Thursday, July 31, 2014

BOYHOOD: The Film Babble Blog Review

BOYHOOD (Dir. Richard Linklater, 2014)

Richard Linklater’s much buzzed about BOYHOOD is the best, and most real feeling film of the year so far. It takes us on an engrossing journey through the life of a boy from age 5 to age 18, covering the significant events in that timespan with powerful poignancy.

It’s able to tell its simple coming-of-age tale so well for one simple, astounding reason: writer/director Linklater shot the film intermittently over 12 years, capturing actor Ellar Coltrane stretch by stretch as he grew into early adulthood.

Along for the real-time ride is Patricia Arquette as Coltrane’s beleaguered mother, Linklater regular Ethan Hawke as his flighty father, and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as his sister.

When the film begins in 2002, to the tune of Coldplay’s “Yello,” parents Arquette and Hawke have been separated for some time.

Despite his estranged wife taking the kids and moving away to Houston, Hawke hopes for reconciliation, but it doesn’t seem likely as he’s an unemployed musician, and Arquette has eyes for her new psychology professor (Marco Perella).

Like everything else in the film, this is seen through Coltrane’s eyes so at times we only get glimpses of such and such event – something that effectively conveys how kids’ memories can be.

Arquette marries Perrella, but he turns out to be an abusive alcoholic so after some appropriately unspecified period of time she uproots the family again. Meanwhile Hawke sheds his deadbeat dad skin, and marries a nice Christian lady (Jenni Tooley) whose mother (Karen Jones) gives Coltrane his first Bible (personalized!), while her father (Richard Andrew Jones) gives him a rifle for his fifteenth birthday.

Hawke’s birthday present to Coltrane is much more important: a three CD compilation he put together entitled “The Beatles: Black Album,” a collection of the best tracks from the solo work of the fab four 
(See the track listing here). This especially touched me because as a Beatles fan, I’ve made a likewise mix and have known so many others that did the same thing – i.e. try to make a new album by the band from the highlights of their post Beatles' careers. 

Since DAZED AND CONFUSED, Linklater has expertly blended music into his movies – here, with a soundtrack of 40 songs by such seminal artists as Bob Dylan, Arcade Fire, Yo La Tengo, Gnarls Barkley, The Black Keys, and Wilco – he’s made the a stirring soundtrack to a life; an awesome mix that gives that gives Chris Pratt’s coveted “Awesome Mix Vol. 1” cassette in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY a run for its money.

Within the naturalistic flow of BOYHOOD, Coltrane develops skills as a photographer, gains and losses a high school girlfriend (Zoe Graham), and has to deal with another of his mother’s drunk spouses, lastly a Afghanistan war veteran played by Brad Hawkins (“I’ve made some bad life choices,” Arquette says).

Through all these events, large or small, Linklater’s exceedingly well constructed film says a lot about the passing of time. It’s never preachy or pretentious about it, it just observes how people and times change yet still stay the same in a way that many movies have tried but never pulled off as touchingly.

Linklater's gamble that this would be movie-making time well spent really paid off in Coltrane's understated performance, matched with some of Arquette and Hawke's best acting.

Longtime Linklater cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly really outdo themselves here too – the film is full of striking shots of Texan locales, and crisp close-ups of Coltrane and the cast.

Its 2 hour and 45 minute length may put some people off, but remember Ebert: “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough.” 

Linklater has done something really special here, something he’s come close to in his excellent BEFORE films, which also well utilize Hawke and the passage of time, he’s shown how much genuine, overpowering emotion can be triggered by a such a cleverly sincere cinematic experiment.

More later...

Friday, July 25, 2014

Luc Besson’s LUCY: Over-The-Top Yet Still Underwhelming

Opening today at a multiplex near you...

 (Dir.Luc Besson, 2014)

It’s too bad that Scarlett Johansson’s Marvel Universe co-star Samuel L. Jackson isn’t here to exclaim “check out the big brain on Lucy!” PULP FICTION-style, because Luc Besson’s new sci-fi thriller keeps asking us to do just that.

Johansson’s Lucy is an American student in Taipei, Taiwan, who gets forced into being a drug mule for an evil Korean crime lord (Choi Min-sik). But the colossal catch is that the drug the bad guys implant in our protagonist is a powerful synthetic called CPH4 (which looks a lot like the bright blue crystal meth from Breaking Bad), which increases one’s control over their mind rapidly bit by bit until it reaches 100% brain capacity.

This gives Johansson hyper-intelligence, superhuman strength, and the ability to change her metabolism, but this alteration in her body’s chemistry means she’ll need more of the drug within 24 hours or she’ll start decomposing. So Johannson travels to Paris to track down the other drug mules and confiscate their CPH4 with the help of Amr Waked as a grizzled French cop.

Morgan Freeman is on hand as a neuroscientist who first appears in cutaways from the main action lecturing a college classroom his theories about the brain’s untapped potential. These bits capture Freeman in narrator mode (when is he not in narrator mode?), and, mashed with cuts to nature footage, and time lapse cinematography, serve to visually sucker punch us with heady imagery and lofty conceptual themes.

This makes for some watchable eye candy especially when it comes to the fun of seeing Johansson kick lots of ass with her mind, but all the pseudo intellectual posturing that all the collective conscience of all humanity contains the entire history of the universe and ‘wow, what if we could tap into that?’ seems purposely aimed to shoot way over the heads of most movie-goers so they’ll think the movie is way smarter than it is.

Johansson beautifully builds upon the emotionless alien persona she exhibited in Jonathan Glaser’s UNDER THE SKIN earlier this year largely because we get to witness her invested transformation from college party girl to atomic super-heroine. Unfortunately as the climax approaches, Johansson literally gets absorbed into the surreal set pieces – i.e. she morphs into a black tentacle mass of squid’s limbs taking over a computer lab – as her presence becomes less and less interesting.

LUCY takes the “Flowers for Algernon”/CHARLY – i.e. everyman takes drug and gets super smarts - scenario, also recently utilized in the Bradley Cooper vehicle LIMITLESS and filters it through the ‘to understand how we live now, let’s begin at the very beginning’ thesis of Terrence Malick’s THE TREE OF LIFE, which means, yep, there are dinosaurs. There's also a bit of Danny Boyle's time lapsing intros/outros from 127 HOURS happening too. I guess it’s all part of life’s rich pageant as Inspector Clouseau would say.

But for all these influences and/or pretensions, there’s little that’s actually thought provoking about the over-the-top yet still underwhelming LUCY. It tries so hard to be mind blowing, but it keeps coming up short. 

That said, Besson’s film is a vast improvement over THE FAMILY, his misguided mob family comedy last year, and it appealingly harkens back to his late ‘90s cult classic THE FIFTH ELEMENT. I also appreciate that it’s a summer blockbuster wannabe that isn’t a franchise entry, and isn’t in 3D.

However, no matter how much its stylish energy tries to obscure it, LUCY is a silly popcorn picture matinee masquerading as egghead cinema.

More later...

A MOST WANTED MAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at an indie art house near you:


(Dir. Anton Corbijn, 2014)

In what’s sadly one of his final performances, Philip Seymour Hoffman looks horrible.

This certainly fits the part, as Hoffman’s character, Günter Bachmann, in this adaptation of John le Carré’s 2008 espionage novel is a pale, sweaty, boozy German mess of man wrapped in a schlumpy, rumpled suit who’s the head of, as he puts it, “an anti-terror unit that not many people know about, and even less like.”

The scenario of the film, the third feature length production from former music video director Anton Corbijn, is set in present day Hamburg, which was, as the opening titles tell us, where Mohammed Atta and his fellow conspirators planned the 9/11 attacks.

The German port has been on red alert ever since so when a mysterious hooded half-Chechen, half-Russian immigrant (Grigoriy Dobrygin) suspected of being a Jihadist enters the country illegally, Hoffman’s agency tracks him as a potential terrorist threat.

Dobrygin, having escaped a Turkish prison, has come to Hamburg to claim a huge inheritance from his corrupt Russian colonel of a father, with the help of Rachel McAdams as a human rights lawyer.

Caught up in these shady complications are Willem Dafoe as a private banker in charge of Dobrygin’s father’s funds, Robin Wright in a brunette wig as a CIA agent who’s not to be trusted, and Homayoun Ershadi as a prominent Muslim professor, who Hoffman suspects will channel the money from Dobrygin’s inheritance to Islamic radicals.

Being that it’s a sparely paced, gray-toned thriller, A MOST WANTED MAN may put off some movie-goers as being cold and as hard to follow as the last adaptation of a le Carré bestseller, Tomas Alfredson’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, but Corbijn’s take on the material, working from a screenplay by Andrew Bovell, is actually very straight forward, that is, if you pay close attention. I will concede, however, that it is an extremely icy study of the least glamorous aspects of spy work.

At first, Hoffman’s untimely death hovers over the film’s proceedings, but, as a testament to how amazing an actor he was, that fades away. We then only see and hear him as the jaded chain-smoking, hard drinking intelligence operative whose subtle methods are thought of as being redundant in today’s world of counter terrorism.

Hoffman’s scenes with Dafoe, in which the two distinguished actors’ hushed toned German accents duel it out in the shadows of salvage yard meetings, smolder with intensity. Likewise the jarring climax, a superbly shot sequence that’s as haunting as hell.

This fine follow up to Corbijn’s excellently artsy 2010 George Clooney vehicle THE AMERICAN is obviously elevated because its Hoffman’s last completed film as the lead, but it's still well worth seeing regardless.

Hoffman himself is always worth seeing because he would completely become his characters. And here his character is the character of the film – weary, depressed, deeply cynical, yet still ideally determined to try to “make the world a safer place.”

More later...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monty Python: Older, Fatter, But Still Funny As F***

Last weekend, on Sunday, July 20th, my wife and I attended and laughed a lot at a live broadcast of “Monty Python Live (Mostly),” featuring the legendary British comedy group’s final performance ever (or so they claim) before a sold-out audience of 15,000 at The O₂ Arena in London, England.

The event, the last of a 10 show run, also sold-out at our venue, North Hills 14 in Raleigh, N.C., and from what I hear, at many of the 2,000 theaters around the globe that carried the broadcast, indeed proof that Python still has powerful pull even at this late date.

Despite some annoying sound glitches at the beginning, it was a hilarious delight seeing the surviving members - John Cleese, Eric Idle, Terry Gilliam, Terry Jones and Michael Palin – on stage together for the first time since their Hollywood Bowl concerts in 1980, energetically perform a revue of such classics as “Nudge, Nudge,” “Spam,” “Argument Clinic,” “Parrot Sketch,” “The Lumberjack Song,” and, of course, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” on a massive set with an orchestra (conducted by longtime Python collaborator John Du Prez) a couple dozen dancers, giant video screens, and, at one point, during the “Every Sperm is Sacred” number, candy-striped penis-shaped cannons that spewed confetti all over the audience.

The show’s tagline “One Down, Five to Go,” refers to the sad fact that sixth member Graham Chapman died in 1989, but Chapman’s presence was felt throughout the three hour program in the form of footage mostly from their classic BBC program Monty Python’s Flying Circus used to link the live segments and songs, and in lines like “He’s gone to join Dr. Chapman” added to “Parrot Sketch” with the audience’s roaring approval.

Much of the material presented was similar to that immortalized in the 1982 concert film MONTY PYTHON LIVE AT THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL – including the use of the filmed “Silly Olympics” and “The Philosophers’ Football Match” bits from the rare German episodes of Flying Circus – but there were several routines from their last motion picture, MONTY PYTHON’S THE MEANING OF LIFE, that had never been publicly performed before.

Those included an expanded version of “The Penis Song” sung by a cheeky as can be Idle, the aforementioned “Every Sperm is Sacred,” “Galaxy Song,” which is capped off by filmed cameos by physicists Brian Cox and Stephen Hawking (an audience shot afterwards showed Hawking in attendance), and “Christmas in Heaven,” which begins with an excerpt of Chapman singing from the original film.

Sketches that I was pleasantly surprised to see: “Vocational Guidance Counselor,” “Anne Elk's Theory on Brontosauruses,” and “Protestants Can Use Condoms” (also from THE MEANING OF LIFE).

I was also elated that actress Carol Cleveland, who’s been there since the beginning appearing on Flying Circus as well as all of the Python’s movies and stage shows, was there to reprise her pivotal parts. Guest appearances by Eddie Izzard, Mike Myers, and Warwick Davis helped liven things up as well.

Since I, and most watching, knew every line, it was funniest when the Pythons went off book. While quips about Palin’s “boring” travel shows, and Cleese’s multiple marriages were scripted, Cleese’s asides about bad reviews in the Daily Mail in the midst of the “Parrot Sketch”/ “Cheese Shop” mash-up apparently weren’t planned as they amusingly sidetracked, yet still didn’t sabotage Palin’s quick on his feet performance.

Having disliked many previous repackagings of Python, such as Idles’s musicals “Spamalot,” and “He’s Not the Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy),” and the animated biodoc of Chapman: A LIAR’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY, I was so happy that “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” was a cringe free 45th anniversary celebration as well as a fitting send-off to the greatest, most influential comedy group of all time.

Older, fatter, but still funny as fuck, the Pythons put on a Hell of a last performance that I’ll definitely purchase when it inevitably gets a Blu ray/DVD release, with hope later in the year.

For those who can’t wait, however, “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” will be re-broadcast at many theaters on Wednesday, July 23rd and Thursday, July 24th. Click here for more info.

More later...

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Forced Farce SEX TAPE Plays It Too Safe

SEX TAPE (Dir. Jake Kasdan, 2014)

Jake Kasdan’s follow-up to his lackluster 2011 BAD TEACHER, which re-unites that film’s stars, starts promising with Cameron Diaz mommy blogging about how her and her husband Jason Segel were once sex-crazed college sweethearts.

Diaz’s voiceover takes us through an amusing opening montage of flashbacks, featuring Diaz and Segel fornicating every chance they get; everywhere they can on campus. But now, as she laments, they’re married with two children and tons of adult responsibilities, leaving very little time for intimacy.

So Diaz decides to send the kids off to her mother’s, dress up like Roller Girl from BOOGIE NIGHTS, and entice her hubby to try every position in “The Joy of Sex.” Segel loves the idea (“I’m very excited right now!”), and sets up his new iPad to record their sexy-time activities.

After their three hour session, Segel stupidly doesn’t delete the video like Diaz asks him to do, and in the next day it gets leaked out to all the iPads that he’s given away to friends as gifts (he’s a music industry exec – reminiscent of Paul Rudd's character in THIS IS 40 - who constantly buys new iPads to upgrade, you see). As mysterious texts taunt the couple about their video’s embarrassing content, Diaz and Segel frantically scramble to keep their friends, neighbors, and even the postman from seeing it.

This is a perfect setup for some juicy social satire, but sadly SEX TAPE takes turns into severely strained sitcom terrain. Diaz and Segel running around to steal back the offending iPads takes us through several exceedingly stupid scenarios, especially one involving Rob Lowe, no stranger to sex tapes, as a CEO of a company interested in buying Diaz’s mommy blog.

Diaz and Segel deceive their way into the creepy Lowe’s mansion, and while Segel is chased by a trained attack dog while trying to retrieve his iPad, Diaz snorts cocaine with Lowe as Slayer blares on the stereo.

This sounds funnier than it is, as I bet much of the movie would in description, but the sloppy execution creaks resulting in more cringes than laughs.

Rob Corrdry, who always seems to be the sleazy best friend to the male lead in these movies, and Ellie Kemper (The Office, BRIDESMAIDS) tag along as Diaz and Segel’s neighbor friends, whose son (the obnoxiously smug Harrison Holzer) turns out to be the one who discovered the video. Holzer tries to blackmail Segel with the threat of uploading their film to YouPorn unless he’s paid $25,000, so then the plot goes from getting back all the iPads to breaking into the pornographic website’s headquarters to get the video off their server.

For all of Segel’s constant yapping about how nobody understands “the cloud,” and the privacy issue conflicts that the film flirts with, SEX TAPE really doesn’t have any real take on touchy subject of sex in the age of the internet. Its only semblance of a point of view, offered by Segel after finding an eleven inch double-sided dildo in a drawer in Lowe’s home, seems to be that everybody has sexual fetishes that they’d prefer to keep private.

Despite that plenty of Diaz and Segel’s flesh is on display, this forced farce is tediously unsexy. It keeps dangling the carrot of racy fun in front of its audience, then snatches it away again and again. Even when it gets to its HANGOVER style finale – i.e. in which we finally get to see a bit of the shenanigans the whole film has been teasing – the clunky slapstick in each shot sabotages any sense of titillation.

SEX TAPE doesn’t improve much on Kasdan’s BAD TEACHER (soon to have a sequel) and it comes nowhere near the comic heights of the director’s best film WALK HARD. It’s a shame because Diaz and Segel have good comic chemistry together – their excited back and forths made me giggle a few times – but they so deserve a much sharper, way weightier screenplay than what Segel co-scripted with Kate Angelo, and Nicholas Stoller.

I so wanted to like it because Diaz and Segel make such a likably attractive yet dorky couple. It's too bad that they're stuck in this throwaway of a summer comedy, one that, much like Ben Falcone's mediocre Melissa McCarthy vehicle TAMMY, overestimates how laughter it can get from its talented cast riffing on top of a bare bones lowbrow premise.

More later...

LIFE ITSELF: The Film Babble Blog Review

LIFE ITSELF (Dir. Steve James, 2014)

Roger Ebert, arguably the most famous movie critic ever, gets his own movie in the form of LIFE ITSELF, Steve James’ affectionate documentary adaptation of the late Chicago critic’s 2011 memoir, now playing at an indie art house near you (it’s also available on Demand and on iTunes).

James began filming the biodoc a few months before Ebert succumbed to cancer in 2013, so we get to spend some quality time with the great writer who didn’t let thyroid cancer taking his voice and his lower jaw stop him from turning out scores of film reviews, blog posts, and assorted other articles up until his death.

With the help of hundreds of archival photographs, tons of television clips, interviews with colleagues, and the audio of impressionist and voicematch impressionist Steven Stanton providing narration, James takes us through Ebert’s humble beginnings covering sports for his high school paper to his rise as a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times to his fame as a television personality who famously bickered with Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel on several popular TV programs from 1975-1999 (Opening Soon…At a Theater Near You, Sneak Previews, At the Movies, etc.).

After Ebert quit drinking in 1979, at an AA meeting he met his future wife Chaz, without a doubt the great woman behind the great man. Through their communication consisting often of just gestures, we get a good sense of their loving relationship. Mrs. Ebert’s assisting her husband in getting to the movies, sometimes in defiance of doctor’s orders, is adorable, and their ability to joke together (Ebert through hand-written notes and his laptop) through his struggles with sickness makes for some of the most touching moments I’ve seen on the big screen this year.

The most entertaining segments of this documentary unsurprisingly deal with Ebert’s caustic clashes with Siskel through the years. Richard Corliss of Time magazine said their show could be seen as “a sitcom about two guys who lived in a movie theater,” a testament to their Old Couple appeal.

Classic clips of the duo arguing over various movies through the years, plus hilarious outtake footage from the filming of commercial promos, illustrate how these two men’s hatred gradually grew into respect and love before Siskel died after battling a brain tumor in 1999.

Then there’s the films themselves. Key quotes from Ebert’s reviews of such milestone movies as BONNIE AND CLYDE, CRIES AND WHISPERS, and THE TREE OF LIFE are highlighted, but it’s the mention of his 1967 notice of a small independent film, WHO'S THAT KNOCKING AT MY DOOR, made by a first-time filmmaker from Queens, N.Y., who Ebert predicted would in ten years be “the American Fellini,” that most got to me.

That filmmaker was Martin Scorsese, who executive produced LIFE ITSELF and appears here as an interview subject. Seeing Scorsese get choked up about Ebert had me, well, a bit choked up, and its seriously affecting to see the master filmmaker bristle at the critic’s harsh criticism of THE COLOR OF MONEY in 1986.

Now, I grew up on Ebert’s writing, and his TV appearances, so this material often got me very emotional. It’s difficult to watch the man fading in his final days, his mouth nothing more than a hanging flap of skin, but his wit and inspirational spirit ease the pain and sadness considerably.

James, whose seminal 1994 basketball documentary HOOP DREAMS Ebert was a huge supporter of, has constructed a vital glowing portrait. Full of warmth and humanity, LIFE ITSELF is an extraordinary and essential biodoc about a man whose love of movies influenced many movie-goers, including me, to seek out a lifetime of meaningful cinema.

Ebert says at one point in this film, “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound.” LIFE ITSELF will undoubtedly be loved by a lot of people, but very few will have to look very deeply to find its profundity - it can be felt in nearly every frame.

More later...

Friday, July 18, 2014

THE PURGE: ANARCHY: A Big Bunch Of Scare Fails

(Dir. James DeMonaco, 2014)

Last summer’s surprise hit THE PURGE was a crappy movie with a cool premise: In the near future, America legalizes all crime, even murder, for one night per year. All police and emergency services are suspended for 12 hours for the Annual Purge, all government-sanctioned by “The New Founding Fathers.” 

But while the first one was a contained home invasion scenario (revolving around Ethan Hawke as a wealthy security system salesman trying to protect his family and fortress), the second installment, out today at a multiplex near you, spreads out across the streets of Los Angeles with the promise of a lot more bloody mayhem.

So the theme of the rich killing the poor as population control is reheated via the tale of a small group of people trying to make their way on foot through the scary murderous masses of those looking to “release the beast.”

None of the five folks thrown together here is a “name” actor, and I doubt this movie will change that.

Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez are our married couple representatives whose car breaks down (actually it was sabotaged by creepy face-painted or grotesque mask wearing thugs lurking around before the Purge began) on the way out of town. Their storyline is that they are getting separated but haven’t told family yet. Will their night-long struggle for survival bring them back together? Is this Times New Roman font that you’re reading?

Then there’s Frank Grillo, maybe the closest to a “name” as he’s been in big stuff like CAPTAIN AMERICA and ZERO DARK THIRTY, as our grizzled ex-cop cliché set on avenging the death of his son. Grillo is the group’s leader as he thinks fast and is great with guns as I bet you could’ve guessed.

Mother and daughter duo Carmen Ejogo and Zoë Soul, who are on the run after their apartment in the projects is ambushed, symbolize the underclass, and provide cultural criticism of the event by way of badly written exposition.

Oh yeah, there’s also an anti-Purge resistance force led by Michael K. Williams (The Wire, Boardwalk Empire) mixed up in all this repugnant noise.

It’s incredible how little excitement and suspense is generated by all the edgy elements on display here. The desperately over-the-top THE PURGE: ANARCHY is a big bunch of scare fails. 

Director/writer DeMonaco apparently thinks that thrusting someone suddenly into the frame is the best way to frighten an audience, but within the tone and rhythms of this movie that only mildly startles once or twice; afterwards every other instance can be felt way before it happens.

There’s only so many times you can see somebody get machine-gunned down and it have any impact too.

THE PURGE: ANARCHY is markedly better than the original, but it’s still a terrible movie. It’s a horror spectacle disguised as moral fable with no political statement to make beyond ‘hey, look at how evil the one-percenters are – exploiting and hunting down poor people for their own entertainment! The 99 should rise up!’ It’s just an excuse for a showcase of hundreds of killings, not to forget a few horribly edited fight scenes too. The few random moments of humor here seem almost accidental as well.

But I know that the kids will probably eat it up and we’ll most likely get an endless SAW-style franchise that will extend way beyond 2023, the year this one is set. Sigh.

More later...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blu Ray/DVD Review: The Weird Scarlett Johansson Flick UNDER THE SKIN

(Dir. Jonathan Glazer, 2013)

This is for sure the weirdest film I’ve seen so far this year. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as this moody British produced sci-fi thriller, out today on Blu ray and DVD, certainly has its mesmerizing moments.

See if you can follow this – Scarlett Johansson portrays an extraterrestrial who has taken human form to drive around Scotland in a white van trying to pick up young men. Actually she’s abducting them in a most peculiar and exceedingly surreal manner.

Johansson leads them into a pitch black room, where she walks into the infinite darkness discarding her clothing, while her prey does the same (yes, there’s full frontal). The excited victims completely sink into the shiny black floor as they walk towards her, then she walks back over the surface picking up her individual garments.

Outside of that ritual, our alien protagonist kills a man with a rock to the head at the beach, which leaves behind a baby to crawl and cry on the rocks in a very sad shot.

About an hour into the film, which is based on a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, Johansson picks up a man with a deformed face (no prosthetics were used – actor Adam Pearson suffers from facial neurofibromatosis). Pearson is somewhat resistant to Johansson’s advances but still goes along with it, but for some reason she lets him escape to make his way naked across the Scottish countryside.

Hardcore Johansson fans will be delighted to get a lot of intense face-time with the actress, with her wide eyes peering out from under her black bangs, though even they may think a scene where she stares at her reflection in a dirty mirror goes on too long.

Johansson often lingers unemotionally starring into space, or maybe she’s taking in the strange-to-her surroundings. It’s the odd film that stops to take a look around every now and then.

There’s another alien played by championship motorcyclist Jeremy McWilliams, who the film regularly cuts to biking around the Highlands keeping tabs on Johansson.

A David Lynchian dream-like quality is present, but UNDER THE SKIN is too awkwardly abstract to be the disturbingly erotic experience it’s going for. It’s often a slog, despite Daniel Landin’s sturdy cinematography, and Johansson’s character is impenetrable by design making even the scene where she actually has sex with a man she meets (Michael Moreland) extremely hard to watch.

However, it takes some tasty chances in its pacing, minimalist use of dialogue, and intriguing visuals. It’s definitely more memorable than most movies out there and, for better or worse, its imagery can never be unseen.

Next week, Johansson will star in another sci-fi film by a foreign director, Luc Besson’s LUCY (opening on July 25th), one of the few summer films I’m really looking for to. That’s gonna be more on the action side, so think of UNDER THE SKIN if you're looking to see the lady in something slower and artsier as a warm-up.

Special Features: Ten brief featurettes into 
which break down the film into the categories: Camera, Casting, Editing, Locations, Music, Poster Design, Production Design, Script, Sound, and VFX.

More later...

Friday, July 11, 2014

The Brutally Brilliant SNOWPIERCER & The Striking IDA

SNOWPIERCER (Dir. Bong Joon-ho, 2013) 

In case you haven’t heard, the best action movie of the summer isn’t at the multiplexes, it’s at the art houses in the form of the South Korean-American sci-fi thriller SNOWPIERCER, opening this weekend in the Triangle area.

Based on a French graphic novel, the English language debut of Bong Joon-ho is a hell of a wild ride aboard a 1,001-carriage super train traveling on track that spans the globe. It’s 2031, long after a failed experiment to curb global warning has left the Earth in a new ice age. Most of the world's population has been killed except the inhabitants of the train, who are separated by class with the poor in the back and the rich in the front.

A bearded, almost unrecognizable Chris Evans (CAPTAIN AMERICA) leads a revolt to take over the front of the train (“If you control the engine, you control the world” he figures) resulting in bloody axe battles with masked thugs.

Evan’s band of battered rebels, including Octavia Spencer, Jamie Bell, and Song Kang-ho, capture Tilda Swinton (outfitted with scary false teeth, thick glasses, and a crooked wig) as one of the political stooges for the train’s creator and self appointed savior, Wilfred, and force her to help them make their way through the carriages. Kang-ho is convinced that conditions outside are improving, and that they should use explosives to blow the side of the train open so they can escape.

But Evans is determined to confront Wilfred, especially after witnessing the outlandish opulence that the elite have at their disposal. There’s a lot of social satire in these sequences, most notably in a rich kid’s schoolroom scene, in which a perky teacher played by Alison Pill (The Newsroom) leads her students to sing a song with such lyrics as “What happens when the engine stops? We all freeze and die!” in their happiest voices.

Ed Harris, tracking in traces of his God-minded Christof character from THE TRUMAN SHOW, appears as the supposedly all mighty Wilford, in a conclusion that philosophically brings all the film’s chaos together.

Although I wouldn’t call it visually stunning, the film’s imagery, courtesy of cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong, is vividly gritty, and looks convincingly lived in.

The brutally brilliant SNOWPIERCER never stops moving. It has an intensity that most summer blockbuster wannabes can’t dream of matching (certainly this year), and its hard edged take on class warfare is so much more compelling than in the HUNGER GAMES movies.

So bypass the weekly onslaught of superheroes, monsters, machines, and all the sequels at the multiplex and seek out the cinematic surprise of the summer.

Writer/Director Bong has not only topped his stellar work in THE HOST and MOTHER here, he’s made a film that can stand up next to such dystopian classics as MAD MAX, BLADE RUNNER, and BRAZIL. A cult crowd is sure to dig it, but here’s hoping it will be embraced by a much bigger audience.

(Dir. Pawel Pawlikowski, 2013)

Set in the early ‘60s, this Polish period piece authentically evokes its era by not only being in black and white, but also in the old-fashioned boxy “Academy ratio” (also recently used in Michel Hazanavicius’s THE ARTIST and parts of Wes Anderson’s THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL).

In her film debut, Agata Trzebuchowska portrays Anna, an 18-year old nun, who is told by her Mother Superior that she has one last living relative, and that she should meet them before taking her vows.

So Trzebuchowska’s Anna travels to meet her aunt Wanda (Polish actress Agata Kulesza in a stand-out performance), who tells her niece that her real name is Ida, she’s Jewish and the rest of their family was most likely exterminated by the Nazis in World War II.

Kulesza, as a boozy former Stalinist state prosecutor, travels with Trzebuchowska to their hometown to find out the truth about the fate of their relatives. The two woman clash a bit because of their vastly different lifestyles, and a charismatic jazz musician (David Ogrodnik) that they pick up hitchhiking may be too big a temptation for our heroine to handle.

Within the square frame, writer-director Pawlikowski, via cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, sets up shots in which the top half of the screen is largely bare with the actors’ heads often occupying the bottom. Trzebuchowska, when alone in close-ups, consistently inhabits the lower corners of the image in many compelling compositions throughout.

These touches are artsy, but not self consciously so, as the dramatic weight gets beautifully conveyed by them. I often felt like I was flipping through a collection of grim historic photographs of these events, with the added perspective of these real-seeming characters dealing with difficult decisions about their past and future.

IDA is a striking masterwork of quiet tension. Its pace and power may be extremely restrained, but it still seeped in and haunted me for days after seeing it. For a film that’s this spare, small on the screen, and only 80 minutes long, that’s something to write home about.

More later...

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The Beatles' A HARD DAY'S NIGHT Celebrates Its 50th Anniversary This Weekend

(Dir. Richard Lester, 1964)

Earlier this year, Beatles fans worldwide celebrated the 50th anniversary of the fab four’s historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, an event that’s been deemed, at least by CBS's Grammy Salute, “The Night That Changed America.”

So now it’s time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first film, A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, which premiered on July 6, 1964 at the Pavilion Theatre in London, with a restored re-release of the milestone movie which will screen on Saturday night at 8 pm and Sunday afternoon at 2 pm at the Raleigh Grande. (click here to find out where it's playing near you).

Concerning a few days in the life of the lovable mop-tops during the height of Beatlemania, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT, crystallized the individual personalities of the Beatles into immortal celluloid. Previously the masses had loved their music, especially such huge hits as “Love Me Do,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “She Loves You,” but now fans were allowed to see the playful psyches behind the chart toppers in action.

The late, great John Lennon can be seen in his youthful sardonically witty glory, mocking the band’s handlers, and toying with journalists. Bassist and co-leader Paul McCartney, who is playing his first ever concert in Greensboro, NC, on October 30th, was even cuter and flirtier than fans suspected (or dreamed) as he repeatedly tells reporters “No, actually we’re just good friends” when asked about his dalliances.

Lead guitarist George Harrison, who passed away in 2001, was known as “the quiet one,” but he has a stand out scene in which he wanders into an advertising agency and is particularly snarky about their trend-seeking campaigns.

This leaves drummer Ringo Starr, labeled the “funny one,” who could be considered the lead character here. The late Wilfred Brambell, best known in Britain for his long-running role in the TV series Steptoe and Son (later adapted as Sanford and Son in the States) as Paul’s grandfather goads Ringo to get out from under the other Beatles’ shadows and parade the streets.

So while his band mates are gearing up for a major television performance, Ringo walks the banks of the Thames, befriends a young boy (David Janson), and gets into mischief at a pub. All the while Ringo schleps along in his lovable hangdog demeanor, the likes of which recently charmed the audience at the Durham Performing Arts Center fronting his All Starr Band.

Starr’s presence here goes a long way to show why of all the Beatles, he got the most fan mail. He even coined the phrase the film's title and theme song is based on!

Alongside the band, Vincent Spinetti makes a mark as a put upon T.V. Director. Proving a perfect comic foil, Spinetti, who passed in 2012, would go on to appear in the Beatles’ 1965 follow-up film HELP!, and their 1967 BBC special “Magical Mystery Tour.”

Director Richard Lester, hired because the Beatles loved his 1960 short “The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film,” infuses the screenplay by Alun Owen with great gusto, from the dialogue based on the boys’ banter from real life press conferences to the wacky and slightly surreal chase scenes.

Patti Boyd, later to be Harrison’s first wife (and the inspiration for the Eric Clapton classic “Layla”) can be seen as a giggling schoolgirl in the opening train scenes, and Genesis member/’80s pop star Phil Collins is one of the screaming fans at the film’s climatic concert, but good luck trying to pick him out as his visage in the crowd shots is almost impossible to recognize.

The real star, of course, is the music. The film’s soundtrack boasts a bevy of immediate classics including the title track , “I Should Have Known Better,” “Can’t Buy Me Love” (set to a sequence which is regarded as one of the first music videos), “Tell Me Why,” and Harrison’s lone composition “Don’t Bother Me.”

The grade A+ isn’t often used in movie reviews, but considering its 99% approval rating on the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, legendary critic Roger Ebert’s teaching it to film classes one shot at a time to study its perfection, and Andrew Sarris of the Village Voice calling it “The CITIZEN KANE of jukebox musicals,” this film definitely deserves it.

Even though it’s in black and white, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT colorfully captures the era when the world was first falling in love with Beatles. There would be many love affairs with pop sensations in the years to come, but none would ever shine as bright or have tunes that resonated as deeply.

So take the kids, whether One Direction disciples or Beliebers, to see the four lads from Liverpool as they run for their lives from hoards of screaming fans in the direction of the future. Then they can see for themselves how a revolution really gets started.

More later...

EARTH TO ECHO Is A Hollow Echo Of Kids-Minded '80s Sc-Fi

Now playing at a multiplex near you...

EARTH TO ECHO (Dir. Dave Green, 2014)

Stop me if you’ve heard this before – a small group of kids from the suburbs make contact with a cute alien stranded on Earth. Pursued by shadowy figures from the government they race to help their new intergalactic friend rebuild his spaceship so he can go home. Yes, I know you probably were trying to stop me when I hit the words “cute alien,” which is pretty much the same place that I wanted this movie to stop.

Oh, and I should mention that unlike the J.J. Abrams’ 2011 Spielberg-produced, Spielberg-derived SUPER 8 which has an almost identical premise, it doesn’t take place back in the era of Spielberg's seminal sci-fi kids flicks.

Its modern edge is from its tale being completely told BLAIR WITCH PROJECT-style via imagery from phones, video cameras and spyglasses. So it’s got that found footage thing happening, but otherwise every other element here was done to death over 30 years ago.

Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, and Reese Hartwig play the tween leads, BFFs, who will soon be separated because of a huge highway construction project which will tear down their Nevada neighborhood. The kids’s phones start picking up crazy images which they trace to the desert, so on their last night together they ride their bikes out to find the extraterrestrial or whatever it is.

Echo, the alien robot thing they befriend looks like a robotic owl or some kind of miniature WALL-E so prepare to cringe for the “aww” factor. All the shaky cam chases, shadowy action scenes, and consistent affirmations about the power of friendship, that like SUPER 8, have the boys running around accompanied by a love interest blonde tween (Ella Wahlestedt), bored me to tears. So did the incredibly underwhleming CGI-ed climax, that I bet you can guess involves a ginormous mothership.

I read that first-time director Green studied kids’ video-making today so that he could make a film that looked like it was made by 13-year olds. Green does indeed achieve that, but he’s also made a film that was made just for 13-year olds, but only ones that haven’t seen E.T., or EXPLORERS, or FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR, or even MAC AND ME - pretty much any ‘80s kids-minded sci-fi that is.

Disney sold this to Relativity Media, which proves that the Magic Kingdom sometimes can tell when a project is sorely missing magic.

The good but far from great SUPER 8 sure looks like essential Spielberg next to this otherworldly waste.

More later...

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

TAMMY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now playing at a plus-size multiplex near you...

TAMMY (Dir. Ben Falcone, 2014)

Although she’s been in mostly mediocre movies, Melissa McCarthy is one of the funniest people on the planet. I’ve witnessed McCarthy’s blustery brand of in your face humor eliciting loud, pure laughter from audiences throughout such throwaway comedies as IDENTITY THIEF and last summer’s THE HEAT (both huge hits), and her commitment to even the stupidest of sketches has made her hosting stints on Saturday Night Live into events.

But even with the low expectations I had going into her latest lowbrow lark, I felt largely let down.

TAMMY, the dream project of McCarthy and her husband Ben Falcone (best known as the Air Marshall in BRIDESMAIDS), who co-wrote and directed, is about a white trashy loser who after getting fired from her job, and finding out her husband has been cheating, goes on a cross country road trip with her grandmother (Susan Sarandon).

Since we’ve got Sarandon’s presence in a summer road-trip scenario involving a robbery and some tawdry living, let’s consider it THELMA AND LOUISE, just not with Louise or the cultural significance.

We first meet McCarthy’s Tammy on her way to work at the fictional chain “TopperJacks” singing along to the ‘80s track “Your Love” by the Outfield (apparently the singing along to the car radio scene in IDENTITY THIEF was such a success that it bears repeating).

McCarthy collides with a deer, and totals her car, but, as if to show us she’s got a heart, she attempts to give the wounded animal CPR. Next, our mess of a heroine gets fired from her crappy job by her slimy boss (Falcone), then comes home to find hubby Nat Faxon having an elegant dinner with Toni Collette as his neighbor mistress.

McCarthy packs her things and walks three houses down to mother Allison Janney’s house (everybody lives on the same street, which is fairly funny) where she decides to up and leave town with the boozing Sarandon, as her grandmother has a car and lots of cash, to go visit Niagara Falls.

McCarthy and Sarandon drink heavily (while driving), McCarthy gets in a jet skiing accident, and they hook-up with Gary Cole and Mark Duplass as father and son at a Louisiana bar. Well, actually, Sarandon hooks up with Cole, but McCarthy comes on a bit strong and scares off Duplass.

More drunken mischief, and a bag of illegal oxycontin, lands the duo in jail with only enough money to bail out McCarthy, so she turns to crime in the form of robbing a “TopperJacks” in order to get the money.

The hold-up set piece, with McCarthy sporting a bag on her head while she clutches her sunglasses wrapped up in another bag to resemble a gun, is for sure the funniest part of the film, no small thanks to the exchanges with the place’s employees Sara Baker (who made a bit of splash recently on Louie), and Rich Williams (guitarist for the band Kansas).

After that slowly heads downhill despite the always welcome Kathy Bates popping up as an old friend of Sarandon’s who’s hosting a lesbian Fourth of July party with her girlfriend Sandra Oh, who I can’t remember having a significant line or moment in the movie. Same thing could be said for Colette and Janney, come to think of it.

At least Dan Aykroyd as McCarthy’s father who comes in towards the end makes more of an impression.

TAMMY feels like a slapdash affair, even though McCarthy and Falcone worked on it for several years. I can’t say I didn’t laugh at TAMMY, but the film has way less than a third of the laughs that 22 JUMP STREET had. 

A lot of gags are lazy, and depend on the lead character’s stupidity like a bit about not knowing who Mark Twain was, or cursing the price of gasoline with the obvious and overdone line “Thanks, Obamacare!”

And in the emotional resonance department, the realizations and lessons about family learned just seem like standard sitcom connections.

Still, TAMMY will most likely conquer the box office this fourth of July holiday weekend. I felt such a warmth towards McCarthy at the preview screening I attended, and I think it’s because many Americans really relate and see themselves in her. That’s especially true here in the south where the film was largely shot.

But the way TAMMY most resembles America is that with this much potential, it really should be better than it is.

Happy Independence Day everybody!

More later...