Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ST. VINCENT (2014)



Rated: PG-13

Stars: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Jaeden Lieberher

Director: Theodore Melfi

Genre: Comedy

Vincent is cranky. He's rude to most people, he drinks too much, and he consorts with hookers--but he has a big fluffy Persian cat that he pampers, and that's how we know he's really a good guy at heart. And who better to play him than Bill Murray, who's uncannily adept at being stinky and lovable at the same time!

When divorced mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12 year old son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vince is predictably standoffish. Until circumstances drive Maggie to coax him (with money) to babysit Oliver after school while she's at work. The kid and the curmudgeon eventually warm to each other, as what 12 year old wouldn't enjoy hanging out in bars and going to the racetrack with such a colorful role model?  


We're in familiar film territory here, as just this summer we had Michael Douglas playing the mordant mentor to his young grand daughter in the Rob Reiner flick, And So It Goes.  But there is more depth to Murray's character, as we learn later about his exploits during the Vietnam war.  


A humorous subplot centers on Vincent's relationship with a pregnant "lady of the night" (Naomi Watts), and to add some bass to all that treble, we travel along to observe the tender moments he shares with his memory challenged wife at the care facility where she resides. 


It's refreshing to see Melissa McCarthy in a role that brings out her human side, and Naomi Watts is a trip as your friendly neighborhood Russian stripper/hooker who makes house calls at Vince's place. Newcomer Jaeden Lieberher, who looks like he could be Macauley Culkin's long lost love child, is believable as a wimpy kid who gets picked on, but then gets in touch with his his inner Karate Kid.


Saint Vincent is just the right kind of feel good movie to get you tuned up for the holidays, as you'll leave the theater with a warm and fuzzy feeling (which may dissipate when you try to find your car in the parking lot).      


Grade:  B +

   
JILL'S TAKE

loved this movie. Feel good, it definitely is! (And the audience agreed with me with some tentative applause at the end.) As Tim pointed out, curmudgeon roles are always a good staple. Who could forget Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets? Or even The Duke in The Shootist (his young sidekick was played by Ron Howard). Bill Murray was terrific. But let's not give him all the credit. After all, the writer/director Theodore Melfi deserves a pot load of praise for creating such a colorful character in the first place. Whether it's watching Naomi Watt's very pregnant character pole dance, or hearing the word "Shit!" escape from a priest's mouth (ably portrayed by Chris O'Dowd), the original moments abound in St Vincent.

The hits of the 60s interspersed throughout took me back in time, as they did for Vincent. Unfortunately, I can't name any of the tunes right now. But as they played, and Bill Murray danced, my feet were tapping.

If I had to criticize anything—and I am loathe to do so—it would be the ending credits. I'm sure in theory the director and lead actor loved the concept. But watching Murray improvise over all those credits got a bit redundant.

Grade: A   





Wednesday, November 5, 2014

BIRDMAN (2014)



Rated: R

Stars: Michael Keaton,  Edward Norton, Naomi Watts, Emma Stone,  Zach Galifianakis,  Andrea Riseborough

Director: Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu

Genre:  Black Comedy

From the opening shot, where Michael Keaton's character, Riggan, is shown levitating off the ground in his skivvies, we are put on notice that we're in for something out of the ordinary with Birdman. "Extraordinary" would be a more fitting adjective for this tour-de-force of inventiveness, imagination and creativity from director Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, who gave us, among other fine efforts, the 2006 masterpiece, Babel.  

If you've absorbed any of the works of Isabelle Allende or 
Gabriel Garcia Marques, then you're familiar with the literary style of magic realism. That is a lot of what's at play here, and if you keep that in mind, you won't be sitting there, like some undoubtedly will, muttering this is all too far out for me!  


Riggan is a has-been film star who, like Keaton himself, walked away from Hollywood and a lucrative career playing the superhero Birdman. Now, in the autumn of his years,  he's looking to redeem himself by adapting a Raymond Carver story and producing it for the Broadway stage. It's make or break time, and everything is on the line. But he has an eccentric and temperamental actor in Mike (Edward Norton), who could potentially sabotage the play. He has a lover (Andrea Riseborough), who says she's pregnant and springs the news on him in what can be the worst moment in a man's life when he's expected to be ecstatic but can't quite pull it off. He has a daughter (Emma Stone), who is just out of rehab and trying to stay clean, with mixed results. And his alter-ego, Birdman, speaks to him in a James Earl Jones voice--like the angel and the devil atop opposite shoulders--driving him crazy. Is Riggan schizophrenic, or does he really possess the super-human powers of being able to move objects with his mind, and the ability to fly?  Answers remain up in the air, as we gaze at them in jaw-dropping wonder.


Birdman soars in so many ways--from the cinematography to the amazing cast--who are playing way above their heads, in performances that should earn Norton and Keaton, at least, some Oscar nods.  


There is one scene where Riggan is having a contentious conversation with a prominent critic (Lindsay Duncan) who has the power to destroy his play inside her poison pen. He gives it to her with both barrels in an exchange that will no doubt cause some film reviewers in the audience to squirm in their seats. It's as if the movie is flipping the bird (pardon the pun) in a preemptive strike at all those who might be so myopic as to allow the brilliance of this film to pass over their heads.


I've never given a rating any higher than an "A" because I don't believe there have been any perfect films (Last Tango In Paris notwithstanding). But if I were tempted to award an  A+ rating, Birdman would be the one to receive it. 


Grade:  A



JILL'S TAKE

I'm with the other mutterers here. Not so much because this movie is "too far out." I just don't like untidy endings where I'm left feeling confused and unsatisfied. Whether Riggan, ably portrayed by Michael Keaton (who has very wide shoulders, by the way), is mentally unbalanced, or has simply morphed into the larger-than-life character he's played on screen, is something the viewer has to decide. When I go to a movie, I prefer that the screenwriters decide those details for me.

I will say that when Birdman started, I absolutely loved the backstage insanity, the pretensions of Broadway versus Hollywood, the hyperactivity that pervades this particular milieu. And Edward Norton's performance is one of his best. Absolutely brilliant. There's a lot going on in this film. A little too much for my taste. And by the end, I was exhausted. Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention another stellar acting turn by Emma Stone -- where she reams out her dad (Keaton) for being such a shitty parent. Last but not least, the drum-ridden score by Antonio Sanchez was suitably dramatic and extremely original.

Having said all this, I still disliked this film. A lot. As pretentious as Norton's character is, I think Birdman is one of those films that movie snobs will feel compelled to praise. Whereas the average movie goer – like me – will either mutter, or pretend to like it so as not to appear cinematically unsophisticated.

Grade: C


Friday, October 24, 2014

MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN (2014)



Rated: R

Stars: Adam Sandler, Rosemary DeWitt, Jennifer Garner, Ansel Eigort, Judy Greer, Kaitlyn Dever, Dean Norris, Olivia Crocicchia, Elena Kampouris, Emma Thompson

Director: Jason Reitman


Genre: Drama 


Two high-schoolers are texting each other in the hallway, standing close enough that they could have easily walked up and spoken in person. Just some of  the irony in Men, Women, & Children, which attempts to deliver a message about social media and its effect on our lives. But it does so by giving us caricatures instead of characters with any real depth.

The most exaggerated stereotype here is Patricia (Jennifer Garner), whose teen daughter (Kaitlyn Dever) just wants to lead a normal life-- have a boyfriend and so forth--but her every move is tracked by her overbearing and overprotective mother through the girl's cellphone. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have stage mom Donna (Judy Greer), who is intent upon getting her own teenager into showbiz by hook or by crook, including a website featuring photos of questionable taste that the starstruck daughter (Olivia Crocicchia) is more than willing to pose for.  

Adam Sandler plays it straight (which is about as disconcerting as watching Steve Carell in a deadpan role) as a guy whose wife (Rosemary DeWitt), is bored enough to investigate an online site where married folk can hook up and engage in affairs  And like the story line of "The Pina Colada Song," hubby is looking for some extra curricular activity of his own with a working girl. 

Ansel Elgort gives one of the more thoughtful performances as Tim, a star high-school football player who quits the team because he thinks sports is meaningless, then gets hooked on the even less meaningful world of fantasy video games.


Other subplots also tie into the movie's central theme, which seems to be that social media has created a world that never existed before. A world that, in some cases, panders to the worst instincts in ourselves. But like nuclear energy, it's still up to us to use it for good...or for evil.   


Grade:  B -


JILL'S TAKE

Here's an irony for you. After seeing Men, Women & Children, I went home and my internet and cable TV had stopped working! Kaput. Nada. It's one thing to watch a film about the negative effects of too much social media. It's quite another to have it hit home so personally. They scheduled an appointment for me a day and a half later. By the time the guy arrived, I felt like a junkie in need of a fix. This made me appreciate even more the exaggerated characters' dilemmas in Men, Women & Children. It also made me realize how addicted all of us are to being connected to an invisible world.

For all the actors mentioned in Tim's review, the person I'd give the most credit to is the one in charge of graphics. Would that be Bruce Curtis, the production designer? Art Director Rodney Becker? Or the thirteen people listed under "Visual Effects By"? Whoever was responsible for putting text messages, emails, websites, Facebook pages up on screen while the live actors were doing their thing, deserves applause. (Or a smiling emoticon?) Still, I felt a bit sleepy in parts of this film. I also wondered how someone who wasn't computer literate (do they still exist?) would handle it.

Since Tim has scolded me for being too easy to please lately, giving an A and an A+ to the last two films we've reviewed, my grading for this one should make him happy.

Grade: C +

Friday, October 17, 2014

THE JUDGE (2014)



Rated: R

STARS: Robert Duvall, Robert Downey Jr., Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D'Onofrio, Vera Farmiga


DIRECTOR: David Dobkin


GENRE:  Drama


There is a reason why curmudgeonly judge Joe Palmer (Robert Duvall) is estranged from his hot-shot city lawyer son, Hank (Robert Downey Jr.) It's buried in the past, and to learn what it is will be one of the reasons why you'll hang in there with The Judge.  


Hank is returning to his old Indiana home to attend his mother's funeral, and in the process faces off with his father, who is about as stiff to him as Joan Crawford sitting on an ice floe. But their relationship will take an unexpected turn when the judge, who may be dealing with the onset of dementia, is charged with vehicular homicide involving an incident he can't remember. 


Necessity is the mother of invention, and Judge Joe agrees to let Hank be his legal counsel and defend him at his trial. This is where The Judge veers into soap opera land on the wobbly wheels of an unrealistic script, where the presiding judge refrains from picking up his gavel while father and son hash out their long standing personal issues in front of the court.


A lot of things turn out predictably in The Judge, though the ending has a couple of nice twists. But see this movie for the standout performances from Duvall, Downey, Billy Bob Thornton, and the underrated Vincent  D'Onofrio.


Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE

Well I, for one, bought into Samuel Taylor Coleridge's phrase "the suspension of disbelief" when viewing The Judge. After all, movie courtroom dramas often veer into unrealistic face-offs. RememberA Few Good Men? ("You can't handle the truth!") Suffice it to say that The Judgehas produced two definite 2015 Oscar nominations. Alas, they will probably cancel each other out. But both Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. deserve them. Father/son battles are the stuff of which great screenplays are made and The Judge is no exception. 

Wading through the credits, I see that director David Dobkin shares "story credit" with Nick Schenk, who shares screenwriting credit with Bill Dubuque. What amazes me is that Dobkin's other big movie credit isThe Wedding Crashers which is about as different from this movie as silly is from serious. Hats off to someone who can direct such diametrically opposite films.

Another actor who deserves mention is Vera Farmiga who plays Samantha Powell, Downey's high school sweetheart. Aside from her mesmerizing eyes, I totally bought her hometown yet liberated character. My advice? Go see this movie. NOW!

GRADE: A

Friday, October 3, 2014

THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (2014)



Rated:  R

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda (and a cast of seemingly thousands!)


Director: Shawn Levy


Genre: Comedy-Drama


Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is having the shittiest day of his life. He walks in on his wife boinking his boss. There goes his marriage and his job in one fell swoop. Then his dad dies. I was immediately drawn in by And This Is Where I Leave You because I have had that day. That very same one. The circumstances were a little different, but the emotional impact was the same.

And so Judd, of the Altman clan, which includes more characters than you can shake a script at or easily keep track of,  spends most of the rest of the film in a state of semi-shock--while the matriarch of the clan, Hilary Altman (Jane Fonda), dictates that the assembled offspring who've come to pay their respects to dad must "sit Shiva" (try to say that real fast several times), meaning they'll have to put up with each other in that house together for seven days.


There will be comparisons to The Big Chill,  as the siblings and their own extended families interact, reminisce, air their frustrations and regrets, ruminate about missed chances and what might have been, or lament what actually came about. In other words, This Is Where I Leave You  drives home the point that nobody is ever really happy. We're all in a continual state of suppressed angst, or "quiet desperation" as Thoreau so eloquently put it.


It's an impressive ensemble cast--too unwieldy for all of the characters to become developed. The true standout, though,  is Tina Fey as Wendy Altman, Judd's sister. This is Fey's coming out party, and she emerges as a serious actress of surprising depth. Yep, she was holdin' out on us all this time with all those SNL skits! Bateman is excellent here as well.


Jane Fonda's fake boobs also give a standout performance.


Grade:  B +  




JILL'S TAKE

First off, let me say I really, REALLY loved this movie. Much as I hate the term 'dramedy,' This Is Where I Leave You embodies it. There's plenty of humor but the film is equally steeped in family trauma. I guess you'd have to say the main story line centers around Judd Altman, played to perfection by Jason Bateman. For me, Bateman has some of the same qualities as Steve Carell, or even the great Charlie Chaplin. No matter what role he's playing, or how ridiculous the situation is, you immediately like and/or sympathize with him. 

Aside from Jane Fonda's fake boobs and incredible body, Tina Fey's well delivered one-liners, and Adam Driver's ever-youthful flakiness, I must say my biggest kudos go to the scriptwriter Jonathan Tropper (who also wrote the novel on which the movie is based). Why? Because each character is incredibly well-defined, with his or her own issues and questionable coping skills. This Is Where I Leave You is truly an ensemble piece where everybody gets their moment to shine. And the story keeps moving forward—or unraveling--with delightfully unexpected resolutions.

If I had to nitpick, I'd say my only criticism would be the choice of a title. I would've called it Sitting Shiva.

GRADE: A +

  







Wednesday, August 20, 2014

MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT (2014)



Rated: PG-13

Stars: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Marcia Gay Harden, Simon McBurney, Eileen Atkins

Director: Woody Allen

Genre: Romantic Comedy


In Woody Allen's Magic In The Moonlight, the age-old debate between rationalism and mysticism takes center stage (though I've oft observed that many who wish to poo-pooh mysticism aren't extremely rational in their approach, and some who take up the new-age banner don't strike me as being spiritual in truly significant ways.)

The year is 1928, and Colin Firth is Stanley Crawford, who performs in the persona of a Chinese magician, wowing audiences with his fantastic illusions. Fellow magician Howard (Simon McBurney) informs Stanley of his encounters with a young medium named Sophie (Emma Stone), who has been creating quite a stir with her seances, ostensibly communicating with the dead.  Stanley's favorite pastime is to debunk spiritualism, because to him, it's all illusory--just like his magic tricks. So he's off to the French Riviera to find the girl and expose her as a fraud. The stage is now set for some typical romantic comedy fare, where opposites attract.  
  
As in any Woody Allen effort, Magic in The Moonlight is transparent with the hand of the master pulling the strings behind his characters, and waxing philosophical about the human condition. That is the heart and soul of any Allen film, and this one won't disappoint his fans on that score. 

And though the film plods along for about the first half, you find yourself increasingly drawn to these characters--especially Firth's pompous and curmudgeonly Stanley, who is ripe to be taken in, not only by Sophie's persuasive powers of making you see what you want to see, but by her charms as well. The hunter gets captured by the game!   

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE

Because Tim and I are in different states during the summer months (Me, California; Tim, Arizona), it is often difficult to coordinate seeing the same film at the same time. I saw Magic In The Moonlight two weeks ago so my observations may be dulled by time—and having seen another really great film since. I hate to let my personal biases get in the way of enjoying any movie. But Woody Allen's "alleged" behaviors do make it difficult. And it sort of creeps me out that, in his septuagenarian years, Allen insists on creating romances between much older gents and barley legal nymphets.

Sweeping all this aside, I have to admit I really enjoyed this latest romantic romp. And I'd give the lion's share of credit to Colin Firth's performance. He has the ability to make audiences love him in spite of his foppish pig-headedness. The object of his ridicule -- and later infatuation -- is ably played by Emma Stone (a Scottsdale native, by the way!) Too bad Marcia Gay Hardin, as her ambitious, social-climbing mother, wasn't given more screen time. Magic is definitely a feel-good movie and, had I reviewed it before seeing The 100-Foot Journey, I would have given it a higher rating. But you can't award every film an A. So I'll follow my co-writer's lead.

GRADE: B

Saturday, July 26, 2014

LIFE ITSELF (2014)



Rated : R

Stars: Roger Ebert, Chaz Ebert, Gene Siskel
Director: Steve James
Genre: Documentary

Life Itself, the straight forward documentary about the life and times--and unfortunate death--of the world's most recognizable film critic, Roger Ebert, is difficult to watch. Well, about half of it is anyway. More on that in a moment.  

It's always good to learn something you didn't know before, and what we learn here, in most entertaining fashion, is the real skinny on the relationship between Ebert and his longtime partner in crime, Gene Siskel.  Siskel and Ebert was like an arranged marriage of two partners who initially seemed to hate each other, but later grew to respect, and yes, maybe even share a little love. 


The show, which introduced the phrase "Two Thumbs Up" into our common vernacular, had all the overtones of a sibling rivalry between two adolescents constantly sniping at each other. The funniest part of Life Itself is the outtakes of the two of them trying to get through the taping of a promo for the show, too raunchy to ever be broadcast on network television.     


But about half of the film, or so it seems-I wasn't counting minutes--shows Roger Ebert after his cancer surgeries. He was unable to speak, and there's no other way to honestly put this...he was grotesque looking. That he didn't mind being filmed in this condition showed that he wasn't going to let vanity get in the way of showing and telling his story exactly as it was, right up to the end. But after a while I just had to look away from the screen during the hospital segments.  


As we look back on the life of Roger Ebert, and his collaboration with Gene Siskel, it reinforces one undeniable truth about the movies--and that is that there are no good films, and there are no bad films.  It's all in the eye of the beholder. 


Grade:  B --



JILL'S TAKE

I'm in complete agreement with Tim about the discomfort induced by seeing Roger Ebert minus his jawbone. As cheerfully as he and his wife Chaz soldiered on, acting as if nothing was really amiss, I was eventually repulsed by the dangling skin that once housed his chin. Ebert wanted us to witness this. I think part of his motivation was due to the fact that Gene Siskel, who died at age 53 of a brain tumor, didn't tell anyone other than his wife about his condition. Including his partner. This hurt Roger Ebert immeasurably—thus he vowed never to be secretive about his own failing health.

But enough about the down side of Life Itself. Kudos go out to director Steve James for keeping this 2-hour documentary engrossing from start to finish. I loved the various film clips, interviews with people like Martin Scorcese and Werner Herzog. It was also interesting to see how much power film critics have over a movie's success or failure. From the very beginning of his life, Ebert was first and foremost a writer. A beautiful and gifted writer at that. Deserving of his Pulitzer Prize, he shared his love of the movies with us— made us think about what we liked and didn't like. Unfortunately, so much of this film was shot after the thyroid cancer had destroyed a good portion of his face that I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. I wonder if Roger Ebert would give it a "Thumbs Up" if he were reviewing it?

Grade: C