These “Cities of Love” movies — collections of shorts that pay homage to a specific place — keep getting worse. “Paris, Je T’aime” was hit-and-miss but had plenty of charm. “New York, I Love You” strangely failed to capture the essence of a city that’s been depicted on film countless times. The latest anthology, set in Rio de Janeiro, has the glossy emptiness of an tourism promotion video. My RogerEbert.com review.
If you were a little girl in the 1970s like I was, you probably loved “Ice Castles” and watched it a million times — whether or not you’d ever actually set foot on the ice yourself.
You know that aspiring figure-skating champion Lexie Winston (Lynn-Holly Johnson) is going to take a hard fall while landing a jump that leaves her nearly totally blind, just as she’s on the brink of superstardom, yet you’re gripped with suspense as it’s about to happen. You know she’ll trip on the congratulatory roses tossed from the crowd once she stages her hard-fought comeback, and that her hockey-player boyfriend, Nick (Robby Benson), will walk onto the ice to lead her to safety before stunned onlookers. (His closing line, “We forgot about the flowers,” has an understated poignancy.)
Merely clicking on the link to this story probably has put the “Ice Castles” theme song, “Through the Eyes of Love,” in your head, and it’ll probably stay there for the rest of the week. (You’re welcome.) Like so much about the film, the soaring ballad is so completely of its time: a Marvin Hamlisch/Carole Bayer Sager collaboration, sung by Melissa Manchester, which earned an Oscar nomination for best original song.
Clearly, I have a ton of fond memories of this movie, but I hadn’t seen it in a really long time and I hadn’t seen it since my son and I started figure skating ourselves a year ago. (Not that we skate together — although that could make for some awesomely awkward, “Arrested Development”-style creepiness.) And so when I saw that the New Beverly Cinema was showing “Ice Castles” last night on a double bill with the Richard Dreyfuss-Amy Irving piano romance “The Competition” (which I’d never seen), I knew I had to go, even if it meant sitting by myself and crying alone like a loser. (Thankfully, my fellow critic and dear friend Amy Nicholson joined me.)
I was curious to see whether it still held the same emotional impact that it did when I was a romantic little girl in 1979 — whether nostalgia would win out over my more critical instincts, or whether it would hold up despite seeming so dated. Looking back, my fellow critics were not terribly kind to “Ice Castles.” It’s at 44 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, with my dear, departed friend, Roger Ebert, giving it two stars out of four and saying: “One of the melancholy aspects of `Ice Castles’ is the quality of talent that’s been brought to such an unhappy enterprise.”
What I discovered in revisiting “Ice Castles” is that it’s pure sports-movie formula about a gifted athlete who rises and falls and rises again, but it’s got such strong performances and a vivid sense of place that it makes you want to root for this underdog to succeed. Despite the inherent melodrama of the story, director and co-writer Donald Wrye stages and shoots it all in a lean, unfussy way. (Wrye also directed a 2010, direct-to-DVD remake of “Ice Castles,” which I’ve never seen and wish I didn’t even know about.) His low-angle camerawork during Lexie’s performances and Nick’s hockey games gives those scenes a natural, propulsive energy. And he doesn’t rely too heavily on blurry images to give us the sensation of Lexie’s muted perspective, but does so just enough to indicate her disorientation and fear.
The fact that an actual figure skater plays the lead role — not an actress pretending to skate — lends a great deal of authenticity. Johnson had skated competitively and performed with the Ice Capades before making her film debut here. Her character experiences a massive arc, requiring her to show a great deal of range, and Johnson rises to the challenge admirably. She’s vibrant and appealing, which goes a long way.
It helps a great deal that Johnson’s got such strong support around her, including Benson as her playful but supportive boyfriend, Tom Skerritt as her overprotective, widower father and the great Colleen Dewhurst as a cantankerous former skating champion who now runs the bowling alley/ice rink in small-town Waverly, Iowa, and serves as Lexie’s coach. (Please tell me that such places actually exist in real life.) Jennifer Warren brings sophistication and smarts to the role of the big-time coach who plucks Lexie from obscurity and places her on a path to stardom.
But the one element that really clanged for me this time was Lexie’s fling with the sports reporter (David Huffman) who’s tracking her meteoric rise: a) She’s only 16 and he’s got to be in his 30s, and b) he’s doing a series of pieces on her and then squiring her around to high-profile events. Just icky all around.
And in retrospect, the choreography and costumes all look so quaint. Lexie’s big move is a double axel and she tries to prove she belongs with the big-city girls by landing a triple; these days, triple-triple jump combinations are standard for elite skaters like Ashley Wagner and Gracie Gold. Lexie’s signature blue dress with the prim, white collar is meant to be old-fashioned and set her apart as a farm girl, but even the fancy, bedazzled dresses the top skaters wear look hilariously cheesy today.
But the chance at greatness — the aspiration toward being the absolute best at something — still resonates, regardless of aesthetic trappings. And that’s why “Ice Castles” still soars today.
Rated R for for non-stop bloody brutal violence and mayhem, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use.
Running time: 95 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.
Bring Dramamine if you’re planning on seeing “Hardcore Henry.” And do NOT meet up with friends for drinks beforehand.
This extra-violent extravaganza of first-person action filmmaking is not for the faint of heart, and it surely is not for anyone under age 17. (Your tweens and teens may think it looks fun, or dope, or whatever the kids say these days with their rock ‘n’ roll music. Say no. This is a very hard R.) At the same time, it’s probably also not for grown-ass people like yours truly. It is pummeling. It is punishing. It is nauseating and headache-inducing. I was seriously discombobulated walking back to my car afterward and was in a pissed-off mood the rest of the night. Maybe that’s the point.
But if you’re in the sweet spot of its target viewing audience — video game enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s, and more than likely male — then “Hardcore Henry” is for you. Now get off my lawn.
Writer-director Ilya Naishuller, a 29-year-old Russian who’s also the lead singer of the punk band Biting Elbows, has come up with an inventive premise and an intriguing mystery that grab your attention — at least for the first 20 minutes or so. But the film’s relentless, repetitive violence quickly grows numbing and even boring — which, theoretically, is not what you’re looking to achieve in a high-octane action flick.
“Hardcore Henry” is predicated on a gimmick — albeit, a clever gimmick — but there’s not much more to the movie than that. Naishuller attached GoPro cameras to a bunch of stuntmen to create the sensation that we are experiencing everything our protagonist, Henry, experiences: all the running, jumping, climbing, chasing, crashing, fighting, shooting and killing. We never see his face and we don’t even hear his voice because he doesn’t have one. We are learning everything right alongside him. We are essentially watching someone play a first-person shooter video game on a giant movie screen.
The film begins with Henry waking up in a lab with no memory of who he is or how he got there. A beautiful, blonde scientist, Estelle (Haley Bennett), is attaching high-tech prosthetic limbs to his battered, tatted body — and she says she’s his wife. But he quickly realizes he’s in danger and must go on the run throughout Moscow from the various bad guys who are after him, including a diabolical albino with telekinetic powers (Danila Kozlovsky) and his army of cyborg henchmen. Luckily for Henry, though, he’s a killing machine — part man, part science experiment — which makes the vast majority of “Hardcore Henry” a non-stop bloodbath.
The curiosity of who he is, how he got in this condition and what the crazy bad guy wants is compelling for a little while. But — spoiler! — the movie never answers these questions in a way that’s even vaguely satisfying. The story is totally subordinate to the spectacle. It is the McGuffin. The dizzying visuals are all that matter — but they’re not enough to make us care.
Henry also visits a Russian brothel where dozens of women are dressed (or, rather, undressed) identically in nothing but black panties and platinum blonde wigs. It screams of misogyny, but it’s probably also yet another intentional element in recreating the video game sensation. Various characters do massive amounts of drugs, which I guess is supposed to be edgy. Oh yes, and there’s a ton of language, but that seems almost quaint compared to the other hardcore activities going on here.
One bright spot is Sharlto Copley’s performance as an odd dude named Jimmy, who shows up along the way in various disguises and voices to give Henry clues as to where he needs to go and what he needs to do. Copley gets to play it broadly, mix it up and have a little fun as an “Easy Rider”-style hippie, a punker, a coke fiend in a leopard-print banana hammock and more. He is a welcome source of lightness and humor.
I admire the ambition, the vision and the level of planning it took to pull off such massive, intricately choreographed set pieces, but I can’t exactly say I enjoyed “Hardcore Henry.” By the end, when Henry is fighting off an endless onslaught of white-suited cyborgs on a Moscow rooftop, it’s just impossible to look directly at the screen anymore, and only partly because of the motion sickness that results in doing so.
“Meet the Blacks” is, fundamentally, a spoof of “The Purge” in which a black family moves from a violent section of Chicago to a wealthy enclave in Beverly Hills and finds it’s even more dangerous for them there. But if this is going to be your premise — whites killing blacks out of snobbery or intolerance — your humor better be pretty sharp and sophisticated. Instead, “Meet the Blacks” gives us fart jokes and tired pop-culture references. My one-star RogerEbert.com review.
“Kill Your Friends,” a dark satire of the late-’90s music industry, is amusingly slick and biting for a while. Nicholas Hoult stars as a successful and handsome but secretly homicidal A&R executive at a London record label. But comparisons to “American Psycho” are inevitable, and “Kill Your Friends” doesn’t measure up favorably. The soundtrack is pretty great, though. My RogerEbert.com review.
Rated PG-13 for intense violence and action, thematic elements and some partial nudity.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One star out of four.
The confused look on the faces of all the characters in the above photo pretty much tells you everything you need to know about “Allegiant” — I’m sorry, “The Divergent Series: Allegiant.” Because three films into the franchise, the title is now being elongated with extra punctuation and everything. It “matters” now.
Whereas the original “Divergent” from 2014 had the excitement of discovery working for it, this one’s bafflingly self-serious. They just keep getting worse. Following last year’s “Insurgent,” this one’s just a total slog. And unfortunately, it’s not over. As is always the case with movie series based on young adult novels, the third book in Veronica Roth’s trilogy is being broken into two films. The “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” franchises employed this tactic with greater success. With “Divergent,” it feels more like a threat than a promise: You thought we were done here? Think again.
“Allegiant” is one overlong, dour placeholder for the actual finale, due out next summer. In theory, though, the premise sounded exciting.
This time, plucky Tris (Shailene Woodley), her hunky boyfriend, Four (Theo James), and their ragtag band of buddies dare to climb the wall that surrounds Chicago in this dystopian near-future to see what’s on the other side. That’s been the mystery all along: What’s out there? How could it be more dangerous and soul-sucking than what’s in here? With the overly simplistic faction system having been dismantled — and Kate Winslet’s power-mad Jeanine out of the picture — they feel emboldened to be the best version of themselves they can be and explore the outside world.
What they find, though, are terrible special effects. Director Robert Schwentke, who also helmed last year’s “Insurgent,” has created a craggy, reddish-fuchsia world where toxic rain bleeds from the sky. It vaguely resembles Mars, but the quality of the visuals is more reminiscent of how crappy the green-screen effects looked in Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” movies (especially the later ones). A nightmarish landscape that’s meant to be frightening — or at least unsettling — ends up being hilariously cheesy instead.
But Tris and Four also find themselves in the midst of a weird Holocaust allegory. (And maybe this was how it went down in Roth’s book — honestly, I only read the first one.) Children are separated from their parents and rounded up in the name of scientifically achieving genetic purity. (One little boy watches as his father is shot to death right in front of him.) When Tris, Four and their pals are taken into custody by members of the Bureau of Genetic Welfare — er, rescued from this vast, post-apocalyptic wasteland — they’re told to throw their clothes into an incinerator before stepping into a shower for “decontamination.” (The gooey, golden pods that protect them from the elements as they’re carried to safety look especially stiff and strange.)
What are we meant to take from this, I wonder? Is it intended as a cautionary tale? A source of chills and thrills? I’m not sure the film itself even knows. Having a seasoned actor like Jeff Daniels playing the bureau’s creepy chief lends a bit of gravitas, but his character is so obviously evil that there’s no question or suspense as to his intentions. Octavia Spencer and Naomi Watts (in a terrible brunette dye job) as warring Chicago leaders show glimmers of feistiness, but even strong, versatile actresses like these can only do so much with what they’re given on the page. (The script is credited to Noah Oppenheim, Adam Cooper and Bill Collage.)
And then, intermittently, “Allegiant” makes the mistake of trying to be funny. Mostly this comes in the form of Miles Teller as the slithery, opportunistic Peter, whose own allegiances flip-flop to suit his purposes. Basically, Teller has been tasked with showing up and being snarky on cue. Not only is this jarring, it’s an example of the entire supporting cast (including Ansel Elgort as Tris’ uptight brother and Zoe Kravitz as her confident friend) being reduced to one-note roles, which has been a problem throughout the series.
Anyway, Tris must decide between being special in the eyes of of a dastardly genetic purist and special in the eyes of the handsome young man who loves her. Being confused as she’s tugged in both directions is not Woodley’s strong suit; an accessible, abiding naturalism is. Here, she’s been rendered strangely inert, despite the innate physicality of the role. Perhaps next year’s “Ascendent” will allow her to be her own woman, once and for all. But I wouldn’t hold my breath, despite the contaminated air.
If you’ve read my reviews over the years, you probably know I’m not a big fan of faith-based films. That’s what makes “Miracles From Heaven” such a wonderful surprise. But regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), bring tissues. You’ll need them for this real-life story of a little girl’s miraculous healing. My unexpectedly positive RogerEbert.com review.
Rated R for strong violence and language throughout.
Running time: 99 minutes.
One star out of four.
“London Has Fallen” is Donald Trump in film form.
And not even in the funny, Funny-or-Die film form, which knowingly luxuriates in the ludicrousness of his bombastic persona. “London Has Fallen” is a shot of Trump’s jingoistic viciousness straight to the veins.
In this numbingly violent, over-the-top sequel to 2013’s “Olympus Has Fallen,” all Westerners are innocent targets of terrorism. All Muslims are single-minded extremists. And only one man — Gerard Butler, once again swallowing his Scottish accent to play the nation’s most indestructible Secret Service agent — can stop them.
It’s: “America, Fuck Yeah!” with zero irony.
But let’s try to set aside the fear-based philosophical and political underpinnings for a moment and just focus on “London Has Fallen” for its entertainment value as an action flick: It’s actually kind of dull in its monotony. Director Babak Najafi whips up a couple of cool sequences that stand out amid the relentless gunfire and cacophonous destruction. One takes place inside a spinning helicopter as it’s under attack; the camera spins, too, from inside the chopper and then outside as it slams into the side of a building before crashing to the ground. In the other, he creates the sensation of a lengthy, unbroken take as Butler’s outnumbered but undaunted Mike Banning tries to hold off a barrage of enemy gunfire down a long, narrow street in the black of night.
And that’ll just about do it for the complimentary portion of this review.
Najafi, by the way, was born in Iran and makes his English-language directing debut with “London Has Fallen.” Helming a massive action picture with a cast featuring Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Jackie Earle Haley, Melissa Leo and Robert Forster probably sounded like an attractive challenge, but I can’t help but wonder what he thought of the film’s ideology. (The screenplay is credited to four people, including the husband-and-wife team of Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, who also wrote “Olympus Has Fallen.”)
The premise this time is that the British prime minister has died suddenly, which means all the world’s leaders must convene in London for his funeral. That includes Eckhart’s president of the United States, Benjamin Asher, with the ever-reliable and wisecracking head of his detail, Banning, as well as Bassett’s Lynne Jacobs, the Secret Service chief. Also arriving to pay their respects are the leaders of Germany, Italy, France, Japan and Canada.
Despite insistence from the local authorities that security is super tight, Banning has a bad feeling about this — and as it turns out, he’s right. Plus, at the film’s start, he’s about to quit his job to spend more time with his pregnant wife (Radha Mitchell), who’s on the verge of giving birth at any moment. Of course something terrible was going to happen.
Middle Eastern Evil Guy Amir Barkawi (Alon Aboutboul), an internationally wanted arms dealer, takes the opportunity not only to assassinate all these heads of state but decimate London’s centuries-old landmarks in the process. He does this to avenge the killing of his daughter two years earlier on her wedding day in a drone strike that was meant for him. And he does it by infiltrating the police force and through general high-tech omnipotence.
From there, Banning’s main assignment is to get the president out of London, but first he must stop the evildoers who’ve taken over the city, making movement and communication nearly impossible. Back home, the vice president (Freeman) and various cabinet members and security chiefs wait and worry as they watch the devastating images from London and receive threats from Barkawi, who promises he’ll kill President Asher at 8 p.m. Gunfire, gunfire and more gunfire ensue. But sometimes, Banning also gets to stab someone as he protects the president, and he literally twists the knife with glee as he does it.
Superficially, their adrenalized adventures are meant to be thrilling. But fundamental to the duo’s quest to survive is an us-vs.-them mentality that’s offensive in the overly simplistic way it panders to fears of terrorism in general and Muslims in particular. They can’t stand us and our way of life, the film seems to be saying. These villains don’t even get the benefit of characterization beyond hatred and mastery of high-tech weaponry. They will kill as many people as they must to get to the leader of the free world. And when they do get their hands on him, they will beat and torture him cruelly.
Nearly as obnoxious is the flippant way Banning and Asher share a jovial quip each time they get out of a jam. At one point, Banning makes a joke about Asher coming out of the closet after Asher literally has stepped out of a closet. This is the level of repartee you can expect from “London Has Fallen.” Ostensibly, this brand of humor is meant to provide comic relief; instead, it’s cringe-inducing.
I hated “London Has Fallen” so much that as soon as I got out of the screening, I changed the Waze voice on my phone from the smooth, comforting tones of Freeman back to Thomas, the British guy who mispronounces major Los Angeles streets like La Cienega and Sepulveda. Hopefully, no more cities have to fall.
“The Young Messiah” is essentially an origin story for the archetypal superhero: Jesus Christ. Exploring what life might have been like for the messiah at age 7 is an intriguing idea, but the execution is rather earnest and dull. Still, it has better production values than most faith-based films. Hallelujah! My RogerEbert.com review.