Category Archives: Movie Reviews

Lousy Movie Reviews

I enjoy writing reviews of (moderately) recent movies and I get the impression they generate some traffic to this humble blog.

Once in a very great while, somebody comments that I only seem to write about movies that I like.
I don’t really understand this observation as I normally see no point in writing about things I don’t like and nothing makes me so unhappy as a poorly-made film.  Since I see no point in making my precious few visitors suffer, I have always shied away from reviewing anything that fails to make the grade.
But I recently noticed I’ve jotted down some thoughts about a few films that I viewed with some initial hope only to have those hopes dashed by the time the closing credits have finished rolling. And many critics will tell you that they often enjoy writing about bad fims as it allows them to give vent to their deep wellsprings of sarcasm fed by their own deeper waters of insecurity.
Since nobody’s ever accused me of lacking either sarcasm or insecurity, I guess I may as well go for it…

Joaquin Phoenix in Her

“Her” – Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannsen in a Spike Jonze film that is part psychodrama and part Science Fiction about a lonely man who cannot maintain lasting personal relationships, then buys an Artificially Intelligent operating system for his PC and proceeds to fall in love with the female avatar which grows out of it.
While the idea is intriguing, and both Phoenix and Johannsen are both talented actors (Ms. Johnannsen should be given a special award for her hitherto unappreciated talents as a voiceover actress; she is that good), the script and the director don’t ever really seem to know exactly where they want to go with it.
Studded with great supporting performances from people like Amy Adams (cast against type as a mousy, non-descript platonic friend), Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader (both also appearing in voiceover roles), and little touches like the setting for the man’s job (“SweetHandwrittenLetters.com”), nevertheless the film seems to run out of steam in the last 20 minutes.
The ending is less than satisfactory and the overall tone is more than a little depressing.  Forget what the New York and L-A critics may have written about existentialism in film, this one isn’t worth the effort except for the cultish and curious who don’t mind spending a little extra time discussing it with their therapists.

Into The Woods Ensemble Cast Image

“Into the Woods” – Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, Tracey Ullman (yay!) and James Corden (also yay!) are more than equal to the task of fleshing out Steven Sondheim’s libretto and songs (BTW, Meryl Streep singlehandedly steals the movie), but why is this a Disney film?
Based on the best-known fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, the resulting effect is more than a little grim in the most literal sense of the word.
Touching heavy-handedly on topics like poverty, hunger, infertility, envy, theft, greed, murder and more besides, the tone of the proceedings never really lightens for more than a minute.
This is in fact an opera because every line is sung.  Once again, Ms. Streep proves herself equal to the task at hand, as do Ms. Blunt, Ms. Ullman and Mr. Corden.  The supporting players are all talented and the film sets out on a promising note, interweaving such old school tales as Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood and more.
But when Johnny Depp as the big bad wolf winds up getting lost in the sauce (he’s barely there for a cup of coffee), one begins to wonder just what is going on.  And if that’s what the viewer is thinking, what were the producers and director doing all this time?
Once again, the overall tone is more than a little cynical and dark and even the most willing of audiences will begin to wonder why – Meryl Streep notwithstanding — they are bothering to watch this.
Add to this one of the cardinal sins of filmmaking: the movie isn’t ready to stop when we are.  This is a feeling I have rarely experienced in a film of any sort: “Can we please wrap this up already?”
You can give this one an ‘A’ for effort and even one for ambition, but sadly the resulting film winds up earning little higher than a ‘B-minus’ for actual execution.  The Disney imprint and source material notwithstanding, this one is not for the kiddies.
Sorry, Walt, better luck next time.
“Green Lantern” – Ryan Reynolds is not a bad actor. If any support is needed for that argument just consider how well he was received in this past year’s mega-hit for Marvel, “Deadpool.”
But this effort some 4 or 5 years previously might be better subtitled, “Dead On Arrival.”

green lantern 1960 comic book cover

Back in the days when I read comic books regularly, Green Lantern was a title I tended to enjoy.  Test pilot Hal Jordan, deputized into the interplanetary Green Lantern Corps, was a role model a lot of young boys wanted to emulate.  Unfortunately, the character in this film is more of an intergalactic schlemiel and a self-centered one at that.  And that’s just the tip of the green iceberg…
Again, it’s important to remember that once an actor’s work is done he must entrust his efforts to a director, an editor and a movie studio (in this case, Warner Brothers) and have some faith that things will turn out well in the end.  One suspects Mr. Reynolds may have had some doubts.  The screenplay credited to four different writers may have been giving off some telltale fumes early on in the proceedings. By then, of course, the cast is more or less trapped and must make their best effort and pray like there’s no tomorrow.

Green Lantern 2011 movie poster

Unfortunately for everyone involved, tomorrow showed up right on schedule.
And Mr. Reynolds is not the only one whose craft is squandered: Tim Robbins and the late Michael Clark Duncan make the best contributions they can, but Robbins is limited to a mugging pantomime best suited to the silent film era, and Duncan is cast in a voiceover role where he is permitted to emote but barely gets 4 entire minutes for his character to do his stuff.
If only costune design and CGI effects alone were enough to carry this movie, but sadly, for all of Green Lantern’s powers, he is at a loss when confronted with a hackneyed script, overcomplicated plot and ham-fisted direction.
Oh and by the way, could we please dispense with all the green-saturated background and foreground shots?  We get it: he’s the GREEN Lantern, already…  Geez!
And if anybody at DC is listening, please, NO REBOOTS!
This has been a public service announcement…

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Movie Review: “Saving Mr. Banks”

Walt Disney Studios, 2014, directed by John Lee Hancock, with Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Paul Giamatti, Jason Schwartzman, Bradley Whitford, Colin Farrell, 125 minutes, Rated PG-13 (for thematic elements including some unsettling images.)

If you’ve never read P L Travers’ books, and only know her most famous character from the silver screen, you don’t really know Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins Movie Poster

Not long after I had seen the Disney movie when I was around 12 years old, I came across one of the books in my local library.  I started reading and was almost at once disappointed. Disney’s Mary Poppins was a nanny extraordinaire, but this woman in the book was nothing at all like what I had expected.
On the printed page, Mary Poppins was uptight, pedantic, inflexible and a disciplinarian, in short nothing less than a stereotypical Edwardian prig.
Like most of the children of 20th century America I was at a loss to understand how the character in the book could have anything in common with the charming woman who had won my heart in the movie theatre.

Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

What happened in between those two productions, of course, was the intervention of Walter Elias Disney. And thereby hangs the tale of “Saving Mr. Banks.”
Not your run of the mill Disney fare; this film not only has a somewhat darker, more introspective tone, it also brings us the unique experience of seeing Walt Disney himself – here portrayed by Tom Hanks – playing a role as a major character. Emma Thompson is P L Travers, the author who has kept Disney at bay for 20 years, unwilling to allow her precious property to fall into Walter’s crass commercial Hollywood hands.

Walt Disney vs Tom Hanks

The movie flashes back and forth between Travers’ childhood in the Australian outback and her present day experience encountering Walt Disney and his staff in Hollywood with undiluted horror and disapproval.

saving-mr-banks Travers dismayed at storyboard

In Australia, we meet Travers’ father, played by Colin Farrell as a loving man possessed by the sort of demons we don’t usually find in a Disney movie.  Her mother, seemingly helpless in the face of such challenges, teeters on the brink of psychological collapse.

colin-farrell-saving-mr-banks-ginty

When the worst comes to pass, an aunt on her mother’s side of the family arrives to take the family in tow, complete with bird handled umbrella and carpet bag.
Meanwhile, in the present day, Walt connives and cajoles to bring his reluctant author to heel. Nothing seems to work: Travers is absolutely shrill in her disapproval of a pretty, singing, dancing and fanciful Mary Poppins and the songwriting Sherman brothers can’t seem to compose anything that even comes near to winning her tolerance, let alone consent.

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It goes without saying that a compromise is reached, but I’ll leave it to you to see the movie itself and learn how.
Disney is not known for works of deep melodrama and those thinking that this is a family picture will be distressed by some of the movie’s action and dialogue.  I would suggest that children younger than 14 should stick with the Disney musical. This one’s more for the parents.
Mind you, it IS a good film; Hanks does his best to submerge himself in the role of Walt Disney and although he doesn’t altogether look like him, he comes close enough that the screenplay works.
Thompson is drawn, fraught and spinsterish with an attitude so uptight she practically squeaks audibly whenever she moves, yet she manages to become a sympathetic character.

m mouse escorts pl travers into theatre

Paul Giamatti is an unexpected delight as her dedicated limo driver while she’s in L-A and, as noted above, Colin Farrell takes a role for which he is more than well-suited and makes the most of it.
And there’s more than a little irony when you consider that the same woman who gave the world “Nanny McFee” is also the one who gave us this neurotically obsessive authoress.

(4 out of 5 stars)

saving mr banks movie poster

Movie Review: “Hitchcock”

Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2012, with Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel and James D’Arcy, 98 minutes, Rated PG-13 (Brief Adult Language, Themes and Situations)

Although I am not as young as I used to be, still I count myself lucky: I got to watch and see one of the most creative, distinctive, unique and commanding film directors of them all at the height of his powers: Alfred Hitchcock.
In a few days it will be the 36th anniversary of his death, a few months from now will be the 117th anniversary of his birth.  I feel confident that if the widely-acknowledged “Master of Suspense” were somehow still here, I know which one he would rather celebrate…
Sacha Gervasi’s film doesn’t require the viewer to have a formal background in the Hitchcock oeuvre, but a working knowledge of Sir Alfred’s filmography does enhance appreciation of the proceedings.
Hopkins vs Hitch
Profiles in filmmaking: (left) Michael Caine, (right) Alfred Hitchcock
Oscar winner Michael Caine, naturally-endowed with a Londoner’s accent, slips effortlessly into Hitchcock’s often-parodied laconic style of speaking. The makeup and costume departments obviously labored long and hard to recreate the signature profile and corpulent body with, it must be said, some success.
However, one never is able to quite shake the awareness that you’re watching Michael Caine, even if your ears tell you you’re hearing “Hitch.”
Insofar as that effort fails, it is the film’s greatest shortcoming, although younger audience members, not so familiar with Hitchcock’s iconic face, may fail to pick up on this discrepancy.
In any event, Caine does superbly in carrying the mood of the piece.
Helen-Mirren-Alma-Reville
The Hitchcocks: (left) in real life, (right) as portrayed by Caine and Mirren
Cast as his wife, screenwriter and lifelong support, Alma Reville, Helen Mirren turns in a portrayal that is precisely on target.
Scarlett Johansson, who seems to never waver in the quality of her performances, is actress Janet Leigh.
As the film opens, it is 1959, Hitchcock is riding high on the success of his most recent movie, “North by Northwest,” and, at 60 years of age, is casting about for his next project.
He’s read a book about a particularly gruesome murder in Wisconsin several years previously and he’s struggling to turn it into a screenplay.  Paramount Pictures, his studio, is leery about the project and even his wife, Alma, thinks the story needs a lot of work.
Jessica-Biel-as-_Vera-Miles_-Scarlett-Johansson-as-_Janet-Leigh_-and-James-DArcy-as-_Anthony-Perkins_-on-the-set-of-HITCHCOCK-
Jessica Biel, Scarlett Johansson and James D’Arcy, as Vera Miles, Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, respectively, recreate the scene in which Hitchcock swears his cast and crew to secrecy over the plot and screenplay of “Psycho”.  Hitch really did take this step, which was considered highly unusual at the time.  Today such non-disclosure agreements are a standard clause in most movie production contracts.
Alma has an apparent platonic friendship with another screenwriter, but could their joint writing sessions be … something more?  For his part, Hitch is busy obsessing over his latest “Hitchcock blonde”, in this case: Janet Leigh.  Is his obsession part of his creative process?
James D’Arcy plays Anthony Perkins, the closeted gay actor whose career is about to become forever associated with the role he is going to take on.
He is to play Norman Bates.
The movie Hitchcock is trying to get produced is called “Psycho”.

Psycho_movie-Bates Motel Sign_animated gif

Film lovers already know the ending, so the tension of the story needs to carry the interest.
The screenplay, chock full of nuggets of the usual Hitchcock Trivia, makes all the obligatory stops: his appreciation of fine wine, his insistence on using storyboards to plan every frame of the picture, his fondness for his dogs, his dependence on drivers since he has never learned to operate a car for himself, his near-legendary obsession with blonde actresses and so forth.
Psycho Theatre Warning Card
Knowing that word-of-mouth would promote his film when Paramount Pictures was reluctant to do so, Hitch took this step to drum up moviegoers’ interest.  It also tended to prevent the premature disclosure that the film’s ostensible star, Janet Leigh, dies barely 30 minutes after the movie gets started.  The tactic worked beautifully.
Hopkins’ Hitchcock is well-portrayed, but it must be said that Mirren, as Alma Reville, less burdened by widespread familiarity within the world of movie fans, has license to make more of her character.  And she does, helping drive the film’s tension when the story leaves the studio back lot and moves into the private world of the Hitchcocks as husband and wife.
But in the end, as the Hitchcocks themselves would tell you, it all comes down to the screenplay. Does it work?  Does it hold your interest?  Do you end up caring about these characters even when you KNOW how the story turns out?
The answer to all three questions is a resounding “Yes!”
“Hitchcock” is a movie that appeals to everyone, whether they worship the Master of Suspense, have only a casual familiarity with his films, or even have never seen the man’s films at all.
Enthusiastically recommended!  (4.75 out of 5 stars)

hitchcock 2012 film poster

 

 

Movie Review: St. Vincent

Bill Murray, Naomi Watts and Melissa McCarthy turn in performances that resonate convincingly in a film that never did the kind of popular business it deserved to do merely because it includes no super-hero characters or thundering explosions.

The quiet ones, with a few exceptions, rarely do.
Murray is charming, authentic and funny as the dysfunctional older man in New Jersey who meets almost-as-dysfunctional McCarthy, a single mom in the middle of a divorce, accompanied by her 8-year-old son.
She’s got too many balls in the air, her son desperately lacks any kind of father figure for guidance (he’s the new Jewish kid in the local Catholic parochial school) and Murray sees a slightly golden opportunity to make a little pocket money for booze and cigs by watching the boy after school.

Oliver and Vincent with Cat

Cue the mutually transformational episodes.
Murray basically drags the boy along through various defining scenes in his dissolute lifestyle.

Oliver and Vincent in Bar

His charge accompanies him to the racetrack, to the local bar and eventually befriends his erstwhile lady friend: a Russian-born stripper and prostitute (another winning portrayal by Naomi Watts, by the way).

Niomi Watts as Daka in St Vincent

There’s a school bully who gets his comeuppance and becomes the boy’s friend.  The sequence in which the boy helps Murray score big by successfully intuiting a Trifecta at the track is enough to make you cheer even as you may be shaking your head in bewilderment.

Oliver and Vincent in Car with Shades and Bandanas

The boy gradually gets Murray to see the world from beyond his own self-centered view and then makes him the focus of a school essay that – predictably enough – becomes a contest winner in a school competition.

Melissa McCarthy in St. Vincent

The screenplay certainly plays to Murray’s best strengths (not to mention McCarthy’s) and the bittersweet nature of the episodes ensures that the story never veers too sharply in one direction or another.
Has Bill Murray been down this route before?  Absolutely he has. But has he ever been quite this nuanced?  Maybe once or twice (think “Lost in Translation”), but never so enjoyably, since this character feels so wonderfully real without going over the top.
St. Vincent is right up there among his best work, including “Translation”, “Rushmore” and “Ground Hog Day”.
(Five out of five stars.)

St Vincent Poster

Movie Review: “Grand Budapest Hotel”

grand-budapest-hotel1

A true gem with an ensemble cast to die for, many of whom are costumed and made up with such consummate skill that only the most eagle-eyed viewers may spot them ahead of the closing credits.

The-Grand-Budapest-Hotel-Poster-slice

Just when you thought Ralph Fiennes had thrown his career away on Voldemort, Edward Norton on the Incredible Hulk or Jeff Goldblum on Jurassic Park and Independence Day, we have a quietly produced yet lavishly conceived smorgasbord of talented actors, doing what they do best: portray characters so convincingly written and acted that you forget they aren’t real.

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And the ensemble includes many who are not celestial names in the entertainment skies.  Relative newcomers share the frame with more experienced hands and everybody carries their own weight with deftness and veracity.

Jeff Goldbloom Grand Budapest Hotel

A story about a formerly glorious Eurasian boutique resort hotel now on hard times, the narrative gives each cast member his or her chance to shine in a seamless story that sweeps the audience along with seemingly no effort at all.

Edward Norton Grand Budapest Hotel

At turns intriguing, exciting, amusing and surprising; the film is a particularly perfect vehicle for Fiennes, quite possibly the role he was most aptly born to play.  Anchored at the center of the action, his character’s quiet experience, his jaded worldview and his take on the aristocratic classes and their foibles is right on target: never broad beyond belief or comical to the point of distracting from the business at hand.
Another long one (almost 2.3 hours) but in this case you’d be just as happy if the writers and director Wes Anderson had been able to pack in even an extra 30 minutes.

(A most enthusiastic 5 out of 5 stars.)

Movie Review: “The Skeleton Twins”

Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are irreplaceably perfectly cast as fraternal twins brought back together after a decade’s separation to confront their larger life choices, not to mention each other, in the sparse beauty of winter in upstate New York.

Wiig’s marriage to loving but semi clueless husband Luke Wilson is failing and Hader is a tragic gay man with suicidal tendencies, sent home for his own safety after ten years with little to show for them in New York City.

Skeleton Twins Nine Image Panel

It would be all too easy for the two leads to allow themselves to simply mutate into some of the character roles they each crafted so entertainingly as co-cast members on “Saturday Night Live”, but Wiig and Hader neatly sidestep that trap and instead give us a couple of siblings we root for in the face of all that confronts them.
Wilson’s own supporting performance is not without its little gems of characterization and special kudos should not be overlooked for costume and makeup here.

Skeleton Twins Luke Wilson

 

But what makes this movie special is the remarkable restraint that perfectly permits these characters to convince the audience to care.
Not without some dark moments of its own, this film still manages to alternate the light and the dark and several of the best moments allow us to laugh deeply even as our heartstrings are being twisted by the feather light touch of both the direction and screenplay.

Skeleton Twins Lip Sync Scene

Hader and Wiig’s lip-synched performance of Jefferson Starship’s “Heart to Heart” is one of the must-see moments of the film as is the Halloween night sequence where Wiig dresses up as a cowgirl and Hader comes out in drag (sorry) complete with earrings, full-length gown, lipstick, eye shadow and beehive wig.

Bill Hader in Drag

Steel yourself for the sadder stuff and celebrate the comedy.
Just like life.

(4.5 out of 5 stars)

Skeleton Twins Movie Ad

Movie Review: Birdman

or “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”

I must confess I was prepared to like this merely because Pittsburgh native Michael Keaton was cast in the lead role as a former superhero film actor inextricably bound to his onscreen role as Birdman in three comic book franchise films.

birdman-ft

What I was less prepared for was the surrealistic tone that the script imparts to the story or the success of the director’s “single-take” style of filming.
The supporting cast, Ed Norton and Naomi Watts, not to overlook Zachary Galifianakis in a fine non-comedic performance, does more than yeoman’s duty and the writing and direction distill the very sense of New York City’s Manhattan theatre district into a powerful potion that is practically a character in its own right.

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The film is presented as an almost unbroken single shot that stretches more than 2 hours, encapsulating several days in the backstage and onstage and offstage life of Riggan Thomson, the actor who, seeking to break out of his typecast mold, gambles everything on adapting, directing and playing the lead role in a serious dramatic Broadway play that could just as easily decimate his career as resurrect it.
Keaton does more than just make his character riveting, he does so without resort to his broader and long established bag of tricks.
As a man on the brink of emotional and physical collapse, his point of view, his perceptions and hallucinations play as great a role in his film performance as anything else.
Not only Keaton’s character but Keaton himself throws the dice and comes up a winner as does virtually every other member of the cast.  The parallels between Thomson and Keaton, between Birdman and Batman, between the play in the movie and this film in Keaton’s own career add a particular deliciousness to the proceedings that would be altogether lacking if anyone else had been cast in this role.
The musical soundtrack, a never-ending drum solo, further distinguishes the experience of seeing and hearing this most-remarkable of recent films.  It adds a subtext of manic urgency that filters across the screen and into the viewer’s subconscious.

birdman runs in underwear

And finally, even if the more entrancing hallucinatory scenes weren’t already enough reason to see it, Keaton’s scene featuring his character’s much-ballyhooed nighttime run across Times Square clad only in his “tighty-whities” is destined to become a latter-day iconic scene of popular filmmaking and all by itself is reason enough to see this film.
Seriously.

Birdman-Movie-Poster-Concept

Surrealistically recommended!  (4.9 out of 5 stars)

Movie Review: Big Hero 6

Walt Disney Studios, who now distribute any current Marvel Studios productions, strike again, with somewhat greater success this time around.

Based on one of the lesser Marvel Comics franchises (Stan Lee’s attempt to merge American sensibilities with those of Japanese Anime), BH6 didn’t enjoy much box office success but that doesn’t make it a bad bit of business.
In fact, the lack of prior knowledge of the franchise is one of its greatest charms and advantages, since most viewers come to it with few preconceptions or expectations.

BH6_Team_Transparent

Aimed squarely at the traditional fan boy audience, this CGI animated feature tells the tale of a band of nerds who experience a technically enhanced metamorphosis into a six-person team of super-heroes. Challenging at least one stereotype, two of the nerds are attractive females.

Big Hero 6 alter egos

Hiro, (“hero”?) a pre-teen boy who happens to also be a prodigy in the fields of robotics and engineering, finds himself recruited to study at the West Coast equivalent of Stanford or MIT. His older brother, who dies mysteriously in a fire and explosion, has already developed Baymax, a robotic medical diagnostic aide.
After his brother’s death, Hiro discovers the robot is still operational. His late brother’s former lab-mates take him under their collective wing to console him during his grieving process.

Baymax and Hiro

There’s a sub-plot concerning a character obviously based on Steve Jobs and/or Bill Gates and the technology of a transporter-like device with military overtones. But it is the story of the boy, his robot, the older students and the collaboration of this band of misfits that carries the movie.
At this point there’s no longer any novelty in CGI animated features and the Japanese Anime influences are not as great as they could have been. The city of San Francisco is here presented as “San Fransokyo”, Baymax bears a distinct resemblance to a Sumo wrestler, the mysterious villain wears a kabuki mask and one of the students is nicknamed “Wasabi”. Another of the students is more deeply steeped in the Anime culture than just about any other factor in the story.

Big Hero 6 in costumes

Beyond these points, this could just as easily have been “Wall-E” as “Big Hero 6”.
Voiceovers are all delivered with skill and several members of the cast are Damon Wayans and Maya Rudolph, although theirs are supporting roles and the leads are all comparative unknowns.
The soundtrack includes the hit “Immortals” and it really works especially well in this setting.
One student, an archetypical super-hero fan boy type, carries a lot of the comic relief, although the robot character, which looks very much like the Michelin Man, has some of the best bits of business in the movie. Mr. Wayans and Ms. Rudolph, although given less to work with, also pull their fair share of the comic weight.
The story moves briskly and the humor, while a little reliant on body functions and stereotyped characterizations, is still warm and surprising in its ingenuity, coaxing laughs from audience members of both genders and a good range of ages.
The ending works and the doors are left gaping wide open for future installments of the franchise if anyone cares to write and produce them.

Stan Lee in Big Hero 6

And it should surprise no one that there’s even provision for the now obligatory Stan Lee cameo, which I believe is his first in a CGI production. But you have to be patient if you want to see it.
For once that patience is justified.
(4.25 out of 5 stars)