REVIEW: Miss Sloane

9 12 2016

“Lobbying is about foresight,” observes Jessica Chastain’s high-powered Washington lobbyist Liz Sloane at the outset of “Miss Sloane.” It’s a statement she delivers in direct address to the camera, practically breaking the fourth wall. Such a revelation recalls a magician movie like “The Prestige” or “Now You See Me” more than a garden-variety political thriller.

Indeed, the intrigue in “Miss Sloane” plays like an inside-the-Beltway tale of congressional arm-twisting, fundraising wizardry and reality manipulation through the media. We’re very well aware of the fact that the movie is working one step ahead of us, that another shoe is always ready to drop in the next scene. For those willing to accept that each conclusion will be overturned by a future development, the film plays like a snappy tale of intrigue.

While the heightened political gamesmanship can lead the film to some hammy acting and some soapbox script moments, “Miss Sloane” is a remarkably grounded film about the cost of principles in the sludge of the system. Chastain’s Sloane is a remarkable figure – a pro-business conservative with a George W. Bush photo on her mantle who, for a complex web of reasons, decides to take on a challenging job lobbying for common-sense gun safety measures. With a Blackberry as her third hand, she chips away at the Senate deadlock on the issue until she very nearly fractures it.

Chastain is one of the industry’s most vocal feminist activists, now working behind the scenes to put the stories about women she wants to see into the culture. “Miss Sloane” is probably her most successful work to date in this regard (perhaps excepting “Zero Dark Thirty“). The film portrays an environment controlled by crusty old white men and the effect it has on limiting the roles available to women and tailoring the expectations they set for themselves. There’s no need to declare “FEMINIST” in bold letters, much less #ImWithHer. The understanding of gender is baked into every scene of Jonathan Perera’s script.

That extends to Sloane’s final speech, a contemporary Capra monologue that coats American idealism in the appropriate cynicism of the moment. Gone are the innocent outsiders of old affecting change by holding onto their flyover-state romanticism. Instead, the film suggests, we might need someone entrenched in the slime of the Hill to bring about the will of the people. In which case, the fits of Sorkin-esque shine in “Miss Sloane” make perfect sense. B+3stars

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REVIEW: The Brothers Grimsby

2 09 2016

In 2006, Sacha Baron Cohen wrote and starred in “Borat,” one of the most prescient and hilarious satirical films of the millennia. Fast forward to 2016, and he has stooped to the level of taking elephant ejaculation to the face in “The Brothers Grimsby.” There’s no context that makes this sound smart or redeemable. The film is just giddy about the idea of a sight gag involving a giant pachyderm penis.

It has been quite frustrating to watch Cohen evolve backwards over the past decade, growing less socially engaged and more juvenile with each successive film. “The Brothers Grimsby,” admittedly, might have some more local flavorings lost on American audiences. Cohen stars as Nobby Butcher, a low-class British football (soccer) hooligan with little intelligence and a high blood-alcohol level. His long-lost brother Sebastian (Mark Strong) leads a completely opposite life as an MI6 agent, a suave operator who fashions himself a real-life James Bond.

The two improbably link up as Sebastian investigates a crime syndicate intent on launching a bioweapon and end up on the run together. Their misadventures take the duo to South Africa and South America, but no matter the location, Nobby manages to run amuck of the rules of engagement – as well as common sense. It’s a role imitated by Cohen outside the film, too. He’s proving once again to be the master of the gross-out moment, though it feels like he’s only intent on proving this to himself. The disgusting humor produces a quick groan at the given scene and never gets rerouted into a larger concept or idea that should draw a more existential disgust.

Everyone knows Cohen can do so much more than “The Brothers Grimsby.” Why he seems intent on doing so little just baffles the mind. C2stars





REVIEW: Kingsman: The Secret Service

23 03 2015

Earlier in 2015, Matthew Vaughn hit a nerve with many movie fans when he took a giant crap on the face of reigning blockbuster king Christopher Nolan.  “People want fun and escapism at the moment,” said Vaughn in an interview, “I think Nolan kick-started a very dark, bleak style of superhero escapism, and I think people have had enough of it.”

I take issue with his statement for a number of reasons.  First of all, it just reeks of bitterness over Nolan’s success; the total worldwide gross of Vaughn’s combined filmography does not even come close to equaling the haul of “The Dark Knight Rises.”  Second, it implies that serious action films are shoving lighter fare out of the market on both the level of the corporation and the consumer.

For me, I tend to prefer Nolan’s films because they so boldly test the boundaries of what our entertainment can be.  But at the end of the day, I do not want to live in a world where I cannot kick back and enjoy a blissfully funny, irreverent, and exciting movie like Matthew Vaughn’s own “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”  There will always be a place for well-crafted entertainment that knows the role it wants to play and fulfills its duties with gusto.

Vaughn’s film, co-written with his frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, strikes a rarely found balance between spy movie classicism (like a Bond flick) and outright parody (a la “Austin Powers”).  They find the right times to shift gears, and the result is an experience that plays like all the fun of two movies for the price of one.  Overall, I found myself reminded of the hero’s quest of Luke Skywalker from “Star Wars” hybridized with “Agent Cody Banks” (throwback – bet you haven’t thought about that movie in a while).

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REVIEW: The Imitation Game

8 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

As if the subject of “The Imitation Game” – a tender British soul misunderstood as an incompetent and bumbling fool – weren’t enough to draw comparisons to “The King’s Speech,” the film seemingly invites the parallel in its opening credits.  It’s only faintly discernible, but audio from none other than King George’s climactic speech at the dawn of World War II plays diegetically in the background.

To those who might recognize the snippet, it serves as a perfect barometer for the ambitions of “The Imitation Game.”  With maybe a dash of brash mathematical genius of “A Beautiful Mind,” Morten Tyldum’s film is very much this year’s “The King’s Speech.”  For those unaware of the construed meaning of 2010’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, that means the film is an engaging and entertaining biopic made with high production values all around yet does not aspire to anything groundbreaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Maybe I can only give such an unabashed endorsement of the film from my privileged subject position of being one of the first audiences to see the film or because I saw it before the glut of prestige films later in the fall.  Indeed, I can already see myself holding truly great movies against “The Imitation Game” and wondering how on earth anyone could think so highly of it.  At least for the moment, however, I choose to see the film as it is: a quality piece of cinema that is not trying to reinvent the wheel.  It’s simply trying to turn some wheels in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms.

Certainly a film has some merit if it can collapse a two-hour act of viewing into feeling like an experience lasting half that duration.  “The Imitation Game” flew by, largely because of how engrossed in the story and the characters I became.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns in inspired work bringing the film’s subject, Alan Turing, to life.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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REVIEW: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

19 03 2012

The impressive accomplishments in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” are manifold.  The first, and perhaps what will stick with me the most, is how immaculately crafted the movie is.  Every aspect below the line is crisp and precise, be it Alberto Iglesias’ subtle score, Hoyte van Hoytema’s swift camerawork, Maria Djurkovic’s richly detailed sets, or the unbelievably meticulous control over sound and silence.  “Hugo” may have been the Academy’s technical darling of 2011, but this movie can rival its excellence in all those categories (except maybe visual effects).

The second is Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley, one of his finest on-screen roles yet.  Much was made of how criminal it was that the lauded character actor had not received an Oscar nomination before “Tinker Tailor,” and thankfully now that has been corrected.  But there is much more to this work than merely endowing Oldman with the epithet “Academy Award nominee.”

Oldman shows his mastery of understatement playing Smiley, a man of few words.  When he’s not speaking, we never have a doubt that Oldman is totally within his character’s mind, never moving a pore without purpose.  When he is speaking, Oldman is forceful and commanding, owning the screen that includes one of the largest casts of acclaimed British actors outside the “Harry Potter” series.  It’s an acting master class from one of the industry’s best and brightest, definitely one Hollywood could learn a lesson or two from as well.

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REVIEW: Green Lantern

20 06 2011

The old adage traditionally goes “money can’t buy you happiness,” but in respect to the latest Hollywood comic book adaptation, “Green Lantern,” money can’t buy you quality. The higher the pedestal, the harder the fall, and with a $200 million price tag, this movie lands a hard face plant.  Even with Ryan Reynolds turning in one of the better superhero performances in recent memory, the movie’s unimaginative script and laughable special effects render it one step short of unbearable.

The first movie in any hopeful series has to do a lot of introductions, and the hero has to earn his stripes.  But here, the exposition just made me want to howl with laughter because of its corniness, and they even brought in Geoffrey Rush to do some of the narration to make it sound serious!  The whole universe they set up feels like some rejected, half-baked idea for a Disney Channel series with its Sectors of the universe, the wise sages known as Guardians, and the intergalactic police force called the Green Lantern Corps.

Hal Jordan (Reynolds) is the lucky human who gets to join their ranks thanks to being “chosen” by the green light after another Green Lantern crash-lands on Earth.  Cocky, rule-breaking, and daredevil Jordan has his work cut out for him as the Green Lanterns draw their power from the green light of will, while the menacing Parallax (and his new convert Hector Hammond, Peter Sarsgaard’s mad scientist with a nasty receding hairline) draws his power from the yellow light of fear.  He must learn to use willpower to overcome fear by using the power of imagination – which makes it all the more ironic that the movie’s big theme copies that of the poorly received “Spider-Man 3.”  Clearly it’s not Jordan who needs the green light; it’s the people who wrote the script.

The whole mess, which goes on for nearly two hours, is full of plot holes and ridiculous implausibilities (flying next to the sun?) that make it even more laughable.  But the icing on the cake is the movie’s visual effects, which are honestly the WORST that I’ve seen in a blockbuster made this millenium.  When Jordan harnesses the green energy and transforms, he looks so fake that it’s hard to take him seriously.  It’s made worse by the fact that his eyes are sloppily changed blue, making him look borderline possessed (not to mention that it does jack squat to protect his identity).  And don’t even get me started on those Guardians; they look like the offspring of trolls bred with Smurfs.

Truly, Reynolds deserves better than this.  He may be the “Sexiest Man Alive,” but he’s also out to prove that he’s more than just a pretty face.  He puts a lot of soul into this character, giving Jordan some depth and emotion, yet he’s stifled by a terrible movie that is unintentionally more like “Bridesmaids” than “Thor.”  Reynolds is a star here, but he can’t shine bright enough to overpower the ugly light that is “Green Lantern.”  From a critical perspective, it’s a big, fat red light for this movie.  C- / 





REVIEW: Kick-Ass

2 08 2010

I can’t think of many titles that describe their movies so aptly as this one. “Kick-Ass,” the R-rated superhero movie that indirectly spoofs “Watchmen,” hits us with a one-two punch of comedy and action. The punch is pretty much a knockout.

It’s devilish fun when the action is as outrageous as the comedy. The movie follows Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), a teenaged New York geek who unleashes his inner fanboy in a way that would make everyone at the comic book store pee themselves with envy. He decides to rise above the common crowd and become a superhero, despite having no actual powers and few confrontational skills. Still, he holds onto the hope that a fancy scuba suit and a cool name, Kick-Ass, will scare off his opponents. But at first, as one of his rivals points out, he should be called “Ass-Kicked” because that’s the only thing that really happens to him.

As entertaining as the adventures of Kick-Ass can be, it’s the other heroes who steal the show. They should really call the movie “Hit Girl” because we’re always waiting for that precocious child vigilante with a foul mouth and impressive combat ability to return to the screen. It’s hard to tell where most of her allure comes from: actress Chloe Moretz or the script. Moretz has shown skill playing adult characters written for kids to play in “(500) Days of Summer,” and she really seems to get how to make them read. The sheer absurdity of hearing the words come out of her mouth is a comedic masterstroke.

“Kick-Ass” also marks a semi-comeback for Nicolas Cage, at least in my book, who has been getting a bad rep for all the abysmal action and horror movies he has been doing recently. When you have an Oscar, it’s OK to branch out and try other genres, but Cage has strayed far from the nest. One more flop and he could have been a laughing stock. “Kick-Ass,” however, was an excellent choice for the actor. It’s a crowd-pleaser, sure, but it requires him to act. He took a supporting role as Big Daddy, father and shaper of Hit Girl, and it shows off the crossover appeal Cage has. The part allows him to be funny as well as an action star, and there’s even room for him to deal with little bit of real human drama.

Matthew Vaughn does a great job directing the riot that is “Kick-Ass,” never taking himself or the material too seriously. One can only wonder how he will handle the “X-Men” franchise, which has an entirely different tone and involves people with real powers. Hopefully he can bring the same fun he brought to this movie, just leaving the farcical stuff on the side.  He directs a superb movie, but the fact that it devolves into “The Chloe Moretz Show” so easily might raise a tiny red flag in your mind.  A flag so tiny, in fact, that you might forget to realize it’s there while you’re laughing so hard.  B+ /