Movie Review – LGBT Weekly Fri, 26 Aug 2016 19:08:34 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Meryl Streep makes bad look good Thu, 18 Aug 2016 19:57:06 +0000

Meryl Streep in Florence Foster Jenkins

Florence Foster Jenkins, who lived from 1868 to 1944, was an eccentric heiress who used her considerable financial resources to stage and promote her musical career. She needed to use her own money because, despite having as a child been somewhat of a piano-playing prodigy, she was a terrible singer, probably both tone and beat deaf (possibly because of advanced syphilis). With her common law husband St. Clair Bayfield as her manager, she self-produced and self-promoted small concerts for friends and acquaintances, most of whom thought her outrageous costumes and bizarre vocals were hilarious. But it seems she wasn’t in on the joke. She had no idea how bad she was until she had a sold-out show at Carnegie Hall in 1944 and legitimate critics came and savaged her. Devastated, she had a heart attack a week later and she died a month after that.

Stephen Frears’ charming, funny and moving biopic of Jenkins, written by Jenkins’ biographer Nicholas Martin, stars Meryl Streep as Florence, Hugh Grant as St. Clair and Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg as Cosmé McMoon, Florence’s accompanist. The film takes place during the last year of Florence’s life and condenses many events into a short period, all leading up to the Carnegie Hall performance. After seeing a particularly powerful performance by a famed soprano, Florence is inspired to sing again, after many years performing only tableau vivants and patronizing arts organizations. St. Clair helps her hire Cosmé and Carlo Edwards, a well-known vocal coach, to work with her. Cosmé is astonished by Florence’s lack of talent and St. Clair and Carlo’s dishonesty, but Florence is paying so well, he keeps playing for her. After rapturous applause following a small, private concert for her friend and glowing reviews paid for by St. Clair without her knowledge, Florence gains even more confidence. She makes a record and when St. Clair is out of town with his girlfriend (Rebecca Ferguson) – as he and Florence have an “understanding,” he says – Florence sends it to a radio host. The record is a hit and this leads to Carnegie Hall.

The film, as biopics do, simplifies a great deal. Florence is depicted as utterly clueless about her talent, or lack thereof, and St. Clair is carefully managing the world around her to protect her. While St. Clair clearly adores Florence, he is also profiting from her happiness, since he was never good enough an actor to have had a career leading to the lifestyle he led. In reality, St. Clair was a successful actor who worked constantly in supporting roles and was one of the founders of Actor’s Equity. And Florence seems to have been much more involved in protecting herself from critics, having written under pseudonyms some of the implausibly good reviews that appeared in the less reputable press. I think showing Florence as a slightly more cynical self-promoter would have made for a more interesting film, if a less sympathetic lead.

I’m sure the irony of the world’s greatest living actress playing a woman described (often) as “the world’s worst singer” was not lost on the producers of Florence Foster Jenkins. Streep is at her Streepiest in her unsubtle, mannered performance, and she’s delightful, not only when she’s singing badly and sporting ludicrous costumes, but particularly in her deeply sweet moments of doubt and vulnerability. Helberg’s broad comic performance provides the eye-popping double takes needed to signal the audience that we’re supposed to laugh. But the film’s hero is Hugh Grant, giving the best performance of his career as an oddly devoted husband in an impossibly weird marriage.

Florence Foster Jenkins

Directed by Stephen Frears

Written by Nicholas Martin

Starring Meryl Streep, Hugh Grant, and Simon Helberg

Rated PG-13

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Jason Bourne is back in spectacular style Thu, 04 Aug 2016 15:39:04 +0000

Matt Damon in Jason Bourne

Aside from making a great deal of money, there was no reason to make another Jason Bourne movie. After three of them – The Bourne Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum – the amnesiac assassin that the CIA tried to get rid of has regained his memories and gotten revenge. Plenty of people were killed, cars were destroyed, Matt Damon had earned cred for his gritty physicality and director Paul Greengrass went from British indies to the Hollywood A-list. There was an attempt at a reboot with Jeremy Renner that was a big meh, and then Damon and Greengrass announced they’d do another movie. Damon has claimed it was because they came up with a great story. This is hard to believe. The story is half-baked at best. But by golly the action is spectacular.

The film opens with Bourne living off the grid, making a living bare-knuckle fighting suckers in what appears to be a refugee camp in Greece. He’s not happy, looks terrible, but, hey, he’s free from being a pawn for the cynics running CIA black ops. Cut to Iceland where Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a former CIA agent who had helped Bourne in the previous films, enters a secret hacker safe house and manages to break into the CIA’s servers in about 22 seconds. Immediately and absurdly, everyone in the CIA knows this is happening, exactly who is doing it and the specific address where it’s being done – and then any semblance of reality vanishes when the CIA’s young cyber espionage chief Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) barks to her staff in Langley, Virginia, to turn off the power to the building in Iceland. And they do. Not since Sandra Bullock’s The Net have I seen a movie with so many technologically based plot points that were so ridiculous.

In no time (literally), the CIA manages to track Nicky – a former CIA agent and expert hacker who likely would have some knowledge how to avoid detection – to Athens where she’s meeting Bourne.

Apparently, she feels that Bourne needs to know what she found out during the hack, that his father was somehow involved in him becoming a brain-washed, cold-blooded killer. The CIA sends a team of assassins to capture or kill their rogue agents. The chase through Athens, which is embroiled in extreme rioting, is where we get what we want from Bourne and Greengrass: adrenalin-pumping action choreographed and shot with less beauty than in Mad Max: Fury Road but with just as much skill and as many thrills.

Without the outrageously great action sequences, which are thankfully many, the movie would be a ho-hum B-movie spy caper. Since there is so little characterization of Bourne beyond him being violent and pissed, we have very little reason to care about what his father might have done. Jason Bourne is a taciturn cypher, and this makes him somewhat of a waste for Damon’s skills. CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, phoning it in from another planet) is a bad guy, but we don’t know why. The searing Vincent Cassel is Dewey’s personal assassin and has some sort of reason to hate Bourne but it’s vague and such motivation seems unnecessary for a guy who will kill anyone for any reason. Vikander is one of the most exciting actresses working but her character, however intriguing, is a shadow of a sketch. Why she decides, on a whim, to go rogue and help Bourne happens without expectation. I guess we’re supposed to think, “Oh, it’s Jason Bourne. Of course the pretty lady will help him.”

Jason Bourne is fun and exciting, but it’s both unnecessary and dopey, which none of the previous Bourne films were.

Jason Bourne

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Written by Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse

Starring Matt Damon, Alicia Vikander and Tommy Lee Jones

Rated PG-13

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This show is as absolutely bonkers as it is fabulous Thu, 21 Jul 2016 16:09:10 +0000

Joanna Lumley and Jennifer Saunders in Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

In the pantheon of TV series not about gay men that gay men tend to be obsessed with, Absolutely Fabulous is bigger than Designing Women and on a par with The Golden Girls. Almost obscenely popular in the U.K. (with ratings comparable to Cheers at its high point), Ab Fab has more of a cult status in the United States, mostly because of gay men. Ribald, high-camp, and very British, the show is focused on the drunken, drugged and generally debauched antics of PR agent Edina Monsoon (Jennifer Saunders) and fashion editor Patsy Stone (Joanna Lumley). Despite her success, Edina has no self-confidence and relies heavily on her false bravado, theoretical knowledge of fashionable trends, Patsy’s friendship, her deceptively ding-a-ling assistant (Jane Horrocks) and her deeply disapproving daughter Saffron (Julia Sawalha). Patsy relies on drugs, liquor, her slowly fading beauty, and a list of sexual conquests so long it would make the promiscuous gay man blush – or cheer. The show is as absolutely bonkers as it is fabulous; several of its 41 episodes that aired from 1992 to 2012 are among the greatest half-hours of farce TV has seen.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, the feature film that picks up some time after the 2012 episodes, is not as good as any of those classic episodes like “Fashion,” “France,” and “Poor.” No one should expect that it would be. It is, however, an utterly entertaining, often very funny 90 minutes that will help you forget for a time the hideous, violent world of mass murder, global warming and Donald Trump. Well, murder may be a bit hard to forget about, since that’s key to the plot. Still, it’s not a gruesome murder and maybe not a murder at all.

The film opens with Edina discovering that she’s broke and her memoir, her hope for riches, is utterly uninteresting to book publishers. Her only PR clients are (as they have been for years) the ’60s pop singer Lulu, Emma Bunting (better known as Baby Spice), and a boutique vodka. She’s a has-been and dejected and her credit cards are “broken.” Meanwhile, Patsy, who works as an editor for a fashion magazine but relies on Edina to pay for everything, is planning a celebrity-studded party and discovers that the supermodel Kate Moss has fired her flack. Edina hatches a plan, involving her precocious 13-year-old granddaughter Lola, to sign Kate at the party. As things do in the world of Ab Fab, disaster strikes: Kate Moss falls off a balcony into the River Thames, disappears in the dark water, and Edina is blamed for pushing her.

As the world mourns in a perfect parody of celebrity death culture, Edina and Patsy hatch another disastrous plan and then abscond to the South of France in search of a rich husband for Patsy. Throughout the various antics, there are the trademark Ab Fab motifs of gauzy fantasy sequences, inebriated pseudo-philosophical dialogues, mincing queens, parades of hilariously hideous dresses, pratfalls, double-takes and jokes about Edina’s weight, Patsy’s insatiability and Saffron’s dumpiness.

Given 90 minutes, Jennifer Saunders wasn’t forced to be as taut with her screenplay as she had with the series episodes. While the scenes themselves are snappy, the plot meanders. Still, I laughed and loved seeing Saunders and Lumley, comedy geniuses of the highest order, return to these iconic roles. I had fun.

Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie

Directed by Mandie Fletcher

Written by Jennifer Saunders

Starring Jennifer Saunders, Joanna Lumley and Julia Sawalha

Rated R

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Ghostbusters Thu, 21 Jul 2016 16:06:37 +0000

Leslie Jones, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Kristen Wiig in Ghostbusters

also playing

In one of the worst examples of modern panicky emasculation, small-minded men who spend their lives complaining on the Internet had a collective meltdown when it was announced that Ghostbusters would be remade with women playing the roles originated in 1984 by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson. For some reason, they claimed that this new film – to star Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones and directed by Paul Feig – would somehow destroy their childhood memories and usher in some sort of feminist autocracy that would bring about mass castration and, eventually, the End Times. I had planned on buying tickets simply to irritate the cellar-dwelling Twitter trolls. And while the movie is not as great an experience as the original, it’s delightful, silly summer entertainment.

Wiig plays Erin Gilbert, who is about to earn tenure in the Department of Physics at Columbia University. When it’s discovered that she co-wrote a book on the paranormal with her old friend Abby Yates (McCarthy) but also actually believes in ghosts, she’s fired. She reluctantly joins Abby, her brilliant engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon), and eventually a streetwise New York subway worker named Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) to form the Ghostbusters and investigate the rising spectral activity in New York.

The plotting isn’t as interesting as the original, which involved spectacular supporting performances by Sigourney Weaver and Rick Moranis, and neither Wiig nor McCarthy shine in family friendly fare as much they do in their R-rated hits like Bridesmaids, Skeleton Twins and Spy. But McKinnon’s edgy, queer, utterly bizarre Holtzmann steals almost every one of her scenes, and Jones’s Patty, who is grounded, smart and infectiously cheerful, is the most fully realized character she’s ever played. Both the action and effects are well handled, even if many of the ghosts and scares are homages to the original film. What is different is that the new Ghostbusters is an action comedy about capable, tough women who are focused on their friendships and saving the day – not on men saving, loving or bettering them. A feminist summer blockbuster? More please.

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Hang on for the ride in this insanely surreal comedy-drama Thu, 07 Jul 2016 16:30:21 +0000

Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man

As we were walking into Swiss Army Man, I discovered that my friend Adam, who I’d brought to the movie, didn’t know anything about what we were about to see. I giggled, because I knew that the movie was about a guy stranded on a deserted island who befriends a farting corpse. Adam was going to be very surprised. Ten minutes into the film, he whispered, “What the hell? This is like Weekend at Bernie’s.” To which I responded, “Crossed with Castaway!” But the film is a lot more than being the bastard child of a low-rent ‘80s comedy about two men who cart around the dead body of their boss claiming he’s alive and a high-brow Tom Hanks drama about survival and the meaning of life. Yes, it’s as bizarre and puerile as Bernie’s and aspires to Castaway’s depth; Swiss Army Man uses the insanity of its premise to create a powerfully symbolic fever dream about the power of friendship to heal the wounds of a lifetime of loneliness.

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man

Paul Dano and Daniel Radcliffe in Swiss Army Man

The film opens with a disheveled, dejected Hank, played by a brilliantly sensitive Paul Dano, alone on a small island in the middle of the ocean, where he is setting up a ramshackle noose with which to hang himself. As he is getting the courage to commit suicide, he sees a man wash ashore. He almost kills himself rushing to the figure, who turns out to be both dead and played by Daniel Radcliffe (continuously ballsy in his post-Harry Potter choices). Depressed once again, Hank almost goes through with the hanging before he notices something odd about the corpse: it’s farting, and it’s farting a great deal. In fact, its farts are so powerful that they can propel the body like a jet ski. The opening credits roll as Hank rides the corpse across the waves and swells, screaming in joy. (This is when I looked over at Adam and saw his jaw drop.)

Hank wakes up on the shore of what looks like the mainland. He has become emotionally attached to his corpse, so he drags it behind him as he wanders through the garbage-strewn forest, searching for water and food and civilization – and the object of Hank’s affection, played mostly in flashback by Mary Elizabeth Winstead. One morning, desperately thirsty, he discovers that in addition to being a fart engine, the corpse is also a water pump – push his stomach and seemingly clean water spouts from his mouth. And then the corpse wakes up. Because at this point, why not? He can’t really move and can only barely talk and remembers nothing of being alive, but he takes the name Manny and joins Hank on his mission. As Hank teaches him about manners (like not farting in front of people) and women (which leads to Manny’s nearly magical erections), they become epically close friends.

Writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert were best known prior for their insane, ground-breaking, and now iconic video for Turn Down the What, which has been seen over 500 million times on YouTube. Swiss Army Man is their first narrative feature, and it takes their bonkers and quite original aesthetic and wraps it around a somewhat traditional buddy comedy. In some ways, the script, which is often as sweet as it is ribald, goes to expected places, and then it veers into places where I was shocked to arrive. I was moved but I was also disappointed when the Daniels’ (as they’re known) didn’t fully embrace the queerness that they worked hard to set up. I think most viewers who sat through the whole film will cheer the ending, but I was left a little dejected by the Daniels’ embrace of traditional heterosexism in a film as deliriously iconoclastic as Swiss Army Man.

Swiss Army Man

Written and Directed by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

Starring Paul Dano, Daniel Radcliffe and Mary Elizabeth Winstead

Rated R

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‘Tickled’ is no laughing matter Thu, 23 Jun 2016 21:34:15 +0000

David Starr and David Farrier in Tickled

Whether you admit it or not, whether you did it deliberately, you’ve watched some odd sexual stuff on the Internet. Because as the song goes, “The Internet is for porn.” Some fetish videos aren’t surprising, whether it’s feet or leather or women’s panties. But some are, or at least they’re surprising to most people. When David Farrier, a journalist in New Zealand, saw a video of “competitive tickling,” in which strapping young men were held or strapped down and mercilessly tickled by other strapping young men, he thought, well, that’s a story! It was rather funny and odd and perfect for his brand of journalism, which focused on quirky pop culture. But when he sent inquiries to the company, known as Jane O’Brien Media, he received not a polite refusal, but a homophobic screed personally attacking Farrier, who is gay, and threatening lawsuits if he continues with any sort of story. Being the good journalist he is, Farrier was now more interested and more determined, because clearly these tickling videos weren’t just a wacky lark but the project of a weird and somewhat disturbed individual or set of individuals. So, Farrier and his friend Dylan Reeve decided to make a documentary.

The tagline for the film is “It’s not what you think.” This is pretty accurate, because when you hear that the film is about online tickling videos, you might raise an eyebrow and giggle, but that whimsy lasts all of five minutes in the film. Because the threats from Jane O’Brien Media are so creepy, and the story that follows – which include stories of extreme harassment, destroyed lives, criminal fraud, psychopathologies and a creepy-as-hell villain – isn’t funny except in the few moments when people are being tickled and actually seem to enjoy it. Other times, they’re not enjoying it at all, and you realize the tickle videos are actually videos of sadomasochism and torture.

Tickled is structured as a narrative of Farrier and Reeve’s investigation into the videos, Jane O’Brien, the videos’ down-on-their luck actors, the seedy world of fetish videos and the unhinged person who is actually Jane O’Brien. Reminiscent of Nick Broom’s gonzo documentaries Kurt and Courtney and Biggie and Tupac,Tickled feels like it’s just the result of what happened when Farrier and Reeve found a weird topic and bought some cameras. But like Broom’s movies, Tickled is carefully constructed to seem much less professional than it is. The film is built as a thriller and edited – rather strategically – to make sure the villain is villainous and everyone around him either a victim, a lackey or an innocent bystander. I don’t think the various people involved are as naïve or innocent as depicted. But after seeing the film and reading some of the mountains of press about the film, I have been quite convinced the bad guy is pretty bad. He’s been showing up at screenings and bizarrely confronting the filmmakers, stating that Reeve should fear for his children, that both he and Farrier will go to jail. (Unlikely.)

This all makes for good press, but for me, it begs a few questions. Why is the villain so villainous? Why is he so focused on tickling? How is he getting away with it? These questions are asked but never really answered in a satisfying way. The psychological insight into the villain is brief and seemingly tacked on, while the insight into the popularity of tickling videos doesn’t exist. The bait-and-switch of turning a film about tickling into a psychological thriller does create an entertaining experience, but it also left me wondering about the tickling. I mean, that’s pretty weird.


Written and directed by David Farrier and Dylan Reeve

Featuring David Farrier, Richard Ivey and David Starr

Rated R

Opens July 1 at Landmark Ken

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A quite disturbing dystopian satire Thu, 09 Jun 2016 15:42:12 +0000

John C. Reilly, Colin Farrell and Ben Whishaw in The Lobster

The ads running for The Lobster have been using quotes from reviews describing the film as “hilariously frightening” and “wickedly funny” between quickly edited scenes, giving you the feeling that it’s a bit slapstick. I hate this kind of bait and switch sort of marketing. The movie is much, much more disturbing than it is funny, and often it’s funny simply because it’s so creepy and disturbing; nervous laughter is almost a gut reaction. I expected a wacky romp, but after the screen faded following the final, devastating scene of the film – maybe the most disturbing final scene of a film I have seen in a long time – I just sighed and said, “Well, that was f—ked up.” But just because its marketing is a lie doesn’t mean the movie isn’t a work of art, a haunting, unsettling, gorgeously filmed dystopian satire.

Colin Farrell is David, a schlubby man whose wife of 12 years has just died. In his world, you cannot be single. He arrives at a resort – where he is de facto imprisoned – and given two months to fall in love and partner up or be turned into an animal. He arrives with a dog, who we discover is his brother who failed to find a wife a couple of years before. The hotel’s manager (Olivia Colman) asks him what animal he’d like to become. “A lobster,” he says. “Why a lobster,” she asks. “Because lobsters live for over one hundred years, are blue-blooded like aristocrats, and stay fertile all their lives. I also like the sea very much.” She approves:

“I must congratulate you. The first thing most people think of is a dog, which is why the world is full of dogs. Very few people choose an unusual animal which is why they’re endangered. A lobster is an excellent choice.”

David is sad, mostly passive, and quietly desperate; a lisping man (John C. Reilly) is dopily uncritical of his situation; a limping man (Ben Whishaw) is as cynical and dishonest as a mercenary; the beautiful woman (Angeliki Papoulia) they’re all initially intrigued with is a heartless sociopath. They eat in banquet halls, play tennis, golf, go swimming, and hunt down “loners” in the woods, shooting them with tranquilizer darts. As time goes on, people fail – becoming ponies, camels, peacocks – and those in danger of failing get more anxious and begin looking for the flimsiest reasons to fall in love, or pretend to.

After David’s attempt at surviving as a human ends in spectacular, horrid disaster, he runs into the forest and joins the loners. While they are free from the confines of their repressive society, they aren’t any nicer. You must be alone, or else. Flirting is punished with torture. One of the loners is played by Rachel Weisz, and she is one of the few characters in the film with some love for the world, an easy smile, and hope. David is smitten. But the loners’ leader, who Léa Seydoux plays with seething evil, is keen to enforce the rules.

Yorgos Lanthimos’ film is shot with clear inspirations from Stanley Kubrick, using perspective, symmetries, and slowed movement to create a stark visual poetry perfect for the film’s themes. His and Efthymis Filippou’s screenplay, which is wholly original, terrifying, and yet romantic, never goes where you’d expect. I’m sure this made marketing difficult, since it made viewing difficult. But I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it though. The scathing critique of the social pressure to pair up, of the conflicting selfish desires to cave in and to run away, got under my skin. Because I’m single. It’s not very funny.

The Lobster

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Written by Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou

Starring Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, and Léa Seydoux

Rated R

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X-Men go from best to worst Thu, 26 May 2016 19:26:43 +0000
Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sophie Turner, and Tye Sheridan in X-Men: Apocalypse

Kodi Smit-McPhee, Sophie Turner, and Tye Sheridan in X-Men: Apocalypse

Bryan Singer directed the first two movies based on Marvel Comics’ mutant superhero team the X-Men. Brett Ratner directed the third film, The Last Stand, which is loathed by fans and critics alike. The franchise was then rebooted with Matthew Vaughn’s First Class, and Bryan Singer returned for the second film in this cycle, Days of Future Past, arguably the best of all of the X-Men movies. And now there’s X-Men: Apocalypse, which opens May 27. About a third of the way through Apocalypse, which takes place in 1983, Jean Gray (Sophie Turner), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Jubilee (Lana Condor) are walking out of Return of the Jedi when they start discussing whether it was better or worse than The Empire Strikes Back. Jean Gray eventually says, “At least we can all agree the third one is always the worst.”

I saw Apocalypse on the Fox Studios lot with a few hundred members of the press and various Fox employees, and there was an audible gasp before the nervous laughter. Maybe Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg don’t see Apocalypse as the third film after the reboot, though it is. Either way, they were begging the question. Apocalypse is easily the worst of the second trilogy and is debatably worse than The Last Stand. Singer and Kinberg’s hubris is galling in light of the ugly nonsense of the film’s plot, themes and production design.

The film begins 10 years after the end of Days of Future Past. Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has become a folk hero to young, rebellious mutants everywhere. Professor Xavier (James McAvoy) has become the head of a school for teenage mutants, who include Jean Gray and Cyclops. Mystique shows up with Nightcrawler and tells Xavier that Magneto (Michael Fassbender), who had gone into hiding, had resurfaced. He had been living in rural Poland, had married and had a daughter, and he was an iron worker who no one knew was the Master of Magnetism. But the locals figured it out and during his arrest they accidentally kill Magneto’s wife and daughter. So Magneto slaughters all of the police officers and sets off to kill some more people.

Magneto is not actually the worst of the world’s problems. From the ruins of a collapsed pyramid, a godlike mutant named Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac) has emerged after a 4,000 year slumber, and he’s pissed. The world he once ruled is now a mess: the late Cold War, TV, rock music and nuclear weapons. He recruits his Four Horsemen to help him destroy the current human race so that he and mutants can rebuild and rule. His horsemen are an angry, grieving Magneto, weather controlling Storm (Alexandra Shipp), winged drunk Angel (Ben Hardy), and psychic knife wielding Psylocke (Olivia Mum). Aside from Magneto, it’s not explained why the others might want to end human civilization, but Apocalypse doesn’t have much of a motivation either. Other than being evil.

The good guys are clearer in their goals: save each other’s’ lives and save the world. How they do this with the interference of the U.S. government is a bit complicated, but after plot twists and some utterly implausible, even for superhero movies, events, the characters all end up in Egypt for a final, boring, incoherent battle between good and evil. Most of the action involves standing and posing or looking grim, and the results are predictable. What isn’t predictable is how the good guys forgive the surviving bad guys’ murder of several hundred thousand people.

I can’t forgive a number of things. The costumes and makeup, from Jean Gray’s hideous aquamarine shoulder padded blazer to Angel’s dreadful mullet, seem to be conceived for a parody of a ‘80s teen comedy. Apocalypse’s purple and gold armor makes him look a bit like Skeletor as dressed by Liberace. As it has been since First Class, Mystique’s red wig and blue skin are horribly done. The various sets, from Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to Apocalypse’s gilded ancient kingdom to the rubble where the final battle takes place, are blandly undetailed.

It’s possible that Singer just wasn’t paying attention to what his staff was doing, though looking at the other work of the production and costume designers, only on X-Men does it look so bad. Singer also doesn’t seem to have been directing much of the action. So confusing and weird, the third act doesn’t seem to have been directed at all, let alone by the same guy who presided over X-Men United and The Usual Suspects. The action is impossible to track, and the actual shots are horribly composed. But considering how many characters were being thrown around, how weak their characterizations were, and how strangely unlike their comic versions they were, badly directed action sequences aren’t the worst thing about the film. That would be Singer and Kinberg noticing how much of a mess Apocalypse is.

X-Men: Apocalypse

Directed by Bryan Singer

Written by Simon Kinberg

Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence

Rated PG-13

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This illusion of paradise has a dark side Thu, 12 May 2016 19:18:21 +0000

Matthias Schoenaerts, Tilda Swinton, Dakota Johnson and Ralph Fiennes in A Bigger Splash

In one of the first scenes of Luca Guadagnino’s fantastic A Bigger Splash, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) and her lover Paul de Smedt (Matthias Schoenaerts) are relaxing on the rocky, sun-bleached beach of an Italian island in the Mediterranean. It seems idyllic; they’re beautiful, clearly in love, and the setting reeks of wealth. But then you notice that the sun is too bright, the blue sky not quite beautiful and there are flies buzzing everywhere, like they might over rotting garbage. A cell phone rings and Paul answers because Marianne can’t. She cannot speak because, we find out later, she’s on vocal rest after throat surgery. The caller is Marianne’s ex Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) and he speaks rapidly, almost maniacally, and is calling from an airplane, announcing he’s coming to visit them. A jet roars over Marianne and Paul: Harry’s already here.

If anything is foreshadowing how badly the visit will go it’s those flies. Paradise is festering. And paradise isn’t just the island in the Mediterranean, but Marianne and Paul, too. When Harry comes through the gate at the airport, he’s almost terrifying in his enthusiasm and his inappropriate familiarity with Marianne. The contrast between him and the lithe and silent Marianne and the laconic, measured, clearly un-thrilled Paul is stark.

Added to this weird trinity is the young, gorgeous Penelope (Dakota Johnson), who is introduced as Harry’s daughter, one he didn’t know he had until the past year. Immediately, we can tell Penelope’s a problem. She’s petulant, precocious and manipulative as she flirts with both Paul and, creepily, Harry. Whether she’s more of a danger than her father is unclear, but she’s clearly up to something. By the end of the film’s first act, the mostly unspoken tensions – romantic, aesthetic, historic – between these four past, present and future hedonists has become unnerving. And thrilling.

Having Swinton silent for most of the movie, with her only words coming as whispers, is just one of the ways that Guadagnino keeps the viewers off-kilter. Marianne cannot respond to Harry’s rapid-fire declarations (of opinion, love, lust), and she cannot properly state her desires. Harry talks too much, Marianne too little, while Paul and Penelope seem to be saying things that don’t appear to be honest, either emotionally or factually.

Fiennes, in one of the greatest performances of his career, is as explosive, in both hilarious and sinister ways, as Swinton is restrained. This is fascinating, as she usually gives the boldest performance in her movies. Her subtlety is, oddly, spectacular. Schoenaerts oozes sex and sadness. For the film to work, we need to fall in love with him, and it worked for me. As for Johnson, at first she seems to be doing a Lolita impression as Penelope. After all is revealed, the impression is impressive, not faulty.

All of this happens surrounded by beautiful landscapes, lush dinners, servants, quaint island traditions and fans idolizing Marianne. This makes the movie feel a bit like privilege porn – until we notice the flies are everywhere. Food is rotting. People are in poverty. In the background, migrants are being rescued from sinking ships and housed in fenced camps. They’re being used as scapegoats in the press and then by the film’s characters. Wealth and privilege make Harry, Marianne, Paul and Penelope seem sexy. Wealth and privilege are also what are savagely critiqued by the film’s deeply cynical ending.


A Bigger Splash

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Written by Dave Kajganich

Starring Tilda Swinton, Matthias Schoenaerts, and Ralph Fiennes

Rated R

Opens May 20 at Landmark Hillcrest

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Finally, a truly comprehensive film on Robert Mapplethorpe Thu, 28 Apr 2016 18:27:02 +0000

Robert Mapplethorpe

In April of 1990, the Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center opened its doors to Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment, a retrospective of the famed photographer who just recently died from AIDS. I was 15 and had grown up in the Queen City, as it was called, and Dennis Barrie, the director of the CAC, and his family lived across the street. I babysat the kids, and my parents were close with the Barries. I had seen photocopies of the pictures in the exhibit at dinner one night. I grew up in a very liberal home, but these raised my eyebrows, partly because I knew I was gay and partly because some of the grainy, poorly reproduced pictures on the Barries’ dining room table depicted the kind of gay that scared me as a closeted teenager in the conservative Midwest at the height of AIDS.

When the exhibit was supposed to be shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., early that year, conservative Christians raised such a ruckus that the show was cancelled. Mapplethorpe was most famous to the general public for his iconic photographs of flowers and his sublimely printed portraits of celebrities. But he also took numerous pictures that some would call erotica and others would call pornography and Sen. Jesse Helms would call “morally reprehensible trash.” They included some relatively tame (by current standards) images of men showing affection while naked as well as some very explicit images of fisting, sounding and other sadomasochistic acts. Despite the content, the images are perfectly lit and composed, but people like Helms didn’t care (and probably didn’t understand). It’s obvious how vile they were: “Look at the pictures!” he said on the Senate floor railing against the National Endowment for the Arts for giving grants to him and other objectionable artists like Andres Serrano.

Look at the Pictures is the subtitle of Fenton Bailey’s and Randy Barbato’s nearly perfect documentary about Mapplethorpe that is available at HBOGO and premiered last month. Its release coincides with a massive retrospective of his work showing at both the Getty and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I was honestly shocked that such a film hadn’t already been made, considering how iconic Mapplethorpe was as an artist, a celebrity and a lightning rod. It was worth waiting for Bailey and Barbato, who also made Party Monster, The Eyes of Tammy Fay and Inside Deep Throat.

Mapplethorpe’s aged mother, his sister and his younger brother give extensive, insightful and not always flattering interviews about the artist’s almost pathological ambition, his perfectionism and hunger for fame. Interviews with some of his most famous models – from Ken Moody and Robert Sherman to Brooke Shields – describe his studio methods and idiosyncrasies. Various members of the 1970s and 1980s New York avant garde – from Debbie Harry to Fran Lebowitz – talk about his extensive, often strategic socializing. (Oddly, Patti Smith, who was Mapplethorpe’s best friend and lover in the early 1970s, is nowhere to be seen; a producer said that she “didn’t make that impossible” to be included.)

Bailey and Barbato’s access to interviewees and to Mapplethorpe’s entire archive (now housed at the Getty Center in Los Angeles) allowed them to make a truly comprehensive film, but their skill as interviewers, editors and historians is what makes Look at the Pictures not just deeply informative but also entertaining and moving. Despite Mapplethorpe’s careerism and narcissism, he was an immensely sensitive artist who pulled out incredible emotion from perfectly sculpted lights, darks, bodies and shapes. His photos of flowers were as sublime as his arguably most famous photo, that of a massive uncut black penis hanging out of a polyester suit.

I was particularly fascinated by that image as a teenager, more than all of the images I was also fascinated with. The photos awakened a great deal inside me, artistically, intellectually and sexually. I wrote a letter to the Cincinnati Enquirer arguing in favor of the exhibit after Dennis Barrie was indicted on obscenity charges for bringing the show to the city. I received seven death threats, including one that said “Drop dead! Go to hell! The devil could use you to shovel shit!” Barrie was acquitted. I became a writer, a critic and an AIDS researcher.

Robert Mapplethorpe: Look at the Pictures

Directed by Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato

Featuring Robert Mapplethorpe, Fran Lebowitz and Debbie Harry

On HBOGO (free month trial available at

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‘Batman v Superman’ will make fans eager for the next chapter Thu, 31 Mar 2016 17:50:38 +0000

Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Henry Cavill in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

I was unable to see the mega-hyped, mega-budget Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice before other critics ran their reviews. And because many of the reviewers were so dismissive or so hyperbolic in their criticism, the news of the film’s opening was overshadowed by the blood sport of Internet overkill. The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern called it “underdeveloped, overlong and stupendously dispiriting” and NPR’s Chris Klimek described the film as “a ponderous, smothering, over-pixelated zeppelin crash of a movie scored by a choir that sounds like it’s being drowned in lava.” A meme of Ben Affleck’s dejected facial expression in response to hearing about the reviews was shared by millions of people who weirdly find glee in the sadness of others. I found it impossible to avoid knowing that a lot of people thought the movie was terrible. But when I did see it, I was perplexed. While BvS is certainly not a masterpiece of the genre – neither as morally complex and smart as The Dark Knight nor as fun and thrilling as The Avengers – it is hardly a “zeppelin crash.” It’s pretentious and bombastic and it rewrites the central ethos of its main characters in ways that are disconcerting for some longtime fans. But it’s not an ineptly made film.

The main action of BvS takes place two years after the end of 2013’s Man of Steel, which was Warner Bros. and director Zack Snyder’s reboot of Superman and the creation of an interlinked DC Comics Universe. Man of Steel wasn’t terribly made either, but it had a huge and creepy problem: This new Superman (Henry Cavill) was not the ethically flawless hero portrayed in the older Christopher Reeves films and much of the character’s comic book history. He was tortured by darkness and doubt, and in his ultimate fight with General Zod, not only does he allow thousands of people to die in Metropolis during their sloppy slugfest, but he breaks Zod’s neck. Superman has never killed and never would have allowed innocents to die. It was a strange thing for Snyder to do.

But when the major plot points of BvS were announced, it started to make a little more sense. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), the Batman of Gotham City, loathes and fears Superman for just the reasons the end of Man of Steel was so disturbing. Superman is a dangerous killer, the man responsible for the deaths of many of Wayne Enterprise’s employees, and Bruce wants him destroyed. He says to his butler Alfred (Jeremy Irons): “He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a 1 percent chance that he’s our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty … And we have to destroy him.” This is the same bizarre justification Dick Cheney used to wage endless war in the Middle East. Yes, there’s some consistency to the plot now. But now Snyder has not only made Superman a killer, but Batman, too. In addition to planning the murder of Superman – through a rather convoluted espionage involving the kryptonite obtained by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) – Batman kills countless random bad guys during the movie. Batman doesn’t kill. Well, he does now.

Will Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) kill, too? She doesn’t in BvS, but who knows if she will in her solo film, due next year. She is the most exciting thing in this movie, partly because Gadot seems to be having fun; the weight of the world is not on Wonder Woman, as it is on both Batman, determined to save the world, and Superman, who is unsure he is a hero, a savior or an accident.

All of the other characters, played by various A-list actors picking up paychecks (Amy Adams as Lois Lane, Laurence Fishburne as Perry White, Diane Lane as Superman’s mother, Holly Hunter as a senator, and Scoot McNairy as one of the victims of the Superman-Zod battle), brood about and make various speeches about power, cynicism, heroism, good and evil. Some of these are great, some are less so, and, contrary to some of the critics, they do make sense. There are plot holes clearly created by editing a longer movie down to two and half hours, and there is one terrible, weirdly Oedipal pivotal scene that I’ll never forgive writers Chris Terrio and David Goyer for. But the film, in its lumbering, overstuffed, self-important way, does what it sets out to do: It creates a complex fictional universe by uniting its three greatest heroes, all of whom are played by actors doing great work. They have some great battles, say some good lines, and made a lot of fans eager for the next chapter.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Directed by Zack Snyder

Written by Chris Terrio and David Goyer

Starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill and Amy Adams

Rated PG-13

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Sally Field is brilliant in ‘Doris’ Thu, 17 Mar 2016 21:41:00 +0000

Isabella Acres and Sally Field in Hello, My Name Is Doris

At various times in my life, I’ve frequented nightclubs: loud music, overpriced drinks, spinning lights, smoke machines and usually young people dancing in outfits chosen to attract the gaze and attention of other, hopefully very attractive dancers. Occasionally, people would stick out. A guy who arrived in loafers and Dockers, a bachelorette dancing in a white veil and an older person in what someone might call “age-inappropriate clothing.” There’d be that one woman over 60 in a miniskirt, a glittery wig, chunky earrings and an original Sex Pistols concert T-shirt. I always loved this woman, not just because it takes a lot of guts to go dancing in a club full of kids younger than her children (if she had any), but also because I knew she had a story, a good story. Hello, My Name is Doris is one such story. Starring a brilliant Sally Field and co-written and directed by Wet Hot American Summer’s Michael Showalter, the delightful Doris is both heartfelt and cringeworthy.

Doris spent her adult life taking care of her fragile mother in their big house on Staten Island. When her mother finally dies, Doris is in her mid-60s and left without purpose or direction. She has her horded stacks of flotsam and her rote, her romance novels, a dull job doing data entry for a vaguely hip apparel company in Manhattan and her friendship with bombastic, widowed Roz (a fantastic Tyne Daly). Then one morning, she’s pressed up against a handsome, charming young man in an elevator; she’s titillated, but when this John (Max Greenfield) turns out to be the new creative director at her company, she becomes infatuated. Without any self-confidence and twice his age (at least), she keeps her obsession to herself until a self-help guru (Peter Gallagher), using such dopey clichés as “Impossible is just I’m possible!” convinces her to go realize her dreams.

She starts making excuses to spend time with John, some farcical and others much more stalkerish. After friending John with a fake profile on Facebook, she discovers his favorite band is an electronica group called Baby Goya and the Nuclear Winter (fronted by fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff). With the help of Roz’s granddaughter, Doris puts together a garish, outrageous outfit to wear to a Baby Goya show. John sees her there and they become fast, great friends while Doris’ guileless and original style makes her a hipster mascot, even appearing on the cover of a Baby Goya album. As Doris takes increasingly desperate measures to maneuver herself into John’s heart, her brother (Stephen Root) and wretched sister-in-law (Wendi McLendon-Covey) are trying to get her to de-horde and sell her house. Eventually, everything comes to a climax, and I wish the resolution had been a bit more daring and original.

While the third act plotting is uninspired, Sally Field’s portrayal of Doris is the opposite. Field can be hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time, and Doris’ obsession with John made me flinch in embarrassment while also guffawing, while also increasing my sympathy. Field’s performance is full of silly physical gags and subtle emotional realism, and despite being an awkward, hording cat lady, Doris’ process of self-realization – brave and sorrowful and surprising – is inspiring. Writers Showalter and Laura Terruso earn good, broad comedy from hipster satire and Doris’ seemingly hopeless pining, but the film is more resonant and deep than they could have hoped for or intended because of Field’s performance.

Hello, My Name is Doris

Directed by Michael Showalter

Written by Laura Terruso and Michael Showalter

Starring Sally Field, Max Greenfield and Tyne Daly

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This sequel is just a reminder of a much better movie Thu, 03 Mar 2016 22:43:51 +0000

Donnie Yen in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is one of those movies that everyone likes. The seamless blend of ground-breaking martial arts action, two epic love stories, feminist character arcs, high art visuals, gorgeous music and the great director Ang Lee made the film beloved of everyone from teenage action fans to cineastes, men and women, boys and girls. More than once, I was told seeing it was like seeing Star Wars for the first time – revelatory. Even though the film is based on the fourth novel of The Crane-Iron pentology by Du Lu Wang, no one seriously suggested that Ang Lee make the prequels or a sequel. But the Weinstein Company is never one not to see branded opportunity, and 15 years later they decided to make a film based on the fifth of Wang’s books, Iron Knight, Silver Vase, and release it on Netflix and in theaters simultaneously. (Most theaters balked.) Despite hiring Woo-Ping Yuen to direct and convincing Michelle Yeoh to reprise her iconic role as Shu Lien, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny is forgettable, mostly pleasing as a reminder of a much, much better movie.

Sword of Destiny takes place 18 years after the first film, and its plot is just as complex. Shu Lien is travelling to Peking to attend the funeral of Sir Te, who had been keeping safe the Green Destiny, the sword at the center of the previous film. It had been owned by Mu Bai, who had died at the end of the first movie and who Shu Lien had been in love with; they could not be together because of Shu Lien’s arranged marriage by Meng Sizhao. The night that Shu Lien arrives in Peking, Wei Feng (Harry Shum Jr. from Glee), a young man sent by the evil warlord Hades Dai (Jason Scott Lee) of the White Lotus, tries to steal the sword. He is stopped by Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), who has a long-ago connection to Wei Feng. Shu Lien agrees to train Snow Vase and sends out notice to the countryside that warriors who follow the Iron Way are needed. Meng Sizhao, long thought dead, forms a small troop and comes to Peking, where Shu Lien is flabbergasted by her former fiancé’s return. Assassins arrive, witches cast spells and increasingly epic battles are waged before Iron Way warriors confront Hades Dai and the White Lotus.

The major themes from the first film are revisited in Sword of Destiny: the powerful bond of the student and teacher and how honor intensifies the problem of love. But where in the original film these were carefully and beautifully examined by Ang Lee through nearly swoon-worthy acting by Yeoh, Chow Yun Fat, Zhang Ziyi and Chang Chen, there’s nothing as heartfelt or moving in Sword of Destiny. John Fusco’s dialogue strains to be profound and grand, but it sounds cheesy and false, particularly since it’s spoken in different English accents, when it should be in Mandarin Chinese, as the film takes place in China around 1800.

Woo-Ping Yuen’s skills lie in his fight choreography. The battles in Sword of Destiny are fantastic, beautifully acrobatic and balletic. But since they rely on the revolutionary style of the first film, the fights are not shocking, even if some are thrilling. The film’s beauty is obvious, but that is not enough to match Ang Lee’s 2000 masterpiece.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

Written by John Fusco

Starring Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen and Harry Shum Jr.

Rated PG-13

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A superhero story like no other Thu, 18 Feb 2016 21:12:35 +0000

Ryan Reynolds and Brianna Hildebrand in Deadpool

One of the problems with the takeover of popular culture by Marvel and DC superheroes is how seriously the stories take themselves, how easy the morality is and how family-friendly everything is. Monster-budget films like The Avengers and the upcoming Batman vs Superman, or network dramas like The Flash and Agents of SHIELD, aim to reach the broadest audience possible, which means no swearing, little irony and barely a hint of sex. (The Netflix shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones are the exception, as they are niche shows.) Then there’s Deadpool, the raunchy, hyper and hilariously violent, anti-hero’s tale that exploded a dozen box office records last week. Based on one of the edgiest characters in the Marvel X-Men universe, the film both panders to the basest sensibilities of the young men who make up the lion’s share of comic book fans and mercilessly mocks superhero story conventions.

The film begins with the wise-cracking, red-hooded super soldier laying waste to heavily armed bad guys on a highway overpass. The first two acts use this sequence to set up flashbacks explaining how Deadpool got to this moment. A few years before, Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a very handsome and freakishly competent mercenary, goes around shooting and socking random jerks, for or not for payment. He has a truer moral compass than he claims, repeatedly saying he’s not a hero. One day, he meets a similarly witty and confident regular at his local bar for ne’er-do-wells, a prostitute named Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). A few minutes after they get engaged, he discovers he has advanced cancer (a weird tone shift for the film that until then is pretty light, even in its violence).

Shortly thereafter, a mysterious man in a suit (Hugh Scott) tells Wade his organization can cure and make him superhuman. At first Wade refuses, but then, out of guilt for possibly leaving Vanessa alone, he agrees and sneaks off in the middle of night. It turns out that this organization actually creates mutant slaves for especially evil criminals, and its chief scientist Ajax (Ed Skrein), a sociopath without the ability to feel pain, delights in torturing his patients. Ajax says it’s the only way to activate their latent powers. Eventually, Wade’s powers are activated, and he escapes. But while these powers give him the ability to heal from anything – he can even grow back an amputated hand – they rather horribly disfigure his skin and face: “Whatever they did to me made me totally indestructible… and completely unf@#*able.” Thinking that Vanessa will never want to see him again, Wade dons the moniker Deadpool and lays waste to the underworld looking for Ajax in order to force him to fix what he’s done.

Throughout the film, Wade makes filthy, twisted and obscure jokes; they happen so quickly and so often, I’m looking forward to the DVD so I can catch them all. Very few of them are printable, and I wouldn’t want to ruin the fun of you hearing them fresh. Wade also repeatedly breaks the fourth wall, commenting on the film’s plot directly to the audience, who no one else in the film understands is watching. This works better in the comics, where no characters in the Marvel Universe do this, but it still sets up good jokes and brings the audience into the action. Reynolds, who is an exceptionally winning and charismatic comedian, is as perfectly cast as Deadpool as anyone has been cast as a superhero (more so than Patrick Stewart as Professor X). After being at the center of one of the worst superhero bombs (Green Lantern), Deadpool redeems Reynolds as major star who can carry a franchise.

The other, less visible, winner is Tim Miller, the first-time director who presided over Reynold’s epic performance and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s witty, giddy script.


Directed by Tim Miller

Written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick

Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein

Rated R

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Jeruzalem: ‘Found Footage’ genre gets a much-needed reboot in this smart, stylish horror flick Mon, 08 Feb 2016 17:54:11 +0000

Oy vey. Israel and, more specifically, Jerusalem can’t seem to catch a break. When they aren’t being labelled terrorists for occupying Palestinian lands, ostracized by the words and actions of a hawkish prime minister or seen through the false prism of violent acts perpetrated by religious Jewish extremists, they now have an epic apocalypse to deal with and during Yom Kippur no less.

JeruZalem, which opened in theaters and VOD Jan. 22, is the next iteration in a crowded field of ‘Found Footage’ horror pics that have capitalized on the enormous success of the breakthrough picture The Blair Witch Project which opened in 1999 to critical and commercial success. The film was shot on a shoestring budget of $60,000 dollars but went on to gross almost $150 million dollars worldwide. It upended traditional horror tropes and injected much needed blood into a category of movies that seemed adrift. Since then, lovers of the genre have had a veritable feast of riches. A quick search of the IMDb Web site turns up no less than 173 ‘Found Footage’ films including such now-standard classics as Paranormal Activity (2007), [Rec] (2007), The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014), and The Last Exorcism (2010). (I am not including Cloverfield (2008) because it was less a horror flick and more movie monster-ish.)

JeruZalem begins with a narrator ominously intoning that the hatred and blood spilled from years of tribal warfare in the region had seeped into the ground waking the dead. One such person, a victim of Typhus in 1972 known only as Mary, returns three days later and, well, as you can expect from someone who’s been dead for three days, she’s not feeling like herself. Rabbis and others from a broad range of religious disciplines are summoned to exact the maleficent spirit from her and, after hours to no avail, ending up putting a bullet in her head.

Yael Grobas in Jeruzalem | Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures Group

Yael Grobas in Jeruzalem | Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures Group

Flash forward to today. Sarah Pullman, a privileged Jew from the New Jersey suburbs, and her best friend, Rachel Klein, are preparing for a trip to Tel Aviv. As a present, Sarah’s dad buys her a pair of Google-like smart glasses to take with her that record video, take pictures, play music, provide GPS and connect with Skype, all by voice command and, apparently, do not require any recharging. (Smart!)

On the plane, the two carefree twenty-somethings meet Kevin Reed, a charming, good-looking anthropology student who is headed to the Holy City to investigate the previously hidden footage of the 1972 incident buried deeply in Vatican archives. He explains that the three religions that consider Jerusalem the most sacred place all have names for this phenomenon. For Muslims, it’s the Dark Angel. For Jews, it’s Golem. And, just in case there is any confusion, for Christians it’s Zombies or The Undead.

Rachel, who calls her boyfriend Drake back home “a lousy lay,” is clearly ginned up for adventures of the more carnal kind and, when Kevin suggests they come to the Holy City for a few days, easily convinces the more reluctant Sarah before acquiescing. Once there, Kevin, world traveler he, takes them to the Fauzi Azar Inn, a hostel inside the Old City where more hip, beautiful people await including the impossibly good-looking hostel host, Omar Hazari. From there, things begin to take a turn for the worse. While walking around the city that evening, Sarah’s backpack is stolen and while chasing the very young assailant through the winding, claustrophobic alleyways that make up the Old City, she hears screams off in the distance accompanied by monstrous growls.

I don’t want to say too much more by giving away all the plot points. I’d rather spend time talking about how the writing/directing team of Yoav and Doron Paz – collectively known as the PAZ brothers, especially in Israel where they are widely respected – manage to take a rather routine idea and deftly weave some very clever touches all the while providing some genuinely frightening moments.

Tom Graziani in Jeruzalem | Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures Group

Tom Graziani in Jeruzalem | Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures Group

It starts with the turbulence the three experience on the plane after Kevin explains his mission. (Perhaps a nod to the baby at the beginning of The Blair Witch Project who only started crying when the interviewee mentioned the witch’s name?) Or, the use of a virtual zombie game Sarah tries out in the safety of her New Jersey home that later serves her interests in the Solomon Quarries when she is under attack by the undead. Or the causally – but carefully constructed – introduction to the asylum where tourists are taken who suffer from Jerusalem Syndrome. (Jerusalem Syndrome is a condition some have attributed to tourists who experience psychotic episodes such as a Messianic Complex when confronted by the intensity of the Old City. The theory has been largely discredited by health care professionals who have argued that these people were mentally unstable to begin with.) Or the brief, but important, introduction of a young boy on film from the 1972 footage who later turns up on the trio’s visit to Jerusalem.

Perhaps the most intriguing element of JeruZalem is the use of the smart glasses. In most ‘Found Footage’ films, we are at the mercy of the narrator or first-person perspective of whoever holds the camera equipment. But by replacing that point-of-view with an arguably objective piece of technology, we, as viewers, begin to rely on them as a sort of buffer from the horrors that are unfolding on the screen. So when the glasses lose their network – causing unsettling feelings of unease, for example, when the GPS is disabled – or when they suddenly erupt with blaring rock tunes in the midst of the breakdown occurring around the characters as they attempt to flee the city, we are asked to feel that dread as well. I know I did.

I have no doubt that JeruZalem is going to be a fan favorite. It doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence and successfully builds a backstory that allow the audience to actually like, if not care for, the main characters. And as any fan of horror films will tell you, if you don’t like the people on scream, you’ll cheer their demise instead of secretly rooting for their survival. And survival, horror movie fans will also tell you, is what it’s all about.

Rent, own, VOD:–vod


Directors and writers: Directors: Doron Paz, Yoav Paz


Sarah Pullman………………..Danielle Jadelyn

Howard Pullman…………….Howard Rypp

Rachel Klein…………………..Yael Grobglas

Kevin Reed………….…………Yon Tumarkin

Omar Hazazi…………………..Tom Graziani

David……………………………..Itzko Yampolski

Running Time: 95 minutes. Rated ‘R’ for sexual content, language, violence

Rated R


And finally …

While The Blair Witch Project is widely recognized as the modern day father of the ‘Found Footage’ genre of horror flicks, a little known movie called Cannibal Holocaust (1980) deployed the same concepts back in the day. Gizmondo describes the film as “The grand dame of cannibal films…[a] nugget of nasty trash-sploitation [that contains] offensive, violent, racist, and allegedly real animal torture. “ If nothing else, it has, perhaps, one of the most surreal coming attractions for any horror movie I’ve ever seen.


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Coen brothers recreate some unwelcome period detail Thu, 04 Feb 2016 23:08:09 +0000

Channing Tatum in Hail, Caesar!

While I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers, I must acknowledge that they make some odd decisions that produce some ambiguous if not totally perplexing moments: The off-screen death of a major character in No Country for Old Men, the tornado that ends A Serious Man, the lack of any plot in Inside Llewyn Davis and pretty much all of The Big Lebowski. Usually, these weird scenes are aesthetically so interesting or so funny or, after some thought, thematically satisfying that the Coens get away with them, and they often end up being the most iconic parts of the films. But it doesn’t always work that way. Maybe I need a few months to think about Hail, Caesar! but right now, the over-stuffed incoherence and very odd political choices in the film don’t work. It’s rather unfortunate, too, because the Coens put together a fantastic cast and crafted a dozen or so near-genius scenes in Hail, Caesar! – including Channing Tatum in a nearly epic song-and-dance number – but it would have been nice to see they serve some purpose.

The film takes place over 28 hours in the life of 1950s movies producer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) who spends his days fixing problems like last minute casting choices, pregnant single starlets and paying ransoms for kidnapped actors. Mannix was a real person (though he worked at MGM, not the film’s fictional Capitol Pictures) but no one else in the film is. Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) is a slow-talking and sweet cowboy singer who Mannix casts in a prestige musical directed by the effete Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes). DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is a crass star of synchronized swimming spectacles who becomes pregnant without a husband. And pampered, somewhat clueless Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is starring in a religious spectacle about a Roman soldier who has an epiphany during Christ’s crucifixion when he is kidnapped and held ransom by a group of bitter Communist screenwriters.

Mannix must solve the studio’s problems while trying to quit smoking and decide whether to take a cushy, much less challenging job at Lockheed. Most of the scenes are speedy and full of quick, snarky, period-inflected dialogue, but some of the plots are much more interesting than others. After DeeAnna Moran transforms from a classy bathing beauty into her true, if stereotypically low-class, self, her scenes aren’t terribly remarkable (and, worse, an event described as rather fun, if not hilarious, happens off-screen.) Hobie Doyle is almost absurdly charming in his difficulty in transitioning into a tuxedo-clad song-and-dance man, but after the initial fish-out-water moment, he’s shoe-horned into scenes where he doesn’t seem to belong. Baird Whitlock’s communist kidnapping is the most entertaining plot, mostly because the great absurdity of Clooney’s dopey and vapid Whitlock learning about the plight of the workers and the means of production from a team of earnest and angry screenwriters.

I kept hoping that everything would somehow tie together and Coen would develop some characters aside from Mannix. Mannix is the only one who has an interior life, but the key traist the Coens give him are duty and guilt. (The real Mannix was much more intriguing and complicated.) Doyle approaches some depth and then he’s pulled into saving Whitlock, for no good dramatic reason. Moran is a stick figure. And most frustrating to me, the gay critic, was how the homosexuality of one character is deeply tied to his ethic-less communism, the homosexuality of another is expressed through stereotypical speech and him being a sexual predator, and the bisexuality of a third is a deep, shameful secret Mannix is trying to keep through the whole film. Using gay men in 1950s Hollywood as punchlines, dirty secrets and evidence of evil is not the kind of period detail the Coens should be recreating.

Hail, Caesar!

Written and Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen

Starring Josh Brolin, George Clooney and Alden Ehrenreich

Rated PG-13

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The Revenant’s brutality is only surpassed by its beauty Thu, 21 Jan 2016 21:42:32 +0000

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

A great deal has been written, said and tweeted regarding how, for the second year in a row, each one of the 20 actors nominated for an Academy Award this year are white. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Academy is 94 percent white, 2 percent African American and less than 2 percent Latino. The median age is 62, and only 14 percent of the membership is under 50. And 77 percent of members are men.

Even if Hollywood as a whole is supposedly very liberal, old white men are in general not likely to support people of color – in whatever venue, whether film awards or politics.

The Revenant, a ruthless and bombastic tale of revenge in the cold western American frontier, is the kind of movie many men like. The Academy nominated it for 12 Oscars, more than any other this year, and the film is currently holding an 8.3 rating on IMDb, ranking it as the 124th greatest movie of all time. About 80,000 of the IMDb votes came from men, and 13,000 from women. I don’t want to say that men like The Revenant so much because no woman speaks in it, but of the two female characters, neither have audible lines in their few minutes on screen. (One is murdered, the other is raped.) According to the site’s stats, the women who saw the film rated it nearly as high as men, but any film executive will tell you that fewer women are drawn to films so violent, so depleted of female voices or faces, and so focused on themes of classic male heroism.

Much of the film is focused on a man battling nature, with Leo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass trying to survive alone while severely wounded in the cold, snowy mountains; he dreams and hallucinates memories of his dead Pawnee wife and their son. He is trying to find Tom Hardy’s John Fitzgerald, a motor-mouth sociopath who, among other wretched acts, had abandoned Glass to die after the rest of their hunting party had (rather bizarrely) left Fitzgerald to care for him. Meanwhile, a band of Arikara Indians is hunting down the white men who kidnapped their chief’s daughter. With the battles between the various white men and the Arikara, the shockingly long scene where a grizzly bear mauls Glass, and the many ways many of the characters kill each other or are killed by nature, the film’s violence is, if not excessive, totalizing.

If aesthetics can be quantified (which I think is doubtful), The Revenant is every bit as great as Carol, Mad Max: Fury Road, or Spotlight, even if they have almost nothing in common with each other aside from being released in the same year and being almost entirely about white people. Iñárritu and his genius cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki also collaborated with last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman, which was as claustrophobic, talky and experimental as The Revenant is epic, taciturn and classic in both its visuals and themes. The film’s brutality is only surpassed by its beauty. Hardy’s performance is deliciously evil, as searing as anything he’s done. DiCaprio will finally win his Oscar for playing Glass, partly for suffering so much for the role, but mostly for embodying a mythical American individuality, determination and masculinity that may be aging but is still beloved by the kind of people who are Academy members.

The Revenant

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Written by Mark L. Smith and Alejandro González Iñárritu

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Domhnall Gleeson

Rated R

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My 10 favorite films of 2015 Thu, 07 Jan 2016 20:43:00 +0000

Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, right, in Tangerine

It was a very good year at the movies.

Mad Max: Fury Road. The third sequel to the post-apocalyptic classic Mad Max is the best action film since The Matrix: jaw-dropping, bold, ambitious and thrilling. Max (now played by Tom Hardy) is again a loner on the run in the barren wasteland left by a nuclear war. He’s teamed with another lone wolf Imperator Furiosa, who Charlize Theron instantly made iconic with physical and emotional ferocity. The genius of Fury Road is in George Miller’s visual storytelling, from the wrenching and dusty roller coaster chase scenes to the still moments of sometimes horrid desert beauty, which feels totally new. This is operatic action, bombastic and intense and engulfing and almost exhausting.

Carol. Todd Haynes’ indelible, sublime and perfectly observed film is based on Patricia Hightower’s 1952 classic lesbian romance The Price of Salt. Carol, played with aching beauty by Cate Blanchett, is a wealthy suburban wife in the midst of a divorce, and Rooney Mara plays Therese, a young shop girl making her way in New York. Blanchett’s sly, wise and only just barely vulnerable performance is among her best, and Mara is also perfect, expressing Therese’s wonder, love and grief with subtlety and sympathy.

Brooklyn. An assured Saoirse Ronan is Eilis, who leaves stifling small town Ireland for expansive and exciting Brooklyn in the early 1950s. She falls in love with an Italian-American plumber (Emory Cohen) but then returns home after a death in the family, suddenly unsure of where she belongs. An intimate but universal immigrant’s story, Brooklyn expresses the conflicts, joys and promise of leaving home. Nick Hornby’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel is seamless.

Ex Machina. Alex Garland made his directorial debut with this gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance and misogyny. Slight and nerdy Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) wins a contest to spend a week with reclusive, eccentric tech genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a hard-drinking boxing enthusiast dude bro. Caleb is actually brought to determine whether Nathan’s latest android has believably human artificial intelligence. Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, is clearly not human, but she is stunningly humanlike, both in her affect and her intuition. Vikander’s performance is epic, but it is Garland’s surprising, creepy and powerful script that is the real star.

Tangerine. This masterpiece of LGBT cinema is about one day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes in Hollywood. On Christmas Eve, hilariously enraged Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is hunting down her boyfriend and the real fish he’s been cheating on her with. Meanwhile, weary, wise and tough Alexandra (Mya Taylor) wanders the streets, looking for friends to tell them about her cabaret show that night. Shot entirely on iPhones, the film is full of stunning compositions and saturated light. It is blisteringly funny and foul, and it is also moving: a paean to friendship and pride.

The Revenant. Leonardo DiCaprio may finally win his Oscar for his harrowing and masochistic performance as the insanely determined Hugh Glass, a hunter and guide in the 18th century American frontier who is left for dead by the unscrupulous John Fitzgerald, played by a wicked and brilliant Tom Hardy. The movie is long, extremely violent and at times unbelievable. Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenent is engulfing, gorgeous, terrifying and by the end, transcendent.

Grandma. Lily Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a recently widowed lesbian poet, who is broke, unglued, directionless and a bit spiteful. When her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) knocks on her door and says she needs $500 for an abortion, Elle must put herself together, find the money and earn redemption in time for Sage’s late afternoon appointment. The funny, subversive, and very gay script comes from director Paul Weitz, who provides Tomlin one of her best characters and who in turn gives us one of her greatest performances (which is saying something).

Spotlight. This taut and smart depiction of a Boston Globe reporters’ investigation into the sex abuse scandal in the Boston Catholic Church is the best film about journalism since All the President’s Men. Tom McCarthy’s trickless direction and his and Josh Singer’s efficient screenplay impeccably merge a complicated mystery with an indictment of a culture of secrecy, silence and deference to power. Most of the film’s major characters are occasional or lapsed Catholics, and their personal angst over what their faith has done shows the toll this kind of reporting can take. The film is as much about how these reporters got the story as it is about how the story got them.

Creed. Ryan Coogler’s Rocky sequel-cum-reboot turns Rocky into the trainer and Apollo Creed’s illegitimate son Donny into the boxer with something to prove. The plot is a by-the-numbers boxing movie, but Sylvester Stallone’s seventh turn as Rocky Balboa is arguably his best, and Michael B. Jordan is again sterling, this time as the young man with anger-management problems and a chip on his shoulder. Coogler pulls out these phenomenal performances and repurposes the Rocky tropes perfectly, using the Philadelphia landscape, fight choreography and the iconic music in surprising and thrilling ways.

The Big Short. Adam McKay has random celebrities – Anthony Bourdain, Selena Gomez – to explain the Byzantine financial procedures that were at the center of the financial collapse in 2008. It’s gimmicky but it works, and the rest of this intricate and smartly written film about the financial experts who figured out what was happening is enraging, fascinating and funny. The latest indictment of capitalist excess and immorality features most excellent turns from Steve Carell and Christian Bale.

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A sublimely crafted love story Thu, 24 Dec 2015 21:40:07 +0000

Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett in Carol

Todd Haynes’ 2002 film Far from Heaven was a melodramatic homage to Douglas Sirk’s sweeping, nearly camp 1950s domestic dramas like Imitation of Life and All that Heaven Allows. While Far from Heaven certainly works on its own terms – Julianne Moore’s forbidden romance with Dennis Haysbert is archly gorgeous – it was hard not to think of it as much more than an artistic exercise in adulation. His remake of Mildred Pierce for HBO was a similar thing, just more expensive and less necessary. But with Carol, he has taken a classic 1950s love story and crafted it into something new, indelible and sublime.

Carol is based on Patricia Hightower’s 1952 classic lesbian romance The Price of Salt. The novel has been beloved by lesbians in particular since its initial publication because it was one of the first not to treat the main characters’ orientation as a tragic disease; it was not a finger-wagging warning to avoid temptation, but a proper romance. Haynes has done for The Price of Salt what Sirk and Michael Curtiz (among others) did for novels of the era about star-crossed heterosexual lovers. I doubt everyone would agree with me, but I believe that Carol could be American lesbians’ Brokeback Mountain, a perfect film that depicts same-sex love with loving respect.

Carol, played with aching beauty by Cate Blanchett, is a wealthy suburban wife in the midst of a divorce from her husband Harge, played by Kyle Chandler. The marriage is ending because she prefers women, and he knows this, but cannot accept it. Rooney Mara plays Therese, a shop girl from whom Carol buys roller skates for her and Harge’s daughter; Carol and Therese have an instant attraction, confusing to the young Therese and intriguing for the more experienced Carol. But because it is the early 1950s, this relationship is neither accepted nor easily entered into. They are mutually seductive and hesitant, and Harge is quietly and then loudly enraged. He is trying to force Carol to choose between her daughter and her love for women, specifically Therese.

Structurally, Carol is a typical girl-meets-girl, girl-loses-girl, etc. love story. But nothing about the film is typical. Art directed so that every period prop and lipstick color adds to the scenes’ mood and symbolism, Carol rewards intense viewing. Blanchett’s sly, wise, and only just barely vulnerable performance, among her best (which is saying something about the two-time Oscar winner), makes her as seductive to the audience as she is to Therese. Haynes photographs her as a noir Botticelli. I wanted to become a lesbian and enter the film just for the possibility that Carol might be interested in me. (Doubtful, I know.)

Mara, who won the Best Actress award at Cannes for playing Therese, has a fuller arc as a character and more opportunity to shift, change and express wonder, love and grief. It’s also a perfect performance, as sweet and sympathetic as Blanchett’s is luminous and grand.


Directed by Todd Haynes

Written by Phyllis Nagy

Starring Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara and Kyle Chandler

Rated R because the MPAA thinks lesbians are scary

Opens Dec. 25 at Landmark Hillcrest

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Thu, 24 Dec 2015 18:16:31 +0000

Adam Driver in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

also playing

Possibly the most hyped movie in a generation, the seventh film in the space opera franchise that began in 1977 is the first without George Lucas’ creative control, as he sold the rights to Disney for $4 billion. And thank God. The Force Awakens, a spectacularly enjoyable thrill ride, is both a true sequel to 1983’s Return of the Jedi – taking place 30 years later — and a reboot of the entire franchise that had gone stale after Lucas’ lackluster prequel trilogy. It brings back the original trilogy’s stars Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Carrie Fischer as Princess now General Leia and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. But they are partly just there to introduce us to new heroes Rey (Daisy Ridley), Fin (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Isaac), and to masked and villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

It’s somewhat sacrilegious to criticize Lucas’ original characters, but these four, created by director J.J. Abrams and his cowriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, are, to put it bluntly, better. Rey, a seemingly orphaned scavenger and preternaturally capable, is one of the best action hero creations in ages. Boyega’s Fin is a guilt-ridden storm trooper who joins the good guys, and Kylo Ren is evil on Darth Vader’s scale. The complexity of their paths in The Force Awakens is simply shocking in a franchise that was always heavy on plot and light on enduring emotion.

Star Wars was famously inspired by the writings of Joseph Campbell, who discussed the archetypal story of the hero’s journey. Archetypes are by definition constantly repeated, and Abrams has created a new hero on a familiar journey. There are numerous homages in The Force Awakens to Lucas’ original film, and there are key departures. The themes of Star Wars, however, are always the same: The hero must face a father and a trial and self-doubt to become victorious. The journey begins anew in The Force Awakens, and you will want to go along for the ride.

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Redmayne and Vikander turn in Oscar-worthy performances Thu, 10 Dec 2015 19:36:08 +0000

Alicia Vikander and Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl

From the moment it was announced 15 years ago, the film adaptation of The Danish Girl, David Ebershoff’s acclaimed literary novel about one of the first men to have sex reassignment surgery, was a prestige project, a magnet for Oscars. For 15 years, artists of the caliber of Nicole Kidman, Marion Cotillard, Lasse Halstrom and Neil Labute circled the film adaptation. Finally, the film was made. Last year’s Best Actor winner Eddie Redmayne was cast as Einar Wegener who would become Lili Elbe. The acclaimed Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is Einar’s wife Gerda. Oscar-winning director of The King’s Speech Tom Hooper would direct. I can imagine the attraction: Redmayne would get to portray the opposite gender in period dress; Vikander could show us her heartbreak while remaining tough and determined; Hooper could mix a zeitgeisty social issue with a tragic love story and make it all look beautiful, refined and important. I always find something a bit distasteful about making profit and reputations off the aestheticized suffering of others, but sometimes the art is powerful, interesting or inspiring enough that I don’t mind the artists’ prizes. But I minded The Danish Girl.

In the early 1920s in Copenhagen, Einar and Gerda Wegener are young painters; Einar paints landscapes and Gerda does portraits. He is successful and initially, despite seeming to have a greater talent, she is not. One day, Gerda asks Einar to model women’s shoes and stockings when the actual model is late for a sitting; when the model arrives, she deems Einar-in-drag “Lili” and they all giggle. Continuing the joke, Einar brings back Lili, and Gerda paints her, and these paintings finally get art dealers to notice her. But Einar begins to prefer being Lili, and after they move to the more permissive Paris, Einar begins to disappear. As Gerda drifts between mortified and mystified, she befriends Einar’s oldest friend Hans (Matthias Schoenaerts), with whom Einar had a vaguely homoerotic childhood relationship. Einar/Lili attempts to find a cure, meeting with psychiatrists of various levels of sadism, and then meets a doctor who doesn’t want to cure Einar but rather turn him, through what we now call sex reassignment surgery, fully into Lili.

Ebershoff’s novel is a postmodern rewrite of the real life of Einar Wegener, whose diaries were a sensation in the Europe of the early 1930s. Ebershoff kept the outline of Einar/Lili’s story, but imagined Einar and Lili’s interior life, and he turned the real Gerda into a fictional Greta, making her a rebellious, iconoclastic American expatriate. But in Hooper’s film, written by Lucinda Coxon, Gerda returns to her Danish roots, though now she’s a proto-feminist. Clearly, a decision was made to tell a more “true” story, which would make the film’s prestige an easier sell.

Hooper’s film is beautifully shot, and both Redmayne and Vikander’s performances are worthy of the Oscar nominations they’ll probably receive. But in turning Lili and Gerda’s messy lives into a tear-jerking love story, a cliché of historical drama and a story of the victimized minority Hooper and Coxon have done a disservice to the zeitgeisty social issue they hope to hijack. In a year that the brave and authentic Tangerine gave us the story of two transgender women surviving the streets of Los Angeles, when Caitlyn Jenner’s politics are more debated than her transition, The Danish Girl feels like it belongs to another era when pity passed for activism.

The Danish Girl

Directed by Tom Hooper

Written by Lucinda Coxon

Starring Eddie Redmayne, Alicia Vikander and Matthias Schoenaerts

Rated R

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No easy closure for ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise Wed, 25 Nov 2015 21:57:59 +0000

Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Just in time for Thanksgiving, the capstone of The Hunger Games series has arrived to give us the dark, bleak and oddly satisfying ending we may not want but do deserve. Mockingjay – Part 2 has continued the regrettable trend of splitting franchise finale films into two, ostensibly to give space for the whole story, but in reality to milk as much money from audiences. While Part 1 seemed to end abruptly and frustratingly, Part 2 works well as a single film. It brings us the end of the revolution that was sparked in the first film when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) inspired the oppressed people of Panem by winning the nation’s annual battle royale known as The Hunger Games without killing her partner Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). A number of things happened between then and Part 2, but the key plot points to know are that Katniss is the star of the propaganda campaign of the revolution being run by the cynical Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), and Katniss is torn between her love for childhood best friend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and for Peeta, who had been kidnapped and brainwashed to hate Katniss by the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland).

The previous film had ended with Katniss and Gale, among others, rescuing Peeta. Katniss is mortified by Peeta’s state and disturbed by Gale’s transformation into a soldier willing to kill some in order to save more, a moral position not unlike that of Coin and her propaganda master Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died while filming the movie). Coin and Heavensbee want Katniss, also known as the Mockingjay, to remain far from the war’s front lines and star in propaganda films. But Katniss wants to kill Snow, so she sneaks off to the front, where she is quickly noticed. Coin teams her up with the most famous of the rebellion’s warriors, including Gale, Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin), Boggs (Mahershala Ali), Jackson (Michelle Forbes) and Heavensbee’s film crew, led by Cressida (Natalie Dormer).

Katniss is irritated to discover that this unit is to follow behind the main forces and be filmed only acting out the roles of soldiers. She and Gale make a pact to break away from the group and assassinate Snow. But then Peeta is dropped into the unit barely in control of his emotions, and booby traps set up by the game makers who designed The Hunger Games wreak havoc on the group. One horrifying event after another follows, directed with efficiency by director Francis Lawrence, and the ending of the film is perhaps more disturbing than any of the other deeply disturbing plot points of the previous three films. Lawrence’s fierce charisma and her character’s deep morality anchor the movie, helped by Hutcherson’s fraught fragility and Sutherland’s magnificent despotism.

I must give credit to the producers of The Hunger Games for not removing the trenchant social commentary from the story, though by marketing the franchise as action and adventure with a bonus love triangle, they baited the PG-13 audiences and switched them rather sadistically. But considering our culture’s carelessness involving war, penchant for believing official lies and easy attraction to populism, we deserve the kind of ending Mockingjay provides. Because for most of us, no matter how often we’re told justice and good will prevail, the odds are never in our favor.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

Directed by Francis Lawrence

Written by Peter Craig and Danny Strong

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth

Rated PG-13

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Newsroom drama at its best Thu, 12 Nov 2015 21:26:05 +0000

Michael Keaton, Billy Crudup, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams in Spotlight

It is now taken for granted that the Catholic Church’s priests sexually abused thousands, if not tens of thousands, of children over the last 50 years and that the Church hierarchy covered it up, quietly settling lawsuits, moving abusers from parish to parish, and doing very little to stop the abuse from happening or occurring again. The scandal that began it all occurred in Boston in 2002, when intrepid reporters in the Spotlight investigative unit of The Boston Globe uncovered the Boston church’s extensive role in covering up abuses by numerous priests in the diocese. The Boston scandal led Boston Cardinal Bernard Law to resign, $100 million in settlements and a Pulitzer Prize for The Globe and its Spotlight reporters. Tom McCarthy’s nearly perfect film depicting the reporters’ investigation is easily the best film about journalism since 1976’s classic Watergate thriller All the President’s Men, and it will feature heavily on the awards circuit this year.

The film begins with the arrival of a new editor at The Globe in 2001. Marty Baron (a perfectly subdued Liev Schreiber) encourages the Spotlight team to dig into the case of a priest recently convicted of sexual abuse. There is some resistance by other editors, who think it’s already been reported enough, that there’s nothing there, but Spotlight’s editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) thinks Baron is right – there’s more to this than a few isolated cases. Robinson sticks his reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) on the story, and they start digging into both the publicized cases and the ones settled out of court. They meet with victims, sleazy lawyers and not-so-sleazy lawyers. Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) is the latter, and through his interactions with the Columbo-esque Rezendes, we learn that the problem isn’t just bad eggs and the Church hiding them in the back of the henhouse. It’s the cloistered culture of Catholic Boston.

The publicists are referring to Spotlight as a thriller, which seems to be an exaggeration. Yes, the excitement is heightened artificially by characters unnecessarily running or speeding, but Spotlight doesn’t have anything resembling the tension of All the President’s Men, in which Woodward and Bernstein had good reason to fear for their lives. The film is suspenseful both because of Tom McCarthy’s taut and trick-less direction and his and Josh Singer’s efficient screenplay, which seamlessly merges a complicated mystery with an indictment of a culture of secrecy, silence and deference to power. Most of the film’s major characters are occasional or lapsed Catholics, and their personal angst over what their faith has done shows the toll this kind of reporting can take. The film is as much about how these reporters got the story as it is about how the story got them.

McCarthy’s ensemble is the best on film this year. Keaton’s Robinson is the film’s linchpin, acting as the liaison between Baron and skeptical deputy editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (the always-great John Slattery) with his reporters while also pushing major sources to come forward. Keaton is so believable, so heroic as the smart and deeply ethical Robinson, he makes Ruffalo’s fantastic Rezendes seem overly mannered. McAdams is good in the least flashy role, while Tucci keeps up his streak of stealing scenes, this time as a wise and frustrated Armenian-American perplexed by Boston.


Directed by Tom McCarthy

Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer

Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton and Rachel McAdams

Rated R

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Brie Larson turns in a compelling performance Thu, 29 Oct 2015 20:28:20 +0000

Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson in Room

Every so often a woman escapes from the clutches of a mad kidnapper who has held her, and often other women, and often the children born in captivity, in a dank basement, a locked attic or a backyard shed. I always think it can be hard to turn these kinds of stories into serious art; no matter how handsome or well-acted a production is, the films are almost always just pulpy melodramas ripe for the satire of things like The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. When Emma Donoghue won the Booker Prize for Room, her novel about a woman and her young son kept prisoner in a garden shed by the woman’s kidnapper, I had no interest in reading what I assumed was, well, a literary version of an exploitative tabloid tale. But after seeing the film adaptation, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and adapted for the screen by Donoghue, I knew I was clearly too quick to judge. Room is neither prurient nor melodramatic. It is a subtle, occasionally beautiful meditation on the extents a mother will go to protect not just her child’s body but also his mind and soul.

The mother in question, played with compelling conviction by Brie Larson, has been locked in a soundproof shed for seven years, for five years with her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who was the result of her captor’s rapes. The shed is just large enough for a single bed, stove, tub, toilet, wardrobe, table and old TV; there’s a skylight too high to reach. Jack, the film’s narrator has never known anything but the shed, which he and Ma call simply “room.” Ma has raised Jack to believe that there is nothing beyond room, that the things he sees on TV are magic. Ma teaches Jack how to read, they exercise, they play, Ma cooks simple dinners with the things their captor, known only as Old Nick (Sean Bridges), brings.

Every evening, Jack must go to sleep in the wardrobe before Old Nick comes to visit. Ma slyly, but still desperately prevents Nick from seeing or interacting with Jack. The film begins with Jack turning five years old and beginning to ask more questions, catch his mother in inconsistencies, and disobeying her, even interacting with Old Nick. Fearing for Jack’s safety, Ma hatches a plan to free him. Since the advertisements for the film and its trailers show this succeeding, it’s not a spoiler to say that half-way through the film Jack does escape and this leads to Ma’s rescue and return to her childhood home.

By depicting everything exclusively from Jack’s perspective, Donoghue and Abrahamson are able to focus the story and the cinematic experience on Jack’s naïve understanding of his life. This can be fascinating, moving, and even funny, but when it’s combined with Stephen Rennick’s treacly score, overly sentimental. Still, giving us only Jack’s point of view keeps the prurient horror inherent in the story off screen for the vast majority of the film, and it allows for a great deal of playing, confusion, unconditional love and simple, honest emotional reactions to his mother’s attempts to keep him safe with lies and risks. It’s very rare that child actors can achieve the naturalism of their older co-stars, and Tremblay is no Haley Joel Osment. But Abrahamson’s direction of Tremblay produced a believable performance at the same time adorable, infuriating and heartbreaking. The audience can see in Larson’s spectacular performance what Jack is missing, and this disconnect creates both sympathy for Ma and awe for her mothering.


Directed by Lenny Abrahamson

Written by Emma Donoghue

Starring Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay and Joan Allen

Rated R

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An illuminating fantasy Thu, 15 Oct 2015 19:00:22 +0000

Michael Fassbender and Seth Rogen in Steve Jobs

As I’ve written before, no one should ever expect historical accuracy from a feature film that is “based on a true story.” I can’t fault the total fantasy of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs, the new biopic about the co-founder of Apple who is constantly referred to as a genius, a visionary and an asshole. Sorkin manages to do the duties of a biopic by focusing solely on the backstage conversations prior to three key product launches. The screenplay’s structure is both elegant and overly schematic, but Sorkin’s always recognizably witty and crackling dialogue makes up, or masks, the flaws. It helps that the words are recited by some of the best actors alive who are directed by the great Danny Boyle.

The film opens with grainy footage of Arthur C. Clark (who wrote the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey) explaining in the 1960s how computers will change our lives to an incredulous newscaster. The audience chuckles because the sci-fi writer predicts exactly the kind of instruments most of us have in our pockets, if not at home. The message of the film is then clear: It is Steve Jobs who makes this happen. Immediately, we are at the launch of the Macintosh – the iconic, revolutionary personal computer – in 1983. Jobs, played by the always thrilling Michael Fassbender at the height of his powers, is ordering everyone around, demanding the impossible, and basically being the narcissistic prick he had famously become since starting Apple in a garage with Steve Wozniak (an awesome Seth Rogen). Only Apple CEO and father figure John Sculley (Jeff Daniels) and Jobs’ work wife and marketing head Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet) can reason with Jobs, which is hard enough when it’s about the Mac and even more difficult when his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston) and Lisa, the daughter Jobs refused to admit is his, show up.

It’s difficult to decide which person he’s nastier to: Chrisann, who desperately needs money; engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is trying to fix the Mac’s speech function for the demo; or Wozniak, who wants Jobs to acknowledge the people working on the Apple II, which was the company’s first success and Jobs wants to phase out. Chrisann and Hertzfeld succeed with their tasks but not with their pride intact, but Wozniak completely fails. All of these characters return to rehash, continue, or resolve these conflicts in the next two acts, which are based on the launch of Jobs’ NeXT computer, which he developed after being fired (more or less) by Apple for his irascible ways, and the launch of the iMac, the computer that brought Apple back to life after Sculley is fired and Jobs is rehired.

While Jobs is on screen at virtually every moment, few of his dialogue partners are ever on screen with each other. It feels very much like a beautifully filmed play; intense and cerebral but also claustrophobic. It is the series of one-on-one conversations that both tell us Jobs’ biographical details and show us how his relationships with these key people – particularly Joanna, Sculley, Wozniak and Lisa (most importantly played by Perla Haney-Jardine in Act 3) – explain his drive, his genius and his failures as a friend and father. The ending is unnecessarily pat, but neither Aaron Sorkin nor Danny Boyle would ever refuse to please the crowd. And the film is a crowd pleaser, funny and wise, daring and illuminating. It is also hagiography, showing Jobs’ great faults but also lifting him onto a pedestal with people like Albert Einstein and Bob Dylan. Which is exactly where Steve Jobs thought he should be.

Steve Jobs

Directed by Danny Boyle

Written by Aaron Sorkin

Starring Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet and Seth Rogen

Inexplicably Rated R

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A laudable idea disastrously executed Thu, 01 Oct 2015 18:01:07 +0000

Jonny Beauchamp and Jeremy Irvine in Stonewall

After Roland Emmerich, the gay, German-born director of The Fourth of July and The Day After Tomorrow, learned about the plight of homeless LGBT youth, he decided to make a movie about them, and that movie transmogrified into the story of homeless LGBT youth who helped start the 1969 Stonewall riots. This is a laudable idea. But Emmerich, used to making studio movies with $200 million budgets, treated his independently financed $17 million film about an iconic moment in both American and queer history like a consumer product. He allowed test audiences – the focus groups of the movie business – to convince him that in order to draw in straight moviegoers that the film’s protagonist should be a fictional white-bread white boy from Indiana who is, as he told Buzzfeed, “straight-acting.” Ugh.

Yes, he deserves a great deal of the criticism he’s had heaped on him. In addition to the test audience filmmaking and the “straight-acting” comment, the movie is not good. It’s ham-fisted, overstuffed, often cloying, and its good parts are easily overshadowed by its dreadful parts. But Danny is the worst of it all: As the proxy for the audience, his experience is meant to introduce the audience to the homeless LGBT kids in Greenwich Village.

Kicked out of his house for being gay by his wretched football coach father, Danny (Jeremy Irvine) takes the bus to New York and immediately is taken in by Ray, a fem Puerto Rican street prostitute who is usually in some sort of drag. Ray (Jonny Beauchamp) is clearly based on the pioneering transgender rights activist and Stonewall veteran Sylvia Rivera. It is Ray’s quips of street wisdom, her wise-cracks and her righteous anger at the world that has rejected, beaten and spit on her that give Stonewall what little life it has. And Jonny Beauchamp is fantastic as Ray, making her as dynamic and sympathetic as Danny is wooden and dull.

While entirely too much of the film follows Danny around on his mopey quest for self-acceptance, two of the best scenes in the film focus on black drag queens. Marsha P. Johnson, played by Otoja Abit, was a legendary figure from Stonewall, and she is depicted reverentially, as funny and kind, and her flamboyant reaction to her arrest at the Stonewall Inn incites the soon-to-be rioters. And Queen Cong (Vladimir Alexis) has the most profound moment in the film. While Danny, Ray and their friends are being evicted from a filthy SRO, Cong rips down the curtains to create an outfit. Danny is appalled and says, “You just take what you want, don’t you?” Yes, she replies, because she has nothing. And then: “I have not seen one dream come true on Christopher Street, baby. Not one.” This bitter fatalism sets up the anger and frustration that spills into the riots, and Alexis’ delivery is chilling.

Stonewall’s crime is its cynicism and its great failure is its emphasis on Danny. Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson would be much more interesting and important people to build a film around. Luckily, David Francis, who directed the Oscar-nominated ACT-UP documentary How to Survive a Plague, knows that and he has just begun filming Sylvia & Marsha. I do hope that the many people outraged by Stonewall, for both the right and wrong reasons, support the documentary when it arrives, to help show that the white proxy theory is hooey.


Directed by Roland Emmerich

Written by Jon Robin Baitz

Starring Jeremy Irvine, Jonny Beauchamp and Vladimir Alexis

Rated R

At AMC Fashion Valley and Reading Gaslamp

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This Web series is one of the best Thu, 17 Sep 2015 21:10:28 +0000

EastSiders season 2 cast

After Looking was canceled by HBO, a number of people complained that gay men who criticized, occasionally viciously, the show did more than hurt Looking – they made it harder for shows about gay men to be made. I think it’s possible that this is true, that the failure of Looking to find a large audience made it hard for another show to be produced by a major network. But the cheap cost of digital cameras, venues like Vimeo and funding streams like Kickstarter have made it possible for independently produced series to be made and viewed in ways that were unthinkable even 15 years ago. The handsomely produced, not-terribly-different-from-Looking dramatic sitcom EastSiders is another such show; it was running on Logo’s Web site and its second season is now on Vimeo On Demand. While not revolutionary in topic or tone, it’s well enough made to be one of the best Web series I’ve ever seen.

EastSiders is a soap centered on troubled couple Cal (Kit Williamson, the show’s writer and director) and Thom (Van Hansis) who live in Los Angeles’ Silverlake, which most Silverlakers believe is on the East Side of the city. Cal and Thom are young, fit and attractive aspiring artists; Cal is a photographer and gallery assistant and Thom is a writer and bartender. The supporting players include their friends Kathy (Constance Wu) and Ian (John Halbach), whose relationship is perhaps even more poisonous than Cal and Thom’s; wise-cracking Quincy (Stephen Guarino); Cal’s boss Paul (Sean Maher); Cal’s sister Hillary (Brianna Brown) and Jeremy (Matthew McKelligon), who both Cal and Thom cheated on each other with in the first few episodes. That bizarre love triangle, Paul’s flirtation with Cal and Kathy’s abortion of her and Ian’s baby, and everyone’s ill-advised lies made for a highly plotty and dramatic first season.

The second season begins with Cal and Thom dating again after Cal has moved out, as well as with Cal and Thom experimenting with a threesome. The first three episodes go from mopey and agonizing to hilarious and insightful. The third episode Sex Therapy is a little bit of structural and comic genius as Cal and Thom meet a series of thirds and discuss the ensuing complications with one (Satya Bhaba) who is studying to be a sex therapist.

Like all Web series, which are almost by definition low budget, the production values of EastSiders are not high. The show’s lighting and cinematography are quite good, but the sound is a bit messy, with too much bass in the dialogue; I had to rewind a few times to hear some lines. Similarly, the lack of experienced producers – Williamson and Halbach, a couple, take that role – means that some of Williamson’s messier writing stayed in. And Williamson, who is a winning actor as Ed in Mad Men, doesn’t direct himself that well. But he handles the other actors – particularly three-time Emmy-nominee Hansis, Fresh Off the Boat’s breakout star Wu, Devious Maid’s hilarious Brown, and the comedy duo of Guarino and Belli – with great skill. However, despite Williamson’s addition of another Asian woman and black doctor, the show is much, much whiter than L.A.’s actual East Side (where I live); no one in the show is remotely Hispanic, which is just odd. The unbearable whiteness of Looking is not something EastSiders should emulate.


Written and directed by Kit Williamson

Starring Kit Williamson, Van Hansis and John Halbach

Vimeo On Demand

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An epic performance by Lily Tomlin Thu, 03 Sep 2015 16:48:11 +0000

Lily Tomlin and Julia Garner in Grandma

Lily Tomlin is having a very good year. That’s not saying too much. The 76-year-old actress and comedian has been considered one of the funniest people in America for more than 50 years, and she’s had some great years. She became a regular on Laugh In in 1970, was nominated for an Oscar for being quite serious in Robert Altman’s Nashville in 1974, and won a Tony in 1985 for Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which was written by Tomlin’s partner since 1971 Jane Wagner. This year, she starred along with Jane Fonda in the critically acclaimed Netflix series Grace & Frankie and received her 22nd Emmy nomination; she’s won six. I think she’s going to get her second Oscar nomination for Paul Weitz’s Grandma. But the awards are just icing for the cake that is a performance so funny, silly, layered, moving, brave, and, yes, wonderfully, gay that she justifies her place in the pantheon of great American film actresses.

Tomlin plays Elle Reid, a cantankerous lesbian poet who seems to be somewhat inspired by former San Diegan Eileen Myles, one of whose books Elle tries to sell in an early scene. Elle has never been terribly successful, but she had a following and had made money teaching. But when her partner of decades and co-mother to their daughter Judy (Marcia Gay Harden) died, Elle has gone broke and seems to have become unglued and directionless. For instance, she’s shredded her credit cards and turned the pieces into an outdoor mobile. In the film’s opening scene, Elle is fighting with and then dumping her much younger new girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), and Elle is not nice about it. But that hardened spite is just a defense against the terror of loss, and we see her breakdown in the shower just after Olivia leaves. Then her teenage granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) knocks on her door, tells Elle she needs $500 for an abortion and that they can’t tell Sage’s mother Judy. Elle must pull herself together, find the money, and earn redemption in time for Sage’s late afternoon appointment.

The story follows Elle and Sage through Los Angeles as they visit various and sundry friends Elle thinks owe her money or may be willing to help out. This includes a tattoo artist played by Laverne Cox, a café owner played by the late Elizabeth Pena, and most profoundly her ex Karl, played by Sam Elliott. In his ten minutes of screen time, Elliott gives undoubtedly the best performance of his career, and his chemistry with Tomlin is as easy as Karl’s memory of hurt is long. It is in this scene that the film turns slyly from a somewhat slapstick road movie to an examination of aging, guilt, love and duty. This sets up the third act when Sage and Elle finally have to deal with the very difficult Judy.

As I was watching the film and marveling at how smartly written it was I wondered who this new lesbian screenwriter was who managed to get these great actors and Weitz to direct them. (Because in addition to Tomlin and Elliott, everyone is great, especially Greer and Harden.) Then I discovered the straight Weitz wrote this fantastic, utterly believable lesbian in Elle, and I was impressed yet again by his skill, seen before particularlyin About a Boy and Being Flynn. Tomlin’s performance is epic and only she could have done the role, but it is Weitz’s crafting, both with words and with the directions for his actors that made it possible.


Written and directed by Paul Weitz

Starring Lily Tomlin, Julia Garner and Sam Elliott

Rated R

Opens Sept. 4 at Landmark Hillcrest

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An impeccably crafted documentary that brings history to life Thu, 20 Aug 2015 18:55:20 +0000

Gore Vidal and William Buckley in Best of Enemies

In decades past, political pundits referred to the final few weeks leading to the presidential election as the “silly season” of politics. Nowadays, the silly season is more or less the three years leading up to the election, and if you haven’t noticed it, the three-ring circus that is the Donald Trump-led Republican nomination contest and the vicious (and a little odd) fighting between the supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are more than a little silly. There are a lot of reasons that American politics have devolved to the point where a racist reality TV star could be leading the Republican field and Democratic activists could be losing friends in arguments over candidates who have basically the same positions. Arguably the biggest reason is the extreme polarity of political discourse in the United States.

Compromise, mutual understanding and respect are almost nonexistent in our political discussions (and I am hardly innocent in this). Liberals blame Fox News, and conservatives blame the so-called “liberal media,” when neither of them are not just simply calling the other side degenerate idiots. Again, it’s a complicated process, but the fantastic new documentary The Best of Enemies makes the case that the demon seed of this horrible situation can be traced to the televised debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. during the 1968 Republican and Democratic National Conventions.

The debates between Vidal and Buckley were not an accident. In 1968, ABC’s new division was a distant third in competition with CBS and NBC, and at the time, the coverage of the presidential nominating conventions were big news and drew big ratings. This is not just because politics in the 1960s were so dynamic and dire but because back then the nominations were not done deals before the conventions; the candidates were actually chosen there.

In order to create excitement for their coverage, ABC decided to pit the two most entertaining political wits of their generation against each other. Buckley, the father of the modern conservative movement, ran the most influential right wing magazine in the country, and his effete, WASP affect defined Ivy League country club Republicanism. He was witty, and as long as he wasn’t insulting you, very funny. Vidal was his perfect foil: An erudite bon vivant, he was Jackie Kennedy’s cousin, a barely closeted gay man (in 1968!), and the author of Myra Breckinridge, the scandalous, high-camp satirical novel about transsexuality. His insults were even more pointed and funnier.

As The Best Enemies show, the debates themselves were short and rarely ever touched on the actual issues. They were mostly a forum for Vidal and Buckley to insult each other and mock the politics of their opponents. They’re wildly entertaining to watch (especially when Vidal insinuates Buckley is gay and Buckley has a gay panic meltdown). Nowadays, it’s pretty rare to see people that smart and articulate be so hilariously mean to each other on a news show.

Writer-directors Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon impeccably craft the story of the debates and their legacy. Using celebrity voiceover (Kelsey Grammar reading Buckley’s letters and John Lithgow Vidal’s), accessible academic commentary and taut editing, Neville and Oscar-winner Gordon (for 20 Feet from Stardom) bring the history to life and explain why it matters.

Best of Enemies

Written and directed by Morgan Neville and Robert Gordon

Featuring Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr.

Opens at Landmark Hillcrest Aug. 21

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Kapadia skillfully documents this heartbreaking journey Thu, 06 Aug 2015 19:24:06 +0000

Amy Winehouse

There were so many terrible things about Amy Winehouse’s death in 2011 at the age of 27. She was arguably the greatest singer of her generation, having produced two instantly classic albums, the jazz album Frank (2003) and the throwback soul album Back to Black (2006). Winehouse’s death was an artistic tragedy for popular music and its fans. More importantly, it was horrifying, if unsurprising, for the family and friends who adored the magnetic, spectacular, deeply troubled Winehouse. Less importantly, but particularly troubling for me, was how the worst people in the world used Winehouse’s death to express their misogyny, pathological lack of empathy and judgmental derision for addicts.

I want those people, and I want George Lopez, Jay Leno, and every other comedian who mocked Winehouse’s troubles, to see Amy, Asif Kapadia’s excellent and disturbing documentary about Winehouse’s life. Composed entirely of home movies, television video and voice-over of interviewed friends and family, Amy starts with her discovery at 16 by an assistant at 19, the company that created Pop Idol and American Idol and managed its contestants, to her death 11 years later of alcohol poisoning, from Jewish North London adolescence to international super stardom.

At first, it was just her preternaturally skilled jazz singing – deep, rich, pyrotechnic – that caught the attention of recording executives, but then producers encouraged her to set her emotionally raw poetry to music, and her songwriting became as lauded as her voice. Her first album Frank, with its lead single “Stronger Than Me,” was a critical smash, and her follow up, written mostly about her tempestuous and chemically enhanced relationship with Blake Fielder was a cultural touchstone. The first single, “Rehab,” which was about the attempt to get her to seek help for her addictions (“No, No, No”), was massive, winning her Record of the Year at the Grammys. The footage of Winehouse laying down the vocal track to the album’s title song is awe-inspiring.

While her career was exploding, Winehouse became less and less stable. Chronically depressed as a teenager, which she blames on her parents’ divorce, she became bulimic and then self-medicated with alcohol and pot; when she was with Fielder, she added powder and crack cocaine, as well as heroin. Kapadia’s argument seems to be that the pressure of fame, along with the pressures of her parasitic father Mitch, profit-focused second manager Raye Cosbert, and codependent husband Fielder, drew out the worst of Winehouse’s dark impulses. Her attempts at rehab failed miserably, and not only because the people who profited from her allowed them to.

Kapadia skillfully edits the footage and the interviews, which include extensive commentary from her friends, compatriots and Fielder. Most of this is done without trickery, except for how he washes out the video of the paparazzi swarms to turn the camera flashes into near-white outs. The effect is haunting. It makes the scenes no more artful, but it is blinding in the theater, allowing the viewer to experience, just slightly, how terrifying and disorientating fame can be.




Directed by Asif Kapadia

Featuring Amy Winehouse, Blake Fielder, Juliet Ashby

Rated R

At Landmark Hillcrest

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Exploring the phenomenon of the ‘gay voice’ Thu, 23 Jul 2015 18:58:16 +0000

David Thorpe

When I figured out that other people were figuring out I was gay, or maybe gay, or maybe just weird, say around the age of 14, I became hyper-vigilant about how I might be perceived by, well, everyone who was close enough to perceive me. Most of it was in my clothes (carefully disheveled instead of carefully dapper), my proclaimed interests (basketball not Bronski Beat), and my physical gestures (unlimp that wrist). When I heard my voice recorded on an answering machine, I was a little bit horrified. The long, dramatic “Hellohhhhh” and the Valley Girl inflection of “Call me?” I wasn’t even trying to be funny. Yes, there was some internalized homophobia, but I was more concerned about detection, about what would happen in my high school social circle if they correctly determined that I was gay. (It happened, and some of them behaved wretchedly.)

Do I Sound Gay? is the title of David Thorpe’s insightful and excellent documentary about whether there is a gay “voice.” Thorpe begins the film on a troubling down note; he says he has always hated the sound of his voice and wants to do what he can to change it, to make it sound less gay and more manly. I actually felt sick to my stomach as he practiced the masculine intonations assigned by a voice coach. It reminded me so much of the horrible scene in The Birdcage in which Armand (Robin Williams) viciously berates the feminine walk, talk and mannerisms of Albert (Nathan Lane). As the audience I watched the film with roared with laughter, I cried, traumatized by the self-hate and cruelty.

But as Thorpe delves into the sound of his voice, and whether it signified gayness to others or only to himself, the film becomes less about shame and more of an investigation. Thorpe asks his family and friends what they heard and what they thought about his voice or mannerisms – not much, especially compared to how much Thorpe himself thought about them – but he also talks to linguistic researchers, his friends and various celebrities. While many gay men do make certain phonetic sounds that are similar and are possibly influenced by female role models during childhood, the bigger issue is not those sounds but how people react to them.

David Sedaris talks about how he was sent to a speech pathologist along with the other “future homosexuals of America.” There was nothing wrong with his speech at all except for some elongated s’s and a’s that didn’t sound sufficiently “masculine.” Others talked about being bullied and shamed simply because of the tone of their voice. That said, some of Thorpe’s friends seemed downright angry that he’s even delving into the issue because there’s nothing wrong with how any of us talk.

As an anthropologist, I thought Thorpe missed opportunities to delve more deeply into the gay slang that out gay people learn and use to identify each other, to speak in code and to express themselves. I code-switch all of the time, speaking with different words in a different timbre in gay and straight situations, and Thorpe barely touches on this important gay adapation and survival method. This is when that so-called gay voice gets transformed from a possibly secret shame into something bonding and empowering, from “Oh, Mary!” to “Yasssss!” Thorpe’s ultimate argument, that an assertive voice trumps any kind of affected vowel, is a worthy one, but I was less interested in his journey to acceptance than I am in our community’s and thus our subculture’s resilience.

Do I Sound Gay?

Directed by David Thorpe

Featuring David Thorpe, Tim Gunn and Jeff Hiller

Opens at Landmark Ken on July 24

also playing


Too much has been made about Ant-Man being a film about one of the minor Marvel superheroes. But Ant-Man turned out to be a damn fine film, much more enjoyable and coherent than the massively hyped Avengers: Age of Ultron. Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a thief with a heart of gold and an engineering degree, who is recruited by brilliant and aging scientist Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to don the shrinking Ant-Man suit and stop the evil Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from using the shrinking formula as a military weapon. The action is fun and light, mostly because it involves being tiny and riding ants like a cowboy, and the dialogue is delightful, especially as delivered by Rudd, one of our most likable comic actors (who has beefed up nicely for the role).

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Another landmark film about transgender characters Thu, 09 Jul 2015 16:31:49 +0000



In my last column, I wrote about the new ways transgender characters are being depicted on television series, and how complex and positive portrayals of Sofia on Orange is the New Black, Maura on Transparent and Nomi on Sense8 signify a sea change in transgender representation. Independent film, however, has long been on the forefront of these kinds of characters, from The Crying Game to Transamerica, and this summer we’ve been given another landmark film about transgender characters in Sean Baker’s Tangerine.

Tangerine is about one day in the lives of two transgender prostitutes who work the sidewalks of Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. It begins at the infamous hooker hangout Donut Time on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland where Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) are about to share a celebratory donut. Sin-Dee has just been released after a month in jail, and it’s the holidays. “Merry Christmas Eve, Bitch,” Sin-Dee says.

As they talk, Alexandra accidentally blurts out that Sin-Dee’s boyfriend and pimp Chester (James Ransone) has been cheating on her while she was away. Aside from the simple betrayal, this is particularly egregious for two other reasons. Sin-Dee had been in jail for possessing Chester’s drugs. And Chester’s new girlfriend is a cisgender woman, a fish. Sin-Dee is enraged, and she spends the rest of the day hunting down the fish (Mickey O’Hagan) and then Chester.

Meanwhile, a married Armenian cab driver named Razmik (Karren Karagulian) is himself searching for Sin-Dee, who he adores more than any of the other transgender prostitutes he knows and regularly procures.

Because of Sin-Dee’s amazingly foul language and the various profane events of the day, I was reminded often of Kevin Smith’s similarly low-budget Clerks,which is also a day-in-the-life of people we so often ignore, in that case convenience store clerks. Tangerine is often as funny as Clerks, but unlike the semi-competent Kevin Smith, Sean Baker is an auteur. He and his co-cinematographer Radium Cheung shot the whole film on iPhones, and while this is an amazing technical feat in and of itself, it’s the stunning compositions, saturated light, and editing of the shots that are so gorgeous and innovative.

Baker and his co-writer Chris Begoch cast two unknown transgender women as their leads, and you can tell they’re not seasoned, but that is why the film seems so authentic. When the experienced actors, like Ransone and Karagulian, appear, it seems less real, even though the professionals are so much smoother. Rodriguez in particular is thrilling as Sin-Dee, not just in her knowing, high-camp delivery of many of her lines, but also in her physicality; when she’s angry, she seems capable of anything, and this danger puts the film on edge. Taylor’s Alexandra is much calmer and wiser, and this depth makes her struggle as resonant as Razmik’s more typical plight as a man married to the wrong kind of woman.

While we’ve seen too many movies about hookers with hearts of gold, Tangerine both plays on that trope while turning it inside out. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are both very funny, but Tangerine doesn’t laugh at them, but with them. And while Baker doesn’t delve into the many reasons Sin-Dee and Alexandra are probably on the streets, their difficulties, the pathos of their daily lives, is taken for granted in every scene.

Directed by Sean Baker

Written by Sean Baker and Chris Bergoch

Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, Mya Taylor and Karren Karagulian

Rated R

Opens July 17 at Landmark Ken

also playing

Magic Mike XXL

Magic Mike XXL

Magic Mike was one of my favorite films of 2012. It was a sublimely shot dark drama about male strippers that was masquerading as a beefcake musical. The bait-and-switch irritated some viewers, but I’m not sure what people expected from a Steven Soderbergh movie. Channing Tatum, just beginning his reappraisal as a semi-serious actor was a revelation, and Matthew McConaughey was at his peak powers as the creepy emcee of the stripper club where Tatum worked. The sequel, as Tatum promised, is more what people expected from the original film. It’s not remotely dark, and there’s a lot more dancing, and that dancing is all about hot and nearly naked men scorching the screen. Channing Tatum and Matt Bomer look great, sound great and clearly have a ball. You will too.

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Reaching the transgender tipping point Thu, 25 Jun 2015 22:14:05 +0000

Laverne Cox in Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black

This time it’s different.

Since Christine Jorgensen became an international celebrity in 1952 as the supposed, but not actual, first recipient of a sex change operation, the media has been fascinated, titillated and afraid of transgender people, and the images the media produced expressed these emotions. The broadcast news and film have long dominated the creation of transgender images, from Jorgensen to Caitlyn Jenner, from Myra Breckenridge to Boys Don’t Cry. But transgender people have been characters on television shows for nearly 40 years; the first was Linda Gray’s transsexual fashion model on the maligned Norman Lear comedic soap opera All That Glitters. Almost always, the transgender character has been minor (one or two episodes), depicted in simplistic ways (as evil or saintly), and played by a cisgender man or woman (who then brags about the acting challenge). Television representation is not everything, but it’s important, because in our hyper-mediated world, TV produces many of the images that end up representing reality for many people.

We’ve certainly seen some laudable representations, like Max on the L Word and Unique on Glee, but more often than not the transgender character is there as a comedic site gag (androgynous Pat on Saturday Night Live) or as a devious criminal foil (serial killer Paul Millander on CSI). This past year or so, however, has seen an unprecedented number of complex characters on television dramas, all on high-profile shows. Along with the arrival of Caitlyn Jenner, the continued celebrity of Laverne Cox, and the ever-increasing successes of activists such as Shannon Minter and Janet Mock on both local and national stages, these latest characters have helped us reach, as Time magazine claimed, the transgender tipping point.

Arguably, this new trend in transgender representation started with Cox’s depiction of Sophia Burset on Orange is the New Black, Netflix’s popular comedic drama about the inmates at a federal women’s prison. While not one of the official series regulars, Sophia has appeared in some way in almost every episode and had one episode devoted to the story of how she ended up in prison. She had stolen credit cards to finance her sex reassignment surgery, and her young son turned her in, afraid to lose his father. Sophia is one of the prison’s hair stylists, and she’s gorgeous, confident and stubborn. While she’s a criminal, her crime is depicted as morally justifiable because she felt she had to do it to realize her true self.

Sophia is what we’d call a “positive” representation, and while they’ve existed on TV before – though rarely written with such complexity and sympathy – Sophia was different in one very important way: She is played by an actual transgender woman, something that is extremely rare in Hollywood. Its rareness is, in fact, justifiably infuriating for transgender people. Cox has used the fame garnered from this role, for which she received an Emmy nomination last year, to become a spokesperson for the transgender community, which she has done with brilliance and grace. (Her blog entry on Caitlyn Jenner is the best commentary on Jenner’s importance written so far.) She ended up on the cover of Time, along with the tagline “transgender tipping point.”

Transparent, which debuted last summer on Amazon, is not the first television show to be led by a transgender character – that would be the little watched but dazzling Hit & Miss starring Chloe Sevigny as an Irish transgender hitwoman – but it is certainly the most famous. While I doubt that it’s as widely watched as the amount of press it’s received would indicate, Transparent quickly became a cultural event, one of the few times a transgender-themed work has been embraced by both LGBT audiences and the general public. Creator Jill Soloway, who based the show about her father and her family’s reactions to his transition to her, created a character for the ages in Moira Pfefferman.

Jeffrey Tambor’s exquisite portrayal of Moira, who was born Morton and decides to finally transition after retiring, is worthy of its extraordinary praise. Moira is complicated; she’s funny, heartbreaking, loving, brave, as well as selfish, mopey and inconsistent. Meaning, she’s a fully realized human being, which is something few television characters are. That said, I am one of the few people who doesn’t like the show simply because Moira’s children are dreadful narcissists, and they take up entirely too much screen time. The presence of supporting characters played by transgender actors (particularly Alexandra Billings) helps, but they all needed more screen time.

I also wanted a lot more of Nomi, the heroic transgender hacker in Sense8, the Wachowski’s (The Matrix, Cloud Atlas) Netflix science fiction series about eight men and women around the world psychically linked to each other. Not only is Jamie Clayton, the fabulous young actress who plays Nomi, a transgender woman, so is Lana Wachowski, one of the show’s creators; their collaboration, despite the fantastical concept for the show, brought a grounded authenticity to Nomi that makes her as revolutionary as Sophia and Moira.

However, I think Nomi is even more important. She is fully, thrillingly sexual. This is something neither Sophia nor Moira have been allowed to be – yet. And no transgender characters of any depth have made it to the major broadcast networks or any show with more than a couple million viewers; and transgender men have barely been seen on the small screen at all. We may be at the tipping point, but we still have a long way to go.

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A story of adolescence and coming of age Thu, 11 Jun 2015 19:52:30 +0000

Olivia Cooke, Thomas Mann and RJ Cyler

This year’s Sundance breakout Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is the latest in the curious string of films based on dark young adult novels: The Fault in Our Stars, If I Stay, The Spectacular Now, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and, going back a bit, The Lovely Bones. As Gayle Forman, the writer of If I Stay, has said, teenagers yearn for stories about death and friendship. Considering how many adults are buying these books and, based on who I’m seeing in the theaters, seeing these films, older folks yearn for these stories, too, possibly as nostalgia for a time of simpler emotions, possibly because films about adults rarely focus on intricacies and dramatics of friendship. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is clearly a story of adolescence and coming of age, but it works with universal themes of loyalty, forgiveness and grief. The film doesn’t say anything new about these things, but director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and writer Jesse Andrews say them with an original voice, and that makes the eventual tears worth it.

The “Me” is Greg (Thomas Mann), a high school senior in Pittsburg who has studiously and blithely avoided joining any clique and refuses to even call the boy he’s spent all of his life hanging out with his friend. Instead, Earl (RJ Cyler), who is black and from a much poorer neighborhood, is Greg’s “coworker”; they make movies together, micro-budgeted, rather brilliant parodies of classics with titles like Eyes Wide Butt, A Sockwork Orange, and Nose Ferret 2. Avoiding their classmates, Greg and Earl eat lunch in the office of their tattooed and impossibly cool history professor Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal), who symbolically shows them films like Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary about the making of Werner Herzog’s doomed epic Fitzcarraldo.

The inciting incident of the film is the insistence of Greg’s mother (Connie Britton) that Greg hang out with Rachel (Olivia Cooke), a girl he barely knows who has just been diagnosed with leukemia. That Greg’s mother is so insistent on this is weird and unexplained, but it forces our characters together and forces Greg to confront himself. Rachel, it turns out, is a truth-teller and as she gets sicker, she is bolder, eventually pointing out to Greg that he refuses to become anyone’s friend because he hates himself so much.

Between the scenes of human drama are Greg and Earl’s movies, which are very funny, and various moments dramatized with stop-action clay animation that represent Greg’s metaphors. A moose accidentally trampling a chipmunk is repeated, hilariously. These moments are ingenious and they also serve to lighten an otherwise heavy story. Andrews, who also wrote the novel he adapted, uses some manipulative misdirection to prevent premature grief, and it works, though the ploy is cheap.

Gomez-Rejon, who helmed most of the Coven season of American Horror Story, does wonders with his cast of relative unknown teen actors. Mann is a marvel as Greg, reminding me of a more soulful Anthony Michael Hall in his adolescent agony and his clear, if unfocused, brilliance. I wish Cyler, who has great and subtle moments, had been used more. Earl’s problematic nature as the wise Other would have been more believable and less schematic if he’d been fully realized. Rachel, similarly, is more of a foil for Greg’s maturation than she is a complex character (until the very end), but Cooke is wry and sympathetic. It’s nearly impossible not to be moved by her, by Greg’s difficult love and by the movie he and Earl make for her.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

Written by Jesse Andrews

Starring Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler and Olivia Cooke

Rated PG-13

Opens at Landmark Hillcrest June 19

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Movie review: ‘Spy’ Thu, 04 Jun 2015 15:01:33 +0000

Melissa McCarthy in Spy

Spy is the first Melissa McCarthy movie since Bridesmaids that is actually good. Bridesmaids made her a superstar and got her an Oscar nomination, but her subsequent movies, while profitable, have not deserved her talent. From Identity Thief to Tammy, the films have allowed McCarthy plenty of space to be funny, but they have been terribly plotted or easily forgettable. Spy, written and directed by Paul Feig, who also directed Bridesmaids, is another McCarthy vehicle, but it provides her with a complex inner life, tremendous co-stars and more laughs per minute than any film this year. Happily, it’s also rated R, so McCarthy gets to be as filthy as she wants.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who never leaves her subbasement desk at Langley. She just sits there and helps another agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law), with his missions, radioing into his ear the locations of bad guys, weapons and shortcuts. She’s extraordinarily competent, but she allowed Bradley to keep her at her desk because she was so helpful, and she stayed because she was in love with him. When he’s killed by a vampy arms dealer named Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne) who knows the identities of all of the covert agents, Susan is sent into the field because no one knows her face.

Her boss Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) sends Susan to Paris with a deeply unsexy cover, about which Susan says, “I look like someone’s homophobic aunt.” Charged with just watching the bad guys and reporting back, Susan veers off missions and gets involved with bombs, guns and car chases. Susan is terrified but excited, and she surprises everyone by how great a spy she is, from fooling Rayna to winning in hilarious hand-to-hand combat. The spy caper plot gets messier and James Bondian, but the action never detracts from the comedy or from Susan’s development as an agent and a fully self-confident woman.

McCarthy’s patented under-her-breath dirty jokes work extremely well in Spy, partly because we’re led to believe that she is a schlubby cat lady, so the jokes are a surprise, and partly because they are very, very funny (but unprintable in this publication). Susan is endearing and sympathetic because she looks and acts a lot more like a typical American woman than absurdly skinny Rose Byrne does. Her quest to become a superspy is all the more fun because it is seemingly impossible for a woman who everyone assumes is uncoordinated and weak. But she’s actually not what we assume; she’s almost superheroic in her abilities.

The supporting cast is roundly fantastic. Miranda Hart plays Susan’s helper at Langley Nancy, who is similarly underestimated and hilarious in her gawkiness and bravery. Byrne is fantastic as Rayna, a rich and violent Eastern European with no conscience or patience with the people she assumes are the underclass. The insults she casually lobs at Susan, her looks, and her clothes are very funny.

The big surprise is Jason Statham playing Rick Ford, a parody of the kind of action heroes he normally plays. Bragging, he claims to have done numerous physically impossible things in order to show how Susan will never be good enough to compete with him. But he’s actually incompetent, and she has to clean up his messes, which she does with a roll of her eyes. Law, Janney, Bobby Cannavale (as another arms dealer) and Peter Serafinowicz (as a supposedly Italian spy) all appoint themselves nicely.



Written and Directed by Paul Feig

Starring Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne and Jason Statham

Rated R

Opens at your local multiplex June 5

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Movie review: ‘San Andreas’ Thu, 04 Jun 2015 15:01:31 +0000

Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino in San Andreas

That San Andreas, a disaster film starring Dwayne Johnson, is bad should not surprise anyone. It is about what happens when a series of massive earthquakes caused by the great fault San Andreas – topping at 9.6 on the Richter scale – destroy California and how professional rescuer Ray (Johnson) saves his family in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The special effects are impressive, with every building in downtown Los Angeles and San Francisco destroyed in absurdly detailed, absurdly violent ways. But the screenplay is dumb where it isn’t utterly implausible. No earthquake could do what these in San Andreas do, and characters are forced to make grandiose pronouncements, sometimes directly into the camera. That said, San Andreas is exactly what you’ll expect, with terrible dialogue easily dubbed for audiences overseas, a great deal of mostly exciting action, and a sort of happy ending.

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This dream team disappoints with ‘Tomorrowland’ Thu, 28 May 2015 16:20:08 +0000


I think I am supposed to be perturbed that Tomorrowland only exists because Disney realized that the theme park attraction of the same name had even greater profit potential as a feature film. But bashing Disney for synergistic money mongering is lazy, mostly because that’s what Disney has always done. Most of the time, they make buckets of money by doing it artfully; I cannot begrudge (the first) Pirates of the Caribbean, Cinderella, or the upcoming live action Beauty and the Beast. And despite how weirdly limp Tomorrowland is, I cannot begrudge its themes and its message, which are hopeful and almost inspiring. The problem is the mismatch between Disney’s desired audience and the intents of the artists they hired to draw those kids in.

Disney did create a dream team for the film: Brad Bird, directed The Incredibles and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol; Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of Lost; Jeff Jensen, the sci-fi journalist and scholar; and Claudio Miranda, the Oscar-winning cinematographer of Life of Pi. They created an intriguing way to fictionalize the park attraction. The 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, famous for its futurism and space-age architecture that has been used for many a sci-fi film (most famously Men in Black), is actually a front for a cabal of the world’s greatest scientists. Frank Walker, a boy genius (Thomas Robinson), brings his homemade jetpack to show the judges of an invention contest. He’s dismissed by its haughty leader Nix (Hugh Laurie), but a young girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) takes an interest and gives him a pin and tells him to follow them onto a ride. He’s transported to another dimension where all of the future fantasies of the fair are real.

Fifty years later, a teenage girl named Casey (a wonderful Britt Robertson) receives a pin that transports her, seemingly, to this same place. In her intrepid quest to discover its origin, she meets Athena and then an older, bitter Frank (now George Clooney, phoning it in), who had been exiled from Tomorrowland. Athena tells Frank that Casey may be able to save them all from a mysterious and cataclysmic problem that Nix and others created. Pursued by murderous androids, Frank, Casey and Athena make their way across space time to save the world.

The first half of the film is clearly inspired, visually and thematically, by Stephen Spielberg’s early films, in particular Close Encounters of the Third Kind and ET, and the action is breezy, the jokes light, the characters easily endearing, and the audience joins little Frank and Casey in their awe and wonder. I laughed several times and I enjoyed several scenes, particularly those around Casey and Frank’s meeting and their battle with the androids. But, oddly, once they all end up in Tomorrowland, the film becomes a slog. Partly, this is because Hugh Laurie’s Nix is about as sinister as a hedgehog, and partly it’s the corporate need to make Tomorrowland look and feel like Disney’s Tomorrowland, all smooth edges and dull pastels. This is a Jetsons future, and in 2015, that’s just lame.

Spoiler alert: The coming apocalypse, it turns out, is brought on by society’s pessimism of the future. Dreamers like Casey can save us all. Nix’s speech and Casey’s response are pretty awesome as text, but they are also preachy and not reflected in the film’s action. The tension of the end of the world is barely shown, just narrated, just abstracted. The violence, fear, and doom that would make the stakes feel as high as they are described are not there. The film is so family friendly that it makes sure the kids aren’t scared, but it also makes the adults not care.



Directed by Brad Bird

Written by Damon Lindelof and Brad Bird

Starring George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Raffey Cassidy

Rated PG

At your local multiplex

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Movie review: ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ Thu, 21 May 2015 16:20:31 +0000

Tom Hardy in Mad Max: Fury Road

Before I went to see Mad Max: Fury Road, I spent a weekend watching George Miller’s three previous films about Max Rockatansky, all of which were filmed more than thirty years ago and starred Mel Gibson in the role that made him a superstar. I’d never seen them, and it hadn’t occurred to me to do so until now. This is a little odd, considering my taste in movies, but it happened. I watched them in order, first Mad Max (1979), then Mad Max: The Road Warrior (1981), then Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome (1985). All of them feature Max (Gibson), a stoic hero who tries to avoid a conflict between good and evil around him but then becomes its hero; the films are progressively more expensive and more explosive.

The first film, a low budget Australian surprise that for many years was the most profitable film in history, is an exploitation film; a hyper-violent revenge fantasy about a nearly lawless near future that happens to be directed by an auteur. It’s stunning and unnerving and brilliant. The second is a Hollywood-budgeted post-apocalyptic spectacle so stylistically influential that we cannot imagine dystopian depictions without the mutant vehicles, steampunk machinery, the clothing made of leather and feathers. The third is more of campfest, with Tina Turner as an evil queen and an army of abandoned children that make the film more family friendly. It was the only one of the films not rated R, and that was clearly a deliberate attempt to bring in more money.

Decades later, after Miller made Babe and won an Oscar for Happy Feet, he’s returned to Max, recast him with the wonderfully intense Tom Hardy, and paired him with an astonishing Charlize Theron, and made a film as surprising as Mad Max was. It’s the best action film in years. I haven’t seen a movie so jaw-dropping, so bold and ambitious and thrilling, since The Matrix 16 years ago. And by jaw-dropping, I mean my jaw actually dropped as I leaned forward in my seat in giddy awe.

At the beginning of the new film, Max is again a loner on the run in the barren wasteland left by a nuclear war. He’s captured by the more-or-less insane followers of a disfigured megalomaniacal water-hording warlord known an Immortan Joe, who is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also played Toecutter, the villain from the original Mad Max. While Max is being drained of his blood to transfer Joe’s henchman Nux (Nicholas Hoult), Joe’s trusted Imperator Furiosa (Theron) absconds with four of Joe’s young wives, hidden in a tanker that was meant to take water to Gastown, where it would be traded for fuel. Joe and his army chase after Furiosa, with Max stuck to a poll on the front of Nux’s car, their veins still hooked together. Eventually, Max and Furiosa reluctantly team up, and some of the greatest chase scenes in film history ensue.

The genius of Fury Road is not in its story, which is ultimately a simple good versus evil, overthrow the tyrant, overcome the misogyny, and avenge the dead tale that hardly breaks any new ground in continuing the themes of the other Mad Max films. Yes, Furiosa is a fantastic character, and more interesting that the simple and taciturn Max, but we’ve had great female action heroes before, though few as well acted as Furiosa, who Theron has made already iconic with physical and emotional, um, ferocity. It is Miller’s visual storytelling, from the wrenching and dusty roller coaster chase scenes to the still moments of sometimes horrid desert beauty, a mad combination of David Lean and Terry Gilliam, Lawrence of Arabia crossed with Brazil, which feels totally new, even if it is all a clear descendent of Miller’s previous work. This is operatic action, so bombastic and intense and engulfing that I felt physically exhausted at the end of the film, as if a woman with massive lungs had belted “The Ride of the Valkyries” right into my face, the force of her voice flattening my hair and numbing my skin.


Mad Max: Fury Road

Directed by George Miller

Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nick Lathouris

Starring Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron and Nicholas Hoult

Rated R

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‘Pitch Perfect 2’ has a lot to live up to Thu, 14 May 2015 15:00:33 +0000

One of the reasons that the college a cappella competition comedy Pitch Perfect succeeded so well three years ago was that it was a huge surprise: the little film that seemed to be surfing on the success of TV’s Glee was actually really funny, really entertaining and really well made. Expectations were low; experiences were great. The sequel has our goodwill but it also has a lot to live up to, and despite everyone trying very hard, Pitch Perfect 2 just can’t reproduce that shocking lightning strike from 2012.

The second film more or less has the same plot as the first film. Our heroes the Barden College Bellas fail miserably after years of success and have to overcome many challenges, dastardly rivals and an iffy new recruit to reclaim their stature. In the first film, the recruit was Becca (Anna Kendrick), a sullen hipster who became the group’s star arranger. In the sequel, she is a key member but wants to move on from college and is secretly interning for a music producer (Keegan-Michael Key). The new recruit is Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), a goofy freshman whose mother was a star of the Bellas in the early 1980s and who is a secret songwriting talent.

The latest big disaster the Bellas must recover from is an accidentally profane performance at the Kennedy Center in front of the Obamas that becomes a national scandal. The only way they can stop from being forcibly disbanded is if the Bellas win the international a cappella competition that no American team has ever won before. The favorites are the German team Das Sound Machine (led by the brilliant duo of Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Flula Borg), a collective of avant garde dancers and accented singers who, honestly, are much more interesting than the Bellas, and certainly funnier. But they’re Germans, so they’re evil, in a weird retro way.

The plot goes much the way you’d expect from a competition comedy set among college kids. There are two romances, one between Emily and dorky Benji and the other between the first film’s breakout star Rebel Wilson’s Fat Amy and the annoying yet endearing Bumper (Adam DeVine). Neither are particularly engaging, despite Wilson and DeVine’s obvious comic skills. Becca’s internship subplot is similarly lackluster. Much of this is the fault of screenwriter Kay Cannon who can pen a one-line zinger but is not as skillful at fully realized, emotionally believable scenes. Her reliance on race-based humor is a bigger problem; many of the jokes are just distractingly racist, deadening otherwise good scenes. That said, some of the other jokes are very funny and work. Still others fall flat because of weird timing or odd editing, and that is first-time director Elizabeth Banks’ fault.

While she flubs some of the comedy, Banks and the brilliant choreographer Aakomon Jones craft some thrilling musical numbers. The Bellas specialize in the mash-ups of pop songs, and these are arranged and sung nicely, giving many in the group solos and showcasing some sweet, ingenious movements. As I mentioned above, however, Das Sound Machine’s numbers are even better. The outrageous cross between effete Sprockets style, Madonna’s 1990s tour styles and hyperbolic songs by Muse and Fall Out Boy made my jaw drop in the theater. I doubt they’ll do another sequel, but if they do, I hope it’s all about Das Sound Machine.


Pitch Perfect 2

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

Written by Kay Cannon

Starring Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson and Hailee Steinfeld

Rated PG-13

Opens at your local multiplex May 15

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Movie review: ‘The D Train’ Thu, 07 May 2015 18:56:31 +0000

James Marsden and Jack Black in The D Train

I don’t know what to make of Mike White’s presence in a small role in the new film D Train, or of his name in the producing credits. White, who is a successful and talented screenwriter of The Good Girl and School of Rock, first became famous for writing and starring in Chuck and Buck, a gloriously creepy movie about an emotionally stunted gay man who stalks the guy, played by Chris Weitz, who he sexually experimented with as a kid. Chuck and Buck was a big deal in queer cinema 15 years ago, and it holds up for its emotional honesty and daring storyline. I’m not sure why White would give his blessing to a weirdly unsuccessful retread of his work: D Train has a very similar plot, with Jack Black as emotionally off-kilter stalker and James Marsden as his obsession, but the movie is mystifying in its tone and themes, as undeliberately off-kilter as Chuck and Buck was deliberate.

Jack Black plays Dan Landsman, the self-appointed chair of his high school 20th reunion committee, which includes White’s character Jerry, who seems to be the only one who is remotely fond of Dan. Dan is arrogant about his likability and popularity, and yet is neither likable nor popular, as we learn early on when the rest of the committee avoids having beers with him and when he calls classmates to invite them to the reunion and none of them remember him, let alone use his various self-given nicknames, from D Man to D Fresh. It’s more than trying too hard and it’s discomfiting; Jack Black is obviously perfectly cast. One night he sees an advertisement for Banana Boat suntan lotion and it stars Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), the stud of Dan’s class of 1994. Despite the doubts of his wife Stacey (Kathryn Hahn), Dan gets it into his head that if he can get Oliver to come to the reunion, everyone else from the class will, too. Oliver was that popular. He fabricates an important business meeting in Los Angeles, but he flubs the lie just enough to end up on the trip with his clueless and over-trusting boss Bill, played by Jeffrey Tambor.

When Dan arrives in L.A., Oliver reluctantly agrees to meet him for a drink. One drink becomes many, and then there’s cocaine, and then Oliver agrees to pretend to be the man Dan and his boss are supposed to meet. When this, rather bizarrely, works, the two go out partying again, and it gets much crazier than before. Now for the spoiler alert: While this plot point happens early in the film, it’s still not mentioned in the trailer and would perhaps spoil a surprise. So, you’ve been warned. Drunk, high and elated, Oliver and Dan have sex. Openly bisexual, Oliver is totally at ease with the event, but Dan is freaked out. And when Oliver agrees to come to the reunion and stay at Dan and Stacey’s house, things get even more freaky as Dan’s lies begin to unravel. And how they unravel.

While Chuck and Buck’s plot was somewhat shocking if ultimately believable, D Train’s plot is a conceit in search of grounded reality. While drugs and alcohol can lead to odd choices, unless Dan was actually somewhat attracted to men, sleeping with Oliver doesn’t seem plausible. Dan’s attraction to Oliver is depicted not as sexual but as desperate. Dan insists he’s straight throughout, and the film doesn’t contradict his statements; Oliver is the guy Dan desperately wants to be, or at least be validated by, and having sex with him is just an extreme way of handling this desperation.

But this is my generous interpretation, not what is clearly communicated by writer-directors Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul. I think the film is attempting to skewer the puerile desire to be popular, to be a certain kind of manly and certain kind of successful. But Mogel and Paul can never settle on a consistent tone, either satirical or naturalistic, never truly explore Dan’s sadness or shame, never treat Stacey more than an innocent bystander. And Oliver is just a careless, hedonistic bisexual, barely shaded into a sympathetic, let alone authentic, character. While watching, I kept thinking that White could have turned all of this into something special. Then I realized he did, 15 years ago.


The D Train

Written and directed by Andrew Mogel and Jarrad Paul

Starring Jack Black, James Marsden and Kathryn Hahn

Rated R

Opens May 8 at your local multiplex

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Another great piece of superhero entertainment from Joss Whedon Thu, 30 Apr 2015 17:06:40 +0000
Robert Downey Jr. in Avengers: Age of Ultron

The Avengers: Age of Ultron

It should come as no surprise to my readers that I have a thing for superheroes. I’ve reviewed nearly every superhero movie released in the last five years, and in “DVR This” I’ve written about just about all of the TV series, from Arrow to Daredevil. Some are better than others, but by and large they’ve been pretty good, with the films based in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) by far the best made, with the richest stories and best character development.

When Marvel started making films for the MCU seven years ago, first with Iron Man, then Thor, then Captain America, the goal was to culminate in a series of movies about the superhero team the Avengers. It was a brilliant business move, because when they did, The Avengers became the second highest grossing film in history. But it wasn’t just the triumph of marketing; The Avengers is a great movie, too. This was in no small part because Joss Whedon, the immensely talented creator of the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, was hired to write and direct. For the film’s sequel, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Whedon has produced another greatly enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment, one of the best episodes in the increasingly populated and complicated MCU storyline.

Age of Ultron picks up shortly after the heroes of the TV series Agents of SHIELD discover the location of the secret base of a team of evil Hydra scientists. The film begins with the Avengers attacking the base, encountering little resistance aside from super-powered twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson), and regaining the scepter of Loki, the villain of the previous Avengers film. Back in their high-rise base, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), also known as armored and weaponized Iron Man, uses the scepter to power his research on artificial intelligence. He wants to create a corps of robots that can replace the Avengers. He persuades Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who becomes the giant green Hulk when he’s angry, to help him and to keep it from Captain America (Chris Evans), the cautious do-gooder who would be against tinkering with an alien power source like the scepter. It turns out the Captain would have been right to worry: they accidentally create Ultron (brilliantly voiced by James Spader), a wildly powerful AI-powered robot that beats the crap out of the Avengers before setting off to destroy humanity. He’s programmed to save the world, and its worst enemy is homo sapiens. The Avengers regroup to stop the misguided machine, and we get lots of action, a special effects bonanza, a bunch of good one-liners and hints of future film plots.

As he showed with Buffy and Firefly, Whedon is particularly adept at ensemble action, juggling characterization of multiple figures with battles and explosions. There are very few lines that don’t do important work, either to deepen our understanding of someone, propel the plot, or elicit laughs, and often all at the same time. Ultron, a nearly omniscient megalomaniac, gets the most fun stuff, and Spader has a great time drolly saying things like “I’m going to show you something beautiful: people, screaming for mercy!”

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who was under-utilized in the previous film, gets a family and an interior life, while the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) flirts with Banner and tames the Hulk, giving both of them more complex personas. Iron Man, Captain America and Thor are actually the least interesting figures in the film, probably because they have been so thoroughly developed previously, but they figure greatly in the action.

Unlike MCU’s previous film Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which was a thinly veiled critique of the NSA’s surveillance system while also being a thrilling action film, Age of Ultron does little beyond depict superheroes being super and heroic. Ultron represents the ultimate danger of technology and the hubris of men like Tony Stark, but this theme has been so thoroughly mined – from Metropolis to Blade Runner to Terminator to Ex Machina – that even Whedon can’t pull out anything golden. He was hampered by the need for Age of Ultron to be a chapter in a much longer novel written by many other people in multiple board rooms. That might make for great business, but not necessarily for great art.


The Avengers: Age of Ultron

Written and directed by Joss Whedon

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson and James Spader

Rated PG-13

At your local mulitplex

No reason to see the 3-D version

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Despite its flaws ‘The Water Diviner’ is a beautiful and moving movie Thu, 23 Apr 2015 19:05:10 +0000

Russell Crowe in The Water Diviner

The 100th anniversary of World War I is passing by in the United States quietly mostly because, I suspect, how little the United States suffered during that war, compared to Europe and its colonies. Around 17 million soldiers and civilians died during the war’s four years; it wiped away huge swaths of the British, French, German, Italian, Russian and Turkish population, and its terrible legacy laid the groundwork for the even worse World War II. Among the many disastrous, ultimately pointless, battles was Gallipoli, where a combined force of French and British Commonwealth soldiers tried to wrest control of a key peninsula in what is now Turkey. Each had about 250,000 casualties.

The deaths of soldiers from Australia and New Zealand are credited with giving rise to those nations’ nationalist consciousness, the holiday marking the beginning of the battle is much more important than Remembrance Day, their version of Memorial Day. To them, Gallipoli is something like Iwo Jima or Gettysburg are to Americans. Peter Weir’s 1981 epic Gallipoli is the definitive filmic adaptation, and in his first film as a director Russell Crowe wanted to make something as momentous, to make an Australian Saving Private Ryan. To say that he fails is not surprising, but that doesn’t mean The Water Diviner is worthless, because it’s actually beautiful and moving, if very flawed.

Based on a true story, The Water Diviner follows Conner (Russell Crowe), a western Australian rancher, on his quest to find the bodies of his three sons who were all killed on the same day on Gallipoli. Grief led to Connor’s wife’s suicide and to his constant sorrow, he feels a moral duty to bury his sons next to his wife in Australia. It is four years after the battle, shortly after the Allied forces won the war and are now in the process of partitioning the now defunct Ottoman Empire. Istanbul is chaotic, and the British don’t want Connor there. His gorgeous widowed hotelkeeper Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) tells him to pay a fisherman to take him to Gallipoli, and he goes. The lieutenant in charge of exhuming the bodies (Jai Courtney) reluctantly lets Connor stay and look: “Because he is the only father who came looking.” Also there are cowed, but honorable Turkish officers, including a very sympathetic Major Hasan (Yilmaz Erdogan). Using the same rather miraculous skills he uses to find water in the dusty Australian outback, Connor finds where his sons died. They only find two bodies, however, and after the British refuse to help him find the third, Connor enlists Hasan, who has recently joined the Turkish nationalist resistance.

There’s a lot of plot in The Water Diviner and it seems the result of wanting to include everything the screenwriters learned while doing research for the film, from Middle Eastern politics to Ottoman gender roles. The central plot, that of Connor’s need to make his family whole, is extremely compelling, but Hasan’s role in the burgeoning Turkish nation seems like a subplot tacked on mostly to create action scenes. Connor’s courtship of Ayshe is sweet, if unrealistic, and their scenes are as clichéd as anything in the film’s entirely too familiar third act.

It’s hard to fault the filmmakers’ desire to create a story about the sorrow of war that also reconciles nations and families destroyed by a meaningless war. That is something I can laud, and it makes up for Crowe’s ham-fisted direction. That said, he is great directing himself as a sad, determined, deeply kind man. And he was very smart to hire the Peter Jackson’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Andrew Lesnie; the film is stunningly beautiful, from its bleak landscapes to its disturbing battle scenes.


The Water Diviner

Directed by Russell Crowe

Written by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios

Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yilmaz Erdogan

Rated R

Opens April 24 at your local multiplex

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A gorgeous psychological thriller about A.I. Thu, 16 Apr 2015 16:42:33 +0000

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina

Hollywood is enthralled with big budget science fiction and fantasy films, particularly those starring superheroes, but despite their technological sophistication few of them do much more than please the eyes and leave you a little hard of hearing. Too much of a good thing is not good. These films have also brought along with them a renaissance of “hard” sci-fi, speculative fiction that makes you think more than it makes you drop your jaw in awe of the special effects. In the last few years, brainy big budget films like Inception, Interstellar, and District 9 have joined the exquisite, modestly budgeted Her and Under the Skin. Belonging to the latter category is Alex Garland’s fantastic Ex Machina, a gorgeous psychological thriller about artificial intelligence, arrogance, and, deliberately or not, misogyny.

Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb, a 25-year-old coder at a massive, Google-like tech firm called Bluebook. He receives notification that he has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with Bluebook’s reclusive, eccentric genius founder at his estate in a nameless, northern mountain valley. In these sorts of tales, Bluebook’s founder would most likely be a socially awkward geek or a mustache-twirling force of malevolence. But founder Nathan, played by a bearded and buff Oscar Isaac, is a hard-drinking boxing enthusiast dude bro. Caleb, slight and pale and stereotypically nerdy, is perhaps more ill at ease by Nathan’s masculine aggression than his genius. He seems more comfortable with Ava, the android artificial intelligence that Nathan had brought Caleb to give the Turing Test, the procedure devised by Alan Turing (the subject of The Imitation Game) to determine whether an intelligence is human or computerized.

Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, has a face like that of a beautiful woman and a body shaped like one, though more clearly robotic. She is stunning, both for her beauty but also for her human qualities; surprise, humor, sadness, curiosity and love. Caleb is astonished and as he spends more time with her, is clearly infatuated. Nathan is watching the entire time through closed-circuit video that monitors everything in the sprawling house – except when the power goes out, which happens inexplicably often. It is during these outages that Ava is able to communicate with Caleb without Nathan knowing, when she tells Caleb not to trust anything Nathan says.

Nathan is not only arrogant and controlling, but he’s also a creepy misogynist. There’s a reason his A.I. prototypes all look like models, are mostly naked and are locked in glass cages. It’s not entirely clear if Garland is deliberately arguing that Nathan’s violent sexism and Caleb’s paternalistic version are either side-effects or precursors of their techno-fetishism, but it’s hard to ignore that this is underlying the film’s plot.

Alex Garland, celebrated writer of the novels The Beach and The Tesseract and the films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is making his directorial debut with Ex Machina, and this is a pretty stunning start. While much of the film’s sleekly beautiful look can easily be attributed to production designer Mark Digby, who performed the same duty for Slumdog Millionaire and Rush, and the less well-known cinematographer Rob Hardy, Garland must be credited for pulling out exceptional performances from Gleeson, Isaac and Vikander.

Gleeson and Isaac, soon to be the stars of the new Star Wars film, are excellent, with Gleeson’s sympathetic and humane everyman contrasting with Isaac’s charismatic and cruel superman. Vikander is the best cinematic android since Michael Fassbender in Prometheus, and she’s a wonderful mystery. She’s fabricated, as is her intelligence. But does she have free will or is she just running through her programming?

Ex Machina

Written and directed by Alex Garland

Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac and Alicia Vikander

Rated R

Opens April 25 at Landmark Hillcrest

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Movie review: ‘Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief’ Thu, 09 Apr 2015 19:20:12 +0000

Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

I now live five blocks from the giant blue Scientology building in Hollywood, and I often catch a bus at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vermont Avenue, where young Scientologists, wearing blue blazers and solicitous smiles pass out proselytizing leaflets proclaiming, as all religions do, that they have the true answers to enlightenment. I avoid them. This is unfair and, honestly, bigoted, because the vast majority of Scientologists are good people looking for answers to life’s problems; they are not among the members of the Church hierarchy who, according to critics, operate like an organized criminal syndicate that happens to also be a cult. But you never know who among the foot soldiers is actually, well, a soldier who might eventually con me, stalk me, or keep me prisoner in a desert compound. As someone who has spent his life looking for answers to deep emotional questions, I have great empathy for people doing the same thing. But after watching Going Clear, Alex Gibney’s extraordinary and damning documentary based on Lawrence Wright’s book of the same name, I worry for these young Scientologists and what might happen to them.

Using archival footage, interviews with former church members, and Wright’s great muckraking, Gibney tells the story of Scientology’s origins as the invention of science fiction pulp writer and eccentric L. Ron Hubbard to its current form as a multi-billion dollar non-profit corporation run by David Miscavige who is, according to the film, a paranoid megalomaniac. Even if you thought you knew a good deal about Scientology, as I had, you might be flummoxed by the story Gibney tells. Old interviews with jocular Hubbard discussing Scientology’s teachings and his best-selling book Dianetics – described as “folk psychology” by one critic in the film – are interspersed with damning recollections of Hubbard’s first wife and early adherents, who tell of confessional “auditing,” forced labor, kidnapping, tax evasion, child neglect, and what most would deem to be brainwashing.

When Hubbard died in 1986, his young, pathologically ambitious deputy David Miscavige assumed control of the church and led it to become the tax-free conglomerate of religious real estate holdings and celebrity worship. This part of the movie is perhaps even more surprising because it involves characters we know, and the story of how the church almost lost Tom Cruise to Nicole Kidman and then destroyed their marriage in order to keep him and turn him into the wacky envoy of the Church to the world is both horrifying and darkly hilarious. While it is implied that the church controls Travolta and Cruise partly by blackmailing them with knowledge of their same-sex relations, for what I assume are legal reasons, Gibney doesn’t say it out right. But Oscar-winning writer and director of Crash Paul Haggis describes leaving the church when he found out how horribly it was treating his two lesbian daughters.

Scientology is much more famous than it is popular. There are probably only around 100,000 actual active Scientologists in the world (even if the Church claims, speciously, many more) but because of the religion’s foothold in Los Angeles and its large number of adherents among the Hollywood elite, we hear a lot about it. John Travolta has been a vocal scientologist since the late 1970s and Cruise is its current ambassador. Other famed Hollywood Scientologists: Elisabeth Moss, Giovanni Ribisi, Kirstie Alley, Jenna Elfman and recent Grammy winner Beck. (Oh, and Charles Manson.)

Going Clear is greatly based on its most famous defectors, including Haggis, as well as former Church leaders Mike Rinder, Marty Rathbum and Tom De Vocht. The focus of the film on the Church’s most vocal detractors clearly tilts its point of view, but Travolta, Cruise, Miscavige all refused to be interviewed. But even if they had been, the rest of the evidence Gibney presented wouldn’t have changed.


Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief

Written and directed by Alex Gibney

Basic on the book by Lawrence Wright

With Paul Haggis, John Travolta and Tom Cruise

Not rated


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Spotlight on a midlife search for truth Thu, 02 Apr 2015 14:42:02 +0000

Adam Driver and Ben Stiller in While We’re Young

Maybe it’s because I’m about the same age at the characters Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts play in While We’re Young that I so identified with them, their ennui about aging and their adulation of a much younger, fresh and earnest couple played by Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried. Josh (Stiller) and Cornelia (Watts) have reached their early middle age and discovered that they have not become the people they’d planned to become. They seem comfortable – he teaches documentary filmmaking and she produces the movies of her famous father and they have a nice apartment somewhere in New York City – but Josh, especially, is not the successful, lauded documentarian he wanted to be, and they do not have children. At the beginning of the film, they talk about how great it is that they’re free to do whatever they want because they’re not tied down, that they don’t need kids to be fulfilled. But when they meet Jamie (Driver, playing a version of Adam from Girls) and Darby (Seyfried, adorable but underused), Josh suddenly, Cornelia more slowly, realizes that they are somewhat unfulfilled.

Jamie and Darby are quintessential New York hipsters. They live in a loft in Bushwick, Brooklyn, decorated with, as Cornelia notes, stuff she and Josh would have thrown out. But Jamie and Darby make it look great! They listen to vinyl, write on typewriters, wear ironic clothing but do it sincerely. Jamie wants to be a documentary filmmaker and is solicitous of especially Josh’s advice; Darby takes a very awkward Cornelia to a hip-hop dance class, and the four of them start spending a lot of time together, including going on a ritualized hallucinogenic trip. But when Josh starts to help Jamie on his movie, Josh gets jealous as Jamie turns out to be more than just a dabbler in film. Then Josh gets suspicious. Just how authentic is Jamie?

The movie works on two levels. It is a brilliantly funny satire of artistic pretensions, middle class dissatisfaction and the so-called search for truth. The film Josh has been making for a decade is a hilariously turgid, over-intellectualized mess, and his description of it while pitching to a drunk hedge fund manager is one of Stiller’s better filmed monologues (though he’s still doing Ben Stiller, which never changes). Cornelia is horrified by a mommy-and-baby music class, and hilariously so; Watts gets more comedy from silent facial expressions than the other actors in the film do with hundreds of words.

It is also a more serious movie about aging, recognizing limitations and forgiving yourself for failing. Jamie and Darby are their own characters, but they serve mostly as catalysts for Josh’s early-mid-life crisis which Cornelia is forced to share. He’s disappointed that he didn’t become the success that Cornelia’s father is and disappointed they didn’t have children. Cornelia, who is less internally conflicted and maybe a bit underwritten, loves her husband but not his self-doubt and self-delusions.

Baumbach writes subtle comedy, influenced greatly by Woody Allen, and While We’re Young is my favorite of his films. His most famous, The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha, are incredibly smart commentaries on family and youth, respectively, but also are so arch as to seem artificial, almost unbelievable. I recognized the people in While We’re Young and I sympathized with them, even when they made terrible choices or said the worst possible thing at the worst possible time. It’s hard getting older and recognizing your mistakes. Baumbach helps us to recognize this and laugh about it.

While We’re Young

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach

Starring Ben Stiller, Naomi Watts and Adam Driver

Opens April 3 at Landmark Hillcrest

Rated R

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Gay panic: The motion picture Thu, 26 Mar 2015 19:49:52 +0000

Kevin Hart and Will Ferrell in Get Hard

People laughed during the preview screening of Get Hard. This is what bothered me most about the comedy featuring Will Ferrell as a clueless finance executive who hires a much more clueful Kevin Hart to prepare him for 10 years in prison. More than how terribly made it is, how pathetic and offensive its humor is, how simply dumb it is, what irks me most about Get Hard is that people liked it. And more than whether or not the people in Hollywood are gay, straight, black, white, conservative or progressive, Get Hard’s tickets sales are what will ensure that Hollywood continues to make movies like Get Hard, movies that, yes, are inept, but are also, and more importantly, bad for our culture.

Ferrell plays James King, an extremely successful investment banker engaged to the hot, but spoiled daughter (Alison Brie) of the boss he idolized (Craig T. Nelson). At their engagement party, James is arrested for embezzlement and fraud, and because of either idiocy or astonishing entitlement, he thinks his innocence will keep him from prison. So, he refuses a plea deal, and gets a decade in San Quentin. After getting dumped and realizing he can’t escape his fate, he hires the manager of the little car wash company set up in his firm’s parking garage to teach him how to survive prison. Darnell (Kevin Hart) has never been to prison; in fact, he’s never even had a parking ticket. But because Darnell is black, James just assumes he’s been to prison. And Darnell needs the $30,000 James is offering because he wants to move out of Crenshaw to a safer neighborhood with better schools for his daughter.

Hilarity, in theory, should ensue. To be truthful, I laughed several times. Some of the racial humor involving James’s naiveté about black culture is funny, if clichéd and obvious. Kevin Hart’s responses to James, if silly, earned my chuckles. And some of their throw-away lines, most likely improvisation, were great, things like the string of absurdly original, often physically impossible, threats James makes while trying to learn to be threatening.

But even those were a continuation of one of the two jokes that the entire film rests on: There’s nothing more terrifying than gay sex except for forced gay sex. Having a sexual relationship with another inmate is seen as horrifying, as truly cruel punishment, and these jokes are bluntly, ridiculously homophobic. The joke is not about how silly James’s fear of gay sex is but rather how disgusting, bizarre and wrong gay sex is. A scene where Darnell takes James to a gay brunch spot and makes him pick up a guy and learn how to give a blowjob – yes, this is something that actually happens – was met with howls of laughter by the audience with whom I saw the film. James of course doesn’t go through with it, but he gets close enough, while making a face of such discomfiting horror, to make everyone watching uncomfortable. Some people find that discomfort hilarious. I was appalled, dumbstruck. Another gay critic who I was sitting with had been silent for the film up until then, when he said to me, “What the fuck am I watching?” What the fuck indeed.

The jokes about anal rape are constant. These jokes are the red meat of bro humor. According to our filmed popular culture, which may or may not reflect our actual culture, the worst fate for a heterosexual American man is the emasculation and humiliation of being raped by a man, so threatening someone with that fate, joking about that fate, basing an entire film plot on the fear of that fate is normal. Or as Will Ferrell told HitFix, “The premise of the movie is addressing the fears that someone may have going into prison. We didn’t come up with those fears. They’re just a societal norm.”

It’s a complex problem, though, because rape is horrible. And prison rape is horrible. But it’s not the violence or the violation that is what is joked about, it is the loss of masculinity, it is becoming the bitch to a man more powerful and more manly than you. This anxiety is at the heart of the gay panic defense for violent reactions to same sex flirtation. Making an entire film that encourages this norm, this fear, the basis for so much homophobia, is bad for our culture, and Ferrell, a supposed progressive, is either as clueless as James or being disingenuous.

Hart, in response to the same criticism, explained, “I said to myself, ‘funny is funny.’ And at the end of the day, funny is funny regardless of what area it’s coming from.” That’s just not true. Funny is not physics. It’s not a universal truth, like force equals mass times acceleration. It’s culturally, historically, situationally specific, and sometimes what you think is funny is hurtful to someone else and your laughter makes that hurt worse. Your laughter at that joke about anal rape makes homophobia worse, makes actual rape more stigmatized and makes prison worse. And people laughed at Get Hard. A lot of them.


Get Hard

Directed by Etan Cohen

Written by Jay Martel, Ian Roberts and Etan Cohen

Starring Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart and Craig T. Nelson

Rated R

At your local multiplex

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Insurgent Thu, 26 Mar 2015 19:37:04 +0000

Theo James and Shailene Woodley in Insurgent

Also playing

The second in the Divergent series, a sub-Hunger Games dystopian trilogy about a young woman who is the key to her oppressed society’s freedom, Insurgent is disappointingly worse than its predecessor. Considering the cast – the remarkable Shailene Woodley as our heroine Tris, studly Theo James as her boyfriend Four, Kate Winslet as their fascist nemesis, Naomi Watts as Four’s mother, Ansel Elgort as Tris’ sister, Miles Teller as their possible ally or possible villain – it’s hard not to hope for something powerful, smart or at least well-acted. The politics of the film’s culture, in which everyone is placed in factions that fit their abilities perfectly, are schematic and obvious. The action scenes are finely exciting, the virtual reality action scenes are better, but the plotting is plodding and no one is interesting enough to care about. In the first film, Tris and Four’s courtship gave off some heat, but without that tension, the focus is on Tris’ internal life, which is mostly represented by fever dreams and CGI.

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An instant classic is born Thu, 19 Mar 2015 21:09:58 +0000

Lily James in Cinderella

Sometimes, you have to do it straight. I don’t mean that you need to be heterosexual – perish the thought – but rather that you sometimes need to resist the temptation to change a classic. You don’t have to set Hamlet in 21st century Manhattan, sing “Billie Jean” as a guitar ballad, turn Hansel and Gretel into paramilitary witch hunters or make Sleeping Beauty a story about a broken-hearted fairy and not a wronged princess. The new interpretation can be fun, fascinating, even fantastic, but in our embrace of this postmodern twist on an old reliable we can sometimes forget why the old was reliable.

Cinderella, one of the most indelible of Western fairy tales, has been reinterpreted countless times since it first appeared in print in the 17th century; but mostly the story stays true to its origins: a wealthy girl is turned into a servant by a horrible stepmother and a fairy godmother helps the girl win the heart and hand of a charming prince. The animated Disney version released in 1950 is the most famous, and its story structure, characters and lyrics from its songs are so iconic that most people cannot think of Cinderella without thinking of Gus the mouse, the wicked stepsisters Drisella and Anastasia, and “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo.” While Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was wildly reimagined into the commercially successful but artistically and thematically messy Maleficent, with Disney’s massively budgeted live action version of Cinderella, they didn’t stray more than a few inches from the source material. And the result is an instant classic.

The plot should be familiar to most of us. In a small nameless kingdom, Ella (Lily James, with Eloise Webb as a young girl) is the beautiful and happy only daughter of a kind and wealthy trader (Ben Chaplin) and his perfect wife (Hayley Atwell). Their utopian family is ruptured when Ella’s mother dies; before she does, she tells Ella that she must always have courage and be kind. With this mantra and motto in her head and tittering mice as her only friends, she tries to make the best of her snide stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and ridiculously vapid stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger), even after her father dies and these interlopers set out to ruin Ella’s life.

Meanwhile, the kingdom’s prince (Richard Madden) is being pressured to find a bride as his father (Derek Jacobi) is dying. The rest of the story is probably embedded in your brain whether you like it or not.

The basics of the film are lifted from the 65-year-old animated version, but Chris Weitz’s screenplay modernizes some of the more retrograde politics. There are multiple non-white characters, though not among the leads. Cinderella is a bold girl who speaks her mind, rather than a pretty victim of circumstance; James, best known as the similarly feisty Lady Rose in Downton Abbey, is perfectly cast. And the wicked stepmother is given real psychological motivation for her behavior. She is a woman ruined by her need for men to take care of her. This gives Blanchett ample space to be both hilariously bitchy and justifiably desperate, even sympathetic.

Various jokes, noticeable probably only to adults in the audience, show a certain level of irony to the proceedings, but most of the script is decidedly earnest. This suits director Kenneth Branagh’s talents. He is contemporary film’s great director of Shakespeare, and his reverence to and skill with classicism gives the story’s great moments – the majesty of the ball, the beauty of the slipper, the enchantment of the fairy godmother’s spells and the epic nature of the prince and Ella’s love – emotional heft that I couldn’t imagine could come from such an old story.

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Movie review — ‘Chappie:’ This robot works! Thu, 12 Mar 2015 17:51:13 +0000

Dev Patel and Sharlto Copley in Chappie

When Neill Blomkamp arrived with District 9 in 2009, he was heralded as the next great science fiction filmmaker. The film about apartheid policies against deceptively scary looking aliens in a slightly futuristic South Africa was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, most deservedly. Because of how good District 9 was, his not great, but certainly not awful follow-up Elysium was trashed by disappointed critics, who were even nastier last week with Chappie, his third film in his trilogy of speculative fables about oppression and technology. And I can’t fathom the hatred of the film, which I thoroughly enjoyed and found politically pointed.

Like District 9, Chappie takes place in a near-future South Africa ravaged by poverty and crime. There are no stranded aliens in Chappie, however, but rather incredibly effective robot police. These were built by a company called Tetravaal, run by Michelle Bradley, who is played by an under-utilized Sigourney Weaver, and designed by whiz kid Deon Wilson, played by Dev Patel, the star of Slumdog Millionaire. Not content with his success, he wants to take the robots further and give them artificial intelligence that includes free will, artistic judgement and complex emotions. Michelle tells him not to bother, so he works in secret, which involves borrowing a key chip that is never to leave the company’s headquarters. Deon’s rival engineer Vincent Moore’s larger, absurdly powerful designs are not going anywhere, and Vincent, played by a mulleted Hugh Jackman, is determined to take down Deon and his robots, no matter the cost.

Meanwhile, a trio of criminals, played by Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser of the South African bizarre art-pop band Die Antwood and Jose Pablo Cantillo, are in trouble with a psychotic gang leader. They need a lot of money and fast, and Yolandi figures the best way to score a major heist is to kidnap Deon and figure out how to turn off the robot cops. However, when they abduct Deon, he has just figured out how to create the artificial intelligence; while with the trio, he turns on Chappie, a modified version of his robot that can learn and develop like a child, only several thousand times faster. Deon is kicked out of the trio’s hideout, and Chappie is raised into a teenager – in two days. He talks in South African slang, tries to stay true to the moral compass Deon tried to instill in him, and fiercely loves Yolandi, who is a doting, if slightly bonkers, mother.

But then Vincent’s insane ambition gets in the way, and all hell breaks loose.

While there’s a hefty amount of action, particularly in the violent third act, the charm of the movie is in Chappie’s development as a person and his relationships with Yolandi, Ninja, and Deon. Voiced by Sharlto Copley, who is in all of Blomkamp’s films, Chappie is a delightful character, part ET, part Number Five, part South Park kid. Yolandi and Ninja, who seem to grate on some audience members and critics, are wildly weird as criminals, but they make the film much more interesting and original than any other recent robots-are-scary blockbusters in recent years, from I, Robot to the Terminator also-rans. Patel is convincing, though not nearly as interesting at Jackman’s Vincent, who is amusingly evil. It’s fun to see Hugh Jackman play against type.

I think Chappie works not only because of Blomkamp’s fine direction and witty writing, but also because he makes science fiction with clear social commentary. The militarization of the police, legal hyper violence as a means of social control, and a lack of human emotion in governance are all criticized. Whatever the film’s limitations, whether it’s too cute or too moralistic, Blomkamp’s politics are needed.



Written and directed by Neill Blomkamp

Starring Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman

Rated R

At your local multiplex

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A wonderfully acted romantic comedy Thu, 05 Mar 2015 18:46:39 +0000

Will Smith and Margot Robbie in Focus

I heard someone on the radio refer to Focus as “that Will Smith movie the studio is dumping in February.” I was surprised partly because Will Smith movies, even atrocious ones, don’t ever get dumped during the late summer or early winter dump zones, and partly because Focus is written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra, who don’t make bad movies. Focus, while frothy and flawed, fits nicely into Requa and Ficarra’s oeuvre of very funny, handsomely made, wonderfully acted romantic comedies.

Will Smith plays Nicky, an extremely successful and absurdly smooth conman who meets a blonde seductress named Jess when she tries to con him and fails miserably. Jess, played by Margot Robbie, asks Nicky to teach her to be a better con artist, and while he is resistant of developing any sort of relationship, he is clearly drawn to her. He gives her some pointers and then vanishes. She finds him in New Orleans, where he is prepping a group of pickpockets and con artists to victimize tourists in town for a big football game that seems a lot like the Super Bowl. He allows her to join the crew and she shows herself to be a rather stellar addition.

Their incessant flirting finally leads to sex and a bit of romance. After the con artists celebrate their massive haul of cash and goods, Nicky takes Jess to watch the big game in a luxury box, where they end up in a terribly destructive betting war with Liyuan, a Chinese gambler played by BD Wong. I won’t spoil what happens, but suffice it to say, it’s a series of surprises because with Nicky, everything is a con. Jess is left devastated and is unhappy to see Nicky three years later in Buenos Aires, where they are working different cons with Rodrigo Santoro and Gerald McRaney. They con each other, engage in longing looks and wacky banter, and fall in love.

There’s an incoherence to the plot because it relies on so many twists, which are based on so many lies. In some con movies, like the rather silly Now You See Me, the illusions are impossible and you simply suspend your disbelief and move on. Focus is meant to be or at least seem real; the actors are occasionally so natural that improvisation can be the only reason. So, when things get really weird, it’s a bit much to take. But the acting is so good and some of the writing so funny that the inconsistencies become glossed over. Mostly.

Will Smith is excellent as Nicky. Much more sedate as the cool criminal than he often is in action films and broad comedies, he oozes the kind of quiet charm that George Clooney did in Out of Sight; it’s possibly an imitation, and if so, it’s a good one. Margot Robbie, who narrowly missed an Oscar nomination as Jordan Belfort’s high-on-cash wife in Wolf of Wall Street, is a delight as the smart, skillful, often hilarious, often tough bombshell who almost brings down Nicky.

Several of the supporting actors steal their scenes. Adrian Martinez is the flamboyantly funny Farhad, one of Nicky’s close associates, and is full of filthy commentary. Gerald McRaney is a dangerous and grumpy old man who has great fun explaining his reasons for being appalled by young people. And BD Wong’s repartee with Nicky during their gambling dual is one of the film’s highlights. Liyuan’s smile is both endearing and sinister, and Wong energizes the film just when things seem to be getting dreary.


Written and directed by John Requa and Glenn Ficarra

Starring Will Smith, Margot Robbie and BD Wong

Rated R

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