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



Thursday, February 5, 2015

A MOST VIOLENT YEAR (2014)



Rated :  R

STARS: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyelowo, Elyes Gabel

DIRECTOR:  J.C. Chandor

GENRE: Drama/Suspense

The first thing to remember about A Most Violent Year is that it ain't that violent. Not like the title might suggest, at least. It's a character study, and a very good one, about a man trying to do the right things when all about him are bad influences (like when mom told you to stay away from that nasty neighbor boy). Not the least of which may be his wife. 

The setting is New York City in 1981--statistically one of the most crime-ridden years in the city's history. Immigrant Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is living the American Dream. He operates a heating oil distribution business. He wants to do everything above-board and by the book. But what appear to be rival operators are beating up his drivers and hijacking his trucks full of fuel that they can peddle on the black market. Then there is this subtly shady D.A. (David Oyelowo) who's investigating his operation for evidence of improprieties. 

The wild card in all of this is his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), the daughter of a Brooklyn crime boss.  Morales bought the business from her father (bad influence number one).  Despite seemingly good intentions, she can't completely escape the influence of her upbringing.  So as the pressure on Morales mounts, she wants to arm the drivers so they can fight back. Then she issues some veiled personal threats toward the D.A. That's when we recognize an intriguing marital role reversal--where she's the tough guy, and he is someone who only wants to do "the most right thing." That phrase is at the crux of the movie's theme, in my opinion, as the most right thing--that line in the sand--is sometimes blurred and ill-defined (as we all know in our own lives, eh?). 

Title notwithstanding, A Most Violent Year is a surprisingly introspective film. A character study that doesn't rely on the usual Hollywood gimmicks to build the suspense. And there is no lack of that. With riveting performances by Isaac and Chastain. And the ever quirky Albert Brooks, who is a character study all on his own.  

GRADE:  B+


JILL'S TAKE

When a movie's title has the word 'violent' in it, I expect to be treated to bullets flying, brutal killings and at least one mafia boss gunned down in a barber shop. No such luck with A Most Violent Year. To make matters worse (from my blood-thirsty point of view), our noble hero, whose ability to stare into the camera in fierce silence for minutes at a time, looks more Italian than Al Pacino and Robert De Niro combined. Misleading? You bet!

Trying to "do the right thing" is an uphill battle in this setting. And I, for one, didn't go to Goodfellas orGodfather I, II & III expecting to come out of the theater pondering the meaning of good. I blame the trailer for this. It certainly led me (and probably the rest of the viewers) to assume A Most Violent Year would be this year's Mafia flick.

Aside from it's lack of savagery, there were no real villains. No Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs) or Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men). The acting was good. I'll give it that much. But I walked away feeling as pissed off as those drivers must have felt when their boss wouldn't allow them to carry guns.

GRADE: D

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER (2014)



Rated: R

STARS: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller
DIRECTOR:  Clint Eastwood
GENRE: Action/War

Knowing Clint Eastwood's politics, I knew going in that American Sniper was going to portray its subject as a hero and true patriot, and that is pretty much what we get. Eastwood apparently doesn't go any deeper than my-country-right-or-wrong--the Dick Cheney credo of the end always justifies the means-- and that the world is made up of good guys and bad guys and very little in between (like in those spaghetti westerns of his early career) and thus anything is permitted, and justified, if it eliminates the bad guys.  (Of course, the more we do that around the world, the more "bad guys" keep popping up in Whac-A-Mole fashion to threaten us. What's up with that?)     

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) was a Navy Seal sniper with 160 confirmed kills (men, women, and children) to his credit during the Iraq war. (To be fair, those women and children were allegedly acting in threatening ways, like attempting to blow up some of our troops.)  There is no Iraqi in this movie that isn't portrayed as some kind of potential threat. The ones who have taken up arms against us are "savages," so dispatching them can be done without a whit of soul-searching. They become mere stick figures--like the anonymous war-whooping Indians getting picked off one by one by the "good guy" cowboys in the western films many of us grew up with.  Okay, there is one scene where Kyle has his sights trained on a young boy who is about to pick up an anti-tank weapon and do some damage with it. The sniper sweats and grimaces, and begs under his breath for the kid to put the weapon down so he doesn't have to shoot him. This is supposed to show us that Kyle has a conscience. That runs contrary to the real guy's assertion that killing was "FUN,"  and his unsubstantiated claim that he had murdered looters during hurricane Katrina. So draw your own conclusions about that.

Technically, American Sniper is superb. The combat scenes are among the most realistic I have seen. But they go on and on and on, covering Kyle's four tours of duty, and after a while you become numb watching them, and ultimately bored because of the tremendous overkill (pardon the pun). I can't imagine anyone but 14 year-old boys addicted to playing war games on Xbox being avidly engaged with this kind of stuff all the way through. And that is where Eastwood misses the mark. He gives us an out and out action movie, where a little balance, by examining some of the moral and psychological aspects of it all, would have made it a much better film. 

To the director's credit, he does give some cursory play to  the effects of PTSD, and how it affected his subject and others returning from the battlefield. Perhaps numbing us out with all the violence in American Sniper is supposed to make us draw a parallel between that and the numbed out Chris Kyle, whose social skills had departed, and he could no longer relate to his family or people he would meet when he was back home. There is a scene at a picnic gathering where we observe what a ticking time bomb the man had become. 

Speaking of which, I fear we are becoming a nation of numbed-out voyeurs, inured to the violence we see, and so we keep increasing the dose of the drug just to feel something. American Sniper does that by ramping it up and feeding into our insatiable appetite for blood (maybe that's why vampire flick are so popular) that we drink up on television, on the movie screen, and in the news. It's a sick obsession, but those with mental health issues rarely recognize it themselves until someone points it out. And so the image of the female breast in a movie continues to be blurred out when it shows on TV, but all the grisly blood-spattering-against-the-wall scenes of murder and mayhem are fine and dandy.  

As for this film, I can't give it a pass based on technical merit alone. Not when Clint Eastwood fails to examine the complicated issues involving real HUMAN BEINGS on both sides of the conflict, or the reasons why we've been drawn into this war of ideologies--with no end in sight--in the first place.     

Grade: C--


JILL'S TAKE

After that rant, who'd have the balls to disagree? Me. But not by much. Unlike my co-writer, I feel Clint Eastwood did take the time to explain why psychologically Chris Kyle was such a patriot-turned-killer. At the very beginning of the film, we witness a scene at the dinner table where Kyle's dad gives a speech to his two boys about lambs versus wolves. This dad reminded me of another tough-guy Marine played so brilliantly by Robert Duvall in The Great Santini. Before signing up to go to war, we see Kyle as a rodeo rider/wannabe cowboy and it's easy to assume he's seen every John Wayne movie that ever existed.

I'm not here to judge the rightness or wrongness of war. It's a movie, after all. Based on a best-selling book. As a movie, I felt it was overly long. By Kyle's fourth tour of duty, I was nodding off despite all the blood and bomb blasts. Still, it made me understand why so many soldiers return from this craziness and commit suicide. (The numbers are truly staggering.) Back to the film and Bradley Cooper's perfomance. I'm told he gained 35 pounds to play the part and he was certainly convincing as both a fearless sniper and a zoned out husband. I don't, however, think he deserves an Oscar. Not compared to the other contenders.

As a TV watcher, I had to giggle at cameo appearances by Eric Close as DIA Agent Snead (he plays the mayor in Nashville) and Jonathan Groff as YoungVet Mads (he's a gay man, eager to get laid in HBO's Looking). That's the problem with being a regular on TV: it's jarring to see that same actor in a different role. Be that as it may, I didn't hateAmerican Sniper. Or get emotionally upset by its content. Maybe I should have. But war has -- and always will -- provide us with many an Oscar-winning film.

Grade: B




Saturday, January 10, 2015

THE GAMBLER (2014)



Rated: R

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Jessica Lange

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Genre: Drama

Watching Mark Wahlberg as a once promising novelist turned college professor turned compulsive high-stakes gambler is like staring at some bratty child who won't eat his vegetables and will sit there at the dinner table and wait you out longer than you can, or would want to, wait him out. 

Wahlberg is Jim Bennett, an arrogant wise-ass who talks down to his students, and follows in the footsteps of James Bond (though infinitely less debonair ) by firing off sarcastic one-liners at the bad dudes who are about to beat his ass for not paying his debts. Bennett borrows from Peter (Korean mobsters) to pay Paul (black gangster) to pay John (Goodman), who gives another inspired performance as a loan-shark with a soft side, the only thing that explains why anyone would  issue a dime to such an obviously bad risk . 

Bennett comes from money, and doesn't know the value of a dollar--that's why he gambles away every last one he can get his hands on. Money is just a tool to feed the sick ego gratification he gets from proving-repeatedly-that he's a loser. Like most self-destructive people, the guy is angry. And it' so bottled up that the sarcasm seeps from every pore.  But we never see why he's angry. Where has life dealt him a bad hand? All we know is that his banking magnate grandfather (George Kennedy--who keeps his streak of being in every movie ever made alive here) kicks the bucket in the opening scene, and Bennett is left with a mother (Jessica Lange) who is also really pissed-off, but mainly at him, for being an incorrigible, irredeemable asshole. Are you getting the picture that, to me at least, this is one of the most unlikable protagonists to come down the pike in quite some time?  Which is unusual, because we can usually find SOMETHING about the main character in any film that we can root for. So this is either a one-dimensional turn from Wahlberg, or, as Pee-Wee Herman was fond of saying: I meant to do that.

The subplot revolves around a romance that's haltingly blooming with one of his students (Brie Larson), a brilliant writer in Bennett's estimation, who likes him maybe for seeing something in her she didn't recognize in herself?  Well, The Gambler doesn't work if you don't have multiple individuals who are rooting for this guy to make one big strike and win in the end (most of them so they can get their money back).

 I. on the other hand, am just rooting for something to show in his eyes that tells me he can snap out of it and become more than a petulant child sitting there grimacing at his Brussels sprouts.    

Grade:  B


JILL'S TAKE  

I guess assholes are not Tim's cup of tea. Me? I like 'em. And despite Mark Wahlberg's overdone, over-dyed hairdo, I was mesmerized by his total lack of fear -- and common sense. I haven't spent much time in Vegas, or around compulsive gamblers, but by the time The Gambler ended, I felt like I'd personally won and lost a shitload of shekels.

At the beginning of the movie, credit is given to the original film of the same name which starred James Caan (1974). I'm pretty sure I must have seen it but who remembers back that far? I did look up the cast, though, curious to see who played the John Goodman part: it was Paul Sorvino. Speaking of Goodman, I must warn any of you who are fat phobics to turn away when Goodman exposes his naked and roly-poly body in a steam room. (Apparently he's lost 130 pounds since this flick was filmed!)

What impressed me most was how original the time sequences were established. A number would flash on screen signifying the days this guy had left to pay his mounting debts. Then a musical interlude would set the mood and tone. Very, VERY effective. What impressed me least? The longest running sequence since Chariots Of Fire – when running was the whole point of the movie. In this case, I think Wahlberg just wanted to show the audience how in shape a guy can be at age 45.

Grade: B+

Sunday, December 28, 2014

THE INTERVIEW (2014)



Rated: R

STARS: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Randall Park, Lizzy Caplan

DIRECTOR: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen
GENRE: Action-Comedy


It's ten minutes past the scheduled show time, and the screen is still dark. A theater employee walks down the aisle to make an announcement. Sorry, folks...we're having a little problem...we have to restart the projector...I DON'T THINK IT'S A HACK...thanks for your patience.  Such is the movie going experience in the days of free speech in America under attack from piss-ant dictatorships across the sea. (Just when we had our hands full with home-grown assaults under the guise of political correctness.) 


The film started shortly thereafter, with Seth Rogen and co-director Evan Goldberg--in a tacked on segment at the beginning--saying "If you are watching this, then you're a g-damned phucking American hero!" 


I can't remember when I've felt so patriotic.


I'd heard that The Interview had opened to mixed reviews on Christmas day, but I gotta tell ya I was pleasantly surprised at how good and wickedly funny this movie is! 


Dave Skylark (Franco) and Aaron Rapoport (Rogen) host a cable TV show called Skylark Tonight . It happens that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, whose job title is Supreme Leader Who Doesn't Pee Or Poo, is a fan of the show. (We know that the real Kim is an avid film buff and consumer of American movies, so thus far the plot isn't too far-fetched).  Dave and Aaron get invited to Pyongyang to conduct and interview with Kim, which is supposed to be a soft ball affair where he gets a chance to plead his case to the west. (Dennis Rodman set the precedent here, so again, not terribly far-fetched.) Kim's not a bad guy at all (despite the labor camps, malnourished citizenry, and total suppression of human rights.) 


When a sexy CiA agent (Lizzy Caplan) learns of the upcoming trip, she sees an opportunity to get rid of one of the world's most ruthless strongmen. She convinces the boys that it's their duty to take him out, which is to be accomplished by way of a poison to be administered through a handshake.  


From here on, everything in The Interview IS far-fetched, and so raunchy and over-the-top hilarious that I suddenly envisioned the president and Michelle viewing it (which they're bound to do, just so they really know what all the fuss is about), and hoping they didn't make the mistake of allowing the girls to see it!


Randall Park can't quite nail down the physical presence of Kim--he doesn't have that baby-faced manchild look of the real guy--but beyond that he gives a winning performance as a Jekyll and Hyde manipulator who charms the pants off our heroes initially, then reveals his true nature when crunch time arrives.


And there's this hot Korean army chick whose real name is Diana Bang. How perfect is that?


Grade:  B +




JILL'S TAKE
I went, grousing and grumbling, to see The Inteview – assuming it would be utter fluff and one dumb movie per year is my quota. I was wrong. As silly as the premise is, it made me giggle from start to finish. As Tim was imagining the Obama Family watching this fart-friendly film, I kept imagining the real Kim Jong Un watching it. Not known for his self-deprecating sense of humor, North Korea's Chief of State would be highly insulted. (He might even nuke us for such insolence.) 
Be that as it may, I must say I was seriously impressed by James Franco's portrayal of Dave Skylark, a seemingly superficial TV talk show host. Having seen Franco in 127 Hours (for which he received a Best Actor nomination in 2011), I knew he had acting chops. What I didn't know was how funny he could be. And believably funny, too. Not all leading men types can make that switch. So Bravo, Signor Franco! 
As for Seth Rogen? He directed, wrote and produced this opus. And that's nothing to sneeze at. Of course, I have a special affinity for the lad since he grew up in a city that I lived in (and loved) for over 17 years: Vancouver, BC. The Interview is not going to appeal to everyone but I heard on the news that on its first weekend playing in theaters, it was the highest grossing film in China's history. 

Grade: B







  


           





Friday, December 26, 2014

NIGHTCRAWLER (2014)



Rated: R


Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton

Director: Dan Gilroy
Genre: Thriller

It's clear from the get-go that Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a seriously creepy individual. The kind of person who looks right through you when you're speaking to him--the one-track brain focused on whatever grisly obsession is occupying it at the time.  


Bloom is a petty thief, and right off we observe him punching out a security guard who has happened upon him stealing chain-link fencing. But he's not satisfied with his lowly station in life. He has ambition, and he's an opportunist, searching for that spark of an idea that will catapult him into the big time. He finds it when he begins stumbling across accident scenes, observing the "nightcrawlers," or free-lance videographers doing their work. He gets himself a camera and a police radio and he's in business. 


Lucky for him there's a TV station in L.A. that will run the gory footage he obtains on their nightly news. (Here's where I thought the script was a mite over the top, as most stations still show at least some discretion about such things, but maybe we're not far away from that.)   


Nina (Rene Russo) is the news director of said media outlet. A little paranoid about hanging onto her job at a station whose ratings are in the toilet. In Lou she sees the perfect collaborator. By scooping the other stations in la la land with the bloody or sensational footage Lou provides, she envisions the pathway to her own salvation. He pressures her to include sex in their working relationship and she accedes, an indicator of how far she is willing to compromise to obtain her own objectives. 


At one point we realize that they are total kindred spirits, and that's where Nightcrawler makes its cynical statement. Yes, it's a character study about sociopaths, but it's also saying something about the public that eats this kind of stuff up. The law of supply and demand. 


Gyllenhaal has a Golden Globe nomination for his work here, and deservedly so. It's a multi-layered performance with elements of dark comedy, as all the while Lou is revealing himself as an entity without a whit of empathy or human compassion, he's lecturing his assistant in a moralistic fashion about the importance of good business practices.       


Grade:  B +



JILL'S TAKE

Tim has pretty well covered the salient points but I'd like to give a special kudo to the cinematographer whose darkly sinister shots of Los Angeles helped creep out the viewer before any of Lou Bloom's antics did. And, believe me, this is one creepy character on a level with Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men (minus the pageboy haircut). According to Hollywood gossip, Jake G. Lost 35 pounds for this role. That weight loss definitely added authenticity to his soulless, deep-socketed eyes. And persona.

The film scolds us all for being such gore-hungry humans, ever curious to gawk at auto accidents. Violence is a money-making commodity, for sure. My quarrel with Nightcrawler? I felt the sex angle between the two main characters was unnecessary. We already knew how driven and desperate they both were. Other than that, it's an intense movie that keeps you gripping your arm rests throughout.

Grade: B




Tuesday, December 16, 2014

DUMB AND DUMBER TO (2014)



Rated: PG-13


Stars: Jim Carrey,  Jeff Daniels,  Kathleen Turner

Director: Bobby Farrelly, J. B. Rogers
Genre: Comedy



I'm going to say up front that Jill talked me into seeing this movie. As a lark. Like gassing up at Texaco and peeing in the park. Just to see how stupid one movie could actually be. And with a title like Dumb And Dumber To, the Farrelly Brothers were giving themselves carte blanche to go there in spades. 


I'll put it this way. If the characters of Lloyd and Harry that Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels are playing were real people, they would be confined to an institution. Which, ironically, is where we find them at the beginning of the flick. Lloyd has been in a catatonic state for the last twenty years (the time that has elapsed since the original Dumb & Dumber). Harry visits to change his diaper and wipe his butt.  And, of course, we get to watch. (Changing a grown person's diaper may be funny only if you're not the one doing it!)


There is a plot. Harry needs a kidney transplant, and he needs to find a relative who would make a donor match. So they go in search of the daughter he never knew. It goes on from there, but it doesn't bear mentioning because the plot exists to serve the slapstick nature of the film, which is aimed at 12 to 15 year-old boys who are still fascinated with fart jokes. (And certain rather twisted adults...not mentioning any names!)


There were about three gags in the whole movie that made me laugh out loud. Jill, on the other hand, was spewing her drink all over the place. (Just kidding--we're too cheap to pay those inflated concession prices.)  


Kathleen Turner, a bombshell in films like Body Heat back in the 80s is...well...let's be kind and say matronly looking at this stage of the game. Give her credit for saying, in essence, time flies and this is me....so suck it! Don't look back. Which I'm trying not to do because I'm thinking that for the price of admission to this film, I could have gotten myself a couple bean burritos and started cracking my own fart jokes. 


Grade: C -



JILL'S TAKE

Had I not suggested this super silly cinematic experience, Tim wouldn't have been able to pen such a witty review. (So there!) As I entered the totally empty theater, something told me I was in for 'beyond stupid.' Then two more people sauntered in, looking embarrassed to be seen. Okay. It was a ridiculous film but you could tell that the actors were having a blast. My advice? If you are knowingly going to a movie with a title like this one, forget about plot, character development and nuance. Leave all that at the door.

Yes, I laughed out loud. And, yes, I'll admit I enjoyed Jim Carrey's antics and Jeff Daniels idiotic facial expressions. (A far cry from the role he plays in the HBO series "The Newsroom" for which he won an Emmy.) But it takes a very special person—a very brainless one—to get into the spirit of Dumb And Dumber To. It's hard for me to imagine anyone who reads this blog going to see this particular flick But I'm not sorry I did....

Grade: C