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






Sunday, March 15, 2015

CHAPPIE (2015)



Rated: R

STARS: Dev Patel,  Sharlito Copley, Hugh Jackman, Watkin Tudor Jones, Yolandi Visser,  Sigourney Weaver
DIRECTOR: Neil Blomkamp
GENRE: Action/Sci-fi/Fantasy


It's the near future--so near that nothing much looks different except for the droids that now comprise a segment of the Johannesburg police force. (If this ever happens for real, it might improve the public perception of the cops...anything's worth a try). Young inventor Deon (Dev Patel), designs them.  But he's not stopping there. He wants to create the first robot with genuine artificial intelligence. He succeeds (be careful what you wish for) in the form of "Chappie," who starts out as a mental infant, but he's a really quick study and before you know it he's mastering the language and painting like that dude on TV with the big Afro.

When Chappie is kidnapped by some nasty-ass thugs who think they can use him to pull off a big heist, the plot kicks into high gear.  Deon falls into the clutches of the gangsters too, and though he gets roughed-up and threatened, he takes a stand for good parenting and implores his highly impressionable creation not to do bad things. Meanwhile, rival engineer Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who works for the same weapons manufacturer as Deon, has had the funding cut for his own attack robot, Moose. He makes it his mission to take Chappie out of commission, putting himself and Moose on a collision course with Deon and his brainchild in an epic CGI battle that rivals the one in writer-director Neil Blomkamp's District 9. In both films, Blomkamp is making a point about heroism and laying it all on the line when the odds are stacked against you. And I've never seen it done in more soul-stirring fashion. 

 Despite all that, Chappie is played for laughs as often as not. It's cute and endearing when the gangsters teach him to pepper his speech with ghetto expletives (yes, a robot spouting the MF word is funny because it's so unexpected), and when they hang all this bling around his neck to make him one bad lookin' dude. The only thing I felt was over the top at first was Chappie's voice. Instead of your normal monotone droid voice, Chappie's takes on a human quality--first mimicking that of a scared toddler, then going through the other stages of development until he grows into an emotional adult. This made him a little too human for my willing suspension of disbelief to kick in. I mean, sooner or later he's gonna start thinking about women, and then he looks down at himself and tries to figure out just how that's gonna work... er, forget I mentioned it . But it's impossible to watch this film and not be won over by the little guy. The way we were won over by E. T. 

Chappie poses thoughtful questions about the nature of consciousness--even drawing parallels with reincarnation--as a robot with a dying battery finds himself in a race against time to find a new body to inhabit. 

I walked out of the theater thinking, Well... that was pretty wild!

Grade:  B +


JILL'S TAKE

It's more fun for the reader when Tim and I disagree. And being un-fond of futuristic, robot-infested films, I was positive we would. But I soon forgot all about Chappie's outer appearance and became totally caught up in his life-threatening adventure. When he was being beaten up by a gang of homeless hooligans, my heart went out to him. When he was torn between doing the right thing or seeking his bad-ass daddy's approval, I empathized. Just like I teared up when ET put his glowing finger on Elliot's forehead and said, "I'll...be...right...here." I don't know who deserves the most credit for making these non humans human. Is it the director? The writer? The digital miracle workers? I suppose it's a combination of all three. I was even reminded of that volleyball in Cast Away that Tom Hanks named Wilson, how real that inanimate object became!

Sure, there were holes in Chappie.(The script not his body.) Hugh Jackman's character was ill-defined and cartoonish in his need for revenge. And Deon, Chappie's nerdy inventor, seemed irrationally brave considering his line of work. But I was totally caught up in the story; how seeking approval makes even robots do the damndest things. Scriptwriters Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell were spot on when it comes to showing us what a huge influence parent figures  have—be they criminals or computer geeks—on a young, untested mind.

Sorry, folks. But I'm with Tim on this one.

Grade: B +

Thursday, March 5, 2015

STILL ALICE (2014)



Rated: PG-13

Stars:  Julianne Moore,  Alec Baldwin,  Kristen Stewart,  Kate Bosworth 
Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
Genre: Drama

It was no surprise to most that Julianne Moore collected the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Alice Howland, a linguistics professor who develops early-onset Alzheimer's at age 50.  Alice begins to forget words--especially disturbing to someone in her position. She gets lost while out jogging in familiar places. This is how it begins.

There is no cure for this insidious disease, and you wouldn't wish it on your worst enemy. So how it ends is not pretty. But we go on this journey with Alice because it's not just a tale of an individual and her slow deterioration, it's a story about family dynamics and how deeply they can be affected.

Alice is married to a medical professional (Alec Baldwin) and has three grown children. When a family conference is called to break the news of her diagnosis, the kids have no clue, and at first ask their parents if they are breaking up. They are blindsided. To make the scene even more cringe-worthy, Alice has to inform them that her particular brand of the disease is familial, meaning there's a fifty-fifty chance it could be passed on to the kids--one of whom is about to drop twins upon the world!

There is a chilling scene where Alice, in the early stages of her condition, records a video message to her future self, with instructions on what to do when things get to a certain stage. Will she or won't she follow through becomes the only real story question in Still Alice--which, like the disease itself,  proceeds to its foregone and inevitable conclusion. 

One of the other good performances here is turned in by Kristen Stewart, as Alice's aspiring actress daughter, who makes the decision to detour from her career and step up to become her mother's primary caregiver. 

Alec Baldwin gives a toned-down turn as the husband who is trying to do the right thing at every turn. There is one scene where he begins to get a little cranky, and I'm sitting there saying THERE...there's the REAL Alec Baldwin! 

I wouldn't be honest if I didn't tell you up front that Still Alice is a depressing movie.  But no less than a must-see. Because it's one that will make you think. 

Think about living every moment to the fullest. 

Grade:  B +



JILL'S TAKE

I haven't been this disturbed by a movie since Ingmar Bergman's Wild StrawberriesStill Alice doesn't pretty up this awful disease one bit. And Julianne Moore doesn't pretty herself up, either. It is a searingly honest portrayal. One that is, at times, difficult to watch. As she deteriorates, so do we. I especially winced when her character was unable to find the bathroom in her own home, one she had lived in for years. As someone who prides herself on using just the right word or phrase, this film really got to me. And since I'm of an age where healthy forgetfulness happens all too frequently, the idea of losing total use of my brain is frankly terrifying.

That being said, Still Alice is a masterful piece of filmwork. Directors Brian Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (yes, two directors) played with our eyes as well as our minds by fading in and out of focus at unexpected intervals. Sort of like the way Julianne Moore's character was lucid one moment and in a fog the next.

This is not a movie for the faint of heart. The day Tim and I went to see it, there were mostly seniors in the audience. It got me wondering if its effect on a younger audience would be as life-threatening. Probably not. The list of celebrities who have suffered from this cruel disease is frightening. Ronald Reagan is probably the most famous victim. But there are others from the film community whose brilliance slowly faded into nothingness: Otto Preminger, Dana Andrews, Charles Bronson, Arlene Francis, Mike Frankovic, Rita Hayworth, Charleton Heston, Burgess Meredith, Edmond O'Brien, too many to name...

For a sobering experience, go see Still Alice.

Grade: B

Monday, February 16, 2015

WILD (2014)



Rated:  R

STARS: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski
DIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Vallee
GENRE: Drama

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to sit through the first couple minutes of Wild with your eyes closed and listen to the noises wayfaring Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) emits. You may think you've wandered into a porno by mistake. Then open your peepers to discover that the caterwaulings of a young woman losing a toenail out in the wilderness because her hiking boots are too small can have a remarkably similar ring to that of someone in the throes of ecstasy. A darkly comic moment in a film about some serious business. The business of life and its winding trails.and travails.  

Strayed is on an eleven hundred mile odyssey from the Mojave desert to the Oregon-Washington border--hiking alone, for the most part, along the Pacific Crest Trail. She's got a backpack that's as big as she is, and nearly as heavy. She struggles to raise herself off the floor and stand upright with it on. (Another richly comic moment.) On day one, she's already telling herself it's okay to quit. But she's got something to prove. To herself. The cumbersome pack is symbolic of the baggage she's carrying.  She's just lost her mother (Laura Dern) to a devastating illness, and her husband (Thomas Sadoski)  to divorce. She's been recklessly engaging in drug use and promiscuous sex. So her journey is one of getting in touch with the real person inside. The person her mother thought she was, or could be. The movie sticks pretty close to Cheryl Strayed's best-selling memoir, which adds to its jaw-dropping effect when you consider that this stuff really happened.   


Along the way, Strayed encounters men in various shapes and sizes who may, to varying degrees, pose potential threats to her security. Even in nature, it's  human nature
that always seems to come into play. And we learn a lot about that in Wild. As in what the human spirit is capable of when pushed to its limits. Witherspoon probably didn't hike any further than necessary to complete her scenes, but she did push herself beyond her normal boundaries in terms of amount of skin bared and hot sexy scenes--in the alley no less! 

 I always admire someone who is willing to lay it all on the line for the sake of their art. 


Grade:  B +



JILL'S TAKE

I find Cheryl Strayed's last name particularly appropriate as she definitely strayed from her intended hiking trail on numerous occasions. And since I'm in a punny mood, I also find one of Reese Witherspoon's other movies (Walk The Line) also ironic. But as far as Wild goes? The story is impressive and Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club) keeps it moving with flashbacks from Strayed's dark past and incredible scenery.  Still, the film proves to me—once again—why I hate camping. Too damn  much packing and unpacking. Over and over again.

Small as her part was, I do think Laura Dern turned in another masterful performance. (Clearly talent runs big in that family!) If by some miracle, she wins this year's Best Actress in a Supporting Role award, it would make a nice touch if her dad, Bruce Dern, nominated last year for Best Actor in Nebraska,presented her with the much-coveted statuette.

Sometimes my ratings are too lenient but this time, probably due to the subject matter, I'm going to be less kind. Frankly, I'd rather watch a Nat Geo Special than sit through nearly two hours of Reese Witherspoon without make-up. Seems to be the thing this year for actresses to expose their un-pancaked faces – Jennifer Aniston in Cake, Julianne Moore in Alice. I prefer 'em beautified.

Grade: C