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Updated: 2017-11-17T09:03:00-06:00




“Mudbound” is all about perception. How it can foster empathy and engender contempt, sometimes in the same person. How it can cause one man to look at his land with life-affirming pride and another man to see that same plot as the kiss of death. How an act of wartime courage involving a red-tailed plane and a dark-skinned pilot can forever alter one’s opinion of a different race. And how a society can impose unfair, harmful and absurd restrictions on an entire group simply because those people are seen as inferior by the powers that be. The film invites us to observe its characters, to hear their inner voices, to see what they see and to challenge our own preconceived notions about race and gender. This is a period piece that evokes the grand family epics of old Hollywood, most specifically George Stevens’ 1956 film “Giant.” Like George Stevens’ Oscar winner, “Mudbound” is based on a novel and concerns itself with two families living uneasily on the same land. Director Dee Rees masterfully executes her character study, filling the frame with visuals as big and powerful as the emotions she draws from her superb cast. This is melodrama of the highest order, which is a compliment, for melodrama is not a bad thing. It is part of some of the greatest works of art, and in the right hands, it can elicit an ennui-shattering response from the audience. We will follow two families, the Jacksons, who are Black, and the McAllans, who are White. The McAllan patriarch, Henry (Jason Clarke) is forced to interact with the Jacksons after he is suckered into a deal to buy land that the seller does not legally own. Henry’s embarrassment is amplified by the taunting rants of his racist father Pappy (Jonathan Banks) and the notion that he has to move into an area designated for a lower class of Whites than he believes himself to be. Henry is constantly reminded of his downgraded stature by the repeated appearances of Vera Atwood (Lucy Faust), a struggling, poor White woman whom he deludes himself into thinking is below his station. Vera is Henry’s ghost of Christmas Future, a reminder that he is one mistake away from her desperate existence. For these reasons, Henry despises the land where he resides. By comparison, pastor Hap Jackson (Rob Morgan) looks at his little plot of land as a gift from God, a blessing that actually elevates his stature from that of his ancestors who couldn’t own land at all. It may be a harsh, at times unforgiving piece of Earth, but he has some form of ownership, no matter how tenuous. Even though Henry has commandeered it mostly for himself, leaving Hap to sharecrop it for diminishing returns, Hap still finds joy, solace and meaning in his farm work. As a Black man in post-WWII America, Hap has become accustomed to making due with even the smallest scraps of good fortune, no matter how infuriating they may seem. Hap is an experienced veteran of the war with Jim Crow; he has bent his anger into a strong, almost impenetrable suit of stoic armor whose weak spots are known only by his loving wife, Florence (Mary J. Blige). Henry also has a wife, Laura (Carey Mulligan). Through her story, we first become aware that “Mudbound” presents its characters in parallel sets of two. (Rachel Morrison’s cinematography also works in this fashion—notice how each family’s house is lit.) Laura’s partner in this arrangement is Florence, another mother who, like Laura, has the socially accepted role of subservience to her man. Both Florence and Laura buck this trend by disobeying their husbands. They also share a moment of grief that bonds them as only two mothers can bond. As the elder of the two, Florence exhibits a maternal instinct toward Laura. Laura also gets the first of the film’s internal monologues, moments of voiceover that Rees wrote with Virgil Williams in the adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel. Most of the characters have soliloquys that allow us a temporarily omniscient point of view. They provide invaluable information in a fashion that is at times achingly poetic yet[...]

Justice League


For a film about a band of heroes trying to stop extraterrestrial demon-beasts from wiping out humanity, "Justice League" is light on its feet, sprinting through a super-group's origin story in less than two hours, giving its ensemble lots to do, and mostly avoiding the self-importance that damaged previous entries in this franchise. (Aside from Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, "Logan," and a handful of other dark superhero films, excessive moping and brooding tends to be these projects’ undoing.) It’s unfortunate that the film was released on the heels of "Thor: Ragnarok," another knockabout superhero adventure, because critically it will suffer in comparison, even though it chooses a different route toward a similar destination, overcoming daunting production hurdles in the process. “Justice League” never matches the latter film in visual invention, though, and it has basic script problems that never get solved. One is figuring out how to balance the screen time of known quantities from previous entries, such as Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Superman (not a spoiler; Henry Cavill’s name is on the poster, folks), against another standard-issue, roaring-and-stomping bad guy (Ciaran Hinds’ Steppenwolf, leader of the Parademons) and three major new characters: The Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). The plotline that brings the heroes together is the impending invasion of earth by Steppenwolf, who wants to recover and merge three magic boxes that will give him ultimate power and terraform the planet and blah-de-blah, who cares, seriously, it doesn’t matter. All that being said, this is an ensemble adventure that’s nearly as satisfying (and humble in its aims) as the “Avengers” movies. Like the recent “Thor,” it seems to have figured out that a mega-budgeted superhero picture can be serious without carrying on as if humor, sentiment, and even color are inherently childish. “Justice League” splits the difference between Snyder’s kinetic, cruelly funny “Dawn of the Dead” remake and “Sucker Punch” and his more dour, depressive epics like “300,” “Man of Steel” and “BvS.” It’s the kind of movie where The Flash can serve as wide-eyed, often bumbling comic relief, much as Spider-Man did in the second half of “Captain America: Civil War,” and Batman can bust Aquaman’s chops for bringing a “pitchfork” (actually a trident) to a battle. But it’s also the kind of film where every member of the Justice League—plus Lois Lane and Diane Lane's Martha Kent—can have a heartfelt “spotlight” moment in which they admit withdrawing from life or putting up a tough façade to cushion the pain of loss, and rest assured that the other characters, and the film itself, will take their anguish seriously. (There are hints that Steppenwolf is working through a version of this problem: part of his grudge against Earth comes from being publicly humiliated eons ago.) The scenes of Lois and Clark’s reconciliation are brief but sensitively rendered. Almost as moving is the newfound reasonableness of Batman, a miserable loner who seems to have been shocked into sensitivity (at least as much sensitivity as Bruce Wayne is capable of) by the death of Superman, an event for which he assumes primary responsibility. There are moments where you wonder if he's trying to build a team not just to save the planet but to give himself a circle of friends and a reason to check in with them every day. The greying, thickening Affleck is endearing here because he leans into his age, playing up the character's more grievous injuries and making light of the fact that he's not the Bat he used to be.  The movie starts by hauling out clichéd elements, including a bleached-out color palette, a funeral in pouring rain, and a mopey, piano-driven version of a dark pop anthem (in this case, Sigrid's cover of Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows"). But the BummerVision fil[...]



Based on the R.J. Palacio novel of the same name, “Wonder” follows a year in the life of August Pullman (Jacob Tremblay), Auggie, for short. He was born with a genetic abnormality that has required him to undergo surgeries and medical treatments since his earliest days.  Director Stephen Chbosky has managed to take a story that could have been painfully mawkish and made it genuinely moving in (mostly) understated ways. The makeup work here is solid and believable, revealing Auggie’s sad eyes behind downturned facial lines and nubs of skin for ears. He’s a prepubescent Rocky Dennis. The script, co-written by Chbosky, Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, is wise to establish quickly that Auggie is a regular kid in every other way. He loves “Star Wars” and Minecraft. He has an aptitude for science, a sly sense of humor, and an active imagination that helps him navigate uncomfortable situations. (“Wonder” occasionally dabbles in magical realism, but in ways that are more amusing than distracting.) Uniformly strong performances help ground the story. Tremblay, who showed instincts beyond his years in the devastating 2015 drama “Room,” provides both a sweetness and an intelligence to his 10-year-old character that make him accessible even when he’s wearing an astronaut helmet to hide his face. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson find just the right notes as his supportive parents. But the real surprise here is Izabela Vidovic as Tremblay’s older sister, who’s been generous enough to allow her brother to be the center of the family’s attention at the expense of her own emotional need. His mom, Isabel (Roberts), put her career on hold to homeschool him from the beginning in the family’s Brooklyn brownstone. But now that Auggie is of middle school age, Isabel and his dad, Nate (Wilson), decide to send him to Beecher Prep so he’ll learn to socialize with other kids and become more comfortable in the outside world. All are understandably apprehensive about this major shift, fraught as it is with the potential for bullying and isolation. And indeed, when his parents walk him to the front gates and send him off on his own for the first time, the kids on campus stop their conversations to gawk and part for him. But Chbosky depicts this event matter-of-factly, allowing the tension of the moment to emerge naturally. There are some familiar figures here: the hip teacher who gives innovative assignments that just happen to coincide with the film’s themes (Daveed Diggs); the mean rich kid who torments him alongside a posse of brutes (Bryce Gheisar); the shy girl who might become an unexpected friend (Millie Davis). But the effortless connection Auggie strikes up with a kid named Jack Will (Noah Jupe)—who also feels like an outsider as a working-class scholarship student—is one of the film’s truest joys, as well as a source of legitimate drama. Just when “Wonder” seems to be settling into a routine at school, it shifts and revisits that first day from a variety of other characters’ perspectives. So we learn what happened to Auggie’s lonely sister, Via, when she met a cute new boy (Nadji Jeter) and dared to sign up for the high school play. We get a glimpse into Jack Will’s home life, which enriches the significance of his relationship with Auggie. We find out what’s really going on with Via’s lifelong best friend, Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell), who suddenly snubbed her at the start of the school year. As he did with his insightful young adult drama “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Chbosky handles major adolescent events with decency and grace. The cumulative effect—as overly simplistic as it may sound – is the powerful understanding of what it feels like to walk in someone else’s shoes. The emotion of this enlightenment sneaks up on you in quiet ways. Even Wilson, whose character feels underwritten beyond providing comic relief during moments of family tension, gets perhaps the most heartbreaking, uplifting l[...]

Mr. Roosevelt


Emily Martin (Noël Wells) doesn't quite know how to explain what it is she does, or even what it is she wants to do. She's not exactly an actress. She's not exactly a comedian either. She hangs around improv clubs in Los Angeles, but feels put off by the whole "scene." She made one YouTube video that went viral, but she couldn't "monetize" it. Emily is first shown during an audition in which she transforms herself in quick succession since she only has five minutes, into Holly Hunter at a garage sale, Kristen Wiig coming across a murder, a Vine video of someone tripping at a Beyonce concert, and a "girl who's always cold." The casting director is frozen in fear at the rollicking manic display. Emily tromps off to her gig editing videos in some random apartment crowded with people on laptops. All of this occurs in the first five minutes of Wells' first feature as a writer and director, "Mr. Roosevelt." Anyone who has ever circulated, even peripherally, in any comedy club scene, will recognize all of it. It's a quick-flash study of both frenzied activity and crushing ennui.  Emily is a transplant to Los Angeles from Austin, Texas. She is unmoored. The "industry" has no idea what to do with someone like her. She doesn't know what to do, and her awkward self-deprecation makes others recoil from her. When her ex-boyfriend Eric (Nick Thune) calls to let her know that her cat—Mr. Roosevelt—has died, Emily dissolves into tears and books the first flight back to Austin she can find.  Wells is an established actress and writer. With a recurring role on "Master of None," and a brief stint on "Saturday Night Live," she also recently played Jessica Williams' best friend in "The Incredible Jessica James," and was funny support staff to the lead. In her first film as a writer-director, she presents a world she clearly knows well. From Texas originally, Wells filmed "Mr. Roosevelt" around Austin, with the clear familiarity of a local. Austin residents will probably pick up more of her commentary than outsiders, but it's clear what she's getting at when she shows Emily's disappointment at the closing of her favorite coffee shop. Austin is gentrifying. Wells has been very smart in creating the lead character, both in the writing, and the performing. She presents Emily in broad strokes at first—the audition, a one-night stand with a guy who never puts down his phone (even when her head is in his crotch), her free-floating ambition for a career—but much of it works by stealth. You have to put it together as you go. Wells herself is very endearing as a personality, so it takes a while to really "get" that Emily is kind of a nightmare. For example, she arrives in Austin with just a backpack, having made no arrangements for where she will stay. She clearly assumes she will stay with her ex in the house where they once lived together, even though he is involved in a brand-new relationship. This is a woman who does not have her act together. Over the course of the film, her nonexistent "act" will deteriorate even further, as she thrashes about in jealousy at her ex's perfect new girlfriend, bristles at questions about her life in Los Angeles, and ratchets up her competitive mourning for the aforementioned cat Mr. Roosevelt. It's not that Emily is not likable. It's that she's a mess. Being a mess is extremely human.  Eric's new girlfriend is the kind of woman designed to make insecure women feel worse. She is, as Emily complains, a "Pinterest board come to life." Celeste, played by Britt Lower with impenetrable calm that also manages to be very funny, is an "entrepreneur," equally handy with whipping up mimosas and whipping out a drill. Eric—once a musician—is now studying to get his real estate license. Emily compliments Eric on a shirt he's wearing and he replies, "It's breathable cotton." He drinks oolong tea now. Emily is horrified. She doesn't even know who he is anymore. At a disastrous group[...]

Roman J. Israel, Esq.


“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” looks like prime Oscar bait. It has the glow of nobility and importance emanating from every frame courtesy of Robert Elswit’s cinematography. The screenplay by writer-director Dan Gilroy is filled with dialogue about civil rights, the prison industrial complex and the common man. And its lead actor’s famous good looks have gone AWOL so he may enroll in the Academy voter’s favorite class, Frumpy 101. But don’t be fooled! This is not Oscar bait at all. “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is the kind of horrendous hot mess an actor makes directly after he wins the Oscar. Granted, Denzel Washington didn’t win the golden statuette he deserved last year, but if he had, it might have justified why he chose this lifeless story as his follow-up. My best guess is that Denzel wanted to cosplay as Eddie Murphy’s Norbit. He would have made a far better Randy Watson from “Coming to America,” if you ask me. But I digress. The version of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” hitting theaters this week is not the same one that drew critical scorn at the Toronto Film Festival. The new cut is 13 minutes shorter and certain plot points have been edited in a different order. There’s some vague notion that a “major reveal/spoiler” has been moved to an earlier spot in the film. Gilroy’s story makes so little narrative sense that I have no idea what they’re talking about, so I am issuing a spoiler warning from here on as a precautionary measure. Roman is a lawyer in a two-man criminal defense law firm in Los Angeles. He and his boss, William Jackson, handle cases for the downtrodden and underprivileged. William is the public face of the firm, arguing in court and meeting with clients. Roman does all the research and advises on how to approach each case. It’s hinted that Roman has some form of Asperger’s, though his Rain Man-like recollection of the number of every single statute leans him more heavily into savant territory. It is also hinted that Roman’s lack of social cue recognition may have been the reason William never sent him to court. Of course, as “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” opens, William has suffered a soon-to-be-fatal heart attack and Roman has to cover for him in court. Before we see Roman in action, however, we’re treated to voiceover by Washington that is meant to set up a flashback structure. The narration accompanies a legal brief Roman is writing. The brief is two paragraphs of legalese interspersed with nonsense, and we get to see it typed in its entirety on the screen. As letters fill the screen, the score gets louder and more bombastic in a vain attempt to telegraph suspense. In the brief, Roman calls himself a hypocrite who has sold out his own belief system. He casts himself as plaintiff and defendant in this damning confession. Eventually, we’ll return to this brief, but for now, we’re thrown three weeks into the past where Roman makes his first court appearance in decades. Despite being told by William’s assistant to simply ask for continuances, Roman engages the case. His client is getting a raw deal, to be sure, but Roman exacerbates the situation by arguing with the judge until he is held in contempt. Later, Roman will again go against his firm’s wishes by telling off the district attorney in regards to a plea offer. Both of these scenes are played for laughs in the film’s trailer, but neither scene is so damn funny in context: that contempt charge gets William’s near-bankrupt firm slapped with a $5,000 fine; the district attorney flap indirectly results in a client’s murder. It’s clear that Washington and Gilroy want to cast Roman as some kind of grumpy genius—he’s the Dr. House of lawyers. The problem is that, unlike Dr. House, Roman is horrible at his job. You would not want this man representing you, nor would you want him, as Maya (Carmen Ejogo) discovers, to come speak at your activism meeting. Since William’s firm was known fo[...]

Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond


There were rumors for years about Jim Carrey’s behavior on the set of Milos Forman’s “Man on the Moon”—stories that he never broke character, either as Andy Kaufman or his alter ego Tony Clifton. Twenty years after the production of that film, Chris Smith (“American Movie”) has directed a very unique behind-the-scenes study that doesn’t just offer insight into the making of that film, but the entire careers and almost parallel personalities of Carrey and Kaufman.  Rather than produce a standard press kit for "Man on the Moon," Carrey asked Kaufman’s girlfriend Lynne Margulies and collaborator Bob Zmuda to handle filming him in his trailer and on set as Kaufman/Clifton. Reportedly, Universal then demanded that the footage be buried because they were worried Carrey would “come off as an asshole.” They had reason to be concerned. Or did they? It will vary as to exactly when, but there will likely come a moment for each of you when you question exactly how much of “Jim and Andy” is 100% accurate. Did Carrey stay in character constantly, or just in these bits, filmed by Andy’s ex and writing partner? The blurring of that line between performer, reality, and fiction adds another layer to “Jim and Andy” that Kaufman would have adored. And Carrey likely does too. Adding to the suspicious nature of “Jim and Andy” is the fact that Carrey is the only interview subject in the film (meaning we don’t hear collaborating stories about his on-set behavior from Forman, Paul Giamatti, Danny Devito, etc.) Carrey is a forthcoming, interesting interview subject, surprisingly willing to share his own history and demons. The on-set footage of Carrey/Kaufman and Carrey/Clifton berating people is only interesting for so long, and actually gets a little tiring before the film is half over, but Carrey the interview subject keeps the film going. The career parallels are relatively obvious. Both Carrey and Kaufman broke down comedy standards and expectations. Carrey speaks about going on stage and just making sounds to see what people respond to, and we see footage of a startling appearance on “The Arsenio Hall Show” that I had forgotten if I ever saw it. He speaks of his own personal Mr. Hyde coming out on stage, taking over for Jim, and that’s a loss of control that Kaufman seemed to like in comedy as well. There are also some emotional memories of his father, a man who taught him a lesson about going for success by failing in a way. Carrey is open and brought to tears a few times. The genius of Andy Kaufman has been well-reported (and clear in Forman’s film) but this movie works as a testament to the ability of Carrey more than the man he played. Whatever you may think of his acting chops or comedic skill, the man gives his all to his work, something that he expresses as something almost out of his control—the films, the roles, the characters come to him through something akin to destiny. Again, this could all be bullshit. Or it could be pure and true. I think Kaufman would have liked that we’ll never really know. Ultimately, “Jim and Andy” works best as a reminder of the skill level and commitment of its two title performers. There’s some footage of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Truman Show” that really reminded me how much I love those movies (and made me want to watch them again). And there’s no denying Kaufman’s fearlessness, which is what it feels like Carrey wanted to channel most of all in his “Man on the Moon” performance. What’s more fearless than never leaving character and demanding people refer to you as Andy or Tony? The only problem with “Jim and Andy” is that you’ll get most of this in about half of the film’s running time. It doesn’t quite justify a feature, and would have worked phenomenally as a tighter doc short. Of course, Tony Clifton never would have allo[...]



“Porto,” a film about the emotional aftermath of a powerful one-night stand, is a poetically assembled tale of lust, obsession and nostalgia. It aims (maybe too obviously) to be a modern version of one of those mid-twentieth century European Art Cinema classics in which beautiful people with beautiful clothes sit in beautiful restaurants and bars and occasionally have beautiful sex and then talk about literature and philosophy. It’s also a film whose impact derives from something other than its story and characters—specifically, Wyatt Garfield’s brilliant cinematography, which uses 35mm, 16mm and Super 8mm film at a time when almost everyone in the entertainment business is shooting digitally; and the final lead performance by Anton Yelchin, who died last year in a freak accident. The appearance onscreen of pointillist swarms of film grain may trigger a specific kind of nostalgia in movie buffs, for chemically produced and mechanically projected images that are rarely seen these days outside of repertory cinemas and museums. The viewer’s swooning regard for Garfield’s old-fashioned photographic imagery could merge with their affection for Yelchin, a versatile and likable actor who died just when he was getting warmed up. This is the kind of grade inflation that nobody involved in the production could have wanted, but “Porto” will benefit from it nonetheless. As directed by Gabe Klinger and cowritten by Larry Gross ("48 Hours"), it’s less than meets the eye and ear. It’s dramatically thin and confusingly edited in places, and there are basic problems in the lovers’ characterizations that are never convincingly addressed. Mati (Lucie Lucas), a stunning beauty with long, dark hair and a teasing French New Wave smirk, is too much of an intellectual filmmaker’s sex fantasy. The movie stares into her face and lingers on her body in lieu of giving her a comprehensible psychology. She’s more of a Woman-as-Mystery type, which is something else that the movie borrows from the heyday of Fellini and Godard. We never get a handle on why she’d practically beg to go home with the hero, or why she’d respond in kind when Jake impulsively tells her he loves her, or why she’d continue to speak to him after they tussle in the street and he slaps her, or why she’d want to see Jake years later when he barges back into her life. Jake feels more like a real person than Mati, but his realness poses a different set of problems. With his ashy skin, receding hairline, poor posture and birdlike movements, there’s nothing to suggest why a fashion magazine-ready knockout like Mati would select him on the spot, much less why he’d sexually satisfy her so profoundly, or why she’d eventually end up marrying another guy (Paulo Calatre ) and having his baby, or who she is, generally. There’s a lot in “Porto” that you have to take on faith, or for granted. This contrasts the movie unflatteringly with works that it clearly adores, such as “Hiroshima, Mon Amour,” a film that doles out information sparingly yet leaves you feeling as if you know its lovers as well as you know anyone in your own life.   The film’s clever editing (credited to Klinger and Geraldine Mangenot) jumps through time in intriguing, sometimes intoxicating ways, and even when the drama flags there’s always a stunning image to stare at, be it a wide shot of a buzzing city thoroughfare, a close-up of a woman’s hand twirling a red lipstick tube near a steaming cup of tea, or a long shot of Mati crossing a widescreen frame from left to right, her red and white umbrella glowing against the overcast sky and grey-and-eggshell buildings. Klinger and Wyatt are such connoisseurs of light falling on stone, wood floors, fabric, and skin that I might’ve liked “Porto” just as well had it consisted of nothing more than silent shots of Lucas and Yelchin walking,[...]

Sweet Virginia


In his 1956 essay “On A Book Entitled Lolita,” Vladimir Nabokov recounts both the imaginative origins of his groundbreaking novel and the difficulty he had finding a publisher for it in the United States. One rejection suggested that Nabokov recast the novel’s action in “short, strong, ‘realistic’ sentences;” Nabokov’s imagined examples still stand as hilarious, sterling examples of what I like to call cornpone cliché: “He acts crazy. We all act crazy, I guess. I guess God acts crazy.” Funny how some writers, and some audiences, still consider this kind of mush authentic, let alone powerful. It thrives like unmowed kudzu in the dialogue of this aspiring noir written by brothers Paul and Benjamin China and directed by Jamie M. Dagg. Take this bit of diner conversation between Sam, a onetime rodeo champ played by Jon Bernthal, and Elwood (no really), a contract killer played by Christopher Abbott. Take it away Elwood (no really):  “You got a woman?” “I don’t talk about it much, but I guess there is…”  “Is she special?” “She is.” “That’s good. Hold on to that.” Whoa. Hold on to that and don’t act too crazy. A little back-story here: at the time of this conversation, nice guy Sam doesn’t yet know that Elwood (no really) is a contract killer. Sam’s “special” woman, Bernadette (Rosemarie DeWitt) is now a widow, because Elwood (no really) killed her husband and two other guys in the movie’s opening scene. Also, “Sweet Virginia” is not a character in this Alaska-set movie; rather, it is the name of the motel Sam owns and runs and presumably named for sentimental reason. As for Elwood (okay I’ll stop), we learn early on that he was hired by another local wife, Lila, who hated her husband and wanted him dead so she could collect his money WITH WHICH, and here’s the rub, she was going to pay Elwood, and then do other things. When she confronts Elwood after the killing, she tells him “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off,” I mean, he was only supposed to kill the one guy, and he explains to her how killing three guys made total sense because it made the whole thing look so random. You gotta love these super genius hit men. And the women who hire them. A little after that, a lawyer says to Lila, “Were you aware of your husband’s financial difficulties” and this wannabe Phyllis Dietrichson’s eyes go all wide and she practically mouths the word “Ooops.”  This is one of those movies concocted by people who’ve seen too many movies; whose experience of violence and crime derives entirely from movies; whose main motivation is derived from some desire to emulate a mode of “cool” that they learned from Coen Brothers and Tarantino movies, and which they think they’ve made less overtly derivative by leavening with ideas from even older movies. Its central performance, by Abbott, is a harrowing, embarrassing adventure in mannerisms. Elwood’s on a short fuse, you see; he drives around town talking to himself, making profane observation about the locals; after one pay phone conversation near a convenience store, Elwood kicks the crap out of some punks who are looking at him funny; with every line reading and twitch of the shoulder you can see Abbott congratulating himself on playing a genuine PSYCHO who’s also complex because of his terse one-sided phone conversations with his terminally ill mother down south of Alaska. Bernthal is somewhat more relaxed as a one-time tough guy just trying to come into his house justified, but, not to put too fine a point on it, so what.  All that said, the movie is well put together, enough so that if you’re not entirely tired of its clichés, it might constitute a tolerable entertainment. I’d rather watch “Double Indemnity” for the 15th time. [...]

The Star


You know what would make the Nativity story so much better? Wise-cracking animated animals that save the day—or so the creative team behind this holiday-themed family flick thinks. The critters apparently have waited far too long to be hailed for their participation on that special night. That appears to be the motivating factor behind “The Star,” a retelling of the first Christmas directed by Timothy Reckart in a feature debut that might have its heart in the right place but can’t quite manage to smoothly blend the spiritual with the silly without a few Biblical hitches here and there.  The most awkward scene arrives early, introduced by the words “Nazareth 9 months B.C.” That at least made me smile. But then a young girl is visited by a glowing angelic-like presence that proceeds to announce that God has chosen her to bear his Son. Shock, awe, fainting—any and all would be an acceptable response. Instead, she calmly takes in this news flash as if she was given a weather update and basically says thanks. I wanted to say, “Honey, this isn’t like being told that you won a free dinner for two at Olive Garden. This is THE Annunciation. Act accordingly.”  Granted, this Mary doesn’t have much of a back story, though she has freckles and rivulets of raven hair. She seems nice, but the script gives little hint why she is so special. Most amusing is that she is voiced by Gina Rodriguez, who plays “Jane the Virgin” on TV. Nothing like inside-joke casting. But, in short order, she is about to be wed to Joseph (Zachary Levi, “Tangled”). That leads to another uncomfortable conundrum when Mary tells her intended that, um, she is having God’s baby and he, lucky fellow, is going to help raise him—or, rather, Him. The humble carpenter is understandably verklempt at first, yet remains devoted to his wife.  The film is rated PG for “thematic elements,” which translates into pre-wedlock baby bump. You can practically hear a collective sigh of relief when this part of the story is over. Besides, the couple, obviously a big deal in the source material, isn’t the star of “The Star.” They take a backseat to a brash little donkey (Steven Yeun of “The Walking Dead”) who has escaped from his grueling job at a mill that required him to be chained to a grindstone. He and bird buddy Dave the dove (Keegan Michael Key, blessed with the best jokes) find a safe haven with Mary and Joseph. The lady of the house takes a liking to the beast of burden and names him Bo. The animals and humans don’t actually talk to one another, Shrek and Donkey-style, and thank goodness for that. Meanwhile, the three kings are spied riding atop camels on their way to see Herod (Christopher Plummer). Again, four-legged characters steal the spotlight. While one of the Magi is voiced by controversial televangelist Joel Osteen, the hump-bearing steeds are performed by the show-business holy trinity of Tyler Perry, Tracy Morgan and Oprah Winfrey. Perry is the bossy one, Morgan is the dumb one and Winfrey is the sensible one. The wise men unwisely alert Herod that a new king of the Jews is about to be born and he calls for a census in order to locate this rival ruler and destroy him. Around the time that Morgan’s dromedary resorts to a “the king of the shoes” gag is when I began to lose faith in this venture. Seconding that feeling is a hulking silent brute in an iron mask, looking like a rejected extra from “Mad Max: Fury Road,” who is sent to do the bloody deed.  Eventually a whole menagerie puts in an appearance. That includes the thug’s hench dogs (Ving Rhames and Gabriel Iglesias) and such stable mates as a horse (Kelly Clarkson), a cow (Patricia Heaton) and a goat (Anthony Anderson). There are obstacles, physical confrontations and narrow escapes but every[...]

On the Beach at Night Alone


The inert Korean drama "On the Beach At Night Alone" is a prime example of why personal art isn't necessarily good art. Writer/director Sang-soo Hong ("Right Now, Wrong Then," "The Day He Arrives") has taken his real life extra-marital affair with actress/frequent collaborator Min-hee Kim, and created a painful series of talking points that never coheres into a coherent drama. This is especially disappointing since Hong's films generally rely on his viewers' ability to recognize patterns within pointedly similar narrative episodes. A typical Hong character performs the same actions over and over again, with minor, but noticeably different results. Unfortunately, the drama in "On the Beach at Night Alone" isn't so involving. Scenes of naturalistic small talk are fine enough, but Hong's drama grinds along whenever characters start to declaim, or make veiled proclamations about marriage and personal freedom. Watching this film feels like running into a depressed, drunk friend who can't stop himself from yelling about how terrible his life is, and how much hurt he's causing others. You feel bad for your buddy, but after a certain point, hoo, man, look at the time, gotta run! "On the Beach at Night Alone" exemplifies all of the worst tendencies of Hong's films without many of his better qualities. It's a typical Hong movie in the sense that Hong is concerned with a woman's vaguely defined sense of independence, and a couple of men's growing irrelevance. "On the Beach at Night Alone" is also very much like Hong's other films in that it's unmistakably told from a man's point-of-view. The words Hong puts in Kim's mouth may, in fact, reflect a keen insight into his lover's feelings. But, outside of that context, Kim's character, an aimless actress named Young-hee, often rationalizes deeply personal, and painful feelings--on Hong's behalf.  Young-hee spends the first third of "On the Beach at Night Alone" talking circles around her mild-mannered friend Jeeyoung (Young-hwa Seo). Almost every one of Jeeyoung and Young-hee's conversations concern the latter woman's romantic affair with a married man. Young-hee seems resigned to this situation, so she only speaks passionately about this relationship within the abstract: everybody should have the right to independence, and happiness, or variations thereof become a common speechifying theme. This is probably because Hong's wife has, in real life, refused to grant him a divorce. So now he promotes his affair with Kim as much as possible in a vain ongoing attempt at getting his unhappy spouse to change her mind. "On the Beach at Night Alone seems to enter a superficially denser thicket of meta-textuality at around the 25-minute mark, when the film's end credits prematurely roll. Young-hee wakes up in a movie theater. And for a moment, it seems like the suffocatingly myopic nature of Young-hee's man problems are a little more sensible. This movie is an open-ended plea from Hong to his audience: don't judge me too harshly, I know I'm hurting my loved ones, but what else can I do? This partly explains the mysterious unnamed stranger in a black over-coat who shadows Young-hee, like the personification of Hong, I mean Young-hee's guilty conscience, or maybe just her inability to deny the resentment and anger she's feeling about her current situation. This man in black is the revenge of Hong's subconscious. Too bad this movie is not about him. There are many minor flourishes, and points of interest in this film that might existing compel Hong's fans--and maybe even viewers who have never seen any of his other movies--to see "On the Beach at[...]