Post Date Sep 16

Blue Caprice


IFC Films
Rated R for disturbing violent content, language and brief drug use.
Running time: 93 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

“Blue Caprice” takes a true story of violence and panic and tells it in the most artful, understated manner imaginable — which makes its events even more powerful.

Director Alexandre Moors, making his astonishingly assured feature debut, portrays the 2002 Beltway sniper killings as a slow and steady buildup — a quiet chill that leads to an explosion of havoc. Moors has structured his film elegantly, yet there’s a tangible sleaze and grit to the characters and their surroundings; it’s a slow burn, but he achieves inescapable tension.

Actually, “Blue Caprice” isn’t even about the shootings themselves, which left 10 people dead and three others critically injured in and around Washington D.C. Rather, Moors and screenwriter R.F.I. Porto (also with his first feature) focus on the twisted, father-son relationship that developed between disturbed mastermind John Allen Muhammad and impressionable teenager Lee Boyd Malvo.

Isaiah Washington is frightening as hell as Muhammad in his first major role since being fired from “Grey’s Anatomy” in 2007 for making anti-gay slurs. It’s a hell of a comeback, and a fascinating choice; rather than play someone noble, inspiring or miraculous — the offensive “Magical Negro” stereotype, for example — Washington opted to play a killer who wanted to destroy our sense of safety and tear down the fabric of our nation. It was a bold move that paid off big-time, as Washington reminds us of what a powerful actor he can be.

But Tequan Richmond rises to his formidable challenge, as well, as Malvo. It’s not as showy a role as Washington’s, but Richmond must not only hold his own opposite the acting veteran (which he does) but also reflect a major change in mentality and motivation in subtle ways. He makes you feel sorry for a young man who took many lives.

“Blue Caprice” begins with a stream of 911 calls and quick glimpses of television footage — a trickle that builds to a cacophony — before showing us how Muhammad and Malvo met on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Muhammad initially appears as a benevolent Pied Piper to the poor neighborhood children, a dapper American with a magnetic presence. Malvo’s mother has just abandoned him (again), leaving him alone to wander the streets and beaches. Muhammad recognizes in him a lost soul in need of shepherding — and one of the fascinating elements of “Blue Caprice” is that it never explicitly reveals whether Muhammad truly loves Malvo as a son, or he’s merely exploiting the kid because he’s adrift and malleable.

Muhammad brings Malvo with him back to the United States, first to Tacoma, Wash., before buying the blue Chevy Caprice of the film’s title and driving cross-country to carry out his mission. (The film fudges the details a tad while staying true to the core of the real-life story.) Muhammad, it turns out, is bitter — he feels wronged by his wife, who took the couple’s children and placed a restraining order against him, as well as by the neighbors who testified against him in court. He’s been thinking, planning, seething — and the scene in which he matter-of-factly reveals his scheme to Malvo while grocery shopping is the most unsettling of the entire film.

“Total chaos” is his goal. “The system comes down.” But the collapse will come in small ways, with victims who are chosen seemingly at random to create a maximum feeling of fear. But first, he must train the young man to prepare him for such a massive undertaking. Muhammad functions as Malvo’s caretaker but he’s also a capricious and sadistic mentor, molding his body and warping his mind. He teaches Malvo how to drive, for example, but also ties him to a tree in the middle of the forest and leaves him overnight, ignoring Malvo’s heart-wrenching cries of “Dad!”

That’s a rare, dramatic moment in Moors’ film. Extended sequences in which the two men jog side by side through the woods, accompanied by a stripped-down but urgent string score, are more common in establishing their bond. They also get help in their cause from an unknowing, longtime friend of Muhammad’s played by an earthy, no-nonsense Tim Blake Nelson. (Joey Lauren Adams lends sadness to the film as his trashy, chain-smoking wife, who’s too busy drinking beer in the middle of the day to keep track of where her baby is.)

Nelson’s character is pivotal because he teaches Malvo how to shoot: “Kid’s a fuckin’ natural,” he says in awe while watching him aim at targets for the first time. He also introduces them to his sniper rifle, which he proudly refers to as “The Widowmaker.”

As Muhammad becomes increasingly paranoid and volatile, Malvo remains unfailingly polite, regardless of the situation. Everyone is “sir” and “ma’am.” And his quiet kindness — like the film’s restrained lack of judgment — is far eerier than any tirade would have been.

Post Date Sep 13 — Plush

Plush Movie ReviewIf only this movie had something to do with the great Stone Temple Pilots song of the same name (which is now stuck in my head — again). Instead, the latest confounding career choice from director Catherine Hardwicke is a clunky psychological thriller set in the Los Angeles rock scene. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 12 — Mademoiselle C

Mademoiselle C Movie ReviewThe “C” stands for Carine, as in Carine Roitfeld, who was the editor-in-chief of French Vogue for a decade until she left in 2011 to create her own magazine. Director Fabien Constant’s documentary follows the sleekly Parisian, hugely influential Roitfeld as she provides intimate access to all the glamour and absurdity of the world of high fashion. My review for

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Post Date Sep 12 — You Will Be My Son

You Will Be My Son Movie ReviewFrench director and co-writer Gilles Legrand shows great mastery of tone and pacing in his third feature, which begins life as a domestic drama set at a family-owned vineyard and slowly morphs into a tense thriller. The great Niels Arestrup is a towering force as the world-renowned, egomaniacal winemaker who humiliates his only son at every turn, then chooses another young man as his heir apparent. It’s the stuff of Greek tragedy, as I write in my review.

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 11

Revisiting Sept. 11 in Film

I woke up this morning, like so many people around the world, thinking about New York on Sept. 11, 2001. And I wanted to share with you an essay I wrote two years ago, on the 10th anniversary of the attacks, examining how the twin towers had been depicted in film.

Discussing how to be respectful almost seems moot at this point. Blockbusters like “Man of Steel” show strangers grabbing each others’ hands and scurrying through the streets, trying to dodge giant chunks of falling buildings, all for the sake of summer thrills. But for many years, finding the right tone was a challenge. Here’s a look back.

Twin towers erased from some films after 9/11

But some filmmakers, like Spike Lee, wouldn’t dream of editing out the iconic buildings


On Sept. 11, 2001, I was living in New York, covering entertainment and reviewing films for The Associated Press. I had a typically random, frivolous day planned: a screening of “The Glass House”; an interview with Carson Daly; and a hair appointment to get my highlights touched up.

None of that happened.

But I’ll never forget the title of the movie that was in my calendar that day, a thriller starring Leelee Sobieski. For many of us critics, “The Glass House” ended up being the first movie we saw once we struggled to return to reality after the attacks, and its manufactured scares seemed so cheap and crass compared to the real horrors we’d all just witnessed.

Approaching entertainment in general, and movies specifically — especially those set and shot in New York with images of the twin towers — was a tricky proposition in the weeks and months following 9/11. There was, of course, the broader question: When is it appropriate to enjoy ourselves again? But studios debated how to be respectful in releasing films that featured images of those iconic, fallen buildings. They wanted to strike the right tone, but there didn’t seem to be a right answer.

The twin towers were so instantly recognizable, so majestic and evocative. In a movie such as “Working Girl,” they’re a beacon of promise; in the classic poster for Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” they even form the letter H. Do you eradicate them entirely to avoid upsetting the audience? Or do you leave them in, because they existed when the film was being made?

“Glitter” is probably best-known now as a laughably self-serving star vehicle for Mariah Carey. But it happened to come out just 10 days after the terrorist attacks, and included a couple of shots in which the twin towers are visible in the background. At a screening in a Times Square multiplex, those images drew the only cheers and applause.

Then there was the comedy “Zoolander,” directed by and starring Ben Stiller, which came out Sept. 28. The towers were erased from the finished print, which was jarring. A scene in which Derek Zoolander gives the eulogy at a funeral for his male model roommates, who die in a gasoline explosion inexplicably played for laughs, also struck an awkward note, especially with the New York City skyscrapers gleaming behind the cemetery.

The romantic comedy “Serendipity,” starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, was released less than a month after 9/11, but it takes place in a Manhattan that is so idyllic, so romantic, it probably never existed. Shots of the World Trade Center in a version that screened at the Toronto International Film Festival were excised after the attacks for maximum movie-going happiness.

Meanwhile, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “Collateral Damage” was postponed from an October 2001 release to the following February; even though it takes place in Los Angeles, it’s about a terrorist plot to blow up buildings. It was the most high-profile example of Hollywood’s attempt to be sensitive, even though “Collateral Damage” was, in retrospect, just another big, loud, dumb Schwarzenegger movie.

But as time went on, filmmakers began feeling their way around the tragedy with what appeared to be a bit more comfort and confidence. The police drama “City by the Sea,” starring Robert De Niro and James Franco, came out on Sept. 6, 2002. It had been filmed all over New York City in early 2001 and contains several prominent images of the World Trade Center towers. This struck a somber chord upon the one-year anniversary of the attacks, a time when the city collectively was on edge once more, and sent a ripple through the screening I attended. Still, I was glad to see the towers remain in the film, because that was an accurate reflection of what the city looked like during production.

A few months later, we had “25th Hour,” one of my favorite movies of that year and one of Spike Lee’s best. Naturally, being a filmmaker who personifies New York, Lee wouldn’t dream of avoiding the attacks. His unflinching title sequence focuses on the downtown skyline as it appeared around the one-year anniversary, with two beams of light stretching skyward from the spot where the towers had stood.

Later, Edward Norton’s character visits his father at the bar he owns in Staten Island — a firefighter hangout with memorials on the walls to the men who died. And Barry Pepper and Philip Seymour Hoffman have a long conversation in front of a picture window in Pepper’s high-rise apartment, which overlooks ground zero. Hoffman asks whether Pepper plans to move, since the air quality downtown is so bad.

“(Bleep) that, man,” Pepper responds. “Bin Laden could drop in next door — I ain’t movin’.”

Five years after the attacks, Oliver Stone approached the towers head-on with “World Trade Center,” starring Nicolas Cage and Michael Pena as a pair of Port Authority police officers trapped beneath the rubble of the collapsed towers. The prevailing wisdom was that Stone would inject some pointed political perspective in depicting this tragedy; instead, he offered an exceptionally crafted, strongly acted, high-end made-for-TV movie. It’s visceral and intense, exceedingly faithful in its depiction of the fear and chaos, the ash and smoke that enveloped New York that day.

Eventually, the buildings again became a welcome sight. James Marsh’s Oscar-winning documentary “Man on Wire” (2008) traces tightrope-walker Philippe Petit’s death-defying high-wire act between the World Trade Center towers in 1974.

The film is hugely engrossing, but it also harkens to a simpler, more innocent time. A skywalk such as the one Petit pulled off would be impossible today; security is too tight and too pervasive in every segment of our daily lives. And that’s because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001 — a date that never arises in “Man on Wire” because Marsh wisely realizes he doesn’t need to mention it. The absence of the towers — and the reason for their absence — is implicit throughout the film, which adds a level of unspoken yet inescapable poignancy.

Post Date Sep 7 — Adore

Adore Movie ReviewNaomi Watts and Robin Wright bring dignity to this cougar-tastic tale of lifelong best friends who have affairs with each others’ sons. It’s exquisitely photographed but ultimately melodramatic. As I say in my review for, it’s what my mom would have called “good trash.”

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Post Date Sep 7 — Things Never Said

Things Never Said Movie ReviewA love of spoken-word poetry is pretty much essential for enjoying the indie drama “Things Never Said.” But co-stars Shanola Hampton and Omari Hardwick do have great chemistry with each other. My review for

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Post Date Sep 6


Salinger Poster Header

The Weinstein Co.
Rated PG-13 for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking.
Running time: 120 minutes.
Two stars out of four.

J.D. Salinger, the man, would have hated “Salinger,” the film — not just because the famously reclusive writer would have recoiled at the effort to expose his private life, but also because it’s the kind of glossy, celebrity-driven hype that he made his name railing against.

Director Shane Salerno, who also is releasing a lengthy book and a television special alongside his documentary, spent nine years working on this project, and his obsession has resulted in a film that’s as exhaustively researched as you might imagine. Despite all that effort, though, his film is never quite satisfying. It feels overstuffed and overlong, getting bogged down as it does in the minutiae of certain segments of Salinger’s life without conveying a big-picture sense of what his actual writing was like — why it mattered, and why it still matters.

Celebrities including Edward Norton, John Cusack and Philip Seymour Hoffman provide quick glimpses of their memories of reading “The Catcher in the Rye,” the groundbreaking 1951 debut novel that was such a smash success, it sent Salinger scurrying into hiding in the New Hampshire woods. Perhaps they, too, experienced the high school rite of passage of reading it in 10th-grade English class. (Stars: They’re just like us!) Martin Sheen gets a bit more screen time to provide some historical perspective, but still: Why these people of all the celebrities in all the world? If they have any particular affinity for Salinger, it’s unclear.

The inclusion of famous talking heads ends up feeling like one more gimmick in a movie filled with them. The worst of these is Salerno’s decision to stage theatrical, often painfully on-the-nose reenactments. (I have no problem philosophically with this approach, which can be dramatically effective in a documentary like James Marsh’s “Man on Wire.”)

Granted, Salerno had to fill in the gaps and flesh out the mystery of Salinger with something, but these images tend to be clunky, hokey and repetitive. An actor playing Salinger pounds away at a typewriter on a dark stage, an ever-present cigarette dangling from his lips, rejected pages scattered artfully across the floor. A little girl playing his daughter, Margaret, runs through the woods and bangs on the door of the sealed-off cabin where he’d write for days straight without acknowledging the outside world. Salinger visits various editors and publishers (all of whom work in the same historic office building, apparently) with mixed results.

The section in which Salerno reflects on the global impact of “The Catcher in the Rye” over the past six decades feels slick and cheesy by comparison. I don’t need random people standing in the middle of Times Square telling me why the book was significant, how Holden Caulfield spoke to them directly unlike any other character, much less multitudes in tiny boxes saying so again and again in various languages. It feels like filler, something that shouldn’t exist given the time and effort Salerno dedicated to this subject.

But “Salinger” can also be educational, even for fans of the writer’s work who thought they knew a great deal about him. Salerno sheds light on Salinger’s time as a soldier during World War II — hundreds of days in combat, the horrors of which informed everything he wrote afterward, the director theorizes. Salinger’s romance with Oona O’Neill — who left him to marry Charlie Chaplin — is a juicy tidbit, as is his brief marriage to a German woman he met during the war who may or may not have been a Nazi.

Salerno also includes lengthy interviews with some of the women Salinger befriended and/or became emotionally entangled with starting from when they were just young girls. Jean Miller was 14 and Salinger was 30 when they met on the sand in Daytona Beach, Florida, and enjoyed long walks in the sunshine. She recounts with great dignity that they didn’t become intimate until she was 19, but it’s clear that she was part of a pattern. (Miller also was the inspiration for the short story “For Esme — With Love and Squalor.”)

Creepy? More than a little. But in Salinger’s romanticized mind, it seems he was drawn to the sense of innocence and promise they represented. To his credit, Salerno doesn’t judge the author for the many flaws and eccentricities he exposes, and he has a point in suggesting that fans are nuts to demand that Salinger should have taken the time to serve as their personal savior.

After two hours, the meandering biography reveals itself as build-up to the bombshell that there are, indeed, more Salinger works coming: pieces he’d preserved and placed on a schedule for posthumous release starting in 2015. (Salinger died in 2010 at 91.)  So that’s what he was doing all this time. Mystery solved — or perhaps it’s just beginning all over again.

Post Date Sep 1

Revisiting Frost/Nixon

Frost/ Nixon

David Frost’s death Saturday night at 74 inspired me to revisit my review of “Frost/Nixon,” Ron Howard’s riveting account of the British broadcaster’s interviews with Richard Nixon after the former president resigned in disgrace. The 2008 film was nominated for five Academy Awards including best picture and best actor for Frank Langella’s intense and disturbing turn as Nixon (but, oddly, no nomination for Michael Sheen as Frost). Still, the film remains Howard’s best. Here’s a look back.

Universal Pictures
Rated R for some language.
Running time: 122 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

“No holds barred,” Richard Nixon urges to David Frost as the two prepare to sit down for a series of interviews in 1977.

As “Frost/Nixon” powerfully reveals, that statement contains equal parts promise and threat from both the disgraced figure on screen and the actor playing him.

Frank Langella is positively formidable as the former president, a skilled manipulator under optimal circumstances whose desperate desire for rehabilitation makes him extra dangerous.

Langella isn’t doing a dead-on impression, which is preferable; Nixon’s quirks have been imitated so frequently and poorly, such an approach risks lapsing into caricature. Rather, he has internalized a volatile combination of inferiority, awkwardness, quick wit and a hunger for power. He loses himself in the role with rumbles and growls, with a hunched carriage and the slightest lift of the eyebrows.

Langella and Michael Sheen, also excellent as the breezy British TV personality Frost, reprise the parts they originated in Peter Morgan’s Tony Award-winning stage production. But you never feel like you’re watching a play on film: The way Morgan has opened up the proceedings in his screenplay feels organic under the direction of Ron Howard, who’s crafted his finest film yet, and one of the year’s best.

“Frost/Nixon” is talky and weighty as it digs into the details of Vietnam and Watergate, but it moves along with a fluidity that keeps it constantly engaging. Morgan’s script also contains a healthy amount of dark humor, mostly the result of something crass or inappropriate Nixon has said. Good thing, too, because the tension starts percolating early and only grows.

Upon seeing the image of Nixon smiling eerily as he boards a helicopter after resigning the presidency, Frost stands in front of a television transfixed. Hoping to lose the perception that he’s a lightweight and gain some credibility _ or rather, achieve fame in America _ he approaches Nixon for an interview and promises money he doesn’t have.

Sheen is doing something so subtle here, and as in his insightful work as Tony Blair in Morgan’s “The Queen,” he’s likely to get upstaged, unfortunately. All his Frost wants is to be liked, but he strives for that with the slightest obsequiousness. Critics may mistake his playboy demeanor for arrogance, but it truly seems to spring from longing.

The former president, meanwhile, hopes to use the opportunity to return to public life among the East Coast elite: He’s bored with retirement and feels humiliated droning on for banquet crowds for cash. He wants an interviewer with heft, but he’ll take the $600,000 his agent, Swifty Lazar (Toby Jones), has secured by saying yes to Frost.

And so they face each other for four extended interviews, which comprise the film’s second hour. Frost has gotten help cramming for this exam from British TV producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), veteran journalist Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) and author and Nixon critic James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell). Rebecca Hall provides moral support as the sultry socialite Frost picked up in first class while flying to the United States.

In Nixon’s corner are loyalists including the fierce strategist Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon) and, amusingly, a young Diane Sawyer. Performances from the chief supporting players are uniformly excellent, especially from Platt and Rockwell, whose characters rib each other and share a disdain of Frost’s celebrity.

But Zelnick puts it best when he calls Frost “the most unlikely white knight … but a man who had one big advantage over all of us. He understood television.” And television exposed both Frost and Nixon for their true natures _ for better and for worse.

Post Date Aug 31 — One Direction: This Is Us

One Direction: This Is Us Movie ReviewWhen the fine folks at 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