Post Date Jan 29 — Fifty Shades of Black

Fifty Shades of Black Movie ReviewI’m not saying it’s good. But this Marlon Wayans spoof of “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t quite as terrible as you might expect. And it may have something substantive to say, in between all the prosthetic penises and pop-culture references. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jan 24

The 5th Wave

The 5th Wave Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for violence and destruction, some sci-fi thematic elements, language and brief teen partying.
Running time: 112 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“The 5th Wave” plays like a Wayans-brothers spoof of movies based on dystopian Young Adult novels. Seriously, it could have been called “YA Movie” the way it wallows in all the overly familiar tropes of the genre. Theaters could offer checklists at the door to allow us to play along and at least have a little fun with it.

Let’s see, we have:

— An apocalypse that decimates the planet (this time, aliens are to blame).

— A plucky teenage girl who dares to think for herself and defy the odds (Chloe Grace Moretz).

— Two hunky potential suitors competing for her affections (Nick Robinson and Alex Roe).

— Adults in control who are clearly untrustworthy, played by serious actors to give the film some semblance of heft (Liev Schreiber and Maria Bello).

— An intense training ritual in which kids learn how to become killers, complete with hand-to-hand combat and firing-range exercises.

— A maze. Seriously, there’s a maze of concrete corridors these kids must navigate in order to escape.

If this sounds familiar to you  — if you’ve seen any or all of the movies in the “Hunger Games,” “Divergent” or “Maze Runner” series — then you know exactly what you’re in for with “The 5th Wave.” There’s even an ending to suggest hopes for a franchise of its own. Rick Yancey, who wrote the book “The 5th Wave,” also wrote a sequel, “The Infinite Sea.” The third installment in the trilogy, “The Last Star,” is due out later this year. Because they all come in trilogies. That’s something you should be familiar with by now, too.

Having said that, Moretz is game for all the physical and psychological mayhem that come her character’s way, and she clearly aims to add depth to this person which might not have existed on the page. Director J Blakeson, working from a script credited to some heavy-hitting veteran writers (Akiva Goldsman, Susannah Grant and Jeff Pinkner), quickly establishes that Moretz’s Cassie used to be a pretty average teenage girl in an idyllic Ohio town: soccer practice, keggers, a wisecracking best friend, an adorable younger brother (Zackary Arthur) and loving parents (Ron Livingston and Maggie Siff).

But then … the aliens come. Who are they? What do they want? Doesn’t matter, although context might provide some actual tension and fear. Just know that they arrive, hover and wreak havoc in a series of waves: a devastating electromagnetic pulse, followed by earthquakes and tsunamis (with tidal wave effects that look pretty cheesy), then an avian flu, then snipers, I think …? People get shot.

(My 6-year-old son, who’s sitting next to me as I write this, just asked: “Why are there five waves? Why don’t the aliens just do it all in one?” It’s a legitimate question.)

Anyway, the fifth wave is coming. And the military (which suspiciously has working vehicles and dramatic overhead lighting out of “Dr. Strangelove”) needs children to help fight the battle. The cute football player Cassie had a crush on before the arrival of The Others, as the aliens become known, is among their most promising soldiers: Robinson’s Ben Parish, whose code name is Zombie. The group’s other bad-ass is a fierce young woman known as Ringer (Maika Monroe from the great “It Follows”), who somehow finds time each day to apply thick, black eyeliner, even though the world could end at any moment.

Cassie’s story runs parallel as she struggles to find her brother, Sam, whom the military has taken to an air force base for tiny soldier training. For a regular and rather sheltered girl, she figures out how to use a high-powered rifle and hide in the wilderness pretty quickly. (And her hair always looks amazing.) She also happens to get rescued by the handsomest farm boy imaginable: Roe’s Evan Walker. There are many moments in “The 5th Wave” that made me and my fellow critics giggle from the back row of the theater, but the one that made us cackle hysterically occurred when Cassie stumbled upon Evan enjoying an early-morning bath in the river. As she surreptitiously spies on him from behind a tree, he turns around to reveal ridiculously sculpted pecs and abs. Amid all the alien-hiding and girl-rescuing, Evan clearly found time to hit the gym.

The true enemy here isn’t too difficult to discern. The massively versatile Schreiber, who improves every film in which he appears, can’t do much with his under-written role as the commanding colonel calling the shots. But perhaps we’ll learn more about him — and come to truly fear him — in the inevitable sequel.

Post Date Jan 22 — The Boy

The Boy Movie ReviewJanuary continues unabated with “The Boy,” a horror movie which was not shown to critics before opening day. It’s about a young woman who takes a job as a nanny for an 8-year-old boy at a towering, Gothic estate in the English countryside, only to find out that the boy isn’t really a boy at all, but rather a doll whom the parents treat like an actual boy. Sounds super creepy, right? It’s actually pretty silly. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jan 15 — In the Shadow of Women

In the Shadow of Women Movie ReviewMy first review of 2016 is of “In the Shadow of Women,” the latest from French New Wave veteran Philippe Garrel. Given that it’s January, I’d say I lucked out big-time. Garrel may not be saying anything terribly new about infidelity, but he’s saying it in lush black and white and with strong performances. Enjoy.

Read the review here

Post Date Jan 14

Oscar Nominations 2016

The Revenant Movie ReviewSo it’s Oscar nomination day, an annual event I always looked forward to back when I had a day job. The announcement comes super-early — 5:38 a.m. Pacific time, to be exact, all the better to take advantage of morning TV news programs — but everyone’s in a good mood at the Academy headquarters in Beverly Hills, jacked up on a potent combination of caffeine and adrenaline. Now that I’m a citizen of the world, I watch the nominations in my jammies from the comfort of my own home but I still set the alarm. I still care.

Last year, I cared a LOT. Like, I was outraged. This year, my reaction is a bit of a shrug. Nothing thrills me, nothing surprises me and — except for a few notable snubs — nothing shocks me. “The Revenant,” Alejandro Gonzalaz Inarritu’s artfully brutal revenge tale, leads everyone with 12 nominations. I fear it is the juggernaut following its big Golden Globes wins, and that cheering for a smaller, smarter movie like “Spotlight” is futile. It seems Inarritu and his frequent cinematographer, the brilliant Emmanuel Lubezki, will do it again, one year after “Birdman,” which I loved. “The Revenant,” by comparison, is technically awesome but it left me cold. (No pun intended.)

The most dismayingly predictable trend is the overwhelming homogeneity of the nominees. #OscarsSoWhite will, unfortunately, be a phenomenon once again this year. All 20 of the acting nominees are white, which hasn’t happened since … well, since last year. Hard to believe there’s no room for Michael B. Jordan, who was electrifying in “Creed,” or Idris Elba, who was chilling in “Beasts of No Nation.” Or Oscar Isaac in “Ex Machina.” Or Benicio Del Toro in “Sicario.” Maybe that’s a matter of studio campaigning — or lack thereof — although Jordan’s “Creed” co-star, Sylvester Stallone, was nominated and surely will win the supporting-actor prize for reprising his iconic role of Rocky Balboa.

Straight Outta Compton Movie Review

It’s hard to believe there was little room for the excellent “Straight Outta Compton” aside from its original-screenplay nomination — and the screenplay isn’t even the best element of the film. The story of N.W.A. is a rather traditional music biopic which absolutely soars thanks to F. Gary Gray’s thrilling direction and powerful performances from its convincing, young cast. Someone asked me on Twitter last night whether I expected any big shockers among the nominations, and I suggested that “Straight Outta Compton” might get a best-picture nomination. Silly me.

Anyway, Chris Rock will have a field day with this when he hosts the Academy Awards on Feb. 28, and I cannot wait. He brought a much-needed edge when he hosted the ceremony back in 2005, and his biting brand of humor will be entirely necessary again this year.

The contenders for the top prize — eight films out of a possible 10 spots — are mostly your usual suspects, including “Bridge of Spies” and “The Big Short.” The inclusion of “Room,” which wrecked me, is a nice surprise, as is Lenny Abrahamson’s spot amid the best-director field. I am, of course, thrilled that “Mad Max: Fury Road” did so well, with 10 nominations total. It’s the best movie of the year, I say. But it would have been nice to see an “Inside Out,” or an “Ex Machina,” or a “Creed” among the bunch — something a little less safe and obvious than the latest impeccably made but innocuous Steven Spielberg movie. “Carol” is just devastatingly gorgeous but didn’t make it into the picture or director fields for the masterful Todd Haynes. (Those films did receive nominations elsewhere, however, so I’m welcome to quit bitching now.)

Carol Movie Review

“Carol” earned expected nominations for the beautiful work from co-stars Cate Blanchett (in best actress) and Rooney Mara (in supporting actress). I’d argue that Mara has just as much of a lead role, as does Alicia Vikander in “The Danish Girl,” although she, too, received a nomination in the supporting category. But I suppose it’s the like year Jennifer Connelly won the supporting-actress Oscar for “A Beautiful Mind,” although she was completely Russell Crowe’s equal. It’s about strategy.

Also in the best-actress category, I’m giddy about the inclusion of the radiant Charlotte Rampling for “45 Years,” the first-ever nomination for the British veteran. I suspect Brie Larson in “Room” or Saoirse Ronan in “Brooklyn” will win instead, but any of those outcomes would be lovely.

Some other random thoughts:

–How is it possible that “The Martian” received seven nominations, including best picture and best actor for Matt Damon, but not one for Ridley Scott’s direction? Yes, there are only five spots, and so inevitably some of the best-picture directors are going to be excluded, but this omission seems really glaring. “The Martian” is a masterful mix of technology and tone, science-fiction and comedy. It’s massive in scope yet intimately detailed. And it didn’t direct itself.

The Martian Movie Review

— It was also a big surprise to see Aaron Sorkin left out of the screenplay category for his work on “Steve Jobs,” even though the actors tasked with delivering his densely-packed dialogue — Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet — did receive nominations today.

— As I mentioned earlier in discussing “The Revenant,” Lubezki once again received a nomination in a competitive cinematography field. He’ll probably win again — and deservedly so, given the arduousness of the shoot and his awe-inspiring use of natural light. But man, can the great Roger Deakins ever catch a break? If you’ve read my writing over the years, you know that Deakins is my hero. His inspired work on “Sicario” earned him his 13th nomination. He’ll win one of these years — but not this year.

— But you know what’s already a winner? “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Laugh now at how silly and tawdry it was, but for all of eternity it will be the Academy Award-nominated “Fifty Shades of Grey,” thanks to the original song “Earned It” by The Weeknd. The day after it tied for the most Razzie nominations, it’s now in the hunt for an Oscar.