Friday, June 19, 2015

LOVE AND MERCY (2015)



Rated: PG-13

STARS: Paul Dano, John Cusack, Elizabeth Banks, Paul Giamatti, Bill Camp
DIRECTOR: Bill Pohlad
GENRE: Biopic


Mental illness is a scary thing. And make no mistake, Love And Mercy is a scary movie about mental illness--a biopic addressing critical periods in the life of Brian Wilson, co-founder and creative genius behind The Beach Boys. It's a tale of redemption. Of walking through the fire and coming out whole again. 

Wilson, who is played in his formative years by Paul Dano, and in middle-age by John Cusack, had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic by his doctor, Eugene Landy-- portrayed here with escalating creepiness by the brilliant Paul Giamatti.  Dr. Landy had been appointed as Wilson's legal guardian. He dominated and controlled every aspect of Wilson's life, eventually revealing himself as the actual sick puppy in the story. When a budding relationship develops between Brian and Melinda Ledbetter--a woman who had sold him a car--Landy does everything in his power to quash it. He is over medicating and overprotecting his "sick" client. And then there is Brian's abusive father.

Through it all, Wilson writes and goes into the studio to record new music for the Beach Boys, taking the band in a different direction creatively that not all--especially cousin Mike Love--are happy about. We hear the ethereal music that's playing inside his head. It's eerie, yet beautiful. That sums up the film as well.

Elizabeth Banks, as Melinda, shows off her acting chops as the woman who first falls in love with, and then becomes Brian Wilson's champion--the true hero of the story.

Under the inspired hand of director Bill Pohlad, Love and Mercy is a root-for-the-good-guy, packs a wallop with no punches pulled, yet ultimately touching film experience. 

 In fact, I'd say that anybody who isn't touched by this film is probably crazy. 

GRADE:  A


JILL'S TAKE

Call me crazy then. I absolutely hated this flick. I agree that Paul Giamatti's performance is outstanding – along with his ill-fitting toupee. But in my opinion, Love & Mercy deserves an "F." Why? When a main character, real or fictional, is as self-absorbed as Brian Wilson's character was, I lose patience. Just because someone is considered a musical genius (questionable in my opinion!) doesn't give them license to behave as erratically as Wilson did. Granted, mental illness isn't the same as a common cold. Still, even madness gets pretty boring after awhile. (I felt the same way about Ed Harris' portrayal of Jackson Pollock.)

But the other beef I have with this self-indulgent piece of drivel is the concept of two actors playing the same role. The viewer gets hooked on one story line and resents being pulled away from it by the other. At least the casting of Paul Dano as the younger Brian Wilson had some vague resemblance to the real person. But John Cusack with dyed black hair as the older Wilson? Gimme a break.

I didn't see this particular movie with Tim but I just knew he'd love it. And it's always a lot more fun to disagree on these reviews.

One last bitching point. During the end credits, we see Brian Wilson as he is today, singing "Love & Mercy." He looks as miserable and unhappy now as he did back when he was being manipulated and over-medicated. So much for mental health!

GRADE:  F

Sunday, June 7, 2015

ALOHA (2015)



Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Bradley Cooper, Emma Stone, Rachel McAdams, John Krasinski, Bill Murray, Alec Baldwin
DIRECTOR: Cameron Crowe
GENRE: Romantic Comedy


If I had to sum up Aloha in one sentence, it would be: Impressive cast does what it can with what it had to work with.

Brian Gilcrest (the bankable Bradley Cooper) is an ex-military private defense contractor with a checkered past, coming home to Hawaii to help facilitate, in conjunction with the Air Force, the launching of a satellite--the pet project of billionaire Carson Welch (Bill Murray). While there, he steps into a romantic triangle involving his now married former girlfriend (Rachel McAdams) and the young Air Force assistant assigned to him (Emma Stone). In one scene, he is standing right between the two of them, and you can almost hear the refrain from that old song, "Three Coins In The Fountain" (which one will the fountain bless?) 
There is nothing terribly subtle about this movie.

There are a couple of nice scenes, though, and an appealing soundtrack. One where Emma Stone's character, Allison, is dancing with Bill Murray. I've always liked Bill Murray, so whatever he does, I'm grinning or smirking.  Even if it's contrived and too cutesy-poo to be believable. The other scene is the teary-eyed feelgood ending, which is worth the price of admission. Along the way we find out what Carson Welch's real reason is for wanting that bird up there, briefly touching on the what ifs of the militarization of space (currently there are treaties in place among the major powers to prevent that stuff from happening, but here it looks just too plausible for someone with deep pockets and an agenda to take matters into his own hands).

Aloha is getting panned by the critics, saying it's not up to director Cameron Crowe's other work (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), but you can't judge a rom-com by the standards of a serious drama. That's apples and oranges.  So we're grading on the curve. The question is, does Aloha fulfill the basic tenets of romantic comedy? Well yes it does. It follows the standard rom-com format of  boy gets girl--boy loses girl--boy gets girl back again. And when there is a  romantic triangle, it takes you to the last possible minute to delay which way things are going to go, to keep ya guessin' and on the edge of your seat. I, of course, had it figured out early on.... but then I'm a trained professional... DO NOT ATTEMPT ON YOUR OWN!!!

Aloha fits the definition of a "guilty pleasure."  You can see the marionette master's hands pulling the strings, pushing your buttons and manipulating your emotions,  but you are powerless to stop him...you old softy!

Grade:  B -



JILL'S TAKE

I've been taught that guilt—whether you're giving it or getting it—is unhealthy. But when it comes it "guilty pleasures," count me in! As I watched Aloha, I knew I was being manipulated, rooting for the right girl to get the wrong guy. (Who will transform into the right guy under her tutelage!) Sure, Alec Baldwin played Alec Baldwin. And John Krasinski played a monosyllabic husband that, in real life, no wife—military or otherwise—would tolerate. But romance is romance. And I'm as helpless as the next gal when it comes to staring into Bradley Cooper's blue, blue eyes. (Are they contacts, I wonder?)

I also loved the Hawaiian touches. The folklore and magic they played up. The music, the magnificent scenery. Hell, I even bought into the idea that blonde, Nordic-looking Emma Stone was part native. But then I watch ABC's "The Bachelorette" so I can't be trusted when it comes to liking syrupy schmaltz. Yes, I'm ashamed that I enjoyed Aloha as much as I did. But I never said I was Albert Einstein. (Or even Pauline Kael!)

Grade: B+










Sunday, May 24, 2015

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (2015)


Rated:  PG-13

STARS: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts,  Michael Sheen, Tom Sturridge
DIRECTOR: Thomas Vinterberg
GENRE: Drama

They don't make 'em like that anymore, I found myself thinking, after being swept up in this second film adaptation of the classic Thomas Hardy novel. The latest rendering of the tale is greater than the sum of its parts--with four accomplished performances from the lead actors, exquisite cinematography, and a captivating music score from Craig Armstrong--all combining in just the right measure to make Far From The Madding Crowd a masterful achievement. 

Carey Mulligan is the spunky Bathsheba Everdene, and the only misgiving I might have about casting her in the lead role is that she's rather a wisp of a woman, and in the nineteenth century methinks it may have been more commonplace for such a headstrong lass to carry a little more meat on her bones, which no doubt would have made it easier to "throw her weight around" with the men. That aside, Mulligan is a superb Bathsheba, who comes to Weatherby as the mistress of a manor-house and finds herself awash in suitors. There is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a shepherd in her employ; William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a well-mannered gentleman; and the dashing military man--but certified head case--Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge). 

Thomas Hardy knew how to weave a tale--with the elements of fate, chance, and circumstance playing out in highly dramatic fashion. And if the story is to be believed as a reflection of the times, then folks didn't date or get to know each other much socially before jumping in with both feet. You'd meet a lady, and the next time you saw her you might be asking her to marry you!  I found myself thinking wistfully about all the expense and angst a poor guy could spare himself if the same quaint attitude were prevalent today. You pop the question early on...and get a thumbs up or thumbs down...or maybe a maybe-- but at least you've got something to go on. Not like today, where the participants in most relationships are so confused they can't tell if they're coming or going!

Maybe that's the crux of why I was taken in by Far From The Madding Crowd.   

Grade:  A  

JILL'S TAKE

Yes, indeed. A lot of romantic intrigue can happen on a sheep farm. (And not just with the sheep!) Far From The Madding Crowd is, in my view, cinematic escapism in the finest sense of the word. The scenery is breath-taking, the acting top notch. And I daresay Michael Sheen (of "Masters of Sex" fame) will be nominated for a Best Actor in a Supporting Role award next Oscar season. Because it's Thomas Hardy writing this tale and not Quentin Tarantino, there is very little bloodshed. And yet you can cut the tension with a sword, as swashbuckling psychopath Frank Troy does.

Does anybody remember a 1967 Swedish film titled Eliva Madigan? This film had the same lush cinematography and expansive score. It swept me willingly into a different time, a different place. I hated the villain and rooted unabashedly for the hero. It's a shame more movies based on literary classics aren't made. It was such a relief to see a film with no cell phones or madly texting heroines.

If I have anything bad to say, it's about Hardy's title. I had to look up the word "madding" (1. acting madly or senselessly; insane; frenzied: a quiet place far from the madding crowd. 2. making mad: a madding grief.)

Grade: A +

Friday, May 8, 2015

WHITE GOD (2015)



Rated:  R
STARS: Zsofia Psotta, Sandor Zsoter, and a Potpourri of Pooches
DIRECTOR: Kornel Mundruczo
GENRE: Art House/Drama/International 

Every dog has its day. But none more satisfyingly than in this quirky little Hungarian film--and I'm tempted to attribute its weirdness to just that--about canines taking over the city and getting revenge on everyone who had been mean to them. I like the premise, but...

There's a lot of really unwatchable stuff near the beginning taking place in a slaughterhouse/ meat packing plant--guts and innards spilling all over the place. Really gross--so only go if you've got a strong stomach. 

A young girl, Lili, takes her mixed-breed dog, Hagen, to stay with her divorced dad for a while, only the dad is a real A-hole and hates the dog. She takes Hagen to band practice  with her and her music teacher is another A-hole and hates the dog too. In fact all the adults in this movie hate animals. Hagen falls into the hands of some maniacally obsessed dog catchers, and then ends up in a dog fighting ring, and is exploited and abused until finally escaping and taking scores of other mutts with him as they rampage through the city on a dogged mission to settle the score with everyone who abused them. Lili is on her own quest to find and reunite with Hagen, who has now become the Fidel Castro of the canine world, leading his charges through the streets in what is the true genius and creative fascination of the film--the work of the animal trainers who pulled off some quite remarkable scenes.

White God (no explanation for the  title, other than God being dog spelled backwards) is a fantasy, horror flick, and morality melodrama rolled into one. The adult characters are all on a par with the Wicked Witch Of The West in their  mean-spiritedness, exaggerated  to the point of where you'd nearly expect a chorus of boos and hisses to come raining down in the theater, but they serve as a metaphor for the oppressors of the world getting their comeuppance from the downtrodden masses--exploited and treated like dogs until they rise up and revolt.   

Grade:  B  



JILL'S TAKE

Tim and I saw White God almost two weeks ago. When we left the theater, he mumbled something about not being sure he'd actually review it. I was secretly relieved as I didn't know what the heck I'd say about this really strange movie. In spite of it's ridiculous premise and one-dimensional script, I found myself rooting for Hagen and his four-legged minions. I also felt ashamed of the cruelties perpetrated on man's best friend by man. Still, as the end credits rolled and reality once again entered my consciousness, I turned to Tim and sighed, "What a waste of time that was!"

I especially balked at the premise that all mongrel dogs (here comes the metaphor!) were automatically seized and impounded. Like the Jews in Germany, the Christians in Iraq, etc. But it certainly gave you a dog's eye view of the world. Cars whizzing past; loud, unfamiliar noises; food as bait. And Hagen, whose real name is Luke—owned by the Arpád Halász' the head dog trainer—was amazingly believable.

Still... My advice? Go see Disney's 1955 animated classic Lady and the Tramp instead.

Grade: D


Thursday, April 16, 2015

DANNY COLLINS (2015)



Rated: R

STARS: Al Pacino, Bobby Cannavale, Annette Bening, Christoper Plummer, Jennifer Garner, Giselle Eisenberg
DIRECTOR: Dan Fogelman
GENRE: Comedy/ Drama

In the opening scene, over-the-hill pop music legend Danny Collins (Al Pacino), comes onstage to sing his big hit, "Baby Doll," which sounds an awful lot like Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline"--only more innocuous and schmaltzy, if you can imagine. His legion of adoring fans--on the leading edge of baby boomdom--are lapping it up. (They must have LOVED "Sugar  Sugar" by The Archies.) Collins, who hasn't written a new song in thirty years, is resting on his laurels. 

At a birthday party, Collins' manager, (Christopher Plummer),  presents him with something that's going to change his life. It's a previously undelivered letter--full of encouragement--from John Lennon to the young up and coming singer. Upon reading it, Collins has an epiphany and decides to hole up at a quiet New Jersey hotel and write some meaningful songs. The other reason is that he'll be near the residence of the son he never met, the product of a backstage tryst.  Danny shows up on their doorstep and his son's wife (Jennifer Garner) gives him an earful about being a responsible parent before the none too pleased son  (Bobby Cannavale) shows up and essentially tells Danny to butt out of his life.   


From there, Danny Collins becomes a familiar tale of a man seeking redemption, along with trying to get in the good graces (if not the knickers) of coy hotel manager Mary Sinclair, played by the inimitable Annette Bening. 


There's a great John Lennon soundtrack that moves the action along, serving to remind us of what might have been had Danny Collins' fate taken a different turn. Al Pacino, as always, does a "bang-up"  job as a guy who has it all--except the things that really matter--a real charmer despite his life of excess and unaccountability. But I can't really buy him physically as a Neil Diamond type. There's still something a bit too gangster about his aura---maybe it's Pacino himself...or the goatee...or the way they've got him dressed that's one step removed from the zoot suit era--that makes it incongruous with the kind of  bubblegum ditties the character has built his career upon. 


Little Giselle Eisenberg, already with an impressive list of film credits, plays Danny's bouncy, precocious grand daughter. She may be the next Drew Barrymore if she keeps it up.   


Grade:  B



JILL'S TAKE

I always read Tim's reviews before adding my two cents. And this time he's pretty much covered all bases. Or should I say basses in keeping with the musical theme? Sure, Al Pacino is always Al Pacino. But some of his performances are more over-the-top than others. (e.g. Devil's Advocate) This time, thanks to the reining in of writer/director Dan Fogelman, Pacino keeps it real. Of course, seeing all those aging fans, made me squirm a bit. Are we all that ancient?!

I know this is probably a petty observation but when Pacino's character was sitting beside his possibly dying son (you'll have to see the film to find out if he does!), Bobby Cannavale's head was almost twice the size of his dad's. Maybe it was the way the scene was shot that created this disparity but for me it was distracting. My other qualm had to do with the new song, the first one in thirty years, Danny Collins created. It may have been a ballad instead of bubblegum but it was a mediocre song at best. I would've preferred one that gave me goose bumps. Still, it was an entertaining movie. And Christopher Plummer was wonderful, as usual. 

Grade: B +


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

WILD TALES (2014)



Rated: R

STARS: Ricardo Darin, Leonardo Sbaraglia, Dario Grandinetti, Erica Rivas, Oscar Martinez
DIRECTOR: Damian Szifron
GENRE: Dark Comedy

Six wickedly delicious Wild Tales from Argentina illustrate how dangerously close many of us are to the edge-- and how little it may take to send us right over it. 

Strangers on a plane discover, one by one, that they all have a connection to a certain person. Then comes the chilling realization that this person is in the cockpit!  (This one hits close to home in light of recent events.)


A mafioso stops at a cafe where the waitress recognizes him as the person who destroyed her family. Sympathetic to her plight, the cook offers to put rat poison in the man's food. But the waitress has conflicting emotions. Like most of these vignettes, the ending has a twist you won't see coming.


Two men driving their vehicles on a deserted highway become involved in a road rage incident. (If they were the last two people on earth, this would still happen!) And as we all know, these things have a way of escalating into something way out of proportion to what the original minor irritation should dictate. 


A demolition expert's car is towed away while he shops for his daughter's birthday. Again, we identify. The frustration that can build up in dealing with the bureaucracy.  Another potentially "explosive" situation.


A rich kid hits a pregnant woman with his dad's car and leaves the scene. Dad concocts a plan to have his groundskeeper take the fall for the hit and run, after offering the man an enormous sum of money. The bribery expands to include the prosecutor and others. A tangled web we weave. 


At her wedding party, a newlywed learns that her groom has been unfaithful to her with one of the guests at the reception.  And here, for my money, we have the wildest and wackiest of the six episodes. She goes berserk in a way that only a woman scorned can do, ending up having sex with the cook on the roof of the building. You've never seen a "bridezilla" quite like this one. Can a relationship that gets off to such a dubious start possibly end up in that fairy tale land of happily ever after?  You'll be surprised!


In the end, these are cautionary tales--reminding us that beneath the veneer of a polite and civilized society, most of us--under the right circumstances-- are a heartbeat away from reverting to our base animal nature. Which can be really scary. AND/OR FUNNY AS HELL.

Grade:  B +



JILL'S TAKE    

Where to begin. Tim has done a masterful job synopsizing all six of these outrageous stories. For me, they're all about revenge in some form or another. Getting even. With your parents, the government, your philandering mate. But what makes these tales "wild" for me are the unexpected twists and turns. They remind me of a story by Roald Dahl called "Lamb to the Slaughter" which has the same darkly comedic feel.
    The idea for this particular piece was supposedly suggested to Dahl by his friend and fellow author Ian Fleming who said, "Why don't you have someone murder their husband with a frozen leg of mutton which she then serves to the detectives who come to investigate the murder?" A wonderful twist that we don't see coming.
    I can't rave enough about this highly original film which was nominated this past year for Best Foreign Language Film. (It should've won, damnit!)
    If I had to pick my favorite tale it would have to be the one where one driver (in a fancy Beamer) gives another driver (in a beat-up pickup truck) the bird and then calls him an asshole as he is finally able to pass the guy. Haven't we all done that? (Or wanted to!) Well, as fate would have it, the BMW's left rear tire blows out and the driver is mechanically inept. We, in the audience, are on the edge of our seats, waiting for the asshole to come chug-a-lugging along around the bend. And he does. What happens next not even Roald Dahl could dream up. I won't spoil it for you but I guarantee you won't be name-calling any more bad drivers for a long, long time!

Grade: A+






Thursday, March 26, 2015

THE GUNMAN (2015)



Rated: R

STARS: Sean Penn, Javier Bardem, Jasmine Trinca
DIRECTOR: Pierre Morel
GENRE: Action/Thriller

I wanted to like The Gunman, and in the beginning I thought that I might. A great actor in Sean Penn; mesmerizing score from Marco Beltrami; some heady aerial cinematography of exotic locales; and a developing love triangle involving the characters played by Penn, Javier Bardem (speaking of pretty darn good actors), and Jasmine Trinca, who reminds me just a wee bit of Ingrid Bergman. 

But then the movie devolves into your typical Hollywood  BANG BANG SHOOT 'EM UP killfest, designed to show off the impressive results of Sean Penn's gym workouts--so naturally he appears shirtless during much of the action.

Under the cover of working for an NGO in the Congo, ex-special forces operative Jim Terrier (Penn) pulls off an assassination of a government minister, then gets the hell outta Dodge--leaving his girlfriend (Trinca) in the hands of Felix (Bardem), who promises to take good care of her. That he does, and later Terrier finds the two of them married to each other. That's one big bummer, but an even bigger one is the multi-national corporation that hired him to do the hit is now coming after him, because he knows too much. Cue ubiquitous hand-to hand-combat, shootouts, bodies piling up....your usual action/thriller fare intended to numb you to onscreen violence so they can keep selling it to you again and again. What becomes commonplace becomes accepted--and hey, at least it takes you out of your humdrum workaday life, right?.

The trouble with films spawned from novels--in this case The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette--is that they're trying to cram so many plot elements into the allotted time, to remain at least somewhat faithful to the book, that everything moves at warp speed. There's no time to pause and reflect upon what just occurred, or to totally grasp how it all fits into the big picture so you can follow along without feeling like a dumb ass.

 And why are we supposed to root for things to turn out well for a paid assassin?  Because he now works for a real NGO in a Carter-esque attempt at redemption?  In the old days, our movie heroes were clearly good guys. Now we are asked to resonate with sociopaths, a la Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper. As long as they show us they still have a human side lurking in there somewhere, it's okay. But that's a slippery slope. And to feed the conspiracy theorist in us all, you may want to consider how such a mindset might make you more forgiving of things like...oh...American foreign policy, for example. (Just a thought--I usually have ONE every day.)

The silliest thing about The Gunman, though, is the ludicrous fairy tale ending. But hey, don't get me started.

Grade: D +


JILL'S TAKE

Here we go again, agreeing. And Ilike violent films! But this one had too many plots and too little character development. Back when Tony Soprano, a mafia don, had to see a shrink because he was suffering from panic attacks, I thought the concept was brilliant. But now we have Penn's character suffering from head trauma injuries as a result of all his bad guy battles. His symptoms? Headaches, blurred vision, lack of coordination and memory loss. Forcing him to write down names, addresses and stuff your average assassin usually commits to memory. We never know when he's going to fog out which, I suppose, adds to the tension. But it just seemed like a clever device to me – a way for certain classified information to get into the wrong hands.

I like Sean Penn but not in this film. I was more fascinated by how many cigarettes he smoked (and inhaled) than by the number of thugs he obliterated. I read online that he's quit smoking now and his girlfriend Charlize Theron is thrilled about it. Normally, I like to end my reviews with something positive. But The Gunman really doesn't deserve it. Unless, maybe, you think the underbelly of a bullring is a good place to stage the final gunfight.

Grade: D