide Release

Rating: R (for some disturbing images and brief strong language)

No manches Frida

(Pantelion) Omar Chaparro, Martha Higareda, Monica Dionne, Rocio Garcia. After a bank robber is released from prison, he goes to recover his stolen money which he’d buried in a schoolyard. Unfortunately, while he was inside the school built a gymnasium on top of where he buried the loot. In order to get into the gym and dig for his cash, he must masquerade as a substitute teacher at the school – which quickly escalates into chaos.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Comedy
Now Playing: AMC Disney Springs, AMC The Loop, Epic Theaters at Lee Vista

Rating: PG-13 (for crude sexual content, drug material, teen smoking and drinking, brief strong language and gestures and thematic elements)

The Sea of Trees

(A24) Matthew McConaughey, Naomi Watts, Ken Watanabe, Katie Aselton. A suicidal American enters a Japanese forest at the base of Mt. Fuji to finish himself off. While there he finds a Japanese man lost in the impenetrable woods and the two become friends. Finding the way out of the forest however turns out to be a lot more difficult than finding their way in. This is the latest from director Gus Van Sant.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard
Genre: Drama
Now Playing: AMC Loew’s Universal Cineplex

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material, some disturbing images and brief strong language)

Yoga Hosers

(Invincible) Johnny Depp, Lily-Rose Depp, Harley Quinn Smith, Adam Brody. A pair of comely convenience store clerks in Winnipeg, Manitoba is chagrined to discover they’ll have to be working when they could be at the party of the year. To make matters worse, their store is ground zero for an interdimensional invasion of…Nazi sausages. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. Thankfully, director Kevin Smith can.

See the trailer here.
For more on the movie this is the website.

Release Formats: Standard (playing Friday night at midnight only)
Genre: Action
Now Playing: Enzian Theater

Rating: PG-13 (for crude humor, sexual references, some violence and brief drug material)

A Merry Friggin’ Christmas


Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

Not the road trip you want to take on Christmas Eve.

(2014) Holiday Comedy (Phase 4) Joel McHale, Robin Williams, Lauren Graham, Clark Duke, Candice Bergen, Oliver Platt, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Tim Heidecker, Pierce Gagnon, Bebe Wood, Ryan Lee, Amara Miller, Mark Proksch, Jeffrey Tambor (voice), Amir Arison, Steele Gagnon, J.J. Jones, Gene Jones, Matt Jones, Barak Hardley, William Sanderson, Karan Kendrick. Directed by Tristram Shapeero

The Holly and the Quill

Christmas is a time for family, no matter who that family is. Sometimes we’re about as happy to spend time as family as we are to be serving a stretch of hard time in San Quentin. Not all families do all that well together.

Boyd Mitchler (McHale) is a successful hedge fund manager in Chicago. He has a loving wife Luann (Graham) and a couple of pretty great kids, daughter Vera (Wood) who is riding into teen hormone-land on a white horse and son Douglas (P. Gagnon) who at seven still believes in Santa Claus despite beginning to suspect he’s fake. Boyd wants him to believe as long as possible as his own father, Mitch (Williams) tore all his fantasies down when Boyd was just five.

Boyd and Mitch don’t get along, so much so that they haven’t been in the same room for seven years. When Boyd’s brother Nelson (Duke) calls and tells him that he’s a dad and wants Boyd to be godfather to his son at the christening, Boyd is honored – but when he discovers that the christening is on the 24th of December, he’s horrified – for that will entail spending Christmas with his family. Luann however prevails on her reluctant husband to go to Wisconsin and be with his family.

His mom Donna (Bergen) is overjoyed to see him, his father not so much. He’s a mean curmudgeon who owns a port-a-potty business and quite frankly isn’t a nice person to be around, particularly when he’s drinking, Even when he’s not, he can be an S.O.B. – while the rest of the family is served chicken for Christmas Eve dinner, Boyd gets squirrel filled with buckshot. Like I said, an S.O.B.

When Boyd discovers that through mis-communication with his wife his son’s presents, from Santa, have been left behind in Chicago, he means to drive back home, pick them up and return before dawn. Car troubles force Boyd to rely on his dad to bail him out and the two must make the long drive to and from. On the way they’ll have to deal with a persistent state trooper, an unexpected stowaway and a drunken Santa (Platt). Either the two will re-connect or kill each other. Neither one is a safe bet.

Williams completed this movie before his untimely passing and it was the first of the three that were in the can to be released. It didn’t get any critical love as you can see by the scores below, but it wasn’t as bad as all that. Williams always dominates the screen whenever he’s in a movie and this is no different. For sure this isn’t one of his better performances but it’s good enough to carry the movie over a pretty impressive cast.

What bugs me about the movie is that it tries way too hard to make the family eccentric. Along for the ride is Heidecker as Boyd’s redneck brother-in-law who has a son (Lee) training to be a competitive eater while his wife (McLendon-Covey) – Boyd’s sister – goes through therapy . Nelson has PTSD despite having been discharged from the military without going into combat. And of course, there’s the dysfunctional Mitch himself.

The writer really tries to force the eccentricities until the family doesn’t feel real. I suppose there’s some irony in rooting for a hedge fund manager who are not renowned as being the nicest people ever, but that’s beside the point. The humor also feels forced at times, a kind of desperation to make the audience laugh that fools nobody that it’s anything other than what it is.

However, I did find some humor here, particularly with Williams, and there were enough of those to make this worth watching. It is a little bit on the dark side, tonally speaking and the Christmas-y happy ending doesn’t quite fit in quite well with the rest of the movie, but you can’t go wrong with Robin Williams – ok, you can but not often and not here – and everything else in the film doesn’t quite measure up to him, it is at least a bit better than you might expect if you read the reviews.

REASONS TO GO: Robin Williams as always does stellar work. There are moments when the comedy works.
REASONS TO STAY: Tries too hard to make the family eccentric. Doesn’t really offer any sort of insight into family dynamics.
FAMILY VALUES: All sorts of foul language and crude humor throughout the film.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first Christmas film Robin Williams was credited for (he was in Noel but in an uncredited role).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 18% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bad Santa
FINAL RATING: 6/19
NEXT: Fracture

Kill the Messenger


Jeremy Renner doesn't want Matthew Lintz to hear what he's about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

Jeremy Renner doesn’t want Matthew Lintz to hear what he’s about to tell Rosemarie DeWitt.

(2014) True Life Drama (Focus) Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Matthew Lintz, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Robert Patrick, Barry Pepper, Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Tim Blake Nelson, Richard Schiff, Ray Liotta, Dan Futterman, Gil Bellows, Aaron Farb, Josh Close, Yul Vazquez, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jen Harper, Jena Sims. Directed by Michael Cuesta

In 1996, Gary Webb was an investigative reporter working in the Sacramento bureau for the San Jose Mercury News. He had been part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team for the newspaper’s coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

While covering the trial of a drug dealer (Farb) he is contacted by a beautiful, sexy but mysterious Latina woman (Vega) – the dealer’s girlfriend – who drops off some documents that his lawyer had been given during discovery, documents that clearly had never meant to be given to the lawyer. In it, the dealer had been apparently working for the United States government back in the ’80s as a paid informant – and selling drugs while he was. Not such a big deal until it became clear that the CIA was who he was selling drugs for.

Webb would dig deeper and discover that the proceeds of the drug sales were being used to fund the Contras in the civil war going on in Nicaragua, a war that then-President Reagan desperately wanted to wage and one in which Congress had forbidden him to do so. He would visit Nicaraguan jails, abandoned airfields, chasing his story wherever his leads took him.

With a supportive editor (Winstead), a loving wife (DeWitt) and a son (Lintz) who was as proud of him as could be, he brought all his facts together and wrote a multi-part series called Dark Alliance delineating the ties between the epidemic of crack cocaine that was impoverishing America’s inner cities, the Contra rebels and the Central Intelligence Agency. The Merc’s state of the art website (at the time) proudly pimped the articles for those outside of San Jose to peruse.

It was a bombshell. One of the first new stories to go viral, it brought Webb great acclaim and notoriety. Still, he’s warned by a former CIA whistleblower (Sheen) that the CIA would come after him by making the story not about the facts but about Webb himself. And that’s just what happened. The other major newspapers – the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post – attacked Webb’s reporting and all but insinuated that he’d made the story up out of whole cloth. His own newspaper essentially threw him under the bus, refusing to defend their own reporter and his story even though they had every chance to confirm it during the editorial process. It was not the paper’s finest hour.

In the interest of full disclosure, I myself worked for the Circulation department of the San Jose Mercury News before getting laid off in 2006 after their afternoon edition was discontinued. The events depicted in this movie mainly took place after I’d left and I didn’t know Webb at all (he worked out of Sacramento and I was at the main office in San Jose) although I was acquainted with a number of people in the newsroom including Jerry Ceppos, the managing editor who is played by the great Oliver Platt here.

The movie is trying to be a journalism/political thriller along the lines of a All the President’s Men. Some hold Webb in the same regard as Woodward and Bernstein are held in terms of investigative journalism. There is a curiously flat tone to the movie; Renner as Webb often articulates that his job is to bring the facts to the public and at times it feels like the movie is being directed by Jack Webb (no relation).

As I said, I didn’t know Webb in his Mercury News days and so I can’t say for certain how well Renner portrays the late reporter. His son Eric says that Renner caught his father’s essence and mannerisms to a “T” so I’ll go with his assessment on that. Renner is a passionate actor and this is a passion project for him.

As you can imagine, the movie’s presence has resurrected some of the old debates. Washington Post investigative journalism team managing editor wrote an op-ed last Friday excoriating Webb and calling the movie fiction. Other sources including the Narco News – an online newspaper that reports mainly on America’s war on drugs and other Latin American issues – have fired back, defending Webb. As for you dear reader, you don’t have to take anyone’s word on the veracity of Webb’s work. You can see it for yourself including the supporting documents – all published online in 1996 – at the Narco News here.

Frankly I don’t have the wherewithal to join the debate much. The piece itself remains explosive and controversial, even now. Was Webb a saint who just wanted to expose the truth of evildoers to the shining light of the public eye? In part, yes. By all accounts – even those of his detractors – have made it clear that Webb believed in the importance of investigative journalism and he believed in the truth of his own story. Certainly, it wasn’t perfect and he didn’t get everything right. Nobody does. However in the years since the publication of his work, the eventual repudiation of it and Webb’s eventual suicide in light of becoming unemployable at the job he loved, the essence of his story has been in fact validated. There was a connection between crack cocaine, the Contras and the CIA. How much crack was brought to the streets of Los Angeles and other American urban environments because of this dark alliance will probably never be known for certain.

What the movie does get right however is the decline of American journalism. At one time, the fourth estate existed independently of the other powers of American politics – the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It stood as a kind of advocate for the American people, tilting at the windmills of political hanky-panky and bringing that which was hidden in the boardrooms of industry and the back rooms of politics to the light of day. Today, in 2014, we no longer have that protection. The mainstream media is all owned by large corporations – the Mercury News itself is owned by a hedge fund which in recent days quietly closed down and sold its iconic headquarter building on Ridder Park Drive and moved what little staff remains to a downtown San Jose office building.

It was unheard of back in the day for a newspaper to throw one of its own reporters under the bus, but that’s what Ceppos and the Mercury News did. While in Ceppos’ extraordinary column which some have labeled an apology letter that in effect distanced the paper from Webb’s reporting there was some reference to “failure at every level and at every step” to properly edit the piece and verify the information (despite the presence of corroborating documentation which in what was then groundbreaking transparency was published online), at the end of the day we have since then seen a failure of mainstream journalism to stand up against corruption when it may potentially affect their advertising bottom line. We have seen an unwillingness to stand up against those whose activities cause harm to the public good, or segments of the public. We live in a world where real journalism, the kind that was meant to stand up for all of us, mainly exists on the Internet and is lost in the party-centric shouting of right wing and left wing posturing. In his grave, Gary Webb must be rolling indeed.

REASONS TO GO: Examines the erosion of journalism in this country.
REASONS TO STAY: Disappointing. Confusing at times.
FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of foul language not to mention some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise at one time expressed interest in the Gary Webb role.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/20/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Boxtrolls

Chef


Just don't call it a roach coach.

Just don’t call it a roach coach.

(2013) Dramedy (Open Road) Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Emjay Anthony, Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Dustin Hoffman, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, Robert Downey Jr., Russell Peters, Gloria Sandoval, Jose C. Hernandez ‘Perico’, Nili Fuller, Aaron Franklin, Roy Choi, Gary Clark Jr., Benjamin Jacob, Rachel Acuna. Directed by Jon Favreau

This might well be called the age of the Chef. We are more aware of those who cook are food than ever; some develop into a kind of rock star status with television shows, restaurant chains, food products and frequent appearances on talk shows. Getting to that point though takes a lot of hard work.

Carl Casper (Favreau) had reason to believe he was on that fast track to the big time. He came out of Miami as one of the most acclaimed up-and-coming chefs in the business, but it is certainly a business of “what have you cooked for me lately?” as that was a decade or more ago. Now, he toils as the head chef in a popular Beverly Hills eatery run by the control freak Riva (Hoffman). He’s lost his edge and his passion, cooking Riva’s menu even when one of the more influential bloggers and food critics Ramsey Michel (Platt) comes to review the restaurant.

That review goes very badly for Carl as Michel trashes the food but also Carl himself, blasting him for complacency and assuming the reason he’s put on so much weight is that “he’s eating all the food returned to the kitchen.” Carl takes it very personally, leading to a heated exchange with the critic which is caught on enough cell phones to go viral. Carl finds himself without a job and too much of an Internet punch line to get a new one.

On the personal front, Carl has an amiable relationship with his ex-wife Inez (Vergara) but his 10-year-old son Percy (Anthony) wants more of a relationship than his dad is able to supply right now. Percy lives in a perpetual state of disappointment when it comes to his father. Inez thinks that Carl needs to go back to his roots in Miami and get himself a food truck. Her other ex-husband Melvin (Downey) has one that’s pretty dilapidated but has some potential.

Right at his side is his former line cook Martin (Leguizamo) who is far more loyal than Carl maybe deserves, but between the two of them they come up with the best Cuban sandwich you may ever eat. They are going to drive the truck to L.A. from Miami with stops in New Orleans and Austin; of course, Percy will come along for the ride. This is a road trip that Carl needs to discover his passion not just for food but for life.

Favreau started out as a director doing Swingers which 20 years ago redefined the whole indie film genre and while Favreau has gone on to big franchise films for the most part, his heart has always been with these sorts of movies. The trouble with being an in-demand franchise film director is that there isn’t time for him to do small movies like this one. However, after excusing himself from the Iron Man franchise he went in this direction first and to his credit it’s a wise move.

Not that the Iron Man films are without heart but they are so much less intimate than a movie like this. Chef is often described as a foodie film (and I’m as guilty of it as anyone) but it really isn’t about food so much as it is about being an artist; Carl’s medium happens to be food. Inspiration is important to any artist; ask any artist who is working for somebody else how easy it is to have their own inspiration and style curtailed by someone who doesn’t understand art, doesn’t understand the artist.

One of the problems with art is that from time to time an artist will take themselves too seriously but this isn’t about the arrogance of the artist (although Carl certainly has some of that – art requires an absolute belief in your own talent) but about the artist who has lost their way and must find it again. First though he must find his own heart.

Kids can often be cloying in roles like this one but Anthony manages to avoid that. Sometimes he comes on a bit strong with the disappointed face, but other than that he has a very natural relationship with Favreau. The two seem genuinely fond of one another and that translates well to the screen.

Favreau, who often plays smartass sorts (maybe hanging around so much with Vince Vaughn early on in his career contributed to that) but while his character can be a bit of a dick sometimes, this is a much more mature character than we’re used to seeing from him although on paper, he is pretty childish in places. By mature, I mean a character that has a lot more depth to them than just one-line zingers. This is one of Favreau’s strongest performances to date both in front of and behind the camera.

And yes, you will leave the theater hungry, longing for a good Cuban sandwich or some fine beef brisket (Aaron Franklin, whose Franklin Barbecue in Austin is considered to be the best in the country by many experts, makes a cameo appearance showing off his brisket). That’s all right. For my own purpose I left the theater not just hungry for good food but for more films like this from Favreau.

REASONS TO GO: Warm without being overly sentimental. Will make you hungry. Realistic relationships.

REASONS TO STAY: Will likely end up somewhat dated.

FAMILY VALUES: A decent amount of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Favreau was trained in knife-work and cooking techniques by Roy Choi, a well known fusion chef and food truck owner in the LA area who was also credited as a producer on the film (and makes a cameo appearance as himself).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/27/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: No Reservations 

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: The Immigrant

Casanova (2005)


Casanova

Casanova doing what he does best.

(2005) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Heath Ledger, Sienna Miller, Jeremy Irons, Oliver Platt, Lena Olin, Omid Djalili, Stephen Greif, Ken Stott, Helen McCrory, Leigh Lawson, Tim McInnerny, Charlie Cox, Natalie Dormer, Robert Levine, Lauren Cohan. Directed by Lasse Hallstrom

 

All men dream of being Casanova. Not the actual man but having the same characteristics; being irresistible to women, bold, self-confident and protected by powerful friends when the chips are down. In some ways, his image has become a parody; the real man was notorious self-promoter and his memoirs are fairly unreliable, but he told a good story.

Casanova (Ledger) has been bedeviling the women of Venice to the point where the Doge (McInnerny) has been warned by the Inquisition that a Cardinal Pucci (Irons) has been sent for the sole purpose of arresting the lover. Casanova is warned to either leave the city or wed someone, this someone being Victoria (Dormer), who is loved in turn by Giovanni (Cox) and whose sister Francesca Bruni (Miller) has bewitched Casanova.

Francesca is kind of a Renaissance Gloria Steinem and espouses equality for the sexes. She despises everything Casanova stands for, therefore in keeping with Hollywood convention you know she is going to fall in love with him, although Casanova will have to impersonate her own fiancée, Papprizio (Platt) – Genoa’s own King of Lard – to win her hand.

The problem here is that Hallstrom and the writers aren’t sure whether they’re making a bedroom farce or a screwball comedy and the difference between the two is pretty significant. It’s set up to be a comedy but there are swordfights and rooftop chases. Casanova comes off like  a cut-rate Douglas Fairbanks, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Those aspects are some of the movie’s highlights.

The late Heath Ledger made this the same year he made Brokeback Mountain and it was clear he was just coming into his own as an actor. He is self-assured and handsome, not relying on his looks nearly as much and beginning to show signs that his raw talent is beginning to gel, talent that would culminate in his Oscar-winning performance in The Dark Knight just three short years later. It makes his untimely passing all the more poignant.

The comedy here is mostly supplied by Djalili as Casanova’s long-suffering valet and by Platt. If you’re going to cast Platt as the King of Lard, you’d better have some scenes to back it up and Platt, one of the most underrated character actors in the past decade in my opinion, has some great moments where he gets to swashbuckle as well, and holds his own doing it. Reminds me of his work as Porthos in the 1993 version of The Three Musketeers.

It’s a shame that the script went in the modern rom-com conventional direction of boy meets girl, girl hates boy, boy wins girl, girl breaks up with boy and while I don’t want to give away the ending, Helen Keller could see it coming. Okay, maybe that wasn’t the most sensitive way of putting it.

If you take the attitude that this is going to be some fun entertainment with a little titillation, not a whole lot of originality and very little historical accuracy you’re going to like this just fine. I just wonder why they didn’t use the “real” exploits of Casanova from his memoirs – some of those were far more interesting and outrageous than what we got here.

WHY RENT THIS: Ledger is superb. There is a swashbuckling feel that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Errol Flynn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls back on Romance 101 clichés too often. Lacks genuine wit.

FAMILY VALUES:  This is a film about one of the world’s most legendary lovers; no surprise there is a whole lot of sexuality in it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the opening sequence, Casanova is trying to evade the Inquisition by leaping through a window into the University of Venice. There is in fact no such institution; the building he is leaping into is the Teatro Olympia, one of the first Renaissance-era theaters and located 140 km away from Venice.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a pretty solid featurette on the costume design and those costumes are rather lavish.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $37.7M on an unknown production budget; I don’t think this movie cost an enormous amount to film so I think it recouped it’s costs and maybe made a few bucks but not more than that.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Finding Nemo

Please Give


Please Give

Catherine Keener is amused at one of Oliver Platt's bon mots.

(2010) Black Comedy (Sony Classics) Catherine Keener, Oliver Platt, Rebecca Hall, Sarah Steele, Ann Guilbert, Josh Pais, Elise Ivy, Amanda Peet, Thomas Ian Nichols, Scott Cohen, Lois Smith, Amy Wright, Romy Rosemont, Kathleen Doyle, Kevin Corrigan. Directed by Nicole Holofcener

Guilt works on us in funny ways. Some of us feel compelled to assuage our guilt by doing things for others, while others simply hide that guilt away and ignore it, much like listening to a long-winded preacher on Sundays. Few of us confront it head-on.

Alex (Platt) and Kate (Keener) own an antique furniture place which is primarily stocked by finds at estate sales, or having Kate find grieving children to buy large amounts of furniture for as little as she can get away with and having Alex sell the pieces for as much as he can get away with. Pretty much typical capitalism.

However, the circumstances work on Kate’s conscience and she tends to give cash and food to the local homeless in her trendy Chelsea neighborhood in New York City much to the irritation of daughter Abby (Steele) who sees little generosity from her mother.

Alex and Kate, eager to expand their small apartment, have managed to purchase the apartment next door which they will eventually knock down the walls to in order to make a larger living space for themselves. The problem is that Audra (Guilbert, who was once Millie the neighbor on The Dick van Dyke show) lives in that apartment currently, so Alex and Kate must wait for her to die in order to start construction. The fact that Audra is a bitch of epic proportions makes this an easier proposition. This also makes for an uncomfortable relationship with Audra’s grandchildren, who have issues of their own.

Rebecca (Hall) is a mammogram technician who is kind enough on the surface, but wishy washy and indecisive deep down. She has been guilt-tripped into caring for Audra who uses her for a verbal punching bag. Mary (Peet) is a cosmetologist who appears to be confident and strong but has some anger issues and a sharp tongue that occasionally rears its ugly head.

That’s really it in terms of plot. Holofcener, one of the better American independent directors out there, prefers to deliver slices of life and character studies more than telling a story from beginning through middle to end. There is a resolution of sorts, but the payoff is somewhat low-key and doesn’t really signal any sort of growth or change on the part of any of the people in the cast.

Holofcener, unlike other directors, tends to put more attention on the women of the cast which isn’t to say that Platt doesn’t get much screen time; only that Holofcener tends to pay more attention to the main female parts of Kate, Rebecca, Mary, Audra and Abby. Platt does get some of the better lines in the movie and makes a fine foil for Kate.

Keener, who has worked with Holofcener before, is the main focus here. She talks a good game about compassion and community involvement but she mostly uses these things as a means of making herself feel better because she’s well aware that while she is doing nothing illegal she is clearly in a moral grey area. That calls into question the genuineness of her actions and Abby’s caustic remarks about charity beginning at home at first seem self-centered and teen-centric but as you come to understand Kate’s motivations, Abby’s charges seem to be more right on the money.

Most of the characters aren’t always easy to get along with and Holofcener likes it that way; her characters are presented as being flawed and occasionally stepping over the line of decency (Mary stalks the girlfriends of an ex-boyfriend she can’t get over; Alex has an affair). The relationships are complicated and often muddied by the human frailties of those in them, which is pretty much what real life is all about.

This isn’t strictly speaking 90 minutes of non-stop entertainment but it is the kind of movie that you should find fascinating from beginning to end. Parts of it are painful to watch and others will make you smile in spite of yourself. If you are still thinking about a movie several weeks after you’ve seen it then the director has done his or her job and in my case Holofcener did her job well.

WHY RENT THIS: Well-written and well-acted, particularly by Keener, Platt and Peet.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not always easy to watch, particularly since most of the character have some sort of hang-up that makes them unlikable for long stretches, particularly in Steele’s case.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a fair amount of foul language, as well as some sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The spa scenes were shot at Skintology, a chic spa in the Chelsea area of New York City where most of the movie was shot.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a blooper reel and a director Q&A from a preview screening.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.3M on $3M production budget; it’s unlikely this was profitable at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Micmacs

Bicentennial Man


Bicentennial Man

I wouldn't say that Robin WIlliams is a bit stiff in this role but...

(1999) Science Fiction (Touchstone) Robin Williams, Embeth Davidtz, Sam Neill, Oliver Platt, Kiersten Warren, Wendy Crewson, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Lindze Letherman, Angela Landis, John Michael Higgins, Bradley Whitford, Stephen Root. Directed by Chris Columbus

One of the most wonderful things about Isaac Asimov’s robotics stories is that while cloaked in science-fiction terms, what he was really writing about was the nature of humanity. Then again, all the great science-fiction writers always did.

Bicentennial Man opens in 2005 when the Martin family, led by proud daddy Richard (Neill) uncrate their first domestic robot (Williams). Their youngest daughter (Eisenberg, a moppet best known for a series of Pepsi ads at the time) inadvertently names the automaton when she mispronounces “android.” Andrew’s arrival is greeted with suspicion and even outright hostility, in the form of the eldest daughter (Lindze), but he gradually works his way into the family’s heart.

After the eldest’s attempt to do away with Andrew, Richard informs his family that henceforth they will treat Andrew as a person, and his compassion leads to a miracle of sorts: Andrew begins to develop his own personality, one of gentle curiosity, quiet humor and yes, even love. Andrew chooses to explore the man in the machine, and his journey takes him 200 years (hence the movie’s title) into the future, and through several generations of the Martin family. His creators at NorthAm Robotics take a skeptical approach but eventually the uniqueness of Andrew leads to a whole different relationship between creators and creation.

Not unlike a latter-day Pinocchio, the search is not without pain and joy, but in the end it is a very human tale. Williams is more restrained than usual, but magnificent as always – what inspired casting! Of all the actors in Hollywood, he wears his humanity most expressively on his face. Although he spends much of the movie wearing what must have been an uncomfortable suit and make-up, his performance is greatly nuanced. It would have surprised me if Williams had gotten an Oscar nod given the Academy’s feelings about science-fiction in general, but one would have been richly deserved here – in my humble opinion, his work in this movie was at least as good if not better than the role he did win the statuette for in Good Morning, Vietnam.

There is much to laugh at here as Andrew looks at the world not unlike a newborn baby with his acquired feelings and sensations. He makes mistakes and sometimes misunderstands cliches (a cliche about mechanical men in the movies in itself) but there is also much to cry about as well. A scene near the end when the nearly immortal Andrew chooses humanity and love over eternity is a heartstring puller. Da Queen rated this a four-hankie sniffer, high praise from my wife indeed, who loves nothing more than a good sob in her popcorn.

The ever-dependable Neill gives a solid performance as the family patriarch and conscience and Embeth Davidtz who plays Andrew’s love interests in two separate generations does a good job. Oliver Platt shines as an eccentric roboticist as well but as noted earlier, this is Robin Williams’ show and he shines. Director Chris Columbus also has a fine visual flair as he displays the future in breathtaking cityscapes that are not so farfetched, combining the familiar with the fantastic, and placing the characters in homes that look authentic. This visual flair would serve him well shortly after this was made as he launched the Harry Potter series, his hiring for that job largely based on his work here.

Bicentennial Man is, at heart, a humanist fable, one which appeals to the heart and to the eyes. It asks a tough question – What does it mean to be human? – and the answers are not simple. Because the robots in the story do not exist yet, some might complain that this is a moot point for now, but it is only when we explore ourselves and ask questions like those asked by Bicentennial Man that the real beginning of wisdom manifests itself.

WHY RENT THIS: Oscar calibre performance by Williams and solid support by Platt, Neill and Davidtz. Wonderful cityscapes and believable futuristic homes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The film’s reach exceeds it’s grasp just a little bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of foul language and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The headquarters of NorthAm Robotics is actually the world headquarters of Oracle Systems in Redwood Shores.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87.4M on a $100M production budget; the film was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

X-Men: First Class


X-Men: First Class

You can tell it's the 60s: they're playing chess on an actual chessboard.

(2011) Superhero (20th Century Fox) James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Kevin Bacon, January Jones, Rose Byrne, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Alex Gonzalez, Zoe Kravitz, Matt Craven, Lucas Till, Caleb Landry Jones, Edi Gathegi, James Remar, Rade Serbedzija, Ray Wise, M. Ironside, Bill Milner, Hugh Jackman, Rebecca Romijn. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

It is a failing of humanity that the things we don’t understand, we tend to fear and the things we fear we tend to destroy. This is what leads to genocide, and that kind of hatred and malevolence can have unintended consequences.

Erik Lensherr (Milner) is the son of Jews who have been taken to a concentration camp, displaying great power over magnetism when angered. A Nazi scientist (Bacon) notices this and determines to find out how he can use Lensherr as a weapon for the Third Reich. In order to force Lensherr’s co-operation, he executes his mother in front of him.

After the war, the adult Lensherr (Fassbender) goes on a rampage, hunting down Nazis who had anything to do with his torture, with emphasis in particular on the scientist who now goes by the name of Sebastian Shaw. His powers still only manifest when he’s angry but he’s not yet grown into the powerful mutant he will become.

Charles Xavier (McAvoy) is graduating from Oxford and has become an expert on human mutation, o much so that he is approached by Agent Moira MacTaggert (Byrne) of the Central Intelligence Agency to give expert testimony to the higher-ups of the CIA, including a skeptical agency chief (Craven). It seems that MacTaggert has been chasing Sebastian Shaw as well, and witnessed the telepathic powers of his associate Emma Frost (J. Jones) and the teleportation powers of Azazel (Flemyng), one of the associates of the Hellfire Club that Shaw runs. Xavier brings along Raven Darkholme (Lawrence), a young orphan his family adopted. When Xavier’s scientific presentation fails to impress, he reveals that both he and Raven are mutants; he a powerful telepath and she a shape-shifter.

They are taken charge of by an eager, jovial section chief (Platt) who has built a facility for the study of mutants, only without any mutants. That changes when one of the scientists working for them, Hank McCoy (Hoult) turns out to have hands for feet and has animal-like powers. He discovers a kindred spirit in Raven, who like Hank longs to be normal-looking (Raven in her natural appearance has blue skin, golden eyes and brick-red hair).

During a government attack on Shaw’s boat, the government is foiled by Azazel and Riptide (Gonzalez), a mutant who can generate tornado-like windstorms. Shaw, Frost, Azazel and Riptide escape on a submarine that Shaw had built inside his boat despite the efforts of Lensherr who arrives mid-fight in an attempt to murder Shaw, who recognizes his old pupil.

Xavier rescues Lensherr from drowning and recruits him to be part of the government team. Lensherr really isn’t much of a team player, but his growing friendship and respect for Xavier keeps him around. They realize that since Shaw has a mutant team that can easily wipe out even a military attack, a mutant team of their own will be needed. Using Cerebro, a computer that enhances Xavier’s telepathic abilities and allows him to “find” mutants, he and Lensherr go on a recruiting drive, allowing him to find Angel Salvadore (Kravitz) – a stripper with wings, Darwin (Gathegi) who can adapt to any survival situation, Banshee (C.L. Jones) who can project sonic blasts that allow him to fly and also act as sonar, and Havoc (Till) who fires lethal blasts out of his chest.

Shaw finds out what Xavier and Lensherr, who are now going as Professor X and Magneto (suggested by Raven who’s going by Mystique, while McCoy is Beast), are up to and orchestrates an attack on his new recruits, killing one and recruiting Angel to his cause. Shaw, who sees the mutants as the next step in evolution, is up to no good – he is the one who has through subtle and not-so-subtle influence in both the Soviet Union and the United States, created the Cuban Missile Crisis in hopes of starting World War III, from which he and his fellow mutants would rise from the ashes to rule the world. Xavier and his X-Men (a play on G-Men bestowed on the group by MacTaggert who is their CIA liaison), must stop it despite the group’s youth and inexperience.

Vaughn, who has done the superhero thing before with Kick-Ass (he was originally supposed to direct the third X-Men movie but dropped out because he didn’t think he could finish it in the time allotted by the studio) and is also the man behind Stardust, one of my favorite movies of recent years, does a pretty spiffy job here. He has a great visual eye and has done this as essentially a James Bond movie from the 60s with superheroes. It’s a brilliant concept that he doesn’t always pull off but manages to enough to make the movie interesting.

One of the main reasons the movie works is the chemistry between McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence. These are three talents rising in the industry – Lawrence already has an Oscar nomination for her stellar work in Winter’s Bone – and all have enormous potential to be stars. McAvoy plays the contemplative Xavier with an even keel, rarely raising his voice or seemingly getting excited but that doesn’t mean he isn’t emotional; it is amusing to watch him trying to pick up girls with his line about mutations at various Oxford pubs.

Fassbender is much more intense as Magneto, making the pain of his childhood palpable but well-covered by layers of anger. His need for revenge has driven him to hate all humans, wanting to forestall another Holocaust-like fate for his fellow mutants. The leadership of the CIA and the military will certainly not assuage his paranoia much.

Lawrence does Mystique as a troubled soul, whose power is wrapped up in deception but yet yearns to be perceived as normal. She develops an attraction for Magneto despite Beast’s obvious crush on her, and she is very much attached in a sisterly way to Xavier.

The movie goes a long way into showing how Xavier and Magneto went from the best of friends to the most implacable of foes. It also depicts how Xavier was paralyzed and shows the founding of his school where the X-Men would eventually be based. While Wolverine and an adult Mystique make cameos (both very playfully done I might add), the mutants from the first trilogy of the X-movies largely are absent.

Fox has made no secret that they plan to make a new trilogy starting with this one. The question is, will I want to see the next one? The answer is a resounding yes. While the 60s atmosphere that was created was rife with anachronisms (the miniskirt, which is clearly worn by several characters and extras during the film, wasn’t introduced until a few years after the Crisis for example and the soundtrack is rife with music that wasn’t recorded until afterwards either), the feel of the Bond movies is retained and that makes the movie special.

The action sequences (particularly the battle with the Russian and American fleets with the mutants that ends the film) are well done. As summer superhero movies go, this is definitely a cut above, although lacking the epic scope of Thor earlier this year. It certainly is a promising reboot of the franchise and continues the run of quality Marvel films that we’ve been getting over the past five years. Hopefully Fox will continue to follow Marvel’s lead and keep the quality of this franchise high.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences and good chemistry between McAvoy, Fassbender and Lawrence.

REASONS TO STAY: Doesn’t capture the period as well as it might have.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some partial nudity and a few mildly bad words, along with some action sequence that may be too intense for the youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fassbender and McAvoy both appeared in the HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” early on in their careers but haven’t appeared together in the same project since.

HOME OR THEATER: The action sequences are huge and need a huge canvas.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Outlander