movie reviews October 2013

Enough saidCutie and the boxer+1rushdon jonBaggage claimgravitymachete killsCaptain Phillips • The fifth estateescape plancarriethe counselor

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

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The Counselor
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Helmed by legendary director Ridley Scott, featuring a cast of A-list stars, and scripted by a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, this hard-boiled tale of a multimillion-dollar drug deal-gone-bad on the Texas-Mexico border must have seemed like a sure thing on paper. What has wound up on screen, however, is a relentlessly bleak, dull mess of a film, and the blame can be placed squarely at the feet of first-time screenwriter Cormac McCarthy.

McCarthy’s novels often are praised for their terse, matter-of-fact prose — blunt dialogue and action peppered with poetic, philosophical reflection. But what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen.

In his first screenplay, McCarthy seems determined to make a “big statement,” and the dialogue has “serious” written all over it. Hardly a conversation goes by that doesn't slip into a pretentious soliloquy as characters spout fortune-cookie aphorisms: "I think truth has no temperature," "grief transcends value." Even more ridiculous, the people on the receiving ends of these extemporaneous koans respond as though this were the most natural thing in the world.

Consequently, the film is populated by types who exist only to espouse philosophies and drive the plot. The central character doesn't even merit a name, addressed throughout simply as "Counselor." Played by Michael Fassbender, he's a handsome El Paso defense lawyer who looks good in a suit, lives the high life (ostensibly on the fees of defending local drug traffickers), and is getting engaged. After a trip to Amsterdam to purchase a 3-karat diamond ring for the occasion, he approaches wealthy drug-dealing client, Reiner (Javier Bardem), about investing in a drug shipment. His motivation, however, is never addressed. Did the ring purchase run over budget? Did his stocks take a sudden dive?

The film’s other characters are just as flimsy. Bardem’s flamboyant Reiner is an antic caricature with finger-in-an-outlet hair and screamingly loud shirts. And as Juarez middleman Westray, Brad Pitt, nattily outfitted in western suits and alligator boots, is given little to do besides tell the counselor not to do the deal. In fact, everyone tells the counselor not to do the deal, to which he inexplicably turns a deaf ear and blank face.

Similarly, the women in this macho vision of the world are reduced to Madonna-whore stereotypes. Penelope Cruz is ludicrously miscast and underutilized as the counselor’s demure fiancé while Cameron Diaz is positively embarrassing as Reiner’s cold-hearted man-eater of a girlfriend, Malkina. In case we’re unsure of her role as archetypal predator, Malkina sports leopard-print tattoos the length of her back, masturbates against a sports car windshield, and shocks anyone who will listen (including a priest in a confessional) with the details of her sexual conquests. She is introduced in the desert sitting stoically atop an SUV, watching one of her pet leopards chase down a hare as she waxes rhapsodic.

The details of the drug deal are never specified and, honestly, don’t matter much, except to set up a number of beheadings and other grisly demises (Don’t worry; the leopards are fine, as detached from all the bloodshed as is their owner.) that are telegraphed to audiences long before they occur. After all, we already know who’s good, who’s bad, and who’s hopeless. And since these aren’t real people anyway, they’re not going to change.

Confusing brutality for suspense and epigrammatic speeches for characterization, McCarthy tries so hard to deliver his sobering philosophy that no amount of acting or directing talent can save the resulting film. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 10/29/13)


Carrie
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Remaking an iconic film is a fool's errand. Sure, successful remakes exist, but they're exceptions, not the rule. Tinkering with a vivid part of a generation's collective experience puts the filmmaker in an impossible position: faithfully recreating the original is pointless, altering it, sacrilege.

For horror movie fans, Brian DePalma's 1976 film of Stephen King's debut novel Carrie is just such a cultural touchstone. However, if it had to be remade, Kimberly Peirce, a female director with a keen sensibility for gender and identity (Boys Don't Cry), would seem an inspired choice to rethink this 40-year-old story, written and filmed by men. Surprisingly, though, Peirce remains largely faithful to the DePalma original while the changes she does make tend to frame Carrie’s actions in a disturbing light.

In 2013, high school is still torture — mean girls are still cruel, and adolescence is still a bitch for outsiders, but Peirce gives it a cultural and technological update. When high-schooler Carrie White gets her period in the gym shower and naively thinks she's bleeding to death, her classmates ridicule her by tossing tampons at her while laughing and chanting, "Plug-it-up!"  Peirce makes this torment even more horrific — and relevant — when we realize head mean girl Chris (Portia Doubleday) is recording the whole thing on a smartphone. Through subsequent scenes, the humiliating clip spreads exponentially from phone to phone and is inevitably posted online, underscoring the shame and immortality of such modern-day bullying.

Despite the sloppy braids and shapeless clothes, Chloe Grace Moretz is never completely convincing as a plain Jane victim. No amount of shoulder hunching and wide-eyed stares are going to disguise her conventionally pretty face. When Sissy Spacek dresses up for Prom in the original film, her metamorphosis is as surprising to the audience as it is to her date. Moretz's Carrie looks all along like she'll clean up pretty well.

As in King's story, Carrie's period signals her burgeoning sexuality and empowerment, signified by the appearance of telekinetic powers. In the original film, these powers seem wild and beyond Carrie’s control. Peirce, however, grants Carrie time to research, experiment, and harness her newfound gift. And this significantly changes things in the film's climax.

When prom queen Carrie — just crowned and drenched in pig’s blood — lashes out telekinetically at her perceived tormentors, DePalma depicts her actions as the manifestations of primal, unconscious impulses. Peirce’s Carrie, however, is clearly seeking revenge. Moretz gestures as though performing magic or manipulating matter a la The X-Men; she targets specific classmates; and she ruthlessly hunts down and brutally dispatches her nemesis Chris. It’s a jarring moment — clearly premeditated murder — making it difficult to sustain empathy for her.

DePalma's vision of Carrie gave viewers a glimpse at the uncontrolled pain and rage roiling just beneath the surface of adolescence. Peirce serves up a more ugly wish-fulfillment fantasy, suggesting that given the power and opportunity, many victims would simply become mean girls, themselves. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/22/13)


Escape Plan
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Like Universal Studios' classic monster team-ups of the ‘40s such as Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, the teaming of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenneger is something of an event for action movie fans as two of the genre's icons appear side by side for the first (excepting a few minutes in The Expendables films) time. Sadly, times have changed, and like its two sexagenarian stars, Escape Plan is a plodding, pale imitation of its ‘80s progenitors.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a security expert who wrote the book — quite literally as it pops up again and again on various desks throughout the movie — on defeating prison security. He now makes his living getting anonymously incarcerated, breaking out, then identifying the system's flaws.

We get an early taste of the preposterous nonsense we're in for in the film's opening sequence as Breslin escapes a maximum security prison through a McGyver-ish combination of wadded-up paper balls and milk cartons — oh, and the happy coincidence of the prison being built adjacent to a fire station. Breslin explains it all to the irritated prison warden; I couldn't begin to.

When Breslin and his partner, money man Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio in yet another tic-ridden portrayal), are approached by a conspicuously unforthcoming CIA agent to test an off-the-books, corporately run facility for the government to "disappear" the worst of the worst, they should run screaming. Of course, Breslin accepts, and in short order finds himself double-crossed, untraceable, and stranded under his assumed identity in a super-prison known as The Tombs.

The Tombs is futuristic in design, a massive panopticon of transparent acrylic cells, patrolled by anonymous black-masked guards who resemble the android police of THX-1138. Otherwise, it's an amalgam of hoary prison movie tropes: an evil warden with a grudge, a sadistic head guard, brawls, shivs, and the dreaded "box" — in this case, a high tech aluminum cube lined on one side with rows of bright, hot floodlights.

It's not long before Breslin is curiously and, again, conspicuously--approached by Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenneger), another of the warden's targets, who seems more eager to break out than Breslin, himself. What follows is all standard stuff: staged fights, contraband slipped hand-to-hand under tables, code-tapping, creeping through air ducts. Stallone and Schwarzenneger dish out punches, head butts, body slams, and otherwise go through their action movie paces, albeit with limited speed and range of movement, and both wisely keep their shirts on throughout the proceedings.

Strangely, though, the two seem to be acting in completely different films. From the start, Stallone approaches the role of Breslin with a brooding seriousness, all silence and reflective stares. Schwarzenneger, on the other hand, seems to be having a ball. Perhaps a reflection of his post-governing freedom, he treats the movie like the comic romp it should have been. By the end, Rottmayer rips a mounted machine gun from its base and, tucking it under one massive arm, takes on an entire army. Now that’s what the Arnold fans pay to see.

Screenwriters Miles Chapman and Arnell Jesko and director Mikael Hafstrom (veteran of a couple of middling horror flicks) seem to think they have some surprises to reveal at the end, but any viewer who has managed to stay awake that long, will have seen these twists coming. Too bad, because with fewer convolutions and a lighter touch, this might have been the affectionate parody the genre and stars deserve. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/22/13)


The Fifth Estate
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Bill Condon, director of Kinsey, Dreamgirls and The Twilight Saga, has fused his assorted inclinations to focus a frigid, dream-like lens on the friendship and betrayal behind the rise and fall of WikiLeaks. In The Fifth Estate Condon forces an artificial choice between pale, frosty-haired WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and trusting hirsute acolyte Daniel Domscheit-Berg (Daniel Brühl).

But there’s no rooting for either team here. The balance is tipped against Assange, however deftly played by Cumberbatch. He’s given platitudes and speeches, and a tragic back story aimed at revealing a narcissistic personality, or that most basic tragic flaw — hubris — while the drudge Domscheit-Berg aka Daniel Schmitt clomps around the film, dropping into black light Euro raves, doing the grunt work. Neither personality explains the success WikiLeaks had in getting sources to reveal, even anonymously, their most damning secrets with them.

In an early scene, Assange confesses to Schmitt that until then WikiLeaks was more idea and ideal than actual entity; his staff of thousands is nonexistent. Still, Schmitt signs on, and the rest is, as they say, recent history. Although history seems to be cycling at a faster pace in the last decade or two, it’s still too close to the actual events for this movie.

According to information posted before the closing credits, no actual deaths have been directly attributed to the information posted on WikiLeaks. But that doesn’t mean history won’t eventually have a judgment. But this won’t be it.

Despite the title, which refers to Wikileaks’ potential to surpass traditional journalism as an additional unofficial branch involved in the checks and balances of the government, The Fifth Estate has only a superficial interest in the controversy stirred up by the Internet site. Parts of television writer Josh Singer’s screenplay, adapted for film from insider books by Domscheit-Berg and David Leigh and Luke Harding, are written in the form of a procedural.

The film has several scenes of journalists (David Thewlis, Peter Capaldi) and U.S. State Department officials (Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci) debating the merits and possible dangers of unedited information posted publicly. There’s even a tangential story of an informant escaping Egypt. But it turns out it’s contrived by the filmmakers to produce more tension.

Apparently, there’s not much drama in watching people typing on keyboards, talking into cell phones or giving press conferences. The filmmakers realize this, and have contrived workarounds. But no amount of cheesy visual metaphor or dated post-production tricks can make up for it. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/22/13)


Captain Phillips
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

British director Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) brings his signature shaky-cam style to the true story of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of American cargo ship Maersk Alabama. But the best tension in Captain Phillips doesn't come from the pinball editing of the confrontational, claustrophobic closeups that make up the majority of the film. When Greengrass pulls the camera back to reveal aerial shots of a tiny skiff with a jerry-rigged motor trying to take over the colossal freighter, he is making groundbreaking shifts in the traditional underdog story.

To make its delivery on time, the Alabama, protected only by high-pressure hoses and padlocked gates, is forced to sail through pirate-infested waters. Like a sick, old elephant being picked off by pack of young lions, the cumbersome vessel, under the command of Capt. Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), holds its predators at bay for many seemingly unendurable minutes. But desperation fuels the pirates, led by tenacious Muse (Barkhad Abdi), who has much to prove to his criminal bosses.

Soon, the four pirates are close enough to shoot at any and all on board, and once their junky, soldered hooked ladder is secured on the rails, they’re on board. The impossible takeover has become possible.

The heavily armed quartet bullies the captain and his officers in the bridge while the rest of the crew hide in the engine room. But Greengrass doesn’t allow for pity, or even taking sides, here. Phillips is rude, and a bit out of touch. His offer of $30,000 against the hijackers’ $10 million demand is a bit like Dr. Evil’s request for $1 million in Austin Powers.

The screenplay, adapted by writerBilly Ray (Shattered Glass) from the chronicle of events by the real-life Capt. Phillips, draws broad characters and relies on contrived commonalities. Characters speak lines that would only be spoken in a movie. For instance, Phillips and his wife (Catherine Keener) discuss the changing world in their minivan on the way to drop Phillips’ at the airport, conveniently providing ominous foreshadowing.

They lay out in a few sentences what took the Coen brothers the entirety of No Country for Old Men to illustrate. Phillips and Muse also engage in very literal tête-à-tête, meant to draw parallels to support ambivalence.

Whatever the opinion on this carefully crafted pathos, it ultimately doesn’t matter because the story must follow the true events of the incident, which force the action into a static, close lifeboat. This turns the hijacking first into the standard story of American gumption and then into a hostage situation with a foolish hostage who makes almost every effort to thwart the rescue mission of the cool, machine-like U.S. Navy. For almost the full second half, the only thing left to do is to wait until it’s over. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/14/13)


Machete Kills
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Robert Rodriguez's 2010 film Machete was an unlikely success. After all, it was essentially a 90-minute expansion of a phony joke trailer that had run with Rodriguez's and Quentin Tarantino's 2007 exploitation double-bill Grindhouse. But with some inspired casting, a sense of irony, a dollop of political relevance (the immigration debate), and a genuine affection for the cheapo ‘70s action movies it was imitating, Machete managed to be fun, irreverent and nostalgic. What it wasn't — despite a load of dark, bloody humor — was a joke.

Not so with the sequel. With Machete Kills, director Rodriguez seems to have felt that the elements of the first film needed to be super-sized — higher stakes, bigger weapons, more star cameos, more decapitations, and more CGI effects. The result feels like a bloated, bloody 007 film: a billionaire arms dealer targets Washington D.C. with a nuclear missile while preparing a private space shuttle that will take him (and a hand-picked coterie of wealthy elites) to a secret space station to wait out the resulting apocalypse. Even this summary makes more sense of Kyle Ward's convoluted plot than its many digressions and dead-ends warrant.

Unfortunately, Machete Cortez is no James Bond. Part of the original film's charm was Danny Trejo's deadpan, flat-faced, tight-lipped portrayal of the ex-Federale as a relentless, but human figure, symbolized by his namesake weapon. This time around, Machete is super-powered, indestructible, and although he has no Q, outfitted with an array of gimmicky weapons. Even his signature weapon is upgraded — first, by a preposterous multi-bladed "Swiss-Army" machete, then by some kind of glowing light saber-y blade.

Despite the new facade, most of the gags here are recycled from the first film — many more decapitations, disemboweled intestines again used as rope, more girls with guns. The "Machete don't" shtick also reappears, reflecting the changing times ("Machete don't text" is replaced by "Machete don't tweet") but feeling played-out nonetheless. Even new gags get overused: How many times do we need to see someone sucked into helicopter rotors? (According to George A. Romero, just once). As a result, many of the action sequences feel vaguely familiar and, frankly, boring.

Rodriquez loads the sequel with even more stars this time around, but mostly for one-off gags. Charlie Sheen (billed here as Carlos Estévez) is cast as the U.S. President so a midnight call on the red phone can be handed to him by a series of females sharing his bed. Sofia Vergara, as a man-hating brothel owner, is provided a particularly nasty and unsettling backstory of childhood rape and revenge merely to set her up to wield a machine-gun brassiere and missile-firing strap-on. The bounty-hunter on Machete's tail who employs a series of Mission-Impossible-style masks (hence the moniker The Chameleon) has little to do with the plot besides allowing Rodriguez to stunt-cast the role with three wildly different guest stars: Cuba Gooding, Jr., Antonio Banderas and Lady Gaga, whose bad acting goes painfully beyond the amateurish vibe of any B-movie.

The only cameo here that seems worth the bother is Mel Gibson as the film's megalomaniacal villain, Luther Voz. Gibson, like any good nemesis, revels in his villainy delivering ruthless violence with urbane manners.

But any successful moments are wasted in a film that proves this alleged trilogy (the film is book-ended by Z-quality previews for Machete Kills Again . . . In Space) has burned through its ideas and, rather than lampooning film genres, has become the butt of the joke. (R)  Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/12/13)


Gravity
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Early motion picture images enthralled audiences with the wonder of seeing the mundane— a train pulling into a station, waves breaking on a shore— miraculously recreated on the screen. Over a century later, Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) achieves a similar effect with a science-fiction film that stuns viewers, not with futuristic or apocalyptic images, but with a meticulous recreation of what has become increasingly regarded — on screen and in the news — as mundane, space travel. Gravity, despite a dangerously heavy dose of sentimentality, is a singular visionary accomplishment.

The plot is simple: two astronauts attempting repairs on the Hubble Space Telescope are stranded hundreds of miles above Earth when their shuttle and crew are obliterated by debris from a scuttled Russian satellite. The remainder of the film follows the astronauts’ struggles to stay alive and find a way home.

The opening sequence is a tour de force, a 13-minute, seemingly unbroken shot that represents a technical and emotional apex of cinematic storytelling. The gorgeous blue-green Earth, outlined by a luminescent corona fills half the screen as one bright fleck among thousands in the endless blackness slowly draws close enough to be recognizable as the conjoined space shuttle and telescope. Radio chatter begins to filter through as the vehicles drift closer, gradually revealing tiny figures on and around the scaffolding, the camera winding around them as we finally come close enough to make out their faces and activities.

A big gesture like this could easily come off as pretentious, but here the effect is mesmerizing — like an underwater ballet — and, later, mind-boggling as one attempts to figure out how it was done (wires? motion-capture? green-screen? matte paintings? most likely, E: all of the above). And for once, IMAX and 3D don’t seem gimmicky but absolutely essential to creating for audiences a convincing sense of floating in space with the characters.

When disaster strikes, it’s a doozy. Waves of hurtling shrapnel silently (It’s space, there’s no sound!) rip through the shuttle and telescope, leaving in their wake two survivors, adrift, out of contact with Mission Control, and low on oxygen: Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney), the unflappable veteran astronaut on his last mission, and Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), an anxious medical engineer on her first.

As Kowalsky, more a type here than a real character, Clooney reliably delivers the charm and swagger of a guy who’s been to space so often that he refers to it nonchalantly as “driving the bus.” But this is Stone‘s story, and Cuaron, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and visual effects supervisor Tim Webber do everything in their power to convey what it feels like to float a mile in her boots.

The camera follows Stone’s free fall into the void, slowly closing on her and pivoting until we are watching the rolling stars and inverted Earth from inside her helmet, then pirouetting back out to reveal Bullock’s still-beautiful but stricken face, illuminated with a pewter sheen. That face, frequently behind a visor, is often all we have to guide us as we follow Stone’s existential journey from fear to despair to faith — a journey of rebirth most literally represented when, momentarily safe inside a space station airlock, she strips off helmet and suit and, suspended in zero gravity, draws herself into the fetal position, echoing both 2001: A Space Odyssey’s Star Child and Alien’s iconic heroine Ripley.

That should be enough of a journey for anyone. Yet, in one of the film's rare missteps, the screenplay (by Cuaron and son Jonás) clumsily piles on a sentimental terrestrial backstory for Stone that feels so baldly manipulative it threatens to distance us from the truly compelling events on screen. Fortunately, the astonishing images of those on-screen events are what will stay with viewers for weeks, perhaps years, to come. (PG-13) Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 10/07/13)


Baggage Claim
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

The premise behind writer/director David E. Talbert’s (First Sunday) second feature film is a flimsy and sad affair. In her insulting and improbable mission to get engaged in the 30 days before her younger sister’s wedding, flight attendant Montana Moore (Paula Patton) stalks her ex-boyfriends — her shortcut to becoming affianced — by letting her co-workers at the airport abuse their authority. With access to passenger manifests and security delays, Montana tarts herself up and on crowded holiday flights sits herself next to these men she previously rejected in the hope that they have since become marriage material.

So much of the movie focuses on this doomed plan, thought up by Montana’s co-workers, the obligatory gay steward Sam (Adam Brody) and the oversexed, busty Gail (Jill Scott). But it provides little interest or comedy. Trey Songz credited as Tremaine Neverson and Taye Diggs seem to enjoy playing their small parts. Diggs in particular gives playing against type his all. But despite the film’s title, there’s actually very little “baggage” brought into these encounters. Montana gains nothing from delving into her past, and remains oblivious even during a nostalgia session with high school friend, neighbor and ultimately the real love interest William Wright (Derek Luke).

In lieu of any contemplation or logic, Talbert relies on shopworn slapstick. Montana is forced to jump into a garbage can, stand on a ledge in the rain, run through airport terminals and fight with her wardrobe. She’s also forced to make declarations, which are then followed by cutaways showing her doing the exact opposite. This is the closest the movie gets to any form of actual irony. It’s biggest downfall, however, may be that Montana never figures out that aspiring to her mother’s (Jenifer Lewis) idea of marriage — she’s on number five — is ridiculous.

As Montana, Patton can be charming. But her scratchy voice and lids at half-mast make it extremely difficult for her to express any emotion. A scene between Montana and Djimon Hounsou playing a wealthy jetsetter could have been performed just as well by mannequins. At least they wear their fancy clothes comparably.

There are a few clever lines in Baggage Claim. Patton is capable of delivering well-timed zingers. These bring the biggest laughs in the entire movie, which means that Talbert has sorely underestimated his audience. Maybe next time he’ll stay away from the big ideas. (PG-13) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 10/07/13)


Don Jon
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

This is not just the directorial debut for Joseph Gordon-Levitt (50/50, Looper) but he also wrote the screenplay. More than just a pretty face, the actor has a knack for choosing interesting projects, and clearly he's been taking notes while working with the likes of writer/directors Rian Johnson and Christopher Nolan. Not that there aren't moments where Gordon-Levitt's inexperience shows, but Don Jon succeeds at its humor while still being about something.

Ripped Jersey bartender Jon Martello (Gordon-Levitt) doesn't have any problem pulling. But the numerous empty encounters leave him longing for a sexual experience that's better than porn. So he swears off other women to try to be everything his perfect 10 Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) wants. The problem, though, is that it's still not better for him than porn.


Where the protagonist of Steve McQueen’s Shame took no joy from his sex addiction, Jon defends his as both normal and even special. It's the one time he can lose himself. Sure, he confesses to his priest about self-abuse, but he doesn't think it's an actual problem. If God hadn't intended for him to masturbate to porn, He wouldn't have created the Internet.

From the opening sequence, the film points out sexualized images of women in the media. This heavy-handed treatment can be expected from a first-timer. But where the new director succeeds is in embedding it into his story. When Jon eats Sunday dinner with his family, he and his father (Tony Danza) ogle the women on the beer commercials that play during the football game on television that's always on.

Gordon-Levitt also turns the tables on Barbara, with her own misinformed ideas about relationships between men and women. Hers are based on fantasies perpetuated by the romantic industrial complex. The two go on a date to a send-up of a Nicholas Sparks type movie starring Channing Tatum and Anne Hathaway. She also has some funny ideas about class, which require Jon to take an evening class to get a job away from the service industry and to stop cleaning his own apartment.

These are all good points presented well, which allows forgiveness for the movies biggest problems. Gordon-Levitt goes a bit overboard on repetition. For comic effect, he gives fast edits of Jon's routines. He also overuses stop motion for the sad moments. And Julianne Moore acts as deus ex machina to show Jon the way to intimacy, but its Julianne Moore so it's ultimately ok. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/3/13)


Rush
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Rush, based on the legendary 1976 Formula One rivalry between Englishman James Hunt and Austrian Niki Lauda, is certainly never boring. Alternating the speed and adrenaline of the racetrack with the '70s celebrity high-life of pre-AIDS sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll essentially guarantees a lively trip.  In the hands of director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The DaVinci Code), however, the film is also never completely satisfying.

Even in their initial early-‘70s Formula Three match-ups, it's clear that Hunt and Lauda possess nearly polar opposite personalities. Hunt is the handsome, boozing womanizer, reckless on and off the track. Lauda, by contrast, is the consummate professional. Serious-minded to a fault and uninterested in nightlife or off-track celebrity, he devotes his time to training while constantly adjusting his vehicle for top performance. Relatively homely — his prominent overbite earns him the nickname "The Rat" — and possessed of a blunt confidence that makes few friends, Lauda spends much of his time in Hunt’s shadow.

Chris Hemsworth (Marvel's cinematic Thor) effortlessly portrays Hunt as a sort of James Bond of the track and even resembles Roger Moore a bit. After a nasty injury early in the film, he introduces himself to hospital personnel as “Hunt, . . . James Hunt” before promptly bedding his nurse. The revelation here is German actor Daniel Brühl (Inglourious Basterds), who, saddled with an unsympathetic character and unflattering prosthetic incisors, still manages to breathe more humanity into the role than was written into it.

Establishing these leads as a sort of racing yin and yang, Rush aspires to be a meditation on the racing psyche — the impulses that motivate a man to risk his life in such a pursuit. Unfortunately, in the hands of Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, Frost/Nixon), characters are reduced stereotypes and psychological insights to fortune-cookie platitudes. Asked why he drives, Hunt observes, "The closer you are to death, the more alive you feel."

The movie is more effective when its leads act against type. Stranded when their car breaks down, Lauda and a woman he’s just met at a party (Alexandra Maria Lara) are picked up by locals who, recognizing the Formula One champ, insist he take the wheel. Ever the levelheaded rationalist, though, Lauda doesn’t show off. When the woman asks him why such a renowned racer drives like an old lady, he calmly explains that there is no motivation to take such a risk — the same philosophy he displays on the track. She breaks through this logical facade, however, by suggesting he simply do it for her, and Lauda takes them on a wild ride through the countryside, thrilling the locals and charming the woman, who will eventually become his wife.

Throughout, the race scenes are dizzying — but not necessarily in a good way. Races are presented through a quickly edited array of angles and perspectives, flashing instantly from exhaust pipe to crowd to super close-up of a racer’s eye to grass blowing along the track. While this approach is exciting on a visceral level, it confuses fairly important concerns — exactly whose perspective is this? Who's winning the race? And seems to have little to suggest about the driving experience or psyches of the drivers involved.

For a bit of racing excitement or ‘70s nostalgia, Rush competently delivers, but any real insight is beyond its modest grasp. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted on 10/01/13)


+1
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Dennis Iliadis’ new movie +1 has a setup that could have made for a much more interesting film than the one that ended up on the screen. Illiadis is best known for making teen-targeted horror films like his remake of Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left.

Having specialized in horror, he delivers all of the college-aged women shedding their clothes that fans of the genre could hope for. As with his previous work, there are lots of young people partying and then paying the price for it shortly thereafter.

Sadly, +1 might have been a better movie if it had followed in the footsteps of Rod Serling instead of Craven’s many less talented imitators.

The story revolves around a group of university students who seem intent of getting wasted or laid and probably both. To be fair, the moody David (Rhys Wakefield) wants something else.

Earlier in the evening, he alienated his long distance girlfriend Jill (Ashley Hinshaw) when he unknowingly kissed her opponent in a fencing match because the other woman looked remarkably like her.

His buddy Teddy (Logan Miller) tries to cheer David up by taking him to a wild party held by Angad that features strippers and lots of alcohol. Whereas David sees the gathering as a chance to make up with Jill (what better place to make up that a potential orgy?), Teddy sees the evening as a chance to make out with Melanie (Natalie Hall).

Most of these folks come off as shallow whiners, so it’s hard to get worked up about the idea of them either finding redemption or a really good buzz. There’s a lot of finely toned female flesh on screen, but none of the characters has much to say once they put their clothes back on.

Interrupting the shenanigans is a meteor that crashes into a utility pole. As a result, two different versions of each person at the party start noticing each other. The original Teddy quickly realizes that one set of beings is minutes ahead of the other. For David, this is a chance to know what he should have said to Jill, but Teddy and others think the doppelgangers can’t be anything but evil.

From here, Iliadis and screenwriter Bill Gullo wind up squandering their potential. Instead of examining the moral implications of seeing one’s life re-enacted before one’s eyes, the two decide it’s a great opportunity to repeat shots of female characters proudly displaying their upper body development. Illiadis seems to think, “What’s the point of having two versions of a woman if both of them aren’t naked?” At least people who missed previous sequences of nudity won’t have to wait long for them to be played again.

Perhaps the nudity wouldn’t seem like such a big deal if Illiadis and Gullo had thought out what the doubles might mean. By the time +1 lumbers to its conclusion, it seems like the doubling was simply an afterthought. That’s a shame because there’s a real story waiting to emerge from the bacchanal. (N/R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/01/13)

Haiku
+1

Why do there need to
be two of these people when
one is too many?


Cutie and the Boxer
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger

Now that they are well past retirement age, married artists Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara have gained international recognition for their work and have managed to stay together over decades. What makes Zachary Heinzerling's debut documentary so intriguing is that it constantly reminds viewers that the two have not reached either accomplishment easily and still work at them.

Both Ushio and Noriko came to New York from Japan. Ushio has become a master of action painting. Like Jackson Pollock before him, much of his reputation is based on his ability to entertain as he makes his art. That might have something to do with the fact that he often fills canvases without using an actual brush at all.

 

He puts on boxing gloves with sponges and dips them in the paint before pounding the canvas as if it were a flesh-and-blood opponent. He even kicks the canvas and uses the Mohawk on the top of his head to apply the paint. It's doubtful that Rembrandt or Picasso was that much fun to watch. 

Ushio's paintings and sculptures are in galleries around the world. It's too bad that fame or prestige doesn't necessarily lead to wealth. Now in his 80s, he still has to travel the world to schlep his paintings, even if he doesn't necessarily get paid what they're worth. It probably doesn't help that he's spent most of his life battling alcoholism.

Noriko came to the Big Apple as an art student and fell in love with her teacher Ushio and ended up supporting him with her parents' money until they found out about their relationship. The two have raised a son who appears to share both his parents' artistic skills and his fathers' drinking. 

As time has gone on, she's earned gallery space with her intriguing cartoons featuring Cutie, a young woman who is so poor she can't afford clothes but frequently succeeds in outwitting her husband. Throughout Cutie and the Boxer, Heinzerling animates her stories, which are written in English, and uses them to recount the Shinohara's story.

He also includes terrifying footage of incidents where Ushio's drinking has gotten out of hand. The artist now has a medical condition that makes drinking impossible, and his life and work seem the better for it. Both of the Shinoharas have sharp senses of humor and an affection that has helped them overcome their formidable obstacles. It's hard not to grin when Heinzerling follows Noriko as she learns ballroom dancing and teaches Ushio how to join her. 

To Ushio's credit, he shows no jealously about the reception Noriko's work receives nor does he take credit for work that he might of inspired but did not actually make. By including both the light and the gloomy moments in the Shinoharas' relationship, Heinzerling creates a wedding album that's deeper and more entertaining than most of us could ever hope to have. Rating: 4 (R) Posted on (10/01/13)

Haiku
Cutie and the Boxer

Love and art make for
a deep, if not quite always
a blissful union


Enough Said
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

Writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Please Give) doesn’t just create flawed characters; her protagonists are downright horrible. They exhibit a litany of shortcomings — neurotic, shallow, vain, self-centered, insecure. Still, Holofcener never fails to redeem them.
In Holofcener's fifth feature film, Enough Said, a hard lesson is learned.

Divorced, single mom Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss))gives in to her insecurities around new massage client Marianne (Catherine Keener), a published poet with a house Eva covets and no cellulite (also according to Eva). Marianne is also the ex-wife of Eva's new love interest Albert (James Gandolfini), and Eva can't stop herself from probing for complaints to fuel her doubts about her new relationship.


Ostensibly, Enough Said is an ensemble movie. As Marianne, Keener, a regular in Holofcener's films, is wonderfully pretentious and very L.A. Gandolfini's Albert is pitch perfect. He's funny, warm and self-deprecating, but also slobby, which makes it believable that Eva wonders if she's settling or merely nit picking. Toni Collette and Ben Falcone, both pros at the friend/sidekick role, are enjoyable as Eva's married friends.

But Holofcener's talent lies in keeping the focus on the main character. Louis-Dreyfus's Eva is complicated. She's neurotic, but Holofcener is kind and patient with her. She's written her to also be smart and funny, and Louis-Dreyfus conveys that well. A secondary storyline involves Eva's daughter's preparations for leaving for college. With this Louis-Dreyfus excels, unable to completely conceal her fear of abandonment and sublimating her feelings by taking over the parenting of her daughter's friend.

Enough Said could be described as a romantic comedy for adults. It's enjoyable to watch Eva and Albert's flirtations. But even more interesting is Eva's compulsion to value everyone else's opinion but her own. Collette's character, Eva's best friend and also a therapist, continues to ask Eva to examine how she feels, and for the majority of the film, Eva can't answer her. She's too afraid of making another mistake, but by doing so she's almost guaranteeing that she will.

In this way, Holofcener earns the ending she put on the film. But, really, whether or not Eva and Albert have a happy ending is unimportant. What matters is Eva's realization of how far she'll go to protect herself from sadness and even the potential for pain, and what she does with that new-found self-awareness. (PG-13) Rating: 4 (Posted on 10/01/13)




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


 

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