August 29, 2015


Somewhere around the mid-point of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., the film's two spy heroes, an American named Napoleon Solo and a Russian named Illya Kuryakin, find themselves careening through enemy waters at a shipping yard, where military borders have cut them off and they're being pummeled by gun-runners in enemy boats giving chase, until Napoleon is thrown into the water, unbeknownst to his partner. As his counterpart full-speeds ahead, Napoleon casually swims ashore and climbs into a waiting truck, where he turns on the radio, uncovers a picnic basket, and uncorks a bottle of something warm and inviting. He appears to be having a lark, and in the background, to the tune of the romantic, jovial Italian song playing on the radio, we see the speedboat circling and circling and circling. This is one example of the wonderful levity we get in director Guy Ritchie's update of the classic TV show.

Henry Cavill, who did not make much of a lasting impression on me in Man of Steel, seizes command of the screen in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. as the cavalier, dashing American spy, a carer criminal whose skills were so good that the CIA decided to waive his criminal charges and convert him from an enemy to an asset. Cavill looks like a wily fox with an ever-present, knowing grin on his face. He's as much of a smart-ass as Chevy Chase was in Fletch, only Cavill's wit never calcifies into contempt. Here's why: once he's given us the show of not caring about his partner's imminent danger (the boat eventually explodes and the Russian spy sinks into the river), Cavill drives that truck into the water and patiently lets it sink. Then he rolls down the window, swims out, and pulls his unconscious friend from the water.

Armie Hammer, playing the tight, intensely serious Russian spy who's always trying to tame his rage, is the perfect foil-companion in this charming, ingratiating buddy-Cold War-comic-thriller. When we first meet Hammer's character, he's trying to kill Cavill, who's been sent to find and retrieve a young woman named Gaby Teller (her father is a renowned Nazi scientist). Pretty soon, as the men find themselves working together on the same mission, they're fighting over what clothes Gaby should wear. (As part of their cover-up, she's pretending to be Hammer's fiance.) Cavill and Hammer bicker over the outfits each has selected for Gaby, and hurl their own fashion insults at each other too: "Your tie doesn't match your suit," Cavill sniffs with superior fashion resolve, and it's as if he's insulted Hammer's mother, or called his manhood into question.

The cajoling between Cavill and Hammer is delightful, and full of clever little double entendres. This is what we should be getting more of in the summer: light-hearted and fun movies that find interesting characters to play against each other. And what's more, director Guy Ritchie manages to work out a legitimately fascinating spy plot as a canvass for his humor. But the relationship between these two men is always at the heart of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and it's their tense, unexpected friendship which endears us to the movie, and which makes the spy-thriller plot somehow less important, even though it is terrifically involving. Ritchie knows how to balance the unfolding Cold War yarn with increasingly more complex character relationships, and he's given two wonderful performers the chance to show us what they're made of, and react to each other in fresh and amusing ways.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. may be my favorite big summer movie of 2015, because unlike so many other big summer movies, it knows how to shape a story, how to build suspense, how to use things like pacing and interplay between characters, and good filmmaking techniques, to create something that's actually worth looking at for two hours. There aren't a whole lot of overblown action scenes, and none of them feel exhausting, the way so many summer movies do. Instead, everything about U.N.C.L.E. pops and fizzes just when as it should, and Ritchie stops to savor things like the beauty of Rome, or the finesse of his actors' often striking wardrobe, or their various idiosyncrasies, like the way Armie Hammer's hand trembles when he's desperately trying to control his seething anger, or the way Henry Cavill flashes a smile that's somehow equal parts "screw you," "I told you so," and, finally, an amorous "hello there." In short, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. has a lot going on in it, and it's a welcome change for those of us who feel deadened by the monotony of the same old superhero flicks. I don't know where Guy Ritchie's been keeping all this good stuff, because I certainly didn't feel it in his disappointing Sherlock Holmes, but his U.N.C.L.E. is a fantastic entertainment. 

With Alicia Vikander and Elizabeth Debicki (both giving fine performances: Vikander as the always game and smart Gaby, and Debicki as a flirtatious, stylish villain Victoria, who just so happens to be in the market for some warheads), and a brief but amusing turn by Hugh Grant as a British intelligence official. Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram. 

August 27, 2015

The Candidate

Robert Redford's irresistible good looks and cool magnetism have perhaps never been put to better use than in director Michael Ritchie's 1972 political satire The Candidate. Redford plays Bill McKay, a lawyer who grew up in the political limelight because of his dad, played by Melvyn Douglas, who was Governor of California. McKay's exposure to the compromises, the mendacity, and the phoniness of the American political theater turned him off years ago, and now he's trying to seek change on a small scale. But McKay unexpectedly throws his hat into an unwinnable race against a popular Republican incumbent when a desperate election manager assures McKay that he can say whatever he wants, since his opponent's victory is a lock.

The film shows us the complexity of the two-party system: how a man with ideals and the ability to speak directly to the public can be sucked into the system and slowly change in order to make himself more appealing. When you watch The Candidate in 2015, you might be watching a film made in the last year or so. The issues haven't changed--the environment and pollution are serious points of discussion in the film, not to mention race and poverty and unemployment--nor have the ways politicians gloss over them. 

Ritchie uses Redford's Western handsomeness in fascinating ways, sometimes giving us a close-up of the actor as he speaks at various events or sits in front of cameras for a televised debate. We see him pausing with effect, perhaps considering his next sentence with care, or maybe just letting the previous one sink in. Redford's use of silence, his difficult-to-interpret facial expressions (he's by turns appealing, appeasing, befuddled, disgusted, measured, and reflective), and his "I'm just a guy who's here to show up and get to work" attitude make him some kind of perfect political candidate. He's transfixing. You can almost forgive the movie's occasional bouts of sexism, depicting vapid-looking young women who say things like, "I voted for McKay because he's handsome!" 

The Candidate doesn't quite rise to the level of a Robert Altman-style film, yet its tone and its style feel reminiscent of Altman's work. Ritchie is perhaps too singular in his vision of what The Candidate is, and indeed, this singularity represents both an attribute and a flaw. We're immersed in a satire that doesn't really feel like a satire. Like HBO's terrifically dark and funny show Veep, it feels simply as though we were flies on the wall watching real life. And yet, there isn't the rich tapestry that an Altman film is so adept at creating. We get little from McKay's wife Nancy (Karen Carlson), for instance, and in her few short scenes, she shows promise, if her character gets to do anything at all.

Peter Boyle, as the good-naturedly calculating campaign manager, gives a fine performance, the kind of performance that generally doesn't get noticed because it's not as flashy as Redford's. But he's excellent in this film. He represents a man who's already been jaded by the system, and his attempts to "protect" McKay are the instincts of a man who no longer thinks on purely idealistic terms, a thought process that Redford's character continues to nurture even as it slips through his fingers.

August 23, 2015

The Gift

I didn’t have time to write a formal review of The Gift, so here are just a few thoughts about this movie a week or so after seeing it.

First off, Rebecca Hall’s performance—as Robyn, the wife of businessman Jason Bateman, who herself owns a design company—is the heart and soul of The Gift. I’ve been wanting to see Hall break through for some time now, and while I’m not sure this will be achieved with The Gift, it’s gratifying to see such a talented actress in such a big role. Hall’s quiet, compassionate demeanor disarms you, because she’s also incredibly strong and smart. She uses all of these qualities to great effect here.

The film itself, which was written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who co-stars, is masterful in its use of silence and the cumulative effect of creepy little things. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll likely be expecting a bromance version of Fatal Attraction. (Edgerton’s interview on NPR’s Fresh Air gives a little more of the plot away.) But the movie happily departs from any predictable outcomes, and offers something far more surprising, if a little too didactic.

The disappointment of The Gift is, as a friend put it, the movie’s lack of “oomph.” It’s so deliberately paced and so good at being subtle, that it deserves a whopper of an ending, and the finale feels like it might have been tacked on by someone from the Lifetime studios. Edgerton’s ability to shift the audience’s allegiance is pretty amazing, though, and I still highly recommend this movie as one of the better creepy thrillers of late.

Straight Outta Compton

Disclaimer: This review contains strong language. 

Like so many biopics of late, Straight Outta Compton ignores the complexity of the issues it raises in order to posture an agenda. If you don’t know anything about legendary hip hop group NWA, you’ll likely be taken for a ride by the film Straight Outta Compton, which paints those men in a disturbingly flattering light. This is an instance where a movie should have put the credits at the beginning, not the end, so that we’d see who produced it: Dr. Dre and Ice Cube. Their film, directed by F. Gary Gray, shows how Dre, Cube, Easy E, M.C. Ren, and D.J. Yella took the music world by storm with their incendiary, indignant music. I'm not taking issue with their music or their indignation. The movie nails the racial injustice—aggressive white L.A. cops who frequently trounced young black men in Compton and flagrantly ignored their rights—that spurred NWA to write songs like “Fuck the Police". But the movie doesn’t want to acknowledge any of the flaws of its heroes, such as their rampant misogyny and homophobia, although it’s pretty easy to see the former for ourselves in this film, because women are rarely not referred to as “bitches” and are valued almost exclusively for their sex appeal.

Instead of portraying its heroes honestly, warts and all, Straight Outta Compton revels in their status upgrades and the windfall of money that these guys made as their music became increasingly successful. (NWA's very real and justifiable righteous anger would not have been squelched by a more honest portrait of their own foibles.) 

As money is the most important theme in Straight Outta Compton, Paul Giamatti, playing music producer Jerry Heller, who helped put NWA’s music on the map, ultimately becomes the film’s sleaziest villain, once it’s discovered that he’s been dishonest about their finances. What’s perhaps more distressing is that he presents himself as a forward-thinking man who’s willing to stand up to the white police (although there is one black police officer in this scene, and the film doesn't have to do anything to point out the particular tension that conjures up) when these cops illegally accost the guys as they’re standing outside a recording studio. Jerry shouts back at the ignorantly authoritative cops, and it's clear that he only gets away with this retaliation because he’s white. But Jerry’s commitment to racial equality is merely a façade, and he uses the trust of the NWA boys, not to mention their own ignorance of the legalize of the business world, to take advantage of them. 

The moments when Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Easy E discover they've been cheated out of money are treated like the most important revelations of the movie. The love of money becomes a good unto itself, and these characters’ motivations are tainted by that. This is a film which raises some urgently needed questions right now, but whose focus gets shifted by other things, so that the filmmakers lose sight of what made NWA's music relevant. Who cares if you stand up to racist authorities if in the end your only goal is to become rich and famous, as protected and unconcerned about injustices as your oppressors?

What’s disappointing about Straight Outta Compton as a film is that there are many terrific individual scenes. The film thrives on direct and emotionally charged scenes that grab us and refuse to let go. But Compton wants too much to enshrine its heroes, as though it were Selma, without ever earning that right--the way Selma does. And Ava Duvernay, the director of Selma, acknowledges Martin Luther King’s flaws. Her film doesn’t portray King as perfect. You could walk out of Compton thinking that these guys were totally innocent, that they had never really mistreated anyone. They were just having fun. What's with the secrecy? Anyone can find out what they really think about "bitches" by just listening to one of their songs.

As for the age-old criticism that rap isn't art, the movie at least gives us a taste of the sheer artistic genius behind the best that NWA created over the years. The movie doesn’t really want to talk about art, though, except in very brief moments, like when a police officer scoffs at the idea, rejecting rap as something far inferior to any other form of expression. When you listen to the lyrics of a song like "Fuck the Police", you hear the smart, skillful use of language, the unabated anger and frustration being channeled, and you see how much this particular piece tapped into an ire that wasn’t being seen or heard by anyone. Segregation hasn't gone away even in 2015, and this movie effectively reminds people like me—white, middle-class people—that our skin color has protected us from the kind of treatment people experienced in places like Compton. 

The only we way that movies like Straight Outta Compton can really effect positive change is if they’re honest, and we cannot denounce racism while tacitly tolerating misogyny. What’s disturbing is the idea that someone could enjoy a film like this and be proud of his enlightened appreciation for the race problem, while never admitting the filmmakers’ lies about their treatment of women.  Recently, Dr. Dre publicly apologized for his treatment of women, but to what effect? And why did he let a movie like this ignore that same mistreatment? Movies shouldn’t ignore the complexity of their characters all in the name of stirring up the viewers' moral outrage, and they shouldn’t be tidied up in order to package themselves as something morally pure.

Nevertheless, there are moments of greatness and electricity in Straight Outta Compton that make it worth seeing. (It runs on far too long, however, and loses its edge in the final half-hour.) The key performances in this film—Ice Cube’s actual son O’Shea Jackson as Ice Cube, Corey Hawkins as Dr. Dre, and Jason Mitchell as Easy E—are all strong. The screenplay--by Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff--is often funny and incisive. But it's disappointing to think that the filmmakers squandered an opportunity in order to worship these rappers as both model citizens fighting for justice, and dutiful capitalists, courageously looking after their bank accounts. It's hard to be counter-culture when you sell out. 

August 08, 2015

Dazed and Confused

I’ve never been able to stomach American Graffiti. I wasn’t into the music of the late 50s/early 60s, and something about the period—at least as it exists in American pop mythology—feels utterly false. For me, Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused fills any void that not liking American Graffiti might have left in my heart. I seem always to be discovering directors’ works in a kind of retroactive progression. I saw School of Rock as a kid (which is a terrific movie), and only today did I finally sit down and watch Dazed and Confused, came out ten years earlier than School. In Dazed and Confused, Linklater creates a rich world inhabited almost exclusively with teenagers, all of them celebrating the last day of school. 

It’s 1976 (although the movie was shot in the early 90s, which makes it a mirror of American Graffiti in some ways) and, like American Graffiti, it deals with the anxieties young people feel about their lives. But instead of the looming but distant threat of Vietnam, the kids in Dazed and Confused find themselves looking back at both the war and Watergate and wondering if there’s any point in listening to authority. That’s one of the main character’s beefs with his football coach, who’s asked all the returning teammates to sign a pledge that they won’t drink or do drugs or have sex over the summer; the coaches don’t want to jeopardize the team’s chances of a winning season. It’s hard not to be cynical when those in charge want to keep you from having a good time purely for their own benefit.

There’s often something special about movies that take place all in one 24-hour-period. Somehow, they feel endless, yet there’s a feeling of melancholy when they do end, all too soon. Sixteen Candles has it; much of Valley Girl is set during one day and night; even Halloween captures this mood, although in horror movies this is more common than not. Indeed, Dazed and Confused taps into that ephemeral mood and, because the characters in the movie feel so well-drawn, it holds out attention. We may not remember the 70s—many of us weren’t born—but we can identify with their experience just the same.

What’s maybe most striking to me is the cruelty present within the movie. Perhaps because the film is set in a smallish town (in Texas), there’s a more present feeling of ownership that motivates rising seniors to throw their weight around and motivates freshman to sit there and take it. I never experienced anything like that, but I suppose I was lucky. Both the boys and girls are subjected to various degrees of pain and humiliation that feels genuinely sadistic, especially in a light-hearted comic film like this. But there may be a darker undercurrent at work here. And when the wretched O’Bannion, played by Ben Affleck, gets his just desserts after mercilessly paddling two of the boys, it’s sweet justice.

With Jason London, Wiley Wiggins, Matthew McConaughey, Sasha Jenson, Adam Goldberg, Anthony Rapp, Marissa Ribisi, Michelle Burke, Parker Posey, Joey Lauren Adams, Milla Jovovich, Jason O. Smith, Shawn Andrews, Christine Harnos, Cole Hauser, Zellweger, and Rory Cochrane. 

Irrational Man

Greetings and welcome to the annual Woody Allen movie experience. We’ve carefully selected a script, possibly written 15 years ago (selected from one of our many filing cabinets), which we think will ensure your maximum enjoyment. Mind you, even if you are ultimately unhappy with our selection, you’ll be glad to know that the ordeal shouldn’t last longer than 90 minutes. As per usual, the opening credits will be that same white font across a black background, this time sans music. (We do appreciate the value of change.)

This year’s film is titled Irrational Man. We’ve decided to include as much voice-over effect as possible, since we, honestly, weren’t that into this project and didn’t have the energy to flesh out the characters or their scenes together. Handy voice-overs make everything so much easier when you’re trying to meet those pesky deadlines. Also, our regular viewers will be happy to note that our condescension towards women remains strong, as does our aversion to 21st-century technology. We’ll just leave all that high-tech stuff to the kids.

But here are some kids for you to look at, since this movie takes place at a fancy-pants-liberal-arts-college-in-New-England, and one of them kids is played by Emma Stone. She’s so adorable. And she’s going to be hot-to-trot for this glum philosophy professor named Abe, who is played by Joaquin Phoenix with a potbelly. And we know you’ll appreciate how brilliant Abe is, because Emma Stone’s character will remind you over and over again just how brilliant he is in her voice-overs. She will proclaim his brilliance and all the things that make him so brilliant. She will ruminate on how complicated he is and how sad. He feels that all of life is meaningless and there’s no point in carrying on. How Emma Stone’s character wants to save him.

And see Parker Posey? She’s so talented. (She really is.) She will play a science professor (we’re not sure of the specifics, so the generic term will suffice) at the same college at which Abe works and Emma Stone’s character studies. And Parker Posey’s character will want to bone Abe just as much as Emma Stone’s character does, because Abe is so complicated and brilliant and fascinating and broken and needing to be fixed!

And then—a plot twist.

We are not going to reveal any spoilers about the plot twist, because it does actually make the film more interesting, even though Joaquin Phoenix’s character is so fascinating we could just sit and listen to him summarize the great philosophers all day long and that would be movie enough for us. Somebody bring me a spoon so I can dig into this yummy intellectual stuff, because Woody Allen’s Survey of Western Philosophy is truly a revelation.

Also, we’d like to note that our poet of the year is Edna St. Vincent Millay, as she’s the poet Joaquin Phoenix’s character encourages Emma Stone’s character to read more of. (We hope you remember the time Michael Caine told someone—Mia Farrow? We can’t remember—to read more e.e. cummings in Hannah and Her Sisters. Actually I don’t think it was Mia Farrow.)

All right, now that I’ve got that out of my system.

I was disappointed with Irrational Man, but even as I write this sentence, the inner-critic who lives in my head is shaking his or her head and saying derisively, “Ahhh, what did you expect from Woody Allen these days?” I did hope that this one would be better, since the trailer looked so promising, and since I really do love all three of the leads. Joaquin Phoenix is pretty good as the mopey philosophy professor, but Emma Stone’s infatuation with him is a hard sell, unless you buy that she’s one of those fixer-upper girls. But she’s so smart. And she has a really good boyfriend her own age (cruelly named Ron) whom she cruelly mistreats. Her attraction to Abe feels totally forced, and not necessarily because the idea of it is incredulous. It's because Allen doesn’t write enough scenes of the two of them just hanging out and talking, letting their natural onscreen chemistry and individual charms woo us, the viewers, into their romance. Instead, we get repetitive assurances from the narration of Emma Stone that she just loves him and wants him. 

And again, Allen’s insistence that men are here to teach women about culture and keep them in their place is truly depressing. When Emma Stone’s character says to him, “I love that you order for me,” I felt like hurling. There is one tiny bit of growth in the Woody Allen character (because I think we can all agree that any lead in a Woody Allen movie that’s a man—and that’s all of them—is Woody Allen, whether it’s played by Woody Allen or not): he tells his college-student-girlfriend: “I like that you disagree with my ideas.” So that’s growth, I guess. Annie Hall probably deserved that much from Alvy Singer. And it only took 40 years. 

August 07, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

When we talk about Meryl Streep, our words are often tinged with a knee-jerk reverential awe for the Grande Dame of Hollywood. Streep performances are not just performances, but “transformations.” For Meryl Streep’s champions, greatness is assumed, and any Meryl Streep movie is worth seeing simply because she’s in it. On the other hand, there are plenty of Meryl Streep deniers; they may be reacting to the fact that Streep seems to be off-limits to critics. But this wasn’t always the case. Streep, like Katharine Hepburn, had periods during which people rolled their eyes at her and her movies were panned by critics and audiences alike. But—and here’s where I cannot help but admire Meryl Streep—the actress stuck it out and worked hard. The current era of Streep-as-Queen did not come cheaply for her, so I do not want to attack her simply because she’s made it to the top and earned three hundred Academy Award nominations. She’s earned my respect.

However, the idea that great performances happen only when an actor “transforms” herself into the role is false. Point: One of the best Meryl Streep performances you will ever see is her portrayal of the mean romance novelist in She-Devil, the 1988 Roseanne Barr comedy in which Streep’s character steals Barr’s family from her, incurring Roseanne’s wrath. Meryl Streep is genuinely funny in She-Devil, and while I don’t think Streep is a pampered bitch in real life, the performance doesn’t feel forced or hard to reach. The role doesn’t require some magnificent industrial-light-and-magic metamorphosis. She doesn’t have a fancy accent or a lot of face-altering make-up; she’s not playing older or younger than she actually is. She’s just acting. Granted, the movie is a fairly mediocre comedy, but it sometimes achieves brilliance, and Streep's performance is one of the best things in that film. But few people compliment her for something like She-Devil, because it's not The Iron Lady or something else that's been plumbed for prestige. 

Ricki and the Flash represents yet another transformation-performance for Streep, and, like many of the previous ones, it’s a bit too much. She undoubtedly pours herself into it, but there’s something manufactured about Ricki Rendazzo. She's a not-even-has-been musician whose cover band The Flash performs crappy rock hits to lukewarm crowds at a dive-bar in L.A. By day, Ricki is a cashier at Total Foods. (An obvious reference to Whole Foods; I could write a whole review about the movie’s strange, funny, unexpected portrayal of hipster-culture.) 

Ricki offers a handful of musical numbers, where Streep showcases her perfectly raspy voice and her somehow not very credible female rock star fashion choices. I’m not sure what Joan Jett is wearing these days, but Debbie Harry hasn’t stopped being a fashion icon just because she’s reached “a certain age.” Ricki’s costumes feel like a 40-year-old middle class white person’s conception of a rock ‘n’ roll diva. It covers all the basics but feels inauthentic, too staged. And then she wears it for the entire movie—even the magic hair. Wouldn’t most people want to get out of those tight-fitting clothes into something more comfortable after a hard night’s work? Ricki is basically an action figure: her costume is as permanent as her American-flag tattoo. (Oh, and what about Ricki's blatantly right-wing politics? I could do a whole essay on that too.)

The film, which was written by Diablo Cody (loosely based on her own mother-in-law) and directed by Jonathan Demme, is a family drama laced with feel-good emotional beats masquerading as themes, all of them obvious, like “I LOVE MY KIDS” and “THE POWER OF MUSIC,” most of them accompanied by the top ten overplayed American rock songs of the past 40 years. At least they didn’t sing “Life is a Highway.” It’s probably on the soundtrack.

The family drama offers a few sparks. Here’s the setup: Ricki left her family (husband Peter and three kids) years ago to pursue a career in music. Peter (Kevin Kline) remarried, to Maureen (Audra McDonald), who raised the three kids as her own but insisted that they send their wayward mom Mother’s Day cards every year. (She tells Ricki this in their big scene together.) Maureen is a flawless human being. She’s beautiful, intelligent, dresses nicely, and is apparently a terrific cook. She’s also disgustingly right and practical and together, all of the time. (The scene between Ricki and Maureen feels like a parent-teacher conference, in which Maureen is the teacher and Ricki is the student.) She even offers Ricki money to pay for her flight home, in a moment of painful condescension.

Ricki’s daughter Julie (played by real-life Streep daughter Mamie Gummer) has just been left by her husband, for another woman. Julie is angry and suicidal, and when Ricki comes “home” to Indianapolis to care for her, the old anger she has for her mom rushes right to the surface. The sparks between mother and daughter are one of the best things in the movie. Gummer’s performance is funny and salty and tough. She also lets herself look like a woman going through hell. Her hair is mussed up and scruffy and she walks around in a long black T-shirt and pajama pants. She's venomous toward her mom, although that venom quickly runs out only to be replaced with the love she still feels for her mother. And here’s where Ricki turns into a real human being and not just a caricature of a rock diva: Ricki has more dignity and self-respect than just about anyone else in the movie, especially in the big dinner scene, where one of her sons hurls insults at her while the other one awkwardly tries to keep her from finding out about his forthcoming nuptials.

The film plays all its cards in the first act. After the dinner scene, there’s the expected sparring between Maureen and Ricki, after which Ricki retreats to L.A. The problems between Ricki and Julie seem to have been solved, but not much else is, and the film plods through a sloppy middle territory with bad musical montages, awaiting its own too-triumphant third act. There are a few obvious personal revelations for Ricki (“I LOVE MY KIDS”), which of course you’ve already scene in the film’s trailer.

The complexity that Diablo Cody and Jonathan Demme develop in the first third of the movie never takes shape. When Ricki returns to L.A. for her son’s wedding (coaxed by a sweet but condescending gesture from Maureen), she and her boyfriend Greg (played by Rick Springfield of “Jessie’s Girl” fame) stick out like two tattoed middle fingers at a gathering of rich, well-dressed pointers. It’s too much. But then Ricki and her band does a surprise song for her son and terrified hipster-daughter-in-law and THE POWER OF MUSIC conquers all.

I had a pretty good time at Ricki and the Flash despite all my misgivings. There are quite a few laughs. But the movie is ultimately unsatisfying, especially from the director of Stop Making Sense. Ricki and the Flash has energy and weirdness and charm, but the movie needed to be worked out more carefully, and its gooey, obvious themes undercut the more adult, thoughtful conflicts at work between the characters. 

August 06, 2015


Does the world really need another Vacation movie? Apparently, Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley, the writing-directing team of the latest film in the franchise, aren’t too sure. Their own apathy about the project, and their own disdain for just about every character in the movie, saps the energy out of this lackluster comedy. It’s the worst kind of dude-bro humor, operating at about a grade-7-level. Is there anything more tiresome than a gag in which commercial pilot Rusty Griswold (son of Clark), played by Ed Helms, accidentally gropes the breasts of a passenger on his plane when he’s taken off balance by some turbulence at the hands of his senile co-pilot? If that wasn’t bad enough, Rusty falls face forward into the crotch of the woman’s young son. More turbulence. This is in the opening five minutes, and it’s a grim warning of the deadening unfunniness to come.

More disturbing, however, is the thread of creepy pedophilia jokes that runs through the movie. The crotch scene is the first of a running tally, and I’m not exactly sure for whom these jokes were intended to be funny. When I was a kid, all my parents had to shield me from was sex and violence between adults. Now, when the kiddos inevitably tune into the 2015 Vacation, someone will have to explain to them what a pedophile is, because Rusty tries to explain the word to his own son, before Mom steps in and silences her bumbling husband. 

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy dirty humor when it's done right. It’s just that this particular brand of dirty humor, not to mention the uninspired way the filmmakers push it on us, doesn’t work. It’s not clever, it’s not funny, it’s not even good enough for European Vacation, which everyone agreed was the worst Vacation movie, although there may be a contender against that title now. 

Early in the film, when Rusty informs his wife Debbie (Christina Applegate, who was just about the only performer I truly liked and engaged with in this movie) and his two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) that they’re going to drive across the country to Wally World (the same ill-fated trek his father made in the 1983 Vacation), the movie takes a self-referential turn. “It’ll be just like the original vacation!” their father declares, adopting that same wide-eyed glee that Chevy Chase got in his eyes when he was more into his plans than the rest of his family. “I’ve never heard of the original vacation,” replies Kevin, a real demon-child who’s constantly beating up on his passive older brother. “This one’s exactly the same, except the first one had a boy and a girl, and we have two boys.” I wasn’t sure exactly how to take this scene, except it felt like an accidental admission that nobody knows what to do to make this movie good. Simply being tied to a beloved comedy franchise is presumably enough to ride on for 100 minutes. (I must admit, I grew up watching Vacation and Christmas Vacation as a child, and I loved them both for quite a long time. And anyone who loves those movies will at least be happy to hear the cheesy Lindsey Buckingham tune "Holiday Road" wash over the opening credits, which feature lots of stupid family road trip photos.)

The scenes with Leslie Mann (as Rusty’s sister Audrey) and her husband Stone (Chris Hemsworth, who’s the epitome of the conservative Texan, and who parades his considerable package in front of his brother- and sister-in-law) are kind of funny. But Goldstein and Daley don’t know how to use Leslie Mann, who is one of the funniest actresses working in comedy movies right now. Both Mann and Chris Hemsworth, who’s incredibly likable and go-along, deserved more screen time. They hold our attention far more than Ed Helms, who's not nearly as charismatic. 

And of course, no Vacation would be complete without an appearance from Clark and Ellen Griswold (Chevy Chase and the wonderful Beverly D’Angelo, who was often the saving grace of the other movies in the franchise.) Some readers may not know this because so many crappy comedies are written by men who don’t know what to do with brilliantly talented actresses, but Beverly D’Angelo can sing. Yes. She once played Patsy Cline in Coal Miners Daughter. She has a beautiful singing voice and terrific comic timing to boot, which makes her virtually silent role in this movie all the more disheartening. 

Christina Applegate takes over for Beverly D'Angelo as a reason not to completely hate these movies. She's a trooper, and the movie tries to give her character a crazy side which unfortunately ends up backfiring because it unleashes the movie's misguided contempt for her. Rusty, despite Debbie’s wishes, makes a detour at her old university, where she gets sucked into a sorority drinking game that involves downing a pitcher of beer and then completing an obstacle course. Applegate vomits repeatedly before being pummeled and thrown to the ground, where she lays face-down in her own frothy upchuck. Such dignity. 

As for the kids, I wanted to squash the little brother Kevin. Skyler Gisondo is sort of likable as James, the budding writer who would rather wander the West like Jack Kerouac than go to a “corporate theme park.” There's not much complexity to either one of these boys: the older brother is totally likable and the younger brother is a monstrous little shit. When James finally does put an end to Kevin's abuse, it's underwhelming, although admittedly in character, to see him lightly slap his brother, who's disturbed by the weirdness of it. James's method works, though. And moreover, the movie hates him just as much as his little brother. But it's more proof that the makers of Vacation secretly despise their own characters. You'll be glad when the journey is over. 

Addendum: The car--a lime-green "Tartan Prancer" with a remote control that offers terrifying choices-- is pretty hysterical. 

August 04, 2015

Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll

As the world collapsed around them, they made music. In the 1950s and 60s, Phnom Penh, the capital city and cultural nucleus of Cambodia, witnessed a rush of exuberant artistic expression and cultural freedom in the wake of a new push toward modernization. But in 1970, amidst the turmoil of the Vietnam war, neutral Cambodia was transformed into a war zone, eventually leading to its own civil war and subsequent takeover by the Khmer Rouge. Those musicians who had united Cambodians were being silenced, unless they were willing to create fascist art, which is hardly worth the trouble. This is the subject of director John Pirozzi’s heartbreaking new documentary, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten. It’s perhaps the most culturally significant music documentary of the last few years, along with 20 Feet From Stardom.

If you’re like me, you probably don’t know very much about Cambodia. Perhaps you had a vague notion that Cambodia was somehow involved in the Vietnam War. You probably had heard the term “the killing fields,” but maybe you were fuzzy on where exactly those “fields” were, and who was doing the killing, and whom they were doing it to. Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten fills in some of those historical and geographical gaps for those of us who are woefully uninitiated, and paints a vivid portrait of a country’s relentless spirit amidst its tragic oppression.

It is also a compelling treatise on the inherent value of art.

We in the West live in such a different world, one where self-expression is a measure of social value, a moral right, and where access to all kinds of artistic expression is virtually unlimited. At the same time, we are fighting our own battles over the arts, as anyone who teaches anything in the humanities can attest. There’s a disconnect about art in this country that is the product of our unmitigated progress and prosperity. We’re so accustomed to its availability that we, rather predictably, take it for granted. And yet, art is tremendously undervalued in this country. We’ve forgotten why it is so vital to the health of a society. Our education about the arts is partly to blame. And I don’t mean our education in the classroom, but the more important self-education that is, I believe, a duty and a privilege of a free citizen. We ought to be, independently of the classroom or any other institution or person, reading literature, listening to music, watching movies, and not merely as mindless consumers, but as human beings passionately invested in the world around them, past, present, and future, and the people that populate it. A society is never far from its own self-destruction when it devalues artistic expression, whether this devaluing happens at the bottom or at the top. The people of Cambodia saw the tragic consequences of this in the 1970s.

Like so many countries in Asia, modern Cambodia is the product of Western colonization, having been a French colony until the 1950s when it achieved independence in a friendly (according to the film) change of power. The Cambodian citizens in the documentary spoke what appeared to be a kind of localized French mixed with their own native tongue. The music we hear in the film—covering a period from the early 1950s to the 1970s—combines traditional Cambodian sounds with a style that is distinctly Western: some French but mostly American. The twangy electric guitars echo the glimmery-warm surf rock of the 60s. But there’s also an Afro-Cuban influence at play. And the vocals, the vocals. So sharp, so clear, almost shrill, often childlike in tone, but also rich in texture and ultimately, evocative. The songs are more often than not laments, especially as the wars outside Cambodia threatened to spill over, pulling the neutral country in conflict.  

The lyrics are almost comically direct, although I wasn’t sure how much of this was an effect of their translation into English. One line: “Stop asking about your father; he was a womanizer and an embarrassment.” Another, this one a product of the enforced patriotism of the Khmer Rouge: “Don’t be afraid to kill… Pick up a weapon now.” It sounds like a line from one of Charles Manson’s hippie-murder-ballads. And although many of the lyrics feel clumsily obvious, they still find some room for metaphors, with one song comparing a lover to a full moon or a clear sky.

What was most heartening about this movie experience for me personally was the woman sitting next to me, who hummed/sang along with every single song we heard in the movie, who recognized all of the famous Cambodian pop stars and bands chronicled, who laughed uproariously at certain moments that were sometimes lost on the rest of us, who periodically “tsked” as the film dug deeper into the dark pages of Cambodia’s recent history. Sitting next to this woman made the movie come alive for me. I felt, although I do not know, that she had lived this experience somehow, and her responses were almost as powerful, and certainly as moving, as the film itself.

August 02, 2015

Mr. Holmes

In Mr. Holmes, Ian McKellen takes what might otherwise have been a very superficial piece of anglophilia and elevates it to the level of something deeply moving. McKellen plays Sherlock Holmes, now in his early 90s and living in voluntary exile at his cottage in Sussex, perhaps the only time he’s ever lived away from the whirling metropolis of London, where he made his reputation as the world’s greatest detective.

The film, which is based on Mitch Cullin’s book A Slight Trick of the Mind, follows several threads of Holmes’s life: the present, which involves his relationship with frumpy housekeeper Laura Linney and her adorable, adoring son Roger, played by Milo Parker, who tempers a fiery curiosity about life with a kind of rural English cuteness. With features that completely fill his smallish V-shaped head, he looks like a child-version of Dominic Cooper. 

The film also goes back in time to two separate adventures of Sherlock Holmes, one involving a recent trip to Japan ostensibly to find a plant called prickly ash, which is reputably a remedy for arthritis and memory loss. (Holmes is becoming more and more forgetful, and when his doctor suggests that he begin tallying in a journal the number of times he forgets things each day, the still-sharp detective quips, “And what if I forget to mark them?”) The final thread involves a case in which Holmes trailed a grieving young woman who—almost like the obsessed Madeleine in Vertigo—is entranced by the glass harmonica. Her husband thinks that her musician-tutor has gotten her into the dark arts.

Somehow, director Bill Condon has taken something that should have been cheap sentiment mixed with bad literary nostalgia and turned it into a beautifully layered study of aging, of friendship, of regret, of solitude, of all the tensions that we face sooner or later in life. Roger, the boy, becomes enamored of Holmes, and their budding friendship invigorates him and motivates Holmes to finish writing the narrative of the case of the entranced woman, even though he cannot remember how the case turned out. He’s haunted by a sense of guilt to which he cannot attribute a source.

There’s a wonderful scene between the three of them, Holmes, Linney and Parker, in which the boy sharply insults his mother, of whom he’s clearly ashamed. “She can barely read!” he scolds, appealing to Holmes’s hyper-intelligence. Holmes’s reaction is powerful. He looks like he’d just witnessed an avalanche, and in a sense he has. That moment, each actor holds his or her own, even young Parker, who makes quite an impression. There are a number of complex feelings circulating through the room in that scene, and Condon (with the help, I’m sure, of screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher) handles them with precision. 

The movie doesn’t try to neatly resolve emotions that have calcified over many years of time. It unpacks these heavy emotions and treats them with their due respect. And yet, the film doesn’t bog you down with its own weight. It's a very strong movie, but it's also refreshingly airy. McKellen’s beautifully wistful and spry performance, the anchor of this film to be sure, is measured enough to offer equal shares of pathos, levity, and light. I was disappointed that Laura Linney had such a dismal role, but even she vests her character with a kind of stoic dignity. She’s from the lower-class but her son is smart, and this relationship establishes an interesting tension. Holmes remarks with characteristic bluntness, “Often times exceptional people come from unremarkable parents.” It’s really not meant to insult, and perhaps only an actor like McKellen can get away with it. He’s far too likable for a comment like that to give much offense. And at the end of the film, when the boy’s health is endangered, Holmes's genuine, deep compassion and sorrow is powerful. It pierces the mother’s bitterness like a lance.

One of the most remarkable elements of Mr. Holmes is the film’s attention to sensory detail. It's a movie that feels wholly in touch with its environment and with the objects that populate it, from things found in a house or a bookstore or on a train to things growing in the grass. (I couldn't help but notice the thick billowing smoke as it frothed out of the trains; and I was delighted by the rocky beaches and the frothy waters of the sea, where Holmes and Roger swim in a scene near the end of the movie.) Holmes has become a beekeeper in his old age, and this proves a source of fascination for young Roger, who learns to care for the bees himself. The honey harvested by the bees, we learn, is yet another of Holmes’s attempts to cure his senility. 

There are plenty of shots of the beautiful countryside too. It’s almost too perfectly, gorgeously English to live. You suspect they're overdoing it on purpose, and yet it’s hard not to be awed by the gorgeous, lush landscapes and the charming quaintness of the cottage and all the silver and furniture and leather books and trinkets: Holmes's old pen, dipped in oily-black ink; the faded white glove--worn by the entranced woman--hidden in Watson's old desk; the old magnifying glass, the mail wrapped in brown parcel paper. All of these little things offer captivating little worlds of their own, adding to the texture of Mr. Holmes, and making it feel earthy and lived-in. I hope I'm not overstating my case here. It's just kind of miraculous to see a movie like this in the summer.

August 01, 2015


It’s hard to imagine that Jake Gyllenhaal could ever play a boxer, although, when you see him standing in the ring in those shiny black shorts and a trickle of blood hanging out of a his mouth, dripping onto his taut stomach, it’s not so difficult to believe. If you’re going to the movies this weekend, you could probably do a lot worse than Southpaw, a family drama about a light-heavyweight champion named Billy Hope whose life and career are reduced to rubble after a series of escalating financial problems and personal tragedies. (Warning: Spoilers ahead in the rest of this paragraph; skip to the next one to avoid.) His wife, Maureen, played by the wonderful, lovely, strong Rachel McAdams (who I believe makes any movie better) is shot and killed at a charity event after a fight between Billy and another fighter turns violent. It’s pretty obvious from the start that Maureen is the glue that holds Billy Hope together. Without her, Billy is virtually alone. He self-destructs, losing his house, his support, and his daughter, who’s taken into the hands of child services.

Southpaw is in a lot of ways a run-of-the-mill boxing drama, bolstered by the performances of its stars. I’m a big fan of Jake Gyllenhaal, who gave one of last year’s most memorable performances in the creepy thriller Nightcrawler. Here, Gyllenhaal transforms himself into a prizefighter, defying the naysayer within all of us that might think of him still as the adorably scrawny, thoughtful teenager in Donnie Darko, or the boy scout cartoonist Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. What’s frustrating—for me at least—is that so many actors seem intent on proving themselves in this genre, as though, because of Robert De Niro’s performance in Raging Bull, the wrestling genre is a gauntlet through which all serious male performers must pass.

I have no idea if Gyllenhaal is trying to cement his reputation as a serious actor with a movie like Southpaw. More likely he’s a serious actor who wants to challenge himself. And Southpaw gives him plenty of opportunities to hit all the emotional beats that a serious actor would kill for. He gets to be on top, a superstar in the boxing world; he gets to (SPOILER) have Rachel McAdams die in his arms; he gets to fall, like a mighty emperor suddenly conquered, reduced to rubble and abandoned by everyone who worshiped him only moments prior. He gets to rise up and conquer his demons. He gets redemption. In short, Southpaw is ready-made for those who want all of the drama of a boxing movie. There’s just not much novelty in it, and for someone who hates watching boxing of any kind, it was a bit of a grind. I did feel increasingly more invested as the move wore on, admittedly.

But as a drama, Southpaw is often sloppy. It relies on the easy tears of lost loves and dramatic disappointments, and the equally simple-minded “I’m going to win this one for my daughter” and “family is everything” messages that Hollywood loves to drape around its movies, like the tin-foil candy wrappers that are engraved with syruppy feel-good adages, like "love is what really matters."  

What is perhaps most eye-opening—and tragic—is the truth that Southpaw exposes: These boxers are alone. These are guys who have likely not had the advantage of an education. They have no other career options to fall back on, and they have no real support system in place. Billy’s wife Maureen was the exception. Most of these men are being exploited by their coterie of ass-kissing paid trainers and legal assistants and security staff. Once the fame and the money go, they “disappear like cock roaches,” as Maureen so aptly puts it in the film. I think this is the one thing which makes Southpaw particularly relevant and even important as a contribution to movies. And maybe this truth has been evident all along and I just haven’t noticed it.

Forrest Whitaker co-stars as the wise trainer who takes in the broken and defeated Billy in the second half of the movie and then helps him rise again. Oona Laurence gives a heartfelt and strong performance as Billy’s daughter, Leila. With Naomie Harris, Victor Ortiz, 50 Cent, Miguel Gomez, and Beau Knapp. Directed by Antoine Fuqua. 


I was in the tenth grade when the World Trade Center fell. I remember being in Mr. Kuhrt’s World History class. Someone rushed in and told him to turn on the television. The first tower had been hit, but no one knew what was going on, the gravity of the situation that would forever change things for us. We knew that the building was on fire, on one of the higher stories. We didn’t know that someone had flown an airplane into it, or that a second airplane was minutes away from colliding into the other tower.

Every September 11th I dig up the footage from Youtube and show it to my students. For them, the event is on its way to being as distant as the Kennedy assassination is from me. Not quite yet, but soon, it will be long enough ago in history that children will cease to be emotionally affected by it in the same way that we who saw it unfold were so affected. Most of my middle school students weren’t even born yet. Students who graduated from high school in 2015 were about four or five when it happened. Being aware of it was terrifying, not knowing what was going to happen was terrifying. That day is a reminder that history was once real time, the present, unfolding before us, and the “we” of that former present did not, in the moment, have the benefit of recollection. Staring down at historical events, relegated to the page, gives us a false sense of superiority over them, as though we somehow authored them. We know the ending. In a sense, we don’t experience them as real events. It seems so simple, yet it’s so easy to forget that an historical event was once a real moment in time, all possibilities, pulsating and vibrant and brutal yet somehow naïve, each one graduated second being converted into the past.

The assassination of President Kennedy was the 9/11 of its generation. Or rather, the reverse of that. My generation’s experience of 9/11 happening in real time is comparable to what it must have been like to be alive on November 22, 1963, watching the motorcade make its way through downtown Dallas. When I see the President slump over after being hit, and I see Jackie Kennedy, frantically climbing onto the back of the open car in absolute terror, I’m brought to a stony silence. What must it have been like?

Oliver Stone’s JFK reminds us that movies are a vital, urgent, necessary art form. Those of us who are too young to remember the assassination of President Kennedy are met with the tragic reality of it only through such compelling re-enactments as this film, which puts the actual footage to effective use. Movies can awaken history to us even though most of them are historically inaccurate, and whether or not Oliver Stone’s depiction of the conspiracy theories behind the assassination of JFK are totally bonkers or totally onto something, this film captures the absolute chaos into which we were thrown on that horrible day in Dallas. Stone’s film pulsates with the blood and the synapses of real time, turning “dead historical fact” into an urgent, provocative, spine-tingling, terrifying mystery. At the very least, JFK reminds us that the government’s reaction to Kennedy’s death was wholly inadequate, allowing for the perpetual development of numerous conspiracy theories.

Once you get past Kevin Costner’s bad Louisiana accent (he plays New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison), it’s hard not to be affected by the sincerity of his performance, especially during the compelling courtroom speech he makes at the end. Atticus Finch has become some kind of Messiah in the pop culture for his conscientious liberalism in To Kill a Mockingbird. But the Garrison character as depicted in JFK reaches further, challenging our complacency about government, awakening a deeper obligation to pay attention, to question, to use our own minds rather than accept with docile, childish ignorance, the happy lie that government is always honest, always seeking justice, always promoting truth. That’s our job just as much as it is theirs, and when we turn away from our own duties, we do so at our own peril.

I suppose this is less a movie review than a preachy treatise on the effects of a Hollywood movie. Or maybe, to put it in a better light, it’s an honest outpouring of the impression Stone’s film left on me. JFK is a magnificently entertaining, incredibly well-put-together piece of film. Stone’s ability to weave together archive footage with re-enactments makes him probably one of our greatest propagandists, and even if Stone’s theories about the assassination are false, his style is something to study. He knows how to make an arresting, spine-tingling, deliciously paranoid political thriller. And moreover, his quest for truth doesn’t ring false. The speech made by Garrison in the film’s denouement is as much a direct line of communication from Oliver Stone as anything.

The movie met with considerable criticism upon its release in 1991, and yet it was at least partly responsible for a new policy of transparency regarding official government documents about the Kennedy assassination. Stone’s film gives credence to the dubiousness of certain elements of the esteemed Warren Commission, namely the so-called “magic bullet,” which traveled with more finesse and effect than one of those talking cartoon bullets in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

The only bad scene occurs after Garrison learns of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. When he wakes up his wife (played by Sissy Spacek) to tell her the news, she’s confronted with the reality that her husband, plagued for years with public skepticism that has affected her own feelings about his work, was right after all. Their feels of validation turn into passionate kissing, and it is more than a little off-putting to think that an assassination serves them as an aphrodisiac. (Spacek, I should note, offers a stunning performance in an ultimately thankless role as the classic worrying wife, one of Hollywood’s favorite stock roles.)

Stone has gathered an impressive array of actors to fill his cast of strange, fascinating characters: Tommy Lee Jones, Laurie Metcalf, Joe Pesci, Michael Rooker, Wayne Knight, Kevin Bacon, Gary Oldman, Jay O. Sanders, Ed Asner, Jack Lemon, Donald Sutherland, Sally Kirkland, John Candy, Vincent D’Onofrio, Walter Matthau, and Brian Doyle Murray.