movie reviews April 2016

rememberi saw the lightdemolitionmidnight specialcriminaleverybody wants some!!miles ahead


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

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Miles Ahead
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Kansas City native Don Cheadle's tribute to trumpeter Miles Davis is worth catching simply because it captures Davis' adventurous spirit. Cheadle has clearly seen Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, Jake Kasdan's amusingly sarcastic parody of musical biopics. Miles Ahead avoids going through Davis' 65 years in favor exploring part of the five-year period when he released no music.

From 1975 to 1980, Davis (played by Cheadle, who also co-wrote and directed) has released nothing, and Columbia Records is understandably nervous. The music scene has changed, and Davis' brand of "social music" (he bristles at the word "jazz") may not be that marketable when he does finally turn in his master tapes to the label.

If he's due to make a comeback, it's news to Davis himself. A sleazy British journalist named Dave Brill (Ewan McGregor) shows up at his door claiming to be from Rolling Stone magazine. As we discover throughout the film, Davis had several people coming to him for favors, and few had his best interests in mind. While one gets the sense that Dave might sell Davis out for hit of blow, Davis still lets him into his orbit because the guy knows where to score the right drugs.

He also needs a witness to make sure that Columbia or their lackeys doesn't get their hands on his top-secret tape until he deems it ready. In his addled state of mind, he might not be the best judge of the recording.

Davis already scares people with his propensity for waiving a pistol whenever he doesn't get what he wants, and he greets Dave by punching him. Davis' violent temper makes his drug issues seem almost irrelevant because he's in a foul mood regardless of whether he's had his fix.

That said, the label isn't above sending surrogates to Davis’ New York apartment in hope of swiping the tapes.

Throughout the lost weekend he shares with Dave, Davis wrestles with a legacy he can't seem to match because his composer's block seems insurmountable. He's also paralyzed by memories of his ex-wife Frances Taylor (Emayatzy Corinealdi). Frances gave up her dancing career to become Davis' full-time wife. She took exception as he became more domineering and lecherous. Plagued by both guilt and anger, he keeps thinking of her even though she's understandably long gone.

Davis' malaise is hard to pin down, and that actually helps the film. Because Davis himself isn't around to tell us why he didn't release any new music during that five-year gap, Cheadle would be disingenuous if he provided a clear-cut reason. Instead, Cheadle indicates that Davis' ambivalence about fame (he loves getting into exclusive places by simply pointing to his recognizable face but gets irate as his privacy disappears) might crush any sense of ambition. With checks coming in fitfully and people in suits hounding him for product, it feels strangely satisfying to string the company execs along.

As a director, Cheadle has a good sense on how to keep a film about a guy who can't produce moving. Despite its narrow setting, Miles Ahead never feels stiff or stilted. The pacing is brisk, and Cheadle also sheds one of the most annoying clichés from jazz and R&B biopics. There's no white benefactor looking out for Davis' interests. Columbia's drones, regardless of ethnicity, are eager to cash in on any money Davis might make and secretly hope that his vices get the best of him so they can offer fulsome memorial tributes. It's no wonder that Davis isn't bending over backward to be cooperative.

Cheadle nails Davis' raspy voice but thankfully is more concerned about giving a good performance than he is with offering an impersonation. As a result, it's easier to identify with the troubled musician, even if he's a violent drug addict.

Cheadle ingeniously works in music for several different eras from the musician's career and thankfully doesn't treat it like sonic wallpaper. He obviously loves and respects his subject, but he knows if we don't as well, all the great music is just a soundtrack for story as sketchy as the ones Dave might write. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 04/29/2016).

Haiku
Miles Ahead

Cheadle treats Miles as
if he were a man and not
a dull, trite jukebox.


Everybody Wants Some!!
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Richard Linklater’s latest movie, Everybody Wants Some!! has a threadbare plot, a meandering storyline and ends when most films are just starting into their stories.

That means it’s a typical Linklater offering and that it’s a lot of fun. As with his previous 1993 comedy Dazed and Confused, Linklater features a cast full of unfamiliar but capable actors who look age appropriate and, more importantly, leave vivid but authentic impressions.

Whereas Dazed and Confused followed high schoolers on their last day before summer vacation, Everybody Wants Some!! is about a college baseball team just about to start the fall semester. Jake (Blake Jenner) is freshman pitcher, who like a lot of other students, was a standout in his small town. In college, he’s now teamed up with other players who were stars in their hometown. As a result, his first three days before classes pit him with a group of teammates who are as hard on each other as they reportedly are on the opposing team.

Linklater and any alert viewer couldn’t care less about whether the team will take the regional title. Instead, he finds lots of fertile material in the delicate balance between competition and camaraderie these guys have.

While some of the upperclassmen aren’t openly hostile, they couldn’t care less about the new pitcher. A hitter named McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) hates pitchers so much that he brushes off his fingers after shaking hands with Jake. When Jake beats him at ping-pong, McReynolds seethes.

Jake has an easier time getting along with Finnegan (Glen Powell), who spends an inordinate amount of time pontificating on any subject imaginable, even ones he doesn't actually understand. Jake also gets close to a senior pitcher named Willoughby (Wyatt Russell) who has access to some seriously good weed and who thinks the younger players have awful taste in music.

There's also a bespectacled fellow named Jay Niles (Justin Street) who claims that pro scouts are after him. Despite this constant preening and eagerness to pick fights, this seems unlikely. Meanwhile, Jake and his teammates are treated like kings because they usually make it finals. That said, it's unlikely any of them will ever play in the Majors.

As a result, they seem more likable. The smarter players seem open to new experiences, like when Jake's theater major girlfriend (Zoey Deutch) invites the lad to a party built around Alice in Wonderland. Instead of behaving like swine, the guys seem to grub it up.

They also try out just about every kind of club in town, whether it has disco, punk or country is unimportant. If beer is served and women are present, they'll try it out.

Despite whatever he might have smoked or imbibed, Linklater remembers 1980 and starting college with astonishing accuracy. He amusingly recalls small but significant details about what the inside of a college student's fridge would be like and how many young men are not that capable of handling plumbing facilities or hand tools in general.

He and his young cast also create a menagerie of rowdy young characters with distinct personalities who probably wouldn't be as likable if they were older. Finn's banter would sound less suave to older ears. Having seen the movie twice, it's striking how many subtle gags will pass by observers who aren't glued to the screen. The biggest laughs in Everybody Wants Some!! (That takes its title from a Van Halensong) come from shrugs or contempt full glances. Because these guys are just now meeting but have to spend the entire school year together, conflicts are guaranteed to occur.

It's not surprising that Linklater based much of Everybody Wants Some!! on his brief experience playing baseball for Sam Huston State in Texas. Because he's already lived what some people see in other films, he probably didn't feel the need to make a conventional movie that centers on the big game. Thankfully, for us, he's found something potentially more engaging. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 04/25/16)

Haiku
Everybody Wants Some!!

Linklater knows that
plotless movies still need some
raunch, solid laughs.


Criminal
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Overlong, over-violent, yet underdeveloped, Criminal is notable only for enlisting an A-list cast — Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, and Tommy Lee Jones, reunited for the first time since 1991's JFK — in service of strictly B-list material.

When London-based CIA operative Bill Pope (Deadpool's Ryan Reynolds) is killed by hench people of Hagbardaka Heimdahl (ludicrously identified by subtitle as a "Spanish Anarchist"), CIA station chief Quaker Wells (Gary Oldman) coerces neurosurgeon Dr. Franks (Tommy Lee Jones) into performing experimental brain surgery that will transfer Pope's memories into the brain of a living subject. The goal: to retrieve from among those memories the location of a hacker called “The Dutchman” who possesses a code allowing control of the entire U.S. military arsenal, intel desperately sought by both Heimdahl (Jordi Mollà) and the CIA.

In typical B-movie fashion, the only suitable recipient is violent redneck sociopath Jericho Stewart (Kevin Costner), currently residing in solitary confinement at the end of a neck shackle. Seems a childhood head trauma (his impulse-control-challenged dad pitched him out a car window during a family squabble) prevented the development of his frontal lobe, resulting in a complete lack of empathy or morality but loads of virgin neural real estate in which to house Mr. Pope‘s psyche.

This preposterous premise, however, is not the source of the film’s problems. Quite simply, for much of the film, screenwriters Douglas Cook and David Weisberg (The Rock) provide little for Stewart to do beyond the predictable (escape CIA custody; wince in pain as Pope‘s memories flash before his eyes) and the gratuitous (roam central London, indiscriminately bludgeoning and shooting its inhabitants).

Also problematic are the wildly conflicting tones of the lead performances. Costner approaches his Man With Two Brains role with a touch of humor, reveling in ludicrous Freaky Friday moments such as Jericho suddenly spouting perfect French in a pastry shop, then blurting out in surprise, “I’m speaking Spanish, motherf---er.” Oldman, on the other hand, plays his CIA chief completely straight and in perpetual overdrive, manically barking out orders and profanities. And Tommy Lee Jones’ scientist barely registers a pulse (despite apparent plastic surgery which has rendered his eyes in perpetual “wide awake” mode) as he rotely delivers the medical mumbo-jumbo intended to rationalize such an ill-conceived project.

Late in the film, as Pope’s memories and conscience emerge more completely in Jericho’s consciousness, the filmmakers have an opportunity to explore truly speculative ideas about identity and relationships. Jericho recalls then makes contact with Pope’s grieving widow (Wonder Woman Gal Gadot) and daughter; however, by minimizing the shock and psychological distress such an encounter would cause, these scenes feel like what they are — clumsy attempts to humanize Jericho and provide the requisite happy ending.

Director Ariel Vromen (The Iceman) gamely tries to generate excitement with fast edits, voluminous blood splatter, and a sound design that makes every gunshot resonate like cannon fire, but these only add to the film’s overall numbing effect. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 04/25/16)


Midnight Special
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

From an empty screen, the familiar drone of local television news and ads emerges. The camera fades in on an economy motel room, panning over a peephole covered with duct tape and windows blacked out with cardboard. As the news reports an Amber Alert for kidnapped 8-year-old Alton Meyer, we watch Lucas (Joel Edgerton), armed and silent, peel back a corner of the cardboard to peer out at the parking lot while Roy (Michael Shannon) packs the bags and then rouses a young boy, obliviously sitting between the beds under a sheet reading a comic book by flashlight. When Roy tells the child that it's time to go, however, the child doesn't recoil or resist. In fact, as the three load up a primer-gray Chevelle to hit the road, the activity feels routine.

After the police scanner identifies the car's model and license number, Lucas abruptly veers off the interstate onto a two-lane where he slips on night-vision goggles, flips a toggle switch under the dash that kills the lights, and roars into the piney darkness. Through all of this, the boy sits unperturbed in back seat, peering though blue swim goggles as his flashlight illuminates a Superman comic book.

And like that Chevelle, the film barrels along, taking little time to explain what the heck is going on.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud) embraces mysteries in his films and is rarely in a hurry to offer up explanations. In 2011's Take Shelter, he presented a father (also played by Michael Shannon) who, plagued by visions of an impending apocalypse, grappled with whether he needed to save his family from the end days or from himself.

Here, there's no such ambiguity. We learn fairly quickly that the little boy (Jaeden Lieberher) is, indeed, Alton Meyer, that Roy is Alton's birth father, and that Lucas is one of Roy's old friends.

We also learn that those swim goggles are not just a childish whim. Without them, light beams shoot from Alton's eyes — beams equally capable of visiting destruction or conferring ecstatic understanding. Alton also speaks in tongues, including numerical sequences that a Texas religious cult has embraced as their scripture and the NSA believes may be encrypted satellite communications.

Having spirited Alton from the cult's compound, Roy and Lucas race across the back roads of the Bible Belt South, cult henchmen and the Feds in hot pursuit, to get Alton to a location not yet clear in order to meet someone or something he can't explain. All that is certain is a date and time.

With nods to Close Encounters of the Third Kind and John Carpenter's Starman, Nichols reflects on human belief in the face of the inexplicable. The script is beautifully spare, allowing halting pauses in the dialogue and the actors' emotive faces to do the work.

And the face of belief here is Michael Shannon's. Roy has no more understanding of Alton's powers than anyone else, but his chiseled features and steely yet off-kilter gaze reveal an unshakeable belief that transcends reason. In a briefer appearance, Kirsten Dunst, as Alton's mom, conveys the heartbreak of having to let a child go with a simple nod.

Of course, Alton could just as soon be a math whiz or a child on the autism spectrum. Parents will always struggle to understand and to protect what is special about their children.

While Nichols serves up a relatively dazzling finale (It's no Close Encounters and shouldn't be), the film's emotional core is revealed earlier when, preparing to leave his parents, Alton tells Roy. "You don't have to worry about me."

With a half-smile, Roy voices a timeless parental paradox: "I’ll always worry about you, Alton. I like worrying about you." PG-13 Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 04/12/16)


Demolition
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Jake Gyllenhaal’s dour investment banker Davis Mitchell could give American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman a run for his money in anesthetized comportment and sartorial habits. After the death of his wife, Julia (Heather Lind), from a sudden on-screen car accident, Davis becomes obsessed with destruction. It starts with an exploratory attempt at fixing the leaky refrigerator his wife was complaining to him about when the other car smashes into them and quickly escalates to full-blown demolition of property, all while wearing bespoke button-down shirts with French cuffs.


Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild) from a screenplay by Bryan Sipe (The Choice), the first half of the film wades through murky but stylized waters to a satisfying extent. Taking full advantage of Gyllenhaal’s notorious intensity, the film explores the themes of guilt and grief, and the frenetic carnage they can provoke when they remain unexpressed, illustrated by the generous use of jump cuts, fades to black and cinematographer Yves Bélanger’s (Wild, Brooklyn) beautiful contrasting photography; a deconstructed bathroom stall door becomes an art exhibit through his lens.

But Davis isn’t really a psycho, or if he is he’s not allowed to stay that way. He writes heartfelt and eloquent letters to a vending machine company. Denied a package of M&Ms in the hallway of the intensive care unit where Julia died, he pours his heart out on yellow legal pad to the customer service department, run by Karen (Naomi Watts), whose early morning phone calls to Davis hint at a suspense that never materializes.

Conspiracy theorists could find the evidence that Gyllenhaal’s most recent character is the direct descendent of one of his first: Donnie Darko. In the 2001 film, the title character discusses Graham Greene’s short story “The Destructors,” arguing that destruction is a form of creation. But Demolition could never be considered its sequel; Sipe’s script, in its need for patched-over redemption and a happy ending, is too derivative.

From laughing at the pain of stepping on a nail at a construction site to dancing manically through the streets of Manhattan to a classic rock soundtrack, the screenplay grasps at worn tropes as a shortcut to a comfortable resolution. It even introduces a precocious sidekick (Judah Lewis), Karen’s runty teenage son.  What started as a menacing compulsion is transformed into nothing more than a playful quirk or, even worse, as Davis, wearing Kevlar, dares Chris to shoot a gun at him, a scene from Jackass.

“Do you ever feel like everything is a metaphor?” asks Davis. In this movie, the answer is, unfortunately, yes. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 04/11/16)


I Saw the Light
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

For better or worse, Hank Williams, Sr. set the template for country music stardom. On the plus side, he left behind a long series of unforgettable songs that were as universal as they were uniquely country. “Cold Cold Heart” is so good it’s no wonder Tony Bennet scored a hit with it even though he jettisoned the steel guitar.

Unfortunately, Williams was also just as famous for drinking alcohol the way most of us consume water and for the fatal heart attack he had on the way to a gig. When it comes to making a movie about Williams and his struggles with fame and the bottle, it’s hard to give the legend a fresh take because his tale has already been filmed in movies like Your Cheatin’ Heart and Hank Williams: The Show He Never Gave.


Compounding the problem of making a movie that’s as original as Williams himself is that there have been host of movies about hard drinking singers of a variety of genres. Tender Mercies and Crazy Heart may not have been about Williams, but the fictional singers they featured shared his struggle and did so in a way that felt honest.

Curiously, I Saw the Light, which follows the outline of Williams’ brief life (he died at 29), feels less authentic. Sadly, it’s not for lack of trying.
Writer-director Marc Abraham has enlisted singer and Nashville music historian Rodney Crowell to ensure the soundtrack actually features tunes recorded with ‘50s vintage equipment and Italian cinematographer Dante Spinotti (L.A. Confidential) to create a delicate, sepia-toned look that evokes Williams’ era.

Unfortunately, Abraham wrote his own script and manages to touch on the highlights of Williams’ life without giving viewers any deeper understanding of the man who gave us such iconic tunes as “Jambalaya” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Abraham leaps from point to point on a timeline without giving leading man Tom Hiddleston (Loki from the Marvel Universe movies) a chance to let his character grow or even breathe. We learn that Williams recorded or wrote some great songs (Hiddleston himself has a fine singing voice), but Abraham moves on before we can learn how Williams worked or even why his music was so groundbreaking.

The film does emphasize the singer’s messy love life (he was married twice and had the country music equivalent of groupies), but only Audrey Olsen as his first wife Audrey makes much of an impression. In both real life and the film, Audrey fancied herself a singer and didn’t let issues with pitch or rhythm keep her away from a microphone. Olsen gives Audrey just enough dignity to seem like more than someone trying to worm her way into her husband’s spotlight. Unfortunately, Cherry Jones is underutilized as Williams’ domineering mother. Without getting unduly Freudian, Abraham could have explored their relationship and determined how it might have led to Williams’ rise or ruin.

To his credit, Abraham thankfully treats Williams’ substance abuse issues with the appropriate level of detail. It’s unfair to blame him exclusively for his problems with the bottle.

Throughout his adult life, Williams suffered through excruciating back pain, and his drinking was a self-administered anesthesia. It didn’t help that some of the doctors who treated his condition were dangerous quacks and that Williams would take higher that recommended doses in the hopes of speeding his recovery.

Abraham interrupts the story with pseudo-documentary talking head recollections that seem to remind viewers only how artificial these “found footage” clips are. The fictional interview clips don’t say anything interesting or enlightening about him and make viewers ache for another song.

Abraham’s previous movie Flash of Genius was a surprisingly engrossing story about an inventor who against the odds and better judgement successfully sued Ford after they stole his design for intermittent windshield wipers. Because the tale was unfamiliar (who knew that intermittent windshield wipers could save lives by imitating the way the human eye blinks?), the David and Goliath trope didn’t seem so played out.

Considering the legions of folks who’ve sung “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” it’s a little harder to make Hank, Sr.’s life story seem more substantial than a tired bar story. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 04/11/2016)

Haiku

I Saw the Light

Watching this film is
like drinking seconds from Hank’s
empty beer bottle.


Remember
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Hit-and-miss director Atom Egoyan has proven he can handle a surprise ending. In his successful movies (The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey), he sustains the slow burn necessary to carry the final reveal, and in the process practically forcing his characters, who are often the traffickers of debilitating secrets, to expose themselves in tortured dribs and drabs throughout the course of the movie.

Egoyan’s latest release, a one-trick pony, lamentably sacrifices character and story in its singular drive to reveal the final twist, which should be obvious to any viewer familiar in the ways of cinematic tropes. But this may not be entirely the director’s fault. The screenplay, written by newcomer Benjamin August, whose most substantial previous credit is as casting director for reality stunt show “Fear Factor,” is a tedious, strictly linear affair; more hell-bent on racing from scene to scene, alternating between briefly introducing thin characters and spending entirely too much time with over-the-top stereotypes — who other than a neo-Nazi names their Alsatian Eva? — than exploring situations or character.


This failing could be August’s way of disguising the flimsy premise of his story. Any rigorous investigation of the narrative reveals implausibility to a perplexing degree. In what can only be a purposeful attempt at imitating Christopher Nolan’s 2000 thriller Memento, which relied entirely on short-term memory loss for its plot, the script imagines a type of dementia selective in both its timing and substance as its device of choice.

Storied actor Christopher Plummer’s portrayal of Zev Guttman, a purported survivor of Auschwitz, is the sole source of credence in the movie. However, Zev’s indeterminate affliction, which causes him to wake up disoriented to certain facts of his life while others remain steadfast, is convenient, yes, but also problematic. That he is then sent on an assassin’s errand, with only a letter to remind him of his mission, is fundamentally flawed. Anyone who had the misfortune to see Julianne Moore caught in her character’s loop of a suicide mission in Still Alice will be particularly sensitive to this paradox.

Stranger still is Egoyan’s decision to allow the road trip to proceed directly and chronologically, without the benefit of flashback or any other tricks of the editing trade. If anything, these could have provided a better way into Zev’s inner life.

Behind Max’s mission is the wheelchair- and oxygen-dependent, Max (Martin Landau), an Auschwitz survivor who from the confines of his room at the nursing home where he lives next to Max, uses his research skills to hunt Nazis. This Svengali, aided by Landau’s dark, menacing eyebrows, which were on fleek before on fleek was a thing, and his machinations, particularly his grooming of Zev, should have not been relegated to the cheap, tacked-on ending. They should have been the entire movie. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 04/11/16)


 



Dan Lybarger can be contacted at Lybarger@eFilmcritic.com
Beck Ireland can be contacted at beck.ireland@gmail.com
Mike Ireland can be contacted at mike.e.ireland@gmail.com


 

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