Monday, October 31, 2016

INFERNO: David S. Pumpkins Was More Profoundly Puzzling

Now playing at a multiplex near you:

INFERNO (Dir. Ron Howard, 2016)

It’s a damn shame that Tom Hanks only has one live action franchise and it’s this one. At least he’s has still got a primo animated franchise going with Pixar’s TOY STORY series (the fourth one due in 2019).

Here, Hanks teams with Ron Howard again for the third chapter in the Robert Langdon film series, based on Dan Brown’s bestselling novels, which began ten years ago with THE DA VINCI CODE, followed by 2009’s ANGELS & DEMONS.

This time, Hanks’ Harvard Professor of Symbology Langdon awakens in a hospital in Florence, Italy with a head wound and no memory of how he got there. He’s also haunted by apocalyptic visions involving fire, serpents, people with faces on the backs of their head, rivers of blood, and all sorts of chaotic hellish imagery.

Langdon is being tended to by Felicity Jones as Dr. Sienna Brooks, an admirer of his work, of course, and they discover that in his jacket pocket he has the film’s first McGuffin, a mysterious cylinder, with a biohazard sign on it.

Then a black clad assassin (Ana Ularu) starts shooting at them, killing another doctor in the hallway, and Langdon and Brooks are on the run. Back at Brooks’ apartment, the duo find in his belongings a Faraday pointer, which projects Sandro Boticelli’s the famous “Map of Hell,” based on Dante’s Inferno. In the painting they find the name of billionaire Bertrand Zobrist, whose evil plan they find is wipe out 95% of the world’s population via a world wide virus.

The police, associates from the World Health Organization headed by Elizabeth Sinskey (Sidse Babett Knudsen), a sketchy security firm, and the aforementioned assassin narrow in on Langdon and Brooks and we’re off on another chase then museum stop for more clues then another chase. One of these chases, involving a drone chasing our heroes through a Renaissance garden, is actually fairly fun!

Despite that the stakes have to do with Langdon saving most of the population of earth, they don’t feel like they’re that high, mainly because he’s able to too easily get out of close scrapes and the many shadowy folks that are chasing him and his new much younger partner (don’t worry there’s no forced romance here) sure take a long time to catch up.

There’s also not much to the villain Zobrist played by Ben Foster, who’s been way more effectively sinister in such films as 3:10 To YUMA, 30 DAYS TO NIGHT, and ALPHA DOG, and there’s a twist involving him that has very little impact.

This is just Hanks and Howard going through the motions of another Dan Brown formula, adapted in a workman like manner by screenwriter David Koepp (JURRASIC PARK, INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE LOST SKULL, SPIDER-MAN). Hanks has charm a plenty, and Howard keeps the pace moving, but it can’t help but feel like a tired exercise. By the time we get to the climax set at the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul I was so beyond caring.

That sequence and the rest of the film, including a visit to Venice, all look quite exquisite thanks to the eye of cinematographer Salvatore Totino, so maybe the movie makes for a mildly intriguing travelogue rather than the intense mystery adventure it was aiming to be.

It’s funny that a week before the opening of INFERNO, Hanks made more notable news when he hosted Saturday Night Live for the first time in ten years. I predict that his absurd appearance as the immediately iconic David S. Pumpkins will go down as a more profoundly puzzling piece of pop culture than this. That’s a good thing, especially because INFERNO lost out to being #1 at the box office to BOO! A MADEA HALLOWEEN. So Hanks had at least one definite win this season, even if it wasn’t on the big screen. Any questions?

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Saturday, October 22, 2016


Now playing at an indie art house near me:

DENIAL (Dir. Mick Jackson, 2016)

This is this year’s TRUTH, and that’s not a good thing.

If you’ve forgotten about TRUTH, which was about the 2004 “Rathergate” scandal, and released this same week a year ago, that’s completely understandable because it was a unremarkable piece of pure Oscar bait; an issue movie with big stars that was engineered to win awards.

But it was bait that was rejected and won no awards - it didn’t get any major nominations – and it faded away.

DENIAL will maybe fair better as it’s about a much weightier subject – i.e. the holocaust – and it’s a much better film, but it resembles TRUTH in that it so self importantly depicts a true-life scenario involving a fight for justice headed by an idealistic woman who was born to make inspirational speeches.

In this case, a curly red-haired Rachel Weisz plays author/historian Deborah E. Lipstadt whose 2005 book “History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier” serves as the film’s basis.

With curly red hair and a not terribly convincing Queens accent, Rachel Weisz plays Lipstadt, who we meet teaching a class on the basics of holocaust denial: how deniers claim that the killings weren’t systematic, the numbers of deaths were exaggerated, that there weren’t gas chambers, etc.

During a Q & A at DeKalb Community College in Atlanta in 1994, Lipstadt is challenged by a man named David Irving, portrayed by Timothy Spall with a permanent scowl, who declares “I’ve got a thousand dollars in my pocket I’ll give to anyone who can prove Hitler ordered the killing of the Jews!”

A few years later, Irving sues Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin Books, for libel claiming that Lipstadt’s 1993 book “Denying the Holocaust,” which labeled him as “one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial,” damages his livelihood and reputation as a serious historian.

Lipstadt travels to London for the trial and gets lawyered up with an ace legal team including British-Jewish lawyer Anthony Julius (Andrew Scott), who represented Princess Diana in her divorce; and barrister Richard Rampton (Tom Wilkinson).

The fly fishing, wine loving Rampton insists that they take a trip to Auschwitz so that he can inspect it like a crime scene. Lipstadt is emotionally stirred by walking around the gray haunted grounds of the former concentration camp, while her team coldly concentrates on the forensics of the case.

It’s nearly halfway through the film before we get to the trial, in which the team’s strategy is for neither Lipstadt nor any Holocaust survivors to testify because Irving, who’s representing himself, will have a stage on which he can intimidate and mock them.

Irving’s case centers around the existence of gas chambers for the purpose of killing Jews at Auschwitz, and he argues that there is no evidence of the chimneys or ducts that the Nazi’s poured poison pellets into and his statement “No Holes, No Holocaust” becomes a newspaper headline and a famous Revisionist slogan.

This is compelling stuff story-wise, and David Hare’s (THE READER) screenplay is sharply written but Jackson’s unimaginative execution of the material makes for too many scenes that just serve to carry us from beat to beat instead of building any momentum or compelling suspense.

Despite the undeniable passion that Weisz brings to her part, some of her line readings are stilted and off, possibly due to her handling of Lipstadt’s accent. However, she fares well with warmth in a downtime moment at her apartment with Wilkinson (don’t worry there is no contrived romance here or elsewhere in the film).

Sadly, Spall’s Irving is just an evil caricature of a sad man with a flimsy case. There’s no scene or moment that’s reveals anything about the guy that we can’t guess from the get go.

The arching theme of fighting for truth against a movement founded in lies is especially relevant these days in light of our current political climate in which a certain candidate’s outrageous utterances are scrutinized and debunked daily, but DENIAL doesn’t really have much to say beyond its presentation of the basic facts of the trial’s circumstances.

While it’s a very watchable, and reasonably entertaining movie, DENIAL only exists to discredit a horrible point of view that has already been well discredited, and get some award season action in the process. But as we get further into fall, and it gets overshadowed by bigger and better projects, and largely forgotten, I predict that’ll it will join TRUTH on the shelf of earnest but overreaching historical melodrama Oscar bait fails.

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Thursday, October 20, 2016

JACK REACHER Is Back In A Standard Issue Action Thriller Sequel

Opening today at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Edward Zwick, 2016)

The first movie in the budding Jack Reacher franchise, 2012’s JACK REACHER, was a standard issue action thriller, and this is its standard issue action thriller sequel.

Tom Cruise, who also co-produced, returns as the army trained indestructible badass title character, in this adaptation of the eighteenth entry in Lee Child’s Reacher series (the first film was based on the ninth novel – don’t ask me why they are doing them out of order) with writer/director Edward Zwick replacing Christopher McQuarrie at the helm.

After an opening scene that, apart from a few crucial beats, has been heavily spoiled in the film’s trailer and TV spots, involving Reacher turning the table on a couple of corrupt cops in a diner, we learn that our stoic, rarely smiling hero is still doing his drifter thing off the grid. 

The guy has stricken up a bit of a long-distance relationship over the phone with a Major Susan Turner (Colbie Smulders, still best known as Robin from How I Met Your Mother despite her more recent work in Marvel movies), who has taken over his post in the military police force.

Despite that they’ve not met in person, Reacher and Turner set a dinner date for the next time he’s in the D.C. area, but when he gets there he finds out that she’s been arrested for espionage, after two of her sergeants were killed in Afghanistan under suspicious circumstances. Our hero senses she’s been framed and seeks out her defense attorney (Tony Beard), who tells him that one of the reasons that Turner has expressly forbidden Reacher from getting involved, is that he might be a deadbeat dad.

So the mystery of whether or not Danika Yarosh is Reacher’s 15-year old daughter Samantha is intertwined with the mystery of who’s behind the setup that comes to involved Reacher himself getting framed for the murder of Turner’s lawyer. So Reacher breaks Turner out of military jail, they find Samantha, and the threesome are on the run, mostly from Patrick Heusinger as an darkly dressed assassin only credited as “The Hunter.”

Reacher and The Hunter tangle in brutally violent fight scenes, there’s a deafening amount of gunfire in the shoot ‘em ups, and, of course, as in any Cruise action flick, there’s a lot of on foot chases (check out this supercut of “Every Tom Cruise Run Ever” which was recently added to YouTube – it goes on for nearly 19 minutes).

I’m unsure of what the title, NEVER GO BACK, means. Maybe it’s supposed to be taken in a Thomas Wolfe “you can’t go home again” way, like how Reacher returns to his old army base and has to keep telling everyone who salutes him as a major, that he’s an “ex-major.” But that doesn’t really seem to fit as it seemed like he was only visiting the place to get a date. Whatever the case, I bet it’s something that’s conveyed better in the book.

As with just about every sequel released this year, it’s a case of diminishing returns. The first one was no classic, but it was edgier and had Werner Herzog as the villain – Heusinger’s Hunter puts forth some effective evilness, but sure can’t top that.

Many times I felt like I was watching a TV show, which makes sense as director/co-writer Zwick has a lot of small screen experience, with how the narrative slickly moving from set piece to set piece with perfect places for commercial breaks. Seems like the fair to middling movie franchise would make for a much better Showtime series.

The plot points surrounding the conspiracy and cover-up involving the selling of US arms on the black market, really didn’t hold my interest. But the Reacher bonding with his possible daughter angle had a little more going for it because there’s some unforced cuteness (largely on account of Yarosh), but not much.

Smulders, who with her role in the Marvel movies as Commander Maria Hill, puts in a strong performance as a strong woman who can take care of herself here, but I wish that the film gave her more chances to upstage Cruise. Smulders’ Turner stands up to Reacher, but still lags behind him in the New Orleans-set climax which involves a chase across rooftops in the French Quarter with fireworks overhead – this plays out as predictably clichéd as it sounds.

He’s getting slightly more grizzled looking now, but at 54 Cruise can still pull off being an A-list action hero – especially if guys like Liam Neeson can still do it at a decade older. Hell, Harrison Ford is still making BLADE RUNNER and INDIANA JONES movies * and he’s 74!

Point is, Cruise still has a lengthy career ahead of being an indestructible badass. But, here’s hoping that he’ll choose worthier, more inspired projects than this in the years to come.

* Okay, Fords last Indiana Jones movie was in 2008, but he’s got another scheduled for 2019, and BLADE RUNNER 2049 comes out in a year. So there.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

A MAN CALLED OVE: A Lovely Look At The Life Of A Curmudgeon

Now playing at an indie art house near me:

A MAN CALLED OVE (Dir. Hannes Holm, 2016)

There is a mini genre of movies about old cranky guys whose wives have just died and they have to realize that, with the help of some quirky elements, there are still reasons to still want to be alive. See ABOUT SCHMIDT, GRAN TARINO, and UP for starters.

Add to that short but sweet list writer/director Hannes Holms’s A MAN CALLED OVE, which stars Rolf Lassgård as Ove, a 60-ish widower who lives in a small gated townhouse community in a pretty plain looking suburb of Sweden.

When Ove loses his job of 43 years with the railroad, he decides to take his life so that he can join his wife in the afterlife much sooner. But his attempts to hang himself (with a thin blue nylon rope that you know is just going to break) keep getting interrupted by a family moving in next door.

Ove’s new neighbors consist of the pregnant Iranian refugee Parvaneh (Bahar Pars), her dopey, bearded husband (Tobias Almborg), and their two young daughters (Zozan Akgün and Nelly Jamarani).

Ove’s suicide attempts trigger a series of emotional flashbacks which show us how his parents died at an early age, how he got his job, how he met his wife Sonja (Ida Engvoll), and how, in the most vivid and impactful one, how their life was derailed by a tragic accident.

In between these affecting flashbacks in which Ove is well played by the 30-ish Filip Berg, Parvaneh gets closer to the present day ornery Ove and even has him babysit her kids. Then Ove, who has a heart that’s “too big” as we are told on a hospital visit, takes in a mangy cat, lets a teenager who’s been kicked out of his house for being gay stay at his apartment, and teaches Parveneh how to drive.

However, all through this, Ove daily visits his wife’s grave and tells her he’ll be there as soon as he can.

Based on Fredrik Backman’s 2012 novel, A MAN CALLED OVE is a lovely look at the life of a curmudgeon. It can get a bit cutesy at times, but its humor and plainspoken unpretentiousness grounds the proceedings. I was greatly amused by Lassgård’s Ove who bemoans who he calls the “white shirts” (corporate bureaucrats), and the “idiots” who are pretty much everyone else who gets in his way.

The film serves as a excellent introduction for American audiences (and me) to Lassgård, who’s an award-winning Swedish actor with an impressive resume of film and television work. Holm’s movie itself has deservedly won awards in his home country and is an international hit – it’s also Sweden’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the next Oscars - so don’t let things like subtitles, or weird dislike of foreign films keep you from this charming, uplifting crowd pleaser.

The people who’d pass this up for some lackluster, and uninspiring title at the multiplex are what Ove most mutters under his breath throughout the film: “idiots.”

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Friday, October 07, 2016

THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Powerful But Extremely Problematic

Now playing at a multiplex or indie art house near you:

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (Dir. Nate Parker, 2016)

I can’t remember the last time I was so conflicted over a movie. As many film writers have noted in the case of actor/writer/director/producer Nate Parker’s biopic of slave revolutionary Nat Turner, this is one of the hardest times ever to separate the art from the artist.

For 17 years ago, while attending Pennsylvania State University, Parker and the film’s screenwriter, Jean McGianni Celestin, who were then roommates and wrestling teammates, were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault, but it was later overturned. The accuser, after years of struggling with depression and addiction, committed suicide in 2012.

It was impossible for me to get any of that out of my mind while watching this film. That said, there were moments, maybe even full sequences, where Parker’s film almost transcended his scandal. Almost.

Parker posits his film about Turner as a historical hero’s origin story; a prestige piece of supreme Oscar bait with a sweeping score, impassioned speeches, and soaring camerawork over the countryside.

The countryside in this case being the woods and swamps of Savannah, Georgia standing in for the woods and swamps of Southampton County, Virginia, where the real Turner’s slave uprising took place.

Parker portrays Turner as a scared man constantly reeling from the everyday torture and suffering of his fellow slaves. Except for the opening, in which we meet Turner as a child played by Tony Espinosa (and learn that the boy can read), the film takes place entirely in 1831, in which we witness Turner being exploited by his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) as a preacher to be rented out to other plantations.

On one of their journeys, Nat encourages his owner to buy a young slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), because he’s smitten with her. Not long afterward, Nat and Cherry wed and start a family, but, of course, there’s no happily ever after here.

There are some excruciatingly gruesome scenes in which we see the horrific conditions and treatment of slaves up close – enough to make some people leave the screening I attended – but the camera cuts before rape occurs – and yes, it occurs a number of times, including a dark scene in which Cherry gets assaulted by a group of slave hunters led by Jackie Earle Haley at his most sinister.

Sparked by such evil and what he takes as a sign from God, a solar eclipse, Turner starts holding meetings in the middle of the night with other slaves to plan their rebellion.

This culminates in the ultra violent last third in which Turner and his fellow slaves travel from plantation to plantation slaughtering slave owners and their families until they themselves get mostly slaughtered in the climactic battle scene with a army of white men at a gun distillery. Turner escapes this fate but is caught two months later and is hanged.

Of course, as with any biopic or historical adaptation, filmmakers take a lot of “artistic license” in order to make movies with more dramatic impact, but Parker and Celestin’s vision of Parker takes way too many liberties with what’s on record.

Making Turner’s motivation to revolt being as a result of his wife being raped, which by all accounts didn’t happen, is a wildly inaccurate portrayal, and a curious one considering how unapologetic Parker is about his past (see his recent 60 Minutes interview). It turns Turner’s tale into one of simple revenge instead of the real revolution that went down against the oppression of an entire race.

Parker and his cast including Aunjanue Ellis, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, and Penelope Ann Miller put in solid performances, but I doubt there will be any acting Oscars awarded as no character is fleshed out beyond broad strokes. The cinematography by Elliot Davis is pretty perfunctory as well, with shots that just sit there.

I’m torn because despite those faulty elements there is passion and purpose on the screen at times that’s hard to deny, and I believe Parker and Co. truly believe they have a powerful and important story to tell – one that has a lot of topical validity especially as I consider how the audience reacted to the line “they’re killing people for no reason except being black” – but too many things feel off about THE BIRTH OF A NATION.

I understand why the title was chosen as Parker said that it’s ironic as his film is the antithesis of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic that made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan, but I bet that that re-heated title is just going to be another strike against it in the long run.

I know from working at an indie theater that is opening Parker’s film that there’s a lot of moviegoers who are going to reject it because I’ve heard things like “I’ve saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE, why do I need to see this?” Normally I would think that that was a cynical position, but I hate to say that with the questionable quality of this film and the filmmaker’s troubling back story, that’s a pretty fair question.

So where does that leave me and this review? The most I can say for the film is that it is indeed powerful in parts, and worth seeing if you think you can get past Parker and his screenwriter’s past.

But what may be more powerful is what Sharon Loeffler, the sister of both the director and screenwriter’s accuser, recently wrote in a column in Variety: Nate Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ Exploits My Sister All Over Again. When Loeffler writes that Parker and Celestin abused their power over her sibling, it’s difficult not to agree with her that their incredibly flawed film is yet another abuse of their power.

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Thursday, October 06, 2016

A Drunk Emily Blunt Is THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN, A Poor Man’s GONE GIRL

Opening today at a multiplex near you:


(Dir. Tate Taylor, 2016)

The set-up for this thriller based on Paula Hawkins’ 2012 British bestselling novel is sublimely simple. A young woman named Rachel, played by Emily Blunt, daydreams about the seemingly perfect life of a couple she’s never met that she watches from the window of her train on her daily commute to and from New York City.

We learn from her voice-over that Rachel used be married and lived a few houses down from the couple, but because of her raging alcoholism and inability to have a baby, her husband Tom (Justin Theroux) left her for another woman.

It starts getting complicated when we meet Megan and Anna, who, like Rachel, have their own voice-over narrations and chapter headings. Megan (Haley Bennett) is the woman of the couple Rachel has been watching, who just happens to be the nanny for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), the woman that Rachel’s husband left her for, and they now live in the house that Rachel used to live in with Tom.

On one fateful train ride, Rachel sees Megan kissing a man who’s not her husband on the porch of her home and it shatters Rachel’s world. Rachel gets even drunker than usual, which isn’t difficult because she carries around a Camelback thermos filled with vodka, and she gets off at the stop near the couple’s house and her old home. Rachel sees a blonde woman walking that she thinks is Anna (Megan and Anna resemble each other from a distance because of their long blonde hair) and she yells “slut!” at her and follows her into a pedestrian tunnel.

What happens next is the movie’s mystery as Rachel blacks out, and when she comes to back at her apartment the next morning, she’s covered in blood and has no memory as to what happened.

Turns out Megan has gone missing and Rachel is a suspect in her disappearance as she gathers from the Detective, played by a smirking, skeptical Allison Janney, who comes to question her.

Rachel becomes obsessed with what happened that night, and contacts Megan’s distraught husband Scott (Luke Evans) to tell him that she saw his wife with another man. That other man is revealed to be Megan’s therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), who we see Megan trying to seduce in flashbacks.

The book was called “this year’s ‘Gone Girl’ by many critics, but the movie doesn’t have it in it to make the stylish statement that the movie adaptation GONE GIRL made so superbly. In over words, Tate Taylor is no David Fincher. The film is a poor man's GONE GIRL at best.

Yet, that’s not to say there isn’t style here, and there’s an unnerving tone present that underscores much of the film’s jittery energy. Much of it largely helped into shape by Blunt’s frazzled performance of the heartbroken mess that is Rachel, who spends the movie covered in layers of heavy, grey winter clothing (this helped to hide Blunt’s pregnancy during filming). Despite what we learn of Rachel’s past, and what we see of her questionable present, it’s hard not to feel for the woman, and hope she’s not guilty of murder.

As for the other woman, Bennett, who also appears in this season’s THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN re-imagining, makes an picturesque impression as the beautiful woman that you know doesn’t feel beautiful on the inside, while Ferguson is the most unattended to character here.

Unfortunately, the fluidity of the film’s first three thirds is replaced by a more routine and predictable wrap up, which we have to get through some blatant red herrings to get to.

Taylor, working from a screenplay adaptation of Hawkins’ book (which I haven’t read) by Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY – yay!, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN – boo!), has crafted a film that has the look and feel of a sophisticated, psychological thriller, but underneath lies a lot of familiar conventions, and tropes that Hitchcock, as well as devotees like De Palma have worn to death long ago.

The premise of not being able to trust yourself, or having trusted others too much is a compelling one, especially within a murder mystery in which one doesn’t know if they’re the murderer or not, but despite some intense imagery, and the somewhat intriguing inner monologues, I bet this material had a lot more impact on the page.

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