Reel Opinions

Saturday, August 29, 2015

We Are Your Friends

This is a nondescript little movie that exists simply because a bunch of people were paid to make it.  I know, I know, every movie exists simply because people were paid to make it.  But movies like We Are Your Friends truly mystify me.  It holds no tension or original ideas, and it comes across as a paid holiday for a talented young cast who barely seem to have shown up in the first place.  Its sole purpose seems to be to evaporate like vapor as soon as it's over.

The film stars Zac Efron as Cole Carter, a young DJ on the rise in the LA music scene.  He lives with a small group of his friends, goes to parties, and dreams big dreams of making it in the music industry.  He has a chance encounter with a famous DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley), who was once a huge name in the industry, but seems to be falling into a drunken stupor these days.  Still, James sees potential in Cole, and takes him under his wing.  It's here that Cole meets James' personal assistant and girlfriend, Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), and potential sparks fly between the two, which threatens his growing business relationship with James.  None of this really matters, as the movie is just an excuse for a lot of electronic music, and footage of gyrating bodies.  There are some subplots about the dangers of drug use and the importance of a college education, but the way the movie barely touches on them, they may as well not be in here at all.

We Are Your Friends exists solely for an audience who enjoys electronic music and likes looking at Zac Efron for nearly 100 minutes.  If you don't fall into these categories, this movie's joys and purpose may be lost upon you, as they were on me.  Cole's friends who are introduced early in the film serve little purpose.  There seems to be an attempt made to create some conflict when Cole starts hanging out with James more than them, but it never builds to anything.  There is also a plot where Cole and his friends take a corporate job to make money, and Cole becomes disillusioned by his crooked boss, who he thinks wants want to help people, but is really only interested in making a profit on people in a bad situation.  Again, the movie just touches on this subject then moves on.  It's almost as if the screenplay considers adding conflict or dimension to its characters, then changes its mind at the last minute.

Is there anything worth recommending?  Well, the movie does get off one kind of creative moment, when Cole is explaining to us how his music affects his audience, and we get some animated sequences and charts explaining the impact of music on the body.  There is also a rather odd yet interesting sequence where Cole, under the influence of drugs, starts to hallucinate that paintings on the wall are coming to life, before animated paint oozes off of them and turns the people around him into animated figures.  Again, this serves little purpose to the film itself, outside of a stylistic decision on the part of director Max Joseph.  He tries to grab our attention with little splashes of creative filmmaking, but they don't register because they don't add anything in the long run.

The weeks leading up to Labor Day weekend are usually fodder for some forgettable films, but We Are Your Friends achieves a strange kind of grandeur in being forgettable.  The movie never offends really.  It just leaves no impression whatsoever, which in some cases is even worse for a film.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

No Escape

What a difference a year can make for some filmmakers.  It was exactly one year ago this week that the filmmaking sibling duo of John Erick and Drew Dowdle unleashed As Above/So Below, a beyond incoherent and nearly unwatchable example of found footage horror.  This year, they bring No Escape, a thriller which manages to be incredibly tense for a good part of its running time.  It's well made, has some strong performances, and is dramatically effective.  The only knock against it is its limited scope of the situation at hand.

The ad campaign for the film seems to be trying to sell it as an action thriller, with Owen Wilson in the unlikely role of an action star.  In truth, the movie is a drama about Wilson's character trying to keep his entire family alive, which includes his loving wife (Lake Bell) and two young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare).  There are certainly moments of action to be found, but the movie is surprisingly more concerned with the family trying to stay together and keep their spirits up than it is in putting its characters in gun battles and fistfights.  Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, a man originally from Texas who has taken a new job at a water treatment plant in an unspecified part of Asia. (The movie was filmed on location in Thailand, but it is never specified in the dialogue, most likely to help with the overseas box office.) No sooner does Jack and his family arrive that a political uprising tied to the company he's been sent to work for explodes on the streets.  With rioters and protesters storming the street and killing anyone associated with the company, Jack must protect his family and lead them to safety.

The opening 20 minutes or so of the film setting up the relationship between the family has a sweet quality to it that gets our support for these characters almost from the beginning.  There is also a man named Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), whom Jack meets on the plane to his new job and strikes up a friendship with during his first night before the uprising begins the next morning.  From that point on, No Escape becomes a breathless survival thriller that rarely slows down to let the audience catch their breath.  There is some excellently staged action sequences, with some using incredible camera tracking, following the actors with few if any edits.  The movie is also smart in not suddenly turning Wilson's character into some kind of unstoppable action hero once his family is in danger.  He is frightened, he gets hurt, but he keeps on pressing on for his family.  In other words, he's not Liam Neeson from the Taken films.  He has been written as being sympathetic and real, and never really does anything that we can't picture someone in his position doing in order to stay alive.

The film is centered solely on the family, and their efforts to get to safety.  This brings about the crucial flaw in the film, in that it does not give a voice to its Asian characters.  What do the innocent people think of the uprising that is happening all around them?  Most importantly, what do the rioters and protesters think?  We know that they are against the Western influence that is coming into their society with American companies setting up operations, but that's all we do know.  The violent protesters are treated like a mob who charge into the scene, shoot at our heroes and other extras, and occasionally get shot at by our heroes once in a while.  With a more even-handed approach that represented both sides of the situation, this could have been a truly great film, not just a good little late summer thriller.

Does this choice on the part of the filmmakers hold the movie back from what it could have been?  Most definitely.  But the movie that they have made is genuinely suspenseful, and has been made with quite a lot of skill.  There is a lot to admire here, from the performances to the camerawork and editing, which is able to keep up with the action without resorting to confusing or rapid edits.  Some critics of the film have said that it only shows white people being killed and shot at by the angry mob, but I also noticed some innocent Asians in the line of fire also.  That's why I wanted the movie to go broader with its topic.  I wanted to hear the side of these innocent local people who were caught in the middle of this tragedy in their homeland. 

If you can look past the narrow scope of the film, No Escape offers more than enough thrills and excitement that it works on that level.  Yes, this movie could have been better.  Lots of movies could.  But to me, the movie excelled at what it wanted to be - a white knuckle thriller.

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Sunday, August 23, 2015

American Ultra

Nima Nourizadeh's American Ultra is a somewhat messy and scattershot action-comedy, but as late summer entertainment, it works well enough.  It has some genuine laughs, a pair of likable lead performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, and a surprisingly big heart behind it all.  This is the rare movie that can pull off hyper violent and gory action sequences, and scenes that are sincerely sweet and uplifting.

Eisenberg stars as Mike Howell, a guy in his mid-20s whose life is in a standstill.  He's in a dead end job at a convenience store, and spends a lot of his time getting high with his friends.  He does have a girlfriend whom he genuinely loves named Phoebe (Stewart) and hopes to marry someday soon, and dreams of becoming a cartoonist as he sketches the adventures of an ape superhero in his notepad.  But it almost seems as if fate as it in for the guy, as when Mike tries to take Phoebe on a romantic vacation to Hawaii (where he planned to propose to her), he suffers a mysterious panic attack and they miss the plane.  The next day, when Mike is working his shift at the store, a strange woman (Connie Britton) walks up to his counter, and utters to him what seems to be a series of random words that don't belong together.  Those of you who have not seen the trailers may want to stop reading here, if you want the movie to be a surprise, by the way.

It turns out that Mike used to be part of a top secret government project to create super soldiers who were unnaturally skilled in all forms of combat.  Mike was a successful test subject, but when the project was terminated, his memories were erased so that he could lead a normal life.  When Mike attempted to go to Hawaii with his girlfriend, the government saw him as a flight risk, so now they want to kill him.  The woman who enters the store that night is actually the former head of the program, and the series of words she uttered was actually a secret code to kick-start his memories, and help him remember his fight training.  Now the guy possesses amazing dexterity, agility and physical strength, and he has no idea why.  When he catches two guys trying to mess with his car, he is able to murder them with just a spoon as a weapon.  Now that Mike has been "reactivated" as a super soldier, some shadowy government officials (led by Topher Grace) want him dead, and send their best assassins after him.

So, American Ultra is ultimately a mash up of the Bourne Identity films, and a pot smoking slacker comedy, like Pineapple Express.    It even manages to mix in some elements of a romantic comedy, as the love between Mike and Phoebe plays a big part in the story.  Does the movie, or the combination of genres, always work?  Not really.  But screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) makes the characters enjoyably goofy enough, and the movie moves by at such a quick pace that we barely have time to complain.  There are some sly moments of parody regarding action movie cliches, such as when Phoebe points out all the mistakes he made during the movie's first big action scene, with the characters escaping from a police station. ("If the bad guy is in a prison cell with a gun on the floor, and he doesn't notice it, don't point the gun out to him!!") The movie could have used a bit more absurd moments like this, but it still manages to be fun.

I also appreciated the performances, and how nobody seems to notice how insane everything is.  I've always enjoyed comedies more when the actors don't seem to be in on the joke, and that's definitely the case here.  Even when the action heats up, and dead bodies start littering whatever room Mike happens to be in, the movie still manages to remind us not to take this all too seriously with its extremely over the top violence.  This is a loose movie that kind of plays it dumb, but sometimes I'm in the mood for dumb.  It helps that Mike and Phoebe come across as a couple we can get behind.  They're not just running from one action sequence to the next, and get a few nice moments to slow down and talk to each other.  The screen chemistry of Eisenberg and Stewart (who previously worked alongside each other in 2009's underrated Adventureland) go a long way in carrying these characters.

I can see American Ultra getting a cult following over time, as it strikes the right tone of quirkiness and sincerity.  It's certainly nothing great, but in these late days of August where the cinemas generally become a dumping ground for studios, it stand out enough.  It's silly and very gory, but it's also a lot of fun.

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Friday, August 21, 2015

Sinister 2

Before my screening of Sinister 2, I happened to be watching a video interview with Don Mancini, the man best known for creating the Child's Play/Chucky horror franchise, and who has written all six films (and even directed two of them) in the series about the homicidal little doll.  According to him, the hardest part about writing a series of horror films is keeping the monster a mystery as much as possible as the sequels go on.  After all, the fans expect more of the creature, but if you show too much of it, it no longer becomes scary.  I thought back on those words while watching this movie, and wondered if screenwriters Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill struggled with this concept.

Sinister 2 gives us so much of its demonic villain, Bughuul, and a small Greek Chorus of ghostly children that it loses all sense of mystery and starts to become kind of goofy.  In the original Sinister from 2012, Bughuul mostly stayed in the shadows, or popped up in the occasional photograph or home movie.  Here, he's still lurking in the shadows, but he also lurks in broad daylight, in a motel room, in a computer, and even in a ham radio.  It feels a little like overkill.  What's worse is that even though he seems to have more screentime in this one, his effectiveness of being a creepy demon has lessened.  There are just way too many scenes where Bughuul just kind of stands there in the background, not really doing anything.  It starts to almost look like he doesn't realize the camera is rolling, and he's still waiting for the director to give him his cue. 

Bughuul is still corrupting the innocent, forcing children to murder their families and film the carnage on old 8mm home movies.  In the first movie, these short films were genuinely creepy and added to the suspense.  This time, again, it feels like overkill.  I understand that it is the norm in a horror sequel to go bigger with the death scenes than in the previous movie.  But some of these murders we witness become unintentionally hilarious, because they're so elaborate, you wonder how a kid could pull them off, even if they were under the control of a demonic entity.  In one of the "home movies", a kid ties up his family upside down over a lake, then seemingly unleashes an alligator into the water, who decapitates each family member with its huge jaws.  In still another, a kid seems to have learned his way around an electrical box so that he can electrocute his entire family who he has forced to stand in a pool of water.  Those evil children have now become ghostly followers of Bughuul, and basically stand around thinking they look a lot scarier than they are, and force other living children to watch their murderous acts on an old film projector in the basement.

On the human side of the plot, one of the survivors of the first movie, a nameless Deputy (James Ransome), has quit the police force and devoted his life to tracking Bughuul down and stopping further tragedies from happening.  In the original Sinister, this character served as a comic relief.  Now he's been upgraded to a take-charge hero/romantic lead, and it just doesn't work.  The character worked better when he was a sidekick.  His trail of the demon leads him to Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon), a mother who is on the run with her two young boys, Zach (Dartanian Sloan) and Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan), from her abusive and cartoonishly evil ex-husband (Lea Coco).  The mom and her two sons are currently hiding out in an abandoned farmhouse that just happens to come with its own abandoned church, where a mysterious and violent murder happened years ago.  No prizes for guessing if this spooky looking location is the current stomping ground for old Bughuul.

While Courtney and the former Deputy start to get close to each other in a romantic subplot that goes nowhere fast, little Dylan starts being visited late at night by the ghostly kids of Bughuul, who lead him downstairs to watch their snuff films about how they killed their families under the influence of the creature.  This is supposed to somehow convince Dylan to join them and kill his own family, I think.  In one of the film's stranger plot developments, Dylan's brother Zach learns about this and is actually jealous.  He wonders why the ghosts chose his brother and not him.  For a horror movie, Sinister 2 does at least seem to be saying something about abuse, and the psychological effects it can have on children.  But it never connects in a satisfying way.  We keep on watching those home movies that are more over the top than terrifying, and then we get an extremely silly climax that seems to be trying to combine your standard haunted house conclusion with Stephen King's Children of the Corn.

There's just not a single moment that's scary, believable or subtle here.  Everything is played to the rafters.  When the boys have dinner with their abusive dad, he bellows at them while smashing mashed potatoes in their faces.  Whenever somebody's in a dark and creepy hallway, you can bet that there will be jump scares accompanied by a loud sting on a soundtrack, or a false alarm.  And while I do think that the abused and shattered family could have created some genuine drama, it's just not dramatically satisfying.  It's going through the motions, instead of really allowing us to get close to these characters who are trapped in this horrible situation.  Having more real and fragile characters could have also made the movie more terrifying, or make us fearful for them.  But the scenes that are supposed to be scary are far too mild and tame. 

The original Sinister was not a great movie.  Heck, it made less sense the more you thought back on it.  But, at least it had some genuinely creepy moments and a strong atmosphere.  Both of these elements are gone from this sequel, so all we can focus on are the flaws.  This movie actually manages to make less sense than the first one, so maybe a better production would not have been able to help it.  But, it couldn't have hurt.

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Hitman: Agent 47

I honestly don't remember a thing about 2007's Hitman movie.  That's the problem when you see as many films as I do every year - you tend to forget a lot of them.  But, perhaps that's for the best, as I dug up my review of that one from back in the day, and I didn't exactly have many kind things to say about it.  Having seen Hitman: Agent 47, my only hope is that I'll be forgetting this one as well before too long.

Maybe fans of the video games these movies are based on will like it.  I don't know, as I've never played them, so I can't judge how faithful this film is.  All I can give you is the perspective of a viewer walking into the movie cold and with no real previous knowledge.  On that level, I found this thing relentlessly tired and kind of endless.  It's the kind of movie that oddly feels like it was made to be forgotten.  The action is redundant, with many of the martial arts and gun fights in the film looking exactly the same.  The plot does little to hold our interest, as it's comprised of off the shelf parts of other movies just like it.  There was no reason for this to be made, other than the studio thought they could make a quick buck over a slow summer weekend.

This is also one of those movies where the characters are dictated by the plot, rather than their personalities.  What do I mean?  Well, let's take a look at the female lead, Katia (Hannah Ware).  She's a young woman on the run from mysterious assailants who are either trying to capture or kill her (perhaps both).  She does have one advantage, as she's been born with the unique ability to see future events.  She can tell when someone is coming to get her seconds before they show up, so she can make her escape before the bad guys show up.  Useful, right?  And yet, her ability is inconsistent throughout the story.  Sometimes she has this ability, and other times, her attackers are able to get the drop on her without her being the wiser.  How does this work?  Are there limitations?  Do her powers only work during certain times of the day?  It's never explained, and I fear her powers work only when the screenplay deems it necessary.

One of the people pursuing her is the mysterious Agent 47 (Rupert Friend), a skilled assassin who was genetically engineered as a child to be the perfect killing machine.  He has never been caught and his identity remains a secret to the public, which is surprising considering you would think a guy with a bar code tattoo on the back of his bald head and that blazing red tie he wears around his neck all the time would at least get noticed just a little.  An evil organization is planning to start the "Agent Program" up again, creating more perfect killing machines, and old 47 doesn't want the competition, I guess.  He's trying to track down Katia, not only because her dad (who has gone missing) was responsible for the project, but that he thinks her powers hint that she may also be an Agent as well and doesn't know it.  There are lots of other people after her as well, chief amongst them being John Smith (Zachary Quinto), who cannot be killed by Agent 47's bullets because his body is filled with some kind of experimental substance that makes him almost invincible.

Hitman: Agent 47 almost seems embarrassed by itself, and does its best not to stand out in any way.  Not in its characters, not in the performances (which are routinely stiff and wooden), and not even in its visuals.  That's one thing you would expect an action movie based on a video game to get right.  The screenplay by Michael Finch and Skip Woods is largely inconsequential, with nothing registering or creating excitement in the audience.  We're simply watching these barely written characters race, shoot and karate chop their way through a plot that's barely there.  There is supposed to be tension in the relationship between Agent 47 and Katia, as she doesn't know if she can fully trust him, or if he will try to kill her when this is all over.  But, thanks to the completely passionless performances of the two leads, no tension or chemistry is created at any time.

I actually just now paused writing this review in order to look up some videos of the games that inspired the film.  Judging by what I have watched, the games seem much more suspenseful and better put together than anything that wound up on the screen here.  So, my guess is the fans won't enjoy this much, and this will be yet another movie I will quickly forget.  The sooner the better, I say.

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Saturday, August 15, 2015

Straight Outta Compton

Here is probably one of the most energized and entertaining movies I've seen this summer.  Straight Outta Compton contains not one single action sequence or special effect, yet it is leagues more exciting than most of the action movies we've had so far this season.  Those who dismiss this as your typical "behind the music" bio-picture are missing the point.  This is as raw and as alive as any movie I have seen this year.

The movie tracks the humble beginnings, rise, eventual break up and aftermath of one of the most influential gangsta rap artists, NWA, whose debut album (which shares the title of the film) not only helped legitimize rap music, but brought it into the forefront of controversy and media attention.  This is an eye-opening and ambitious dramatization which kicks off in 1986, when the founding members of the group were teens who dreamed of escaping their dreary lives, and the daily abuse and suspicion of the LAPD, which given some recent events, gives the film a sadly current tone, rather than the history lesson it should be.  The group forms when drug dealer Easy-E (Jason Mitchell) decides to form his own record label, and hires close friends Ice Cube (played by the rap artist's real-life son, O'Shea Jackson, Jr.), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), DJ Yella (Neil Brown, Jr.) and MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) to create their own group, and musically vent their frustrations about their lives and the daily prejudice they had to endure.

Their hope is to just become local heroes, and maybe sell a few albums which they produce themselves.  But then veteran music producer Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti) is drawn to their music and their angry yet vibrant live performances.  He is able to get them a professional recording contract with a small time record company whose only hit so far had been a California Raisins tie-in album that went Gold.  The album they produce not only helps to bring Gangsta Rap into the mainstream music industry, but it ignites a firestorm of controversy and even violent anger in some instances.  One of the more thrilling scenes in the film is built around a concert in Detroit, where they play a song that the local police forbid them to play, due to its inflammatory lyrics.  The ensuing riot at the concert and the public reaction to the events generates some wonderful drama that feels honest and real.  The fact that both Ice Cube and Dr. Dre served as producers on the film probably helps with the honest feel of the film.  Though there are a number of moments that do feel dramatized, the movie never feels overly whitewashed.

Straight Outta Compton really does not deviate too far from the music biography playbook, but the energy of the performances and the direction of F. Gary Gray keeps things from feeling overly familiar.  Shortly after the group finds national success, disputes between the members begins to grow.  Cube, and eventually Dre, break off from the group in order to take on solo careers when they feel that Jerry is not paying them what they deserve for the work they've done.  In another subplot, Dre goes on to form Death Row Records with bodyguard turned rapper Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor), who in this movie is portrayed as somewhat of an over the top villain.  Regardless, aside from some overly dramatized moments and some melodrama, the tone of the film feels real.  The lead characters are not flawless, make some big mistakes, and the movie shows this in quite a bit of detail.  Sure, some details are missing, but what is here has been handled with a kind of gritty realism we don't usually see in musical bio-pics.  This is not a rags to riches story, it is the story of these individual men, and the paths they took in life, and where they ultimately ended up.

This is a movie that feels like it has been well thought through in just about every area.  The casting is spot on, with many of the actors resembling the real faces of who they are playing.  The directing style is kinetic and energized, but never confusing or overly stylized.  Most of all, the movie just creates a wonderful sense of time and place.  As someone who remembers watching some of the events the film covers, such as the L.A. Riots of 1991, I was astonished by the level of detail, and how many of the events don't seem staged.  This is a movie that is truly alive.  Yes, it has been heavily dramatized, but the performances and the relationships that the cast creates sells every scene.  This is easily one of the best-cast movies I have seen so far this year.  Nothing feels forced, and the movie as a whole feels genuine.

There is so much to admire here that Straight Outta Compton begins to resemble a small cinematic miracle.  Even if it's not entirely perfect, it works to such a high degree that we forget everything and just enjoy.  This is not only one of the most exciting films to come along this year, but also possibly one of the best.

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Friday, August 14, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

You should not confuse this modern update of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with the other recent TV spy thriller brought to the big screen, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation.  This is a quieter and subtler film that almost seems to be targeting older audiences who used to watch the TV program, rather than the youth market.  And yet, co-writer and director Guy Ritchie (the two Sherlock Holmes films with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law) does manage to keep a fairly brisk pace, and even throws some good comedic moments in.  This is an entertaining, if not slight, film that works well enough as late summer entertainment.

The first thing that grabbed my attention while watching the film was the period settings and attention to detail.  The opening credits have a distinct 1960s vibe to them, and all of the settings, clothing and vehicles do a great job of putting the viewer into the right mindset of a Cold War spy story.  This isn't even a case of the filmmakers having fun or poking fun with the era and its fashions.  Ritchie directs the film as a straight period piece, and we are transported to the right mindset almost as soon as the opening credits appear on the screen.  In another wise move, Ritchie has decided to set his story before the events of the TV series, so fans can look forward to this not just being a big budget recreation of what they've already seen on TV.  There are even some references and Easter Eggs to look out for.  This is a movie that's been well thought out.

The film's two heroes, American secret agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and Russian KGB agent Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), start out on opposite sides of the war as the film opens.  Napoleon has been sent to East Berlin with the mission to smuggle out an auto mechanic named Gabby Teller (Alicia Vikander).  Gabby's father, whom she has not seen in years, is a famous rocket scientist who has gone missing, and is feared to be helping an evil organization build a nuclear warhead.  As Napoleon and Gabby attempt to flee to safety, they are tracked down and chased after by Illya in the film's first big setpiece which skillfully combines fast-paced action and humor.  This extended chase not only gets the film off to a rousing start, but assures us early on that the movie should be a fun ride.  Fortunately, it does not betray that promise.

After Gabby has been brought to safety, Napoleon learns from his superior (Jared Harris) that this nuclear warhead stands as a threat to both the U.S. and Russia, and so he now finds himself being partnered with his former pursuer.  Neither Napoleon or Illya take this news well, and Gabby is not exactly thrilled that she will have to pose as Illya's fiance while they are going undercover and trying the infiltrate the secret base of the mastermind behind the evil plot, a dangerous millionaire named Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki).  Illya and Gabby will have to blend into the wealthy world that Victoria inhabits in order to blend in, passing themselves off as an architect and his fiance vacationing in Rome.  Napoleon, meanwhile, uses his skills as a thief to try to gather information, get close to Victoria, and find the location of the warhead.

Even though The Man from U.N.C.L.E. features some impressive staged action sequences, they are not really the focus on the film.  Rather, it is the odd relationship that slowly forms between Napoleon, Illya and Gabby.  There is a lot of wit and edge to the three lead performances that I enjoyed.  Cavill is the dashing James Bond-type - suave and quick with a one liner.  Hammer more or less has to play a human tank, as Illya is the type who prefers to use brute force whenever necessary.  Their different approaches to a lot of the situations that they have to work together in provides much of the film's comedy.  The character of Gabby comes across as being a bit underwritten, but Alicia Vikander is a likable screen presence, and manages to stand out.  I also enjoyed the film's offbeat sense of humor, with two of my favorite moments being an interrogation scene involving a man obsessed with torture, and a rather odd but funny sequence where Napoleon takes a break from a high speed boat chase to have a bite to eat, and just watches the action from afar.

This is an oddly breezy and somewhat low key movie.  You would think a spy film, even one that doesn't take itself entirely seriously, would be almost wall-to-wall action.  And yet, it's the dialogue that stands out the most.  I'm thinking this is why the movie is being released so late in the summer.  While the ending does set things up for a sequel, the studio is probably playing it safe, which is most likely for the best.  While the movie is fast-paced and quite fun, it's not exactly a roller coaster action thriller, or an edge of your seat type thriller.  It's the sort of movie where you're certain to remember a clever line, rather than a special effect.  Will this hurt the film's chances?  I really don't think so.  As I said, the movie does seem to be targeting for a somewhat older audience than your usual summer blockbuster.

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is not a reboot, as it's set in the same time period as the original TV series.  It serves more as a tribute, and should sequels come, hopefully they follow the same successful formula as this.  The filmmakers obviously have great respect for the original program, and I hope it carries on.

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Sunday, August 09, 2015

Ricki and the Flash

Here is a movie where we can only look at the screen and wonder what went wrong?  Here is a movie that features the talents of Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline and six-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in its cast, Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs) in the director's chair, and Diablo Cody behind the screenplay.  All this talent has assembled behind Ricki and the Flash, and the only other question you have to ask besides what went wrong is why?

Ricki and the Flash is what happens when you assemble great talent, but nobody seems all that involved in the project.  Demme's direction is pedestrian, the screenplay is disjointed and padded, and the actors simply are not able to breathe life into their paper-thin characters.  Oh, the cast makes a valiant effort.  Streep does her own singing and even plays her own instruments as an aging rocker who is forced to face her family and her past.  And you can see potential in the movie in just about every scene.  But it never reaches the heights that you want it to.  It's dramatically inert, and it spends far too much time on the music, and not enough time on the characters.  We know that Streep can sing, and she sings wonderfully here too.  But in this case, her music grinds the story to a halt.  Every time we feel like we're getting close to these characters, the movie has her do an extended jam session that seems to stop the show (and not in a good way) and made me feel like I was watching an extended advertisement for the soundtrack album.

Streep plays Ricki Rendazzo, a woman who once dreamed of rock and roll fame, but in the present day is playing cover songs in a mostly empty bar.  She was married once and had a family.  Now all she has is a troubled relationship with one of her bandmates (former pop idol Rick Springfield) and a lousy day job working as a check out clerk in a supermarket.  She has so little money that she can't even afford her own hotel when she has to travel back home to be with her family.  Her trip home is inspired when her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls to tell her that their daughter, Julie (Streep's real-life daughter Mamie Gummer), has fallen into a deep depression after her husband left her for another woman.  When Ricki does return home, the situation is worse than she even thought, as it seems that Julie has attempted to kill herself recently, and basically looks like she hasn't cared about her appearance in weeks.

The drama is supposed to build around Ricki being reunited with her broken family.  Her former husband puts on a smile and a brave face, but seeing her again obviously hurts him.  And yet, there still seems to be some connection and love between them.  Her daughter Julie initially seems bitter at the very sight of her, and is still angry over how she left them to pursue her music dreams.  Ricki has two adult sons, neither of them seem to want anything to do with her.  One of them is planning to get married, but has not told her or is even planning to invite her to the wedding.  The other is completely standoffish with her because she never really accepted that he was gay in the past.  There's even Pete's current wife, Maureen (Audra McDonald), who has had to hold the family together ever since Ricki left.  This all sounds like more than enough human drama to build a story around, and yet Diablo Cody's screenplay treats all of this as mere speculation.  All of these relationships and problems are hinted at, but never truly addressed at any time.

Ricki and the Flash feels incomplete and underwritten, because these characters and their drama are never given the chance to truly be explored.  Problems and conflicts are constantly hinted at, but there is no resolution and no sense that the characters are honest or even genuine.  Everything is contrived and resolved too neatly, or not resolved at all.  About an hour into the movie, there is a very good scene where Ricki and Maureen confront each other and let a lot of things they've been holding in about each other for years out.  We expect for there to be some kind of follow up or resolution, but it never comes.  The two characters never really share the screen again until the very end, and even then, it's just to smile and wave at each other from across the room.  The scene that the two actresses have together is handled very well, but there needs to be a follow up.  Since we don't get one, the entire moment ends up feeling empty and unnecessary, and I don't think that should be the case.

Instead of actually exploring these characters and their personalities, the movie keeps on stopping itself so Streep can pick up a guitar and sing another classic rock song.  There actually seems to be a good chunk of the later half of the movie where the plot just drops out completely, and we just get one song after another for an extended period.  After this, the movie seems to be in a hurry to wrap itself up.  However, it doesn't even do that in a satisfying manner.  The family is reunited again and smiles at each other, but I kept on wondering, why are they happy again?  Nothing has really been resolved.  They share a few words together, but they're not the words they should be saying after everything that's happened.  Everything feels pat, tied up far too neatly, and okay when it really shouldn't be okay.  We haven't been through enough with these characters to earn the ending the movie wants to give us.

And oddly enough, despite all the screentime Streep gets in this movie, there's just so little that we know about Ricki.  We don't know who she really is, or even why she left her family.  We're just supposed to speculate.  We don't know why things went bad with her ex-husband, or even why they loved each other in the first place.  The movie seems to be trying to hint that there is still a connection between them, but we don't ever get to really see it.  As amazing of an actress as Streep is (and she is good here), she just can't create a character out of nothing, and that's precisely what the movie gives her.  Ricki more or less comes across as a blank slate who dresses in wild rocker clothes.  This leads us to wonder why the movie needed an actress of Streep's caliber to play her.  What drew her to this particular character?  Was there something in the script that got left out?

Ricki and the Flash is all the more disappointing because it's not really that bad of a movie.  You could see it working with a screenplay that was willing to truly explore these characters, or at least not plug them into an unconvincing dysfunctional family drama.  There's not a single moment that doesn't seem staged or contrived, and given the names that flash up on the screen during the opening credits, that's the last thing I was expecting.

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