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

 

Post Date Jul 19

RogerEbert.com — Girl Most Likely

It seemed that Kristen Wiig can do no wrong. But then she made “Girl Most Likely.”

Here’s the review

Post Date Jul 12

RogerEbert.com — Susan Seidelman

I was pleased to write this profile for RogerEbert.com about Susan Seidelman, the pioneering director of “Desperately Seeking Susan” whose latest film is the ensemble comedy “The Hot Flashes.”

Visit the story

Post Date Jul 12

RogerEbert.com — Crystal Fairy review

My first review for RogerEbert.com is of this stripped-down drug-trip comedy. I’m very proud to share it with you here.

Here’s the review

Post Date Jun 28

I’m So Excited!

I'm So Excited! Movie ReviewSony Pictures Classics
Rated R for strong sexual content including crude references, and drug use.
Running time: 95 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

In theory, any new Pedro Almodovar film, even a fluffy, silly one, is better than none at all _ a notion that the Spanish master pushes to extremes in “I’m So Excited!”

His latest film, which harkens to his earliest work, is essentially a gay “Airplane!”;  similarly, it has an exclamation point in its title to play up its knowingly over-the-top nature. It’s essentially what “Airplane!” would have been like if all the flight attendants were Johnny, the flamboyant tower employee played with scene-stealing brio by the late Stephen Stucker.

“I’m So Excited!” represents a huge departure from the brooding, serious, melodramatic tones of more recent offerings like “The Skin I Live In” and “Talk to Her.” But it’s also a return, as so many of his movies have been, to several of the actors with whom he’s worked before, including an amusing, blink-and-you’ll-miss it cameo off the top from Antonio Banderas and Penelope Cruz.

So if you’re a hardcore Almodovar fan, will you be satisfied? Not exactly. Tickled, perhaps, but with a longing for more _ because you know he has so much more in him. Still, the craftsmanship and artistry are without question; despite the film’s playfulness, it’s still quite clear that we’re in the hands of a master who takes the work seriously, if not the material or his characters. Almodovar’s lark of a bawdy comedy takes place in a tightly confined space and it not only moves, it radiates color, energy and life _ even as the passengers seem headed for certain death.

Because of a mechanical problem, Peninsula Airways Flight 2549 is circling in the skies above Toledo, Spain, rather than heading toward its destination of Mexico City. So yes, the melodrama that marks so many Almodovar films exists here, as well, but it comes in the form of family secrets and romantic betrayals played for laughs.

Booze, blow jobs and bitchy men fuel the sky-high hijinks: a trio of glib and gluttonous flight attendants played winningly by Javier Camara, Carlos Areces and Raul Arevalo. Their response to this dire situation: tequila shots. Even the seemingly buttoned-down pilot and co-pilot (played by Antonio de la Torre and Hugo Silva, respectively) are more adventurous then they look.

Ostensibly, though _ if you choose to think and dig below the druggy, candy-colored surface _ “I’m So Excited!” also intends to serve as social satire about repression, about class distinction.  One character (Jose Luis Torrijo) is a swindling bank executive on the run who laments losing touch with his daughter. Another is a high-class madam (played by the formidable Cecilia Roth) who reportedly has salacious, damning videos of 600 of the most famous and powerful men in the world. These are wealthy people trapped in business class, doing laps in the sky, awaiting their eventual doom. Meanwhile, the hoi polloi in coach has been drugged so they have no clue what’s happening – they’re sleepy sheep being led to the slaughter. Is either of these situations preferable?

Lively as Almodovar’s film is, it also features gags that grow repetitive or go on too long, like the flight attendants’ campy lip sync performance to the Pointer Sisters’ tune that provides the film’s English-language title. (In the original Spanish, it’s known as “Los amantes pasajeros.”) Like, the entire song.

Now if only I could pry it from my brain _ where it’s doing laps, seemingly without end _ I’ll be just fine.

Post Date Jun 28

The Heat

The Heat Movie Review20th Century Fox
Rated R for pervasive language, strong crude content and some violence.
Running time: 117 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

There’s a running joke throughout “The Heat” in which love-struck men approach Melissa McCarthy’s foul-mouthed detective character and beg to know why she hasn’t called them after she slept with them.

They whine. They plead. They open their hearts and make themselves vulnerable to her in ways that are so awkward and sad, you almost can’t watch them head on – you almost have to peep at them through a pinhole in a shoebox. She rebuffs them – politely – every time.

It’s just one gag but it’s a beautiful reflection of the way “The Heat” takes film conventions, turns them on their head and reinvents them.  Part of the joke is that this is a reversal of traditional (and archaic) gender roles. But another crucial element is the fact that McCarthy, as a full-figured, brash Boston bad-ass, wouldn’t necessarily seem like a heartbreaker. But she is – and she owns it.

She owns the whole movie, actually, this mismatched-buddy cop comedy in which she and Sandra Bullock inhabit the roles typically reserved for men, especially in the 1980s. Director Paul Feig, whose “Bridesmaids” upended notions of what a raunchy ensemble comedy could be, does it again here with another genre. McCarthy, who emerged as a star from that 2011 smash hit (and received a supporting-actress Oscar nomination in the process) clearly had free rein to play here, to flex her improv muscles. But the first produced script from Katie Dippold gives her a smart, inspired and wickedly funny foundation from which to work, and she and Bullock enjoy gangbusters chemistry with each other.

Bullock is an expert physical comedian; say what you will about the “Miss Congeniality” movies, she gives it her all in them. Here, she plays the straight woman – the uptight FBI agent forced to team up with McCarthy’s wild card – and not only does she get the slapstick right but she also finds the sadness and loneliness that make her character such a misfit.

The two are stuck working together on a … does it really matter? The investigation has something to do with a bringing down a drug lord.  From a narrative perspective, “The Heat” is pure formula, and it knows it, and it knows that you know it, too. What matters here is the way in which it explores and refreshes the standard details and beats of the genre.

Bullock’s Special Agent Sarah Ashburn is exceedingly competent and eager to please but can’t help alienating everyone around her. She’s the smartest person in the room at all times and can’t stop herself from letting everyone else know that, too. She’s up for a promotion but her boss (Oscar nominee Demian Bichir from “A Better Life”) is reluctant to give it to her.

McCarthy’s Det. Shannon Mullins is also excellent at her job, and also has a way of alienating people. That includes her family: a collection of bickering, blue-collar boors with wicked hardcore Southie accents. (Joey McIntyre is among them, just to ensure authenticity.) When Sarah accompanies Shannon to her childhood home and can’t understand a word they’re saying, it’s a bit that shouldn’t be funny because it’s been done so many times. And yet, like so many other gags in “The Heat,” it has an energy about it that makes it work.

Shannon is at the opposite end of the spectrum from Sarah in terms of temperament (and hygiene) but has a similar sense of superiority, and a similar emotional detachment. Do you think it’s possible that these two women will not only learn to work together but become friends and actually change each other for the better? The destination was predetermined long ago; the journey there is riotously funny.

Post Date Jun 21

World War Z

World War Z Movie ReviewParamount Pictures
Rated PG-13 for intense, frightening zombie sequences, violence and disturbing images.
Running time: 115 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Walking out of “World War Z,” I realized I probably haven’t felt this edgy and paranoid after a movie since … “Aliens,” maybe? And that was when I was an impressionable teenager in the San Fernando Valley, way back in 1986.

The reports are well-known by now about how the production was plagued by extensive rewrites and weeks of re-shoots _ including an entirely different ending _ which sent the blockbuster’s budget skyrocketing well beyond the $200-million mark. Whatever changes director Marc Forster made with a writing team that includes Damon Lindelof (“Lost”), Drew Goddard (“The Cabin in the Woods”) and who knows how many others, they seem to have been the right ones. As a viewer, you’d never know there was turmoil; the switches are seamless.

As both thrilling spectacle and escapist summer entertainment, “World War Z” is enormously effective, with Brad Pitt at the center hopscotching the globe in search of the origin of a zombie apocalypse. A pandemic is quickly spreading worldwide, turning terrified humans into ravenous predators 12 seconds after they’re exposed and leveling major cities in no time. It’s powerful in its propulsive energy, in both the sense of panic it creates off the top and the quieter, creeping feeling of dread that permeates the final act. I must admit I haven’t read the Max Brooks book that the film is based on, but I understand from friends who have that the tweaks in voice and narrative structure still result in a blast of a film.

“World War Z” startles you just as much in what it doesn’t show as what it does; this is a PG-13 zombie flick, after all, so it’s low on the gore. But the repercussions of this fight for survival are clear and inescapable, often lurking just outside the frame.

The visuals are never short of impressive and often are dazzlingly disturbing; the action is worlds more inspired than Forster’s James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” These aren’t shuffling, lumbering zombies but convulsing, flailing, ravenous freaks. Individually, they’re shocking in their spastic unpredictability; en masse, they are a menacing swarm, working together in a frenzy to create fear. There’s obviously a great deal of CGI at work here in the larger attacks on entire cities, but one scene in particular in Jerusalem, in which the zombies instinctively use each other as a ladder to scramble over a giant wall that’s (supposedly) a fool-proof means of keeping them out, is especially spectacular.

(Three words: exploding zombie helicopter.)

“World War Z” is, however, a tad low on the character development. More than a tad, actually, and the fact that we don’t get to know these people very well keeps us from becoming deeply moved by their peril. Pitt, as former United Nations field investigator Gerry Lane, accomplishes a lot rather efficiently in conveying authority, in establishing a calming feeling in a sea of chaos and carnage. This is not one of his showier or sexier roles by any means, but he gets the job done, often through the sheer power of his magnetic presence. But if you take a step back and actually, you know, think, you realize he’s functioning in the cliched position of being pulled out of retirement for that tried-and-true one last job.

Pitt (who also serves as a producer on the film) also has some lovely, intimate scenes with Mireille Enos, who gives a natural, stand-out performance as his wife and the mother of the couple’s two daughters. Watching them together is also a bit frustrating, though, because you know Enos is capable of even more nuance, more humanity, if only she’d been given the chance. Similarly, strong character actors including James Badge Dale and David Morse appear in roles that are brief but so memorable, they leave you longing for more. Only Daniella Kertesz, as a young Israeli soldier who starts out as Gerry’s protector but becomes a crucial figure in his plan, is afforded the opportunity to show what she can really do.

Even Brad Pitt can use a little help every now and then.