movie reviews August 2015

mission impossible - rogue nationMr. Holmesirrational manfantastic fourthe end of the tourthe man from U.N.C.L.E.Straight outta comptonthe best of enemies

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The Best of Enemies
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. were two middle-aged white male writers with prominent Washington connections who had another intriguing similarity: They hated each other’s guts.

As Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s new documentary Best of Enemies recounts, the two men’s mutual disgust for each other and the values the other embodied ended up changing political discussions in this country permanently.

The ten 1968 debates that The National Review founder and proto-conservative pundit Buckley and screenwriter (Ben Hur), playwright (“The Best Man”), novelist (Myra Breckinridge, Lincoln) and essayist Vidal sparred in set a template for ideological discussions that have happened since then.

Buckley and Vidal’s names may not be immediately familiar to you, but Neville and Gordon persuasively argue that their legacy can be seen every time you see political hacks yelling at each other on cable.

Until 1968, an open and heated discussion about events of the day was actual rare on network television. The three major commercial TV networks in America (CBS, NBC and ABC) preferred avoiding hot topic issues. While raising eyebrows could help sagging ratings, it can also make nervous sponsors flee.

Actually, ABC didn’t belong in the same league as its rivals.

Its ratings and profile were dwarfed by its more established rivals. In Best of Enemies, New York magazine culture writer Frank Rich recalls the quip that if one wanted to end the Vietnam War, the most effective way to do it would be to put it on ABC, where it would quickly be cancelled for hemorrhaging viewers.

Because of its lowly profile and meager financial resources (lousy ratings certainly hurt the bottom line), ABC had a serious problem in covering the Republican and Democratic political conventions. In addition to facilities that literally fell apart around correspondents, ABC simply couldn’t offer the gavel-to-gavel coverage that NBC and CBS had planned.

Instead, the executives at ABC came up with the plan of broadcasting a series of 10 debates and found two gentlemen who had the verbal dexterity to match their disgust to make an entertaining but informed exchange.

As Best of Enemies reveals, the two were small-screen masters. In many cases, Buckley could neutralize potential ideological opponents with his intimidatingly dense vocabulary or his remarkable charm. Vidal carefully honed wisecracks that seemed spontaneous on air. Nonetheless, they deflated his opponents.

If the two men were roughly the same age and background, Buckley, who was a devout Roman Catholic, viewed the modern era as a time of unique horror and moral decay. The atheist Vidal, however, was openly gay in an era when he could have been arrested for it. He welcomed the sort of changes that Buckley dreaded.

Both viewed the other as an antichrist and went to great lengths to vanquish the other in front of an audience of millions. It’s hard to think of anyone yelling on TV or radio today that can argue with the finesse that these guys did. The footage, some of which is sadly in a state of decay, is still grand theater. That fact that the drama is real certainly makes it more gripping.

In addition, these guys were as informed as they were irate. A viewer could learn something useful from listening to these fellows. While the 15 minutes they shared might have been painful for the two of them, it was useful for a public unsure of what to think about the Vietnam War or the civil rights struggle. Many the matchups that take place on cable now consist of two equally empty-mouth pieces spouting talking points or arguments that are rigged more blatantly than a WWE wrestling match.

Neville, who once worked as a fact checker for Vidal at The Nation, and Gordon paint vivid portraits of the combatants, but the most remarkable part of Best of Enemies may be the final montage, where they follow the downward spiral of America discourse in only a few minutes.

In just a few years, new exchanges imitated the fury of Buckley vs. Vidal but none of the insight or entertainment value. Saturday Night Live’s hilarious “Jane, you ignorant slut!” exchanges don’t seem much like satire anymore. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 08/20/15)

Best of Enemies

Buckley and Vidal
and informed debate are now
echoes of the past.

Straight Outta Compton
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

It's been a quarter century since NWA released their groundbreaking album “Straight Outta Compton,” but much of the bleak content on it is still sadly relevant.

That probably explains why the new film based on the hip hop combo's brief but influential career shares the album's power and infectiousness. Director F. Gary Gray, an old friend and collaborator of NWA alumnus Ice Cube, delivers a biopic that's consistently involving and either circumvents the clichés of the genre or gives them a feeling of authenticity they haven't had in ages.

Ice Cube, Andre "Dr. Dre" Young and Eric "Eazy-E" Wright's widow Tomika Woods-Wright are all credited as producers, so the film doesn't include the incident where Dr. Dre beat journalist Barnes. If Straight Outta Compton does sanitize its protagonists, it does capture the discontent that fueled NWA's music and why it and the people who created it matter.

To say the musicians started their lives inauspiciously is an understatement. As the film begins, Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) was involved in the dope trade but is also smart enough to realize that he couldn't stay there long. Organized crime has an unenviable severance package.

Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins) is serious music connoisseur and can make packed clubs dance easily. Unfortunately, being a club DJ can't help him make a living, much less help him with child support payments. He's also bored with playing music about "pussy instead of pistols." Dr. Dre's pal Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson, Jr., who's almost a twin of his real-life father) writes some clever rhymes about the difficulties of living in Compton, CA but club owners don't want to hear what he has to say even though the crowds love it.

Because Eazy-E has some cash handy from his illicit trade, he, Dr. Dre and Ice Cube try recording rappers performing their work. The interlopers can't relate to Ice Cube's local slang and "I'm here to do anything but party" attitude. Because Eazy-E has actually lived the gangsta life, he doesn't have to act to be convincing behind the mike.

The recordings get a following throughout Los Angeles when a marginal impresario named Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) takes an interest in NWA, which stands for “Niggaz with an Attitude.” Heller's interest in the band is genuine, and he does open doors that others cannot. Radio stations are unlikely to play songs like "Fuck tha Police."

Of course, one has to wonder why none of the names that Heller drops is currently working with him. Gray and Giamatti could have treated Heller like a garden-variety swindler. After all the Chess Brothers, Col. Tom Parker and Albert Grossman before him had a habit of taking more than their share from their clients. What makes Heller interesting is that he really cares about Eazy-E and his songs, and is willing to take risks with NWA that other managers wouldn't.

Heller, however, clearly favors Eazy-E and alienates Dr. Dre and Ice Cube in the process. Eazy-E dines on lobster whereas MC Ren (Aldis Hodge), Dj Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.), Dr. Dre and Ice Cube eat burgers. It's a matter of time before the group comes to an acrimonious end.

While the Jheri curl hairdos NWA sported have long gone out of style, the tunes, beat and discontent are still relevant. The beats that Dr. Dre and Dj Yella put together are still hopelessly catchy, and Ice Cube's words are still often powerful. If you were to play some of these songs in public, it's a safe bet someone would be quickly offended.

Gray effortlessly captures how run down Compton was in the ‘80s and how arbitrary police protection seemed to be there. Gangsters can commandeer a school bus if they think a passenger has offended them, but the cops seem more interested in hassling teenagers who've done nothing wrong.

Straight Outta Compton runs two and a half hours but feels remarkably lean. Generally, screenwriters Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff handle some of the sensitive material well. The grim passing of Eazy-E is presented with appropriate restraint. Gray, who's an old hand at action scenes, handles the shootouts and car chases with typical finesse.

It also doesn't hurt that he's assembled a terrific cast. Jackson could coast on his resemblance to his dad, but he's also a solid actor. So is Hawkins, who looks like he could be his character's offspring as well. These guys can make viewers care for less than likable characters. Even in the sanitized form, NWA's actions, by their own admission, aren't always idea.

To get an idea of how much time has passed since the era, consider that audiences have no problem with Ice Cube starring in kid’s films, and Dr. Dre now teams up with people like Kansas City-native Burt Bacharach instead of violent mogul Suge Knight (well-played in the film by R. Marcos Taylor). That said, it's hard not to want to dance to the title song when the movie ends. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/20/15)

Straight Outta Compton

If only my film
review could be as good as
Cube's words and Gray's film.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Some leftover properties in Hollywood are begging for rediscovery. It’s hard to tell if the Cold War-era TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is one of them, especially after seeing the new film that’s been adapted from it.

Director Guy Ritchie comes up with an odd but satisfying pairing between two performers who aren’t an obvious choice for costars. British actor Henry Cavill and American Armie Hammer are capable performers, if not marquee names. Yet, the two of them have a delightful, complementary rapport that more established names wouldn’t have.

It’s too bad the adventure that Ritchie and his co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram have cooked up isn’t as much fun as watching Cavill and Hammer one up each other. Ritchie wisely retains the 1960s setting for the series. Still, considering all of the genuinely hair-raising and bizarre things that happened during the era of Mutual Assured Destruction, the new tale of international intrigue isn’t all that engaging.

The film does get off to a brisk start when CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Cavill, playing the role Robert Vaughn immortalized in the series) and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin (Hammer, in David McCallum’s part) both find themselves trying to get the daughter of a nuclear scientist out of East Berlin.

While the two almost kill each other trying to extract Gaby (Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina), their superiors require them to team up in order to find her missing father before a group of neo-Nazis can use him to make an operating nuclear warhead.

Expecting Solo and Kuryakin to work together is a tall order. Solo, despite his impeccable suits, approaches spy craft as in an astonishingly casual manner. That may have something to do with the fact that he’s really a sophisticated thief. If his nimble fingers can’t snag a valuable object, his slippery tongue can.

Cavill, who came off as a stolid, sullen Superman in Man of Steel seems more at home this time around and genuinely seems to enjoy all the mischief Solo gets into. Similarly, Hammer gets more mileage out of the tormented Kuryakin (the spy’s father was branded a traitor by the Soviets) than he did playing second fiddle to Johnny Depp’s Tonto in The Lone Ranger. It’s more fun to watch him try suppressing what must be decades of escalating rage. The inevitable fits of fury are delightful.

Ritchie makes terrific use of Italian locations and creates a version of the 1960s that’s a good deal prettier than the one I grew up in. He also imitates the technique of filmmakers of the era, going to split screens when characters have dialogue exchanges that can’t fit into the frame normally.

While Ritchie returns to the skewed chronology that served him well in his early films like Snatch, his storytelling techniques might have been even more effective if tale he and Wigram were spinning weren’t so anemic.

There are some moments of witty banter and occasional dark humor, but a movie about the search for loose nukes shouldn’t seem so tame. When Ritchie does have action scenes, they don’t deliver the intended awe. He seems more at home with people sitting and talking.

Like so many recent remakes, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  is an origin story. Apparently, United Network Command for Law and Enforcement couldn’t found itself, so time that could have been spent in an actual story is squandered on how our pair of spies got together.

Perhaps somebody needs to tell the folks in Hollywood that origin stories might be necessary for a franchise, but nobody wants to see them if they aren’t interesting in themselves. (PG-13) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 08/18/15)

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Solo is more fun
when you don’t know quite know how
he came to be here.

The End of the Tour
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers

If the film The End of the Tour is about anything — other than two writers trying to contain their fascination with one another — it’s about guilt that can come with success.

Maybe that’s what Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky never succeeded in uncovering in David Foster Wallace during the brief time they spent together. Lipsky, played by Jesse Eisenberg, wanted just to hang with America’s most famous writer of the late nineties after the publication of his novel Infinite Jest. Convincing his editor to foot the travel expenses during the end of Wallace’s book tour wasn’t a tough sell since rumors of Wallace’s fondness for heroin circulated among the literati.

Lipsky finds Wallace in a state of near permanent bewilderment caused by a constant need to run from himself and the fame that drenches him. Respite seems to come by talking with Lipsky, and crossing his arms in front of his chest, which Wallace does with habitual dedication throughout the film. Here is a writer confused by his brilliance, revealed to Lipsky when he says, “I have a serious fear of being a certain way,” later adding, “I treasure my regular guy-ness.”

Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace seems to know how laughable that statement is to us regular folk. Nothing seems more absurd to ordinary people as when the well-to-do announce their struggle to be “regular” and Segal, as he’s shown in previous films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall and The Five-Year Engagement has got the soft-spoken big guy struggling with being normal persona down pat. Segal is an inspired choice to play Wallace, do-rag and all, which Lipsky calls a bandana in betraying his limited real-world experiences.

The End of the Tour is a male talk-a-thon but an appealing one, enhanced by the women in the film. Joan Cusack plays a chatty booklover, chauffer and tour guide in Minneapolis easily enthralled with any famous writer she picks up at the airport while Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky and Mickey Sumner entered the pair’s circle as admirers causing some tension between Lipsky and Wallace. The most interesting is Sumner as Betsy. She brings a coolness to the screen that seems to douse the “bromance” (as one reviewer labeled the film) between the two writers, calling Wallace at one point “pleasantly unpleasant.”

The film limits itself to a few days in Wallace’s life at the peak of his fame. There’s no back-story about his early years or any struggles he may have had as a writer. Likewise there’s nothing in The End of the Tour that hints of Wallace getting his shit together and little about what he writes about, and the film, while interesting and well acted, doesn’t make us care or drive us to read his novels or even want to understand what postmodern literature or post-postmodernism are suppose to be.

As Wallace states in the film, “I’ve lived an incredibly American life.” Only when he admits he has an addiction to TV does that statement bear truth. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/18/15)

Fantastic Four
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Previous attempts over the past two decades to bring Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's iconic comic book quartet to the big screen have ranged from camp (Roger Corman's unreleased 1994 production) to generic (Tim Story's 2005 and 2007 films). The irony of this third attempt is that up until the four receive their fantastic powers, it's actually pretty good.

Like it's predecessors, this version once again recounts the team's origin story. This time around, however, the script, co-written by director Josh Trank with Simon Kinberg (X-Men: Days of Future Past) and Jeremy Slater (The Lazarus Effect), eschews the Lee/Kirby origin story of Cold War astronauts bombarded by cosmic rays for the alternate-universe Ultimate Fantastic Four's longer, more grounded story of much younger characters.

Hence, this version begins with nerdy fifth-grader Reed Richards (Owen Judge) recruiting classmate Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) to help him construct a "biomatter shuttle" with parts lifted from the Grimm family's salvage yard. Contrasting Reed's middle-class background with Ben's rough, working-class home life, the film takes its time and develops the characters, at times creating a Spielbergian sense of childlike curiosity and wonder.

Jumping to the present, Richard's (now played by Whiplash's Miles Teller) more refined version of the shuttle is ridiculed by his teacher at the high school science fair but attracts the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who recruits him on the spot for The Baxter Institute, a think-tank for child prodigies of which Storm is the fatherly director. It's here that Reed meets fellow prodigy and Dr. Storm's adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), Sue's delinquent brother Johnny (Fruitvale Station's Michael B. Jordan) who has been conscripted into service at the institute as an alternative to juvenile detention, and Dr. Storm's surly former protégé Victor von Doom (Wrath of the Titans' Tony Kebbell).

It's also here that director Trank (Chronicle) loses control of the film.

When the government attempts to co-opt the bigger, better device (now called the Quantum Gate), the whiz kids, a bit miffed and a bit inebriated, decide to take it for a first spin along with Reed's buddy Ben (now played by Billy Elliot's Jamie Bell). The ride, of course, goes badly, as does the rest of the film as Trank and company attempt to cram into the final half hour the grave consequences of this rash decision.

Amid the rush to its ineffectual conclusion are glimpses of what the film could have been. Brief scenes in which the Four discover their powers — or curses — echo early Cronenberg: Reed's limbs grotesquely stretched and strapped to a gurney, Johnny uncontrollably bursting into flame, Sue abruptly flickering in and out of existence, and, most troubling, Bell's anguished cries emerging from a shambling pile of stones.

Likewise, the government's militarization of two of the estranged four (Ben acquiesces while Johnny is gung-ho) is also ripe for development yet is only mentioned in passing.

And in order to get to what?

Another dimension that looks like a ‘90s video game background. A von Doom that looks more like a Saran Wrapped mummy than Marvel's iconic villain. Another generic black hole threatening to suck humanity out of existence. And a talented young cast with nothing much to do. (PG-13)
Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 08/09/15)

Irrational Man
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Woody Allen is the rare filmmaker proficient in both comedy and drama. But his latest release, an uneven mix of burlesque and menace, reveals a lack of commitment to either and suffers for it.

Allen has successfully played murder for laughs before, Manhattan Murder Mystery and Scoop, for instance. But neither required the audience to feel empathy for the perpetrator, unlike the brilliant dramas Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors, arguably among Allen’s best, in which the crimes, though brutal and unnerving, were couched in a well-developed, and therefore understandable, desperation. In Irrational Man the homicide is not just premeditated but presumably rationalized.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, an impotent, alcoholic rock star-like professor of philosophy who has just accepted a summer teaching post at a liberal arts college in Rhode Island. It’s a small, homogenous community, seemingly made up of the college’s faculty and their offspring, who consider Abe’s arrival in town nothing short of the Second Coming. Star pupil Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) and science professor Rita Richards (Parker Posey) in particular indulge in their curiosity about his reputation, and project onto him their fantasies of escape from the sleepy college town. But Abe is too depressed to return their amorous feelings. That is, until he overhears a pivotal conversation that gives him the idea of committing the perfect murder.

You have to give it to Allen, it’s hard to write realistic college classroom lectures and he does well here. In one seminar, Abe describes the field of philosophy as “verbal masturbation,” sounding just like a burnt-out academic. But it’s out of the classroom, where his pseudo-intellectual conversations with Jill get pretentious, telling her that he “can’t write because he can’t breathe,” that the movie loses steam. In these talks, of which there are many, Stone can’t hold her own. She’s a bore, so it’s no wonder that Abe spends his time eavesdropping.

The film opens with clashing voice-overs from Abe and Jill. Yet, it’s Parker Posey’s Ruth who holds the center. Posey has always been great at disguising desperation as nonchalance, and here she’s given a great opportunity, but not enough screen time, despite being the one who figures out the crime. Instead, Allen leaves the sleuthing, perhaps as homage to Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, to his young paramour.

There’s a carousel scene that can be linked to Strangers on a Train. But what’s missing here is Abe’s ability to win Jill over to his plan. For all their supposedly profound discussion, he never lays bare his plan, which after all, is meant to the ultimate act of altruism. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 08/09/15)

Mr. Holmes
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In the opening scene of director Bill Condon’s (Gods and Monsters, Dreamgirls) latest film, an aged Sherlock Holmes, played by Ian McKellan, determinedly wobbles from the Sussex train station to his country cottage. One of his first tasks on his return home is to check on the apiary he keeps on the picturesque property; the other the prickly ash plant he’s just brought back from Japan. It’s 1947 and the famous private detective, 93, has been retired for 30 years. His biggest case now involves discovering what’s killing his beloved bees.

The bees and the prickly ash, it turns out, are an important part of a self-prescribed regimen to improve the venerable sleuth’s declining memory. He’s determined to write, not his memoirs exactly, but a rectification of his reputation, which he claims was a fiction hyped by Dr. Watson’s pulpy tales, by disclosing the true events behind one of his cases. It’s actually his final case, we learn as events unfold in screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of the Mitch Cullin novel A Slight Trick of the Mind, and the one that prompted his quitting the only vocation for which his over-analytic personality was suited.

In its postmodern refitting of the Sherlock Holmes short stories, the BBC One’s contemporized “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch, has become the standard for the contradicting of the figure’s most iconic signifiers — deerstalker, pipe, utterances of “Elementary, my dear Watson” — claiming them pure concoctions of Watson’s imagination or happenstance that is picked up on by the public. Likewise, Hatcher’s screenplay omits the god’s hand of Arthur Conan Doyle in the same way. It’s as if, in becoming the most portrayed literary figure in film and television, the fictional detective has broken free of his actual creator (Doyle; not Watson) and has entered the public domain.

In Condon’s movie, Holmes, hoping to have his memory jogged, slips unnoticed into a theater playing an adaptation of the case on which he’s fixated. He declares the version hogwash, but Condon’s casting provides a wink: the actor portraying Holmes in the fictional black-and-white film is Nicholas Rowe, who 30 years ago played the young Holmes in Young Sherlock Holmes and the Pyramid of Fear.

Unfortunately, the film doesn’t stick with the one time period and its warm but serious portrayal of when a sharp mind, possibly the sharpest, fails. Its present is just post-WWII but it also flashes back to Holmes’ recent trip to Japan, a red herring that it unashamedly uses to wrap up its loose ends, and to the events of the last case in 1917, forcing sentimental regrets on a logical mind where there should be none.

As a result neither of these storylines is as compelling, or as rich in visuals, as the main one, supported by a strong Laura Linney as his housekeeper and war widow Mrs. Munro and her son, precocious and irritating but necessary, Roger (Milo Parker). (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 08/06/15)

Mission Impossible - Rogue Nation
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

After a disappointing return to Jurassic World this summer it's nice to see the Mission: Impossible film franchise back to show 'em how a corporate blockbuster is done. While packed to the gills with the requisite exotic locales, gadgets, chases, and brutal fisticuffs this fifth entry in the franchise feels like more of a throwback to its Bondian and Hitchcockian predecessors.

The film opens with a Bond-style prologue in which Ethan Hunt (53-year-old Tom Cruise, once again performing his own suicidal dangerous stunts) leaps atop, wing-walks, then hangs from the side of an Airbus A400 as it takes off.

Most films would save a stunt of that magnitude for the finale. Rogue Nation is just getting started.

The plot, such as it is, finds new CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) scuttling the improbably named (especially in the 21st century) Impossible Missions Force for absolutely 21st Century concerns: lack of oversight and accountability. It doesn't help their case that IMF director Hunt has become obsessed with proving the existence of "the Syndicate," a shadow organization of disaffected spies he believes is linked to any number of international criminal and political shenanigans, and is about to acquire enough capital to operate as an autonomous nation (hence the awkward film title).

If the concerns are modern, the treatment is classic as Hunt and his team globetrot from one impressive locale and set piece to the next. An attempted assassination at the Vienna Opera House during a performance of Puccini's Turandot echoes Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much as the action unfolds overhead amid the stage rigging. And a motorcycle chase through the streets of Morocco out-Bonds most Bond movies as well as any number of Fast & Furious wannabes.

Director and screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the Cruise films Valkyrie and Edge of Tomorrow, and wrote and directed Jack Reacher, sustains a careful balance of tension and humor throughout, acknowledging the absurdity of many of the proceedings while still keeping the audience on the edge of its collective seat.

While Sean Harris (The Borgias) provides a suitably maniacal villain in soft-spoken Syndicate boss Solomon Lane, the truly welcome addition to this world of male bravado is Rebecca Ferguson as Ilsa Faust, a disavowed British operative, who may be working for Lane or may be a double- or even triple-agent. As written by McQuarrie and played by Ferguson, Ilsa is neither Bond Girl eye candy nor sexless killing machine. She's every bit the strategist and fighter that Hunt is.

Case in point: while Jurassic World’s heroine flees rampaging dinosaurs in stiletto heels, the level-headed Faust slips ‘em off before getting down to business.

And about time, too. PG-13 Rating: 4 (Posted on 08/04/15)

Dan Lybarger can be contacted at
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Mike Ireland can be contacted at


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