Wednesday, October 7, 2015


Rated: PG-13

STARS; Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, Rene Russo, Anders Holm
DIRECTOR: Nancy Meyers
GENRE: Comedy

It's the boomers versus the millennials in a friendly competition to determine who really has their act together--and 65 year-old screenwriter/director Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated, Something's Gotta Give) leaves little room for doubt at the end of The Intern as to where her sympathies lie.

Ben (Robert De Niro) is 70--a retired administrator, a widower, and at loose ends as to what comes next. So he signs up for a senior intern program at a start-up online fashion store that is going great guns, run by thirty-something founder, Jules (Anne Hathaway).  Jules starts out as a cliche--overworked, harried, and so absorbed in her job that she doesn't see what's coming with her emotionally neglected house husband (Anders Holm), who has taken on the role of Mister Mom. (That's the subplot.) As the character of Jules is fleshed out, she becomes a more sympathetic presence. She wants to do the right things, and she's not evil, which automatically puts her above most of the dramatis personae in the films that have been stinking up the big screen all summer.
So here we have Ben, the septuagenarian intern--a guy who wears a suit and tie to work each day--wondering how he's going to fit in with all these young'uns at the company. But when the house masseuse, Fiona (Rene Russo), happens by and gives him a frisky-fingered massage at his desk, Ben has an initially embarrassing response (unaided by any little blue pill), that elicits fist bumps from two of his wide-eyed male cohorts. That won't be the last encounter between Ben and Fiona, and that's subplot number two.

Anyhoo, Ben is assigned to Jules, and at first she doesn't know what to do with him. She even wants him reassigned to someone else. But time after time, he is placed in situations where imparting his wisdom--the kind that comes only from a life fully lived and learned from--saves the day for his tech-savvy (but otherwise rather clueless) counterparts. Sometimes it's just small things, such as the importance of carrying a handkerchief with you. His explanation for that one points up how far we have come, and what we have lost, in the scramble for gender equality and the resulting dance party on top of chivalry's grave. 

 In The Intern, we have De Niro and Hathaway--two of our finest--in a film about bridging gaps. Generation gaps. Communication gaps. Gender gaps. It will tap your funny bone and tug at your heartstrings. And being the emotionally sensitive type that I am, I can usually tell how much I'm going to enjoy a film when the music first kicks in, and how it resonates with me. The buoyant score from Theodore Shapiro hits all the right notes from start to finish.    

Bring a handkerchief. 

Grade:  B +


I realize readers prefer the verbal sparks to fly when Tim and I have differing opinions. Sorry to say that won't be happening with The Intern. It's a film that audiences of all ages will relate to. From the restless retiree who doesn't know what to do with himself all day, to the career-driven millenial who has to make a million before turning thirty, it deals with the many misconceptions we have about each other. Mainly about aging. One bit I particularly liked was how Anne Hathaway's secretary kept talking loudly to De Niro's character, assuming because he was "old" that he was also deaf. Very funny. Very telling.

As I see it, the chemistry (non sexual but just as powerful) between the two leads was so convincing that the subplots became superfluous. Any time Hathaway and De Niro weren't in a scene together, the film lost momentum. And while I'm on the subject of subplots, I have to say that the casting of Anders Holm as Matt, the permanently baby-sitting hubby, was questionable. With his scraggly beard, glasses and lackluster personality, it's hard to imagine what attracted her to him in the first place? As the subplot thickens—I won't give it away—it is revealed that he gave up his successful career so she could pursue hers. Again, it's hard to imagine this nebbish succeeding in anything more taxing than changing diapers!

Still, it's a refreshing film that left the audience applauding at the end. The tagline for The Intern is: 'Experience never gets old.' Four words that really describe what this film is all about.

Grade: B

Monday, September 28, 2015

PHOENIX (2015)

Rated: PG-13

STARS: Nina Hoss, Ronald Zehrfeld, Nina Kunzendorf
DIRECTOR: Christian Petzold
GENRE: Drama/Suspense

In Phoenix, Nelly (Nina Hoss) is playing a role. She's playing herself,  as if she were someone not herself...playing herself. That's a head scratcher until you learn that she is a concentration camp survivor in post-war Berlin, recovering from reconstructive facial surgery due to a bullet wound.

Her friend and caregiver, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf), wants her to come to Tel Aviv to start a new life. But Nelly is intent upon finding her husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She was a singer--he was a piano player. They made a good team. Or so she thought. 

When she finds him, he doesn't recognize her because her face is different. In a poignant scene, he tells her of his wife (herself), convinced that she perished in the camps. But Nelly fits the same profile, he thinks, and he recruits her to impersonate herself in a scheme to collect inheritance money, as the rest of her family had been killed. Here is where we must decide whether to employ the willing suspension of disbelief and go with the idea that Johnny wouldn't recognize his own wife--face altered or not--by the sound of her voice, her mannerisms, etc.  My advice is to run with it, because you won't be disappointed the rest of the way.

Nelly doesn't reveal her true identity to Johnny, because Lene has told her that he is the one who betrayed her to the Nazis. She doesn't want to believe it, but she must discern the truth, so she plays along with his scheme until a climactic scene so "heavy" (as we used to say back in the day) it will have you thinking about Phoenix for days afterward.

German born Nina Hoss shines as a woman torn between love and mistrust...between the past and the present...between the dark and the light.

Grade:  A


Phoenix, despite its basic implausibility, got my attention. And that wasn't easy. Forget about the mistaken identity plot used in literature throughout the ages. What irked me from the get-go were the indecipherable subtitles. (White type against a white background? Pul-eeze!) Then I got confused about the main character's relationship with her friend. Was this woman her sister? Her lawyer? Her wannabe lover? I realize that foreign films don't feel the need to explain everything the way American films do. Still, confusion doesn't sit well with me. All this being said, the ending was worth the price of admission.

And the musical score was beautifully integrated with the story. (Of course it didn't hurt that our facially mutilated heroine was a jazz singer.) That being said, I'm sure Cole Porter would roll over in his grave if he read the German translation of the lyrics to "Night and Day" sung in campy style by two plump, post-war strippers. Which reminds me of another weakness in this film: the title. "Phoenix" is the neon-lit name of the nightclub where the husband works. And, yes, it can also be symbolic of our leading lady's rise from the ashes. But it's a stretch – like so many things about this movie.

Grade:  C +

Friday, September 11, 2015


Rated:  R

STARS: Greta Gerwig, Lola Kirke
DIRECTOR: Noah Baumbach
GENRE: Comedy 

Mistress America is reminiscent of a turn of the millennium TV show you may remember--Gilmore Girls--which featured Lauren Graham as a thirty-something mom engaging in rapid-fire repartee with her teen daughter (Alexis Bledel) throughout the show. It was always witty (thanks to the writers) and deadpan humorous. If you liked that show, you will love this movie--the talkiest film I've ever seen (other than My Dinner With Andre and Before Midnight). And yes, it's a total chick flick, but nonetheless I attempt to draw whatever minuscule comprehension of the female brain that I am capable of,  because I owe it to you, dear reader!  

In Mistress America, we have a similar pairing of an 18 year-old college freshman and aspiring writer named Tracy (Lola Kirke), and her thirty-ish future sister-in-law, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Tracy's mother is marrying Brooke's dad, and so Tracy contacts her future "sis" with the intention of bonding. Brooke takes Tracy into her madcap Times Square world, and Tracy soon develops a strong admiration for this quirky, free-spirited individual, and is writing a story--thinly veiled as fiction but all about Brooke--that will come back to bite her later on.

Brooke's ambitions are bigger than her follow-through. She's got grand schemes, one of which is to start a restaurant, but we can see that she's just a little too scattered to bring something like that off. And she wants to get even with the woman who stole some of her creative ideas, her boyfriend, and her two cats to boot! It will all culminate in a climactic scene that's like something from one of those wacky British stage plays, where everyone is talking a mile a second, and gesticulating wildly, and running in and out the door and up the stairs, and the audience just keeps tittering away. Only the humor here is more deadpan, more urbane, and inventively conceived.

Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with her real life partner, director Noah Baumbach, is at least as good as any (current) SNL actor in pulling off her Zooey Deschanel-esque character. Lola Kirke, a relative newcomer, brings a low-key likability to her role, but I get the feeling she is capable of much more. And then we have Jasmine Cephas Jones as Nicolette, the obsessively jealous girlfriend of  a fellow student Tracy might have some real interest in if he weren't already taken. And though she has a minor role, Jones has been given the best lines in the movie--blunt, jaw-dropping, and not repeatable here!  

At first I wasn't sure what to make of this film. But gradually, it began to win me over. As a small tale about two people in search of themselves, Mistress America has some heart. And it tries really hard. And in an unconventional kind of way, succeeds. 

Grade: B +


Don't you hate it when friends, people whose opinions you respect and trust, recommend a movie you wind up thinking is a piece of crap? Well, Tim. If Mistress America is "a total chick flick," I want to change my gender!

As happily Hollywood-married as Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach may be, they don't know bupkus about script-writing. Obviously, they've never heard of a "character arc" as no one really changes. (I mean really changes.) Everything is so slick and facile. From the get-go, it's hard to accept that the unpopular-at-school heroine, played somewhat believably by Lola Kirke, is in fact unpopular. She's gorgeous. And unless school values have changed drastically since I was in college, beauty counts. Then there's her new girl crush Brooke, who is so ADHD-ish and self-absorbed that her likablity factor is zero. Some of the scenes felt like they were straight out of SNL. While others, the overly talky ones, were just plain bor-ing. 

Thankfully, I saw this film with someone (clearly not Tim) who had the same brain-numbed reaction I did. And judging from the two other audience members, this film may be a critics' favorite but isn't exactly resonating with the general public. One scene, where all the players are simultaneously reading a script over one another's shoulders is pure slapstick. The rest? Pure schlock.

Grade: D -

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

NO ESCAPE (2015)

Rated: R

STARS: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan
DIRECTOR: John Erick Dowdle

Appreciate a good plot? Not the movie for you. Enjoy character development? Not the movie for you. Like balls-to-the-wall action in an edge of your seat thriller?  Si, senor, this da movie for you! Which means that after the prologue and the who, what, when, and where have been established, No Escape is essentially one long continuous action sequence.

Texas businessman Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his wife, Annie (Lake Bell), and their two young daughters have arrived in an unspecified southeast Asian country, where he has been transferred by his company. Just in time for the assassination of the prime minister and a revolution in the making. Bands of roving killers sweep through the streets, invading the tourist hotels and executing Americans and their sympathizers on the spot. (It seems they don't like us.) 

 Jack finds himself careening through the streets with an angry mob in pursuit. He must make it back to the hotel and collect his family and get the hell outta Dodge. If they can. And that's what No Escape is about. They run and jump from rooftop to rooftop, from alleyway to alleyway, dodging bullets. An expatriate they have befriended, named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), falls in with them and is able to provide some cover fire. He may be ex-CIA. Or he may just be M.I.A. In a rare moment where the five of them are able to catch their breath, he intimates--in so many words--that all the stink is a reaction to American Imperialism. (So what else is new?) 

A deeper film might have explored some of the politics behind the turmoil, but that is not the intent here. The movie knows what it wants to do, and it's good at what it does. The only story question being: Will they survive? (Much like Robert Redford in All Is Lost.)  Unfortunately, it is telegraphed who is going to make it and who isn't (for anyone who has seen three movies and can put two and two together). Predictability in a film can be a bummer and make it just another ho-hummer, but things are moving so fast, and you came here primarily to get your adrenaline pumping anyway, so you're not going to dwell on it. 

Owen Wilson, with his basset hound mug (and I mean that in the nicest possible way), seems a peculiar choice for the part of a man who will be thrust into the role of becoming a do-or-die hero, but he grows on you. Lake Bell grows on you too. She doesn't possess Angelina Jolie features, but she has a presence that I find appealing, and sexy even. So I'm going looking for more of her work. 

Grade:  B


A nail-biter from start to finish. (And if you don't bite your nails? You will by the time this film ends.) The thing that impressed me was how the suspense kept building. And speaking of buildings, the scene where they have to heave their kids onto another roof to escape the angry mob is truly heart-stopping. (It's in every trailer of the movie so I'm not ruining anything.) Usually in these chase movies, I get bored after awhile. Not this time. Whether Owen Wilson's terrified family is running through an unfamiliar city, a blown-up hotel, or a bombed out American Embassy, the tension created is relentless.   

Who is director/screenwriter John Eric Dowdle and what has done in the past? Not much. A third place award from the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards for directing and writing As Above, So Below (2014). This tells me he knows his way around cinematic scariness. And he's only 42. So I look forward to more of his directorial efforts.

As for what I didn't like? At one point, the Pierce Brosnan character gives a lengthy explanation of why American corporations are to blame for all this unrest. Ho hum. When I'm on the edge of my seat, completely wrapped up in a "will-they-or-won't-they-escape" drama, I don't need a sermon. Another thing that made No Escape great escapist entertainment was the use of silence. Although Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders are credited with writing the musical score, it was sparingly used -- to great effect.

Grade: B +

Friday, August 14, 2015


Rated: PG-13

STARS: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield, Audra McDonald
DIRECTOR: Jonathan Demme
GENRE: Comedy-Drama

Meryl Streep's alter-ego has long wanted to be a vocalist (she has sung in several of her other films), but most of us probably didn't realize to what extent. Well, here we have it in Ricki and the Flash--upchucked from her inner being like a late night bar stool confession.  It's a total vehicle for the purpose of showcasing Streep's musical talents, with a plot that weaves in and out between sets as filler. So let's bring in Rick Springfield to give some cachet to the project, and to play Streep's sometimes lover. And let's add Meryl's real life daughter (Mamie Gummer) to play her daughter, Julie. Now there's a stroke of genius, as the physical resemblance is scary (think of the various ways that can be interpreted).

So Ricki is a sorta hippie, sorta redneck mother of three--two sons and the aforementioned daughter--who, when she's not working as a cashier at the local supermarket, fronts a rockabilly band called Ricki and the Flash. Her kids aren't exactly welcoming to her when she comes a calling for the purpose of consoling Julie over the dissolution of her short-term marriage. Julie is so pissed off about being dumped, it's ugly. And she's all too happy to take it out on mom with recriminations of why weren't you there when we were growing up. Well, Ricki was off following her musical dream, and as she states in her clueless way, you can't follow two dreams at the same time.

One of Ricki's sons is gay, and he seems to have it in for mom just on general principles. The other is about to be married, and that will set up a riotous, rockin' climax at the reception where the band gets to let it loose full bore. Speaking of bores, Kevin Kline is Ricki's anal-retentive ex-husband--ostensible played for laughs at the ridiculousness of two polar opposites coming together in connubial bliss. But it only made me think of how the icy family dynamic was done so brilliantly and more convincingly by Streep and Julia Roberts in August: Osage County.

As for Meryl Streep's musical abilities (she sings and plays guitar for real), she's a decent vocalist, and her ragtag band--an over-the-hill assemblage of guys who could be related to Willie Nelson--is good enough to pass for your average redneck barroom house band. But that made me think of how that scene was pulled off with more sincerity and straight ahead musicianship by Jeff Bridges and company in Crazy Heart.

But so what if Ricki and the Flash is a piece self-indulgent "slumming" by one of our greatest acting talents, who enjoys living out her dreams in the roles she plays? At this point in the game, she must feel she deserves it. 

Grade:  D


Before I share my impressions of this ridiculous movie (oh-oh, I gave myself away), I'd like to mention a scary reality I encountered this time: as I handed my ticket to the ticket taker in San Marcos, California, he asked to see the contents of my tote bag. It took me a minute to figure out why but I'm all for it. "Better safe than sorry."

And speaking of sorry, Ricki and the Flash qualifies. I don't know what it is lately about movie scripts but they have definitely forgotten the three act formula or how to follow through on the main theme. The author of this turkey is someone whose previous work I have loved. Both Juno (Best Writing Oscar, 2008) and The United States of Tara (Golden Globe winner, 2011) were brilliant. But Diablo Cody's work in Ricki is inconsistent at best and downright lazy. Once the family drama erupted, I quickly lost interest in Meryl Streep's rockabilly warblings. Yes, she's in great shape for her age. And if anybody can get away with a May-December romance, she can. But who cares? Once her daughter's suicide attempt is introduced (and quickly glossed over), another rendition of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" seems trivial indeed.

I always like to find something positive to say in these reviews. It's a challenge this time. But let's give credit where credit is due: The casting director. (Those aging band members were painfully real-looking!)

Grade: D -

Wednesday, July 22, 2015


Rated: R

STARS: Amy Schumer, Bill Hader, Tilda Swinton, LeBron James, Amare Stoudemire
DIRECTOR: Judd Apatow
GENRE: Romantic Comedy

If anything, the Amy Schumer vehicle, Trainwreck, will be remembered as the movie that turned sports legends LeBron James and Amare Stoudemire into comedic actors!  They pick up a surprising amount of "playing time" in this satirical romantic comedy written by Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Bridesmaids).

As of late, Amy Schumer has grown in stature (if not baby fat) to be one of our most popular comics, her onstage routines embracing all things sexual and perverse in that deadpan self-deprecating style. She blows the cover off the blonde all-American girl next door to reveal what we secretly suspected all along--that she has a dirty mind. Trainwreck is her attempt at branching out from being typecast as a potty-mouthed one trick pony into something of a serious (at times) actor, with mixed results.

Not all of the humor flies, but enough of it does to keep theater audiences tittering at regular intervals. Schumer--playing a girl named Amy--is a writer for a Cosmo/National Enquirer type magazine, assigned by her snarky boss (Tilda Swinton) to do an interview piece with sports surgeon to the star athletes, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). The stage is set for these two to fall for each other, but Amy has been a boozer and a naughty girl, going through men like they were bon-bons on Valentine's Day, and she naturally begins to mistrust her unaccustomed feelings of giddy attraction.

One of the cuter sketches is where Schumer turns the tables, doing a parody on men who can't stand to spend the entire night with their one night stands. Placing a pillow between them to mark her territory after she and Conners have officially become bed-buddies is just the start of some clever and funny OCD playing out between them.

NBA mega-star LeBron James heads up a contingent of sports personalities who are clients of Conners.  James displays some decent acting chops along with his phenomenal athletic prowess in some extended screen time that shows Amy Schumer did not intend to train the spotlight solely upon herself.  Amare  Stoudemire also gets more than a cameo role, in a scene where a distracted and addled Conners is preparing to operate on the athlete's knee, but Stoudemire decides he wants no part of it and clambers out of his hospital bed, staggering down the hall and going BOOM!

Another surprising sketch has tennis legend Chris Evert, Matthew Broderick, sportscaster Marv Albert, and LeBron James all together riffing off one another. CHRIS EVERT EVEN UTTERS A NAUGHTY WORD!  

Never saw that train coming.  

Grade:  B


Wow. Tim pretty much covered all the bases in this R-rated romp. If he hadn't already gone there, I was planning to praise LeBron's acting chops. He had a lot of zippy dialog and interacted well with both Hader and Schumer. Trust me, it won't be the last time we see him on screen. (Let's hope he's better at it than former athlete-turned-actor Jim Brown!)

I was also planning to mention Schumer's zaftig bod – well not exactly zaftig – as a realistic alternative to the usual anorexic actresses we watch doing the sexy. (Or, god forbid, Melissa McCarthy!) Her character's potty mouth and one-night-standish behavior may not be the norm but her figure sure is.

I guess the only other thing Tim didn't mention was Billy Joel's "Uptown Girl," played throughoutTrainwreck, because it's   Hader's character's favorite song to perform during surgery. Wonder what BJ got paid for letting them use it?

Sadly, I didn't enjoy this flick nearly as much as director Judd Aptow's other two contenders: The 40-Year-Old-Virgin and Knocked Up. It felt forced in places and played-for-laughs rather than reality. Maybe my objectivity was compromised because I couldn't find parking for nearly half an hour! (God bless southern California...)

Grade: C +