Post Date Feb 27

RogerEbert.com — Focus

Focus Movie ReviewWill Smith and Margot Robbie share a crackling chemistry and snappy banter in a series of luxurious locations as con artists conning each other and everyone else they meet. It’s a lot of fun, until it isn’t. At RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Feb 20

RogerEbert.com — The DUFF

The DUFF Movie ReviewMae Whitman dazzles as the title character — which stands for Designated Ugly Fat Friend — a brilliant and quick-witted high school senior who takes that derogatory label and makes it her own. This breezy comedy is Whitman’s “Easy A”: the movie that will make the longtime supporting actress a star. At RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Feb 18

Oscar Picks 2015

Predicting the Oscars was extraordinarily hard this year — harder than I can remember in a long time. Usually by this point, with the Academy Awards ceremony just a few days away, the frontrunners have established themselves pretty clearly. And while this is true (for the most part) in the acting categories, the whole best picture/best director scenario could shake out any number of ways. There could be four different outcomes on Sunday night and they’d all make total sense. But these are the ones I’m going with for now in the top six categories. Ask me again in an hour and they’ll probably be different.

BEST PICTURE

Nominees: “American Sniper,” “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Imitation Game,” “Selma,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Whiplash.”

Will win: Birdman

Should win: Birdman

Wild card: Boyhood

I knew “Birdman” was the best movie of the year before it was even over. (Here’s a link to my four-star review from October, which details the myriad ways in which it’s groundbreaking/breathtaking/exhilarating.) But I also think it will appeal to the Academy because it’s about actors acting, the struggle to make art and the urge to remain relevant. As much of an achievement as “Boyhood” is (and here’s a link to that four-star review), shot as it was in pieces over a span of 12 years, I’ve always thought that a lot of the older and stodgier Academy members might find its approach just too unorthodox to support. Having said that, Richard Linklater’s movie deservedly has received a ton of love throughout awards season, so it wouldn’t shock me to hear the name “Boyhood” at the end of the night.

BEST DIRECTOR

Nominees: Wes Anderson, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”; Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, “Birdman”; Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”; Bennett Miller, “Foxcatcher”; Morten Tyldum, “The Imitation Game.”

 

Will win: Inarritu

Should win: Inarritu

Wild card: Linklater

Inarritu’s technique in creating the sensation that we’re watching the film play out in one long take is just dazzling. It took a ton of work to make all the pieces fit into place just right, but it’s a blast to watch. I say “Birdman” wins and Inarritu wins. But there’s also the school of thought that there will be a picture/director split. In that case, Linklater would be an extremely deserving winner here, too. That it even occurred to him to structure “Boyhood” the way he did is excitingly innovative, but then his big gamble paid off in its own quietly moving way. This is a tough one.

BEST ACTOR

Nominees: Steve Carell, “Foxcatcher”; Bradley Cooper, “American Sniper”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Imitation Game”; Michael Keaton, “Birdman”; Eddie Redmayne, “The Theory of Everything.”

Will win: Keaton

Should win: Keaton

Wild card: Redmayne

Keaton and Redmayne have divvied up all the major awards heading into Oscar night. I could very easily imagine this going either way. But both my head and my heart say Keaton will win for his thrilling portrayal of an aging actor trying to regain his former glory (and suppress his nagging demons) with the staging of a risky Broadway play. His winning would have a lifetime-achievement vibe about it. The 33-year-old Redmayne is convincing and moving in a physically transformative role as Stephen Hawking, but I suspect Keaton has longevity on his side.

BEST ACTRESS

Nominees: Marion Cotillard, “Two Days, One Night”; Felicity Jones, “The Theory of Everything”; Julianne Moore, “Still Alice”; Rosamund Pike, “Gone Girl”; Reese Witherspoon, “Wild.”

Still Alice Movie Review

Will win: Moore

Should win: Pike

Wild card: Witherspoon

Moore has been nominated for an Academy Award four times before and has never won. The prevailing wisdom is that she is due — that this is finally her time. And that makes sense. She’s one of the finest and most versatile actresses of our generation, and her performance in “Still Alice” as a linguistics professor who slowly suffers the ravages of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is one of her most delicate and precise. The movie itself is pretty pedestrian and mawkish, however; Moore definitely elevates it above its movie-of-the-week aesthetic. There’s no way in hell that this will happen, but I’d love to see Pike win for her multifaceted portrayal of a brilliantly scheming wife in “Gone Girl.” Witherspoon also was great with some riskier-than-usual material in “Wild,” but she already has an Oscar. This is Moore’s year.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees: Robert Duvall, “The Judge”; Ethan Hawke, “Boyhood”; Edward Norton, “Birdman”; Mark Ruffalo, “Foxcatcher”; J.K. Simmons, “Whiplash.”

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Will win: Simmons

Should win: Simmons

Wild card: None.

Simmons is the juggernaut, and he has been throughout awards season. That includes his win at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards dinner, where I had the great privilege of introducing him and handing him his prize. He is absolutely terrifying as a sadistic jazz teacher who pushes Miles Teller’s talented young drummer to the brink of greatness/madness. And it’s just nice to see him recognized for such a lengthy and substantial body of work. Between all the television he’s done and all the supporting film roles he’s played over the years, this is the most powerful work of the versatile Simmons’ career.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees: Patricia Arquette, “Boyhood”; Laura Dern, “Wild”; Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game”; Emma Stone, “Birdman”; Meryl Streep, “Into the Woods.”

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Will win: Arquette

Should win: Arquette

Wild card: None

Like Simmons, Arquette has been racking up the accolades and prizes throughout awards season. But you could very easily argue — as we did with the Los Angeles Film Critics Association awards — that Arquette is playing a leading role. She is the mother of the boy at the center of “Boyhood” — a woman who provides support by definition, but whose presence and decisions dictate so much of what happens to him as he grows up. Plus, she’s just so lovely — funny, flawed and filled with a pragmatic spirit that drives her to survive. And as in the case of Simmons, this would be a lovely way to recognize a long, solid career.

Post Date Feb 16

Revisiting The Breakfast Club

Breakfast Club

Any self-respecting child of the ’80s loves John Hughes and knows at least one of the writer-director’s films by heart. While “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” are a total blast, the Hughes movie that mattered to me most growing up was “The Breakfast Club,” and it remains one of my favorites today.

So when I saw that the New Beverly Cinema here in Los Angeles was showing “The Breakfast Club” 30 years to the day after its original release — alongside “Vision Quest,” which also came out on Feb. 15, 1985 — there was no way I could miss it. While I’ve seen the film a million times thanks to cable and videotape, I hadn’t watched it in an actual theater with other people since it opened. I can still vividly recall walking into a packed auditorium at the UA Warner Center in Woodland Hills on the Friday night it came out; we arrived a little late and missed the first few minutes, but the energy in that room already was infectious. Something was different about this night.

Last night, I was curious to see what it would be like to watch “The Breakfast Club” in a theater packed with people in their 40s just like I am, all of whom know every word, every beat and every punch line just like I do. It wasn’t a “Rocky Horror”-style exercise in cinematic interaction, but there was a definite sensation that we were all aware when a classic line was coming up:

“Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?”

“Don’t mess with the bull, young man, you’ll get the horns.”

“No, I don’t wear tights. I wear the required uniform.” “Tights.”

“She lives in Canada. I met her in Niagara Falls. You wouldn’t know her.”

“No! I never did it!” “I never did it either. I’m not a nymphomaniac, I’m a compulsive liar.”

But I was also curious to see, from the perspective of being a film critic, whether revisiting “The Breakfast Club” would be more about the comforting tug of nostalgia than the allure of actual quality. And the answer is: It was a combination of both.

Quick plot summary, for the two or three people out there who’ve never seen “The Breakfast Club”: Five suburban Chicago high school students representing various stereotypes — a brain (Anthony Michael Hall), an athlete (Emilio Estevez), a basket base (Ally Sheedy), a princess (Molly Ringwald) and a criminal (Judd Nelson) — are forced to spend a Saturday in detention together. The comedy of their initial awkwardness gives way to drama as they break down each others’ identities, followed by the uplift of their unexpected bonding.

I’m happy to report that, three decades later, “The Breakfast Club” remains timeless. It still reflects the narcissistic torment of teen angst: the feeling that nobody understands what you’re going through (certainly not your parents) and that your troubles are all-encompassing and insurmountable. It’s still consistently funny and endlessly quotable. Hughes had an unparalleled knack for writing teenagers — hyper-verbal characters full of self-aware, sharp humor who were also capable of making themselves vulnerable and revealing their hearts. It’s paced beautifully and moves seamlessly in tone from light moments to heavier ones.

But along those lines, the drama seems more melodramatic to me now that I’m a grown-ass woman with a child of my own. This is especially true in the big, cathartic scene once the characters have bonded over smoking pot (a device which has become a total cliche by now) and revealed what they’ve done to earn detention. Estevez’s cries of “Win! Win! Win!” and Hall’s sobbing into his sweatshirt sleeve feel over the top now and even a little cringe-inducing.

Yet there’s also a timelessness to the look of the film, especially compared to so many 1980s movies which seem so hilariously dated with their teased-up bangs and giant shoulder pads. And I wonder whether that was intentional on Hughes’ part — whether it was an attempt to make these people and their feelings universal. The characters’ clothes could really come from any time — especially Estevez’s hoodie and jeans and Nelson’s flannel shirt and clunky boots — but “The Breakfast Club” also refrains from the sorts of pop-culture references that proliferate teen movies today, which would peg it to a specific period. Nelson cracks a joke about Barry Manilow, but it’s in the context of tooling on the uptight assistant principal (Paul Gleason) rather than an attempt to seem hip.

Speaking of which: I never realized until last night how cute Nelson was back then — I was always more attracted to Estevez’s more clean-cut looks — or the fact that he was 26 years old playing a high school student.

Post Date Feb 15

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated R for some strong sexual content including dialogue, some unusual behavior and graphic nudity, and for language.
Running time: 125 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

I liked “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and I am not ashamed.

I realize this is not the most popular opinion. The film has plummeted to 26 percent on Rotten Tomatoes as of this writing. And I don’t care. I went to a screening with a girlfriend of mine — a fellow school mom who’d also read all three books — we had a drink beforehand and giggled the whole way through.

This is probably the best way to experience “Fifty Shades of Grey” — slightly under the influence and with a large group — making it all the better to surrender to the guilty pleasure of the escape. But from a perspective of evaluating the actual quality of the content, Sam Taylor-Johnson’s film is a vast improvement over E.L.. James’ best-selling, page-turning source material. The first book (which I read for professional edification, I swear) was inane and repetitive, with an annoying interior monologue which reflected our heroine’s reactions to the outlandishly kinky situation into which she’d stumbled.

And yet I — and millions of other self-respecting, educated women — devoured it and couldn’t put it down. We had to find out what was going to happen next. We had to find out how far the innocent Anastasia Steele would go in this dark, sexual world.

Screenwriter Kelly Marcel has done yeoman’s work in stripping the text of all its adolescent idiocy (gone are Ana’s “inner goddess” and her exclamations of “Oh my!” and “Holy crap!”) but maintaining the lines, images and moments that the legions of fans would want to see. If there were a category for most-improved adaptation at the Oscars, Marcel would be the clear winner.

As an experience, though, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is a visual feast. Taylor-Johnson made her name as an artist before shifting to directing feature films with 2009’s “Nowhere Boy.” Here, she’s teamed up with cinematographer Seamus McGarvey — a two-time Oscar nominee whose work ranges from “Atonement” and “Anna Karenina” to “The Avengers” and “Godzilla” — to create a look that’s sleek, glossy and sensual. Merely the sight of billionaire bad boy Christian Grey’s closet sent shivers. The film is edited fluidly (especially in the much-anticipated sex scenes) and production designed beautifully. Costume designer Mark Bridges — who frequently works with Paul Thomas Anderson and David O. Russell — also deserves a special mention not only for recreating Christian’s crisp wardrobe but also for styling Anastasia in a way that vividly reflects her transition from a mousy college student to a young woman blossoming and finding her power.

So yes, “Fifty Shades of Grey” looks great. But you may have noticed that we haven’t talked about the actual plot. Or the relationship. Or the performances. As Anastasia, Dakota Johnson is a total find. She finds a spark and a spine that the character in the book woefully lacked, and she has terrific comic timing. (That’s something else about the film that makes it superior: It realizes this story is ridiculous in ways the book itself never could. It has an actual sense of humor.) Johnson facially resembles her father, Don Johnson, but she has a presence that’s reminiscent of her mother, Melanie Griffith; she has a similar sweetness and directness which are appealing. Johnson must reveal herself in more ways than one throughout the film and rises to the challenge every time. “Fifty Shades” will make her a star, and deservedly so.

And then there’s Jamie Dornan, who co-stars as the enigmatic and beguiling Christian Grey. At least, these are attributes he’s supposed to exude. He’s kind of a stiff (no pun intended). Sure, the former underwear model is handsome and muscular, and he’s really good at that thing where you reach back with one hand and pull your T-shirt over your head while flexing your abs at the same time. (He does this so many times, it could be a drinking game.) But he’s never as intimidating as he should be, despite Anastasia’s insistence that he is. Perhaps Dornan’s restraint is intentional; after all, the story is told through Ana’s eyes, and he’s supposed to be mysterious. But he’s also supposed to be impossibly sexy and irresistible, and that’s never the case — to the extent that the mind starts wandering to other actors who would have been a better fit. Charlie Hunnam originally was cast in the role, then changed his mind. (I always pictured a Matthew McConaughey type when I was reading the book — someone handsome and slick, but with a slightly dangerous vibe — but he’s too old. Christian is supposed to be 27.)

Yet Johnson and Dornan manage to create a decent and sometimes lively chemistry with each other — a topic which has inspired no shortage of gossip and speculation. This is especially true in the scenes in which they remain fully clothed, bantering and negotiating as they flirt, feel each other out and find some BDSM boundaries which are mutually acceptable.

A quick plot summary, for those who have been living under a rock: Anastasia Steele is a college senior who visits Christian Grey at his imposing Seattle office to interview him for the school paper on behalf of her sick roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford). Christian is the enormously successful founder of some vague tech company who’s giving this year’s commencement address. He’s also a notoriously eligible bachelor. But when Ana staggers into his office and falls on her hands and knees, looking up at him nervously with her big, blue eyes, the secret dominant in him is instantly intrigued.

From there it’s a traditional, romantic tale of boy meets girl, boy seduces girl, boy makes girl sign a non-disclosure agreement, boy ties up, blindfolds and spanks girl. Boy also stalks girl, showing up uninvited when she’s out drinking with her friends or enjoying lunch in Florida with her mom . (She’s played by an underused Jennifer Ehle; Marcia Gay Harden similarly has little to do as Christian’s mother.) Christian famously “exercises control in all things, Miss Steele,” but the film definitely underplays the creepy, needy, power-mad elements of his personality — facets which were forged in his fucked-up childhood, which we’ll get to by book three.

But he also buys her a car! And takes her hang-gliding! And he provides the previously virginal Anastasia with unprecedented orgasms in the so-called Red Room of Pain. Much has been made of the perceived subversive, transgressive nature of Christian’s proclivities, but “Fifty Shades of Grey” is the rare, mainstream film that talks about sex — and the way people connect through sex — in refreshingly candid ways.

And it does end up being rather traditional in terms of the relationship dynamics that emerge. Christian and Ana meet each other halfway, but while she learns about the fun that can be had while blindfolded, he learns to open his eyes to the possibility of romance and even love. She’s the submissive in the equation, but she ultimately bends him to her will. And — spoiler alert! — by the third book, “Fifty Shades Freed,” there’s even marriage, a home and a baby. How shocking is that?