Thursday, August 27, 2015

A major helping of Greta Gerwig

Mistress America , a movie of intermittent amusements.

In Mistress America, Greta Gerwig draws on all her power to play a scattered, funny and wildly ambitious New Yorker. As a young woman seeking a place for herself in a trend-crazed world, Gerwig's Brooke creates a tornadic whirl around everything she does.

Spend five minutes with Brooke, and she'll ramble on about possible TV shows she wants to produce (a reality show called Mistress America being one of them), new apps she plans to invent and scads of other imagined endeavors that she hopes will secure her niche in a fluid economy.

Here's the thing, though: We get Brooke early, and there's not much left for us to learn about her in this Noah Baumbach-directed comedy. Baumbach, you'll recall, previously worked with Gerwig on Frances Ha.

Although she's the movie's dominant force, Gerwig's Brooke is not its main character. That job falls to Lola Kirke's Tracy, a college freshman who aspires to be a writer. Because Tracy's mother (Kathryn Erbe) is engaged to Brooke's father, she encourages Tracy to call her soon-to-be step sister.

Driven by an inability to connect with her peers, Tracy contacts Brooke. Instantly, she's drawn into the vortex her future step-sister creates: parties punctuated by a blur of activities and a frenzied stream of ideas.

When Brooke's wealthy boyfriend decides not to fund the restaurant Brooke wants to open, she's forced to ask former boyfriend Dylan (Michael Chernus) to help her with money. That's no slam-dunk because Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), Dylan's shrill wife, hates Brooke.

Joining Brooke on her trip to Dylan's upscale Connecticut home are one of Tracy's student friends (a droopy Matthew Shear) and his improbably jealous girlfriend (Jasmine Cephas Jones).

All of these characters and a stray from Mamie-Claire's book group gather for a scene in which Baumbach makes a major misstep: He tries his hand at farce.

Stocked with crisscrossing dialogue and rat-a-tat delivery, the movie's big farcical scene never achieves the level of urbanity and wit required to make it fly. Baumbach's attempt at screwball comedy mostly falls flat.

Good for a few chuckles and savvy about the way certain people are able quickly to create a seductive sense of intimacy, Mistress America winds up feeling like awfully thin gruel, a comedy that struck me as more interested in letting us know it's smart than in making us laugh.

Two from the indie side of things

Digging for Fire shouldn't work, but it does
An unusual mixture of obsession and informality give Digging for Fire, a new movie from director Joe Swanberg, its feeling of freshness. Tim and Lee (Jake Johnson and Rosemarie DeWitt) are house sitting for one of Lee's wealthy clients. She teaches yoga; he's a public school teacher. Along with their young son, Tim and Lee are set to enjoy a week of unaccustomed luxury. Signs of possible tension emerge. Lee wants to accept money from her parents (Sam Elliott and Judith Light) to send their son to an expensive pre-school. A mixture of pride and a commitment to public education keep Tim from agreeing. When Lee leaves to spend a weekend with her parents, Tim is joined by friends (Mike Birbiglia, Sam Rockwell and Chris Messina), as well as by a couple of women who tag along. Tim already has been consumed by a strange task: Having found a revolver and a human bone in the backyard of this expensive home, he decides to dig for more. Eventually, he's joined in this effort by Max (Brie Larson), one of the women who attended the impromptu party and returned the next day to find her purse. Swanberg quietly introduces the real issue: the state of Tim and Lee's marriage. While Tim's flirting with Max, Lee has her own tempting encounter with a ruggedly handsome man (Orlando Bloom) she meets in a bar. I won't say more, but I will advise you to view Tim's digging more as a metaphor than plot point. By the end you'll realize that Swanberg has taken an unusual and sometimes comic look at the fragility of marriage -- and also the feeling of safety it can provide.

Z for Zachariah: quiet tension in a post-apocalyptic world

The actors in Z for Zachariah (Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Margot Robbie) are all capable of keeping the movie's sexual tension close to the surface. Good thing, too, because Z for Zachariah throws them into a post-apocalyptic world in which they play the only survivors. Robbie's Ann Burden lives in an idyllic valley that has survived the nuclear holocaust that ravaged the rest of the world. Once Ejiofor's character, an engineer by trade, finds his way into the valley, director Craig Zoebel sets up a dynamic in which two characters who probably never would have met under any other circumstance are forced to work out the dynamics of their relationship. This process is disrupted when another man, Pine's Caleb turns up. Like Ann, Caleb professes to be a man of faith. Ejiofor's John focuses on practical matters with an eye on the possibly of re-starting the human race with Ann. The symbolism gets heavy when John proposes tearing down a chapel that Tracy's father built so that he can use the wood to build a waterwheel for harnessing electricity. Zoebel's naturalism keeps the proceedings from feeling overly allegorical, but the deliberately paced Z For Zachariah never quite attains the primal force the material demands.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Senseless, relentless and cruel

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell play a mom and dad fleeing Asian rebels who are portrayed as savages.
No Escape, a rank helping of violence, makes the fate of one American family the focal point of attention in an unnamed Asian country that's consumed by rebellious street violence. Owen Wilson and Lake Bell, actors who usually work in comedies, are miscast as a Mom and Dad who wind up on the run with their two daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare). Pierce Brosnan turns up as a disheveled bum who's more than he seems. Brosnan's character sounds the movie's excuse for a theme (western money interests have screwed the Third World) and performs a couple of last-minute rescues. Guess it helps to have played Bond. Absent any significant thematic thrust, the movie comes off as another example of fear-mongering in which decent Americans are threatened by hostile, uncivilized thugs. Director John Erick Dowdle, who wrote the screenplay with his brother Drew, serves up lots of punishing violence and one vertiginous sequence in which Wilson's character tosses his daughters over a chasm between two tall buildings in order to save them. Dowdle works the movie's family over, but No Escape increasingly feels like an exercise in purposeless cruelty. Early in the movie, Owen's Jack Dwyer, who has come to the country as a mid-level businessman, leaves his wife and kids at the hotel where they're being housed. He wanders the city's market in search of a newspaper. Judging by how little Jack seems to know about the country he's in, you may wonder whether he's ever bothered to read one.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

When everything is over-the-top

Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart team in a cartoonish movie that revels in its violence.

Set in a West Virginia backwater, American Ultra is a comic-book movie that has the distinction of not being based on a comic book. Silly, violent and unashamedly over-the-top, American Ultra makes for a late-summer oddity -- fun but not too much.

In trying to enter cult-movie territory, director Nima Nourizadeh manages a neat trick: He casts Jesse Eisenberg in an action-oriented role in which he seems less agitated than he did in such recent movies as The End of the Tour. (If you haven't seen End of the Tour, it's worth catching Eisenberg as a writer who sweats his way through interviews with novelist David Foster Wallace.)

Here, Eisenberg plays Mike, a neurotic underachiever with a job at a convenience store. Mike's so prone to bouts of anxiety that he can't even get on a plane for a trip to Hawaii with his live-in girlfriend (Kristen Stewart). Mike had planned to propose on the beach.

As it turns out, Mike is no mere pot-smoking slacker with anxiety issues. He's been programmed by the CIA as a sleeper agent. With his memory wiped clean, Mike has no idea that he's a CIA "asset" in waiting.

Mike surprises himself with sudden bursts of butt-kicking physicality after he's activated by a sympathetic CIA agent (Connie Britton) who wants to keep him from getting killed.

Mike isn't being pursued by a foreign enemy, but by a newly appointed CIA boss (Topher Grace).

Caught in a bureaucratic middle, Mike is part of a program that Grace's character opposed and which Britton's newly demoted character championed.

Working from a script by Max Landis (Chronicle), Nourizadeh spares no effort in demonstrating that he's making an entertainment in which violence frequently is given a comic spin. Dustpans become lethal weapons, for example.

American Ultra delights in refusing to take aim at a single target. Put another way, the movie is an eclectic hodgepodge. John Leguizamo shows up as a low-level criminal who sells illegal fireworks. For no particular reason, Leguizamo sounds as if he's auditioning for a role in Straight Outta Compton.

In keeping with a comic-book tone, Walter Goggins plays The Laugher, a CIA-programmed killer who breaks into laughter without provocation. He relentlessly pursues Mike.

Eisenberg and Stewart, who worked together in 2009's Adventureland, whip up some genuine romantic chemistry, even as the movie goes overboard trying to show just how clever it can be with its ample displays of violence.

Still, Eisenberg and Stewart are game to be battered and bruised, and when the animated closing credits roll, American Ultra confirms what we already knew: It's not to be taken seriously.

Hey, if we hadn't seen movies like this before (remember Kick-Ass?), American Ultra might have had more kick.

She's sexually aggressive at 15

Diary of a Teenage Girl takes a serio-comic look at a provocative subject.

The filmmaking is lively and creative. The central performance is ripe with the burgeoning sexuality of a 15-year-old, and there's little question that the movie evokes a loosey/goosey, mid-1970s moment when the line between adult and adolescent behavior got a little blurry.

That social observation may be the most cogent thing about The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a movie in which a teenager has a sexual relationship with her mother's 30something boyfriend.

Bel Powley's performance as young Minnie Goetz should elevate her status as a bold and daring actress, and director Mirelle Heller makes a provocative debut with a movie that leaves us to sort through its many issues.

Put another way, Diary is an engaging act of assertion, as brash as its main character and not necessarily any more perceptive.

We know a lot about what Minnie thinks because her tape-recorded confessions give the movie its on-going perspective. She's constantly narrating her life for us.

"I had sex today. Holy shit," says Minnie at the outset.

Minnie not only has sex on that day, but on many other days: Leaving hearts and flowers at the door, Heller emphasizes the physicality of female desire.

When I say that a movie includes a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her mother's adult boyfriend, I can almost feel knees jerking with outrage. I get that.

I felt some of that, as well. I took the story on the level it's offered while also remembering that Diary isn't just a story about sexual awakening; it's about a particular sexual awakening -- one in which the characters don't seem to care much about boundaries.

Based on a semi-autobiographical graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, Diary seems to rely on environment to explain Minnie's unregulated behavior. It's not spelled out, but we know that she's seen plenty of adults whose behavior is no less regulated.

Minnie is alternately insecure and confident. She's also entirely unaware (maybe the movie is, as well) of the fact that her sexual choice might be an expression of anger toward her mother (Kristen Wiig).

Wing's Charlotte never has provided a stable environment for Minnie or her younger sister (Abby Wait).

Charlotte split with Minnie's stepfather (Christopher Meloni), smokes pot and, on occasion, snorts coke. She can't hold a job, and has taken up with the shiftless Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard), a grown man who hasn't matured much beyond Minnie's age level.

Skarsgard's Monroe is the kind of guy who makes himself at home wherever he happens to land; he doesn't spend much time agonizing about his behavior. Maybe he thinks it's cool to be sexually open with Minnie.

For all that, The Diary of a Teenage Girl isn't one long squirmfest, and it's not shy about seeing Minnie as a seductress who wants to have lots of sex, some of it even with boys her own age.

Perhaps as a way to honor the movie's roots as a graphic novel, Heller includes animation -- sometimes showing us Minnie's fantasies.

Minnie not only discovers sexual pleasure, she learns that there's power in sex. At one point, she imagines herself as a giantess rumbling through San Francisco's streets, a sexual powerhouse.

Fair to say that at 15, Minnie, who's also an aspiring cartoonist, doesn't know how to control the forces she's unleashing.

I'm guessing that Heller makes an assumption about her audience: Perhaps she thinks that we already know that a sexual relationship between a 15-year-old and a man in his 30s is neither legally nor in any other way acceptable. She doesn't lecture us about it.

Instead, she takes us inside Minnie's world. She refuses to condemn anyone.

That's OK, but it would have helped if Heller had dug a bit deeper. Minnie's perspective gives the movie its personality, but it can't help but be a bit limited.

Powley, a British actress who's really in her early 20s, makes a willing co-conspirator for Heller. With her eyes popped wide open, Powley conveys Minnie's desire, bolstered by intermittent bursts of bravado.

In Powley and Heller's hands, Diary feel as alive as its young protagonist. And by the movie's end, it's clear that Heller has fashioned another coming-of-age story -- albeit one that brims with sex, talk about sex and nudity.

Diary of a Teenage Girl is an odd duck of a movie: Brave and cheeky, but not an inch removed from the sometimes wanton behavior of its characters. How you feel about that may well determine how you feel about the movie.

Returning home after the Holocaust

The German movie Phoenix is about trying to manage an unmanageable past.

Nelly Lenz survived Auschwitz, but was shot in the face sometime around the camp's liberation. With the rumble of war still echoing across the European landscape, Nelly returned to Berlin with a friend who had arranged for her to have reconstructive surgery.

In the hospital, a plastic surgeon asks Nelly whether she wants to pick a new face and by extension, a new identity. She insists that she wants to look exactly as she did before the war.

Obviously, any movie that begins like this -- as does the German movie Phoenix -- must invest every choice with symbolic meaning.

As an assimilated Jew prior to the war, does Nelly want to wipe the slate clean and start again? Will she cling to the past, even if it means denying how some of her German "friends" behaved during the war?

After her operation, Nelly -- played by Petzold regular Nina Hoss -- moves in with the friend (Nina Kunzendorf) who brought her to Berlin.

Kunzendorf's Lene suggests that the two leave Germany and move either to Haifa or Tel Aviv.

Nelly has another idea. She wants to find Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld), the German to whom she was married before the war. Nelly had been a club singer: Johnny played piano.

It doesn't take long for Nelly to locate Johnny, who (we're asked to believe) doesn't recognize her. True, Nelly doesn't look precisely the same as before her surgery, but you'd think Johnny, would be smart enough to catch on.

He doesn't. Instead, he thinks that this woman -- who reminds him of his wife -- might help him pull off a scam. He'll instruct her until she knows how to behave like the wife he presumes to be dead. He'll then use this imposter to collect the substantial inheritance to which Nelly's entitled. They'll split the money, he says.

That's a lot of story, but director Christian Petzold handles it with relative ease, perhaps assuming that in the post-war rubble of Berlin, it's entirely possible that Nelly would find Johnny working in a nightclub called The Phoenix, and that he wouldn't know who she is.

Buy into all of that, and you'll find a well-acted movie that showcases Hoss's work as a woman whose motives and understanding of her situation aren't fully formed until the movie's quietly powerful ending.

Hoss worked with Petzold on two previous movies ( Barbara and Yella), so it's no surprise that she skillfully convey's both Nelly's fragility and her determination.

Petzold devotes much of the movie to the ways in which Johnny tries to remake Nelly into the image of his wife without ever realizing that she actually is his wife.

At times, the movie almost seems as if it could have been a play, two characters mired in a game that raises deep questions about responsibility and guilt.

Petzold doesn't totally conquer the inherent unlikelihood of the movie's central conceit, but uses it to create a challenging portrait of post-war Germany.

He also benefits greatly from Hoss's performance as a woman who essentially has been eradicated from everything she knew -- and yet remains to look at the terrible aftermath.

A daredevil looks death in the eye

Daniel Junge's documentary tells the story of Evel Knievel.

I don't know what you think about Evel Knievel, whose daredevil stunts and showmanship made him a national celebrity during the 1970s. To be frank, I spend no time thinking about Knievel, his death-defying antics or his legacy. It must say something, then, that I found Daniel Junge's new documentary -- Being Evel -- entirely compelling. Working with new and old interviews and footage from ABC's Wide World of Sports, Junge (and editor Davis Coombe) assemble a documentary that's revealing, entertaining and likely to appeal to those who idolize Knievel, as well as those who find him a less than exemplary figure. Knievel, who died at the age of 69 in 2007, made his mark by leaping over lines of cars on his motorcycle. At one point, he even tried to launch a rocket-driven cycle over Idaho's Snake River Canyon. Junge tells us that Knievel's stunts can be viewed as a precursor to the thrill-crazed world of extreme sports. Knievel himself aptly describes some of the allure: "No one wants to see me die, but they don't want to miss it if I do." It's clear that Knievel understood the value of hype and promotion. Eventually, he tried to take his act in a different direction, trying (without success) to make an impact on the big screen. I'd totally forgotten that actor George Hamilton once played Knievel -- 1971's Evel Knievel -- a chapter Junge includes in a film that's as revved up as one of Knievel's bikes. No one can spend a life doing what Knievel did and not get hurt, but no amount of broken bones deterred his efforts to find new ways to put his life on the line. I can't say that I liked Knievel when the film was done, but I admit to watching his life unfold with a kind of bemused amazement. Knievel seems to mean it when he talks about having no fear, even if to some of us it may look as if he had no sense, either. Whatever you conclude about Knievel, it's clear that Junge has captured a telling piece of Americana -- not only about the man, but about those who were glued to TV sets to watch him.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

An acceptable 'Man from U.N.C.L.E.'

Director Guy Ritchie never quite finds the right buoyancy, but his revival of a'60s TV hit proves entertaining enough.

What's at stake in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., director Guy Ritchie's belated attempt to bring a '60s TV series to the big screen?

The end of the word; that kind of thing.

That's the nonchalantly delivered answer given by one the characters in a story about two reluctant partners -- an American CIA agent and a Soviet spy -- who must recover a nuclear bomb from fiends who want to control the world.

The year: 1963. The attitude? Shall we say, relaxed?

Ritchie -- of Sherlock Holmes fame -- takes an unusually low-key approach to spy material that, wisely, I think, has been kept in its original period rather than straining for a contemporary update.

Ritchie doles out the action sparingly in a movie in which '60s styles provide a substantial part of the pleasure. Credit on-the-nose work from the movie's set decorators and from costume and art directors who create a witty, nostalgia-laced environment.

Entertaining without finding quite the right buoyancy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. casts Henry Cavill (Man of Steel) as Napoleon Solo, a smooth-talking thief who's forced into the service of the CIA.

A blandly handsome Cavill would have done well to add a bit of twinkle to at least one of Solo's eyes.

Armie Hammer does better as Illya Kuryakin, the Russian KBG agent who's teamed with Solo in what amounts to an origins story about how the spy organization U.N.C.L.E. gets its start.

Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) plays an East German auto mechanic who's thrown into the mix. She proves more interesting than either of the male leads.

A subdued Hugh Grant has a small role as the head of U.N.C.L.E., a role played by Leo G. Carroll in the TV series, which ran from 1964-1968 and attained broadcast blockbuster status.

For the record Robert Vaughn portrayed Solo in the original; David McCallum played Illya.

A routine plot falls short of espionage greatness. Solo and Illya are assigned to find Dr. Udo Teller (Christian Berkel), a German scientist who who has been captured by the movie's villains and forced to build a nuclear bomb.

Solo and Illya hope Vikander's Gaby, who happens to be Teller's daughter, will lead them to her father. The journey takes everyone to Rome.

Added to all this are a wealthy, stylish villainess (Elizabeth Debicki) and a former Nazi (Sylvester Groth), another obvious bad guy.

Groth anchors Ritchie's slyly comic treatment of an obviously serious torture situation, one of the movie's droller moments.

Should there be a sequel -- and the movie is set up for one -- Ritchie and company may work out some of the kinks, which include lighting a fire under Cavill.

Meanwhile, what arrives on screen qualifies as reasonable, mid-August entertainment that goes down easily, despite its problems.

Lavish and colorful, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. also is a little less crazed than Ritchie's work in the frenetic Sherlock Holmes series. For me, that's a plus.

A close encounter with a literary star

David Foster Wallace meets a journalist in The End of the Tour The result: An intriguing movie.
The End of the Tour, a movie about a literary promotional tour taken by the late David Foster Wallace, is less a movie than a conversation.

That's not to say that End of the Tour, which stars Jason Segel as Wallace and Jesse Eisenberg as a journalist who's writing a Rolling Stone article about the author, lacks cinematic flavor.

As directed by James Ponsoldt (The Spectacular Now), End of the Tour has the personal tension of a theatrical piece, but the movie also opens the door to Wallace's unkempt private world.

I've never had much interest in Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall). He's mostly as a comic actor, but he's never been better than he is as Wallace, a writer of disheveled charm and much admired accomplishment.

Siegel conveys Wallace's insecurities, his ordinariness (which may partly have been a pose) and his casual expressions of brilliance.

When Wallace stops to consider the answer a question, he's not stalling for time: He's really thinking -- not only about what he wants to say, but about how it might sound in an interview.

Eisenberg, an actor of accusatory nervousness, is equally good as David Lipsky, the author and journalist who accompanied Wallace on the tail end of a book tour that ended in Minneapolis.

Lipsky wrote Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, which was published 2010.

The events Lipsky wrote about, and which form the basis of the movie, take place in 1996. With Infinite Jest catching fire, Wallace began to learn the joys and liabilities of being a literary star, someone approached by outsiders with reverence.

For the most part, The End of the Tour is a two-hander with brief support coming from Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner as women who turn up for Wallace's reading in Minneapolis.

Joan Cusack has a funny turn as the person assigned to "handle" Wallace in Minneapolis, a thankless job performed by a cheerfully dim woman.

After listening to Wallace's interview with the local public radio station, Cusack's character says that she found the author so interesting, she might have to read his book.

Levels of complexity ripple through The End of the Tour.

An envious Lipsky tries to be as smart and perceptive as possible, but he seems to know that he's not on Wallace's level. And, yes, it matters to him.

For his part, Wallace isn't only talking to Lipsky, he's talking to himself, airing fears about how celebrity, though desirable in small doses, may actually destroy him. Can an icon, even a newly minted one, ever have normal conversations?

The movie opens in 2008 with Lipsky learning about Wallace's death. The story then flashes back to the meeting that constitutes the bulk of the movie. Some of this close encounter takes place in Wallace's home, some in Lipsky's rented car, and some in hotel rooms.

Our knowledge of Wallace's death adds eerie resonance to much of what follows. His insecurities never seem trivial.

The same can't be said for some of Wallace's pop-cultural preoccupations: Crappy television and movies and junk food washed down with soda become bricks in the wall Wallace builds to zone himself off from the world.

The End of the Tour isn't a bio-pic. You won't learn anything about Wallace's early life. When we meet him, he's teaching writing at Illinois State University. He avoids the New York limelight. He covers his head with an ever-present bandanna, but worries that even that may be seen as an affectation, a bit of self-conscious branding.

His problem: He's an observer who suddenly has become the observed.

Lipsky sleeps on a mattress on the floor of Wallace's modest, disheveled home, and the two men develop an intimacy that keeps blurring lines: Are they friends? Are they journalist and subject? Are they a couple of competitive writers? Is it possible to have an honest conversation with a tape recorder constantly running?

End of the Tour is a movie about intimacy in a contrived context, about letting one's guard down and about protecting private places. It's an intriguing endeavor, and it has been made with intelligence, humor and haunting traces of wistful sadness.

The world eventually would lose Wallace; here we see a writer who may already have been losing himself.

Brutality rules a school for the deaf

The Tribe definitely will leave you shaken.
The Tribe, Ukrainian director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy's harrowing debut film portrays a society steeped in brutality and corruption.

If Slaboshpytskiy intended for his movie to be a commentary on current Ukrainian society, one shudders to think about the condition of that country's soul.

Set entirely in a high school for the deaf, The Tribe goes against the grain of expectation. No affirmative look at the way young deaf people learn to cope, The Tribe instead stares straight into a bleeding heart of darkness.

The high school that's depicted in the film breeds juvenile crime and corruption. The one teacher we meet -- he runs the wood shop -- is more enabler than mentor, and the movie's deaf actors reveal themselves as predators who must fend for themselves in a lawless environment.

Slaboshpytskiy builds the story around Sergey (Grigoriy Fesenko), a newly arrived student who must find his place in the boarding school's brutal pecking order. Sergey quickly becomes a member of the "tribe," an outfit of older boys who are given to robbery and to running a prostitution ring.

Under protection of the gang's guards, two young deaf women (Rosa Babiy and Yana Novikova) prowl truck stops at night, soliciting business from the drivers.

Because the students are deaf, the film contains no dialogue, and Slaboshpytskiy offers no subtitles for the signing done by the characters. He effectively abandons us in this world, offering few signposts to guide us.

Not being able fully to understand these silent characters only adds to the film's abiding sense of terror. Even when Sergey falls for one of the girls, and decides that she shouldn't be selling her body, the movie never surrenders its grim view of the world as a place in which power derives from brute force.

The Tribe isn't easy to watch: If you don't avert your eyes during a scene in which Novikova's Anna pays a largely indifferent woman to abort an unwanted pregnancy, you've got a stronger stomach than I.

I don't know how far Slaboshpytskiy wants us to carry this stark allegory. Does he mean to speak to the human condition or only to the coarseness of Ukrainian life? Is this a narrowly focused look at what has been dubbed "the deaf mafia" or a broader indictment of deeply rooted societal corruption?

Either way, The Tribe works you over. It's not really an entertainment: It's a slam to the gut from someone who knows how to land a punch.

Dueling intellects --- and venom, too

I'm not sure that 1968 was a pivotal year in the history of television news, but it's a point worth considering. In that politically tumultuous moment, ABC -- lagging behind its competitors (NBC and CBS) -- decided to boost viewership of both the Democratic and Republican conventions by adding heated commentary to the mix. To that end, ABC hired adversaries William F. Buckley (patrician conservative) and Gore Vidal (patrician liberal) to "debate" one another. What may have been conceived as a sideshow becomes the main event in Best of Enemies, a documentary from directors Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville. Gordon and Neville do an able job of putting the 10 Buckley/Vidal debates into the context of media history. But it's the debates that form the heart of the movie, two intellectual titans exchanging venomous barbs. In a time when commentary (or what passes for it) seems to have eclipsed reporting -- at least on the 24-hour cable television outlets -- the debates may seem less revolutionary than they did when they first occurred. Both Buckley and Gore were intellectual heavyweights, but they also embodied a clash between two men who despised each other to the very core of their beings. Within an eye blink, animosity became entertainment. The great moment in the debate arrived when Vidal called Buckley a crypto-fascist. Buckley responded by calling Vida a queer, and threatening to punch him in the face. The moment was scored as a victory for Vidal because the ultra-rational Buckley lost his cool. Buckley evidently was bothered by his loss of composure, as well. Of course, the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago produced a whole other story as police brutally attempted to disperse protestors. I'm not sure the Buckley/Vidal debates are quite as important as the filmmakers make them out to be, but even taken as a footnote to history, the glowering rivalry between these men still fascinates -- and, heaven help us, entertains.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Trip to Planet Zero amounts to nothing

Fantastic Four, a bland attempt to stoke the Marvel fires.
The title of Fantastic Four is half true. There are four inadvertent superheroes in this latest offering to roll off the Marvel assembly line. Fantastic? Not so much.

Bland and dimly realized, this fourth Fantastic Four film stumbles through an origins story that begins well enough but quickly dissolves into heaps of uninspired exposition.

A negligible and familiar story launched when nerdy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) wins a scholarship to the Baxter Institute, a scientific think tank run by Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey).

Dr. Storm understands that Reed, though not exactly the star of his high school science fair, has invented a device that can transport objects (and maybe people) to another dimension.

Because it contains abundant supplies of energy, this other dimension -- dubbed Planet Zero -- may hold the key to mankind's future. Perhaps humanity will have a chance to undue the damage it already has done to its home planet.

Once the story arrives at the Institute, Teller teams with Kate Mara, Toby Kebbell and Michael B. Jordan, an able enough cast, but one that's stuck in a movie that sometimes feels like a throwback to '50s sci-fi -- only without the trashy fun.

The young researchers acquire their powers when they use the teleportation machine to journey to Planet Zero, some sort of alternate reality where canyons, mountains and energy flows are depicted with a singular lack of creativity.

Marvel fans already know that each of the researchers at the Baxter Institute eventually morphs into a superhero with one power, so there's little element of surprise here.

Teller's Reed develops a rubbery body that expands his reach; Mara's Sue Storm can make herself disappear; Jordan acquires the ability to turn himself into a fiery missile.

Reed's less-than-brilliant pal Ben (Jamie Bell) joins the brainiac adventure: He becomes The Thing, a massive creature composed entirely of rock. Bell so quickly vanishes from the picture, I found myself hoping that he wasn't being paid by the minute.

One of the teleportation travelers -- Kebbell's Victor Von Doom -- doesn't make the return trip from Planet Zero. He eventually turns into the movie's arch villain, Dr. Doom.

Trank did a far better job with Chronicle (2012), a refreshing movie in which a trio of high school pals acquired super powers. Stuck serving the Marvel machine, he founders.

As a result, Fantastic Four comes and goes without even making a dent in the pop-cultural imagination.

'Ricki and the Flash' never pans out

Yes, that aging rocker is Meryl Streep..
Ricki and the Flash, a movie starring Meryl Streep as an aging rocker who never made it to the big time, brims with unintended distractions -- at least for me.

Streep brings credible touches to everything she does, but I couldn't quite forget that I was watching Streep not the character she's playing -- a lead singer named Ricki Rendazzo.

Is that Streep doing her own singing? (Yes)

Did she decide that Ricki always should look as if she's having a bad-hair day. (No idea).

Because Ricki and the Flash also is a mother/daughter story, it's a bit distracting to know that the daughter in the movie is played by Mamie Gummer, Streep's real-life daughter.

In addition to all of that, Jonathan Demme -- who lately seems to have spent a lot of time on music documentaries (Neil Young is a Demme favorite) -- has made a fictional feature that, at times, feels like a wannabe concert film .

Demme devotes a fair amount of time to Ricki and her band's musical numbers, most of them set in a Los Angeles bar where a graying crowd seems to be trying to cling to memories of its boogie-down youth.

Ricki and the Flash come across as a competent bar band. That may be realistic, but it undermines any reason for the movie's extended musical sequences.

Without ever finding an entirely appropriate tone, Demme tries to mix family drama, comedy and music. The approach doesn't add up to much.

The family drama begins when Streep's Ricki (formerly Linda Brummell) is asked to return to Indianapolis by her former husband, a straight-arrow businessman played by Kevin Kline.

Ricki's daughter (Gummer) is in the midst of a crisis because her husband has left her for another woman.

It's not clear why Kline's Pete Brummell thinks Mom may be able to help her aggressively bitter daughter: Mom hasn't really been part of her children's lives (there are two grown sons, as well) since leaving for LA to pursue her musical dreams.

Dad long ago remarried. For her part, Ricki has an unstable relationship with the guitar player (Rick Springfield) in her band, the Flash. He likes her, but she never lets down her guard.

To add to the family drama, Ricki's son Josh (Sebastian Stan) is about to marry a woman (Halley Gates) whose family doesn't approve of Ricki's lifestyle: musician by night, supermarket cashier by day.

Another son (Nick Westrate) from the Pete and Ricki union is gay, a fact Diablo Cody's screenplay treats as a reveal, although you can see it coming from miles away.

Not surprisingly, Ricki's visit to Indianapolis founders: She eventually finds herself in conflict with Dad's second wife (Audra McDonald), the woman who did most of the heavy lifting when it came to raising the Brummell kids.

A pot-fueled scene in which Kline and Streep strain to show what might have brought Ricki and Pete together in the first place feels awkward, a wan attempt by the actors to get at something meaningful.

Come to think of it: That might describe the entire movie.

The dud called 'Dark Places'

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places is an adaptation of a novel by Gillian Flynn. But unlike Gone Girl -- no masterpiece, either -- this one has little to recommend it. Charlize Theron pulls a baseball cap over her beauty to play Libby Day, an emotionally bottled, blue-collar woman. Libby's distinction: As a child, she witnessed the murder of her mother and sister. An eight-year-old at the time of the crime, Libby told police that her troubled brother (Tye Sheridan) committed the crime. Sheridan's Ben Day has been in the slammer ever since. When a nerd who studies murders (Nicholas Hoult) shows up, Libby is dragged into the past -- presented in uninspired flashbacks by French director Gilles Paquet-Brenner. Corey Stoll plays Libby's imprisoned brother in the present. We also get a turn from Chloe Grace Moretz as the grown-up version of a young woman who Libby's brother fell for when he was a teen-ager flirting with devil worship. The performances are mostly drab, as is the movie's look, and the wrap-up is as preposterous as it is unilluminating. Dark Places has had a VOD run, which is how I saw it. It now reaches theaters.

Brando on Brando. Irresistible

Watching Listen to Me Marlon is like hearing Marlon Brando deliver his own eulogy. That's because this revealing, strange and sometimes poetic documentary is built around a series of audio-tapes Brando recorded in his California home.

That's not to say that director Stevan Riley's movie is an exercise in Brandoesque self-congratulation. Brando can be self-critical, insecure and emotionally vulnerable, and there are times when we wonder whether he's the most reliable of narrators.

Still, listening to Brando seldom is anything less than fascinating. He tells us he fretted over whether he could play Don Corleone in The Godfather; he says Francis Ford Coppola made him the scapegoat for delays in the filming of Apocalypse Now. He tells us how he felt about Bernardo Bertolucci, who took him a little too close to the edge in Last Tango in Paris. He speaks of finding a tropical paradise in Tahiti, after a miserable experience making Mutiny on the Bounty.

Early on, Brando sings the praises of Stella Adler, the acting teacher who taught him the vaunted Method at her studio soon after he moved to New York.

We get the feeling, though, that the Method isn't all that made Brando into his generation's best actor: Adler quickly realized that Brando's gift was a special one. Her belief in Brando helped him believe in himself.

And, yes, there are personal revelations: Brando talks about his alcoholic, mentally disturbed mother and a father so abusive that Brando wouldn't let him near his own children.

Brando's children were a source of joy and tragedy for him. In 1990, Brando's son Christian stood trial for shooting his step-daughter's boyfriend. Christian spent five years in prison.

After Christian's arrest, a shaken Brando can be seen proclaiming that misery had found its way to his house.

Brando's daughter Cheyenne committed suicide in 1995. Christian died in 2008, four years after Brando's own death.

Riley bolsters the tapes with early interview footage of Brando, clips from movies, and snippets of home movies. The net result is an amazing foray into Brando's inner world -- from early high points when he was enjoying being the toast of Broadway to late-career disillusionment when he decided that the only thing that mattered in Hollywood was money.

How you react to Listen to Me Marlon depends in large measure on how large (no pun intended) Brando looms in your movie consciousness. (At one point, you'll hear Brando trying to talk himself into weight loss.)

Throughout the movie, Riley offers bits of a self-hypnosis exercise Brando taped. He was so great an actor that he could make himself his own audience.

I was more moved by Listen to Me Marlon than any other movie I've seen this year, perhaps because I've never been more affected by a performance than the one Brando gave in On the Waterfront. I saw it as a kid, and have seen it many times since then. It never fails to astonish me.

I don't know if Brando intended for anyone ever to hear these tapes, and I wondered if the movie weren't somehow a post-mortem invasion of his privacy.

In the end, though, I decided to receive this impressive documentary with gratitude. I was more than happy that someone gave Brando have the last word. A genius deserves nothing less.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

'Shaun' shepherds laughs to the screen

The makers of the Wallace and Gromit movies score again with Shaun the Sheep Movie. Shaun, of course, already has his own TV show, but he makes the transition to the big screen with the ease you'd expect from Aardman Animations, the British outfit that has given us movies such as Flushed Away (2006) and Chicken Run (2000). Using its signature stop-motion technique, Aardman mixes abundant helpings of slapstick and cleverness. The result: a winning story about a sheep rebellion that sends the farmer who cares for the movie's flock to the big city. At first the sheep (as well as all the other farm animals) revel in their freedom, but they soon realize that there's no one around to feed them. So it's off to the big city where Shaun -- followed by his brothers and sisters in wool -- searches for the farmer, battles with an "animal containment" officer and even stages a jail break. Not surprisingly, the plot supports lots of amusing gags. Stricken by amnesia from his comically bumpy ride to the city, the farmer becomes a famous hairstylist. Shearing sheep and creating sculpted hairdos? What's the difference? Although Aardman's animals have anthropomorphic qualities, they don't speak in cuddly Disneyesque fashion -- or any other fashion for that matter. Neither do the humans, who grunt and mumble in ways that may strike you as more expressive than much of the dialogue you've heard this summer. Aardman doesn't oversell its jokes or congratulate itself for cleverness, but it does roll out a movie that should go a long way toward pleasing younger audiences, as well as the adults who bring them to the theater.