movie reviews Aug 2016

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Don't Breathe
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Taking a diametrically opposite approach to horror from his blood-drenched feature debut, 2013's Evil Dead remake, Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez turns to the subtler tools of cinematography, editing, and soundscape to generate scares this time around. And for an hour, the resulting home-invasion movie Don't Breathe is a brutal, relentless little thrill machine. Unfortunately, it runs another 28 minutes, during which the film goes wildly, and tastelessly, off the rails.

Early on, we are introduced to a trio of 20-something burglars looking for a way out of post-decline Detroit. Wannabe thug Money (Daniel Zovatto) seems more interested in destroying their targets’ possessions than in taking them. Money’s squeeze Rocky (Suburgatory’s Jane Levy), however, is just looking to get herself and her younger sister far away from the soul-crushing influence of their no-account mom. Good kid Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose father’s security company job provides access to targets and the keys (and key cards) to their kingdoms, seems motivated primarily by a poorly hidden crush on Rocky. As illustrated in an early scene, following brainy Alex’s rules of engagement — strict time limits, no guns, and modest takes — it appears they’ve rather perfected their game.

When they catch wind of an aging Gulf War vet sitting on $300,000 cash, however, it seems like the one big job that could get them all out of Dodge for good. Discovering their target is blind while casing his vacated neighborhood, far from deterring them, only convinces them of the ease of the job. Looking on, it's hard not to feel for the guy.

Once inside the isolated house, however, the trio quickly realizes they have sorely underestimated their mark. This unnamed vet (Stephen Lang) appears to have maintained his combat skills, including lethal hand-to-hand combat moves and uncanny marksmanship, using every thump, creak, and breath to guide his shots.

The remainder of the film takes place almost entirely within these shadowy, claustrophobic confines as the trio's members attempt first to evade, then simply to escape, the increasingly sadistic resident. Cinematographer Pedro Luque's camera often moves independently of the characters, gliding down dusty halls, tracking past doors lined with deadbolts and padlocks, pushing in on foreshadowing details such as a workbench full of hammers and power tools, and creeping through the blind man's bedroom across a dirty outline on the wall where a crucifix once hung. Entire sequences unfold in silence as the burglars struggle to avoid the prowling vet, making each sound all the more effective.

Lang provides a formidable, feral, threat. His eyes scarred and perpetually open, his sinewy limbs tensed for action, he moves like an animal. Entering a room, he pauses, turning a nose up to smell, cocking his head for telltale sounds then suddenly lunging into action. Even his utterances for most of the film are limited to grunts and moans.

Such a threat is more than sufficient to turn our sympathies back to the young assailants. But it isn't enough for Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues, who save a couple of nasty twists for the film's last act. Suffice to say that once the action moves to the basement, the vet's sadism turns to cartoonish psychosis, any sense of reality dissipates, and the film's sustained tension devolves to a pandering revulsion. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 08/30/16)

Don't Think Twice
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

While set within the world of live comedy, Don't Think Twice, comedian Mike Birbiglia’s meditation on talent, ambition, and the personal price of creating art, transcends the narrow limits of its subject matter. In fact, for folks (like me) who don't particularly respond to improv comedy, the film succeeds precisely because it focuses on the comedians, not the performances.

Don't Think Twice revolves around The Commune, a six-member New-York comedy troupe that has been gamely carrying the improv torch on weekends at a small New York theater, garnering greater reputation than compensation as its members toil at day jobs, waiting for that big break. The group includes mousy Allison (Kate Micucci), who is working on a graphic novel; sad sack Bill (Chris Gethard), who longs to be a big-time comedy writer; and trust-fund kid Lindsay (Tami Sagher), whose wealthy background inspires resentment from her peers but has also triggered an unhealthy habit of self-medication. The group’s brightest prospects appear to be charismatic showboater Jack (Keegan-Michael Key of the Comedy Central sketch series “Key & Peele”) and his girlfriend Samantha (Gillian Jacobs), whose idealistic devotion to improv may be a cover for deeper insecurities.

Not surprisingly, given his self-deprecating stand-up performances, writer-director Berbiglia saves the least likeable character for himself. Miles is the self-described leader and mentor of the group. Although nearing forty, he’s not above coaxing 20-year-old students from his acting class into his sad loft bed with tales of being “just inches away” from making the cast of Weekend Live, a thinly disguised facsimile of Saturday Night Live.

Recent developments have forced the group’s members, now well into their thirties, to face two realities, one practical, the other existential. The theater they’ve called home for years is being sold, placing the Commune’s future in question and raising the very distinct possibility that some of them just may not be destined to make it to the big time.

When Weekend Live hires Jack, the buried resentment and self-doubt lurking behind their camaraderie begin to emerge. Even a generous return appearance by Jack to the Commune stage only serves to undermine its stability when the performance devolves into audience members calling out for Weekend Live bits.

The film’s truest moments, however, occur off-stage as Berbiglia suggests that the comedic impulse springs from — and feeds — each character’s personality flaws. This becomes clearest when one of the members suffers a personal tragedy. On a long car ride together, the silent tension is broken by what, at first, seems like a cruelly insensitive joke that slowly evolves into a healing riff bouncing among all of the members.

If the upbeat coda rings a bit untrue, Berbiglia nonetheless does an admirable job of capturing the very human neuroses that reside behind a performer’s veneer of confidence. (R) Rating: 3.5 (Posted on 08/26/16)

Suicide Squad
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

"Worst. Heroes. Ever."

It's risky advertising a film with a tagline that can so easily become its epitaph. Such is the case with Suicide Squad, DC Comics' third attempt to establish a movie franchise akin to Marvel Comic's sprawling and successful Cinematic Universe.

After the spectacular failures of two dark, brooding movies featuring flagship superheroes Superman and Batman (2013's Man of Steel and this year's Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), the latest feature does an about-face, attempting to tap into the wild, anarchic energy of some of DC's more colorful miscreants.

Suicide Squad is basically The Dirty Dozen with meta-humans: a group of the very worst criminals rounded up for a mission from which they're unlikely to return. Drawing from the entire roster of DC creeps, villains and weirdos, you'd reckon on some pretty nasty, twisted characters in this unit. But you'd be wrong.

In an effort to make the film more kid-friendly, fun, and, well, PG-13, writer/director David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury) somehow forgot to make these bad guys bad. In fact, these miscreants are downright adorable. Will Smith gets the most screen time as Floyd Lawton/Deadshot, a conscienceless hit man. As played by Smith, however, Lawton becomes yet another incarnation of the wisecracking bad boy he's been playing for 20 years now. And in flashback, the film assures us that this cold-blooded killer really just wants to do right by his estranged daughter.

As Harley Quinn, deranged girlfriend of the Joker and a truly tragic character, Margot Robbie strikes an uncomfortable balance between battered woman and Maxim centerfold. Unable or unwilling to explore Quinn's dark love/hate relationship with the Joker (aside from inscribing both words on a gun barrel), the film reduces her to a screwball sexpot with a baseball bat.

The rest of the squad barely register. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is an Aussie yahoo who wields deadly boomerangs? El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a cholo Firestarter, fears unleashing his power. And poor Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), aside from lizard skin and razor teeth, gets no backstory at all. Thrown in for good measure are a scientist possessed by a centuries-old witch, a Japanese swordswoman with a mystical sword, and, briefly, an evil master of knots.

Not surprisingly, with such a cuddly crew, the script repeatedly has the characters remind us that they are the bad guys.

Evil does appear — in the person of the Joker. Jared Leto's much publicized portrayal does suggest real danger and levels of psychological trauma. But it's essentially a glorified cameo, only tangentially related to the proceedings.

Director Ayer seems to have no more idea what to do with this squad than fictional government bigwig Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), who has assembled it as defense against hypothetical attacks by meta-humans. As it turns out, the group, itself, is the source of the threat to humanity (yet another big, glowing vortex sucking everything up into the sky in a swirling mass of detritus).

With no training, no bonding, not even the friction one would expect from a gaggle of sociopaths forced to work in close quarters, the SS spring into action. But with no clear goal or plan, the majority of the film consists of randomly stitched together action sequences against a legion of creatures that wouldn't have made the cut for a “Power Rangers” episode.

For missing character and plot, Ayer attempts to substitute attitude. But the Goth, tattoos, Day-Glo, and blasts of rock and hip hop chucked into the mix feel about as subversive as a pre-distressed "vintage" Ramones tee shirt from Target.

Worst. Bad guys. Ever. PG-13 Rating: 2 (Posted 08/15/16)

Jason Bourne
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Sometimes a few good vehicle chases are all you need to make a watchable movie. These action scenes could have been even more fun if they were accompanied by a decent story.

In the previous decade, the movies made from Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne novels felt fresh and exciting because they combined a chilling post-Vietnam/Cointelpro outlook on espionage with a 9/11-era urgency. Unlike other spies, Bourne (Matt Damon) is sort of horrified to discover that he's been trained and possibly genetically altered to kill people he's never met.

Because others in the Central Intelligence Agency are embarrassed by his lethal program Treadstone and want him dead. His reluctance to be a murderer and his need to survive make him a somewhat more serious and sympathetic spy than James Bond, but the presence of a legion of determined enemies ensures that he'll get into lots of nail-biting and jaw-dropping scrapes. Damon's smart but regular guy person makes him seem human even if the body count he unleashes rivals the Battle of Gettysburg.

Directors Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) and Paul Greengrass (The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum) found the ideal way to stage the story of an amnesiac CIA assassin by shooting any scrape that Jason Bourne got into with quick cuts and shaky camerawork. The disorienting effect was still relatively easy to follow. Because Bourne is trying to figure out how he has gotten where he is and why he's running or fighting for his life, the jerky, gritty visuals immediately put the viewer in his place.

Greengrass and his unique eye for property destruction and chases are back, as is Damon. What's missing this time around is a story that's worthy of Bourne. Greengrass and his co-screenwriter Christopher Rouse rehash the conspiracies from the first three movies without coming up with anything interesting to fill the time between Bourne's fighting or fleeing.

Tommy Lee Jones plays a CIA director who's just as duplicitous as David Strathairn, Chris Cooper and Albert Finney were in the previous movies. Yes, he's a wonderful, heel, but there's nothing new or intriguing about how he tries to stop Bourne from coming in from the cold.

Recent Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) has a slightly more demanding role as a technology expert who seems curiously supportive of the rogue agent. While there may be some suspense over which parts of the scenery might explode, her future behavior isn't mysterious.

There's a potentially scary plot thread about the Agency tapping into social media but for better or for worse, Greengrass figures we'd rather have car chases. At least those are expectedly terrific. By setting the battles and pursuits in places like Rome, Athens and Las Vegas, Greengrass makes cramped environments that are loaded with potential danger. While he may be defying the laws of physics, Greengrass' stunt work at least looks real. You can see parts flying off of cars when they crash. It's not like watching London Has Fallen where every effect looks like it was taken from a screen saver or a video game.

It's almost as if the portions between the set pieces were added at the last moment to link them together. That may be why Bourne gets pocket money for bare knuckle brawling. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 08/14/16)

Jason Bourne

When Jason Bourne gets
his memory back, the film
is forgettable.

Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Many of my peers have lamented that American literary icon Philip Roth’s books can’t be adapted to the big screen. Most cite how The Human Stain and Portnoy’s Complaint didn’t work that well and that much of the pleasure of reading his books comes from the confessional, first person narrative that runs throughout them.

Who wants to listen to two and a half hours of voice over?

Actually, the idea that Roth’s books shouldn’t be made into films is nonsense.

Spanish director Isabel Coixet’s Elegy’s adaptation of Roth’s The Dying Animal, was moving, due to a terrific performance by Penélope Cruz, and rookie director James Schamus, now has made an engrossing version of Indignation but doing the unthinkable: following Roth’s story.

Having worked as a writer and producer on Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, the locally shot Ride with the Devil, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Lust, Caution, Schamus is a nearly ideal person to explore the sexual and identity issues that run throughout Roth’s work.

in print and on screen start with a Korean War soldier mulling over what has happened before his death. Before he left America never to return, Marcus Messner (Logan Lerman, Fury) is a bright high school senior from New Jersey who’s eager to start his studies at a small Ohio university. His dad (Danny Burstein) is a kosher butcher who has become increasingly irritable watching Marcus’ peers come home in coffins.

Hearing his mother (Linda Edmond) and his dad bickering has been getting old so it’s easy to see why he wants to get away from the Garden State, but Ohio is an awkward place for him as well. As a Jew, Marcus sticks out immediately on a predominantly Christian campus and as an atheist, he’s understandably bristles about having to attend chapel every week to pray to a god he doesn’t believe in.

A loner by nature, Marcus is understandably uncomfortable with his two obnoxious roommates and isn’t eager to join the Jewish fraternity. Because he’s the first member of his family to ever attend college, he’s so determined to excel at his studies that he misses out on socializing with anyone.

That changes when he catches the eye of Olivia Hutton (Sarah Gadon). The two meet up for a date where she introduces him to forbidden fruit (actually, escargot) and then seduces him. Marcus is both terrified of and infatuated with Olivia. He has no idea how to return her affection, but can’t stop thinking about her either.

Adding to his torment is the fact that she’s probably the only woman in the state adventurous enough to get involved with him. Marcus’ Christian classmates and instructors wonder why he doesn’t just accept the norm and have no idea how offensive they’re being.

If Olivia has guts, it may be due in part to her struggles with mental health. She’s been to the Menninger Institute in Topeka, so there’s a good chance she might not make it through the semester, much less a lifetime with Marcus.

Schamus handles Marcus’ alienation and guilt but never forgetting that the strident fellow is still young and living in a world where the adults don’t really have much in the way of answers. He’s smart, but he doesn’t realize he still has a lot to learn. And yet, it’s entertaining to watch him take on authority without reservations.

Whereas some filmmakers shy always from long speeches, one of the highlights of Indignation is a long exchange between Marcus and the condescending but seemingly friendly Dean (playwright and actor Tracy Letts). When Marcus moves into a shabby apartment after one too many irritations from his roomies, the dean tries to get him to go with the program, but Marcus eloquently argues the program has a few flaws.

Thanks to solid performances and some intriguing subject matter, listening to Marcus and the Dean argue about 1950s conformity is compelling. Marcus doesn’t have the Dean’s breadth of knowledge (there’s now substitute for a few decades), but his iron will and his sense that the culture as a whole is changing permanently puts him ahead of the older man.

Schamus seems to have picked up a lot of useful lessons from Lee and others. He gets the most out of his performers, and Christopher Blauvelt’s gorgeous cinematography. As a cofounder of Focus Features, it is tempting to dread his directing debut because both Joe Roth of Revolution and Bob Shaye of New Line have proven that some studio heads would be wiser to outsource the helming to more qualified people.

In Schamus’ case, however, he proves that assuming something can’t or shouldn’t be done is folly. Good stories sometimes do come across well, even if they’re “unfilmmable.” (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 08/14/16)


Long speeches in movies
are all right if the content’s
worth listening to.

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

When cartoonist Alison Bechdel introduced the parameters of what has become known as the Bechdel test in 1985 through the strip “The Rule” in her comic Dykes to Watch Out For, she never expected it to become the litmus test to judge a film’s representation of women. In fact, the specifications, credited to Bechdel’s friend Liz Wallace who was inspired by Virginia Woolf’s 1929 essay, “A Room of One’s Own” — that a film must have at least two female characters who speak to each other about something other than a man — remained "a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper" until film students started posting about it on the Internet in the first decade of the new millennium.

Now a standard by which films are judged, the Bechdel test, with the added requirement that the two female characters be named, has inspired umpteen lists giving films the feminist nod or not. Still, as a way to assess the quality of a film, or even the measure of a single female character’s reach or arc, the test falls short. Even the original Star Wars trilogy, with its sarcastic, rebel princess, and Run Lola Run, with its crimson-haired champion played by Franka Potente, fail the test.

You can understand, then, Bechdel’s hesitation to endorse official ratings based on her invention, such as the one implemented in 2013 by four independent Swedish theaters. Undeniably an important awareness-raising guideline, the Bechdel test doesn’t take into context the story a filmmaker chooses to tell. Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Academy Award for Best Director with The Hurt Locker, a film that also fails the Bechdel test.

Admirably, there are filmmakers, even some working in the studio system, committed to putting women on the big screen, despite the prevailing bias — a chicken-and-the-egg paradox — that general audiences, meaning males aged 13 to 25, won’t watch movies featuring female leads.

Director Paul Feig’s last three films (Bridesmaids, The Heat, Spy) found both critical and box office success with female-led disruptions of established genres traditionally starring men. His latest film, written by Feig and former collaborator Katie Dippold (The Heat), takes on the buddy film, Ivan Reitman’s 1984 Ghostbusters, which just squeaks past the Bechdel yardstick.

Technically not a remake, the film follows the rhythm and sequences of the original. In the place of Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Ernie Hudson and the late Harold Ramis, Feig has plugged in his regulars Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig along with Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon. But the women, confined by its PG rating to banal phrases such as “Let’s do this” and “Say hello to my little friend,” play second fiddle to the made-up weapons concocted by McKinnon’s mad scientist.

Beyond one speech given by Wiig’s uptight physicist in which she explains her lifelong interest in the paranormal and the basis for her friendship with McCarthy’s rogue engineer, Feig and Dippold haven’t adequately expanded the roles to justify the gender swap. Like other parts that were changed from male to female, for example, Sandra Bullock’s campaign consultant in Our Brand Is Crisis, they seem as if the scriptwriter merely did a quick find/replace from “he” to “she.” This reboot may pass the test at its most basic level, but the movie still fails. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted on 08/02/16)

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


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