Is Gone Girl the Greatest or the Worst Hate Story Ever Told?

Gone Girl Rosamund Pike

I’m drinking a glass of wine as I write this review of Gone Girl, as I imagine this is how many fans of the book enjoyed reading Gillian Flynn’s twisted and twisty tale of the worst marriage ever.  I didn’t read the book, so the twists came as genuine surprises to me, and I credit my fellow critics for not really spoiling much in their reviews when the book and film are so damn spoilable.

But the thing you have to know about David Fincher’s film adaptation (spun for the screen from Ms. Flynn’s own hands) is that EVERYTHING about it (okay, and maybe this is a spoiler, so sue me)…is a ruse. Continue reading

The Last Cut is the Deepest for The Skeleton Twins

Skeleton Twins

There’s a truly fantastic scene about half-way through Craig Johnson’s dramedy, The Skeleton Twins, where Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig lip-synch to Starship’s hilariously 80’s anthem, “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now.”  It’s been highlighted ad nauseam in the TV spots for the film, but it’s even more dynamic and infectious on the big screen.  Its almost painfully prolonged unfolding is built upon the rising tension of Wiig’s character being supremely pissed off right now and refusing to play along with her brother’s antics until that moment comes where she just can’t take it anymore and has to join the insanity.  The look on Wiig’s face as she reluctantly (yet deep down so happily) mouths the lyrics, “Let them say we’re crazy…” is a perfect moment for this gifted actress inside a wildly imperfect film.  Hader, likewise, is borderline idiot genius with his mannerisms and body language.  It’s a shame then that writer-director Craig Johnson saddles them with such obvious clichés.

The dysfunctional sister-brother relationship dramedy has long been the bastion of many an indie filmmaker.  Most of these films star Laura Linney (think You Can Count on Me, or probably the ultimate example of this sub-genre, The Savages).  Wiig is an interesting substitute for Linney, as the comedic actress has never been allowed to go dramatic before, but with such a great built-in chemistry with Hader (who is most beloved as SNL’s Stefon, the worst NYC tour guide EVER) the two click whether they’re lip-synching to bad music or revealing devastating secrets to each other. Continue reading

Drop it Like it’s Cold

The Drop

Michael R. Roskam’s Brooklyn set crime thriller, The Drop, is a deceptively pleasant nasty piece of work.

While walking home from work at his cousin Marv’s bar, Bob hears the heart-tugging yelps of a pit bull puppy in the trashcan of the unsuspecting Nadia.  Left with no choice but to rescue the poor dog, Bob is also drawn to Nadia, and thus blooms a romance.  The Drop is one of those “feel-good two lost souls getting together while raising a pet” movies that just so happens to take place inside a gritty little crime flick.  You see, Marv’s bar isn’t an ordinary dive, but a key drop bar for money flowing into a Chechen crime ring.  And that dog was dumped by Nadia’s ex, Eric, a scumbag who may have been involved in the disappearance of a former friend of Marv and Bob ten years earlier.  Adapted for the screen from his own short story “Animal Rescue” by Dennis Lehane, Roskam’s film is oddly paced but still wholly satisfying, where everyone plays their parts effectively, and all of the carefully crafted pieces fall towards a tense and tidy, albeit unpredictable, conclusion. Continue reading

The Mystery of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

All the lonely people...

All the lonely people…

Ned Benson’s somber relationship drama, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, is not a mystery despite the title, though it’s plenty puzzling.  The version reviewed here, Them, is an edited combination of what was originally two separate films, Him and Her.  It flips back and forth between our two players Conor (James McAvoy, donning an unconvincing American accent) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain, all pale grief and feigned smiles) as their marriage disintegrates, but it never plays its gimmick out with the obvious one scene played twice from different points of view gag.  That may have actually made the film a bit more interesting, though it would’ve also added to the film’s already burdensome two-hour-plus runtime.

After surviving a leap from a bridge, Eleanor moves back in with her parents (William Hurt as the stereotypical soft-spoken bearded professor and Isabelle Huppert as a drunk French former violinist) and single-mom sister (a likable Jess Weixler, who it would’ve been nice to learn more about), while taking a class on the theory of identity taught by a bitter but wise woman (Viola Davis).  Meanwhile, Conor is moping around his failing restaurant, lashing out at customers and his best friend/chef (Bill Hader) and moves back in with his recently thrice divorced and overly philosophical father (Ciaran Hinds, always good).  Slowly but surely we find out the real reason behind the break-up and their decent into the spiral of grief (hint: it’s not just about losing each other), and it is indeed tragic and hangs a pall over the whole family, not just our protagonists.

The film is filled with talking it out and philosophical ponderings espoused by really good performers.  In lesser acting hands, the film would’ve been an outright mess.  The characters speak dialogue sincerely as if read from discarded Felicity-era WB melodramas and self-help books.

Continue reading

The Quick Spin on Woody, Blue, Blood and Lucy

Here’s a quick rundown on 2 flicks still in theaters (Magic in the Moonlight and Lucy) and 2 on Netflix (Blood Ties and Blue Ruin):

Magic in the Moonlight

Magic in the Moonlight – Woody Allen’s latest is a postcard pretty period-piece set on the sun-splashed French coast and countryside.  Here a renowned magician (Colin Firth) travels to France at the behest of his friend to debunk an American spiritualist (Emma Stone).  The whole film, like Emma Stone (luminously photographed in classic Allen fashion to play up her best features – that red hair, those blue eyes, that mischievous smile) is ridiculously good-looking and light on its feet.  Stone soaks up the sun and Allen’s directorial affections, plumbing her plucky personality to its most glorious depths.  Her performance, which takes on the allure of a subtle silent film starlet, is almost transcendent.  The film, far from Allen’s greatest, is sill a pleasure to watch, and would’ve been forgettable if not for Stone’s classically styled star turn.  Word on the street is she’s signed up for another Allen flick.  Like her character, clever girl.

Bottom Line:  Spin once.  Watch out for Emma Stone’s next Woody.

Continue reading

A Most Wanted Man

A Most Wanted Man

Here’s one of the many reasons why the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman will be so sorely missed:  his mere presence prompted other actors/actresses to up their game.  Case in point here in A Most Wanted Man:  the couldn’t be lovelier but normally vapid Rachel McAdams, shaky German accent and all, manages to actually make you feel for her troubled lawyer accused of being a social worker for terrorists.  What’s even more amazing is that in an adaptation of John Le Carre novel you actually feel anything for anyone!  With the emotional powder keg of The Constant Gardner being the exception to the rule, Le Carre’s spy procedurals are normally colder than an interrogation room metal tabletop.  Yet Anton Corbijn wisely allows his A-list cast to tap into the quiet, bubbling under the surface, heartbreak of this post 9/11 spy-eat-spy world.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is Gunther Backmann, a world-weary German intelligence station chief in Hamburg who was burned by the CIA at his last post in Beirut where assets were betrayed and lives lost.  He’s quietly been toiling away, utilizing McAdam’s liberal lawyer to reel in his minnow, a Chechen Muslim who entered Germany under cloak and dagger, that he hopes to dangle in front his barracuda, a renowned Islamic political activist and spiritual leader thought to be secretly funding a shipping company with terrorist ties.  He tries to keep the CIA, represented by a professionally flirtatious Robin Wright, at bay, while aided by his right-hand woman played with subtle skill by the fantastic Nina Hoss.  Willem Dafoe, meanwhile, plays a banker used as a pawn to channel the alleged funds that were left behind in secret by the Chechen’s recently deceased Russian crime lord father. Continue reading

Richard Linklater’s Ordinary Boyhood

Boyhood

There have been those who have proclaimed Boyhood the greatest film of the 21st century.  And there’s a huge faction that believe it’s Richard Linklater’s magnum opus.  Though surely a 2014 Top Ten contender, I’m not even sure it’s the best film of the year thus far, and the Before- trilogy is still Linklater’s crowning achievement in my mind.   I suspect there’s been a bit of the old Group Think at work in delivering this hyperbolic praise.

But Boyhood is still a uniquely constructed film full of winning moments, performances…and flaws.

Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same four leads (two adults – Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and two children – Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) meeting with the writer/director to riff for a few weeks at a time in his sprawling Texas homeland, Boyhood is wholly original in its depiction of the passage of time and aging in the context of a singular work of cinema.

The early years of Mason’s life are depicted with an easy flow and are full of humor and charm.  The kids are naturally cute and precocious, and the director obviously had a blast letting his own daughter cut loose, gifting her classic sassy little girl lines and mannerisms that seemed organic.  I’ve heard him joke in interviews that Lorelei cast herself as soon as she found out her dad had written the role, and based on what is seen on screen in these early scenes, I reckon it’s a true story.  Meanwhile, Mom and Dad aren’t together from the onset, and while they have their own sets of problems, both Hawke and Arquette are so effortlessly likable, you instantly root for them to get their shit together…not so much for the kids’ sake, but for their own.

As the film moves into middle childhood and the teen years, it starts to plod a bit, and some of the clichéd and overwrought plot mechanics Linklater uses (Doh! Mom marries not one, but two alcoholics!) take away from the film’s realism.  It seems to get stuck there in middle school, but before we know it, Mason is a moody, mumbling high schooler…until he starts to drink and try soft drugs where Linklater attempts to recapture some of the old rambling magic that made the aimless philosophy of Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Waking Life so enjoyable.  There are times, though, Mason comes across as so lackadaisical you want to shake him to wake him up.  He never really stands up for anything, though he does lash out eventually at stepdad number two to get off his back, and he does take a shining to the art of photography.  Linklater comically channels this feeling of wanting to shake (perhaps shape?) his protagonist through pep talks from his photography teacher and first boss (at least the kid gets a job much like I did at that age as a busboy/dishwasher with fry-cook aspirations). Continue reading

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

These damn apes outsmarted me again!  When Rise of the Planet of the Apes burst onto the scene three summers ago, I had grave misgivings. The concept was always inherently silly, and it was hard to imagine any kind of re-imagining of the cult/camp classics from the 1960’s and 1970’s making any kind of sense.  But, lo and behold, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a finely crafted piece of entertainment with amazing effects, an emotionally involving story, a stupendous lead performance from Andy Serkis as super ape Caesar, and confident direction from maestro Rupert Wyatt.  When the film’s surprise success guaranteed sequels, I was crushed to learn Wyatt would not be returning in the director’s chair.  In whose hands could a sequel make any kind of sense?  This thing would be a debacle or at the very least have a bad case of sequel-itis, right?

Well, here I am, dear readers, admitting I was wrong…again.  Apparently Matt Reeves (who for far too long, lived under the thumb of the overrated Hollywood demigod J.J. Abrams) can direct the heck out of an Apes flick.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes capitalizes with expert precision on the goodwill from the first film, once again putting Serkis as Caesar and the other apes front and center, ups the emotional ante, ups the action, and mines the very best elements from uber-popular TV shows to be massively appealing to a broad audience without ever seeming to kowtow to the masses.

Ten years following the events of the first film, the human race has been nearly wiped out by the simian flu, and Caesar and pals have set up a peaceful little society in the redwood forests outside of San Francisco.  But behold, there are some humans still struggling to survive in a post-apocalyptic community downtown, and they come up into Caesar’s territory to get a dam running again that will bring power back to the city.  The film opens from the apes’ point of view, and for nearly twenty minutes they are the only characters on-screen.  It’s a big gamble to start the film this way, but the amazing effects make the apes seem more human and relatable than ever, with Serkis and Toby Kebbell as Koba giving Oscar-worthy performances.  The humans contain a sympathetic makeshift family (made up of Jason Clarke, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Reeves’ very own Felicity alum and muse Keri Russell) and a questionable leader played by Gary Oldman.  Quickly we learn the apes, like the humans, are divided into two factions: those hoping for peaceful coexistence, and those who are far too trigger-happy and untrustworthy. Continue reading

Movies are Life Itself

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Thumbs Up! says Roger Ebert for Benji the Hunted

Throughout the touching and surprisingly heavier than expected bio-doc of Roger Ebert, the editors intersplice narrated snippets from some of his most potent reviews along with the inevitable scenes of arguments with Gene Siskel from their classic TV show I grew up watching.  One great sparring was from an episode where they reviewed Full Metal Jacket and Benji the Hunted.  Siskel was appalled that Ebert was giving the Kubrick film a thumbs down while recommending the Benji flick.  Ebert expertly argued (and even went as far as shaming Siskel) that you can’t compare the two.  They have to be reviewed in their own context…Benji the Hunted as a kid’s film and Full Metal Jacket as a KUBRICK (for crying out loud, one that he thought wasn’t up to snuff with the master’s best output).  I remember going to see Benji the Hunted in the theaters as a kid, and you know what…Ebert was right about the context.  I liked the Benji movie back then.  And later in life when I watched Full Metal Jacket, I loved it, but I will admit…it might be a lesser Kubrick, and I respect those who may not have connected it with it as a work of art.

And that’s what was great about Ebert and Siskel – they could argue and disagree, and it was okay…in fact, it was hoped for.  The point of going to the movies was not just to be entertained, but to get a glimpse into another person’s point of view (a director’s, a character’s, a place and moment in time alien to your own) and to find those moments of empathy…and hopefully give you something to talk about with other people.  Whether through blogging or in person with the people I experience the films with in the movie theater, talking about films (and sometimes passionately disagreeing about them) is a favorite pastime.  It’s a way to connect…to get to know yourself and hopefully someone else. Continue reading

#ChefIsSoMoney

Celebrity Sightings - Bauer-Griffin - 2013

You could draw a long, clean line from the 1996 film Swingers to the 2014 film Chef.  On the surface they couldn’t be more disparate – one a generational touch-point about proto-hipsters creating their own culture during the swing revival of the mid 1990’s, the other a film about an artist chef getting back to his roots and reigniting his passions.  But they both have at their center a sad man (Jon Favreau) at a crossroads in his life.  In Swingers he was a young guy who couldn’t get over the heartbreak of his first love lost while struggling to break into acting.  Then in Chef he’s a middle-aged guy stuck in a rut after a divorce and struggling to fuel his passion for cooking.  Both films show the prototypical artistic man at different stages in his life struggling to find balance and deal with feelings of loss.  As it turns out, Favreau, when not directing perfectly serviceable blockbusters for the Hollywood machine, is capable of tapping into the male psyche with great sensitivity and humor through really good indie screenplays.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a formerly renowned chef who’s lost his zest for life while working at a successful Los Angeles restaurant run by a man (Dustin Hoffman) who stifles his creativity and forces him to stick to the same old menu even when a top critic (Oliver Platt) stops by for a visit.  He has a loyal crew (Bobby Cannavale and a shockingly likable John Leguizamo) and a sassy sexy hostess/waitress (Scarlett Johansson) who urge him to reignite those fires, but it takes a public blow-up with the critic who pans the tired menu that goes viral through Twitter to force him to take stock of his life after losing his job.  When his ex-wife (the saucy and smoking hot Sofia Vergara) suggests he come with her to Miami (where he originally got his groove on for cooking), he reluctantly takes the opportunity under the guise of bonding with his smart, tech-savvy ten year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony, one of the most unaffected and casually natural child actors to come down the pike in a while).  Still, it takes his ex’s ex (Robert Downey Jr.) gifting him a food truck before he truly seizes the moment to find his passion again and reconnect with the ones he most loves.

Continue reading