Post Date Aug 10

Fantastic Four

20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence, and for language.
Running time: 106 minutes.
One star out of four.

So we just got back from a two-week East Coast sweep — Montreal, Vermont, New Hampshire, Boston and back up again — wherein I believe I ate all of the lobster. All of it. There’s none left. (Sorry for that.) And I promised myself I wouldn’t work at all while we were away, to the extent that I actually made the bold decision to leave my laptop at home — hence, you haven’t seen anything new on here in a couple of weeks. (Sorry for that, too.)

But it was impossible to avoid the developing debacle that was “Fantastic Four.” Watching the reviews pop up in my Facebook and Twitter feeds and seeing the number steadily drop on Rotten Tomatoes (where it’s currently hovering above the ground around 9 percent) provided a morbid fascination. How bad could this movie possibly be? The cavalcade of criticism actually made me want to see it more — so much so that I tried to persuade Nicolas, who’s almost 6 and obsessed with all things Marvel, to come with me to a matinee in Montreal. Seeing it in French and not understanding it could only be an improvement, right?

He wouldn’t bite — but playing catch-up once we returned to Los Angeles was one of our top priorities yesterday, alongside grocery shopping and laundry. I hate to pile on at this point because that just seems needless. Clearly, this movie is terrible on multiple fronts and a case study of soulless summer spectacle gone wrong. But I wanted to share a few thoughts:

— The beginning holds promise. When young, nerdy Reed Richards (Owen Judge) and young, scruffy Ben Grimm (Evan Hannemann) are tooling around in Reed’s garage back in 2007, making a teleportation device out of scraps from Ben’s family’s junk heap, there’s a youthful sense of wonder and possibility that’s intriguing — not unlike the one that infused director Josh Trank’s high-school sci-fi flick “Chronicle.” You get the feeling this is what Trank was talking about in that ill-advised, now-deleted tweet in which he criticized 20th Century Fox for not releasing the movie he’d envisioned.

— But then the script is really flimsy. (Trank shares credit with Jeremy Slater and Simon Kinberg.) You never get a firm grasp on who these four characters are, either before or after they get zapped by whatever it is they come into contact with in another dimension. Even trying to describe them in the most basic terms proves difficult. Reed (Miles Teller) is smart and … socially awkward? Sue Storm (Kate Mara) is smart and … likes music? Her brother, Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan), is smart and … reckless? Grown-up Ben (Jamie Bell) is even tougher to pin down. He might be smart. He’s basically just Reed’s best friend, who makes the mistake of answering the phone in the middle of the night when Reed calls and says: “Hey, let’s go jump into this machine I made with some pals from school.”

— And the actors don’t get to do much. Just as elusive as who these people are is how they feel about their new-found superpowers. Thrilled? Scared? Angry? They’re changed eternally — which, in theory, is kind of a big deal — and they never take a moment to work through that. Hell, Ben is now a walking, talking, 500-pound pile of rocks known as The Thing, but it’s not even clear whether the actor playing him also provides his voice. (Poor Bell really fares the worst of the four.) Jordan, the “Fruitvale Station” star who could not be more charismatic, turns ironically cold and flat once he becomes the Human Torch. Teller has shown daring and range in a variety of roles in recent years, most notably the Oscar-winning “Whiplash,” but he gets saddled with some of the clunkiest expository lines once he turns into the twisty Mr. Fantastic. And Mara truly is relegated to playing The Girl. After designing the team’s clothing, her primary function as the Invisible Woman is to stand there with her hands outstretched in a bubble, looking as if she’s straining to break free, and do you blame her?

— Which brings us to the special effects. Which aren’t exactly special. They’re actually laughably cheesy, bordering on “Zardoz” levels of low-tech simplicity. This is especially true during the big, climactic. battle between the Fantastic Four and the possessed Dr. Doom (Toby Kebbell), their former colleague turned glowing, green goon. That battle, by the way, provides not the slightest thrill or bit of suspense; it’s an action sequences that feels tacked on and slapped together. The fate of the world is at stake, we are told, but it’s totally unclear what’s happening, how the characters got here or how they fix it. This is the moment that’s supposed to send us all out with a bang, but it’s more of a shrug.

Even my kid — who was all excited about the “Fantastic Four,” having played the Lego Marvel Superheroes video game — knew he’d seen something empty and unsatisfying. As we were walking through the lobby afterward, I asked him:

“Did you like it?”

“Yeah,” Nic said, rather unconvincingly.

“Was it scary?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“How come?”

“‘Cause they defeated Dr. Doom really easily.”

Maybe we should have seen it in French after all.

Post Date Jul 24

Paper Towns

Paper Towns Movie Review20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity — all involving teens.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

“Paper Towns” is a movie that I really liked, but I probably would have loved if I’d seen it when I was 13. If it had come out when I was in high school, I would have felt like it was speaking directly to me, with its mixture of angst and restlessness, romance and melancholy.

It actually reminds me a lot of the movies I loved best back in the ’80s: those of the late, great, John Hughes. It’s a comparison I don’t make lightly. Based on the novel by John Green (and, mercifully, not a shameless weepy like his mega-best seller “The Fault in Our Stars”), director Jake Schreier’s film features all those classic teen-movie tropes. You’ve got members of a rigid social hierarchy stripping away their notions of each other, neighbors who climb into each others’ bedrooms through upstairs windows, late-night deep discussions and even the raging party at the rich, popular jock’s mansion. (Oh, and the most important part of all: a near-total lack of parental involvement.)

As a grown-ass person who’s seen a lot of movies in my life, I recognize all these elements and find them kind of derivative, albeit charmingly executed. What makes “Paper Towns” really work is the chemistry between its stars — all of whom get the opportunity, at one point or another, to say just the right poignant thing at just the right time. As in “The Fault in Our Stars,” which screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber also adapted, these kids are hyper-verbal and self-aware. And that’s OK — because that’s a crucial part of this particular kind of teen movie, too.

This is especially true of Cara Delevingne’s beguiling and mysterious central character, Margo. With her husky voice and quirky demeanor, the Victoria’s Secret model-turned-actress is essentially doing Emma Stone doing a manic pixie dream girl — or at least, that’s what the calculated mythology surrounding her character would suggest. Confident Margo moved in across the street from the sweetly geeky Quentin (a warm and deeply authentic Nat Wolff) when they were kids in suburban Orlando, Florida, and they became instant friends out of sheer proximity, if nothing else. Now they’re seniors in high school running in very different circles. Quentin remains sweetly geeky, but Margo has become even more of a force of nature: the rebellious and impossibly popular cool girl.

One night, though, she climbs through his window like old times and recruits him to help her with an elaborate revenge mission. Inherently cautious, but recognizing that this could be one of those Nights That Change Everything — and pathetically in love with Margo — he says yes to her meticulous itinerary of breaking and entering, vandalism, bodily harm and humiliation. It is indeed the Night That Changes Everything for Quentin. Then the next morning, Margo is gone.

And this is actually the point at which “Paper Towns” becomes more compelling. The self-consciousness of Margo and Quentin’s analytical banter — she’s the one who gives the film its title in a monologue about superficiality — gives way to legitimate self-discovery in her absence. In true manic pixie dream girl fashion, reminiscent of the journey Kirsten Dunst sets Orlando Bloom on at the end of “Elizabethtown,” Margo leaves a series of clues for Quentin as to her whereabouts. A scavenger hunt around town evolves into a road trip to upstate New York, but what gives this adventure both smarts and heart is the fact that Quentin brings his two best friends with him.

We’d gotten appealing glimmers of trash-talking Ben (Austin Abrams) and self-serious Radar (Justice Smith) leading up to this trip as they walk down the halls, chat in the band room or play video games at Quentin’s house. But the loveliness of their friendship and the effortlessness of their chemistry truly shines once they band together for this mission. All three are distinctly drawn and don’t feel like wacky adolescent types. They’re smart but also sensitive, and fiercely loyal to the others in a way they’re not afraid to show.

Also along for the ride are a couple of welcome and well-acted female figures: the beautiful and popular Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo’s best friend who’s desperate to know what’s become of her; and the strong-willed, no-nonsense Angela (Jaz Sinclair), Radar’s girlfriend, with whom he hopes to lose his virginity on prom night. (Ah yes, another teen-movie staple: prom, which is fraught with expectation and disappointment.)

Again, you may think you’ve seen all this before — and you have — but since we’re discussing cliches here, the journey truly is the destination, and this one may not necessarily head in all the directions you’d expect.

Post Date Jul 24

RogerEbert.com — Unexpected

Unexpected Movie ReviewThe premise may sound like something you’d see on the Lifetime channel: An inner-city high school teacher finds out she’s pregnant at the same time as her star student. But director and co-writer Kris Swanberg’s execution is warm, funny and understated. And the two lead actresses — Cobie Smulders and Gail Bean — are great together. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jul 22

Ant-Man

Ant-Man Movie ReviewWalt Disney Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The end of the world isn’t nigh, for once, in “Ant-Man.”

Sure, there are stakes. This is a summer blockbuster, after all. It has to make us care about something of consequence. But the overwhelming, self-serious sense that we are watching something Very Important blissfully doesn’t exist in “Ant-Man.” It’s just plain fun: light, breezy, simple and enjoyable. Aside from the original “Iron Man” from 2008, which had the benefit of Robert Downey Jr. cracking wise in the title role for the first time, this is the most purely entertaining film yet from the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It’s especially a joy to watch just a couple months after “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which was overloaded with characters, subplots, bad guys and twists. And yet, director Peyton Reed’s film, based on a script by a whole buncha people (including Edgar Wright, who initially was set to direct, and the film’s star, Paul Rudd), repeatedly reminds you that it is part of a larger Marvel world. The in-jokes and cameos from other characters and stories are amusing if you get them, but if you don’t, they’re not so prevalent or cutesy as to be off-putting. However meager “Ant-Man” may seem, it definitely functions as the glue between Marvel movies we’ve seen already seen and ones to come. Everything is of a piece within the MCU,  of course — hence the tricky little teasers that come during the closing credits, which compel us to stay in our seats for a few moments longer rather than dashing off to the bathroom.

As the diminutive comic-book hero of the film’s title, Rudd is his usual, likable everyman, but he’s also charming enough to figure his way in and out of every situation. He’s not as flat-out funny, per se, as he has been traditionally in movies like “I Love You, Man” or “Knocked Up,” but that’s also not exactly his purpose here. This is a heist movie. He is a master thief — but a boyishly handsome and decent-hearted one. My good friend and What the Flick?! co-host Alonso Duralde suggested when we reviewed “Ant-Man” on the show that Rudd’s charisma is drained here as much as Chris Pratt’s is in “Jurassic World.” I’d say it’s not that bad. It’s just a different vibe from him: lower-key, but no less sharp.

When we first see Rudd’s Scott Lang, he’s being released from San Quentin State Prison (with a memorable send-off from his fellow inmates). He’s spent time behind bars for an elaborate and high-tech theft; now, he’s struggling to rebuild his life in San Francisco and prove to his ex-wife (Judy Greer in yet another thankless mom role) and young daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) that he can be a reliable force for good in their lives.

The job he ends up taking, though, is one he never possibly could have expected. The brilliant professor Hank Pym (a touching and wise Michael Douglas, whom we first see as an uncanny, 1989 version of himself) wants Scott to break into his former headquarters and steal the magical shrinking serum he created to keep it from falling into the wrong hands: namely, those of his protege (an oily Corey Stoll), who once was full of promise but now is a greedy megalomaniac. You know, the usual. The heist requires Scott to wear the sleek and mercilessly snug suit and helmet Hank created and once wore himself long ago, which makes the inhabitant instantly tiny with the press of a button.

Hank recruits Scott to get in the suit, get small, get in and get out. But Hank’s daughter, the equally brilliant Hope (Evangeline Lilly), also wants a chance to prove she can be the ant and is willing to fight Scott, physically, for the right to climb inside the costume. Lilly gets to do little more here than spar disapprovingly with Rudd while wearing crisp suits and a sharp bob, and any kind of romantic connection the two characters might have is tenuous at best. But — spoiler, kinda — there is the suggestion that more is in store for Hope in the near future.

While the montages are amusing as Scott masters the art of size-shifting, with hit-and-miss results, the action sequences have a real zest and visual panache once he learns to work side by side with the various other high-tech ants Hank has trained. And once he really gets the hang of manipulating the suit and kicking all kinds of pint-size ass, his thrills are infectious. Reed might seem like an incredibly odd choice to direct an effects-laden summer blockbuster based on his filmography — “Bring It On,” “Down With Love,” “The Break-Up” — but he’s got a solid script to work from and he gets the pacing and comic timing just right. His staging of the film’s first actual break-in — at Hank’s house, actually — offers a clever bit of clockwork precision, and several sight gags provide scattered laughs throughout.

As part of the random supporting cast — which includes John Slattery, Bobby Cannavale and T.I. — the always-reliable Michael Pena co-stars as the friend who picks Scott up from prison and gives him a place to stay in the city. He may seem at first like an offensive Hispanic stereotype, but some slyly edited flashbacks reveal his cultured tastes and flesh him out. His character is a great example of what makes “Ant-Man” work so well: You may think you know where it’s going, but it keeps surprising you in ways both big and small.

Post Date Jul 17

RogerEbert.com — Trainwreck

Trainwreck Movie Review“Trainwreck” is anything but. It’s a great showcase for Amy Schumer’s distinctive and biting comic voice, but it’s also an opportunity for her to explore unexpected dramatic range. And it’s the first Judd Apatow movie that’s ever made my cry. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jul 12

Minions

Minions Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated PG for action and rude humor.
Running time: 91 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

We are a Minion-friendly household around here.

My 5-year-old son, Nicolas, loves the Minions so much, he thinks he actually IS one. We’ve been on the “Despicable Me” ride at Universal Studios more times than I can count. (It is kind of a blast, though.) We have Minion stuffed toys, Minion books, the “Minion Rush” iPad game, even Minion apple sauce (which tastes like tropical ba-na-nas).

So I was all in for “Minions,” a prequel to the “Despicable Me” movies, which explains the origins of these impish, yellow creatures and follows their quest to find the most evil villain to serve. It’s a clever idea, but it can only go so far before running out of steam. These guys are as silly and playful and hilariously inept as ever, but there’s not much to them. Fittingly, because they’re pill-shaped, the Minions work best in small doses.

The three goggle-eyed guys at the center of “Minions” — Kevin, Stuart and Bob — have distinct personalities, but there’s no “there” there to build an entire film around. And the super villain they work for this time doesn’t have the strength of character or the complexity of Steve Carell’s vaguely Eastern European baddie-turned-daddy, Gru.

I realize these are all the observations of a film critic, and a grown-ass person. Young kids, who truly are the target audience, won’t notice or care about any of this. They will laugh their heads off. Nicolas was cackling so hard, the veins in his neck were popping out. (His favorite part was when the three are stranded at sea and Stuart tries to eat Kevin in a hallucinatory fit of hunger.)

But first, we must go back to the dawn of time and the birth of the Minions. As Geoffrey Rush explains in a lengthy and amusing opening narration, the Minions have long sought to do the bidding of the baddest person they can find — although their earliest boss was a T. rex. Then there was a caveman, and Dracula, and Napoleon, but invariably, these crazy creatures screwed something up and had to move on. After decades of self-imposed exile in an ice cave — and the depression that resulted from a loss of purpose — one enterprising Minion, the tall and responsible Kevin, takes it upon himself to venture out and find a new big boss for the tribe to serve.

His traveling companions are the suave, ukelele-playing Stuart and the innocent, big-hearted Bob. Co-director Pierre Coffin voices all of these characters, as always, with a gibberishy mish-mosh of French, Spanish and who-knows-what. Words like “banana,” “papaya” and “pinata” appear frequently in their vocabulary, but I’ve gotta say, I understood a lot of what they were talking about.

After traveling over land and sea, they wind up in 1968 New York, and then in Orlando, Florida, for the annual Villain Con gathering of evildoers. (“Minions” just happens to be hitting theaters the same weekend Comic-Con is going on in San Diego. Coincidence?) There, they connect with the world’s first female super villain, the coifed and polished Scarlet Overkill, voiced with perky menace by Sandra Bullock. She’s entertaining at first, but eventually reveals herself to be shrill, one-note and off-putting as she unleashes her devious plan to steal Queen Elizabeth II’s crown and take over England. (Jon Hamm provides the voice of her mod husband and henchman, Herb Overkill.)

Journeying across the Atlantic leads to a bunch of really easy jokes about British culture, but also an impressive soundtrack of great ’60s hits by The Beatles, The Who, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix and more. (The makers of “Minions” spent an insane amount of money on music including, of course, Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.”)

Kevin, Stuart and Bob bumble and stumble their way through it all in their usual slapsticky fashion. But in retrospect, I can’t really recall a single joke or sight gag or action sequence that stands out above all the rest. Coffin and co-director Kyle Balda’s film, written by Brian Lynch, just kind of chugs along until it reaches its explosive conclusion, and then it ends. It’s cute. It’s OK. But it’s never great.

Your kids will probably love it, though. And you’ll wish you were watching “Inside Out” for the second time instead.

Post Date Jul 11

Tangerine

Tangerine Movie ReviewMagnolia Pictures
Rated R for strong and disturbing sexual content, graphic nudity, language throughout, and drug use.
Running time: 88 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

“Tangerine” is a great Los Angeles movie and a great indie and a great reminder of the possibilities of creativity during a time when everything is a sequel or a reboot or a comic-book spectacle.

The superheroes of Sean Baker’s film are fascinating, deeply flawed and outrageously funny. They are black transgender prostitutes, played by transgender actresses, and their mishaps and misadventures play out over a single day in a specific section of Hollywood. But what helps give Baker’s film a bracing sense of intimacy and immediacy is the fact that he shot it entirely on an iPhone camera. All of these elements added up might make “Tangerine” sound like a parody of an arthouse film — not unlike this year’s provocative “The Tribe,” a two-plus-hour drama about deaf students at a Ukrainian school, told entirely through sign language without subtitles.

But the use of this technology gives “Tangerine” a thrilling, fly-on-the-wall feeling — or, rather, a fly on the sidewalk. We are with these women every breathless step of the way as they pound the pavement in their neighborhood on Christmas Eve, visiting cheap restaurants, run-down strip malls, a seedy motel, a drag bar and a Laundromat. (And, miraculously, Baker and his team have made a movie about L.A. that’s totally accurate geographically. His characters walk in the right direction when they have a specific destination and travel on the right bus and subway lines, even getting off at the right stops. This third-generation Angeleno appreciates such attention to detail, because when this sort of thing is wrong, it’s totally distracting.)

First, though, we meet Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and her best friend, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), at their headquarters: the Donut Time at the corner of Santa Monica and Highland in Hollywood. (I can attest that Baker completely captures the colorful, ragtag vibe of this part of town; my son went to school two blocks up from Donut Time for the past three years.) Sin-Dee has just served a 28-day prison sentence, which should be reason to celebrate. But Alexandra accidentally informs her that her pimp/boyfriend, Chester (James Ransone, very funny in one wildly explosive late scene), has been cheating on her while she’s been behind bars. Adding insult to injury: He was messing around with a girl named Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), who happens to be white and anatomically female.

This sends Sin-Dee into a tizzy, an early indication of the intriguing contradictions Baker plans to explore in the script he co-wrote with Chris Bergoch. These are not nice women. These aren’t necessarily decent-hearted women. “Tangerine” has no interest in depicting these transgender characters as saints, martyrs or victims, but rather as real people: complicated, vulnerable, insecure, selfish and sometimes obnoxious. Their banter is lively, profane and infectious. Rodriguez and Taylor have such tremendous chemistry, they never make these women seem like flamboyant caricatures, but rather fully-formed human beings whose lives we’ve stepped into for the day.

Their dynamic consists of the brash Sin-Dee storming from place to place, pestering people for information about Chester’s whereabouts (and usually insulting them in the process), with the sophisticated Alexandra calmly tidying up after her and passing out flyers for her performance later that night at Hamburger Mary’s, a gay mainstay in the heart of West Hollywood.

A parallel storyline increasingly becomes intertwined with theirs. It follows an Armenian cabbie named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) as he drives around the neighborhood looking for fares. At first it seems as if the character merely exists to break up the moments between Sin-Dee and Alexandra’s antics, but his involvement eventually becomes clearer. A climactic showdown with his family — including his mother-in-law, wife and young child — goes way over the top, but Razmik is a great example of how there’s more than meets the eye with all these characters.

As the sun goes down and the hunt goes on, the possibilities for artistry with the iPhone camera reveal themselves in beautiful and surprising ways. The sky turns a deep and radiant orange, followed by cool purples, vibrantly capturing what a strangely hot and dry place L.A. can be at Christmastime. By comparison, though, the squalor of a drug den in a sleazy motel room is startlingly vivid.

After all the film’s raunchiness, profanity and abuse, though, “Tangerine” ends on an unexpectedly poignant note. The last shot is gorgeous and sweet and heartfelt — the perfect counterpoint to everything that came before it, and a moment of genuine emotion (and rare quiet) that feels earned.

Post Date Jul 10

Amy

Amy Movie ReviewA24 Films
Rated R for language and drug material.
Running time: 128 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

There’s a scene toward the end of “Amy,” the documentary about the dizzyingly quick rise and fall of Amy Winehouse, that provides a glimmer of hope, even though we’re constantly aware that her demise is inevitable.

It’s the night of the 2008 Grammy Awards, where the singer-songwriter would go on to win five prizes. She’s not at the ceremony itself, but rather at a private party back home in London, watching the glittering spectacle play out at 2 a.m. local time. Tony Bennett and Natalie Cole are reading off the nominees for Record of the Year, including her megahit “Rehab,” inspired by her struggles with substance abuse and her reluctance to get clean. When Bennett announces she’s won — her idol, of all the people in all the world — she stands on stage wide-eyed, stunned and speechless, perhaps for the first time in her life.

In this moment, Winehouse radiates a girlish giddiness, an innocence, similar to what we saw of her in home movies at the film’s start. You can just imagine a thought bubble over her head screaming: “OMG!!! Tony Bennett said my name!!!” And you can imagine what drew her to music in the first place. There’s a purity in her reaction and an irresistible sense of humanity. Yes, she’s a superstar, but also a music fan, just like us, first and foremost.

But soon afterward, there’s a return to her harsh reality, as was so often the case throughout the highs and lows of Winehouse’s life. One of her lifelong friends recalls Winehouse confiding in her backstage that night that she didn’t know how to be — that winning five Grammys without drugs was no fun.

And suddenly, the poppy, catchy “Rehab” — the tune that catapulted this working-class Jewish girl from North London to the kind of worldwide fame she never wanted — sounds like the saddest song ever written. Three years later, she’d be dead, the ravages of alcohol and drug abuse on her tiny body finally taking their toll at the magically tragic age 27.

First, though, we get to know that girl, whose charisma, musical gifts and singular style were evident from an early age, even while doing something as simple as singing “Happy Birthday to You” to one of her best friends at age 13.

Director Asif Kapadia had a wealth of archival footage to pull from; Winehouse happened to grow up in an era when cameras, and later smart phones, were cheap and ubiquitous. Similar to his 2011 documentary “Senna” — about another highly talented figure who enjoyed a brief but brilliant career, Brazilian Formula 1 driver Ayrton Senna — he weaves it all together in impressionistic wisps. Kapadia doesn’t rely on the typical talking heads, but rather provides glimpses into a life, with new interviews with friends and colleagues providing audio context.

The result is a mesmerizing yet devastating look at a singular talent. It’s an indictment, to be sure, of the people closest to her who enabled and exploited her, but also a heartbreaking reminder of what a gifted performer Winehouse was.

Editor Chris King seamlessly mixes home movies, behind-the-scenes video, stage performances and candid moments — everything from the mundane to the sublime, woven together through Winehouse’s music and often the lyrics themselves, which appear on screen before wafting away. It’s a powerful device because Winehouse wrote in such honest and vivid fashion about her life, her struggles, her mistakes. Hearing songs like “You Know I’m No Good” and “Love Is a Losing Game” is one thing. Seeing the words provides an emotionally raw road map to her eventual destruction.

First, though, we get the joy of seeing her in the early days, when she was a teenager with talent beyond her years. She was an old soul, clearly, but also an irrepressible and playful flirt. She knew how to work a room. She was magnetic. It’s also kind of fun to see her signature style evolve over the years from just a ponytail and eyeliner to the full-on tats, teased-up coif and retro-chic wardrobe.

It’s clear early on, as she’s writing, performing and recording more often and building an audience, that she’s doing it for the love of music and feels uncomfortable with the prospect of megafame. She’s funny, brash and intriguingly flawed, but also quite insecure, bulimic and prone to toxic, co-dependent relationships with men.

Two prime villains emerge. One is her father, Mitch Winehouse, who abandoned the family for another woman when Winehouse was 9 but returned once she achieved fame. He’s the inspiration behind the line: “I ain’t got the time/And if my daddy thinks I’m fine,” in “Rehab”; he wanted her out on the road, making money, rather than getting the help she clearly needed. Once she did get out of one of many stints in rehab, and sought peace with a few close friends on St. Lucia, Mitch Winehouse tellingly brought along a reality-show camera crew to document his supposed involvement in her rejuvenation. (Also tellingly, the family has disassociated itself with “Amy,” calling it inaccurate.)

The other is Blake Fielder-Civil, her on-again, off-again boyfriend and husband who hooked her not just on his love but on the drugs that eventually would kill her. One of the most frustrating parts of watching “Amy” is seeing her take Fielder-Civil back after the massive success of “Back to Black” — an album whose lyrics blister and burn with the heartache she suffered when he left her the first time. If there is any flaw to this beautiful film, it’s that it doesn’t quite connect the dots as to how all these reconciliations occurred.

Other men in her life are far more supportive, including her first manager, Nick Shymansky, and Mark Ronson, who produced “Back to Black.” Their love and respect for her talent — and their sense of grief — shine through. Even fleeting colleagues and friends have illuminating insights; The Roots’ drummer, Questlove, recalls what a hardcore geek Winehouse was for jazz and how she’d consistently stump him with the selections she’d share with him, even though he considers himself an aficionado.

Whether you’re a serious fan or merely knew her music in passing, “Amy” will make you see the woman and the artist through fresh, sad eyes.

Post Date Jul 10

RogerEbert.com — Strangerland

Strangerland Movie Review“Strangerland” is Nicole Kidman’s first Australian indie since 1989’s “Dead Calm.” It is beautifully shot and well-acted but relentlessly bleak. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Jul 1

Magic Mike XXL

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for strong sexual content, pervasive language, some nudity and drug use.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The abs are tight in the sequel “Magic Mike XXL” — and the pecs, and the thighs, and the asses — but the movie itself has a loose, shaggy vibe that has an appeal all its own.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: The male stripping sequences are hot. (If you’re into that kind of thing, that is. I’d probably react the way Amber Heard’s character does on stage during the movie’s splashy finale: just giggly and incredulous.) Much of the film’s joy comes from seeing it in a packed theater — all the better to laugh and squeal alongside hundreds of other straight women and gay men reveling in the spectacle of it all. It’s raining men, again, hallelujah.

But in between the bumping and grinding and shedding of clothing, the story meanders a bit. It takes its time. It’s a road trip movie with plenty of stops along the way for talking and learning and — shockingly — actual growth from its characters, and not just physically. When Steven Soderbergh directed the original “Magic Mike” from 2012 —  a surprise smash hit that made over $167 million worldwide — he was fascinated by the minutiae of these strippers’ (er, male entertainers’) lives. He lingered over the mundane details of their daily routine like weightlifting and thong shopping.

Soderbergh’s longtime first assistant director, Gregory Jacobs, gets the chance to direct the sequel, but the interest in process remains: where these guys get their inspiration, how they put together their routines, and most importantly, how they find their voices. Corny as it may sound, “Magic Mike XXL” is about a search for identity. Not to get all Oprah on you, but it’s about finding your purpose in life.

If you’re not a fireman or a police officer or a cowboy beneath those breakaway pants, then who are you, really? This is the central question of “Magic Mike XXL.”

Reid Carolin once again has written the script, and Soderbergh has shot and cut it using his usual pseudonyms, but this is a very different movie in a lot of ways from the original — starting with the absence of Matthew McConaughey as Dallas, the dancers’ spark and spiritual guide. (Alex Pettyfer, as The Kid who became Channing Tatum’s protege, also is gone). But maybe going in a different direction isn’t such a bad thing. In following up a couple of massive hits this year, “Pitch Perfect 2” and, to a certain extent, “Ted 2” played it safe by offering us nearly the exact same movie all over again. This at least dares to set its own tone, and risks being not as obviously crowd-pleasing and adored.

“Magic Mike XXL” picks up three years later, with Tatum’s titular character living in Florida and fulfilling his dream of running his own custom furniture company. When he gets the call from his fellow Kings of Tampa, asking him to join them as they journey to Myrtle Beach, S.C., for the annual Male Strippers Convention (and there is such a thing), he’s initially apprehensive. But one night, working in his shop, the beat of a hip-hop tune takes hold of him — and this is the first of the movie’s many giggle-and-gawk moments. If you’ve seen the original “Step Up” or the first “Magic Mike,” you know what a gifted dancer Tatum is — muscular, yet effortless. The moves he busts out are modern, yet the spontaneity behind them makes this scene feel like something out of an old-fashioned musical.

And so he says yes to Big Dick Richie (Joe Manganiello), pretty boy Ken (Matt Bomer), the hulking Tarzan (Kevin Nash) and the smooth Tito (Adam Rodriguez) for that tried-and-true one last show. They all hop into Tito’s traveling frozen yogurt truck with buddy Tobias (Gabriel Iglesias) behind the wheel and head north. Along the way, they vogue at an amateur drag show, amuse a sad convenience store cashier (with a truly inspired use of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way”) and party with strangers on the beach, including an unusually understated Heard as a photographer in flux. (Soderbergh lights the exchange between Tatum and Heard really daringly, though, with bold use of nighttime darkness to accentuate their eyes and cheekbones.)

But the most crucial stop of all happens in Savannah, Georgia, when they visit an old flame of Mike’s: the beautiful and fierce Rome (Jada Pinkett Smith), who now runs a members-only strip club for women inside an opulent, historic home. She addresses her clientele as queens, and preaches that they should have whatever they want from men, from life. You can practically see the light bulb go on over all these guys’ heads as they watch hugely charismatic performers — including Donald Glover, who seduces through song, and Stephen “tWitch” Boss from “So You Think You Can Dance” — work real magic on the swooning crowd. These guys are actually paying attention to women’s needs, not just preening. Pinkett Smith is just as magnetic as the men on stage, and she commands a room just as powerfully despite her petite frame.

And before they reach their final destination, they also enjoy an oddly lovely interlude with Andie MacDowell as a flirtatious divorcee entertaining her fellow middle-aged pals in her elegant Southern home. It’s a nice nod to Soderbergh’s groundbreaking debut, “sex, lies and videotape,” and it gives MacDowell a chance to play the total opposite of her demure character in that film without devlving into cliched cougardom.

Finally, they hit Myrtle Beach, where Elizabeth Banks makes a slyly charming appearance as the convention’s drawling coordinator. All these women shape Mike as his buddies for the better. And while their eventual, climactic performance is insanely over-the-top (with rather ridiculous production values, given the short notice), it comes from a heartfelt place.

Maybe “Magic Mike XXL” is secretly a romance after all.