December 31, 2015

A Year at the Movies: 2015

Depending on whom you ask, movies are either alive and well or dying an agonizing death. For me, it depends on when you ask. (I'm liable to join the death knell camp during the summer months.) I've stopped worrying, and continue to hold out hope that whatever is unfolding before my eyes will be fresh and entertaining. Sometimes that hope is all we movie-lovers have, and when something comes along that surprises us, it's almost miraculous. So whatever the state of movies today (the answer is probably both good and bad), I'm always excited to look back and remember with pleasure the movies that I loved seeing. So, without further ado, my top 11 favorite movies of 2015. (The order isn't all that official, except for #1 and #2.)

11. I'll See You in My Dreams. Blythe Danner's fine performance is reason enough to see this charming romantic comedy. But what's striking about this movie is how it uses the conventional rom-com genre to explore some fascinating relationships. And the directions it takes are often surprising.

10. Tangerine. Shot with iPhones, Sean Baker's breakthrough film pulsates with vitality, much of which comes from its two stars, trans women Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor. 

9. Dope. Set in Inglewood, California, this charming comedy about a black nerd from the hood who wants to go to Harvard was truly the antidote of summer movies. It's funny and insightful, and features winning performances from its three leads.

8. Spy. Melissa McCarthy finally found a vehicle that didn't have to run her over repeatedly, and she found some wonderful counterparts in Rose Byrne (delivering a fantastically wicked performance as the chief villain) and Jason Statham (making fun of himself).

7. The Hateful Eight. It may be a lesser and invariably nasty Tarantino effort, but it's still a fabulous entertainment, brandishing style and vigor with ease, and featuring a lot of really funny performances from Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, et al.

6. Love & Mercy. A refreshing biopic about the Beach Boys, refreshing because it isn't weighed down by its own importance. Those scenes of Paul Dano--playing a young Brian Wilson--directing the recordings of Pet Sounds are truly enthralling. And Elizabeth Banks? Terrific.

5. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Guy Ritchie surprises with a chic, clever, thrilling spy-comedy based on the 1960s TV show. The banter between Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer makes this movie, and all the stylish clothes and exciting locations and incredibly well-staged action scenes are just gravy. Lushly entertaining.

4. Phoenix. A slow build-up to the greatest finale 2015 ever saw. Nina Hoss plays a German Jew who survived the Holocaust, but with a disfigured face. She emerges from plastic surgery with a new identity, and tracks down the husband who betrayed her. Unforgettable.

3. Brooklyn. Saoirse Ronan gives one of the year's best performances as an Irish immigrant making her way in 1950s New York. It's a moving and beautifully made film that earns its sentimental moments.

2. Chi-Raq. Spike Lee returns to form with this angry, funny, audacious masterpiece, based loosely on the Greek play Lysistrata. 

1. Spotlight. A fascinating, heart-breaking good yarn about the Boston Globe's investigation of the Catholic Church's long and sordid history of abuse. Probably the most important film of 2015, and a reminder that we need good journalism.

Honorable Mentions: The Big Short, Ex Machina, Maps to the Stars, The MartianThe Second Mother, SpectreSteve JobsThe Visit

Brazilian film “The Second Mother” offers a smart take on the class system and mothers and daughters.

Nobody adheres to the rules of the class system like domestics. At least, that’s the impression we get from The Second Mother, a sharp Brazilian comedy of manners about a live-in housekeeper named Val (played by Regina Casé) whose sense of social order is thoroughly uprooted when her fiercely independent daughter comes to stay with her in the home of her wealthy employers. Val has almost no relationship with her daughter Jéssica (Camila Márdila), but she’s spent many years socking away money to help provide for her. Jéssica is, surprisingly, welcomed by Val’s employers, Barbara and Carlos, who sense one of their own in Jéssica’s strong personality: She’s not hemmed in by any traditional definitions of class. Jéssica’s behavior shocks her mom: She eats at the family’s breakfast table, converses with them like a daughter on college break (she’s actually studying for her university entrance exam), and becomes especially close with the husband, Carlos, who seems to be caught in a loveless marriage with a somewhat pampered celebrity. (Although it’s his money they’re living on, he’s quick to point out to Jéssica: “Everybody’s dancing, but I’m the DJ.”)

Writer-director Anna Muylaert has a keen sense of the tensions in relationships, and she resists any urge to paint her characters in broad colors. We feel both relief and indignation about Jéssica and the way she acts; we feel charmed by Val’s dedication to her bosses—she treats their babied teenage son Fabinho like her own son, and their relationship makes his mom jealous—yet frustrated by Val’s thoughtless dependence on old ways. But who can blame her?

The Second Mother smartly explores the ambiguity in the relationship between a household and its domestic staff. They’re never family, yet Val has essentially raised Fabinho. Moreover, she’s closer to him than to her actual daughter. She’s transferred her love to him, and she pampers him just as much as his own mother does. When he doesn’t pass the entrance exam (the same one for which Jéssica has been preparing), Val caresses him in his self-pity and massages his ego: “You were just nervous. You’re so smart.” When Barbara complains that Fabinho doesn’t show her as much affection as he does Val, Fabinho responds, “Val thinks I’m smart. You think I’m stupid.” But there’s an implication that Val lacks a certain level of education, that her judgment is purely based on emotions. He likes being coddled. Everyone does in this movie, including Jéssica, who at times wins our disdain for being such an ingrate.

Regina Casé gives a fine performance in the lead. Casé, a well-known actress and comedian in Brazil, doesn’t grandstand. She’s immersed in her part and plays it with total credibility. And as uneducated as Val is, she never appears dumb. Maybe silly, maybe provincial, but never dumb. Casé imbues her with dignity, and Muylaert’s understanding of the class structure—one that is probably very much alive in Brazil—is nuanced. She’s not out to prove a point, and because she believes in the total humanity of every single character in her movie, The Second Mother feels honest and perceptive.   

Tarantino's Latest Film is Sick, Demented, Fun. (If you're up for it.)

The very mention of Quentin Tarantino’s name is loaded with associations and expectations. For some, Tarantino is a cinematic god. For others, he’s an irritant. Like J.J. Abrams, Tarantino is a nostalgia pirate, making movies that riff on specific films and genres he loves. But Tarantino is a better filmmaker, and even a “lesser” entry like The Hateful Eight is something to behold. There’s so much pressure to be a masterpiece, that it’s hardly fair to hold The Hateful Eight up to such an impossible standard. If you like the style of Quentin Tarantino, you’re likely to enjoy his latest joint; if you find his work maddening, steer clear.

The Hateful Eight may be the sickest Quentin Tarantino movie yet. Or, maybe I’ve just forgotten how sick all the previous films were. Eight is sort of a combination Western and Agatha Christie yarn, set on a blizzardy night in the Wyoming wilderness in a rickety old haberdashery, where a group of strangers is snowed in. Among them is John Ruth (Kurt Russell), a bounty hunter nicknamed “The Hangman,” who’s escorting a salty murderess named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the small town of Red Rock, where she’ll be hanged for her crimes. Russell is a pop culture legend, having created some of the best tough guys in action movies of the last thirty-ish years. As John Ruth, with his face hidden behind an unkempt wilderness of hair, he’s gruff and withered, but still tough as nails and still utterly likable, even when he elbows poor Daisy in the face (on multiple occasions).

Leigh’s performance as Daisy is probably the best in the film and the least show-offy. She’s like an older, weather-worn version of Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club: she’s a quiet flake who can take just about anything that’s given her, and she’s constantly winking when her aggressors aren’t looking.

Daisy and John Ruth are on a private stagecoach when they’re stopped by Samuel L. Jackson’s character, Mark Warren, another bounty hunter. Warren fought for the Yankees in the Civil War, and he’s a controversial figure, having deliberately killed white soldiers on both sides of the fight. Unlike John Ruth, who always sees his captive criminals are given proper hanging justice, Warren has no scruples about collecting his bounty with a corpse. When we meet Warren, he’s sitting atop a pile of frozen dead swindlers, waiting for a ride into town.

Samuel L. Jackson exhibits such exuberant brio in his performances that he may be impossible to dislike. His acting in The Hateful Eight isn’t particularly different from his acting in Chi-Raq, or any number of other movies (including my personal favorite Tarantino film, Jackie Brown). But like many of the great stars, it’s Jackson’s personality that we love. The way he talks directly to us (even when he isn’t), the way his grandstanding and speechifying commands our attention and tickles us, is some kind of pure Hollywood pleasure. Jackson here does not disappoint, and even when he’s on the brink of physical agony, he's delightful.

Hateful Eight may be Tarantino’s nastiest effort. As the title suggests, nobody in this film is lovable. (It looks as grim as Robert Altman's wintry Western McCabe and Mrs. Miller, only the nastiness is canned, far less authentic.) Many of the characters have charming attributes, but those attributes are really the personalities of the actors coming through: Jackson’s smart-ass-cinematic-emcee quality, Russell’s charming-tough-guy, the way Jennifer Jason Leigh uses her eyes as obscene gestures directed at anyone and everyone. Tarantino newcomer Walton Goggins may have the most genuinely good character to play: his name is Chris Mannix, and he’s allegedy the new sheriff of Red Rock, stranded in the snow and awaiting rescue when John Ruth’s lucky stagecoach happens by and whisks him away. Mannix brims with foolhardy machismo, and it’s utterly charming: First you can’t help but feel sorry for him because you know he doesn’t know whom he’s dealing with; later you feel sorry for him because you actually like him; and by the end you may feel something like affection for him.

Tarantino doesn’t skimp on the gab in Hateful Eight, either. At times, the talking lulled me into almost-stupefaction. But the movie is just interesting enough in those moments to work. And it builds to a satisfying—if deeply troubling and disturbing and gory—finish that will not disappoint fans. Hateful Eight may be the least urgent of Tarantino’s later films, but it’s a terrific entertainment, and it’s beautifully shot (by Robert Richardson) and scored (by Ennio Morricone). And that cast is hard to beat.

With Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, James Parks, Demian Bichir, Bruce Dern, and Channing Tatum. Written by Tarantino.

December 29, 2015

Catching Up: Five Capsule Reviews

Below, you will find capsule reviews of some of the movies I neglected to write about this year. Most if not all of them are now available to rent or stream somewhere. In some cases, these are movies I felt conflicted about and as such struggled to find the words to describe them.

The Assassin. The most beautifully soporific movie experience of 2015. It’s a stunningly gorgeous picture you could hang in an art gallery, but make sure the seats are hard and uncomfortable, or the audience may find that it puts them to sleep. The director, Hou Hsaiao-Hsien, has every detail in place in recreating an 8th-century Chinese village (during the Tang Dynasty) where the people are beset by the coming assassin who’s sworn to kill her brother, one of the residents. There’s a gorgeous dance sequence, and it’s fun to behold all the little trinkets and bowls and other objects that populate this movie, but the film plods along with such deliberate languor that it feels like a punishment. Even the martial arts sequences, though well-choreographed, fail to breathe any life into The Assassin.

Clouds of Sils Maria. A slow-moving, very well-acted, beautifully made, but ultimately dull film about the emotional crisis of a respected film and stage actress named Maria Enders, played by Juliette Binoche. Enders is en route to Switzerland with her personal assistant (played by Kristin Stewart) when she learns that her mentor, a writer-director who put her on the map 20 years ago, has died. Maria is distraught, and rendered even more fragile when she’s faced with the possibility of doing a sequel to the original film, playing her character 20 years older and playing opposite a hot new actress (Chloe Grace Moretz). Binoche is terrific, and the film has a lot to say about fame and aging and relationships. But despite the great skill of director Olivier Assayas, Clouds of Sils Maria is too stilted. When Bette Davis played an actress having a nervous breakdown in All About Eve, it was delightfully entertaining. Sils Maria feels enervated. And Kristen Stewart, who’s earned some recognition for her performance, still hasn’t found any emotions to convey other than annoyance. 

Creed. I found myself enjoying this Rocky reboot despite the fact that I hate boxing movies and have never seen a single Rocky picture. Sylvester Stallone is surprisingly good, now regulated to the position of trainer. (Stallone carries himself with gracious wit; his performance is surprisingly subtle and endearing.) The trainee is Adonis “Donnie” Creed, son of Balboa’s rival-friend Apollo. Donnie is played by Michael B. Jordan, who carries the picture well. The movie isn’t particularly revolutionary, but it hits all the right beats, and director Ryan Coogler succeeds in making us care about the stakes. That’s more than I usually get out of a boxing movie. With Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashad (who gets too little screen time as Donnie’s adopted mother), and Tony Bellew as Donnie’s rival.

Maps to the Stars. Probably the craziest movie I saw all year, starring Julianne Moore as the anti-Sils Maria Hollywood-diva-having-a-nervous-breakdown. She plays a wretched yet fragile actress whose personal assistant (Mia Wasikowska) is insane and obsessive, and once tried to kill her brother by setting their house on fire. (The assistant has some kind of psychological "connection" to her brother than drives her obsession.) This is David Cronenberg’s version of Birdman with more than a bit of David Lynch thrown in for good measure. Maps to the Stars is disturbing and weird and unsettling, and it may actually be my favorite Cronenberg movie in recent memory. But it’s not for everyone, especially when someone gets beaten to death with an Academy Award statuette. With John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, and Elijah Bird.

The Wolfpack. A strange, at times mesmerizing, but flawed documentary about a Peruvian recluse, his American wife, and their seven children (six boys and a girl) living in isolation in their Lower East Side apartment. The director, Crystal Moselle, inadvertently discovered the boys on one of their rare outings, and became fascinated with them. Despite having almost no interactions with the outside world, the boys developed a kind of social language based on the movies they voraciously watched and then imitated. The boys are tall and skinny with long black hair, and they dress like the thugs in Reservoir Dogs. The Wolfpack is both a disturbing movie about neglect and a strangely hopeful movie about the power of movies, but Moselle’s fascination with her subject keeps her too close to the material. The movie ignores some pretty big questions about the family’s less-than-healthy existence, and left me feeling distant rather than invested. 

"The Big Short" takes a deftly comic look at the 2008 housing bubble.

At once documentary and narrative, comical and cynical, The Big Short is a refreshingly un-self-important end-of-the-year release from director Adam McKay. McKay, who’s best known for making such silly comedies as Anchorman and Talladega Nights, has plenty of experience with movies about terrible people in positions of power. Now he’s made a film which depicts real people who did real damage, even though some of the names have been changed. The Big Short examines the housing market crash of 2007-08 and the financial entrepreneurs who predicted it and profited by it. It’s a virtual who’s-who of the country’s greediest people. The film’s wry tone will likely overshadow the real weight of its subject matter. But thematically speaking, this movie is on the level of a massive-scaled Victorian novel: It’s both fascinated by and critical of capitalism, and even if it doesn’t punish its characters with the moral authority of a Trollope or a Dickens, it’s a film capable of lighting a fire in its audience.

The material covered by The Big Short (it’s adapted by McKay and Charles Randolph from Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book) is dense and at times confusing if you are, like me, woefully under-educated about sub-prime mortgages and swaps and all things mortgage-related. McKay knows his material is difficult, which may be one of the reasons he resorts to at times audacious moments of humor. The market’s crash was, of course, a very bad thing for a lot of people. And you can feel the film’s indignation as it depicts all of the financial entrepreneurs who profited by the crash. Playing hedge fund manager Michael Burry, Christian Bale is—according to the movie—the first to recognize a housing bubble. It’s 2005, and Burry, who wears a T-shirt and cargo shorts to the office and blitzes himself out to heavy metal while he stares into a computer screen all day, decides to short the market. His colleagues are horrified that Burry will bring their company to ruin, and the big lending companies are only too happy to take his money, never dreaming that Burry will ultimately be taking theirs.

The film tracks various other financial people who, like Burry, make the decidedly amoral choice to short the housing market, to profit off the impending financial ruin of others. Their attitude is: Anyone can figure this out, but nobody’s looking, so why not us? Moreover, the mortgage industry had been giving housing loans to anyone with a signature. Why shouldn’t they take advantage of the bad behavior of these lending companies who are offering the American Dream to those who cannot afford it?

McKay really emerges as a first-rate director here. Anchorman and Talladega Nights have their moments, but they are both too loosey-goosey in their structure. Working with different material and different actors, and fueled by healthy cynicism, McKay has found his niche as a director. At times, the actors speak directly to the camera, but their speech is always laced with humor, as though we were watching one of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries. At other times, the movie is surprisingly humane in its treatment of its characters. Steve Carell, playing another investor, named Mark Baum, is a good example of this. Baum is a prickly rat of a man (he looks like Templeton from Charlotte’s Webb) who barges into his group therapy session and interrupts everyone with his loud complaining, only to leave again to take a phone call. He’s caught up in the noise of his own life because he’s doesn’t want to deal with a personal tragedy for which he feels guilty. Later, he’s the one who realizes that taking advantage of other people’s bad practices isn’t good: it’s just more bad behavior.

Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt co-star, although their performances don’t really register. Gosling is quite good at playing a self-aggrandizing asshole, and does that very well here. Pitt’s character is the most laid-back of the bunch: he’s into sustainable living, since he believes the crash will permanently wreck the global economy. (Sustainable living is so much easier when you’re rich.)

With Melissa Leo, Marisa Tomei, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, Max Greenfield, Stanley Wong, and in amusing cameos, Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez.

December 23, 2015

Forced: The New Adventures of Old Star Wars

Note: I have made no attempts to conceal spoilers in this review, so read at your own risk.

After the last three films in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens had nowhere to go but up. While all the superfans were still basking in their space opera reverie from opening weekend, I managed to see an afternoon showing of the latest Star Wars. Here’s my history regarding this franchise, in a nutshell: I resisted them until 4th grade because everyone else was so into them; then I really loved them for a few years, until one of my best friends—a Star Wars devotee if ever there was one, who made Star Wars home movies with his brother—scared me straight. I wasn’t going to be that cultish about it. (There were so many other things to be cultish about.) The Force Awakens is a relatively clever and entertaining jaunt into space opera, but it hits all its predictable beats with such self-satisfaction that you know what’s coming before it happens. This is pure nostaglic giddiness on the part of director J.J. Abrams, pure “Look-at-me-getting-to-direct-a-Star-Wars-movie!” 

Nostalgia is the wind in the sails of The Force Awakens. J.J. Abrams has genuine affection for these movies, and he deftly adheres to all their idiosyncrasies. Force mirrors Star Wars (as in A New Hope) in a number of ways: it establishes new, young heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), a new (old) threat in the form of Han and Leia’s corrupted Jedi son Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). And now Luke Skywalker has taken on the Ben Kenobi aura of mystery, having fled civilization in despair. (His attempts to train his nephew backfired, and he feels responsible for Kylo Ren’s conversion to the Dark Side.)

Rey is essentially the new Luke Skywalker, although Finn may sort of share that credit. Rey is a scavenger living on a bleak desert planet called Jakku, where she awaits the return of her family. (It's not quite clear what happened to them.) Her existence is very Mad Max. We see her trading machine parts for food and sitting with watchful yearning (like Luke did in A New Hope) for something better to happen to her. She's pulled into the drama of Star Wars via an adorable droid named BB-8, who's carrying important information regarding Luke Skywalker's whereabouts. (Another mirror-plot checkpoint.)

Let’s remember that the original Star Wars was itself a nostalgia trip, culled by George Lucas from serials he remembered watching on Saturday mornings as a child. That makes The Force Awakens a nostalgia trip within a nostalgia trip; add to that the fact that the kids who grew up on the originals have now lived long enough to spawn their very own Star Wars-loving progeny, and you’ve essentially got third-hand mythology. That was why, about an hour into the movie, I began to pull away from it. The new characters’ stories are compelling, but Abrams cannot fully overcome the ring of familiarity. And he’s too much in love with the series to really want to, try as he might.

There are little moments of humor that really pop, and the performances of the three young leads are winning. Acting has improved so much over the years that they’re leagues ahead of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill when they first debuted in 1977. Those three, naturally, return for this new installment, with varying degrees of screen time. (Hamill seemed like a no show for most of the film, but Abrams pays it off smartly at the end.) 

J.J. Abrams has a knack for tweaking pop culture iconography into his own re-packaged product. But I’m not sure that qualifies him as a storyteller. It’s perhaps good enough that Abrams is better than George Lucas. But as a director—of movies, particularly—Abrams is erratic. Some of the action (meaning plot development, not merely fight scenes and explosions) is well-structured, like the climactic lightsaber showdown between Rey and Kylo Ren. At other times, Abrams fails to fully set up a scene. When Rey is attacked by some stormtroopers in a marketplace, we see it from afar through the perspective of Finn. The scene doesn't really work unless we're up close, watching Rey's reaction, watching her fend off the stormtroopers, rooting for her. Of course, the purpose of putting it from Finn's perspective is to have him rush to save her, only to get there after Rey has dispensed with her attackers on her own. She doesn't need his help. It's a cool, enlightened moment for a Star Wars movie, and yet the scene doesn't totally work as structured.

Likewise, the dialogue fluctuates in quality. Abrams wisely goes for silence in two key dramatic scenes: when Rey and Leia embrace after the death of Han Solo, and when Rey hands Luke Skywalker his lightsaber at the end. It’s hard to imagine any dialogue that wouldn’t have sounded cheesy in those moments. But in other scenes, the dialogue is laboriously clunky, like a laughably bad moment when Han Solo and Leia discuss their son’s temptation to the dark side, like they’re expounding on the ingredients of a chicken soup recipe. It’s some of the worst dialogue in the movie: utterly lacking in emotional truth, and utterly functional. (Perhaps it’s an ode to George Lucas’s hackneyed dialogue.)

Pauline Kael once said that Star Wars was like a box of Cracker Jacks that was all prizes. J.J. Abrams has adopted a similar storytelling method. He doesn’t have the patience to let the weighty moments in the story be earned. They’re revealed quickly and haphazardly—like when Kylo Ren removes his mask. (Remember it took us three movies to see Darth Vador’s face.) And when the young man kills his father—the beloved Han Solo—it feels both too late and too soon. (Harrison Ford apparently wanted Lucas to kill his character off in Return of the Jedi, but Lucas balked at shooting such a dark ending.) It’s the right choice, but a misplaced one. Perhaps it should have happened in Part Two, but without Solo’s death, The Force Awakens would have no dramatic weight to it.

But despite all my quibbles, I basically enjoyed The Force Awakens, even if I was expecting more from it. It's certainly better than the previous three installments, although that's not saying much, and Abrams has potentially laid the groundwork for a really first-rate middle section just like the original trilogy did with/for Empire Strikes Back. We'll have to wait and see.

With Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Lupita Nyong’o, Domnhall Gleeson, Andy Serkis, Max Von Sydow.

December 20, 2015

You should probably lower your expectations of 'Sisters'.

Sisters, the latest movie pairing of TV stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, is too bawdy for people who loved Baby Mama and too conventional to really sizzle as an R-rated party comedy. The film, which was directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect) and written by SNL veteran Paula Pell, is banking on the hope that your love for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler will somehow make you love this movie, whether it’s good or not. Sadly, Sisters is overall a disappointing effort. And it looked promising from the trailers. Sisters does offer some laughs, but just as many moments fall flat. In that sense, it’s like any episode of Saturday Night Live. (And it will probably be better a few years from now while you’re flipping channels late one night.)
At this point, the rapport between Fey and Poehler isn’t enough on which to build a movie. (But it was enough to get my expectations extremely high.) I love both 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation very much, and I love imagining that Amy and Tina are best friends, and that they are a kind of 21st-century Mary and Rhoda, only they aren’t fictional characters. But the beloved shows of these two very funny women aren’t merely based on the personalities of their stars. It’s good writing that lets Tina Fey and Amy Poehler shine, and Sisters feels underdeveloped. Even the characters aren’t particularly fresh: Fey plays the older sister Kate, a party monster and perpetual screw-up (a personality that is, from what I know, very far from the actual Tina Fey); and Poehler, also playing someone quite different from herself, is the always dependable, competent younger sister Maura.

The film mostly takes place in Orlando, where Kate and Maura return to their childhood home only to find that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, who have far too little screen time) have sold it. The girls are tasked with cleaning out their bedroom (which apparently was once two separate rooms before they knocked down the adjoining wall). Devastated by the news that the house they grew up in will no longer be accessible, Kate and Maura vow to throw one last party and invite all their friends from high school.

Much of the humor focuses on aging and nostalgia. The girls’ room is a virtual time capsule, taking us back to every forgotten pop culture object of the 1980s. You get the feeling that the creators of this (probably with help from the stars) simply wanted an excuse to film all the things they loved as teenagers. There’s a montage of the women reliving their adolescence (the room is pretty great as a shrine to teenage girls circa 1986), but the funniest moment is in the trailer, when Poehler stands against her Xanadu poster with a blow drier pointed at her head to give her the Olivia Newton John flowing-hair effect. 

Even the conversations in this movie are often about the past. This feels like old hat, simply the Tina and Amy version of whatever other recent comedies have focused on characters stuck in their teen years. Comedies right now love critiquing characters who refuse to grow up--at the end, after they’ve basically allowed their characters to be utter children for nearly two hours. Sisters does the same: Kate and Maura cannot get over the past, and it’s pretty clear from their guests that everyone has calcified into some banal generic grown-up version of her or his formerly unique self. (This pro-youth propaganda, I’m sure, isn’t something that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler really wish to perpetuate.)

Sisters is about reconciling one’s youthful energy of the past with one’s tired present defeatism. But none of the guests has the energy to re-conjure the madcap, orgiastic hijinks of their youth. Their friends want a Big Chill-esque chat session, but the ladies are thinking Animal House-style rager. (One of their sleazier friends--played by John Leguizamo--summons his drug dealer, played by John Cena, whose assorted powders and pills, etc. help liven up the proceedings.)

Good party scenes are particularly challenging filmmaking feats. One of the best party scenes occurs in the otherwise overrated Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That sequence bubbles with energy, and Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly, mostly an annoying affectation of a character, crystallizes into something charming and clever in those moments. Valley Girl, a minor 80s classic, has a pretty good extended party scene too, although it’s not quite as well-shaped as the one from Tiffany’s. Both of them feel of their time: we become flies on the wall imbibing the flavor of the 1960s or the 1980s, respectively. These scenes build to something (whether it’s a fight or a kiss or some little bit of slapstick), and in a way those party sequences are like mini-narratives inside a larger story. Sisters is one long party full of comic actors trying very hard to be funny and sometimes succeeding. There’s less shaping and more, “let’s throw this up and see if it sticks.” And there are plenty of sticky things happening in Sisters. You can go whole scenes without laughing, or you might get a solid belly laugh here and there. Perhaps it will depend largely on your mood and your expectations.

This is also the raunchiest collaboration between Fey and Poehler. The guests let their freak flags fly with a little help from cocaine. For some inexplicable reason, director Jason Moore is overly fond one one particularly grating character named Alex (played by current SNL cast member Bobby Moynahan), who screams unfunny jokes at the camera even before he begins inhaling cocaine like it’s air. At different times we see Alex pleasuring himself with food and then later with one of the Vietnamese salon girls that Maura invited to the party. There’s a particularly painful to watch scene involving actor Ike Barinholtz (playing Maura’s love interest), his rectum, and a ballerina music box. Unfortunately, that gag is ruined by the movie trailer, as is the great throwaway line uttered by Tina Fey (to John Cena’s character): “You’re the type of bad-ass that I was susceptible to.” (John Cena, incidentally, may be the breakout star of 2015 what with his surprisingly endearing and very funny performance in Trainwreck and his comic relief here in Sisters.)

Other comic stars tag along for the fun: Maya Rudolph (the foil, a high school rival of Kate’s), Samantha Bee, Kate McKinnon, Rachel Dratch, Britt Lower, and Chris Parnell, to name a few. But comedy can’t be forced. Sisters feels like the cinematic equivalent of constipation: the whole movie is exhausted and red-faced. And it may be better if you lower your expectations.

December 06, 2015


You haven’t lived until you’ve seen Spike Lee’s latest joint, Chi-Raq, the most exuberant, audacious, urgent film I’ve seen all year. Lee’s films haven’t always charmed me, despite his consistently strong work as a stylist and a social commentator. Perhaps part of the problem is that I’ve never seen them in the moment, until now. Chi-Raq is a modern-day riff on the Greek play Lysistrata, by Aristophanes. With rhyme and verse and music, Lee dramatizes the very real pain and violence rampant in the streets of Chicago, glibly renamed Chi-Raq by residents who live in their own version of terrorism right here on American soil. Spike Lee goes all in with Chi-Raq.

This film is a great big stick of dynamite, destined to offend as many people as possible; it’s both a comedy and a tragedy, a musical, a manifesto, a battle cry, and a lament. The “star” of the film (there are many characters that might share this title) is Lysistrata, played by the radiant Teyonah Parris, girlfriend of an up-and-coming hip hop artist who calls himself Chi-Raq, but without the irony. He embraces the violence, and is one of the gang leaders who live and die by the gun. Lysistrata refuses to see past the façade of fame and glory and music, until several violent attacks hit too close to home. Then she meets Miss Helen, a neighbor who spends most of her time reading. She’s a self-contained social activist just waiting for circumstances to unleash her and call her to action. Miss Helen convinces Lysistrata to do something about the violence, and Lysistrata unites the women in her community, convincing them to go on a sex strike. “No peace, no piece” is their motto, and their decision erupts across the globe as women from every tongue join in the fight against violence by denying sex to their men.

Along the way, we get Samuel L. Jackson, spruced up in colorful suits and a hat, as our emcee, narrating the film with his usual wink-and-a-smile charm and his brash, commanding presence. And we get John Cusack in an unlikely but powerful performance as a white minister of a black church, serving the community he grew up in. Cusack delivers an intense monologue-sermon-eulogy during a funeral for a 7-year-old girl. (She was killed in the midst of a recent episode of gunplay between gangs.) Cusack’s sermon is at times a grand-standing lecture on the statistics of gang violence and racial injustice, at times a riling call to action. Lee is deliberately ambiguous here: The emotionally-driven service is by turns a show-stopper and a place to mourn out in the open, in a community. 

Chi-Raq is in many ways a throwback to some of the more influential work of Luis Bunuel and Jean-Luc Godard. In Weekend (an insufferable movie), Godard often pointed the camera at people so they could rant about the evils of capitalism and other assorted topics. Lee uses his camera similarly. Chi-Raq is a really good rant of a movie, but it's more than that. In Chi-Raq, these moments of sermonizing are just part of this movie’s garish, delightful, indignant brio. Lee celebrates the various possibilities of movies, never holding his movie hostage to the constraints of realism or plotting. Some may call it uneven—and there are moments when the film doesn’t totally hang together—but Chi-Raq is ultimately a masterful piece of filmmaking. It evokes extreme emotions, and the performances are big and powerful and in your face.

Angela Bassett's performance emerges as possibly the best in a slew of standout performances. Bassett has such power in her voice, and she commands the screen in every scene she's in. And Teyonah Parris is like a gift from the gods. She's a stunning beauty, she's witty, and like Angela Bassett, she can part the seas with a word or a look. 

Of course, Chi-Raq isn’t for everybody, but it should be. The film's brash discussion of sexual politics and its complicated dissection of racism in America is inflammatory, but that's kind of the point. Moreover, Spike Lee doesn't enshrine his movie in moral rectitude. He's not here to play by the rules or tow any lines, which is why Chi-Raq is a gaudy, messy, blistering movie. And it's alive. So, so alive. Those who criticize Spike Lee for turning the movie into a farce in the second half are missing the point (and missing a bold and wonderful move of a talented director). The mark of a great movie is that it can hold an array of emotional experiences without losing its footing, without compromising its characters or its values. And moreover, that it takes chances where conventional movies play it safe. Chi-Raq blissfully flies too close to the sun, and what a beautiful flight it is.


In Brooklyn, actress Saoirse Ronan plays an Irish girl named Eillis (pronounced “Aye-lish”) who leaves her homeland for America. Ronan transforms what might otherwise have been sap into something of real weight. Brooklyn is a lovely movie that achieves real sentiment without being manipulative. And it achieves something else: a deep understanding of a human being, one of the most sympathetic and moving characters I’ve seen in a movie this year. Director John Crowley and screenwriter Nick Hornby (working from the novel by Colm Toibin) have meticulously shaped the emotional journey of this young woman who feels a hard-to-define yearning to move beyond the confines of her provincial world. But the new world she steps into is equally frightening. It’s the gulf of familiarity verses the gulf of the unknown, the placebo of small town ways verses the overstimulation of the big city, the warm glow and the suffocation of family verses the alluring freedom and aching loneliness of independence. Brooklyn holds all of these complexities and dramatizes their effect on Eillis with masterful skill and grace.

In the opening scene, we see Eillis yawning at 7AM mass under the critical eye of her boss Miss Kelley, the prickly woman who runs the local bakery. They go to early mass so they can be prepared for the onslaught of Sunday customers at the shop, who line up for bread as though it were Black Friday. When one customer asks for some shoe polish, Miss Kelley subjects her to a cruel interrogation: “Why did you come for shoe polish today? These people are here for bread for their Sunday dinner. You could have gotten shoe polish yesterday. You needed it yesterday.”

Brooklyn is reminiscent of James Gray’s The Immigrant (my favorite movie of 2014), although the heroine in The Immigrant is far more transgressive than the heroine in Brooklyn. Eillis isn’t forced to do unspeakable things to save a loved one, but she is forced to make the hardest choices of her life, and all on her own. Thus, Eillis is a character we feel for, whether she’s a lonely soul submerged in the throes of homesickness, or a sophisticated young woman buffeted by a new-found confidence and a budding romance (with an Italian sweetheart named Tony, who’s played by Emory Cohen). Saoirse Ronan plays her with dignity and graciousness. She’s a bright woman—something that becomes increasingly apparent as she makes her way in the city—and she’s ever watchful of the people around her. She’s been set up in a boarding house comprised of other young Irish girls like herself, and run by an almost cartoonishly Irish-American woman named Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), who’s quick to excoriate the girls for exhibiting bad manners and “giddiness.” (Her rant about giddiness is pretty terrific.)

Brooklyn’s treatment of the cultural intersection happening in New York in the 20th century is perhaps too rosy. But it’s charming nonetheless. There’s a scene where Eillis learns how to eat Italian food (so that she won’t embarrass herself in front of Tony’s family at dinner); there’s a scene where she and Tony go to Coney Island, prior to which Eillis must obtain a bathing suit. (She looks stunning in her emerald green suit.) We feel pressed up against a window, looking into a somewhat idealized version of the past. But Brooklyn is also an emotionally direct movie, a movie which deftly walks the line between sentiment and syrupiness. It all goes back to our own emotional investment in Eillis. When she’s torn between two lovers (Tony in New York and Jim, played by Domhnall Gleeson, in Ireland), we see the weight of choice and consequences placed on this woman’s shoulders.

Brooklyn at its heart is a straightforward story about a girl figuring out where to plant her feet. But within that story is a deeper, more complicated narrative about women who had to maneuver their futures smartly. The girls at the boarding house attend an Irish social every Friday night. (That’s where Eillis meets Tony; he goes to the dances because he likes Irish girls.) They’re on the market, but one of them, Miss Fontini (Jessica Paré) has been married before. “Would you get married again?” Eillis asks her (she’s contemplating her future with Tony). “Yes, then I wouldn’t have to wait in line to the use bathroom,” Miss Fontini says. There’s a cynical reality that the film accepts, even though it doesn't want to (it wants a happy ending, it wants things to work out for Eillis): Women were lucky if they got married, and luckier if the man they married was nice, and stayed that way.

One of the most moving scenes in the film happens at Christmastime. Eillis has volunteered to help serve a group of elderly homeless men—all of them Irish—and a man sings a beautiful Irish folk song called “Casadh an Tsúgáin”. Someone says to Eillis, “these men built the tunnels and the bridges.” Brooklyn may strive for an upbeat ending, but it holds the darker and sadder pages of this story close to its heart. It’s a rich, heartbreaking, deeply moving film, and I loved it.

With Jim Broadbent, Jane Brennan, and Fiona Glascott.

November 29, 2015


Based on the Thomas Harris novel Red Dragon, Manhunter (1986) has a lush veneer but nothing underneath it. The film follows a detective named Will Graham (William Petersen) as he tracks a serial killer nicknamed the Tooth Fairy (Tom Noonan) with the help of incarcerated murderer Dr. Hannibal Lecktor (Brian Cox). Manhunter looks cool: Michael Mann has an eye for framing a scene, and he’s adept at using lighting and modern architecture to full effect. But there’s something soulless about his films. When Brian De Palma gives in to his urges for heavy stylization, we profit by it: De Palma’s best thrillers are fun to watch, and there’s some kind of pathos amidst the swirling camera and garish colors. Michael Mann has learned the skills of filmmaking without any particular understanding of how to make us care. So the best I can say about Manhunter is that I admired the craftsmanship and liked the music—a synthsezied score by Michel Rubini and The Reds. The protagonist is supposed to be a skillful detective because he can get into the heads of the killers, which put him over the edge before. But somehow, the emotional weight of that never affects us. Petersen gives a good performance (he looks like he was lifted from Miami Vice), and so does Dennis Farina as his superior, who drags him back into investigative work after a much-needed sabbatical. With Kim Greist, Joan Allen, and Stephen Lang.

November 22, 2015

Julia Roberts as Grim Reaper

As depressing as it is to see an actress like the ebullient Julia Roberts transformed into a droopy-faced, grief-stricken shell, her new movie, Secret in Their Eyes is pretty entertaining. In fact, she's sort of the female equivalent to one of those characters played by Liam Neeson of late (in films such as Taken and Non-Stop). Roberts plays a Los Angeles detective whose daughter is murdered. By a cruel coincidence, Roberts and her partner, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) are the detectives called to investigate the crime scene, never suspecting the identity of the victim. The film jumps back and forth between 2002, during the immediate investigation of the murder, and the present day, after the case has gone cold.

Secret in Their Eyes isn’t by any means a perfect thriller. And it’s hard to say if anything you’ll see in this grim procedural drama will differ much from any number of investigation-themed television dramas like Criminal Minds. But the yarn it unspools is compelling enough, and the film is bolstered by the performances of its three leads, especially Nicole Kidman as the district attorney who’s caught between her obligation to follow the law and her devotion to her friend and colleague.

Secret in Their Eyes is in essence a revenge fantasy. As a culture, we've been primed for this kind of movie based on our incessant consumption of true crime TV. We're constantly fascinated by stories of murder and the devastation wrought on the victims' family members. We yearn for justice, yet we know that not even execution of the killer will bring back the dead. Revenge fantasies are deceptive, because they're a heightened version of a longing that cannot be fulfilled. Writer-director Billy Ray understands the double-edged nature of revenge, but he's also happy to milk the fantasy all the way to the bank.

One of the most intriguing aspects of this movie is the role of the September 11th attacks in halting the investigation. The prime suspect in the case is a valued informant, who’s been feeding info to counter-terrorism detectives about a local mosque, a hub for suspected terrorists. The film tries to delve into a surprisingly complex moral problem: Is it morally right to keep a killer on the streets if doing so can prevent more deaths? (I'm not sure the movie satisfactorily answered this question; but it gets points for asking.)

Billy Ray favors convenient plotting, so every scene is primed for maximum plot juice, like an overripe orange. Ray likes his pulp extra-pulpy, and so we get such dramatic wallops as Julia Roberts sobbing over the dead body of her daughter, inside a dumpster; or the ongoing plot complication of a conflicted crush between Ejiofor and Kidman, who’s married; or scenes of Roberts, now hardened by her grief, contemplating a little vigilante justice. “My daughter was the thing that made me me.” This logic is unhealthy, and what’s more, I think it is a truthful observation about too many parents. Of course, the loss of a child is a tragedy that probably no one can recover from fully, but the idea that your kids define you is troubling nonetheless.

Nicole Kidman stands out in her controlled, commanding performance as the D.A. In a scene in which she chides her colleague (Ejiofor) for badgering a suspect despite having no sufficient evidence against him, she goads the suspect into angrily striking out at her. It’s a masterful bit of manipulation, and a reminder of Nicole Kidman’s particular brand of deceptive power. She’s seductive and the smartest person in the room. (But it's also decidedly sexist, because she insults his manhood, hoping it will anger him. When it does, he whips out his member in an act of pure brutishness. Earlier, though, Kidman congratulates Ejiofor on his gender sensitivity.)

Julia Roberts is very good—she has always had an earthy quality that’s made her someone you can root for under any circumstances—but this character feels like a downer in light of her repertoire. It would be like seeing Cary Grant play the creepy pedophile Humbert Humbert in Lolita. We love Cary Grant for being Cary Grant, and we love Julia Roberts for being Julia Roberts. There’s a little bit of that Julia Roberts here, but not much. And even though it feels wrong-headed to criticize an actress for doing something different, especially if she's proficient at it, I always wonder about the motivations of taking on such a role. Are we as a culture so dead to the Julia Roberts of Pretty Woman and Erin Brockovich (a great performance)? Will we turn Julia Roberts into an angry sociopath as we have done Liam Neeson, who went from saving thousands of Jews during the Holocaust to becoming a taciturn, rich man's Rambo?

But all of these quibbles don't undercut the fact that I had a good time at this movie. Secret in Their Eyes has surprising moments of humor and some well-staged moments of suspense, even if it’s an essentially dumb and emotionally manipulative experience. But the dumpster scene gave me chills; but I also felt irritated by it. Which kind of cinematic manipulation is acceptable, and which crosses a line? I’m not sure myself.

With Dean Norris (who’s funny as Ejiofor’s scrappy counterpart), Michael Kelly, Alfred Molina, Zoe Graham.

November 21, 2015

'Spotlight' is an unflinching, urgently needed examination of power and abuse in the church.

“I thought that some day I would come back to my faith. But something cracked,” says Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo in the new film Spotlight. For Rezendes, the truth that the Catholic Church covered up untold cases of abuse perpetrated by clergymen is the wrecking ball that decimates his already derelict faith. When you’re raised Catholic, you’re a Catholic for life, whether you believe in God or not. But to see firsthand the Church covering up its own dark sins is to have the very fabric of your soul ripped from you. It’s gut-wrenching and permanent.

Spotlight is a perceptive, unflinching new look at how the Church's power made an entire city complicit in unthinkable crimes. It’s a compulsively watchable, fascinating yarn in the nature of All the President’s Men, and its focus is as shattering as Watergate, perhaps more so, because it hits you on a deeper, more personal level than All the President's Men. We expect our governments to lie to us, to some extent. But, we have naively trusted the Church to be free of deception for far too long. 

The film dramatizes the Boston Globe “Spotlight” team's investigation of the case nearly fifteen years ago. The film is set in 2001, although it opens in 1976, where we see, in hushed voices, somber Church officials begging the mother of an abused child not to say anything against the Church, because the world needs the Church. These "men of God" assure the mother, who's still clinging to this institution as a source of truth, that the pedophile priest will be sent away, that it won’t happen again. But it happened again. And again.

Director Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, zooms in on the investigation, minimizing the personal lives of the main characters. The “Spotlight” team—Michael Rezendes, Robby Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer, Ben Bradlee, and Matt Carroll—played by Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James—are the heroes of the film, if indeed we can call them heroes. As much as Spotlight ultimately maneuvers itself into a pro-journalism stance, this movie isn’t a shameless plug for journalism. The Globe has to reckon with its own demons: It too is complicit in the cover-up by ignoring the case for years, despite the efforts of victims, now grown up, to contact them.

Michael Keaton, who was admittedly very good in last year’s much flashier Birdman, is exceptionally good here as Robby Robinson, the head of “Spotlight”. The performance isn’t flashy at all, and Keaton’s subtlety has its own kind of dramatic weight and import. What humanizes him, and all the other reporters, is their very personal stake in this investigation. Boston is a Catholic town in many ways; the culture is Catholic just as the culture in the South is Evangelical, and this culture affects you no matter your own personal religious beliefs (or unbeliefs). When Robinson confronts administrators at his alma mater, who don't want to investigate allegations of abuse against a priest-faculty member, he tells them about the man, now in his 40s, who was molested by the priest. He was a hockey player, and the priest was the hockey coach. Robinson glibly observes, "I guess we were just lucky we didn't play hockey." It's the kind of shattering remark that needs to be said.

Even as Spotlight rightly brings down the hammer on the abuses, and gives voice to the abused, the film maintains a refreshing graciousness toward belief. All of the “Spotlight” reporters were raised Catholic, and many of them went to Catholic schools. Spotlight reminds us that belief isn’t necessarily the problem. It is, however, the reason many believers are unable to deal honestly at this institution. It’s the power of moneyed institutions cloaked in religious authority, especially when those moneyed institutions can throw their weight around a city, absconding with evidence that damns them, leaning on people to protect the Church “for the good of the city.” When the Cardinal tells Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), “It’s good for the institutions of the city to work together,” Baron responds, “I think for us to do our job we have to work alone.”

Schreiber, it should be noted, gives a fine performance as the Globe’s editor. Schreiber approaches the Marty Baron character with a kind of laconic humility. Baron is always thinking about the bigger story, and he finds moral purpose in bringing systemic corruption to light. McCarthy establishes Baron, a Jew who had previously worked at papers in Miami and New York, as the necessary outsider who sees through the local politics and the mutual good feelings of Bostonians. It’s his sharp focus that enables him to push the “Spotlight” team further, to root out the heart of the scandal.

Spotlight is also an interesting bit of time travel to the not-so-long ago world before the Internet had totally reshaped journalism, before our current, almost total, transition from print to digital. In this way, we see yet another shard of complexity: The “Spotlight” reporters are tasked with finding stories that will sell. (There’s talk of future job cuts, because even then circulation was diminishing.) McCarthy deftly balances the self-serving nature of journalism (you have to find compelling stories to sell papers) with the moral burden of journalism (people need to hear these stories). It may be the best movie of the year; it nothing else, it's one of the most urgent and perceptive films on religion, the press, and power.

With Stanley Tucci, Gene Amoroso, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, and Billy Crudup.