Reviewed by Beck Ireland
As the closing credits roll on writer/director Theodore Melfi’s first feature film, the actor Bill Murray carelessly hoses down a dead lawn as he mutters along to Bob Dylan's "Shelter from the Storm." This final act of the film, ostensibly in the guise of Murray’s portrayal of Vincent McKenna, a Vietnam veteran from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, exemplifies the dilemma of watching most of Murray’s performances and the impossibility of separating the most recent character from the familiar and legendary personality.
There’s never been a great demand for Murray to lose himself in a role. He tried in the existential crisis movie The Razor’s Edge, essentially holding Ghostbusters hostage in order to make it, but met with resounding critical and popular indifference. His most favored movies are those in which he plays to his own familiar type — depressive, glib, reluctantly swayed to the sentimental side. And as Murray’s off-screen reputation continues to gain mystique, his brand of non-performance is more in demand. A clever exploitation of this culminated in with 2009’s Zombieland, in which Murray signed on to play himself.
Melfi requires more of Murray, but not much. He delivers most of his lines in a supposed Brooklyn accent, which noticeably disappears during a scene at the racetrack and from there never fully recovers. But in the introductory section of the film, before other main characters come into play and force him into his typical reactive style, he’s more his character, Vincent McKenna, than at any other time.
A better script would have explored this potential for the duration of the film. Murray is clearly up to the job. McKenna is already complex; he doesn’t need to be likable or lauded. He drinks and starts arguments and gambles with money he doesn’t have to pay for sex from a Russian prostitute (Naomi Watts) and also the fees for the expensive nursing home for his wife (Donna Mitchell), who doesn’t even remember him.
To then drag in Melissa McCarthy as Maggie, a newly single mom, and her precocious son, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), is an unforgivable cruelty. McCarthy is more than serviceable in the role, as is Chris O’Dowd as the Catholic priest in charge of Oliver’s class, particularly in the scene in which Maggie unburdens herself, but their overall tone is too light and mild.
Real child endangerment doesn’t sell tickets; it has to be made into a joke. Unfortunately, Maggie is the key to letting the sketchy aspects of the film off the hook when they should be allowed to squirm there. (PG-13) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/27/14)
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
It’s been more than a dozen years since indie heartthrob Billy Crudup declared his status as a golden god in Almost Famous. In actor William H. Macy’s feature directorial debut he’s back in front of a mic, playing a grieving father who becomes the unlikely catalyst for a new band in an Oklahoma college town’s local music scene. But Crudup’s good looks and magnetism have hardly diminished, and even in his character’s sorry state he still overshadows his younger costars, especially Anton Yelchin’s frumpy music geek, even after his makeover
Macy co-wrote the screenplay for Rudderless with Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison. It opens with a shooting at a college that results in the death of Josh (Miles Heizer), the son of Crudup’s Sam and his ex-wife, Emily (Felicity Huffman). From the aftermath of the shooting, the film jumps ahead two years; Sam has traded in his gig at an advertising agency for painting houses and his modern house for a sailboat moored at a touristy dock on a small lake.
The lurking problem here is this jump in time. The filmmakers have chosen to hit the audience with a late-in-the-game surprise rather than facing it head on and early. The revelation explains Sam’s seeming overreaction to his personal tragedy, and also his reluctance and withholding when it comes to the songs he has stolen from his son’s demo tapes, but it comes too late, forcing the audience to think back on Crudup’s performance rather than being properly informed while watching it unfold.
This is a serious work with an old school indie flavor. It’s populated by landmark buildings and brands found in Oklahoma City and Guthrie, OK, including a local hot spot for music. Musical headliner Ben Kweller makes his acting debut and teen pop star Selena Gomez puts in a brief performance as Josh’s ex-girlfriend.
That the film gets burdened with a superfluous twist is unfortunate. It makes sense for Sam to keep his secret from his new bandmates. After all, he’s misrepresenting his own songwriting skills and essentially plagiarizing his dead son, all in order to seek a better understanding of him and the event surrounding his death. Why Macy, Twenter and Robison decided to put off disclosing the full story of the film’s drama will remain a puzzle to the viewers who would have preferred to be in on the drama from the start. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted 10/27/14)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
When he’s at his best, writer-director David Ayer makes films that viewers live instead of merely watch. With his previous movie End of Watch, Ayer made viewers feel as if they were riding in the same cruiser with the cops played by Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña.
With his latest, Fury, Ayer immerses viewers in the lives of a Sherman Tank crew during the closing days of the European stage of World War II. Statistically, the Third Reich has fallen. But for the occupants of a tank with the word “Fury” painted on its barrel, April 1945 isn’t any safer than any other period of the war.
Now that the Fatherland is overrun with allied troops, Hitler has enlisted even children to fight in a last ditch attempt to maintain his regime. For any American or British troops on the scene, the most innocent looking people could be potential enemies.
The Germans also still have their tanks, which are far better constructed than their American counterparts. They are better calibrated and can take more punishment. The fact that there are fewer of these tanks provides little comfort.
Thanks to some impressive sound editing and design, Fury is worth catching on the big screen because the dense sound mix enables the audience feel as if they are stuck in the metal deathtrap with the crew. Like the film Das Boot before it, Fury makes the cost of war seem eerily real.
It also doesn’t hurt that Ayer creates believable occupants for Fury. The commander is the grizzled Sgt. Collier (Brad Pitt), who thinks nothing about leaping out of the tank and stabbing a wandering German on horseback. Gradually, his decisions seem less harsh because he has a knack for keeping his troops alive through combat. That’s how he’s earned the nickname of “Wardaddy.”
He has a devout subordinate named “Bible” (Shia LaBeouf) because the younger man never resists the urge to proselytize anyone he encounters. The other veterans in the tank, “Coon-Ass” Travis (Jon Bernthal, The Walking Dead) and “Gordo” Garcia (Peña) both look far older than their biological ages, and both dread and crave another mission.
The team reluctantly takes on a clerical soldier named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), who arrives in Europe with only eight weeks of training. At this stage of the war, the Army is more interested in filling slots than finding someone qualified. Norman winds up receiving angry rebukes from Wardaddy because he has trouble adapting to the dangers that surround him and the rest of the crew.
These guys are pretty gruff and mean, but they can spontaneously burst into tears. Bible may be annoying when he delivers yet another unwanted sermon, but in combat situations he’s the best friend you can hope for.
Similarly, Wardaddy is full of surprises. He’s fluent in German and has a genuine concern for the guys under his command. He’s also accumulated enough scars to remove any doubts about all the battles he’s been in.
Ayer paints all of these guys believably and makes viewers sympathize with them even if they don’t seem to be the best party guests. If the fellows who operate Fury make us uncomfortable, it’s because nobody goes through that sort of environment unchanged, but they don’t lose their humanity, either.
By balancing the hardware and the people who operate it, Ayer has made a movie that has jolts but doesn’t feel like a machine. (R) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 10/25/14)
Brad Pitt in a tank
is thrilling, even if the
task is sobering.
Kill the Messenger
Reviewed by Mike Ireland
Narrating the story of a brash small-time reporter's discovery of US government corruption and the subsequent backlash he suffers for exposing it, Kill the Messenger straddles genres of political exposé, ‘70s paranoid thriller and character study. The resulting film, though effectively tense at times, never entirely satisfies on any of these counts.
In 1996, Gary Webb, reporter for the San Jose Mercury News, uncovered evidence of CIA collusion with drug-smugglers to import cocaine into the US in exchange for funding of Nicaraguan contras. Webb further linked these actions to the national crack epidemic, particularly in low-income urban neighborhoods, sparking nationwide outrage and protests.
As written by Peter Landesman (based on Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou and Webb's own book Dark Alliance) and directed by Michael Cuesta of TV's Homeland, Kill the Messenger works best when it follows Webb's attempts to unravel the story. Initially drawn in by a drug dealer's bombshell girlfriend (Paz Vega), Webb is led to a Nicaraguan smuggler (Yul Vazquez), an L.A. dealer (Michael K. Smith) and ultimately to former cocaine king-pin Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), who, sporting a straw fedora and urbanely toting a golf club within the walls of a Central American prison, tells him the real story is back home — that the CIA, itself, is complicit in the drug smuggling.
The details of the operation are mostly glossed over, focusing instead on Webb's experience as he determinedly connects the dots, despite being warned off the trail by a district attorney, a DC insider, and the CIA, itself. Jeremy Renner brings to Webb the same intensity he displayed as a maverick bomb specialist in 2009's The Hurt Locker, as well as some of that character's recklessness. Although shown in brief scenes with a wife and kids, too little of this aspect of his life is included to make us really fear for him when during a sit-down with the CIA, one agent adds, "We'd never hurt your family, Mr. Webb."
Once the story is published, things go downhill fast — for Webb and for the film. The CIA predictably attempts to discredit Webb, and soon after, the major papers that the Mercury News scooped pile on, poking holes in Webb's sources, records and methodology. Finally, his own newspaper folds under the pressure, running a front-page acknowledgment of Webb‘s mistakes. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is convincing as the editor who backs Webb until it might mean her own job, and Oliver Platt effectively underplays the paper's spineless executive editor who frames each cowardly decision in terms of core values.
When he’s transferred to the boonies, the film’s depiction of Webb slips into clichés of the "true believer": pictures and clippings taped to motel room walls, lots of grimacing and herky-jerky gestures, even a frustrated window-smashing.
Viewers will likely feel frustrated, too, wishing the filmmakers had decided on one clear direction — either a documentary clearly vindicating Webb’s story with evidence or a true warts-and-all character study, allowing us to understand the motivations that drive a man to pursue a story at all costs, including his career, his family, and, eventually we're told in on-screen text at the film's end, his life. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/21/14)
Men, Women & Children
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Director Jason Reitman was one first people in the entertainment industry to understand the potential of social media. He used sites like MySpace and Twitter to promote his films (Juno, Up in the Air) and to interact with fans in a way few before him had.
Knowing that he’s not a novice to connecting online, it’s shame that the feature film he’s made that explores the impact of social media on our culture, Men, Women & Children, seems quaint and even antiquated even before it hits the screen.
Despite his ease with a keyboard off screen, Reitman can’t think of much to say about the dangers or joys of Facebook or Ashley Madison that hasn’t been said earlier. In many ways, his new offering plays like a watered down Up in the Air.
Reitman follows a seemingly disparate but interconnected group of people from Austin, Texas who find ways to make their already glum lives more complicated thanks to mobile devices. Don Truby (Adam Sandler) and Helen Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt) have a marriage that is all but dead. It’s no wonder that Don has been gratifying himself with the porn his son Chris (Travis Tope) has been using.
Not to be outdone, Helen has been using her own keystrokes to have a real world affair.
Elsewhere in the city, Kent Mooney (Dean Norris, Breaking Bad) is stinging from a painful divorce and his son Tim’s (Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars) seemingly heretical decision to quit playing football. In Texas, that’s about as blasphemous as one can be.
Kent tries his luck with a single mom named Donna (Judy Greer), who is molding her daughter Hannah (Olivia Crocicchia) to be the star she never became in Los Angeles. One thing that’s rather troubling is that Donna doesn’t think twice about posting images that are too racy for a teen. Donna’s literal overexposure of her offspring leads to predictably grim results.
On the other side of the spectrum, Patricia (Jennifer Garner) is so protective of her daughter Brandy (Kaitlyn Dever) that she inadvertently convinces the teen to assume a new identity online, which is also counterproductive.
Because the consequences from these Austinites’ stumbles with online encounters are obvious to anyone who has used social media in the last couple of decades, there isn’t any sense of urgency or surprise.
When undeniably bad things happen, the sense of horror or outrage that Reitman and co-writer Erin Cressida Wilson (working from Chad Kultgen’s novel) try to illicit is blunted because you don’t need an iPad app to see what’s coming.
Despite some solid performances, none of the characters really seem to develop or get past simple stereotypes. It seems odd to cast Sandler (although this is a step up from his other recent films like Blended or That’s My Boy) if Reitman can’t think of anything interesting for the comedian to do, other than look bummed.
Having Emma Thompson delivering the droll narration does help. She can make the somewhat belabored points seem less self-evident, and Reitman occasionally remembers the humor that made Thank You for Smoking and Young Adult rewarding.
What’s missing here is a sense of darkness and unfamiliarity that drove Reitman’s earlier films. Here’s hoping he can find it again. (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 10/21/14)
Men, Women & Children
My nephew has an
app for weather that is much
better than this film.
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
The fictional town of Carlinville, IN, is far from the Marvel Universe, but director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers) goes to ridiculous lengths to plunk the voluble Robert Downey Jr. down there. There’s no direct correlation between Downey Jr.’s arc reactor-hearted superhero Iron Man and this slick Chicago defense attorney, but there are many similarities, including the expectation that he will swoop in to save the day.
An uneven tone plagues the film. Dobkin developed the story with Nick Schenk (Gran Torino), who co-wrote the screenplay with Bill Dubuque. At nearly two and a half hours and stuffed with almost every clichéd dramatic event, the film is a tedious slog frantically punctuated by Downey Jr.’s verbal and sometimes physical assaults. Death in the family, secret cancer treatments, surprise grown-up love child, life-altering car accident, and developmentally stunted younger sibling — all that’s missing from this film is a histrionic childbirth scene, but probably only due to the lack of a leading lady.
Downey Jr. plays Hank Palmer, a glib, money-driven lawyer whose opening act is to pee on his prosecutorial opponent. Hank is the latest in the long list of Downey Jr.’s flawed, glib, money-driven characters. This is old hat for Downey Jr., down to the soft side, symbolized by the hydrangeas he overwaters and the precocious daughter (Emma Tremblay) with whom he shares a corny routine despite being a workaholic who is never home.
Robert Duvall is given the indignity of playing Hank’s irascible father who presides over a courtroom in the town’s square, but the veteran actor is allowed a modicum of vulnerability. In one startling scene in particular he portrays the cruel symptoms of age and ailment, and forcefully drags Downey Jr. into the blitz with him. This could count as the one true moment of the film. But not even Duvall’s immense talent could overcome the relentless push of the script, which forces him to feign memory loss and take the stand in his own defense against murder charges from a hit-and-run accident.
A decent edit of the film would emphasize Hank’s true adversaries: prosecuting attorney Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), who takes on the case to ensure the victim of the hit and run, however reprehensible, gets justice, as well as Glen Palmer (Vincent D’Onofrio), Hank’s older brother who never played in the major leagues because of Hank’s irresponsibility. They both burn with quiet purpose and make their points with knifepoint accuracy, yet neither receives their deserved apology. (R) Rating: 2 (Posted on 10/13/14)
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
Often the people who know us best are the ones who can cause us the greatest harm. The scariest monsters are not the ones lurking outside the house but the ones sharing our beds. This uncomfortable fact is what makes director David Fincher's adaptation of Kansas City native Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl so satisfyingly eerie.
Fincher and Flynn (who also wrote the screenplay) hold off on the overt jolts and theatrics (at least until the end) but effortlessly subvert viewer expectations.
Flynn's book examines the dysfunctional relationship between laid off magazine writers Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) and Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike).
The two have left New York for Missouri so that Nick can take care of his ailing mother and his father, who's suffering from Alzheimer's. They also need a cheaper place to live now that magazines aren't hiring and Manhattan is out of their budget.
He's returned to his roots; she's uncomfortably far from her patrician upbringing in the Big Apple.
On their fifth anniversary, Nick returns that afternoon to discover that someone has apparently broken into their home and that Amy is missing. Her disappearance instantly becomes national news because her parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) wrote a series of bestselling children's books based on her likeness.
Because the marriage was less than ideal, it's easy to suspect that Nick is concealing something and that Amy might not ever return. In the novel, the story is told in alternating chapters from the point of view of Nick and Amy.
There are some bits of voiceover, but Fincher and Flynn find a variety of ways to indicate to viewers that our initial impressions may be wrong.
When Nick and Amy's past is recalled, the accompanying images look like something from a fairy tale. Watch as the film's version of New York becomes covered in snow that might as well be pixie dust. In addition, the more mundane portions of the film are accompanied by an unsettling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which makes even the most tender or quiet moments seem foreboding.
The constant sense of cognitive dissonance helps make the two and a half hour running time breeze by. Another factor is nearly ideal casting. Onscreen, Affleck sometimes has a glib manner that makes even the most sincere utterances seem suspect. Because his Nick is handsome and oddly unaffected by his wife's unexplained departure, it's easy to wonder if he has been up to no good.
Similarly, Pike who has turned in terrific supporting performances in movies like An Education nails Amy's sense of entitlement and her ability to become a different person depending on who is around her. Pike switches gears so effortlessly, it's tricky to catch up to her but well worth it.
One mark of a good film is if the supporting characters are as interesting as the heroes or villains. Tyler Perry is appropriately confident and sly as an attorney who specializes in keeping seemingly guilty clients out of prison, while Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit are terrific as the skeptical local cops investigating the case. Both seem a little out of their depth with the complicated matter but aren't stupid enough to be distracted by obvious clues.
Neil Patrick Harris nails Amy's ex-beau Desi Collings by making him just a little too eager to help in the search. His paternal manner verges on suffocating, so it's easy to think he has issues, too.
Flynn has pruned a lot of material from her novel, but its core is remarkably intact, and the content she removed isn't missed.
Fincher also wisely filmed the exteriors along the Mississippi in eastern Missouri. The crumbling river towns add a sense of hidden menace, and this might not have easily been duplicated in Louisiana, Ontario or Georgia.
Throughout Gone Girl Fincher gives the audience a sense that they are receiving privileged information. Instead of pounding his points home, Fincher leaves clues of the audience to find them on their own. That may explain why couples might leave the theater looking over their shoulders and toward each other with a sense of dread. (R)
Rating: 4.5 (Posted on 10/08/14)
that the greatest dangers are
often close to home
Love Is Strange
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
The premise of director Ira Sachs’ latest film, which he co-wrote with Mauricio Zacharias, has a ripped-from-the-headlines feel. After 39 years together, Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) get married, and as a result George gets fired from his job teaching music at a Catholic school. But that’s not even the biggest outrage: this loss of income forces the two to sell their light-filled New York co-op, turning them temporarily homeless and utterly dependent on relatives and friends for accommodation.
That discrimination victimizes them twice, first at the hands of the church and then again by the unreasonable New York City real estate market, isn’t what creates the potency of the movie. Its power comes from issues even more complicated than balancing the intricacies of newly minted federal and state marriage laws with arguments against them based on religious doctrine, which really isn’t all that defensible. Fortunately, Sachs isn’t interested in this debate, choosing instead to ground the film in the ambivalence of small, personal experiences.
While Ben and George hunt for a rental they can afford with the money George earns from private lessons and the modest profit from the sale of their apartment, they have to live separately. Their only other choice is to move in with Ben’s niece upstate, but neither drives and being that far out of the city would hamper both the search for a new apartment and George’s sole source of income. If this seems like a lengthy setup with a long list of justifications, it is. But the payoff is well worth it.
Stoical George, an Englishman in New York with no close relatives there, sleeps on the couch in the living room belonging to former downstairs neighbors — a pair of gay cops played by Cheyenne Jackson and Manny Perez. He’s often kept up past his bedtime by their frequent get-togethers with friends and colleagues, but he’s too reserved to make a fuss. He’s the type who sends strongly written letters instead of making a scene.
Meanwhile, Ben has moved in with his nephew Elliot (Darren Burrows) and Elliot’s wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei) in a hipster’s paradise in Brooklyn. It’s well-appointed and well-designed but still short on space: Ben occupies the bottom bunk in Elliot and Kate’s son Joey’s (Charlie Tahan) room, and he’s an irritating distraction to novelist Kate, whose writing desk resides in the living room. Ben, a painter, obliviously answers an annoyed Kate’s suggestion to start a new painting with, “I can’t really work if there’s someone else around.”
It’s in these interactions that Sachs explores the true nature of love. As Ben and George pine for each other and their lost shared space, cracks in Kate and Elliot’s marriage appear. Elliot seems to get sketchier with every scene, and the couple’s attitude toward their son changes as he reveals a jealous nature when his friend, an older boy, begins spending time posing for a portrait with Ben. Romantic love, though wonderfully, heart-achingly, naturally portrayed by Lithgow and Molina, isn’t the only love being tested here. In fact, it’s the only love not in doubt. (R) Rating: 4 (Posted 10/3/14)
The Skeleton Twins
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader aren’t twins; they’re not even related. But the two do seem to share a secret language, like twins purportedly develop, most probably forged on and off the stage at “Saturday Night Live,” where they appeared together from 2005 to 2012. They’re currently costarring in The Skeleton Twins, a dark comedy directed by Craig Johnson (True Adolescents) from the screenplay he wrote with Mark Heyman (Black Swan), and not only are the actors’ roles synchronous, so are their performance.
A bit of morbid choreography opens the film. Not since Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult favorite Harold and Maude has a comedy opened with so many suicide attempts. Unlike Harold’s elaborate staged productions; however, these two are in earnest. Just as Maggie Dean (Wiig), a dental hygienist who still lives in her hometown in upstate New York, has screwed up enough courage to swallow a handful of prescription pills, she’s interrupted by a phone call letting her know her twin brother Milo (Hader) was found in his Los Angeles apartment with his wrists slashed.
These separate existential crises set the tone for all of The Skeleton Twins, though they’re not to be taken as so serious as to be repeatable. They’re more a symptom of the incredible loneliness of both Maggie and Milo. They’ve been estranged for 10 years, and not because of any big blowup. Their father killed himself when they were 14, and their mother (Joanna Gleason), a self-centered, New Age flake, has remarried and located to the Southwest.
Despite taking a vow that they would always take care of each other, they’ve drifted apart: Milo to Los Angeles, where his dream of an acting career has languished, and Maggie in an ill-suited marriage to bright-sided optimist Lance (Luke Wilson), who is as equally baffled by their inability to conceive — Maggie secretly takes birth control pills — as he is by Maggie’s inconstancy, which he describes as “land mines.”
Secrecy informs both Milo and Maggie, but in very different ways. Not necessarily proud but very much out, Milo is fed up with it. He returns to his hometown expecting a different dynamic with his former high school English teacher, Rich (Ty Burrell), who remains disappointingly closeted, whereas Maggie actively seeks out lies, squirreling them away as if expecting them to get her through a long winter.
In this role, Hader is a revelation. It’s not surprise that he can be funny. His lip-syncing to Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna to Stop Us Now” should be annoying for its precious affectation, but he performs it with infectious enthusiasm. As Maggie, Wiig is harder to pin down. She’s more easily directed in the comedy scenes, but still seems as if she’s playing around when matters turn serious. Playing the hypocrite is more complex, so her unraveling should be the main attraction but Wiig still seems tightly wound at the end. It’s Hader’s Milo who has changed. (R) Rating: 3 (Posted 10/03/14)