REVIEW: The Boss Baby

8 08 2017

Where DreamWorks lagged behind Pixar in pathos, they often made up ground with sheer creativity (see: the “Shrek” franchise). But even recently, the boy fishing on the crescent moon has ceded that ground to the jumping lamp. Their latest effort, “The Boss Baby,” starts the battle to take it back.

This movie pushes the medium of animation to its fullest, not to create a simulation of reality but to twist it in imaginative ways. What’s the point of being able to bend the rules if you’re just going to obey the ones established in a live-action world, after all? “The Boss Baby” gives the fanciful visuals a reason to exist, too, by assuming the point of view of seven-year-old Tim. He’s a storyteller by nature, and we get to watch him weave some pretty intricate yarns about the arrival of his baby brother.

In (t)his story, that baby’s foreign nature manifests itself as a slick-talking, suit-wearing tot voiced by Alec Baldwin. Tim reacts at first with suspicion to this time-sucking new addition to the family. But after their initial confrontations, the two unite on a common goal – promoting human babies over puppies in the battle to win over the souls of young couples – and begin to bond as brothers.

The storytelling conceit is a clever way to convey a story about fraternal connection. “The Boss Baby” does not merely seek to understand Tim’s perspective on events; instead, director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers assume his subjectivity fully. The concept does start to fall apart a bit as the brothers’ adventure begins to escalate – for example, does a young child really have the advanced knowledge of corporate structure trends to know to make a point about being replaced by someone younger? Still, the film delights by adopting the mantra of Mrs. Frizzle: “get messy, mistakes.” Seeing DreamWorks really gun for something special again is worth the watch. B





REVIEW: Paris Can Wait

26 05 2017

Eleanor Coppola’s “Paris Can Wait” amounts to little more than a middle-aged French retread of “Leap Year” – rack your brains and see if you can remember that 2010 Amy Adams romance. The setup is simple: a charming American woman needs a ride to meet up with her romantic partner, so she must enlist the help of a native of a charming European man to whisk her across the rural backroads of his native country. Along the way, however, she begins to doubt her allegiances as the extended car trip softens her stance towards the courier.

“Paris Can Wait” offers many gorgeous views of scenic French vistas, but if that’s what Coppola wanted to shoot, then perhaps her energies are better spent filming a promotional spot for the country’s tourism bureau. With all due respect, I’ve seen half-hour TV specials with more meat on their bones than this film. The only bit of content worth serious deliberation is when Anne (Diane Lane) and Jacques (Arnaud Viard) discuss what separates the Americans from the French.

Otherwise, “Paris Can Wait” is a lavish nothingburger of a travelogue that is every bit as self-indulgent as an Adam Sandler comedy set in Hawaii or Africa. The cast and crew get to enjoy the majesty of France’s countryside – the culture, the food, the sheer joy of getting caught up in a moment of inexpressible beauty. We’re left to experience it from afar through the eyes of Anne and her digital camera, which she uses to take Instagram-style foodie pictures that she is too sheepish to share. I couldn’t even get a vicarious thrill from observing. C





REVIEW: Rules Don’t Apply

15 11 2016

rules-dont-applyPoor Warren Beatty. The man has been trying to make a passion project about Howard Hughes for the better part of four decades. The film faced significant challenges, including 2004’s biopic collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio that nabbed double-digit Oscar nominations.

12 years later, Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” finally makes it to the big screen only to have the misfortune of opening in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The timing doesn’t exactly feel right for a mostly breezy, old-fashioned tale about an eccentric and potentially deranged billionaire who wants to control women’s bodies and limit their personal freedoms. (A remark where a young actress declares, “I think Howard Hughes should be president, there’s no one else like him” is sure to inspire some nervous laughter.) To be clear, none of this is Beatty’s fault. He has no control over the circumstances under which his movie gets released.

But he did have control over what kind of movie he made. Beyond the unfortunate parallels to the man dominating global news headlines, “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a film built for the long haul – it is certainly not the kind of project that clearly evinces forty years of thought and development. After all that time, it feels like Beatty should have figured out the story’s protagonist – Hughes, his latest starlet prospect Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), or the married company driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) who falls for her against his better judgement. The film plays out as a series of loosely connected, scarcely progressing scenes involving these characters – nothing more.

Of the key trio, only Ehrenreich’s Forbes is a character deserving of his own film. Beatty plays Hughes as a slave to his obsessive-compulsive disorder, turning his neuroses into a joking psychosis. Collins, meanwhile, dashes through her lines with such speed that she delivers them without seeming to understand what any of them mean. Or, at the very least, she doesn’t feel them with any strong sense of purpose.

Ehrenreich, meanwhile, recalls the unflappability and easygoing cool of a ’90s Leonardo DiCaprio. As a corporate pawn torn between his show business attraction and his familial commitments, Forbes is the only person in “Rules Don’t Apply” whose path does not seem predestined. Too bad that Beatty did not line up the heft of the movie fully behind him. C-1halfstars





REVIEW: Concussion

21 12 2015

Peter Landesman’s “Concussion” is barely good enough to avoid a pun about the film causing its own kind of head trauma. It is not successful enough, however, to avoid one about the film’s facts and message hitting with unnecessarily blunt force.

Even though the message of this sports-related film rings depressing (rather than the usual uplift), “Concussion” can not avoid the temptations of the genre’s heavy-handed filmmaking. Like many a tale of this ilk, the film features an unlikely protagonist who must persevere against intense obstacles and opposition. Here, that person is not a player but a doctor, Will Smith’s Bennet Omalu. This Nigerian immigrant, perhaps more educated than an average bucket full of American citizens, lets his intellectual curiosity lead him to the discovery of a particular brain condition endemic to one group of men: ex-football players.

When Omalu breaks it down in the parlance that comes most naturally to him – science – the issue proves quite captivating. Framing the game of football as a series of shocks that the human body was not built to absorb makes his case strong. But when “Concussion” frames his struggle as one against a shadowy, monolithically evil NFL, the film falls completely flat. The silencing by commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the league probably happened, if I had to conjecture based on Goodell’s rather reckless actions over the past few seasons. Yet even as someone staunchly opposed to the league’s head honcho, the film comes off like a half-baked, crackpot conspiracy theory.

When a two-dimensional character goes up against a one-dimensional enemy, no one wins. Not the film. Not the issue. And certainly not the audience. C+2stars





REVIEW: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation

30 07 2015

The “Mission: Impossible” series, now spanning nearly two decades with its five installments, somehow manages to sustain a childlike sense of adulation for its leading man.  Tom Cruise, perhaps the biggest movie star in the world when the franchise launched in 1996, has seen his ups and downs both personally and professionally in the years that followed.

But watching “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” it seems like his star has miraculously managed to lose no shine.  These movies see no parallels between the furious arm-pumping intensity of Tom Cruise’s movie run and the limber legs that propelled him to jump on Oprah’s couch.  Never does his stardom feel laced with irony or constrained by public perception.  The film treats Cruise like the greatest thing since sliced bread … or at least since Harrison Ford.

Cruise makes his first on-screen appearance by dashing into frame after a quick cut on his unexpected opening line, and it feels triumphant.  This is the cinema’s closest approximation to the kind entrance that Bernadette Peters or Idina Menzel can make when they walk on stage – which is to say, it mandates a pause to let the audience applaud simply on sight.  Cruise, working on assignment for writer/director Christopher McQuarrie and co-writer Drew Pearce, so thoroughly owns his superstardom here that he gains the power to push “Going Clear” completely out of mind for two hours.

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REVIEW: Aloha

19 06 2015

Aloha posterResponding to the reactions to a film in a review is something I generally frown upon; however, I am willing to make an exception in the case of “Aloha.”  Before Sony could release any trailers or marketing materials, studio head Amy Pascal’s scathing comments about Cameron Crowe’s film hit the Internet and sealed its fate.  The film said the “goodbye” aloha before it could say the “hello” aloha.  And then, once the critics finally got ahold of the final product, the nail was in the coffin.

So when I finally got around to seeing “Aloha,” I came with unavoidably low expectations.  I did not seek to answer the question of whether it was good or bad; I just needed to know how bad.  Watching a film in that mindset makes for an entirely different experience, akin to being a child in a doctor’s office waiting for a shot with eyes clenched shut.  You know the pain will come soon but are clueless as to when.

I kept waiting for “Aloha” to come apart at the seams.  Maybe the relationship between paramilitary contractor Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) and his spunky Air Force escort Allison Ng (Emma Stone, unconvincingly playing part-Asian) would just become a little too far-fetched.  Or perhaps Brian would wreck the marriage of his ex-flame Tracy (Rachel McAdams), leaving the life she built with her kids and husband Woody (John Krasinski) in shambles and destroying all sympathy for the characters.  Any number of plot points, from the relations with native Hawaiian tribes to an odd space mission, could easily have gone south.

Yet, against the odds, “Aloha” manages to survive its shortcomings and remain a mostly enjoyable time at the movies.  Sure, the script could have benefitted from some retooled dialogue, a few reordered or rewritten scenes for the sake of clarity, and a narrower narrative scope.  As is, though, Crowe has the basis for a charming – but not disarming – romance with a superfluous side helping of story critiquing the military-industrial complex.

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REVIEW: Still Alice

16 02 2015

Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland adapted “Still Alice” from a novel by Lisa Genova.  But had I not known that going in, I would have assumed the film was based on a play.

The directors shoot the film with a gentle, soft, and unobtrusive light.  The lines flow nicely.  The scenes feel distinct and compartmentalized.  Heck, the film even ends by literally ripping out the final page from “Angels in America,” one of the American dramatic classics!

What ultimately separates “Still Alice” from the stage, however, is the masterfully detailed performance of Julianne Moore.  She stars as Alice Howland, a 50-year-old linguistics professor stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s disease, and the camera-eye of the cinema is necessary to observe her slow deterioration.  Since seeing the decay of her brain is impossible, her illness has to manifest itself in the tiniest twitches of Moore’s face.

Like fellow 2014 release “The Theory of Everything,” which followed a physical rather than a mental degeneration, “Still Alice” derives its very narrative motion from discerning which faculty will disappear next.  In other words, the filmmakers invite gaping and marveling at the technically proficient acting on display behind the figurative glass cage of the screen.  The film plays almost as suspenseful in its measured anticipation of a firm break from reality by Alice, and credit Moore for turning in a performance so gentle and full of integrity that her character’s normalcy inspires unease.

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