Post Date Aug 31

RogerEbert.com — One Direction: This Is Us

One Direction: This Is Us Movie ReviewWhen the fine folks at RogerEbert.com needed a review of the One Direction documentary, they came to the right place. I definitely have some thoughts on the lads — “a confection, held together by hair product and harmony” — as well as the glossy, superficial way director Morgan Spurlock depicts them.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 30

RogerEbert.com — Afternoon Delight

Afternoon Delight Movie ReviewJuno Temple is a stripper with a heart of gold and Kathryn Hahn is the bored stay-at-home mom who tries to coax her down off the pole in “Afternoon Delight.” The film starts out as an honest exploration of a woman’s life and marriage in flux and turns into a judgy, preachy cautionary tale. My review for RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 29

Getaway

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Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense action, violence and mayhem throughout, some rude gestures, and language.
Running time: 90 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

The Summer of Ethan Hawke ends in batshit-crazy fashion with “Getaway,” an over-the-top car chase movie that drives all night but never really goes anywhere.

Following the emotional honesty of “Before Midnight” and the lurid thrills of “The Purge,” Hawke’s latest is a piece of noisy, Euro B-movie trash. That’s called range, baby.

“Getaway” might have been enjoyable as a mindless bit of dumb, late-summer entertainment if it had been vaguely coherent. The mere fact that Hawke’s character is named Brent Magna would seem to bode well. Instead, it’s an overly edited mish-mosh from a million different camera angles — scattered, manic, unfocused — which makes it not only difficult to tell what’s happening quite often but also difficult to care.

Does director Courtney Solomon really think we’re incapable of looking at a single image for more than a few seconds at a time? Rather than upping the intensity, this Cuisinart-style editing approach actually achieves the opposite effect: It’s numbing and distancing.

The only enjoyment to be found in “Getaway” is from laughing at the ridiculousness of its premise and the stilted banter that so frequently constitutes its dialogue. Brent comes home to his apartment in Sofia, Bulgaria — why he and Selena Gomez’s character live there is explained, eventually — to find that his wife has been kidnapped. Adding insult to injury, the bad guys snatched her while she was decorating the Christmas tree, listening to carols and enjoying a glass of red wine. Is nothing sacred?

Brent receives orders from a disembodied but obviously menacing voice (Jon Voight, credited as The Voice, appropriately enough) to go to a specific parking garage and steal a specific car: a custom Ford Shelby GT500 Super Snake. Turns out, Brent is a washed-up racecar driver; in theory, he should know what to do with this muscular machine. What he’s asked to do with it, however, is ludicrous: The Voice gives him a series of impossible tasks that could result in massive destruction and carnage. If he fails to accomplish them, his wife will die. And The Voice knows whether Brent is following through because he’s watching his every move and listening to his every word through the cameras and microphones that have been placed both inside and outside the car.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Brent also must contend with the saucy, whiny teenage girl who jumps into the passenger seat and puts a gun to his head. She’s played by Gomez in a hoodie and a sneer; any leaps she made from her squeaky-clean Disney Channel image toward more challenging, mature material with “Spring Breakers” might have been obliterated entirely here. Then again, the script from Sean Finnegan and Gregg Maxwell Parker doesn’t think much of her character, naming her only The Kid and saddling her with laughable techno jargon to spout.

Turns out, the car belongs to The Kid. But not only is she a serious gearhead, she’s also a brilliant computer expert. She can simply hack into the city’s police server with some video she shoots on her phone and a few taps on the tablet she keeps in the glove compartment. (The people who stole the car and tricked it out with all that gadgetry didn’t think to look there?) Gomez’s presence constitutes the most implausible casting choice you’ll see all year, and it smacks of a cynical attempt to make “Getaway” appeal to young audiences.

Now the two of them are stuck in the car together — you see, the wife dies if The Kid bails, too — carrying out these increasingly dangerous and deadly tasks. They talk openly in their efforts to outsmart the film’s villain, which seems silly and counterproductive given that he can hear everything they’re saying.

As they drive all night wreaking havoc, in their wake is an untold number of police cars that get tangled and mangled trying to track them down. Much has been made of the fact that these are actual cars being crashed, and not just the result of CGI blippery. Truly, there should be some sort of counter in the bottom corner of the screen to allow us to keep track of the destruction. But given the way these chases and collisions are shot and edited, any efforts to achieve authenticity are wasted.

Hawke remains weathered and weary throughout; driving and driven, he doesn’t get much to work with beyond a singular note of desperation. And once Brent finds out exactly why he of all people was chosen for this elaborate escapade, it’s a wonder he doesn’t cry out in incredulous wonder — just as audiences will when it’s time for the big reveal.

 

Post Date Aug 27

Drinking Buddies

Magnolia Pictures
Rated R for language throughout.
Running time: 90 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

“Drinking Buddies” is a crackling screwball comedy refracted through a low-key, mumblecore prism.

Admittedly, I’m not terribly fond of the word mumblecore and find it reductive — not unlike the phrases “chick flick” or “Oscar bait” to describe certain kinds of films — but for the sake of argument and to avoid wordiness, let’s just call it that for now. Mumblecore is, after all, the indie oeuvre that spawned “Drinking Buddies” writer-director-editor Joe Swanberg with early films like 2007’s “Hannah Takes the Stairs.”

But like his contemporaries the Duplass brothers and Lynn Shelton, Swanberg has emerged from the low-budget, meandering trappings of the genre and made a movie that reflects a maturity in its structure, production values and narrative drive.

That’s not to say that this is a glossy piece of formulaic, studio filmmaking by any means. The thing that makes these movies engaging is the sense of realism they create, the effortless naturalism of the aesthetic and dialogue. Scenes are shot intimately, highlighting their recognizable imperfection — that includes quiet, understated rhythms that are borderline boring. More often, though, “Drinking Buddies” not only provides the sensation that we’re eavesdropping on the employees of a Chicago microbrewery, it also makes us want to hang out with them and grab a pint. Or two. Or three …

The word “drinking” in the title isn’t just a suggestion or a metaphor. It’s what these people do all day, every day — and night. (It is very easy to imagine the drinking games this film will inspire.) Like the excellent indie romance “The Spectacular Now,” “Drinking Buddies” follows its characters as they straddle the line between hard partying and full-blown alcoholism — and watches them stumble over it. Unlike Miles Teller’s heavy-drinking high school senior in “The Spectacular Now,” though, these characters actually have to drink. After all, it’s work-related.

Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, who runs the brewery’s office. She’s also the only woman who works there. She’s also quite possibly the coolest chick alive — or at least, that’s how she appears at the start. She can hang with the boys, be as crass as they are, match them pint-for-pint but still maintain her femininity. Wilde radiates outrageous beauty and screen presence even in little makeup, jeans and a tank top that aren’t particularly stylish; in time, though, her character’s selfish side comes shining through.

Jake Johnson co-stars as her co-worker, Luke. He does a lot of the grunt work around the place, so his amiably scruffy demeanor and perpetual trucker hat are more than just an affected hipster facade. He’s fast-talking and quick-witted; nothing is inappropriate or off limits. He is brazenly confident in his own skin but can also show unexpected kindness.

More like brother and sister who are constantly teasing each other than just best friends, Kate and Luke share an insane amount of chemistry, both verbally and physically. Watching the two of them together, either sparring energetically or enjoying quieter, dryer banter, is the chief joy of “Drinking Buddies.” It’s clear that they’re in love with each other, that they’re meant to be together, but wouldn’t you know it? They’re both seeing other people.

Luke has been in a longtime serious relationship with special-ed teacher Jill (the always-adorable Anna Kendrick); lately, the two have been talking marriage. It’s to the film’s credit that Jill never comes off as a shrill, nagging harpy when she brings up the topic of making wedding plans. Kate, meanwhile, has been dating record producer Chris (Ron Livingston) for about eight months now. But the fact that he doesn’t drink beer — and that he gently scolds her for setting her bottle down on his stylish, mid-century modern coffee table — clearly bodes ill for their relationship.

The possibility of change becomes especially evident when Kate and Luke introduce their significant others at a party at the brewery, and again when the four of them go away together for a weekend at Chris’ lake house. While Jill and Chris go on a hike in the woods, Kate and Luke stay inside, playing blackjack and — you guessed it — drinking beer.

But while “Drinking Buddies” evolves in terms of plot and emotion, it doesn’t necessarily go where you might expect, and it never hews to the conventions of a romantic comedy. Yes, there are romantic sparks and there’s a ton of humor. But “Drinking Buddies” seems more interested in observing the details of daily life than striving for a forced, feel-good sense of closure. Ultimately, it feels like its own unique brew altogether: sweet and silly and sad. And above all, hoppy.

Post Date Aug 26

Revisiting Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert

After the debacle that was Miley Cyrus’ performance at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, I felt the need to revisit my review of her 2008 3-D movie, “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert.” I remember hoping back then, when she was only 15, that she’d avoid the madness that plagues so many child stars as they make the transition to adulthood.

No such luck, apparently.

Anyway, here’s a look back at a gentler, simpler time when she was just bein’ Miley, and not trying so hard to shock us. Although I suppose I should thank her for introducing me to the concept of “twerking.” Enjoy …

Walt Disney Pictures
Rated G.
Running time: 74 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

As an adult sitting through the 3-D Hannah Montana concert film, it’s impossible not to be overwhelmed — but not by the piercing screech of thousands of frantic 9-year-olds, the crisp digital imagery or the catchiness of the Disney star’s peppy tunes.

Rather, the sensation is one of longing: You wish desperately for Miley Cyrus, the singing, dancing, songwriting, trendsetting dynamo, to avoid turning into Britney Spears. She’s insanely likable and talented, with poise and presence beyond her years. It’s all out there in front of her, and watching the 15-year-old on stage and behind the scenes, you just pray that she’ll turn out all right and not get swept away by the insanity of pop-star celebrity.

Of course, the tween girls for whom “Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert” was intended won’t be thinking about this. They’ll just be giddy to feel so close to their idol.

With the three-dimensional effects, it feels as if Cyrus is walking right up you on the catwalk, her perky entourage of backup dancers in tow. One trick — in which she bounces a drumstick on the floor and sends it flying toward the camera — might just make you flinch.

Little girls will be happy to hear the “Hannah Montana” star perform their favorite songs and thrilled to catch a peek of the real Miley backstage — although the moments are carefully chosen to maintain her well-crafted wholesome image.

Watching her interact with her country-singer dad is entertaining, though, simply because they play off each other so easily. And you have to give Billy Ray Cyrus credit for showing a sense of humor about his place on the food chain — at one point, he jokes to her about how he’s played every Indian reservation casino from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

But certainly the show is the thing, and Cyrus — both as herself and as her blond-tressed, television alter ego — runs through all those songs that have been stuck in your head for months, since your kids probably play them nonstop. They include “We Got the Party,” “Nobody’s Perfect” and, of course, “The Best of Both Worlds.” Those nonthreatening Jonas Brothers — Nick, Joe and Kevin — come out for a few songs, too. And if you’re really paying attention, you can catch the moment when Cyrus dashes off stage and is replaced briefly by a body double to buy time for a wardrobe change — which caused a tizzy on the Internet but was a total non-story from the get-go.

Once the movie (and the ringing in your ears) stops, though, it’s obvious why Cyrus has become such a phenomenon. She’s pretty and stylish but never a mean girl; energetic and popular but not conceited. She makes it easy to imagine what it would be like to be friends with her — or at least dress like her. Which you can do because, you know, there’s also a Hannah Montana clothing line.

Post Date Aug 23

RogerEbert.com — Short Term 12

Short Term 12 Movie ReviewSet in a foster-care center for troubled teens, the indie drama “Short Term 12” could have been painfully mawkish. Instead, it’s powerful in its understatement. I loved reviewing this small gem for RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 23

RogerEbert.com — Paradise: Faith

Paradise: Faith Movie ReviewThe austere Austrian film “Paradise: Faith” features acts of religious fervor that are so crazy, they’re sure to startle the devout and non-believers alike. I had the unique pleasure of reviewing it for RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 20

The World’s End

Focus Features
Rated R for pervasive language including sexual references.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

Finally — finally! — the most entertaining movie of the summer arrives, just as August is coming to a close.

Actually, “The World’s End” might be the best time you’ll have at the movies all year. It is a complete blast: urgently paced, hilariously clever and blisteringly profane.

The latest genre tweak from director Edgar Wright and co-stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, following 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” and 2007’s “Hot Fuzz,” is simultaneously their most ambitious and their most effective. Whereas “Shaun” was a satirical send-up up zombie horror and “Fuzz” had fun with mismatched buddy-cop conventions, “The World’s End” dares to take on a genre that’s even larger and more complex, at least from a technical perspective: the sci-fi apocalypse extravaganza.

But it’s also about the notion of the end of the world from a personal perspective — about the loss of a sense of adventure, about growing up and getting lame — and the nostalgic lengths to which we’ll go to recapture that sense of youthful vibrancy. An elaborate pub crawl is all that stands in the way of one man and his personal destiny — or destruction.

Pegg is that Peter Pan figure opposite a buttoned-down Frost in a reversal of the roles they played in “Hot Fuzz.” It’s an ensemble comedy, with excellent British character actors Paddy Considine, Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan rounding out the drunken crew. But Pegg, who co-wrote the script with Wright as usual, damn near steals the entire movie through sheer force of will. His Gary King is an insane whirlwind — charismatic but clueless, and also clearly damaged and needy. When he’s on screen, you can’t stop watching him. I was only half-joking on Twitter when I suggested starting a best-actor Oscar campaign for Pegg now; he shows that much range and he’s that good.

As much of a stunted, self-centered screw-up as Gary is, though, he also ends up being the voice of reason when society gets broken down to its basest elements and most primal instincts. But first: beer, and lots of it.

At the film’s start, Gary is reminiscing during a group therapy session about the highlight of his youth and, as it turns out, his entire life: attempting to conquer “The Golden Mile,” an epic quest of drinking a pint of beer at each of the 12 pubs in his quaint English hometown of Newton Haven over one night. As we see in a flashback, he and his four best mates tried to make it from one end to the other to celebrate their high school graduation in June 1990 — and failed. Now, Gary realizes he must complete the mission in order to attain the sense of satisfaction and self-worth that’s eluded him all this time.

But he can’t do it alone, so he rounds up the rest of “The Five Musketeers,” as he calls them, all of whom are in varying states of reluctance to join him: fastidious real estate agent Oliver (Freeman); wealthy architect Steven (Considine); meek car salesman Peter (Marsan); and the toughest get of all, his former best friend Andy (Frost), a corporate lawyer who hasn’t spoken to him or had a drink in 16 years.

While they’ve all carved out traditional lives for themselves with careers and wives and kids, Gary has happily maintained the outlook of an impetuous teenager, with the wardrobe to match. That includes his vintage Sisters of Mercy black T-shirt to go with his cherished cassette of tunes from that magical era. (As in their other films, the soundtrack to “The World’s End” is great, full of early-’90s hits from British bands including The Stone Roses, Blur, Happy Mondays and The Soup Dragons.)

Reuniting as a group for the first time in a long time, they naturally need a few pubs and a few pints to get reacquainted and loosen up. The fluid editing that’s a signature of the trio’s films is thrillingly on display on these early stops, creating an infectious energy. Who wouldn’t want to go drinking with these guys? But Pegg and Wright’s script is as sharply observant in the low-key moments as it is wildly hilarious exchanges; the arrival of Rosamund Pike as Oliver’s sister — whom Gary and Steven still pine for — adds another touch of humanity.

And then all hell breaks loose.

I would not dream of giving away any clues as to the source of the mayhem in this seemingly tranquil hamlet. The tonal shift comes quickly, but it absolutely works. It is just the most amazing thing to watch: “The World’s End” becomes a totally different kind of movie about halfway through — intense, paranoid, violent — yet maintains the dry, rapid-fire wit that made its earlier scenes such a joy to watch. It also goes into more dramatic territory than “Shaun” or “Fuzz” ever dared, allowing the actors more vulnerability in the past — especially Pegg and Frost — and they rise beautifully to the challenge.

Maybe “The World’s End” goes over the top in its effects-laden climax. But when you have the balls — and the brains — to smash genres the way Wright & Co. do, you may as well smash them to bits.

Post Date Aug 16

Jobs

Jobs Movie ReviewOpen Road Films
Rated PG-13 for some drug content and brief strong language.
Running time: 127 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

The irony in “Jobs,” about the late Apple Computers co-founder Steve Jobs, is not how a man could be so beloved and yet be such a bastard. The irony is that a man who treasured innovation and sleek, stylish design should be the subject of a film that’s so bland and bloated.

Director Joshua Michael Stern has given us the worst kind of cursory biopic: It spends a great deal of time recreating key events in a complex, famous person’s life without offering any real insight into what made him tick. (Jobs died in 2011 of pancreatic cancer at 56.) You would never know from watching “Jobs” that’s it’s about a person who changed the way all of us live our lives on a daily basis. I’m typing this review on my MacBook Pro, for example, and I just got a voicemail on my iPhone. This Steve Jobs operates in a vacuum in bedrooms and boardrooms, in garages and generic office space.

We know we’re in trouble from the very start; before heading into a lengthy flashback, the film begins in 2001 with Jobs introducing the iPod to an enraptured audience of disciples at Apple headquarters. It’s not enough to have them all leap to their feet in a frenzied standing ovation — heavy-handed, feel-good music swells to indicate to us that this is a major, inspiring moment.

As Jobs, Ashton Kutcher basks in the applause in that familiar hunched-over stance in dorky dad jeans and wire-rim glasses, his dark hair and beard now white. Kutcher has proven that there’s more substance to him than the endearingly dippy persona of Kelso on ‘That ’70s Show” and one of the “Dude, Where’s My Car?” dudes would suggest. But despite being media-savvy himself, he wasn’t ready to portray a technological and cultural titan — not just yet. Kutcher operates in two modes as Jobs: He’s either quietly and mysteriously pondering his next groundbreaking project, or he’s loudly and cruelly berating anyone who dares question his vision.

Then again, Matt Whiteley’s script doesn’t give him much more to work with. Too often, it feels like a repetitive series of meetings of middle-aged white men sitting around a conference-room table; at the other extreme, it makes giant leaps in time and leaves important questions unanswered. Stern, meanwhile, adds nothing with really obvious musical cues, as if loud ’70s rock tunes with on-the-nose lyrics will create a sense of propulsive forward momentum. Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” plays during Jobs’ acid-dropping college days; Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good,” with its distinctive guitar riff, blares as Jobs and his pals put together their first computers. (I was, however,  happy to hear “Walk on the Ocean” by Toad the Wet Sprocket during the mid-’90s section of Jobs’ life. Those were good years.)

“Jobs” follows the man from his barefoot days at Reed College and his first job at Atari (where his boss declares he’s impossible to work with) through the creation of Apple Computers in his parents’ garage with pal Steve “Woz” Wozniak (Josh Gad from Broadway’s “The Book of Mormon,” who provides the rare traces of pathos and humanity here). Investor Mike Markkula (Dermot Mulroney) steps in with financial support and poof! An empire is born.

From there, it’s a series of professional ups and downs. Jobs is hailed as a genius but also blamed for perfectionistic production delays and drops in the company’s stock price. His feud is with Microsoft guru Bill Gates emerges from nowhere and then just as quickly disappears. His cruelty to underlings is explained away with the cliche of power changing him. Eventually, he is the victim of a bloody coup (led by J.K. Simmons as board president and Matthew Modine as chief executive officer) but in time he returns, triumphant.

While we see the nuts and bolts of the machinery Jobs creates, we have a harder time understanding what he’s made of as a man. He was adopted, yet he coldly casts aside his own daughter when she’s still in his girlfriend’s womb and later denies paternity and visitation rights. Apparently, he and daughter Lisa have reconciled by the time he’s living a cushy life decades later as a consultant before coming back as Apple’s CEO. How that happened — or who his new beautiful and nameless new wife is, for example — are fundamental pieces that would have helped flesh him out as a human being.

There’s much bandying about of Jobs’ mantra that you need to offer people what they want before they even know they want it. The people behind “Jobs” theoretically knew that people would want an insightful film about an enormously influential figure, but they didn’t deliver it.

Post Date Aug 16

RogerEbert.com — Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

Ain't Them Bodies Saints Movie Review“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is a devastatingly beautiful film with an absolutely terrible title. It borrows more than a tad from Terrence Malick but also heralds the emergence of a talented filmmaker in David Lowery. My review for RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here