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

Post Date Aug 14

Kick-Ass 2

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Universal Pictures
Rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, crude and sexual content and brief nudity.
Running time: 103 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

Jim Carrey’s character in “Kick-Ass 2,” an ex-mobster and born-again Christian who’s transformed himself into a vigilante crimefighter named Colonel Stars and Stripes, carries a handgun on his person at all times. He keeps it unloaded, though, because he doesn’t actually want to use it — he just wants the bad guys he confronts to think he’s willing and able to pull the trigger.

This becomes a noteworthy plot point, which is intriguing for a couple of reasons. Since wrapping the film, Carrey famously has distanced himself from the finished product, saying he now feels squeamish about promoting it given the enormous amount of gun violence it contains. But the unloaded gun is also unfortunately a rather apt metaphor for the movie itself. “Kick-Ass 2” may look powerful, but doesn’t have much real pop.

Part of the problem is that the novelty of the original “Kick-Ass” is gone. The idea of a pint-sized, preteen, potty-mouthed assassin was exciting and daringly hilarious when the first film came out in 2010. Now, Mindy Macready/Hit-Girl — and Chloe Grace Moretz, the confident and likable actress who plays her — are a little older and a little wiser, which also makes this sequel a little heavier.

The larger issue is the direction, especially in the action sequences, of which there are many. The “Kick-Ass” world springs from the graphically violent comics by Mark Millar and John S. Romita Jr. While Matthew Vaughn brought the action to life with great style and verve in directing the first film — the whole thing had a thrilling energy about it, really — writer-director Jeff Wadlow doesn’t stage these segments of the sequel with nearly as much fluidity or finesse. Wadlow is entirely too fond of using shaky-cam during fight sequences; rather than upping the tension, this approach creates chaos, and it detracts from the intricacy and complex choreography of these massive showdowns.

“Kick-Ass 2” is actually more compelling in its relatable, real-world moments, as Mindy tries to navigate the many social perils that await any high-school freshman. It’s a precarious time under optimal circumstances, but she must endure the added burden of having recently lost her beloved father/crime-fighting partner, Big Daddy. And while many kids feel like they don’t fit in at this awkward stage, the fact that 15-year-old Mindy is a coolly efficient killing machine really and truly makes her an outcast — but a self-imposed one. And that makes her more interesting. Rather than longing to fit in with the cool girls, she tests the shark-filled waters on her own terms, then exacts her revenge when she gets bitten.

Mindy would much rather carry on the proud legacy she shared with Big Daddy (played by Nicolas Cage in the original) of righting wrongs and keeping the city safe. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who’s back as nerdy high school senior Dave Lizewski/Kick-Ass, is eager to fight alongside her. (The title is “Kick-Ass 2,” but this really feels like Hit-Girl’s movie; the secretly sexy Taylor-Johnson doesn’t get much to work with in the character-development department.) Dave’s superhero exploits from the first film made him a bit of a celebrity around town, to the point that he’s inspired legions of wannabes to don homemade costumes, assume mysterious identities and troll the streets at night looking for their own asses to kick.

But Mindy’s been ordered to pack away her throwing stars and nunchucks and hang up the sparkly purple get-up for good; her father’s best friend, Marcus (Morris Chestnut), who’s now her guardian, promised to keep her safe, so he forbids her from fighting any more crime. This abstinence from ass-whooping becomes increasingly difficult when Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), whose father Kick-Ass killed in spectacular fashion in part one, reinvents himself as a supervillain called The Motherfucker to seek revenge. This essentially calls on him to bark out orders in a lisp while dressed in his mother’s domnatrix gear. It’s an amusingly ridiculous image at first, but as the costume becomes more elaborate, it feels like its sole purpose is to shock.

Just as The Motherfucker assembles an army of henchmen (and women) to take out Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass joins a ragtag team of good guys calling themselves Justice Forever. Their leader is the intensely earnest Colonel Stars and Stripes, a camo-clad crusader with a patriotic German shepherd by his side. Carrey is unrecognizable here, even once the mask comes off, with his buzz cut, gold teeth and gravelly New York accent. Millar was right when he said in response to Carrey’s detachment from the film that he’s great in the role; it’s a dialed-down performance but no less insane than his wilder, well-known work.

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, with too many characters and subplots to keep track of, that’s probably because it is. “Kick-Ass 2” suffers from a lack of narrative focus as well as inconsistent pacing. It lurches into action frantically, noisily, then screeches to a halt for cliched conversations about finding the inner superhero hiding within all of us.

For a film that seems so subversive on its surface, “Kick-Ass 2” is really rather feel-good after all.

Post Date Aug 10

We’re the Millers

We're the Millers Movie Review

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for crude sexual content, passive language, drug material and brief graphic nudity.
Running time: 110 minutes.
Two and a half stars out of four.

Jennifer Aniston is beautiful and stylish and envied with her trend-setting hair and yoga-toned body and the ability to achieve longevity in a fickle industry with her girl-next-door likability. But man, is she terrible at picking movie roles.

For the most part, that is. When she’s dared to go small and dark in indie dramas — as a miserable store clerk in 2002’s “The Good Girl,” or a miserable maid in 2006’s “Friends With Money” — she’s gotten a chance to stretch, and flex, and it’s been exciting to watch. Who knew that was in her all this time when she was playing girlfriends and wives and magical women who make things better for the men in their lives? I actually had to go onto IMDb just now to remind myself what “Love Happens” was. That’s how forgettably bland some of her big-studio choices have been.

All of which makes her performance in “We’re the Millers” so welcome, and so refreshing for its dirtiness. Aniston co-stars as Rose, a stripper (with a heart of gold, of course) who gets roped into helping Jason Sudeikis’ small-time drug dealer transport an enormous supply of pot into the United States from Mexico. She is reluctant to do this at first. She can’t stand Sudeikis’ cocky, quick-talking David, her grungy neighbor in the apartment building where she’s on the verge of being evicted. Naturally, this means they’ll fall for each other. (You’ve seen a movie before, right?)

David lands in deep trouble with the drug kingpin he works for (Ed Helms, looking slick and skinny as he plays against type) when a bunch of street thugs steal his weed and cash. To make it right, he must travel across the border and bring back a “smidge” of marijuana. He comes up with a plan to pretend he’s part of a wholesome American family on vacation, complete with a flashy, tricked-out RV — which comes in handy when he finds out how much pot he’s really picking up. But first, he needs a fake family, so he recruits Rose to play his loving wife along with runaway street urchin Casey (Emma Roberts) and eager-beaver virgin Kenny (Will Poulter) to pose as his clean-cut teenage children.

Will this fake family end up functioning as a real family in time? Of course they will. It’s pure formula — you can tell where “We’re the Millers” is going from the billboards alone. But to its credit, the comedy from director Rawson Marshall Thurber (“Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story”), from a script by small army of writers, stays mean and maintains a bit of an edge even when it threatens to go all soft and gooey. Scattered scenes produce laugh-out-loud moments, up to and including the ad-libbed outtakes during the closing credits (which frustratingly suggest an even better movie was possible if the actors had been given even more room to roam).

A scene in which Casey and Rose take turns teaching the innocent Kenny how to kiss is a prime example of the film’s subversive instincts. Actual tension builds, even though the punch line is pretty predictable. Sudeikis and Aniston also have some amusingly awkward exchanges with a legitimately wholesome American family on a road trip with their daughter, played with prim goofiness by Nick Offerman and Kathryn Hahn. And Mark L. Young proves himself to be a scene-stealer as a gangsta rapper/Kid Rock wannabe named Scottie P. who brazenly hits on Casey and makes the ersatz Miller parents feel very old and stodgy in their disapproval.

Yes, the ethnic stereotypes are cliched and borderline offensive. Yes, the myriad pop culture references are hit and miss, as they are always wont to be. But there are enough laughs throughout to make “We’re the Millers” worthwhile as we enter the dog days of summer.

As for Aniston’s abilities as a stripper — er, exotic dancer: She looks spectacular, but she is incredibly stiff. But that’s part of the joke, and she’s clearly in on it, with no apologies.

Post Date Aug 10

RogerEbert.com — Off Label

Off Label Movie ReviewMy RogerEbert.com review of the documentary “Off Label,” an indictment of Big Pharma that tries to encompass so many people and so many angles in such a short amount of time, it ends up breezing through them and providing glimpses that feel rushed and unsatisfying.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 9

RogerEbert.com — David Gordon Green

Primary_davidgordongreenprinceavalancheDavid Gordon Green’s latest film, “Prince Avalanche,” seamlessly blends the two seemingly contradictory artistic instincts within the writer-director: It has the unhurried pace and richly naturalistic aesthetic of his early, indie dramas with the comic banter and oddball characters of his later work. I very much enjoyed talking with him for a RogerEbert.com profile about the eclectic, prolific career he’s put together at just age 38.

Read the article here

Post Date Aug 2

RogerEbert.com — The Canyons

The Canyons Movie ReviewMaybe playing a troubled young woman wasn’t the best way for Lindsay Lohan to escape being a troubled young woman. My review of “The Canyons” for RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 2

RogerEbert.com — Europa Report

Europa Report Movie ReviewThis quietly suspenseful sci-fi thriller makes extensive and effective use of the whole found-footage conceit. My review for RogerEbert.com.

Read the review here

Post Date Jul 31

This is the tree …

In MacArthur Park where I interviewed David Gordon Green yesterday. Well, not in it. And we weren’t doing what Seth Rogen and James Franco are doing. But we sat underneath it and had a nice chat about “Pineapple Express,” and his new film “Prince Avalanche,” and the eclectic career he’s put together at just 38. I look forward to sharing it with you on RogerEbert.com next week.

Post Date Jul 26

RogerEbert.com — The Wolverine

In his sixth outing as the metal-clawed mountain of muscle, Hugh Jackman undergoes the kind of existential crisis that’s de rigueur these days for all comic book heroes. I had the pleasure of reviewing “The Wolverine” for RogerEbert.com.

Here’s a link to the review