Post Date Oct 22

Carrie

Sony Screen Gems
Rated R for bloody violence, disturbing images, language and some sexual content.
Running time: 99 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

Don’t call it a remake.

Kimberly Peirce’s version of “Carrie” dubs itself as a “reimagining” of the high-school horror classic. Certainly, the director of “Boys Don’t Cry” would seem an inspired, intriguing choice to bring this famous story of a frightened (and frightening) bullied girl to a whole new generation. But beat for beat and moment for moment, Peirce’s “Carrie” remains safely faithful to the narrative and the images that Brian DePalma so indelibly etched in our minds when he adapted Stephen King’s novel in 1976.

Working from a script by Robert Aguirre-Sacasa (although original “Carrie” screenwriter Lawrence D. Cohen tellingly shares credit), Peirce stages all the key scenes vividly and efficiently: the gym shower humiliation, the claustrophobia of the prayer closet, the unlikely prom date, the bucket of pig’s blood and, ultimately, the unleashing of Carrie’s fearsome telekinetic powers. If this were the only “Carrie” that ever existed, we probably would all view it as a sturdy and startling example of the genre. But comparisons are inevitable, especially given the stature the original “Carrie” retains within pop culture.

There was something shockingly raw about DePalma’s direction; the performances and the very presence of Sissy Spacek as the skittish title character and Piper Laurie as her smothering mother seemed almost animalistic in their purity. Chloe Grace Moretz, meanwhile, internalizes her anxiety early on but then wholeheartedly embraces the full force of her new-found abilities in the film’s wildly bloody crescendo. (After all, Moretz did make her name as the petite and potent Hit Girl in the “Kick-Ass” movies; here, she turns the film’s climax into something resembling performance art.) And Julianne Moore seems more ethereally creepy, whereas Laurie was downright demonic in her rage. Again, these are both hugely talented and versatile actresses whose work we’d all probably be completely satisfied with if a practically identical film hadn’t already moved us nearly four decades earlier.

Peirce, one of the most prominent queer directors working in film today (and the recent recipient of Outfest’s Achievement Award), theoretically would bring a unique insight, a personal perspective, to this well-known tale of an abused, damaged teenager who finds her strength and exacts her revenge on the popular kids who ostracized her. And she does offer the same sort of heartbreaking nugget at the core of “Carrie,” the one that makes the story unsettling in its sadness and not just in its frights.

Carrie White (Moretz), who’s been taught to doubt and hate herself by her doom-and-gloom, religious-zealot mom (Moore), is far more of a fragile, wounded creature than the average awkward teen. As if adolescence weren’t difficult enough, Carrie fears the wrath of God at every turn at the violent urging of her cruel mother. (The film’s opening scene, in which Margaret White gives birth to Carrie alone in her bedroom and then immediately tries to stab the newborn in the face with a pair of scissors, is deeply chilling to watch, whether you’re a parent or not.)

The fact that Carrie finally reaches a place where she feels comfortable opening up and enjoying her youth and femininity — only to be humiliated sadistically by the same classmates to whom she dared make herself vulnerable — is and always has been the most powerful part of “Carrie.” The hurt she experiences is far more devastating than the pain she inflicts on her peers in retribution. Peirce definitely grasps that: the place of loneliness from which Carrie’s anger springs.

Hunched over in the back of the classroom, uncomfortable showering with the mean girls — led by Gabriella Wilde as the pretty, popular Sue Snell and an awesomely wicked Portia Doubleday as the rich shit-stirrer Chris Hargensen — Carrie simply wants to disappear. The combination of discovering her telekinetic powers and receiving an invitation to the prom from superstar jock Tommy Ross (Ansel Elgort) inspires her to emerge from her shell, slowly but surely. Judy Greer brings some much-needed dry wit to the role of Ms. Desjardin, the school’s P.E. teacher and the de facto parental figure who provides Carrie with encouragement.

The fact that we know that her tentative happiness will come crashing down all around her — literally — doesn’t make it any less agonizing to watch. It is a timeless thing for all of us, the ritual of high-school expectation and heartache. Once again, as it did nearly 40 years ago, “Carrie” turns it into an experience of biblical proportions.

 

Post Date Oct 18

RogerEbert.com — Kill Your Darlings

Kill Your Darlings Movie Review“Kill Your Darlings” plays like a sort of Muppet Babies version of the Beat Poets. The self-serious way these figures regard themselves—and the self-serious way the film regards them—is cringe-inducing, early and often. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Oct 18

RogerEbert.com — The Fifth Estate

The Fifth Estate Movie ReviewFor a movie about a larger-than-life personality who shook up the world with his brazenness—and since has had to seek political asylum because of it—”The Fifth Estate” feels unfortunately small and safe. My two-star review of the Julian Assange story for RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Oct 14

Captain Phillips

Captain Phillips Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG-13 for sustained intense sequences of menace, some violence with bloody images, and for substance abuse.
Running time: 134 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

There’s a scene at the end of “Captain Phillips” in which Richard Phillips, the all-business captain of an American cargo ship that’s been invaded by Somali pirates, finally reveals the cumulative toll this ordeal has taken on him. After days of threats and thirst, maneuvering and manipulation within cramped spaces in the middle-of-nowhere western Indian Ocean, Phillips — played by Tom Hanks — now can allow himself to breathe, tremble, weep, and begin the process of healing.

The entire performance is one of the greatest in Hanks’ prolific, varied career — a role that gives him a massive arc and the opportunity to show great range. Paul Greengrass’ film is based on the true story of a 2009 pirate attack off the Somalian coast, and despite the inescapable tension the director achieves, we know that the real-life Phillips made it out alive; this is no spoiler here, folks, he wrote the book that provided the basis for this movie. But what Hanks does is extraordinary because it’s so subtle: He’s the hardworking everyman who becomes an accidental hero, but he also must remain accessible as he serves as our guide through this harrowing world. He has moments of daring but many more of quiet resourcefulness.

Yes, his New England accent is distractingly bad, and Phillips wasn’t the most jovial of fellows on the high seas, which initially makes it difficult for the crew members of the Maersk Alabama (and for us) to warm up to him. But when the situation gets gnarly — and it does, in a hurry — you want this veteran, a man of strength, smarts and preparedness, on your side. Hanks masterfully handles both the mundane, early moments on the ship as well as the manic, later ones.

Which brings us back to the scene I mentioned at the beginning of the review, and the stylistic tendency of Greengrass’ that keeps his very good film from being great. Phillips had put on a brave face for both his captors and his crew for so long. Once he’s safe and under the care of Navy medical specialists, he finally lets go; covered in blood — most of which is not his own — he stammers in shock. He’s bewildered. He can’t believe he made it out alive. It’s a tremendous piece of acting; his performance seems unforced, yet the catharsis is palpable. Still, Greengrass feels the need to rove with his camera and overpower the scene further with a dramatic score when the inherent drama of the moment is more than sufficient.

This kind of in-your-face, kinetic filmmaking, which we’ve come to know as Greengrass’ signature, can be a distraction but it can also be his strength. As in his excellent “United 93,” about the hijacked flight that crash-landed in a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, he’s telling a story to which we already know the outcome. But his action sequences are so intimate and detailed and he cranks up the suspense so steadily, we find ourselves immersed nonetheless.

“Captain Phillips” begins on what should have been an ordinary morning as Phillips’ wife (a woefully underused Catherine Keener — seriously, she’s in one scene) drives him to the Burlington, Vt., airport for his latest journey. This establishing scene is the weakest in Billy Ray’s script, as Phillips and his wife speak broadly and blandly about how the world is changing so quickly all around them.

Once Phillips and his men take off for their trip around the Horn of Africa, it doesn’t take long for a ragtag but brazen group of Somali outlaws to hop in their speedboats and head in their direction, with dollar signs in their eyes in the millions. Armed with automatic weapons, a ladder and just enough technology (and stimulants) to make them dangerous, they cop the jacked-up bravado of Wild West desperadoes gearing up for a train heist — one of many examples in “Captain Phillips” of the repercussions of globalization.

Their leader is a young man named Muse, aptly nicknamed Skinny for his nearly emaciated appearance. The fact that he’s so intimidating despite his slight frame is part of his frightening allure. Barkhad Abdi, a 27-year-old former limousine driver making his acting debut, appears opposite Hanks for nearly all of his screen time and surprisingly holds his own with the Oscar-winner. (Abdi, however, is the only one of the four actors playing the pirates who gets the benefit of much characterization; the others are sort of interchangeably crazed with greed.)

Phillips, Muse and their men engage in an increasingly fraught game of cat and mouse, both on board the massive cargo ship and within the much smaller and more cramped lifeboat in which Phillips and the attackers ultimately find themselves. Greengrass’ skill is really on display in both of these scenarios, given that he has to provide perspective, tension and narrative drive in a disparate and challenging spectrum of spaces.

But because “Captain Phillips” is a big, American studio picture that aims to wow audiences as well as awards voters, Greengrass also has to portray good guys and bad guys, winners and losers, and hang those tags on people and struggles that can’t be categorized so easily in the real world. We want to be unnerved for a couple of hours (and “Captain Phillips” could have benefited from some trimming) but we also want to walk away feeling good about ourselves. The pirates may suffer from a lack of motivation and characterization, but we’re left cheering: America … fuck yeah!

And oh yeah, that Tom Hanks — he can really act.

Post Date Oct 11

RogerEbert.com — CBGB

CBGB Movie Review“CBGB,” about the birth of the legendary New York City music venue and the punk scene it launched in the 1970s, doesn’t even begin to capture the energy or the brashness of the pop-culture phenomenon it depicts. Too often, it feels like a distracting and inauthentic game of dress-up. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Oct 11

RogerEbert.com — All the Boys Love Mandy Lane

All The Boys Love Mandy Lane Movie ReviewThe long-awaited teen horror flick finally hits theaters after a seven-year delay, achieving a bit of a cult fascination in the process. Was Mandy Lane worth the wait? My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Oct 5

Gravity

Gravity Movie ReviewWarner Bros. Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense perilous sequences, some disturbing images and brief strong language.
Running time: 91 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

Believe the hype: “Gravity” is as jaw-droppingly spectacular as you’ve heard — magnificent from a technical perspective but also a marvel of controlled acting and precise tone. This is not hyperbole: This is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.

I seriously have no idea how Alfonso Cuaron made this movie. I mean, I have some idea, and it involves many, many talented people in front of many, many computers. But the fact that we genuinely feel like we’re watching George Clooney and Sandra Bullock in space — floating, tumbling, hurtling, clinging to each other for life — is just a mind-bogglingly impressive thing. We forget that these are A-list stars and become totally immersed in their characters’ struggle to survive.

My good friend Justin Chang at Variety put it best when he said: “See it in 3D, on the biggest screen you can find.” If there’s an IMAX theater near you, get there. If there isn’t an IMAX theater, hop in your car and drive to one. I saw it in plain-old 3-D and was blown away — I can’t even imagine how much more mesmerizing it would have been in IMAX.

“Gravity” does everything right in ways that are both big and small. It’s beautiful and horrifying, detailed yet enormous, specific yet universally relatable. Yes, it’s about how space can be a wondrous and unforgiving place but it’s also about earthly human truths: love and loss, perseverance and redemption.

You’re sure to find yourself reacting viscerally in some way, perhaps in many ways. I was surprised to find myself on the verge on tears nearly the whole time, so moved was I by the awesomeness of the images, then by the intimate, dreamlike way in which these two characters reveal themselves to each other, and ultimately by the sheer force of will in the face of impossible peril. But “Gravity” is primarily an incredibly intense experience: 90 minutes of tight jaw, crossed legs and clenched fists. The story itself, which director Cuaron wrote with his son, Jonas, may strike you as formulaic at first, but it will startle you again and again.

It begins with a bravura single take that seems to go on forever: A speck in the distance set against an infinite blackness grows closer and closer until it’s clear that we’re looking at actual people, 600 km above Earth, working on the Hubble Telescope. (The sound design, by the way, is sublime; it’s also a nice touch that Ed Harris, star of “Apollo 13” and “The Right Stuff,” provides the voice of Mission Control.)

Bullock’s Dr. Ryan Stone is an accomplished medical engineer making her first shuttle mission. She is all business — focusing hard on doing everything right, understandably nervous in this foreign and complex scenario. Bullock does so much in this film simply through breathing, voice modulation and subtle facial expressions; long before things get gnarly, we have a great feeling for who she is.

On the other end of the spectrum is Clooney’s Matt Kowalski, a veteran astronaut making his final mission. “Matt, it’s been a privilege,” his longtime colleagues tell him. This means something terrible surely will befall him. Kowalski glides around the telescope with a jet-pack strapped to his back, glibly joking with Mission Control, playing country songs, telling tall tales.

“Houston, I have a bad feeling about this mission,” he kids, as usual. Clooney is doing Danny Ocean in space, his rich voice oozing charisma and a wry worldliness. But his cool confidence becomes crucial once this seemingly routine operation turns ugly — which it does, in a hurry.

Debris from a neighboring space station is flying toward them, forcing them to abort the mission and climb back into the shuttle. But the crew members don’t all make it in time, leaving Stone and Kowalski floating in the darkness once a storm of metal and mass arrives. Cuaron’s use of 3-D is particularly strong in these massive action sequences — it’s flinch-inducing — but he also finds the delicacy in the technology in quieter moments.

Suddenly, all these two have is each other; tethered together, cut off from Earth, running out of time and oxygen, they search for a way back home and hope to avoid the next wave of debris. “Gravity” often feels the a dazzlingly high-tech play on film, with two expert actors playing off each other brilliantly. And just when it seems as if things couldn’t possibly get any worse … they do.

I wouldn’t dream of telling you where “Gravity” goes from here as it evolves and reveals its characters’ resourcefulness and resolve. I will say this is the performance of Bullock’s career, as she rises to the challenge of conveying a history and an arc in the smallest of ways and the tightest of circumstances. Like the film as a whole, it’s a breathtaking thing to behold.

 

Post Date Oct 3

Don Jon

Don Jon Movie ReviewRelativity Media
Rated R for strong graphic sexual material and dialogue throughout, nudity, language and some drug use.
Running time: 90 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt turns the gym-tan-laundry routine into an art form with “Don Jon,” his vibrant and viciously profane directorial debut.

Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote the script, stars as the title character: a Lothario who learns how to love. But for real, you know what I’m saying? His “Don” Jon Martello clearly was inspired by and could be friends with The Situation and the rest of the boys from “Jersey Shore,” with the pecs and the abs, the gold chain and the wife-beater tank top, the muscle car and the Sunday Mass and — most importantly of all — the super-smooth way with women. But not just any women; as dictated by the highly scientific (and crass) methodology he and his club-hopping pals employ, they must be at least an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10. Ideally, they’re what Jon calls “a dime.”

He sounds like a horrible human being, obsessed as he is with looks and cleanliness and perfection., analyzing everything numerically in hopes of maintaining a sense of control. And he might have been insufferably self-centered in the hands of any other actor — but Gordon-Levitt’s innate charm can’t help but shine through. He’s just so damned likable, no matter what. Aside from “Hesher,” in which he starred as a tatted, long-haired squatter who leads a lonely kid down a road of debauchery, he’s never played a truly bad guy. And because there are some nuggets of his decency and vulnerability scattered throughout the script, he’s not a complete caricature, and his character’s ultimate redemption doesn’t seem like such a longshot.

But first: Internet porn. Lots and lots of Internet porn.

Despite the fact that Jon can bring home a gorgeous woman any night of the week, he finds his true sexual fulfillment through brief snippets from the privacy of his own laptop. The overflow of objectification is numbing, as it is meant to be. The sequencing in these segments is beautifully fluid, with a rhythm that Gordon-Levitt repeats throughout the film. Sometimes he even sneaks off in the middle of the night while his latest conquest is snoozing in his bed, just to rub one out to images of naughty schoolgirls in the darkness of his living room.

Then one night at the club, he meets Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), who’s a dime and change if ever there was one. But Barbara is also a good girl. Not only will she not give it up on the first night, she wants to go on actual dates — the romantic comedies she forces him to endure are a scream — and meet each other’s friends and family.

This brings us to Jon’s blue-collar childhood home in suburban New Jersey, where the DNA is powerfully on display. Jon’s dad (an awesomely foul-mouthed Tony Danza) yells at football games on the TV, which is just as much of an obsession as porn is to his son. (They also clearly share the same taste in clothes, amusingly.) Mom (Glenne Headly as the stereotypically doting Italian mama) is preoccupied with finding Jon a nice girl to settle down with and start a family. And younger sister Monica (Brie Larson) remains mute regardless of the situation, glued as she is to her smartphone. (The hugely versatile Larson, ever-present these days, does a lot with just the slightest facial expression.)

Barbara seems perfect to Jon, making him the envy of all his friends. But to the audience, it’s obvious that she’s demanding, high-maintenance and materialistic. She might mean well in the ways she tries to shape him, and her fairy-tale notions of romance surely seem pure in her own eyes — but we know they’re doomed. In theory, the character might have been a one-dimensional shrew with the French manicure and the pink lip gloss and the husky New York accent, but Johansson finds some shadings of sweetness and humanity to her.

One of the changes Barbara insists upon is that Jon return to night school to finish his degree, rather than just tending bar. There, he meets the other woman who will influence him: an older fellow student named Esther (Julianne Moore), who’s in a constant state of despondency. The relationship they forge seems unlikely on paper, but each sees what he or she needs in the other in that exact moment. Totally unsurprisingly, Moore brings a natural radiance and mature groundedness to the picture. Plus, it’s clever little moment when the star of “Boogie Nights” hands Jon a DVD of Danish porn from the ’70s.

“Don Jon” is about the ways we’re preoccupied with image — our own and everyone else’s — but it’s also about instant gratification. When Jon wants to get off quickly, he turns on his laptop rather than turning on an actual human being. When he’s late for Mass (and he’s late every week), this good Catholic boy spews a stream of road-rage-fueled profanity from behind the wheel.

It’s only when he learns to slow down the routine he’s perfected that he begins to enjoy the pleasure of patience.

Post Date Oct 3

RogerEbert.com — Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde

Running Wild: The Life of Dayton O. Hyde Movie ReviewDayton O. Hyde has accomplished so much and enjoyed such a wide range of experiences over his 88 years, it’s as if he’s lived several lives. But “Running Wild” is a rather ordinary documentary about this extraordinary man. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Oct 1

Revisiting The Croods

the croods 01.jpg

We’re going to dig deep into the archives — all the way back to March — for this review of “The Croods,” which is out on DVD today. This is one of the first films that I clearly recall Nicolas recognizing from the posters and billboards long before we actually saw it. And then after I took him to a screening, all he could say afterward was: “Dun-dun-DUN!” the catchphrase of the adorable, furry creature known as Belt.

Ah, the power of marketing.

Anyway, here’s my review of “The Croods.” Hope it helps as you ponder your DVD options this week.

DreamWorks Animation
PG for some scary action.
Running time: 92 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

Cavemen – they’re just like us! – or so “The Croods” seems to be saying with its familiar mix of generational clashes, coming-of-age milestones and generally relatable laughs.

The animated adventure features a strong, star-studded cast and dazzles visually in wondrously colorful, vibrant 3-D, but the script doesn’t pop off the screen quite so effectively. The overly facile message here is: Trying new things is good. It’s a useful notion for kids in the crowd to chew on, but their older companions may be longing for something more substantive. Still, “The Croods” is both brisk and beautiful, and should be sufficiently entertaining for family audiences for whom few such options exist these days.

“The Croods” might be especially resonant with young female viewers, with a strong, resourceful teenage girl at its center named Eep (voiced by Emma Stone in her usual charming rasp). It’s the prehistoric era, and while the rest of Eep’s family prefers the comforting safety of hiding fearfully inside a cave, with only sporadic outings for group hunts, she longs to see what’s outside those stone walls.

Her dad, Grug (Nicolas Cage), is especially protective, neurotically worrying about every possible unknown and urging the same sort of apprehension in everyone else, including his supportive wife, Ugga (an underused Catherine Keener), and doltish 9-year-old son, Thunk (Clark Duke). (“Never not be afraid,” is one of dad’s favorite sayings.) There’s also a sharp-toothed Tasmanian devil of a baby named Sandy and Grug’s mother-in-law, voiced in reliably sassy fashion by Cloris Leachman. The gags that depict her as a disapproving nag are more than a bit stale; if there’s any heart-tugging or even vaguely engaging bond here, it’s the father-daughter one between Grug and Eep.

One day, Eep dares to escape while everyone else is sleeping and meets up with the hottest (and only) guy she’s ever seen. Conveniently, he’s named Guy, and he’s voiced by Ryan Reynolds. He has a furry, impossibly cute companion named Belt who holds up his pants (kids will dig this tiny scene-stealer). But he also astonishes her with something she’s never seen before called fire. Guy warns that the world is ending, and that she should come with him if she wants to live. When her family’s cave is destroyed, they reluctantly realize they must all go with Guy. This sets up: a) some basic, tried-and-true road trip jokes and b) a blossoming romance between Guy and Eep, which dad naturally tries to stifle.

The themes aren’t exactly groundbreaking from co-writers and directors Chris Sanders and Kirk DeMicco (with John Cleese sharing a story-by credit, having been a part of early drafts of the script), and the plot feels too repetitive with the Croods encountering one unexplored terrain after another and responding in predictable ways.

But the oohs, ahhs and scattered laughs come from the various creatures the Croods discover along their journey, including the hungry, hot-pink piranha birds, the upside-down pear bears and the fearsome bear owls. Much of the lush landscape and vivid details feel as if they were taken directly from “Avatar,” and a similar sense of wonder propels these stronger segments. The lighting can indeed be magical, so it’s no surprise that we are urged over and over again to step into it.