Monday, August 31, 2015

A Bunch Of Blu Rays & DVDs That Have Been Stacking Up

I haven’t posted as much as I would’ve liked this summer because of two big distracting factors: #1. My wife and I moved from our house in Raleigh to Clayton (roughly 20 minutes outside of Raleigh), and that was really exhausting. #2. I’ve had a few health issues over the last few months including an inflammation and a blood clot – and that’s been pretty painful.

While I’ve been recovering I’ve been making my way through a bunch of Blu rays and DVDs that have stacked up in my office over the last few months. Most of them are from the world of VOD (Video On Demand), and had either limited or no theatrical release, so you may not have heard of them. Most of them aren’t very good either, but there were a few halfway watchable ones. Let's take a look at a handful of 'em, shall we?

First up, there’s Philip Martin’s THE FORGER, starring John Travolta as, yes, a master art forger who makes a shady deal to get an early release from prison, but in return he must pull off “one last job.” So it’s a heist movie, and with Christopher Plummer as Travolta’s father, and Tye Sheridan as Travolta’s dying son both in on the caper, it highly resembles FAMILY BUSINESS, a less than stellar ‘80s comic thriller that starred Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, and Matthew Broderick in the grandfather-father-son roles. 

Set in Boston with bad accents to boot, THE FORGER is a competently dull collection of clichés that’s a good example of how much Travolta’s been treading water in his film career since, well, probably HAIRSPRAY (his hair was more realistic in that too). It also resembles FAMILY BUSINESS in that it deserves to be forgotten.

Another fail of a thriller follows - this one coming from Canada - Atom Egoyan’s THE CAPTIVE starring Ryan Reynolds, Scott Speedman, Rosario Dawson, and Mireille Enos. Reynolds and Enos play a couple whose daughter is kidnapped by a pedophile trafficking ring. Dawson and Speedman play a pair of detectives that are on the case that lasts over 8 years. The more than capable cast try their darnedest, but the material is crazy convoluted, and the score by Mychael Danna overreaches as it annoyingly builds suspenseful strain on top of suspenseful strain only calling attention to how unsuspenseful the whole thing is. The fractured narrative that skips back and forth in time just makes it confusing too. A murky misfire on every level. Next!

Matt Shakman’s CUT BANK is a more inspired thriller than THE CAPTIVE, but it’s no great shakes either. The directorial debut of Shakman, who has directed episodes of scores of notable TV shows including Six Feet Under, The Good Wife, Weeds, House M.D., and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it stars Liam Hemsworth as a small town dreamer – dreaming of getting out of the small town naturally – who accidently captures the murder of the local mailman (Bruce Dern) on videotape. Hemsworth hopes to use the reward money offered by the U.S. Postal Service to finally escape with his girlfriend (Teresa Palmer) from their dead end existence there in Cut Bank, Montana, but, of course, things aren’t that simple. 

John Malkovich as the town’s sheriff, and Billy Bob Thornton as Palmer’s father have their suspicions, and a creepy taxidermist who everybody thought was dead (Michael Stuhlbarg) starts looking into the matter as well. It twists and turns through a mess of schemes and scams in the tradition of both the movie and TV show versions of FARGO (Shakman directed two eps of that too), but it never twists and turns itself into anything but a watchable throwaway. Shakman should stick to TV.

Henry Hobson’s MAGGIE, another directorial debut, is one of the few here that got more of a theatrical release (it actually came to my area), and it’s obviously because of its star, Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s another zombie apocalypse scenario, with Schwarzenegger as a farmer in the Midwest taking care of his daughter (Abigail Breslin) who’s been bitten. 

The father struggles with how to handle the situation as the country doctor (Jodie Moore) tells him he has three options: take her to quarantine; give her a drug cocktail that leads to a slow, painful death; or “make it quick.” It largely feels like a stand-alone episode of The Walking Dead - one of the uneventful ones on the season set on the farm maybe - but it has a nicely restrained performance by Schwarzenegger in his uncharacteristic role, there’s a lot of genuine effort by Breslin in embodying her infected character, and the eerie grey tone is effective. I got fairly bored in the last half hour, but fans of the genre and of Ahnold will probably be more into it.

At the beginning of this just under feature length (68 minuntes) documentary a scroll tells us that HATING OBAMA is an attempt to document the pure hate towards President Barack Obama while asking the central question: “Is Obama hated more for his policies or because he’s black?” It’s a fair question, and there’s some interesting chitchat from a bunch of articulate talking heads here, but Marquis Smalls’ doc doesn’t elaborate on anything we didn’t know already. It mainly plays like a greatest hits of the times Obama has been disrespected, touching on such incidents as when Republican House member Joe Wilson yelled “you lie” during the President’s Healthcare speech, with interspersed commentary mostly from supporters who do indeed think there’s racism at play.

There is significant time given to some anti-Obama voices, such as conservative political activist Derrick Grayson and Reverend Jesse Lee Peterson, but it’s telling that at the end writer/director Smalls shares with us his poll of all his interviewees and 82% of them approve of Obama. A doc like this can’t help but be biased, but the thesis needs more work. HATING OBAMA is a watchable, well constructed conversation of a video essay, but it has no real conclusion - it just throws the question back at us at the end.

Finally, there’s Michael Almereyda’s CYMBELINE, which is another one of those gritty modern adaptations of Shakespeare much like Baz Luhrmann’s ROMEO + JULIET, Ralph Fiennes’ CORIOLANUS, and Almereyda’s own HAMLET, as this re-unites the director with that film’s star, Ethan Hawke. The setting is again New York, but this time in the world of urban gang warfare with the ever crusty Ed Harris in the title role of the king of the Briton Motorcycle Club, who are battling the corrupt cops of the Roman Police Department. Hawke plays the villainous, agitating Iachimo, Milla Jovovich plays Harris’s queen, Anton Yelchin is her son, and, of course, there’s a pair of star-crossed lovers - Dakota Johnson (FIFTY SHADES OF GREY) as Harris’s princess daughter and Penn Badgley (Gossip Girl) as her secret commoner husband. 

All the film's dialogue comes from the original text, albeit trimmed down to the essentials, and it’s fun to see folks like John Leguizamo (as Badgley’s servant) put such effort into their recitations. The old school manner of speaking is an amusing anachronism in this Brooklyn crime-lord context, but you really have to pay attention to follow it or it can get pretty confusing - especially with all the bloody, layered plotting. I appreciated several of CYMBELINE’s set pieces, particularly one in which Jovovich sings Dylan’s “Dark Eyes” (much in the manner of Patti Smith’s version), but it’s far from an easy, entertaining viewing. Like his HAMLET, Almereyda’s take on the Bard here is initially an interesting experiment but one that’s hardly essential.

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Heist Scenes in the Movies: How Plausible Are They?

This is a guest post by Brandon Meagher:

There are countless classic moments in cinema that feature jaw-dropping heists, robberies and crime capers. While watching these shockingly memorable scenes, some viewers might catch themselves wondering, “Could that really happen?” Others, however, might think, “That’s literally impossible!”

Although we could argue both sides of this debate indefinitely, here’s the main point to remember: it’s only a movie. Reality often gets suspended when seen from Hollywood’s exaggerated lens. A blog piecefrom Atlanta Lockmaster states it best by explaining that movie criminals are the career/veteran like crooks while in reality the majority are young petty thieves looking to make a big score.

In fact, based on recent studies conducted around bank heists and robberies, would-be thieves stand a higher chance of receiving a payout in the movies than out on the streets.

Real Bank Heists vs The Heists in the Movies

According to 2009 research compiled by the FBI, an average robbery payout in the U.S. totaled roughly $4,000. You were probably expecting a much larger sum, right?

That assumption likely results from films such as Ben Affleck’s entertaining crime drama, THE TOWN (2010), for example. In the opening scene, Affleck and his gang of Boston thugs steal well over $4,000 with automatic assault rifles and frightening masks. Watch this scene and determine for yourself if such a reckless feat could be successfully replicated off-screen.

Criminals Opening Safes On Screen -- I Can Do That...Right?

Another scenic moment many moviegoers love is an intense safe cracking sequence. Our eyes bulge and spines stiffen as we intently watch the sweat dripping down a character’s face while he or she forces open a deposit box, full of valuable jewels or cold hard cash. One such scene particularly stands out as classic edge-of-your-seat cinema -- Charlize Theron’s pulse-pounding heist from THE ITALIAN JOB (2003). With her enemies on hot pursuit, Theron’s character still manages to crack a safe and escape with the loot in stacks of gold in under two minutes.

In actuality, however, the process of breaking into a lockbox is more complex and time consuming. The World Champion safecracker takes an average time of 5 minutes to open a secure bank vault. You can view his impressive performance on the Discovery Channel.

Moreover, the world’s most secure bank vaults require around 15-30 minutes for even the most experienced safecracker to break open.

Beating The Motion Sensors -- They Make it Look So Easy!

Fans of the crime genre also tend to enjoy scenes involving motion sensors such as this iconic moment in MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE (1996) when super-spy Ethan Hunt, played by formidable action star Tom Cruise, repels down a secure vault and catches his own sweat to avoid motion detection.

After watching this far-fetched exploit, you might be shaking your head at the sheer lack of believability. Nevertheless, Cruise’s fictional stunt actually served as inspiration for a real-life robbery in 2010. This case involved a group of South Brunswick, New Jersey, thieves who pulled off a Mission Impossible-esque heist at a local Best Buy. Using power tools, they cut a hole in the store’s roof, repelled through that opening and stole $26,000 worth of laptop computers, while managing to avoid touching the floor. This enabled them to evade both motion sensors and security cameras.

It’s Just a Movie

Although a rare circumstance, this elaborate crime caper suggests that, while they seem virtually improbable, some film heists should not necessarily be discredited as sensationalized box-office drama.   

Regardless of how unrealistic these sequences appear to you, many moviegoers still agree that the image of a stealth crook breaking into bank vaults, avoiding motion detector lasers and walking away with a million dollars is undeniably entertaining.

Are there any scenes from your favorite “Hollywood Heist” that we haven’t analyzed? Tell us about it in the comment section below!


About the Author

Brandon Meagher, a graduate from Georgia State University with a Bachelor of Arts in Film, is a self proclaimed movie junkie and enjoys watching, talking, and blogging about everything film related. You can check out more of his work here at Movies on the Mind. He currently resides in Southwest Florida.

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Monday, August 24, 2015

A Stoner Finds Out That He's A Super Soldier In AMERICAN ULTRA

Now playing a multiplex near you (at least for a week or two):

AMERICAN ULTRA (Dir. Nima Nourizadeh, 2015)

With its hyperkinetic editing, head-banging score, and high body count I kept thinking that this amped up, noisy action comedy must be based on some graphic novel I’ve never heard of.

That its hero (anti-hero?), a shaggy stoner named Mike played by a Jesse Eisenberg, draws cartoons about a monkey astronaut also added to that impression, but no, this isn’t based on any pre-existing property of any kind. So, for a summer movie, it’s got that going for it.

The scenario that on the surface, Eisenberg’s Mike is a small town slacker convenience store clerk, but underneath he’s actually a highly-trained CIA assassin, is, as many critics have pointed out, a one-joke premise. As such, I really dug the set-up, but wasn’t so hot on the punchline.

Mike, who lives with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart, who was also Eisenberg’s love interest in ADVENTURELAND) in the fictional burg of Liman, West Virginia, doesn’t know he’s a genetically engineered killing machine because he’s been “de-activated.”

But when two black-ops gunmen approach him in the parking lot of the Cash-N-Carry where he works, and he is able to swiftly disarm and kill them - with the help of a cup of soup and a spoon, mind you – he knows something is up.

Mike has been re-activated by Connie Britton as CIA agent Victoria Lasseter because her young assholish boss Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to end the Ultra program - the government experiment that had brainwashed Mike to begin with - and our pot-smoking protagonist is tagged for termination.

So the movie becomes a manhunt for Mike, with he and Phoebe being pursued by a bunch of Ultra operatives, including the creepy Walton Goggins and stand-out stunt woman Monique Ganderton, through a police station shoot-out, a raid at their drug dealer friend Rose’s (John Leguizamo) pad, and finally a box store climax where things get more than messy.

The bombardment of the second half’s series of shoot-outs, fight scenes, and chases got very tiresome as there have been so many movies about indestructible bad-ass with unique sets of skills, and there’s only so much of seeing Eisenberg offing attacker after attacker that I could be amused by.

There is a funny thread about Mike trying to pick the right time to propose to Phoebe amid all the chaos (Eisenberg sells this sort of neurotic, lovesick stuff much better than the killing machine material unsurprisingly), and a batch of good lines sprinkled throughout (like “They had guns and knives and they were being total dicks!”), but there’s not enough of a spark of real inspiration to make this a truly memorable experience.

Screenwriter Max Landis may have thought that the love story part of it would give the rest the gas to power it on through, but I really wasn’t buying Stewart’s role particularly when it came to the big reveal about why she’d stay in a long term relationship with such a deadbeat.

AMERICAN ULTRA is an ultra violent mash-up of THE BOURNE IDENTITY and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, with a fair amount of the comic carnage of KICK-ASS (minus the superhero angle) mixed in as well. It has its moments, but I wish Max Landis’ screenplay took more chances, and didn’t just stick to a done to death formula. The idea that a stoner comes to find out that he’s a super soldier in secret is a good one; if only they had one or two more good ideas for it to rub up against.

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Monday, August 17, 2015

THE END OF THE TOUR: A Hangout Movie About Being Hung Up

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

THE END OF THE TOUR (Dir. James Ponsoldt, 2015)

I have to confess that I’ve never read any of the late David Foster Wallace’s work, but after seeing this thoughtful, insightful and thoroughly moving movie, his highly touted 1,079-page novel “Infinite Jest” has rocketed to the top of my list.

The film is centered around Wallace, played by Jason Segel, being accompanied by journalist David Linsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, to Minneapolis for the last stop on the promotional book tour for “Infinite Jest” in the winter of 1996.

Linsky is doing a profile of Wallace for Rolling Stone, that he says will be about “what it’s like to be the most talked about writer in the country.” Linsky’s editor (Ron Livingston) approves his pitch to do the piece on the condition that he asks Wallace if the rumors of his heroin use are true.

Linsky is a big fan of Wallace, and wishes that his writing was as successful, as his own novel “The Art Fair” failed to make much of a splash in the literary world. Linsky is even annoyed that his girlfriend (an extremely underused Anna Chlumsky) seems to like Wallace’s work better than his.

“He wants something better than he has, I want precisely what he has already,” is how Linsky succinctly sums up the situation. The two meet at Wallace’s suburban house in Bloomington, Illinois where he lives with two dogs, and their rambling yet consistently fascinating conversation begins.

In the first of many scenes set in diners, Wallace senses Linsky’s nervousness and reassures him by saying that he’s terrified too and that they’ll get through it together.

Then the two Davids bond over a junk food run to a convenience store (“if we ate like this all the time, what would be wrong with that?”), and continue their conversing at Wallace’s house over smokes and R.E.M. on the stereo (I swear that “Perfect Circle” played twice in the background before going on to the next song on “Murmur,” “Catapult” but that’s neither here nor there).

The next day, Linsky and Wallace fly to Minneapolis where they are greeted by the always welcome Joan Cusack as Patty, a perky, quirky book tour escort, who drives the two to Wallace’s scheduled events including a bookstore reading and a radio interview. During their time in town, they also get lost in Mall of America, and take in a movie there: the dumb John Travolta action flick BROKEN ARROW funnily enough.

At the bookstore appearance, Wallace introduces Linsky to a couple of female friends, Betsy (Mickey Sumner), who Wallace used to date, and Julie (Mamie Gummer - you know, Meryl Streep’s daughter) as a groupie turned friend. Wallace and Linsky hang with the two ladies at Gummer’s apartment because she has a TV, but the evening gets a bit tense when Wallace thinks that Linsky is hitting on his ex flame. After a period of barely speaking the following day, their last one together, they hash it out and Linsky finally puts the heroin question to Wallace.

THE END OF THE TOUR, director James Ponsoldt’s follow-up to last year’s much buzzed about THE SPECTACULAR NOW, is a hangout movies about being hung up. As fame approaches, Wallace wants to be seen as a regular guy whose only addiction is television, but Linsky questions this: “You don’t crack open a 1,000-page book because the author’s a regular guy. You do it because he’s brilliant…So who the fuck are you kidding?”

The spectre of Wallace’s suicide twelve years after the events here can’t help but loom over the proceedings, but Segel’s warmth and humor as Wallace is so in the moment that we can forget that he’s ultimately a tragic figure. This is undoubtedly Segel’s most layered and lived-in performance, and it’s probably the most accomplished acting by any of the Freaks and Geeks alumni. Sorry, James Franco.

Eisenberg holds his own with Segel, but his part isn’t anything we haven’t seen him do before. If you want to get a slice of Eisenberg with a twist, see AMERICAN ULTRA.

Scripted by Donald Margulies (DINNER WITH FRIENDS) from Linsky’s 2010 book “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself,” THE END OF THE TOUR is somehow simultaneously breezy and deep. It’s like one of those late night talks that feels initially feels laid back, but, in the middle of all the shooting the shit there’s some heavy soul barring going on.

Put another way, in this series of loose chats between these two soul searching writers, there’s one of the best movies of the year going on.

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Grand Self Mythology Of STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON

Now playing at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. F. Gary Gray, 2015)

This super-sized (nearly 2 and a half hours!) biopic of hip hop legends N.W.A., co-produced by the group’s key members, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube, is undoubtedly a work of grand self mythology. But since self mythology is a large part of the hip hop game, it’s hard to imagine it any other way.

The flashy, larger-than-life sweep to the story of how Dr. Dre, Easy E, Ice Cube, MC Ren, and DJ Yella - portrayed respectively by Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Aldis Hodge, and Neil Brown Jr. - rose out of the poor South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Compton is initially intoxicating; at times it feels like you’re a fly on the wall of a chaotic in-your-face party.

Of course, it’s a party that’s interrupted by the police every so often, as those infamous clashes with the law are a large part of what gave the West Coast gangsta-rap pioneers the moniker of “the most dangerous band in the world.”

In a role that’s not entirely unlike his part in the Brian Wilson biopic LOVE & MERCY – (i.e. the questionable manager/mentor archetype), Paul Giamatti plays Jerry Heller, a longtime music industry maven who befriends Easy E after the single “Boyz-n-the-Hood” makes a splash. Heller and Easy E start Ruthless Records, Heller lands N.W.A. a deal with Priority Records, and the band start recording the move’s 1988 namesake album “Straight Outta Compton.”

As per the formula, the film is broken down into a series of greatest hits highlights. The most effective of which is the sequence surrounding their signature anti-police brutality anthem “Fuck Tha Police.”

The controversial track was inspired by an incident dramatized in the film in which the group was harassed by asshole cops during the recording of their debut, and it caught the attention of the FBI. At a show in Detroit, N.W.A. is ordered by a local police chief not to play the song, but, of course, they defy the order and the audience goes from wildly chanting to rioting as cops rush the stage.

In between these energetic bursts of beat-filled energy we get a lot of complaining about not getting paid. Dr. Dre and the rest of N.W.A. bitch about not getting their contracts while Heller and Easy E are eating lobster dinners; after leaving the group, Ice Cube busts up the office of Priority Records exec Bryan Turner (Tate Ellington) because of non-compensation, and so on.

The rivalry between Ice Cube and his former band members, who call him “Benedict Arnold” on a track from their second and final album “Niggaz4Life,” makes for another entertaining back and forth, but the film peaks around the time that the Rodney King beating became a major part of the 24 hour news cycle in ’91. The narrative gets messier after that, with a mess of characters popping in and out of the mix, much like the brief guest cameos that pop up on many of hip hop albums. For example, Keith Stanfield puts in an appearance as Snoop Dogg, does a dead-on impression of the young rapper, then disappears.

There is a lot of criticism that the movie, which was scripted by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff (WORLD TRADE CENTER), sanitizes N.W.A.’s story by leaving out such incriminating events as when Dr. Dre attacked hip-hop journalist Denise “Dee” Barnes in a nightclub in ‘91, and that it glosses over the frequent charge of misogyny in their lyrics. Indeed, women do the short end of the stick in this celebratory boys club of a biopic – they are the girlz on the side of the boyz in the hood, often appearing only as groupies in hotel scene backgrounds or extras at topless pool parties.

The men dominate the proceedings so much that when Carra Patterson appears as Easy E’s girl Tomica in the final act scenes that depict the rapper on his deathbed with AIDS, I wasn’t sure how much she had been in the film before.

As for the leads, Hawkins and Mitchell nail their parts as Dre and E, and Giamatti puts in another reliable performance that's equal parts sincerity and sleaze. And, having done no research beforehand, I was floored by how much of a dead ringer for Ice Cube that Jackson Jr. is - I was like 'kudos to the casting director! They must have searched the globe to find a guy that looks and acts that much like the iconic rapper!' Then I find out that he's Ice Cube's son. Man, I'm such an idiot sometimes.

However, the rest of the playas hardly register. MC Ren and DJ Yella consulted on the film, but their onscreen doppelgangers have little to do or say, and R. Marcus Taylor as producer/promoter mogul Suge Knight, one of the film's other villains, casts an imposing shadow but little else.

Now, I was a white teen who was just starting to get into hip hop at the time that this stuff was going down. I was more a Public Enemy guy, but I remember having “Straight Outta Compton” on cassette back in the day. This successfully took me back to when I was working as a record store clerk reading about these stories in music magazines, and seeing it covered on MTV News.

Despite its self serving short-comings, this big screen bio captures the look, sound, and spirit of both N.W.A. and the era in spades. Just don’t go in looking for anything less than pure legend.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

Guy Ritchie’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.: A Stiff Yet Glib Exercise

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. (Dir. Guy Ritchie, 2015)

Guy Ritchie’s update of the ‘60s spy television series The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may be his best looking, and most stylish film, but sadly it may be his least interesting.

Now, I may be experiencing a form of formula fatigue after a summer of being bombarded by a bunch of big ass blockbuster wannabes, but this cold war action thriller struck me as so rote, and by-the-numbers that I almost nodded off a few times.

The duo of Henry Cavill (MAN OF STEEL) and Armie Hammer (LONE RANGER), as art thief/CIA Napoleon Solo and KGB agent Illya Kuryaki, the iconic roles previously played by Robert Vaughn and David McCallum, goes through the predictable motions: you know, at first they hate each other, then they build a grudging respect, etc.

The plot, which has them reluctantly paired together to stop an evil organization from building a nuclear bomb that could cause the “end of the world, that kind of thing” as one of the not so sharp lines in the screenplay by Ritchie and frequent collaborator Lionel Wigram puts it, is uninspired, tired stuff. It says a lot that Paul Feig’s Melissa McCarthy vehicle SPY from earlier this summer had a more involving narrative.

Alicia Vikander, an actress who is having a breakthrough year via major roles in EX MACHINA, TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, and this, plays Gaby Teller, the daughter of a German scientist who was kidnapped by the bad guys. Gaby joins Napoleon and Illya on their mission, travelling with them to Rome where we find out who the film’s villain is: the glamorous blonde bombshell arms dealer Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).

Some of the set-pieces pop – particularly a high speed chase involving a dune buggy, a jeep, and a motorcycle that slickly incorporates split screens – but most are workmanlike and without much momentum. It’s a shame that this project, that was in development hell since the early ‘90s, turned out to be such an unremarkable piece of product. And it’s one that’s stiff yet glib at the same time.

It’s also a bit amusing, more amusing than the actual material here, that almost everybody is playing another nationality. Cavill is British playing an American. Hammer is American playing a Russian. Vikander is British playing a German. Debicki is Australian playing an Italian. The British Jarred Harris, who plays Cavill’s CIA boss, affects an American accent that sounds like he’s imitating Ed Asner. When Hugh Grant popped up as the head of U.N.C.L.E. (which, by the way, stands for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement), I was just happy that he was speaking with his real voice.

Ritchie’s reboot, re-imaging, re-whatever THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. isn’t without its charms – they are just in small supply. Cavill’s Solo exudes charisma, and gives us a little taste of what his Clark Kent could be like, but he’s crudely offset by the humorlessness of Hammer’s take on Illya. Vikander adds a nice splash of color to the proceedings, but mainly because of her mod dresses. Still, a bit where she dances drunk in a hotel room behind Hammer’s back is adorable.

So that’s another entry in this year’s summer cinema sweepstakes – a fairly forgettable re-branding of an old TV show. Fall can’t come soon enough.

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Friday, August 07, 2015

No Rationale Makes IRRATIONAL MAN Into Worthwhile Woody Allen

Now playing at an art house near me:

(Dir. Woody Allen, 2015)

In my review of Woody Allen’s previous film, 2014's MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT, I proposed that in the last decade or so of Woody Allen's nearly half-century filmmaking career, every other film is worthwhile. However, while his latest, IRRATIONAL MAN, is a considerable improvement over the fluffy, inconsequential rom com MAGIC, I'm seriously re-thinking that theory.

However, it does starts off intriguingly with protagonist Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a boozing, tortured philosophy professor arriving at the fictional Braylin College in Rhode Island to teach a summer session. Phoenix’s inner monologue/voice over tells us that he’s hit rock bottom emotionally and existentially, while gossip among the staff and students around campus tells us that that’s exactly what makes him attractive (“I kind of like the burnout look,” we hear a coed tell her friends, who wholeheartedly agree).

Before long, Phoenix’s Abe is spending a lot of time with one of his students, Jill Pollard played by Emma Stone, making her second appearance in an Allen film (MAGIC was her first), and he’s also being pursued by Parker Posey as Rita Richards, an unhappily married science professor.

Abe succumbs to Rita, but his mental hang ups have rendered him impotent. This helps him to resist Jill’s attempts to seduce him, citing that she has a devoted boyfriend who’s more suited for her, the preppy Roy played by Jamie Blackley. Blackley is stuck with one of Allen’s clichéd archetypes – the nice guy boyfriend who’s destined to be cheated on.

So for a bit we follow Phoenix and Stone around as they stroll around Braylin (actually Salve Regina University), and Newport discussing the subtleties of situational ethics, and referencing the work of such grand thinkers as Dostoyevsky and Kant. Then an actual plot development occurs – in a diner they overhear a conversation in which a woman talking with friends about her bitter custody battle. The judge presiding over the case is on her ex-husband’s side, and he’s drawing out the trial in order to bleed the woman dry. “I hope the judge gets cancer,” she exclaims, but Abe, stricken by what he hears, starts to hatch a plan in his head.

Abe, believing that he has finally found a meaningful act that will snap him out of his despair, schemes to murder the judge. He figures that his lack of motive and connection to the involved parties will make this the perfect crime, and that the world will be a better place without the corrupt judge. This decision changes Abe’s outlook on life radically, and the scenes in which he plots his victim’s demise are the most compelling in the movie – aided in no small part by the well utilized lively piano jazz of the Ramsey Lewis Trio on the soundtrack.

Abe secures cyanide to do the deed by stealing Rita’s key to the college’s chem lab, and stalks the judge so that he can learn his routine. Early on a Saturday morning, Abe is able to successfully poison the judge’s orange juice while he’s taking a break from running to read the paper on a park bench.

Initially, it looks like Abe has indeed committed the perfect murder as the judge’s death is considered to be by heart attack, but days later an autopsy detects the cyanide. Both Jill and Rita begin to suspect Abe, especially after certain clues start piling up that point to his guilt. Jill confronts Abe and he confesses the crime to her, but sticks to his stance that the murder was morally justified. Then its announced that the police have a suspect and Abe has to deal with the fact that an innocent man may take the fall.

As similar situations have happened in Allen’s work before – most notably in CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS and MATCH POINT – it can appear that the 79-year old writer/director is obsessed with whether murder can be gotten away with or if we live in a moral universe where that’s impossible. Problem is that he’s handled these themes much better before (especially in CRIMES which it appears he's remade several times now) and in this effort it feels a lot like he’s yet again treading water.

Underneath all the talky philosophizing, there's no interesting ideas that are being expressed in Allen's screenplay. It's pretty by-the-numbers stuff narratively, and its ending is an unsatisfyingly rushed wrap-up. The love story angle, whether it's between Phoenix and Stone or Phoenix and Posey, is fairly unaffecting as well.

But it does feature some fine, appealing acting - Phoenix’s lived-in performance as Abe, a guy who's into Russian novelists and Russian roulette, beautifully conveys a kind of meticulous messiness, Stone makes an energetic effort in embodying Jill, and Posey makes the most out of a underwritten role. On another plus side, returning cinematographer Darius Khondji, who shot Allen's TO ROME WITH LOVE, MIDNIGHT IN PARIS, and MAGIC IN THE MOONLIGHT gives the film a great, lush look (the town of Newport, Rhode Island never looked better), but there’s just not any there there.

Allen’s 46th film as filmmaker is sadly another weak late period effort. It’s time for me to throw the “every other one is good” theory out the window, because there’s not a rationale I can think of that makes IRRATIONAL MAN into worthwhile Woody Allen.

More later...

Monday, August 03, 2015

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION Soars As High As Cruise's Amazing Airplane Stunt

Now playing at a multiplex near all of us:


(Dir. Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

I thought it would've been impossible for Tom Cruise to top his death defying stunt in the last entry in this series (MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - GHOST PROTOCOL), which was scaling Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, aka the tallest building in the world, without a stuntman for Chrissakes!

But obviously the man takes these missions very seriously so this time out, in the first five minutes no less, we see his Ethan Hunt hanging on to the side of an airplane as it takes off. Again, there was no stuntman. Is anybody going to be surprised if he actually gets killed doing another one of these crazy stunts on a future sequel?

Anyway, it’s a pretty thrilling opening to the fifth MISSION IMPOSSIBLE which re-unites Cruise with his IMF (Impossible Missions Force) team members Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames, while Jeremy Renner watches via satellite back in Washington D.C.

Via his amazing airplane stunt, Cruise’s Hunt is able to stop terrorists’ shipment of missiles laced with nerve gas from reaching its destination and we’re off and running with Lalo Schifrin’s famous theme music blaring over the flashy credits sequence.

Then we’ve got Alec Baldwin as stuffy CIA director Alan Hunley who wants to dismantle the IMF because of their reckless disregard for rules and regulations, and recall all the operatives, especially Hunt, but nobody is giving up his location.

Months later, Hunt is captured by The Syndicate, the evil organization that he’s been unable to prove the existence of to his former superiors. With the help of a British agent (a badass Rebeccca Ferguson) Hunt is able to escape - after a torture room fight scene, that is. Hunt has a lead to pursue – the blonde, well-groomed but rat faced assassin who captured him played by Sean Harris, who’s a much better villain than Michael Nyqvist in the previous installment, 2011's GHOST PROTOCOL.

From there we get killer set piece after killer set piece. In one, Cruise and crew thwart an assassination attempt at the Vienna opera house involving more than one sniper. Another mighty sequence features a major motorcycle chase down Morocco’s winding R203 highway, and yet another has Cruise holding his breath for 6 and a ½ minutes in order to access a computer server that’s stored underwater. Yep, ROGUE NATION’s high ratio of kick ass set pieces puts every other action movie this year to shame. James Bond’s highly anticipated next adventure, SPECTRE, has its work cut out for it to top this.

The twists and turns in the plot involving a flash drive that contains all of the Syndicate’s secrets – the film’s MacGuffin - and how the British Prime Minister (Tom Hollander) and the head of MI6 (Simon McBurney) figure in the cover-up are fine, but it’s the beautifully bombastic barrage of stunts, fights, chases, and self aware humor (a lot of which comes from Simon Pegg who welcomely has a larger role than before) that audiences will most respond to.

Who knew that the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series would become one of the most solid and dependable movie franchises out there? It’s stunning and impressive how increasingly stunning and impressive each new entry has been. Christopher McQuarrie, who’s worked with Cruise in JACK REACHER, and co-wrote the Cruise vehicles VALKRIE and EDGE OF TOMORROW, joins Brian de Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird in the exclusive club of hot shot film makers who’ve performed great genre exercises in the form of these M:I movies.

The bottom line on Cruise has been for a while that whatever you think of his off screen drama with the Scientology and all, the guy makes good movies. You look at his filmography and there’s a lot of quality there. Cruise’s performance as Ethan Hunt works so well because the guy projects an air of cocky arrogance but there’s a detectable level beneath that where you can sense real fear that he has to talk himself out of. In other words, there’s a believable, relatable human being behind the action star front.

I’m definitely down with Bilge Ebiri who posited on that “It’s Time to Start Liking Tom Cruise Again,” and seeing the excellent, intelligent, and genuinely exciting MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION is the best place to now put that into practice.

More later...