(Pictured above: Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day and Jason Bateman, being held at gunpoint by their agents)
Last week’s cinematic offerings were very nearly nonexistent, what with the newest “Hunger Games” installment scaring off any potential competition. This week isn’t much better – thanks a lot, Thanksgiving! – but AMC’s release schedule includes three new titles opening on Wednesday. The films are as follows:
“Horrible Bosses 2”: Most comedy sequels are exercises in diminishing returns – take a concept that’s proven to work, then copy it over and over again until all invention and spontaneity is beaten out of it. For every winner like “22 Jump Street,” there are a dozen or so duds – some not-so-esteemed examples from this year include “A Haunted House 2,” “Think Like a Man Too” and “Dumb and Dumber To.” Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day reprise their roles from the 2011 hit, and this time they’re embroiled in an O. Henry-ish plot to kidnap the grown son (Chris Pine) of their philandering boss (two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz, obviously slumming). Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Aniston and Kevin Spacey also return, promising to be half as funny as they were last time.
“Penguins of Madagascar”: Here’s another sequel – or, to be more specific, a spin-off – this one of a popular animated franchise. The goofy penguin sidekicks from the “Madagascar” films take center stage in this fourth entry in the series, which proves that it’s only a matter of time before the Minions from “Despicable Me” get their own feature. (Edit: I guess I spoke too soon.) The voice cast includes all the kids’ favorites, including John Malkovich, Peter Stormare, Andy Richter and Werner Herzog.
“The Theory of Everything”: Director James Marsh specializes in nonfiction – his 2008 breakthrough “Man on Wire” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature – so he seems a promising choice to helm this biopic of renowned physicist Stephen Hawking, based on his wife Jane Hawking’s memoirs. Eddie Redmayne’s work as Hawking is already gaining significant award buzz, and this might prove to be the mainstream launching pad for actress Felicity Jones, an up-and-comer and critics’ favorite for so long. The trailer for “The Theory of Everything” is below.
(Pictured above: Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day and Jason Bateman, being held at gunpoint by their agents)
One of the more affecting films I have seen in some time is “Whiplash,” the first feature by the writer-director Damian Chazelle. Following is a transcription of the “Whiplash” review that I recorded for Spokane Public Radio:
In the spring of 1967, I endured eight weeks of what the U.S. Army calls “basic training.” Along with about 150 other recruits, I spent that time running, learning about weapons, running, making beds and waxing floors, running, polishing brass and spit-shining boots and, of course, running – all under the tutelage of men wearing Smokey-the-Bear hats who treated us, mostly, as if we were scum they wanted to wipe off the heels of their own spotless boots.
Over those eight weeks, I had two drill instructors. One, Sgt. Smith, was a taskmaster whose yelling always had a point, whose encouragement was equal to his wrath and whom, in that curious psychological need of teenagers in duress, we came to admire. The other was SSgt. Bailey, a bully whom, purely and simply, we hated.
The two men and their differences came to mind as I watched “Whiplash,” a first feature by 29-year-old writer-director Damian Chazelle. Though the literal experience the movie’s protagonist Andrew (played by Miles Teller) undergoes is far different than mine, the emotional violence he weathers feels appallingly similar.
Andrew is a first-year student at a prestigious New York music school (think Juilliard). He seems nice enough: genial, excited about learning to drum like his hero – the great jazz drummer Buddy Rich. And he is driven: We first see him, alone at night in a practice room, running through riffs on his drum kit – and attracting the attention of a teacher named Fletcher (played perfectly by J.K. Simmons).
Fletcher says he is looking for players for his jazz troupe and gives Andrew an invite: Show up the next morning at “6 a.m. sharp.” Which is when writer-director Chazelle first ratchets up the tension. Andrew wakes late, runs to the room – only to find it empty. But he waits. And waits. And when, at 9 a.m., the others show up – including Fletcher without a word of explanation – we understand that Andrew’s hazing has just begun. When Fletcher – at first friendly but then slowly but inexorably more and more demanding – nearly decapitates Andrew in a barely controlled rage, we begin to suspect just how far this hazing will go.
“Whiplash” is clearly no easy view. Adapted from his own Sundance award-winning short, Chazelle’s feature is as exquisitely filmed and acted as it is emotionally trying. Teller, so good in last year’s “The Spectacular Now,” is superb as the young, impressionable but single-minded Andrew. And Simmons, familiar from television shows such as “Oz” and, of late, Allstate Auto Insurance ads, is the sublime sociopath as teacher who just may, for both the right and wrong reasons, get the best from his student.
“Whiplash” has its flaws. We’re given only the slimmest of reasons for why Andrew would put up with Fletcher’s humiliation and absolutely none for why Fletcher so freely hands it out. An event leading to the film’s climax, though shattering, feels too convenient. And any final judgement regarding the ethics of Fletcher’s quote-unquote teaching method is largely avoided.
At its essence, though, “Whiplash” is both riveting and daringly original. And, personally, right or wrong, it reminded me that my admiration of Sgt. Smith faded long ago, while my hatred of SSgt. Bailey still smolders.
Following up the movie report immediately below, word from the Magic Lantern is that nothing new is opening on Friday. The Lantern plans, however, to open a documentary titled “Pelican Dreams” on Nov. 28. Carrying over next week will be “Elsa & Fred,” “Boyhood,” “Laggies” (which we review on “Movies 101” Friday), “The Skeleton Twins,” “The Trip to Italy” and “My Old Lady.”
Click here for more information.
Some questions seem to exist just to plague us. Such as, why does dental floss seem to run out just when you have what seems like an entire carrot embedded between your molars? Or why do other drivers (never you) speed up instead of slow down when the light turns yellow? Or why do I always tend to find movie seats that attract people who, 1, love to rattle their bags of popcorn and, 2, delight in chewing with their mouth open?
Along with these unanswerable queries comes one involving movie scheduling: Why is it that some movies open with hardly any competition at all, while other weeks offer so many choices it is virtually impossible to see them all — not and have an actual personal life, anyway.
This coming week offers one of the more sparse schedules in recent weeks as only one huge mainstream opening is scheduled, accompanied by a little movie aimed at devout Christians. Friday's openings are as follows:
“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1”: Katniss and her pals continue their fight against the power. A series final that is so big it has to be told in two, count them, two parts. Somebody call Peter Jackson.
“Saving Christmas”: Kirk Cameron feels the need to put some Christian reason back in the season. And a happy holidays to you, too.
I'll pass on the Magic Lantern schedule when it becomes available.
“Interstellar” is earning mostly good reviews. But it has its critics, from astrophysicists to mainstream movie viewers. In the following review, which is an edited version of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio, I explain which side I come down on:
From that first time we look up at the stars, most of us are filled with wonder. And with that wonder come the inevitable questions: How big is space? Is there anyone else out there? What does this all mean? Is the moon really made of cheese?
Just kidding on that last one. Mostly. Though as with that question, along with the others, we all find our own answers. Or at least ways to rationalize our ignorance. Those are our only real options.
Not everyone accepts that spirit of helplessness, of course. The religious among us adhere to faith. Astrophysicists employ science to formulate theories about the very formation of the universe – or, some would say, universes. Artists such as filmmakers use – in many cases abuse – various aspects of both religion and science to imagine scenarios that attempt to probe into such inherent queries.
Take the greatest science-fiction film ever made, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Though “2001” used the special effects overseen by Douglas Trumbull to create an amazing representation of space travel – especially for 1968 – the real strength of Kubrick’s masterpiece rests in its refusal to do anything more than pose questions. What is the significance of the monolith? Where does astronaut Dave Bowman go at the film’s end? What exactly is a “bush baby”? If you search the Internet, you can find answers – or at least working hypotheses – regarding each. But Kubrick’s movie? It remains stolidly silent. And this is one key to the film’s greatness.
Contrast “2001” with Christopher Nolan’s much-anticipated sci-fi film “Interstellar.” Divulging too much of the film’s plot will spoil things, so suffice it to say that “Interltellar” is set, in the not-too-distant future, on an Earth that has become a death-trap for humanity. Overpopulation has caused such a strain on the planet’s resources that the end of life appears imminent. Through a series of circumstances that end up being far less coincidental than originally portrayed, a farmer-slash-astronaut named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is convinced to pilot an expedition through a wormhole to another galaxy where new habitable worlds potentially exist.
Nolan’s film, which was co-written by him and his screenwriter brother Jonathan and runs a lengthy two hours and 49 minutes, plays with time and space to, at once, tell the story of Cooper’s expedition, portray what happens on Earth and, ultimately, reveal the alternate and literally uncountable ways the two settings intersect. And it does this in a manner that, in visual terms at least, makes for a scintillating view – from the shots of immense dust clouds threatening farmlands to the image of a wormhole sitting near Saturn.
Unlike Kubrick, though, the Nolans time and again resort to quick fixes for complex plot problems. Different rates of aging a problem? Just blame it on relativity. At loose ends for a romantic subplot when the main male-female connection involves a father and daughter? Just settle for the most obvious-if-implausible resolution. Incapable (or unwilling) to leave the audience grasping for answers involving creation? Just point to some unknowable power.
On top of that, the Nolans work hard to explain more than is necessary. As in one extended McConaughey monologue that has him hanging out in some sort of a galactic library. They also have some of their characters act against their very training and vote to make the right decisions based on the wrong reasons (which is countered when someone else does exactly the opposite). And they simply ignore the fact that the very powers they imagine could have resolved the whole Earth-is-threatened problem from the get-go.
Every single one of these inconsistencies took me right out of “Interstellar.” And like Toto revealing the secret behind Prof. Marvel’s would-be Wizard of Oz, they lessened more than they amplified the mystery.
This won’t bother every viewer. But for me? I’m more intrigued by massive monoliths – and whether they’re made of cheese.
The Magic Lantern finalized its schedule today, which means that it will be opening three films on Friday: two first runs and a pickup second run from AMC River Park Square. I already posted descriptions of the documentary “Awake: The Life of Yogananda” and “Laggies” in previous posts.
So, go to a movie. And enjoy.
Note: This is an updated post to reflect changes in the Magic Lantern's lineup.
Initial reports suggest that the weekend will be fairly quiet, especially after a week featuring the opening of two of the fall's biggest releases, “Interstellar” and “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance).”
But that doesn't mean that we won't experience diversity in theme or genre. We have comedy, emotional turmoil, romance and political commentary, sometimes all at once (sometimes even intentionally).
Friday's openings include:
“Dumb and Dumber To”: Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels reprise the roles they played in the 1994 original (but not in the animated series or in the 2003 follow-up “Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd”). Note: Entrance requires your taking an IQ test.
“Whiplash”: A student drummer (Miles Teller) wants to be good so badly he's willing to endure the harassment of his teacher (J.K. Simmons). Someone's gonna get — wait for it — a beatdown.
“Beyond the Lights”: A Beyonce wannabe finds that the price of stardom might be a tad high, especially if she is forced to forgo the guy with studly abs. Ah, the price of fame.
“Rosewater”: While covering protests in Iran, a journalist (Gael Garcia Bernal) finds himself detained and tortured. Written and directed by “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. So … this is a comedy?
“The Kill Team”: A one-night special 7 p.m. screening on Tuesday will feature this documentary about a U.S. soldier who gets caught between war crimes and his own sense of personal morality.
“Awake: The Life of Yogananda”: This documentary tells the story of the author of “Autobiography of a Yogi,” the man who helped popularize Hindu spirituality outside Asia. My ommmmmmmmm my.
When I graduated from the University of California, San Diego, the world was a far different place. This was the mid-1970s, and the turbulence of the previous decade – the political assassinations, the racial strife and even the Vietnam War – seemed to be behind us. Ahead lay a decade of prosperity, the end of the Cold War and far more tolerant attitudes toward both race and gender relations.
Wait, what? Who am I kidding? Prosperity, sure. But for whom? And the murderous political struggles that marked the 20th century? Well, they just evolved into ever more complicated grabs for power that are less about political ideology than about who controls the world’s economy and what religion best represents your favorite deity’s will.
No, I would love to be able to say that as time has passed, and through all the sacrifices that were made during two great world wars, we’ve all learned how to get along, how to care both for one another and for the only planet we have to live on. That, though, would be mere wishful thinking.
No, America is virtually unrecognizable from when most citizens would be proud to wear an “I Like Ike” button – which is a point emphasized by such movies as “Dear White People.” Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Justin Simien, “Dear White People” – though not as funny as I prefer my satire to be – is a thought-provoking look at the current state of race, both on college campuses and off.
The film continues its run at AMC River Park Square.
After months of interminable trailers — which forced me, finally, to close my eyes and hum to myself so I could ignore seeing the same images over and over — Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar” is scheduled to open on Friday. And that's not all. “Birdman,” the new offering by Mexican-born filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, is coming, too.
Friday's mainstream openings are as follows:
“Big Hero 6” (3D and regular): This animated feature tells the story of a young boy and his friends teaming up with an inflatable robot to fight for justice. Alternate title: Drones Are Us.
“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”: González Iñárritu, forever known as the man who gave us the superb “Amores perros,” explores the life of a former movie star (Michael Keaton) who takes one last fling at fame. Let's hope he fares better than George Reeves.
“On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter”: A documentary follows a bunch of athletes. Only this time they're riding motorcycles, not surfboards. S'right, brah!
And at the Magic Lantern? Three documentaries open:
“Botso”: We learn about a World War II survivor who created a new life for himself in a small Southern California town. No, it's not Clint Eastwood.
“Art and Craft”: One of the world's most infamous art forgers looks back at his “career.” No, it's not Walter Keane.
“The Kill Team”: Moral question plague an American soldier in Afghanistan who refuses to engage in war crimes. No, it's not Oliver Stone.
Bill Murray is something of a comic institution. He wasn't among the first “Saturday Night Live” cast members (he replaced Chevy Chase, coming on in the second season), but he did become one of the most popular. And unlike some SNL alumni (Chase, for example), Murray has enjoyed a varied movie career — scoring in blockbusters (“Ghostbusters”) and art films (“Lost in Translation”).
But … he can't do everything. He can't, for example, save a movie such as “St. Vincent,” which suffers from both a lack of originality and a fair bit of shallowness. Despite the presence of Murray and others, including Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts, “St. Vincent” is … well, let the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio explain:
One of the oldest plotlines in Hollywood history involves irascible men who bond with – and who are mellowed by – children. From the animated feature “Up” to Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” from “The Bad New Bears” to “The Karate Kid,” such films bear storylines that follow a typical formula.
One, the grump and the kid meet cute. Two, though thrown together by circumstance, they soon discover some sort of common ground. Three, they get closer, often by breaking the rules. Four, some sort of difficulty inevitably arises. And five, in resolving said difficulty, intimacy is developed and lessons are learned. Wax on, wax off. You get the idea.
Now comes “St. Vincent,” a film written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Theodore Melfi, which has comic god Bill Murray playing the grump and talented newcomer Jaeden Lieberher playing the kid next door. Pretty much everything else is … you know, predictable.
Murray plays the title character, a guy who spends his days either betting on the horses or snuggling a pregnant prostitute (Naomi Watts). Vincent is overdrawn at the bank, in debt to his bookie and has no problem driving drunk. Then one night, after crashing into his fence – and doing an unfunny Three Stooges pratfall in his kitchen – he awakens to find his car smashed by a tree limb dislodged by a pair of movers. This is how he meets his new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 10-year-old son Oliver.
Seeing an opportunity, Vincent demands that Maggie reimburse him. Before long, Maggie – through desperation – recruits Vincent to watch Oliver after school. For ready cash, of course. And soon the two are off to the races. Literally. And the rest of the traditional formula follows, even to the point where Oliver – preparing a school report on identifying Saints who live among us – discovers, naturally enough, that underneath his boorish exterior Vincent is a pretty nice guy.
All of this would be just too much to take – for the 377th time – were it not for the cast that writer-director Melfi managed to snare. Pre-teen Lieberher is quite good in the kind of role played by everyone from Jackie Coogan to Tatum O’Neal. McCarthy, for once, actually creates an empathetic character out of her single mom facing the trials of divorce. And Irish actor Chris O’Dowd plays a thoughtful priest and teacher with a wry sense of humor. Terence Howard shows up briefly, but only Watts feels miscast, her Russian accent as fake as her rubber belly.
Murray, as usual, does less acting than impersonating the kind of character he crafted during his days on “Saturday Night Live” and perfected working for filmmakers as contemporarily cool as Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. The ever-present wink – or smirk – he wears lets us know that he’s in on the larger joke, whatever it is. It’s an affectation that amplifies his performance even as it limits his ability to do much more than hint at something deeper.
Fortunately for the movie “St. Vincent,” neither depth nor originality is required.
Above: Friday is Halloween. Enjoy the night, find someone to hug, then go see a movie.
Seems as if messages are on the movie menu this week. From racism to media manipulation, Friday's openings promise to offer a bit of education along with the standard dose of entertainment. Let's hope the mix is a good one. Friday is, after all, Halloween.
Friday's openings are as follows:
“Dear White People”: Racial issues arise for black students attending an Ivy League college. Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek calls this first-time feature by Justin Simien “one of the sharpest and most audacious comedies of the year.” Yeah, but will we laugh?
“Blue Room” (in French with English subtitles): A sexual fling is remembered in different ways by the two participants, catching a man by surprise. And it leaves him feeling bleu.
“Pride”: Based in fact, this “Full Monty” replica explores the partnership of gay activists and Welsh miners in 1984. Again, is this a laughing matter?
“Before I Go to Sleep”: After suffering trauma, a woman wakes every morning with no memory.
“Saw 10th Anniversary”: Just in time for Halloween.
During one of the many interviews that Keanu Reeves did in advance of the “John Wick” opening, he referred to the parts he has played in action films — specifically “The Matrix” trilogy. But he was quick to differentiate between doing “stunts” and doing “physical acting.”
You've done so much stunt work…
I haven't done any stunt work… I don't do any stunts.
You're flipping over people and firing guns.
But if I'm doing it, it's not a stunt. Stunt men do stunts.
What do you do?
I get to do some physical acting. I get involved in some action but they're not stunts. I flip over guys, I get flipped, I run, I jump, I play.
Makes me like the guy. Not every actor is this honest.
On any given day in history, a diverse collection of people share a birth date. Among those born on Oct. 27: English explorer Capt. James Cook (1728), Isaac Singer (inventor of the sewing machine, 1811), Theodore Roosevelt (1858), Emily Post (etiquette expert, 1865), Lee Krasner (artist, 1908), Dylan Thomas (1914), Ralph Kiner (1922), Roy Lichtenstein (artist, 1923), H.R. Haldeman (1926), Sylvia Plath (1932), Maxine Hong Kingston (1940), John Gotti (mobster, 1940), Roberto Benigni (1940), Marla Maples (former Mrs. Donald Trump, 1963) and Kelly Osbourne (daughter of Ozzie, 1984).
My favorite, though, is John Cleese. One of the six founding members of the comedy troupe Monty Python, Cleese is familiar as the tall one — the bowler-hatted civil servant working in the fictional Ministry of Silly Walks. But Cleese is almost as well known for his tenure on “Fawlty Towers,” his starring role in “A Fish Called Wanda” and his performance in two of the “Harry Potter” movies: “Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”
I first began watching “Monty Python” in the early 1970s when I was still an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego. But I never really appreciated the series until 1975 when I made my first trip to England. While traveling through the Lake District, we stayed at a B&B. After dinner, I heard laughter coming from the communal television room. It was there that I encountered several Brits convulsing over the Pythonites and their strange blend of silly/intellectual antics.
I can't remember what the episode was playing. But I want to think it included the “Dead Parrot” sketch, which features Cleese and Michael Palin, with Cleese playing a customer attempting to return a Norwegian Blue that is most definitely not resting but definitely demised. Click on the embed below and you'll see.
So, happy 75th birthday, John Cleese.
World War II has been over for nearly 70 years, yet filmmakers are still mining that unspeakable exercise in mass death for material. When done well, as with the two HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” and in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated “Saving Private Ryan,” the result is often a telling, tragic look at the fruitless absurdity of war. When done poorly, well … the results can be everything from pure propaganda – 1968’s “The Green Berets,” say – to simple violence porn – the prime example being any of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies.
Somewhere in the mix sits “Fury,” writer-director David Ayer’s story of an American tank crew struggling to survive the final few weeks of World War II’s European campaign. Let’s not get into how the war’s major tank action was the Battle of Kursk, which took place in the summer of 1943 and involved not Americans but Russians facing the invading Germans, because that’s a whole other movie – one that Hollywood isn’t likely to waste money making.
Ayer’s film is set in April, 1945, barely a month before Germany’s fall. Hitler has called for total resistance, which means that the crew of “Fury” – the name given to the American tank commanded by SSgt. Collier (Brad Pitt) – isn’t going to enjoy an easy stroll into Berlin. In fact, Collier’s tank is the sole survivor of a recent action that killed one of its five-man crew. The replacement gunner they receive is a clerk-typist named Norman (Logan Lerman), whom Collier has to quickly indoctrinate into the ways of war.
That includes both the crimes of war – forcing him to shoot an unarmed German prisoner – and the spoils of war: ordering him to have sex with a young German woman. Both actions are certainly controversial, but they certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise: Ayer obliterates any notion of nobility in the movie’s opening scene when Collier brutally stabs a German soldier through the eye socket.
But brutality isn’t the problem with “Fury.” Not the sight of hanged children, of tanks rolling over pancaked corpses, of soldiers being immolated like grilled steaks, of stray rounds causing heads to explode like piñatas – not even the ruthless attitudes of Collier and his crew that have been honed by too much exposure to horrors that would give John Wayne nightmares.
No, the problem is that Ayer presents all this with no sense of larger purpose. The acting is competent – with Shia LeBeouf standing out – but the characters are mostly cliché. Worse, Ayer’s narrative arc features action scenes, followed by a long sequence in which Collier and Norman develop a sort of bond, then a close filled with even more action. That bond never fully develops, much of the action seems more convenient than actually believable, and Ayer leaves us with an ending that is more about visual flair than anything significantly meaningful.
War, of course, tends to lose meaning for those caught up in its barbarism. That fact obliges filmmakers such as Ayer to work that much harder to provide it.
After asking for, and receiving a late email from AMC River Park Square, I've decided to add a whole new post about Friday's movie openings. As you can see in the post below, I reported that the two mainstream openings in area theaters are “John Wick” and “Ouija.” I updated that post to include AMC's addition of “St. Vincent.”
Now for three more:
“Addicted”: A gallery owner's sexual obsession threatens her career. Her emotions are 50 shades of something.
“16 Stones”: Description courtesy of IMDB: “A modern day adventure about the search for special stones touched by the hand of the Lord and brought to the Americas.” Question: Did someone trade a cow for those stones?
“23 Blast“: A sudden blindness forces a high school football player to question whether he can continue playing the sport he loves. What, he can't turn to officiating?