movie reviews September 2015

Steve Jobs: the man in the machinethe look of silenceThe Diary of a Teenage Girlmistress America grandmaqueen of earthblack massthe interneverest

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Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Everest is one of those rare movies that you don't simply watch. For a little over two hours, Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur makes viewers feel as if they are with the ill-fated climbers of the world's highest mountain, experiencing its unique beauty as well as the dangers that kept legions of mountaineers from returning safely from its summit.

Kormákur, whose last movie was the forgettable Mark Wahlberg vehicle Contraband, and Italian cinematographer Salvatore Totino demonstrate that in the right hands 3D can be an important storytelling tool.

In Everest, viewers who wear those annoying glasses can get a sense of distance, making the climb and the descent seem even more imposing and scary. It gives viewers who are too cowardly or too smart to climb Everest for themselves a sense of why people would take the risk of climbing mountains and how someone might die in the process.

In addition to the optical wizardry, the script for Everest manages the tricky but essential task of making viewers care about a bunch of folks who take risks that usually don’t end well. The air near the peak doesn’t lend itself to breathing. Until the last thirty years, only climbers with years of experience and special gear and training were able to reach the top and walk down the mountain to tell about it.

Once the process gradually became relatively safer, people could take carefully guided tours to the summit, but in 1996 the dangers of climb became all too real. Because of overcrowding and weather that make an already risky situation worse, several climbers never returned. Sadly, it was those ones who knew how to get up and down the mountain multiple times, and who knew how to help others who didn’t.

As portrayed in the film, New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) has successfully led other tours and has the courage to send home wealthy clients when they had no business climbing further. While he has a base camp manager (Emily Watson) who knows how to deal with most issues, Rob probably should have avoided this climb because his wife (Kiera Knightley) is ready to deliver a baby at any moment.

One of his climbers is outdoorsy journalist Jon Krackauer (Michael Kelly), who would later come to prominence with the books Under the Banner of Heaven and Into the Wild. Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori) has reached such imposing peaks as K2, so reaching the top of Everest would be a great climax to her mountaineering career.

Two of Rob’s other clients may not be up for the climb. One is a mailman (John Hawkes), who has been working several odd jobs to pay for the trip after failing a previous attempt, and the other is a Texas political operative (Josh Brolin) whose macho exterior will be tested by the mountain. His wife (Robin Wright) is understandably less than enthusiastic about his ambitions.

Rob’s approach differs from American expedition leader Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose seemingly caviler attitude about climbing belies his unwillingness to take along people he deems unready.

The script, credited to William Nicholson (Shadowlands) and Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours) makes all of these characters seem believable and sympathetic. The climbers who make it and the ones who don’t aren’t always the ones who are least suited. Fate has a way of making years of training useless and of enabling tenderfoots to get through challenges that befuddle veterans.

Thanks to a consistently solid ensemble, Everest feels convincing, even if it does take liberties with what actually happened 19 years ago. It’s hard to say if making the film was as challenging as reaching the peak of the mountain, but in this case the effort and expense were worth it. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/30/15)


Reaching the top of
the mountain doesn’t look that
easy or foolish.

The Intern
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Since the 1960s, in good films and bad, Robert De Niro has demonstrated that he can play just about any character humanly possible. In The Intern, he moves beyond flesh-and-blood to play a geriatric guardian angel.

Ben Whittaker (De Niro), as writer-director Nancy Meyers (It's Complicated) conceives him, is supposed to be an ordinary, retired executive, but throughout The Intern, he demonstrates skill and wisdom that mere experience doesn't deliver.

Having recently lost his beloved wife, Ben finds retirement unbearably tedious. About the only things that keep him for going insane are outdoor tai chi classes and avoiding a would-be bride (Linda Lavin), who's eager to capitalize on Ben's loss. His malaise ends when he signs up to work as a senior intern at the online clothing retailer About the Fit. The firm's founder and CEO Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway) needs Ben's guidance and emotional support.

She just doesn't know it.

Like legions of entrepreneurs before her, Jules is learning that starting a successful business is much different from running one. Jules' compulsion to personally look over every aspect of the company has led to delays in orders and a sense of chaos at the office.

Initially, she finds Ben's eagerness to help intrusive, and she understandably wonders what a fellow who still voluntarily uses a flip phone can do for an online merchant.

The answer is everything.

Ben may wear thick glasses, but he can spot safety, productivity and emotional issues like a hawk. He's old school with his dress and bearing, but he's continually receptive and generous with his coworkers, never passing up a chance to credit them when collaborating on a project.

As The Intern trudges along, it's easy to wonder if Meyers had to cut a scene where Ben sprouts a halo because he's so close to perfect. Fortunately, she's cast the ideal actor to play the ideal man. De Niro's darting eyes reveal a benign but active intelligence that age cannot diminish. He also looks just ruffled enough, even in a pressed suit, which allows him to still seem more biological than ethereal.

Meyer's casting instincts also work beautifully with Hathaway. Jules comes off as driven but not predatory and matches her perfectionism with a sense of compassion. It's refreshing to see a female boss in a film that isn't a domineering tyrant.

Meyers has coaxed some expectedly solid performances from her Oscar-winning leads and has found a scenario that gives both of them room to shine. Sadly, there's not much tension in this story, even though it involves a flirtatious masseuse (Rene Russo). Running just past two hours, The Intern gradually loses any sense of novelty, and the pacing slackens. It's as if Meyers was dreading the obligatory tropes as much as the viewers would when the film finally started playing.

Fortunately, her able stars breathe just enough life into The Intern to keep it from becoming a dull fairy tale. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted 09/29/15)

The Intern

Old employees make
for a vintage De Niro
role in a slow film.

Black Mass
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Director Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace) tries to wrangle an entire Wikipedia entry’s worth of facts in this too-thorough biopic of James “Whitey” Bulger, the south Boston hoodlum who became an organized crime kingpin in the mid-1970s until he went into hiding in 1995. Based on the book by former Boston Globe reporters Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, the screenplay, adapted by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, justifiably implicates Bulger’s association with the FBI, instigated by childhood friend and agent John Connolly. Yet, Cooper insists on promoting a cult of personality for Bulger — portrayed by Johnny Depp in makeup that when it works makes his malevolence seem intense and otherworldly but when it doesn’t has him resembling the albino Whitey Jackson from the Chevy Chase comedy Foul Play — applying spurious psychological reasoning and literal turning points based on biographical events.

The film opens with up-close confessions from Bulger’s closest confederates Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons) and Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane). The frame is stock gangster movie, but it’s serviceable. Plemons, in particular, as the aged and disillusioned Weeks with a bloated, aged face, builds the narrative, which takes its time to circle around to their reasons for incriminating themselves in order to rat out Bulger. In his younger days, Weeks’ penchant for psychopathic violence comes to the attention of Bulger, who, seeing himself in the unbalanced but dogged youth, becomes his gangland mentor.

As the story unfolds, the film reveals an extensive cast of characters, played by an impressive supporting cast. Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Dakota Johnson, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson and Juno Temple all play minor but decisive roles. Benedict Cumberbatch, butchering a Boston accent as Whitey’s brother Billy, the former long-time president of the Massachusetts senate, is a superfluous act of casting, considering the film’s refusal to speculate on his true relationship with his brother’s illegal dealings. But as an FBI agent, the mustachioed Adam Scott, with his anachronistic smirk, is the only one who seems completely out of step with the period of the film.

However, the most pivotal relationship is with the ingratiating Connolly, portrayed by Joel Edgerton. Still, Cooper doesn’t force his way inside Connolly, allowing him easy motives — promotion, greed, lazy intelligence work —while attempting to incite our sympathy for the hyper violent Bulger, who seemed more protected and lucky than actually charismatic or clever.

The events of the film are sweeping, encompassing decades of deals and disappearances by a multitude of characters. In his obsessive need to include all the events that he feels may explain Bulger’s rise to the top of the Boston gangs, Cooper rushes his actors through scenes. As a result, there are very few actual cinematic moments, and that to the viewer feels like another violence to be witnessed.  (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/29/15)

Queen of Earth
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Alex Ross Perry’s (Listen Up Philip) second feature film isn’t a duet, though it’s drawn comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, Robert Altman’s 3 Women, and even 1992’s Single White Female; basically any movie with two female leads in contentious relationships of varying degrees. But the film’s one redeeming feature is the singular performance of Elisabeth Moss as Catherine, cracking up over concurrent traumatic events.

Notwithstanding the intense proximity of her best friend Virginia (Katherine Waterston), Catherine is a solitary role. If cinematic predecessors must be named, Roman Polanski’s Repulsion or The Tenant seem a more natural fit. Having lost her father, whom she describes as “a prominent New York artiste,” as well as her boyfriend (Kentucker Audley), illustrated in a close-up breakup reaction shot in the first scene, Catherine retreats to a lakeside house owned by Virginia’s relatives.

The easel Catherine carries from the train station to the lake house signals her intention to relax and paint and, hopefully, heal. But the isolated location, punctuated by a horror-themed score by Keegan De Witt, seems more hostile environ than peaceful refuge, fueling Catherine’s depression and paranoia.

Virginia plays no small part in Catherine’s disintegrating reality, but she’s no equal to it. As Catherine paints or sleeps, Virginia watches. Flashbacks to Catherine’s first visit to the cabin last year with the uninvited boyfriend in tow last year reveal Virginia’s jealousy. “You seem cripplingly codependent,” she accuses over morning coffee. Wide-eyed and in love, Catherine answers without a trace of irony, “We don’t.”

But like Virginia, the camera stays intensely focused on Catherine, as she contorts her face with massage, complaining that the bones are “grinding underneath” her skin, or when she launches a vicious verbal attack on the lake house’s neighbor (Patrick Fugit), a spoiled sponger like Virginia whose button-pushing deserves just a little of the vitriol, such as “You pry into the lives of others to conceal how worthless and boring your own life is. You are why depression exists.”

Catherine’s angry outbursts are a necessary counterpoint to her bouts of staying in bed, watching the spinach salad made for her by Virginia wilt. Coffee cups are her particular choice of projectile — one against a wall in the kitchen, another tossed into the lake. But despite her angry interruptions, this claustrophobic world remains hostile to her, and in turn to the viewer. At a miserable party, Catherine, choking on potato chips, crawls on her hands and knees back to her room, imagining that the room of shocked guests is actually jeering at her, which is not unlike the feeling of watching this film. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/25/15)

Reviewed by Beck Ireland

There’s an immutability bestowed upon certain actors when their celebrity reaches icon status. If not playing themselves as if they just are having rolled out of bed, the likes of Diane Keaton, Robert DeNiro and Jack Nicholson are at most portraying a familiar public version of themselves. Amount of performance, including acquiescence to wardrobe, often seems in direct proportion to lightness of fare (romantic comedies get the shortest shrift) and the gratitude (or length of relationship to the star) of the director.

Lily Tomlin stars as the titular lead in the latest release from writer/director Paul Weitz (About a Boy, In Good Company), but her performance is in sore need of a shove toward invention and risk. It’s not as if Tomlin has ever been very accomplished in the craft; though entertaining, her alter egos on stage are broadly drawn caricatures.

Tomlin’s decades-long movie career was built on her proprietary delivery — sarcasm discharged with her signature combination of squint and smile. But negotiation between Tomlin and Weitz let Tomlin call the shots, while wearing her own clothes and driving her own car, no less, and allowed her to build her character around the established persona in order to keep her recognizable; gratifying Tomlin’s fans but disappointing moviegoers by smothering any chance at alchemy on film.

Of course, Weitz wrote the character of Elle specifically for Tomlin. She’s a retired academic wearily trying to revive a dated poetry career after the death of her wife of 38 years. She’s spent her nest egg to pay off her spouse’s medical bills and cut up her credit cards — an unbelievable contrivance to further the plot — to “transmogrify her life into art.” This forces Elle to reluctantly face some of the people in her past, including her ex-husband (Sam Elliott), recently ditched girlfriend (Judy Greer) and estranged daughter (Marcia Gay Harden), in order to scrounge up the $600 her granddaughter, Sage (Julia Garner), needs to pay for an abortion. It’s a short and not very satisfying roster.

Like in so many of his previous films, Weitz’s script flirts with serious issues but doesn’t take them seriously, refusing to place them within the context of the real world and opting to make jokes out of them. Two scenes surrounding Sage’s attempts at securing an abortion — shaking down her boyfriend for money and crossing the right-to-life picket — end in cartoon violence; exhibiting the lack of emotional weight necessary for transformation of story and star. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/25/15)

Mistress America
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

It seems an apt coincidence that in the same month that “manic pixie dream girl” becomes an official Oxford Dictionaries entry director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Frances Ha) releases a film that features the ultimate of its species. This exaggerated version, played by the comedically spasmodic Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the script with partner Baumbach, is named Brooke, and the most interesting thing about her is that she’s no longer an object lesson in living zestfully for a male counterpart; the audience for her wrecker’s ball way of life is lonely college freshman Tracy (Lola Kirke), who mines Brooke’s unduly hip antics for material.

If The Great Gatsby’s narrator Nick Carraway had been written by F. Scott Fitzgerald with just a smidgen more self-awareness, he might have realized his obsession with the well heeled but badly behaved was less the invitations to the fancy parties than the story they gave him to tell. But any insertion of irony into that relationship would have completely ruined the story.

Desperate to get into the elite literary society, Tracy shamelessly exploits her tenuous connection to Brooke — Tracy’s mom (Kathryn Erbe) is planning to marry Brooke’s dad — but like Nick with Jay Gatsby, Tracy is also supposed to be a little in love with Brooke and her zany ideas, even though her narration is full of contempt for her.

From the outside, it’s nearly impossible to believe, and even more difficult to mirror, Tracy’s ambivalence toward Brooke, or rather just the forced admiration for her. Brooke’s persona is pure caricature. She’s a spin instructor with an idea to open a restaurant that would also be a hair salon and art gallery. When she drags Tracy, her friend Tony (Matthew Shear) and Tony’s girlfriend Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones) to Connecticut to ask for funding from ex-boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus), Tracy, who has shown an insightful awareness of Brooke’s foibles, begins to defend this loony scheme, only to be forced eventually to defend herself from unfair accusations. As Anne Lamott wrote, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”

What’s supposed to be a set piece for manic screwball comedy becomes frantic and shrewish at this peak in the drama. Even more disappointing, Tracy makes a complete about-face from the boldness that allowed her to use Brooke’s life as a template and isn’t even given the time to find out what comfort, even served cold, could come from her own artistic vision. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 09/13/15)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Although there is a good deal of sexual content in writer/director Marielle Heller’s feature debut, the story ultimately puts more emphasis on the artistic awakening of its 15-year-old title lead than her nascent sex life. Based on the graphic novel The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures by Phoebe Gloeckner, the film should be required viewing for all girls who qualify for admittance under the PG-13 rating.

Twenty-three-year-old British actor Bel Powley is surprisingly convincing as Minnie Goetz, who narrates her own coming of age in San Francisco in 1976 by speaking into a bulky tape recorder — a nostalgic signifier of the era if there ever was one — which she hides from her mom, Charlotte (Kristen Wiig), and snoopy younger sister, Gretel (Abby Wait). Minnie’s pragmatism is mature for her age; she’s convinced she’s too ugly to find love so she’ll settle for sexual experience instead. But this unfounded idea about the shallow qualifications for being on the receiving end of love and the missteps she takes in seeking out and keeping male attention are universally and endearingly adolescent.

For her first conquest, Minnie uses proximity to her advantage, initiating her deflowering by her mother’s 34-year-old boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). "I had sex today. Holy shit," Minnie says as she begins recording her diary. "This means I'm officially an adult."

That this declaration comes at the very beginning of the film means that this is no average teenage story where the culmination of events leads to the having, and the even more common not having, of sex. The act itself isn’t in the balance here, but the meaning of it is certainly in question. Minnie’s initial narration rewinds to lead up to her first experience with Monroe, but then leaves time to explore its aftermath.

Minnie’s sexual relationship with Monroe is troubling, and should cause the film to veer into dark territory. But under Heller’s direction — she also wrote the screenplay — the story never leaves Minnie’s point of view, and from this interior vantage point, the viewer is not only allowed but soundly encouraged to suspend judgment.

Minnie follows her desires where they take her, and these experiences become increasingly filtered through her imagination and her newfound love of art, and not sex. After she discovers Aline Kominsky at a local comic book store, the artist, voiced by Susannah Schulman, becomes Minnie’s spirit guide of sorts, helping her sort out the confusion that comes from merely being a teenage girl. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 09/08/15)

The Look of Silence
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Director Joshua Oppenheimer’s latest release was conceived as a companion piece to The Act of Killing, his Academy Award-nominated 2013 documentary. But this more reflective and sobering investigation into the repercussions of the mid-1960s mass killings in Indonesia is a far superior film in that it eliminates the ironic distance of the previous film’s scenes of theatrical staging by allowing a representative of one of the victims to have a voice.

Born after the military coup and its terrorizing death squads, Adi Rukun never met his older brother, Ramli, who, after being accused of being a Communist, was killed by a paramilitary gang at Snake River. The only account of his brother’s gruesome death was told to him by his mother, haunted by her helpless compliance in handing him over after he was injured and escaped, which went uncorroborated until the leaders of the death squad revealed in Oppenheimer’s first film how they killed Ramli.

In The Act of Killing, the “preman,” the Indonesian word for gangster, who led the death squads brazenly and gleefully reenacted their roles in the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of people under the pretense of cleansing the country of Communists and ethnic Chinese. The film is a surreal exercise in filmmaking. Although Oppenheimer encouraged the creation of these elaborate narratives, the aging executioners, who took inspiration for their techniques for actual mass murder from gangster movies, return to this source for their dramatizations. The spirit of their delivery is play-acting, but there’s a horrifying reality underneath, which when left unquestioned seems exploitative, a re-victimization through unchecked braggadocio.

Rukun seems an unlikely corrective with his soft-spoken manner and low-key delivery. There’s a concern here, too, about his being used by Oppenheimer. Under the pretense of his checking their eyeglasses prescription — Rukun is an optometrist — the director puts him in contact with his brother’s killers. Rukun has the advantage; he’s watched the footage of the men explaining in detail how they murdered Ramli, but things get tense and uncomfortable when he finally reveals his true purpose.

But Rukun’s calm directness is the saving grace of the film. His redressing of the story of the genocide told to his son is compassionate yet forthright. He remains polite even when asking difficult questions, the glaring omission from the first film. “Your questions are too deep,” complains the former village death-squad leader responsible for Ramli’s death. “Joshua never asked questions this deep.” (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 09/08/15)

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

As the co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs managed to put the “personal” into the personal computer. People don’t use Apple’s phones or computers; they fall in love with them.

At least that’s my experience.

Three years ago, I won an iPad in a drawing, and it’s been as my father has lamented, “surgically attached” to my arm. When I saw a clip of Jobs enthusiastically showing off his company’s new toy, I scoffed at its potential merits and wondered why anyone would waste their time with such a machine. It looked like a bigger but less powerful version of the phones his company made and lacked the ports I thought I needed to move files from one machine to another.

It turned out, however, that the big screen made reading easier, and there were so many apps that I could use the same machine to take great pictures, record interviews, edit photos, backup files to remote databases, play Angry Birds and put together magnetic poetry with William Shatner’s voice. The serious and the silly could be done with equal finesse on something that I could tuck under my arm.

Even though we never met, apparently Jobs knew something about me along with millions of other customers that didn’t know about themselves.

Like me, Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side, Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief) is fond of how Apple’s machines can make tasks that once seemed impossible become remarkably easy. Throughout his narration, Gibney muses about how his own longtime use of Jobs’ products helped, in a small way, to make Apple one of the largest corporations in the world.

In the process, he also poses some troubling questions about what Jobs and his legacy really mean.

Gibney begins The Man in the Machine by showing footage of how people across the world mourned Jobs’ passing in 2011. One little boy gushes about all the things Jobs and Apple made. Seeing this clip is almost worth the price of admission because the lad’s love for the entrepreneur and later CEO is genuine.

Because Jobs himself is no longer around, Gibney obviously can’t get him to give fresh interviews, and Apple insiders like co-founder Steve Wozniak and current head honcho Tim Cook are noticeably absent.

Nonetheless, Gibney finds plenty of relevant information and fresh insights into a fellow many of us think we knew. He includes a damning video deposition Jobs gave in which the computer mogul utters several demonstrably false statements. People who knew Jobs for a long time joked about how he had a “reality distortion zone” around him, which enabled him to lie convincingly as long as he was physically there. Once he walked away, the truth magically reappeared.

This probably explains how Jobs was briefly able to claim that he was not the father of his illegitimate daughter Lisa because he was sterile. A DNA test and subsequent offspring with his wife Laurene Powell indicate otherwise.

Much of the appeal of Apple’s devices is that they seem more friendly and approachable than anything IBM or Microsoft have ever made. The former company’s offerings seemed like intimidating, cold boxes that crunched numbers humans would get bored doing themselves.

Microsoft’s software and operating systems were what your boss forced you to use whether you wanted to or not. The offices where I have toiled were decorated with anti-Microsoft jokes (“Internet Explorer,” one sign read, “What hard drive do you want to crash today?”), but all the cubicles still had machines that ran exclusively on Windows.

The aesthetic that Jobs infused into Apple’s machines and operating systems was based in part on eastern mysticism. Jobs claimed that he saw himself and Apple more as poets and artists instead of a technology company and used Buddhist concepts to design machines that seemed more user-friendly.

Curiously, like their Western counterparts, Eastern religions stress compassion, but Jobs consistently demonstrated little of that. In archival footage presented in the film, when recounting how Chinese workers assembling Apple’s products committed suicide because of unbearable working conditions, Jobs tosses out suspect numbers instead of addressing a terrifying problem.

Closer to home Jobs could be merciless with the white collar workers who designed and engineered his machines, and had no qualms about parking in handicapped zones even though he had no difficulty walking.

While Bill Gates terrified an endless legion of potential competitors with his predatory business practices, he’s also donated a significant portion of his sizable fortune to a variety of good causes, like ensuring that water in remote areas is fit to drink. Jobs, however, stopped Apple’s donations to charity when he regained control of Apple in 1997.

Thankfully, Gibney does more than provide a litany of Jobs’ infractions and acts of hypocrisy. He includes clips of the Jobs in his element cheerfully demonstrating technology that in a few years would become commonplace. In these sequences, we get an understanding of why Jobs and his machines seemed so cool.

Gibney also takes a more personal tone than in his previous films. Instead of slamming all these kids with their phones who can’t look up to acknowledge another human being, he admits he loves the machines as well. After all, you can’t get away from them. After all, that device stuffed under my arm enabled me to see a film that questioned the deeds of its creator. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 09/08/15)

Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine

Gibney shows that Jobs
made cool machines and lived a
dysfunctional life.

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


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