movie reviews February 2017


Ellejulieta50 Shades darkerthe lego batman moviethe space between usa cure for wellnessfist fight

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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Fist Fight
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

It’s the last day of the year at an Atlanta high school. When English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) arrives in the morning, the senior pranks are already causing chaos. Campbell’s feckless attempts at restoring even a modicum of order mostly include hoping someone else will take charge. But who?

Not the security guard played by Kumail Nanjiani, defeated as much by his one-note role as he is by unruly teenagers, or guidance counselor (Jillian Bell), who confesses to both smoking meth and waiting for the last bell to ring so she can date the young men who are no longer officially her students.

The principal, played by the ever-irascible Dean Norris, is, in one of the arguably only two funny gags in the entire movie, being held hostage by a mariachi band as he presides over budget cuts that will leave him with fewer staff members than are currently being terrorized by mob rule.

It’s extremely satisfying, then, when history teacher Strickland (Ice Cube), wielding the weapon of choice — a baseball bat — of the disciplinarian principal Joe Clark, imposes an angry martial law in the hallways. But the order he restores is short-lived and we quickly learn his ire doesn’t stem from any grown-up or reasonable standard. In fact, the speculative causes of his non-stop rage, which he unlooses on anyone in his vicinity, are the stuff of legend.

It’s undeniable that writers Van Robichaux and Evan Susser have packed their screenplay full of reasons for Strickland’s displeasure. Indeed, there are far too many reasons (budget cuts, layoffs, students whose best idea of vandalism is to draw innumerable cartoon penises on school grounds) none of which gets to the heart of either Strickland, the true lead of the movie, or Campbell, the ersatz hero. There’s far too much happening to characters too thinly drawn to handle it all, so one challenging another to a fist fight in the parking lot after school

And director Richie Keen (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), brandishing his television sitcom credentials, prefers to pile it on. As Campbell becomes more desperate to avoid the confrontation with Strickland at the days’ end, we get far-fetched schemes such as one that has him buying two laptops because he’s too gutless to tell his wife he’s using one to bribe a student and a transparent subplot offering a lesson to cowards on how to handle your bully; it only works if you’re a 10-year-old girl. (R) Rating: 1 (Posted on 02/28/17)

A Cure for Wellness
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

As do nearly all Gore Verbinski films, A Cure for Wellness reflects the premium the director places on visual style over all other concerns. His past efforts have generally soared or flopped depending on whether the quality of the script (Rango) or cast (the Pirates of the Caribbean films) outweighed Verbinski’s penchant for ponderous, indulgent productions.

The box office success of the Pirates films brought Verbinski a budgetary and artistic freedom granted very few directors. The first fruit of this freedom was the notorious 2013 flop The Lone Ranger, a bloated pastiche of Hollywood Westerns that even the appearance of Johnny Depp was unable to redeem. Having learned little from the Lone Ranger fiasco, Verbinski delivers A Cure for Wellness — another pastiche, this time of Hammer Films/American International Pictures Gothic horror — with all of the visual style and self-indulgence one has come to expect, substituting startling images and creepy atmosphere for coherent storytelling.

Dane DeHaan (The Amazing Spider-Man 2) plays ruthless young executive Lockhart, sent to the Swiss Alps to retrieve the company’s CEO (Harry Groener) from an exclusive (read “expensive“) wellness clinic. Apparently, a company-saving merger hinges on Pembroke’s in-person signature, and his recent letters suggest his receding sanity.

Any viewer who has seen a horror film set in a hospital, spa, sanitarium or sanatorium will immediately recognize that this place bodes ill: an isolated mountain-top castle accessed only by a single serpentine road, a driver reluctant to wait for his passenger, and white-robed patients engaged in croquet and tai chi under the watchful eyes and vacant smiles of white-clad orderlies.

Such details are clearly intended to generate questions about the nature of this facility; however, the place is so obviously evil one only marvels at how long Lockhart remains oblivious. The appearance of Jason Isaacs (the notorious Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, a similarly evil doctor in The OA) as clinic director Dr. Vollmer removes any remaining possibility of ambivalence as he launches into German-accented monologues about “purity” and “the cure,” all the while insisting patients down water from the underground aquifer followed by doses of some unidentified elixir.

When Lockhart finds himself stranded at the facility after a car accident, he finally has an opportunity to investigate. And around every corner is yet another disorienting visual: a tiny parasite flagellating through a glass of water, shelves lined with jars containing embryos floating in a what appears to be bile, adult humans floating in suspended animation. And eels. Lots of eels — in the tub, in the toilet. All of which might be disturbing were they not familiar from other films and delivered at such a funereal pace.

Despite the surfeit of obvious clues, Lockhart’s learning curve remains frustratingly slow, even when presented heavy-handed exposition about the castle’s cursed history, the occupants’ perverse bloodline, and a fire set by villagers that consumed the place centuries ago. Not to mention his contact with the only other young person on site, Hannah (the aptly named Mia Goth), described by Vollmer as a “special case,” who has lived her entire life at the clinic and spends her days wandering the grounds, humming fragments of lullabies, and loitering atop the castle's parapets.

Lockhart’s meandering investigation, however, does give Verbinski opportunities to show off the work of cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Ring, Mr. & Mrs. Smith) and production designer Eve Stewart (Les Misérables, The King’s Speech). They are at their best when the set design and camera movement work together to transform the ostensibly mundane into something menacing, such as when a floor-level camera slowly glides across the spotless tiled floor, all blanched green and sickly bone white, its gaze trained on the glinting lip of a brushed steel submersion tub. Unfortunately, Verbinski, rarely satisfied with suggestion, insists on going over the top to show the tub’s contents (big surprise: more eels).

And so it goes. Over a punishing two and a half hours, Justin Haythe’s (The Lone Ranger) loose script stretches increasingly thin as Verbinski’s scares grow more concrete and distasteful (eels force-fed down the throat, anyone?). Despite early intimations of a subtextual critique of capitalist culture, the action devolves into a frantic, offensive rip-off of the climax of Lon Chaney’s The Phantom of the Opera.

Verbinski is undoubtedly a talented filmmaker. Yet unlike other auteur granted such unlimited resources, Verbinski consistently eschews the authentic idiosyncrasy of personal revelation for puerile displays of the weird and shocking. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 02/28/17)

The Space Between Us
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In the far away near future of (possibly) next year, Mars is ready for its first long-term inhabitants. The colony is some sort of privately financed endeavor, yet still under the auspices of NASA. It's the brainchild of Nathaniel Shepard, played as a platitude-spewing egoist by Gary Oldman, whose designer spectacles and longish hair indicate a rogue authoritarianism: the style of Steve Jobs but the ambitions of Elon Musk.

Still, Nathaniel is but a man, and what man could resist a cute astronaut (Janet Montgomery) willing to sacrifice years of her life to make his dream a reality — Nathaniel's potential pressure-induced hydrocephalus (I kid you not) prohibits him from space travel — and in her speech before takeoff even embellishes his platitudes? The two exchange significant looks, and even though this is a love story, it's not their love story.

Forward to 16 years further in the future. Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield) is the colony's resident rebellious teenager. A classified secret, Gardner must stay on Mars because of shaky scientific speculation about the effect of Mars' lighter gravitational force on his organ development. The responsibility of raising Gardner has fallen to Kendra Wyndham (Carla Gugino), one of the few women in the colony. Gender seems to be the only requirement because who better to raise a baby than a childless-by-choice botanist? At least Gardner has a robot to keep him company, when he's not hacking it to research information about his mother.

When his growing curiosity about his parents makes Gardner intractable, he finally gets permission to come to Earth, where he escapes from quarantine and observation to set off on a road trip with his secret Skype friend Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a motorcycle-riding foster child whose current guardian is lout who dusts crops with a biplane in Colorado. Together, they hotwire their way to California in search of Gardner's father.

Director Peter Chelsom (Serendipity, Hector and the Search for Happiness) is responsible for all these moving parts, and his habit of shooting the logistics that allow his characters to get from one place to another makes writer Allan Loeb's already unwieldy script into a lumbering, bloated catastrophe. As filmmakers concoct increasingly extravagant situations in which young love can bloom, they forget the one requirement of a teenage love story: the emotional flow.

Gardner's struggles with a new atmosphere and Tulsa's reaction to that are charming. Those are the moments analogous to the metaphor set up by Gardner's watching Wim Wenders' lovely Wings of Desire than any of the other details: the extensive backstory, the pseudo-science and the politics of space. (PG-13) Rating: 1 (Posted on 02/09/17)

The Lego Batman Movie
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It’s ironic that the most sophisticated and clever movie about the Caped Crusader in recent memory is the one that’s aimed specifically at children.

The Lego Batman Movie, in its own, cute little way, is just as smart and engaging as Christopher Nolan’s 2007 The Dark Knight and saves viewers the annoyance of watching Batman brooding.

Oh, and you don’t have to watch yet another repetition of the death of Bruce Wayne’s parents.

As with The Lego Movie, the brick Batman is a hero in his own mind.
Like his life action counterpart, the Lego crimefighter (voiced again by Will Arnett) has a seemingly endless series of cool gadgets, but he’s oddly limited in his ability to deal with Gotham City’s perennial crime wave.

By sheer force of will, he stops The Joker’s (Zach Galifianakis) latest attempt at mass destruction, but the eternally giddy bad guy gets away again. After decades of this cycle (the film reminds viewers how long Batman has been a pop culture phenomenon), the folks in Gotham are beginning to notice.

New Police Commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson), the daughter of outgoing Commissioner Jim Gordon (Hector Elizondo), even has the audacity to suggest that maybe Bruce Wayne or his masked alter ego should actually work with the cops and the citizens to come up with an end to the cycle. Batman’s lone wolf attitude may be as dangerous for the city as Harley Quinn (Jenny Slate), Bane (Doug Benson) or Catwoman (Zoë Kravitz).

Maybe Batman wants a change as well and can’t acknowledge it.

His almost superhumanly loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes) suggests that he should stop getting psyched over relationship movies like Jerry Maguire and get into one of his own. He does so by accident when he “adopts” a fellow orphan named Richard Grayson (Michael Cera). When Grayson informs Batman the other kids call him “Dick,” Wayne replies, “Kids can be so cruel” without any sense of empathy in his voice.

As with the previous feature film made of Lego, The Lego Batman Movie features just about every character in the Time-Warner catalog and a couple who aren’t. Batman and the cohorts he claims not to want wind up battling, not just the Joker, but King Kong (Seth Green), Sauron (Jermaine Clement), Valdemort (voiced by Eddie Izzard instead of Fiennes, who played him in the Harry Potter movies) and Two-Face (Billy Dee Williams, who did originate the role on screen).

There are five credited writers, including Seth Grahame-Smith (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), and it shows. The Lego Batman Movie is loaded with so many in-jokes and asides that a single viewing doesn’t do it justice. Fortunately, none of them get in the way of the story.

Director Chris McKay (a veteran of Robot Chicken, Moral Orel and other Adult Swim fare) keeps parents from getting bored but doesn’t introduce much they’ll have to explain to tots later. About the raunchiest The Lego Batman Movie gets is the Caped Crusader’s password (“Iron Man Sucks!”).

Nonetheless, McKay and his legion of collaborators dare to ask what really makes a superhero a good guy. Batman’s selfish disposition is a much a weakness for him as Kryptonite is for Superman (Channing Tatum). It’s also a riot to notice how the Joker seems to be scheming, not for mayhem, but maybe to get a type of affection from Batman.

Perhaps the words “love” and “hate” are interchangeable.

McKay has a lot of fun with the bricks themselves. Watch how Bruce Wayne’s plastic hair gets “mussed” when he takes off the Batman cowl. If only the live action DC movies could be that witty. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 02/09/17)

The Lego Batman Movie

Bruce Wayne is more fun
and much more entertaining
when he’s made of brick.

50 Shades Darker
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Both 50 Shades of Grey and its follow up 50 Shades Darker provide viewers with an escapist fantasy where the images onscreen offer a grim, tedious world that’s occasionally loaded with flashes of what’s supposed to be kinky sex.

It’s easy to make fun of 50 Shades novelist E.L. James’ juvenile, leaden prose. Protagonist Anastasia Steel (played again by Dakota Johnson) indicates her cheeks are flush by declaring, “I must be the color of The Communist Manifesto.”

It’s a line that says “WTF” instead of “S&M.”

The screenplay for 50 Shades Darker is by James’ husband Niall Leonard (the British miniseries “Second Sight”), and the once promising director James Foley has taken over the directing chair.

As a result, the new installment has some moments of levity that break the boredom of watching Ana and Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) sending each other texts and exchanges like “Your mine,” “I’m yours.”

With foreplay like that, it’s a wonder humankind ever managed to reproduce.

There’s also an occasional sense of consequence that was completely lacking in 50 Shades of Grey. Occasionally, characters have to worry about staying alive instead of whether they might have BDSM relationships. Sadly, these crises are presented in a clumsy, unconvincing manner and don’t end up breaking the pattern of Ana and Christian whining and then disrobing.

While Foley once made viewers engrossed about the fate of crooked real estate salesmen in Glengarry Glen Ross, he’s stuck with the flat characters from the first 50 Shades movie, and neither James nor Leonard has done anything to make viewers care if they get naked or not.

Dornan looks just as grumpy and cold as he did in the first movie, and if you had nothing to do but flash your finely cut abs, you might become indifferent, too. Christian has somehow become a billionaire by age 27, but he sure doesn’t spend much time actually running anything, and it’s tough to name a product Grey House actually makes. If he were engaging company, this plot hole wouldn’t be so damn annoying.

Johnson tries to breathe some life into the doormat of a role she’s been assigned, but Ana’s quest for love seems oddly pointless because Christian is one of several unappealing men in the Seattle area.

Ana’s boss is a book editor (Eric Johnson) whose possessive manner plays like a workplace video on sexual harassment training. His “friend” Jose (Victor Rasuk) has an art show full of pictures he’s taken of her without permission.

For a film about female wish fulfillment, the male offerings sure seem paltry.

It’s also odd that Johnson and Dornan manage to shed their clothes to diminishing returns. Johnson’s exposure seems to be a nod to all the guys who’ve been dragged to the film, but because neither character is that compelling, the coupling does nothing but provide viewers with a quick catnap.

Because Christian can add stalker to his long list of negative traits, it’s not surprising he also has a young woman (Bella Heathcote) tailing him after he’s dumped her. He’s also got an older ex played by Kim Bassinger, whose Oscar-winning chops can’t do much with the material. It takes a special kind of incompetent to make an affair with her seem dull and inconsequential.

Fellow Academy Award-winner Marcia Gay Harden plays Christian’s adoptive mother, but we now know less about her than we did in the first movie. While some people might want to fast forward to see Johnson in leg irons, it’s difficult to get aroused or even awakened if we don’t know why Christian is so unhappy for a guy with such a fat bank account.

The makers of these movies promise forbidden thrills but wind up delivering attractive, naked people who aren’t that interesting to be around. Christian Grey may have all the money and time in the world to engage his forbidden lifestyle, but he’ll have to work a little harder to make anyone else care. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 02/09/17)

50 Shades Darker

Having more nude scenes
doesn’t make the new movie
any more sexy.

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

On paper it may seem a poor fit: the restrained, subtle fiction of Nobel Prize-winning Canadian author Alice Munro translated to the screen by audacious Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. Well, maybe it's the quality of the source material or the older, more mature director at the helm, but Julieta, Almodóvar's adaptation of three Munro short stories, transcends transpositions of medium, locale (Canada to Spain), and culture to deliver an affecting meditation on the life-altering power of loss and guilt.

As the film opens, middle-aged classics professor Julieta is packing for a move from Madrid to Portugal with her boyfriend Lorenzo (Dario Grandinetti). When a childhood friend of her estranged adult daughter Antía mentions that they have crossed paths recently, Julieta appears stunned, abruptly nixing the move, breaking up with Lorenzo, and moving back into the apartment building where she once raised Antia and, consequently, the only address Antia would have for her.

While she waits in the lonely apartment, Julieta begins writing a letter to her daughter, a letter that will recount the past and, perhaps, explain the split that has divided mother and daughter for more than a decade.

In flashback, the letter's contents unfold as both melodrama and mystery, a mystery that in Almodóvar's hands bears more than a hint of Alfred Hitchcock: back in the ‘80s, vivacious 30-year-old Julieta meets Antia's father, Xoan (Daniel Grao), as strangers on a train. When fisherman Xoan brings her home in the wake of his wife's death, she is met by the forbidding scowl of his housekeeper Marian (Rossy dePalma), who bears a strong resemblance to Dame Judith Anderson's Mrs. Danvers in Hitchcock's Rebecca. These nods are reinforced further by the brooding Bernard Herrmann-influenced score of Alberto Iglesias.

At the center of the film however is Julieta. Or, more precisely, two Julietas. Rather than employ make-up or CGI to age a single actress, Almodóvar uses two: Emma Suárez as the older and Adriana Ugarte as the younger Julieta. The actresses do not particularly resemble one another, yet the director uses filmmaking, itself, to highlight the consistencies and contrasts between the two Julietas, separated and defined, as they are, by time and experience.

From the opening image, middle-aged Julieta is identified with bright red as she packs to move. When the younger Julieta first appears in flashback on the train, she sports a bright blue sweater and spiky blonde hair that makes her a ringer for Melanie Griffith in Brian DePalma's Body Double. This red-blue dichotomy is sustained as the action shifts between past and present, culminating in a bit of cinematic magic right out of Méliès as blue Julieta becomes red Julieta right before our eyes.

As the story unfolds in heartache and loss, confession and betrayal, guilt and blame, it becomes clear that the real mystery being explored here is how wild and blue Julieta became mournful, guilt-ridden red Julieta.

Almodóvar eschews simple explanations and solutions, yet the tenuous possibility of reconciliation suggested by the film's very open ending, in this context, feels a lot like redemption. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 02/09/17)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

For better and for worse, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is most closely associated with his Hollywood productions of the eighties and nineties, output that includes flashy sci-fi blockbusters RoboCop and Starship Troopers as well as the much-derided genre explorations Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Equal parts provocateur and filmmaker, Verhoeven consistently booby-trapped these popular releases with implicit critiques of American consumer culture, gender roles, and politics (especially fascism), often parodying the very film genre he was exploiting (Is Starship Troopers a sci-fi epic or a parody of a sci-fi epic?).

Arriving nearly 20 years after his halcyon Hollywood tenure and ten since his last major release, Elle suggests that Verhoeven is still at it. As graphic, bloody, and politically incorrect as any of his more notorious efforts, Elle takes what appears to be a rape-revenge genre film and turns it into a character study, alternately examining and flouting the culturally imposed balance of power between the genders.

The "elle," or "her," of the title is chic, middle-aged Parisian Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), a successful publisher and co-founder of a video game company known for games featuring graphic sex and violence. In the film's opening scene, she is brutally raped and beaten in her fashionable apartment by a masked assailant, as her cat — and the viewer — looks on impassively.

In other films, the victim of such an assault would break down. Call the police, perhaps, instigating a crime procedural. Maybe seek out the identity of her attacker and orchestrate well-deserved and savage vengeance.

After her attacker leaves, Michèle simply sweeps up the broken glass, drops her clothes in a wastebasket, and takes a bath. When blood begins to tint the bath bubbles, she brushes them away. She does not cry.

She sees a doctor, but only to check for STDs, and she does not contact the police. The next day at work, she scolds her male game programmers for failing to make the CGI attack of a female character by a tentacle creature sufficiently bloody and orgasmic.

Clearly, Michèle will not be a victim, a role with which she turns out to have had a long relationship.

As events unfold, we learn that her father was a notorious mass-murderer, killing 27 children in their neighborhood back in the seventies. When police arrived to arrest him, 10-year-old Michèle was with him, burning the contents of the house. While her father spent the last 40 years in jail, Michèle has borne the scorn, disgust, accusatory stares, and worse, as she moved on with her life.

And how Michèle moves on with her life now, how a child of trauma maneuvers the constant assaults imposed both from without and within, is much of the subject matter of this film. Michèle, absent a genuine core identity, has come to define herself in terms of her struggles as a woman in a male-dominated world: the male employees who resent or lust for her; her business partner’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) who is unwilling to end their affair; her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) who needs her financial help to support his overbearing and very pregnant girlfriend; her failed novelist of an ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling) who bolsters his ego dating his grad students; and her 80-year-old mother‘s young gigolo fiancé. Her banker neighbor Patrick (Laurent Lafitte) seems decent enough, until he comes on to her.

In other words, there are plenty of suspects for Michèle to consider. And for Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke (based on the novel Oh . . . by Philippe Djian), they provide plenty of opportunities for both suspense and a pitch black comedy of manners.

More than anything else, Verhoeven creates a dynamic setting in which to display the formidable talent of Isabelle Huppert. It is the force and focus of Huppert’s performance that allow us to believe in a character that amid constant tumult maintains an appearance so resolutely “normal.” Yet Hubbert also conveys Michèle's underlying derision and cruelty — consistent weapons, trained indiscriminately on anyone within range — with little more than a faint eye roll or a momentary smirk, offering glimpses of the sociopath within.

Even such a powerful performance, though, fails to overcome a late encounter with her attacker that suggests Michèle’s complicity, and perhaps pleasure, in her rape. It breaks the film’s spell and abruptly lays bare the overwrought mechanics of the plot as the contrivances they are--conveniences employed to push buttons and discomfit viewers. While not necessarily a pleasure to watch, for better and for worse, Elle, like it's namesake, will be difficult to forget. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 02/06/17)



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