Post Date Apr 17 — Monkey Kingdom

Monkey Kingdom Movie ReviewBehold, the irresistible cuteness of the macaque monkeys frolicking about a Sri Lankan jungle in the latest Disneynature documentary. But beware: Some of the situations are clearly staged and manipulated. Your kids won’t mind, though. Mine didn’t. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Apr 16

Revisiting Paul Blart: Mall Cop

Tonight, I will take my 5 1/2-year-old son to see “Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2.” (He’ll enjoy the pratfalls. Please don’t call Child Protective Services on me.) Sony wouldn’t screen it for review before opening day, so we’re going to a 7:30pm showing with a bunch of my critic friends at The Grove. Because I am a professional, dammit, I went back and looked up my review of the inexplicably successful “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” which made over $183 million worldwide in 2009. I couldn’t recall what I thought of the Kevin James comedy beyond “it sucked.” So maybe this will be helpful for you, too, if you choose to do your own Blart prep.

Columbia Pictures
Rated PG for some violence, mild crude and suggestive behavior, and language.
Running time: 87 minutes.
One star out of four.

The biggest crime of all in “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” is not the bank heist that goes down at a New Jersey mall on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. Rather, it’s the egregious way in which Kevin James’ innate likability goes to waste.

The “King of Queens” star showed he could play an underdog with some sweetness and depth as a lovesick accountant in the 2005 romantic comedy “Hitch” — and he practically stole the movie away from Will Smith. This time, he plays yet another misfit, but one who’s so two-dimensional, needy and (frankly) annoying that it’s difficult to root for him.

Trouble is, James himself created the character: “I just love this guy,” he says in the film’s production notes. He’ll probably be one of the precious few who do.

James’ Paul Blart is a portly pushover who tries hard to be the tough guy as a shopping center security guard. Hypoglycemic and woefully out of shape, he’s failed the New Jersey state trooper exam eight times; nevertheless, he squeezes into his polyester uniform and takes his job as seriously as if he were out keeping the highways safe from speeders and drunk drivers. (His vehicle, by the way, is a Segway, which is repeatedly played for laughs but isn’t particularly amusing the first time.)

In an anemic take off on “Die Hard,” Paul gets his chance to prove himself when a bunch of skateboarding, bike-riding, X-Games refugees infiltrate the mall with plans to rob the bank, taking a few hostages in the process. One of them is Amy (Jayma Mays), the wide-eyed salesgirl at the hair extension kiosk, for whom Paul has the geeky hots. He awkwardly tries to woo her with boring trivia tidbits, which is meant to be endearing; instead it’s yet another conceit that quickly grows wearisome in the script from James and his longtime writing partner, Nick Bakay.

Paul bumbles his way around and manages to thwart the bad guys, one by one, with his in-depth knowledge of the shopping center’s intricacies as well as a borrowed pink, sparkly cell phone that allows him to connect with cops on the outside. Their leader is the sniveling Veck (Keir O’Donnell, who played tortured artist Todd in “Wedding Crashers”), who took a job as a security guard trainee under Paul’s tutelage to learn the way the mall works.

This being a Happy Madison Production — Adam Sandler is James’ friend and domestic partner from “I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry” — there are, of course, plenty of obligatory adolescent sight gags to go along with the man-child hero fantasies, all of them flatly staged and observed by director Steve Carr (“Dr. Dolittle 2,” “Daddy Day Care”).

Surprisingly, though, given our would-be hero’s girth and the physical humor that goes along with it, “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” has a soft spot for fat people. In an early dinner-table scene with his mother and young daughter, the single dad smears peanut butter on top of a slice of blueberry pie mere moments after finishing his meal. “Go away, pain,” he says quietly to himself as he prepares to savor his favorite comfort food.

It’s a rare moment of believable humanity. You couldn’t buy another one here if you tried.

Post Date Apr 11

The Longest Ride

The Longest Ride Movie Review20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some sexuality, partial nudity, and some war and sports action.
Running time: 128 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

Movies based on Nicholas Sparks novels are low-hanging fruit. With their patented formula of painfully earnest romance and melodrama, they are easy to chew up and spit out. They exist in a glistening parallel universe where the impossible isn’t just possible but expected. They are a genre unto themselves.

But! Despite the urge to tool on them, sometimes they do exactly what they need to do to please their target audience. “The Notebook” is, of course, the gold standard. “Safe Haven” was entertaining enough for its gorgeous leads (Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough) and its batshit-crazy twist. But “The Longest Ride” is pretty darn tolerable — and sometimes even enjoyable — not just for fans but also for regular people who are, you know, cynical.

Director George Tillman Jr. (“Notorious,” “Faster”) might not seem like the obvious choice for a Sparks movie, but he brings some artistry and energy to these gooey, overlong proceedings while maintaining the elements we’ve come to expect. (Craig Bolotin wrote the script.) They include any or all of the following: kissing in the rain, magical old people, generation-spanning romance, cancer, death, the North Carolina coast, a box full of important stuff, letters that explain everything and a climactic shocker that changes whatever you’ve just seen.

“The Longest Ride,” the 10th Sparks novel to make it to the screen, is extremely Sparksian but also quite agreeable thanks to the easy chemistry of its attractive leads. Scott Eastwood stars as a hunky professional bull rider named Luke Collins. In his first major film role, Eastwood bears an eerie physical resemblance to his dad, Clint, back in his “Rawhide” days — the eyes, the smile and the slightly raspy voice but also the magnetic screen presence. He acquits himself just fine here; like the film as a whole, Eastwood does exactly what he needs to do, which includes frequently appearing shirtless. But I’m gonna go ahead and play devil’s advocate and say this is relevant to reveal the serious scars he’s acquired from years of participating in such a dangerous sport, and not just shameless eye candy.

Perky, blonde Britt Robertson co-stars as Sophia Danko, a senior art history major at Wake Forest University whose sorority sisters drag her to a rodeo one afternoon. (Melissa Benoist, who had such a natural presence as Miles Teller’s brief love interest in “Whiplash,” goes underused as her best friend.) There, Sophia meets cute with the scruffy, sweaty Luke; afterward, the two flirt outside a honky tonk while their friends drunkenly line dance inside.

But Sophia is reluctant to launch into a new romance since she’s leaving in two months for an internship at a New York City art gallery. Still, she can’t resist Luke’s old-fashioned, cowboy charms, which include picking her up at the sorority house in tight jeans and a hat with a handful of flowers, then driving her in his pickup truck to a lakeside barbecue picnic by lantern light. Seriously, this guy is too good to be true — which extends to his heroism when he notices on the way home that a car has gone through a railing on a winding, rain-soaked road. Luke pulls the driver out while Sophia retrieves the crucial box of historical items which will provide the backbone of the film’s era-spanning structure.

Turns out the gentleman is Ira Levinson, a World War II veteran with plenty of stories to tell — all of which he’s conveniently already put down in writing in the form of love letters to his dear, departed wife, Ruth. Alan Alda brings gravitas, wisdom and wry, sly humor to the role simply by showing up and being Alan Alda. His presence alone makes the improbable friendship that develops between Ira and Sophia almost believable.

Sophia returns to his hospital room day after day and gives him the strength to recover by reading his letters out loud to him — only the narration comes from Ira himself, and it seems that he’s written these letters to Ruth to recap important events in their lives mere moments after they’ve occurred. It’s as if he got into the car after a big date, pulled out some stationery and started scribbling away in the front seat. Very confusing — and contrived.

However, the letters provide a window into the thrilling romance he enjoyed in the 1940s as a young man (played by Jack Huston, grandson of John) with the young Ruth (Oona Chaplin, granddaughter of Charlie — this is a seriously pedigreed picture). Cosmically, the flashbacks reveal stages and struggles in their decades-old relationship which mirror what Luke and Sophia are experiencing now. And they’re far more engaging than the story that takes place in the present day, with far greater stakes. Ira was a small-town North Carolina boy. He quickly fell for Ruth, who’d fled with her Austrian Jewish family just before the war, and awkwardly tried to chat her up at temple. (“The Longest Ride” is, like all Sparks fare, super white, but at least the religious diversity is refreshing.)

Like Sophia, Ruth was an art lover, with an impeccable eye for the mid-century, abstract expressionist masters: Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning. (It’s a connection which obviously will become relevant later, which is not the slightest bit of a spoiler.) Chaplin is radiant as the vibrant, sophisticated Ruth, and she has a lovely chemistry with Huston, whose timeless good looks make him a great fit for this kind of period drama. If only the entire film could have been about them — but alas, we have to return to the modern-day story, where Luke and Sophia frolic on horseback before frolicking in the shower. The leering is all very tastefully lighted.

But the forced conflict which keeps them apart is rather flimsy and obviously navigable. Will Luke give up the life of a bull rider before it kills him? Will Sophia figure out a way to sell overpriced art while still attending to the needs of her heart? You don’t need to have seen a single Sparks movie before — or any movie, for that matter — to figure out the answer to those questions.

Post Date Apr 10 — Dior and I

Dior and I Movie ReviewYou don’t have to know a thing about fashion to appreciate the hard work and longtime devotion on display in this intimate documentary. Director Frederic Tcheng goes behind the scenes as the new creative director at Christian Dior, Raf Simons, puts together his first haute couture show — in just eight weeks. If you’re fascinated by process (as I am), this is the movie for you. My review.

Read the review here


Post Date Apr 6

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief Movie ReviewHBO Documentary Films
Running time: 119 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The building you see in the photo above is the headquarters of the Church of Scientology of Los Angeles. Painted a glaring shade of periwinkle, with a blindingly bright, Las Vegas-style marquee out front, it is an unavoidable landmark along a busy stretch of Sunset Boulevard.

But before that, for nearly 50 years, it was Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, where I was born in 1972. Now, this is not how it looked when I (and several of my friends) entered this world. The building had a much more understated presence. But its glitzy transformation is an ideal representation of the church’s penchant for theatricality and self-aggrandizement, as well as the firm status it enjoys in Hollywood.

That status has been eroding somewhat in recent years, however, as evidenced by writer-director Alex Gibney’s documentary “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.” Several longtime, high-profile members have fled and come forward with shocking tales of brainwashing and abuse. They include Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning director of “Crash,” whose candor in a scathing 2011 New Yorker article inspired Lawrence Wright’s 2013 expose, which inspired Gibney’s film.

If you’ve read any of this, or followed Scientology with morbid fascination over the years like I have, or even seen quick clips of Tom Cruise chatting and laughing maniacally in promotional videos, you have an idea of what’s in store for you here. Gibney has proven that he’s notoriously thorough in films like “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room” (2005) and his Oscar-winning “Taxi to the Dark Side” (2007), to the extent that watching them makes you feel as if you’re cramming for a final exam. While he doesn’t really uncover much that’s new in “Going Clear,” the way he’s collected and assembled testimonials, documents and archival footage creates a cumulative effect that’s chilling.

Watching decades-old clips of Scientology founder/pulp sci-fi writer L. Ron Hubbard, with this fluffy, blonde hair, nautical attire, ascots and ever-present cigarettes makes Paul Thomas Anderson’s bold and brilliant “The Master” seem even more disquieting in retrospect. The late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman just nailed this enterprising and capricious figure. But Hubbard was also a charismatic leader — and he recognized the power of drawing celebrities into the fold to spread the word about his new religion. “Going Clear” goes into great detail about the involvement of its highest-profile members, Cruise and John Travolta, as well as the perks they’ve enjoyed over the years for serving as glamorous ambassadors to the masses.

But the most powerful recollections come from former members who aren’t movie stars, but rather regular folks who came looking for answers and got sucked into a way of life that makes no sense. Mark “Marty” Rathbun, a former senior executive who left the church in 2004, recalls how he helped facilitate the break-up of Cruise’s nearly decade-long marriage to Nicole Kidman because she supposedly was pulling Cruise away from the church. (Meanwhile, Rathbun’s wife, who’s not a Scientologist, has filed a lawsuit against the church charging harassment, some of which we see in a startling ambush scene.)

Mike Rinder, a longtime spokesman for the church who left in 2007, readily admits to lying in interviews and concealing information from the press. Rinder describes the dogged way in which the church targets and tracks journalists who dare scrutinize Scientology. And he reveals frightening details about a place known as “The Hole,” where members are sent for punishment for perceived transgressions. (Naturally, the church denies all these allegations. Just as telling is the list at the film’s end of Scientology higher-ups who refused to share their side, despite Gibney’s repeated requests.)

These people and many others may have reached various levels of “clear” during their time as devotees, but what’s so eye-opening is the clarity they have achieved in retrospect — the way they shake their heads in shame for fervently following a religion based on the notion that a galactic overlord named Xenu had frozen bodies dumped into volcanoes to thin the population. There’s some amusement, too, at some of the more ridiculous and over-the-top ways in which members celebrate their faith, from lavish stage spectacles with fascist overtones to a “We Are the World”-style music video for an insanely catchy 1990 tune called “We Stand Tall.” Just try to get this song our of your head — and please enjoy the high-quality production values.

But for all the meticulous investigative effort that went into making “Going Clear” the bombshell that it is, the film also features some curiously glaring omissions. Shelly Miscavige, wife of church leader David Miscavige, reportedly hasn’t been seen in public since 2006; not only is the mystery of her whereabouts never mentioned, neither is her name, period. (Gibney has said that he wanted to dig deep on a few topics rather than touch lightly on many, but this one seems like a biggie to leave out.) And speaking of wives, the name Katie Holmes is never mentioned, either, despite the strange personality transformation she underwent en route to becoming Cruise’s wife and Suri’s mother. (Holmes divorced Cruise in 2012 after nearly six years of marriage.)

Family, though, ultimately is what gives “Going Clear” its final emotional gut punch, as former members sadly recall relatives and loved ones “disconnecting” from them because the church deemed them “suppressive persons,” or “SPs.” (LRH’s church loves its abbreviation-heavy jargon.) For all the splashy revelations included here which will seem shocking to viewers who might not be in the know, these quiet reflections of loneliness carry the most power of all.