Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer movie roundup

After a slow start, it turned out to be a pretty good summer for movies. For the second year in a row, an unusually strong showing on the indie/arthouse front counterbalanced a weaker than usual slate of franchise blockbusters ("Guardians of the Galaxy" being the notable exception to the latter). Here are my top five films of summer 2014:


Based on Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name, this isn't so much a documentary as a lovely, well rounded portrait of a lovely, well rounded man - and no, I'm not making any cheap fat jokes here. As a movie lover who grew up watching Siskel & Ebert "At the Movies" I'm clearly the target audience for this film, engagingly directed by Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"). But even those who don't share my bias should find it exceptionally well made, equal parts humorous and poignant, though shading more to the latter as it explores Ebert's final years struggling with the debilitating medical problems that he eventually succumbed to last year. Ultimately, however, it's an uplifting tribute to...well, life itself. Best part: the clips of Siskel and Ebert sniping at each other between takes of their TV show. GRADE: A


The ever-experimental-minded Richard Linklater shot this film over the course of 12 years, using the same actors, to depict a boy growing up. It may sound like a gimmick, but the end result feels remarkably organic. Like most of Linklater's previous work, it's rather loosely knit and, with a few exceptions, doesn't follow the usual narrative or dramatic beats of a "coming of age" film; rather, it's content to take a snapshot approach to the boy's life, showing as much interest (if not more) in the incidental and liminal moments of childhood as in the more conventional milestones. But that's a big part of what makes it ring so true emotionally - that, and the wholly natural screen presence of Ellar Koltrane, a non-actor who literally matures before our eyes. GRADE: B+/A-


James Gray continues to be one of the most underrated American directors working today, as evidenced by how little attention his latest film received - sadly far less than it deserved. Part of the problem might be that Gray's style feels more European than American (there's a reason his work has been more acclaimed in Europe than here): his films tend to focus on the unspoken undercurrents of ambiguous, often messy relationships and how these dynamics are affected by subtle social and class differences; despite recurring elements of violence, they have a quiet, almost muted tone and color palette, and they're usually anchored by Joaquin Phoenix in full-on enigmatic mode. All these features are present in "The Immigrant," which stars Marion Cotillard as a beautiful, much put-upon Polish immigrant trying to find her way in 1920s New York, with Phoenix as her dark but not quite evil angel and Jeremy Renner as his slicker, more extroverted rival. What could have devolved into trite melodrama becomes a fascinating study of outsiders trying to fit in, and Cotillard delivers a compelling performance despite - or perhaps because of - a sometimes frustratingly (I think deliberately) opaque affect. Her final moments with Phoenix are some of the most powerful I've seen all year, as well as the most visually stunning. GRADE: B+/A-


Amid pop culture's perennial oversupply of espionage thrillers, there's no one quite like John le Carré for conveying the gray, morally enervating universe that real spies occupy and attempt, with varying degrees of futility, to manipulate in the service of an illusory greater good. Though set in post-9/11 Hamburg and definitely contemporary in its specific political concerns, "A Most Wanted Man" feels like vintage le Carré, and director Anton Corbijn ("Control," "The American") is the perfect match for his bleak yet gripping world view. Philip Seymour Hoffman, in one of his last movie roles, is excellent as Gunther, a jaded German intelligence operative who painstakingly sets up a web to trap a suspected terrorism financier. The supporting cast, too, is solid, with Willem Dafoe and Robin Wright as particular standouts. The film moves at a deliberate pace but never drags or loses its overarching sense of anxious urgency, and the ending, while abrupt, is also devastating. GRADE: B+/A-


Yes, this is basically "Once" refitted and glossed up for a broader, American audience - relocated from Dublin to NYC, and re-cast with high-prestige actors like Mark Ruffalo, Keira Knightley, and Catherine Keener, plus pop music A-listers like Adam Levine, Cee-Lo Green, and Mos Def (or whatever he calls himself now). The engaging scruffiness of the original is completely scrubbed away, and the music isn't nearly as good. Yet the basic formula - two emotionally wounded souls find platonic solace making a record together - still works, and the film has a surprising freshness and breezy, unforced charm, thanks in large part to the appealingly low-key chemistry between Knightley and Ruffalo and the easy rapport among all the actors and musicians. GRADE:B+

Honorable Mentions:


Who'd have thought this band of second-tier Marvel misfits would turn out one of the biggest box office hits and most widely liked movies of the summer? Not me. But count me among those won over by their Hollywood debut. It's fast-moving, light-hearted fun, and gets great comic mileage playing off the character contrasts between the Guardians. Occasionally it tries a little too hard to be funny (Chris Pratt, I'm looking at you), but for every line that misfires there's at least a dozen guaranteed to make you laugh out loud. While the movie knows not to take itself seriously, it also knows when to be serious and mostly pulls off those moments as well. It's not quite the best superhero movie of the year ("Captain America: The Winter Soldier" still holds that honor in my book), though the truth is "Guardians" is far closer in sensibility to goofy space-opera serial adventures like Buckaroo Banzai and OG "Star Wars" - and not just because it features not one but two Han Solo characters, one of whom happens to be a talking CGI raccoon. GRADE: B/B+


Why would you cast Michael Fassbender as a lead character and then cover his face with a giant paper-mâché head? Maybe because Fassbender, apart from being a stud, is also a damn fine actor who can convey volumes through body language alone. In this offbeat British indie production, he plays a gifted, mentally troubled musician who's not quite ready for the 15 minutes of fame that an ambitious but talentless bandmate aggressively pushes on him. The film bears the tricky task of balancing quirky comedy and sensitive treatment of mental illness - and for the most part succeeds. But the main reason to watch it is Fassbender, who does some of his best work without showing his face - no mean feat. GRADE: B/B+

The rest of the movies I saw this summer, in roughly descending order of preference (even though they're all bunched pretty close to one another):

22 Jump Street
It won't win any awards - but what can I say, I enjoyed it, just as I enjoyed its predecessor. Better in some ways than "21 Jump Street," as the last 20 minutes didn't drag as much. Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill continue to be one of Hollywood's funniest and unlikeliest comic duos, and Ice Cube is a hoot, too. GRADE: B

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Solid, serviceable installment in the franchise that makes good use of its two generations of actors playing Dr. X and Magneto; James McAvoy is particularly good as a disillusioned young Charles. The parts set in the past (the 1970s) are stronger and more entertaining than the parts set in the future. Oh, and any movie that features a gratuitous Hugh Jackman-as-Wolverine bare butt shot gets an automatic grade hike from me. GRADE: B

Essentially the same movie as "Begin Again": dude in mid-life and mid-career crisis rediscovers his love of his calling by making a fresh, personal, totes realz product he really believes in (here, Cuban sandwiches from a food truck) - and in the process, reconciles with his estranged family. Of the two, "Begin Again" is by far the better movie; but as romantic fantasy, food porn, and travelogue, "Chef" goes down perfectly easily. GRADE: B

Edge of Tomorrow (now called "Live. Die. Repeat." WTF?)
In the words of an Internet wag, think "Groundhog D-Day," with Tom Cruise playing the role of the less-than-sympathetic protagonist who must live the same day over and over again until he gets it right - only here he's a soldier at war, so we get to see him offed repeatedly. A well-cast Cruise evolves from overly slick, hollow-patter salesman-Tom Cruise to earnest, clenched-jaw action hero-Tom Cruise, with an able assist from Emily Blunt as a celebrated female warrior who knows his secret. Their choose-your-own style adventure is fun enough to watch, though the ending feels like a cop-out. GRADE: B

A wacky multicultural mélange of a film (Korean director, French source material, mixed American, British, and Korean cast) that hasn't entirely blended its disparate elements. Inventive it certainly is; thoroughly reasoned, not so much - though what can you expect from a movie about a class revolt on a train of the Future that circles the globe endlessly, carrying the remnants of humanity after a climate change catastrophe? Up till the ending, which just went several steps too far into the realm of implausibility for me, it's pretty trippy fun - if you can deal with the wild tonal swings and somewhat jarring juxtaposition of naturalistic and highly mannered actorly turns (Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton representing the two extremes). GRADE: B

Get On Up
A biopic that tries to shake up the standard biopic formula by jumping around chronologically between different stages of James Brown's life. The results are mixed, as the final product feels like a handful of great scenes interspersed with biographical filler. Still, Chadwick Boseman (who played Jackie Robinson in last year's "42") is dynamite as the late Godfather of Soul. The movie's worth seeing for him alone, as well as for the nicely drawn relationship between Brown and his friend/collaborator/upstaged bandmate, Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis, also terrific). GRADE: B

Passably entertaining, though it gets pretty loopy (Luc Besson style) and is not at all what the previews suggest it to be. It also suffers from the fact that Lucy (Scarlet Johansson) abandons her humanity early on, making it next to impossible to empathize with her, and the fact that the whole "humans use only 10% of their brains" myth is total crock. GRADE: B-

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

R.I.P. Robin Williams

Before last night, I hadn't thought about Robin Williams - really thought about him, for more than a passing moment - in years. I certainly hadn't seen him in a movie in over a decade, and I hadn't bothered to check out his recently-cancelled TV show.

Yet the news of his death carried all the impact of a personal loss. And judging from the reactions of my friends and peers, I'm far from alone. For my generation, Robin Williams was like that uncle who you thought was the coolest, funniest man in the world when you were little, who might have begun to seem less cool and a bit corny as you grew older, but for whom you always had a solid core of residual affection and who you assumed would be around forever. Until he wasn't.

I knew him better as an actor than as a comedian. I was a little too young to have watched him as Mork, and I didn't see any of his stand-up routines. Still, it didn't take much exposure to his comic personality to get a good sense of its feverish exuberance - the almost manic energy that sometimes came off as too much of a good thing. Sometimes he managed to channel it into his movie roles ("Good Morning, Vietnam" being maybe the best example, and of course "Aladdin"; unlike many, I never did care much for "Mrs. Doubtfire"). But what struck me early on was his ability to dial back and play it completely straight, whether as a dryly sardonic ex-shrink ("Dead Again") or a shy, earnest doctor learning what it really means to be alive ("Awakenings"). [Note: I have not seen "The Fisher King," though I just bumped it up on my Netflix queue.]

For me, though, and undoubtedly for many others my age, his signature role will always be Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society." I haven't watched that film since VHS tapes were still widely available, and I suspect I would find many more faults with it now than I did as an adolescent or a twentysomething. But I have no doubt that Robin Williams' performance still holds up. What remains with me most clearly and poignantly isn't so much Keating's classroom lessons in yawping and seizing the day as a quieter scene in his office, when he tries to persuade Robert Sean Leonard's budding young actor to be honest with himself and with his father. Gone is any hint of playful posturing or pontificating to make a point; this Keating isn't there to inspire but to inquire, and to draw out his student's innermost fears. In this respect, it was a dry run for the movie that finally won Williams the Oscar, "Good Will Hunting." He was great in that. But Dead Poets came first, and will always have pride of place in my heart.

"Good Will Hunting" arguably marked the apex of a career that ranged wildly in quality; even after becoming a huge star, Williams made a good deal of dreck that hardly matched his talent or his Juilliard training. While he continued to be effective in roles that tapped into his dark side ("Insomnia," "One Hour Photo"), he was also drawn to movies that seemed to wallow in the most cloying kind of sentimentality ("Patch Adams," "What Dreams May Come," "Bicentennial Man," admittedly none of which I've actually seen). Looking back, I can't help seeing this dichotomy as a manifestation of the tension within Williams himself, even though I ordinarily resist inflicting dime-store psychoanalysis on people I've never met. It's something of a truism, after all, that comedians struggle with deeper depression and darker demons than most people; comedy is their defense against the darkness. In Williams' case, though, the truism seems especially true: even the bathos, as well as the madcap comedy, embodied a palpable desire to connect, to love and be loved.

Which brings me back to why so many of us felt so hard hit after the initial shock of his death. Whatever you thought of his comic persona(s) or his movies, it was almost impossible to feel anything but good will towards him. The man exuded benevolence - a rare quality in most comedians, who tend to have at least something of the asshole about them - and was by all accounts a mensch in real life as well. I don't pretend to know whether or why he took his own life, and I don't presume to know. All I know is that whatever misery he may have endured, he contributed great joy to the world, and I hope he took some comfort in that.