Movie Reviews - 2016 postsWednesday February 15, 2017
Movie Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (2016)
The subtitle of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is like a warning to Hollywood execs not to resurrect franchises that did OK at the box office but hardly gangbusters; that were, as a fan might say to friends the morning after watching it on PPV, “not bad.”
Because this? This sequel to the “not bad”? It’s awful.
That doesn’t happen much with Tom Cruise movies. Say what you will about him—and we have—but he usually doesn’t pick lame projects. Usually.
So much in “Never Go Back” depends upon the sexuality of a star who seems to have little of it onscreen, and whose offscreen sexuality has been the subject of decades of rumors.
As the movie opens, Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise) is solving cases for Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), then hitchhiking his way to the next town, a classic American drifter-hero in the mold of The Lone Ranger or Kwai Chang Caine. But with each case, and call back to Turner, the flirtation deepens, until he arrives in D.C. ready to take her to dinner and maybe back to her place. Except, darn the luck, she’s been arrested for espionage. It’s cell block as cock block.
(Question: Has Reacher ever seen Maj. Turner or did he just luck out? Did he know, for example, that she wasn’t 54 and dumpy but 34 and so smokin’ hot she should have her own adjective? I’d suggest smuldering, after the actress. You’re welcome.)
His other soupçon of sexuality comes from his classified file. Apparently Reacher is a dad. At least there was a paternity lawsuit a few years back. I assumed this, like the espionage charge against Maj. Turner, was trumped up, since the military never contacted him about it, and because he claims he remembers all the women he’s slept with. (All zero of them?) Even so, he checks out the potential offspring, a bratty 15-year-old named Samantha (Danika Yarosh), and even talks to her outside of a convenience store where she’s been shoplifting. It’s the one time in the movie when Reacher is being followed and doesn’t know he’s being followed. Photos are then taken that will come back to haunt him. Or us.
Because of course Reacher is pulled into the web. He’s accused of murdering Turner’s JAG attorney, which gets him into the same prison as Turner, which allows him to bust her loose. Sadly, when they get more intel, he realizes the bad guys know about Samantha (those photos), and they all have to go on the lam together: the aging drifter-hero, the smuldering Major, and this blonde brat who doesn’t know enough not to use a cellphone or credit card when being tracked by the NSA. Could the movie have worked without her? I don’t know. But with her it was a painful slog. I never cared for the character, the actress, any of it.
There’s a nemesis, of course, another top agent-y guy known only as “The Hunter” (Patrick Huesinger); and while Huesinger is good, the back-and-forth between the two, the taunting on the phone, tries to be McClane/Hans in “Die Hard” and fails. It also tries to be vaguely Batman/Jokerish. Hunter sees himself in Reacher: two hugely effective solo operatives. The movie undercuts this by giving Hunter henchmen: two more guys for Reacher to kill. The odds have to be further stacked against our hero.
The maguffin is Parasource, a private military contractor that’s bleeding money, so it’s smuggling opiates into the U.S. with the help of top military brass. That's right: top military brass. The movie is another gung-ho action flick with a decidedly mixed message if moviegoers ever thought about it for two seconds after the popcorn was gone.
Cruise is beginning to show his age, by the way, which is mine, 54. He still looks good, but he’s got a new puffiness around the eyes and cheeks. He’s also so slight in those skintight outfits that when he was brought into prison by a burly guard, I flashed on tiny Luke being led before the Emperor by Darth Vader. I’d suggest he try for more adult roles but in today’s Hollywood they’re hard to come by. And maybe he doesn’t want them? Maybe he wants to return to his pre-couch-jumping glory days of movie stardom? Seems so. Here’s what he has lined up for the next few years: another “M:I” sequel, a “Top Gun” sequel, and a reboot of “The Mummy.”
In “Never Go Back,” it all ends on the rooftops of New Orleans. Reacher kills The Hunter, learns the daughter isn’t his, and he and Turner don’t have sex. Then he hits the road again—the last hitchhiker in America. Sexless once more.
Movie Review: Morris From America (2016)
Unique concept, poor execution.
The titular Morris (Markees Christmas), a 13-year-old, pudgy African-American kid, lives in Germany with his father, Curtis (Craig Robinson of “The Office”), a former soccer player turned coach, and navigates adolescence as a stranger in a strange land. He battles racial stereotypes (that he plays basketball well, dances well, has a big ---), pursues Katrin, a cute Geman girl two years his senior (Lina Keller), and tries his hand writing hip-hop. He visits a castle and learns German.
But mostly it’s the girl and hip-hop.
- I didn’t buy Robinson as an international soccer player. Maybe former football player or wrestler? I also didn’t buy him as a coach. He didn’t occupy the field the way coaches do. He looked like he was a visitor; like he was trying to be inconspicuous as possible rather than standing and demanding and owning the space.
- I didn’t like our main character at all. There wasn’t enough interesting about him, probably because he wasn’t interested in enough things. Of his two great pursuits, he wasn’t particularly good with hip-hop (until he was), and the girl was both: 1) out of his league (physically), and 2) not worth his time (she’s kind of awful). Dude, you’re in Germany. Learn, absorb, appreciate. Which of course is the lesson of the movie at the end.
- I hated Katrin. Her prank at the party, with the fake kiss and the squirt gun to the crotch, was unforgiveable, and she never really redeemed herself. She got away with too much. What does she believe in? What does she care about? Besides her own looks and the effect it has on men/boys?
- I didn’t like Morris’ German teacher, Inka (Carla Juri), who seems both too close/chummy with him during lessons, then reads his personal notebook and freaks at the misogynistic rap lyrics.
- I didn’t like any of the Germans. How awful is that? Not one character is worth our time in this country? C’mon.
- The Yankee caps don't help.
When I rented it, I thought it was written and/or directed by Robinson, but it’s actually the work of Chad Hartigan, who was born in Cyprus, and who fetishized Katrin a little too much for my comfort level.
The last 15 minutes almost made up for the first 75, but not enough. If you haven’t bothered, don’t bother.
Movie Review: La La Land (2016)
Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” has a romantic view of love and L.A. but not necessarily life. It knows there are barriers between where we are and where we want to be, and to cross those barriers sacrifices have to be made. That’s why the dream sequence. In the end, we get a 10-minute version of the story we’ve just watched in which all the endings are Hollywood endings. Then it cuts back to reality.
Well, “reality.” Both of our protagonists actually get what they want. Mia (Emma Stone) is a barista who wants to become a movie star, and she becomes a movie star. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a struggling jazz musician who wants to open his own jazz club, and he opens his own jazz club. They just don’t get each other.
Here’s a question: Why don’t they get each other? Why do they break up? Beyond the barriers, I mean.
You could say it’s because of a stain on the ceiling. Or because Mia is kind of a jerk.
Mia = My
Am I the only one who feels this way? I love me some Emma Stone but Mia bugged me throughout.
The movie is about the four seasons of a relationship. Our lovers start out cold to each other (winter), then thaw (spring), then it’s hot (summer), then, no, things begin to go cool off, and small things break apart (fall). Then winter again: It’s five years later and she’s married to someone else with a 2-year-old daughter.
It’s a movie steeped in movie lore. Our protagonists can’t walk a block without encountering another giant mural of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean and Charlie Chaplin. Never thought how odd this must be for struggling actors. Everywhere you go is a reminder of what you aren’t. It would be like me living in a city dominated by giant portraits of Hemingway, Mailer and Doctorow. But at least I’d live among people who knew who Hemingway, Mailer and Doctorow were.
The opening number takes place in that most L.A. of locales—a traffic jam on the freeway. We’re subjected to a cacophony of horns, curses, and different radio stations, and then, boom, it’s magical, Hollywood magical, and everyone is singing with and dancing to the same song, “Another Day of Sun.” Then as quickly as it started, it ends, and we’re back to the cacophony, and we meet our future lovers. She’s reading lines and doesn’t notice cars moving forward; he’s behind her and lays on the horn, then peels around and stares at her. She gives him a “God” look and flips him off. That’s our meet cute.
I like that but I didn’t like her. She’s put off that someone expects her to move forward in a traffic jam? How about a mea culpa?
She keeps doing this. She’s open-mouthed astonished that:
- she can’t leave work at a coffeeshop at the drop of a hat
- customers expect her to report complaints
- the world doesn’t recognize her talent
- the seats to her one-woman show aren’t filled
The real world keeps intruding upon the magical one. Just before our lovers are about to kiss for the first time, they’re stopped when: 1) a cellphone rings, and 2) a movie projector breaks down. (Interesting solution to the dramatist’s eternal question: How do you keep the lovers apart? Technology!) The movie they’re watching is “Rebel Without a Cause,” also set in L.A., with a big scene at the Griffith Observatory, which is where they head afterwards. It’s night, the place is closed, but they get in. We don’t even see them breaking in; they simply wander its hallways and exhibits alone, then magically, musically, ascend to the stars and dance there. Great scene.
That leads to summer of happy, bustling activity, during which he teaches her about jazz and encourages her to write her own one-woman play. Then trouble: Sebastian overhears Mia trying to placate her mother about his career. He’s talented but uncompromising, and he stares at the ceiling, at a stain there, and decides to compromise. He signs on to be the keyboardist with the band “The Messengers,” led by his former classmate, Keith (John Legend), whose music he doesn’t like. But it beats the Christmas jingles he’s been playing, right? And A-Ha and Flock of Seagulls? Anyway, the band takes off, they have money, she quits her barista job and gets ready for her one-woman show, and is forever grateful for the sacrifice Sebastian made for her and them.
Kidding. She never acknowledges the sacrifice. She attends one of their concerts and is stunned that he’s happily playing music he knows isn’t great. And when he makes time between tour dates to surprise her with a home-cooked meal, she brings it up—the crap music of The Messengers—and they get into an argument, and he accuses her of being jealous because her own career is going nowhere. And that’s it. She leaves him.
She leaves L.A., too, when her one-woman show tanks, to lick her wounds and think about a new career in her hometown of Boulder City, Nev.
Ah, but he gets a call from a casting director who saw her one-woman show, and wants to talk to her about a part in a major film. So he calls her. Kidding. He drives all the way out to Boulder City—300 miles away—to convince her to come back and read for the part. She does. She gets it. And on a bench overlooking L.A. she tells him how grateful she is. Kidding. She asks, “Where are we?,” meaning in their relationship, and he tells her she needs to concentrate on her career. They say they will always love each other but it already feels over. Because of the argument during the romantic dinner? They can’t get past that? They can’t have a little bit of fall in their summer? Or is it because the movie’s nearly over and we need a resolution?
We need the eggs
I still liked “La La Land.” I like its mix of quotidian and magical—our lovers’ first dance in the Hollywood hills; their dance and first kiss at the Griffith Observatory. I like her and her friends in different, primary-colored dresses strutting down the street on their way to a party. I like Sebastian on the dock with the fedora.
Gosling and Stone aren’t great singers. That’s one of the oddities of the concert scene, which is supposed to be tacky but still includes John Legend’s great voice belting it out. You think, “We could use more of that.” I liked their dancing more, particularly his, and I love how L.A.-drenched it is. It’s a love letter to sunny L.A. with a touch of Woody Allen at the end. Sebastian and Mia wind up like Alvy and Annie: two adults in love who have gone separate ways. It just made more sense in “Annie Hall.”
Movie Review: Central Intelligence (2016)
Early in the movie, Bob Stone, nee Robbie Wheirdicht (Dwayne Johnson), the former fat kid turned CIA agent, and Calvin “The Jet” Joyner (Kevin Hart), the former BMOC turned accountant, return to their old high school, which, for Bob, was the scene of countless humiliations. The deepest was probably the one that opened the movie—when bullies toss Robbie stark naked into the middle of a school assembly. Everyone laughs. Except Calvin. He’s sympathetic and gives him his letterman’s jacket to cover himself up. Robbie/Bob never forgot that small act of kindness. He also never gave the jacket back.
Anyway, back in the old hallways, Calvin tries to bring this up—the humiliations—but Bob dismisses them, saying he doesn’t even think about them anymore.
Bob: Here’s the secret. You know what I did, Jet? I took all that stuff and I balled it up real tight and then I shoved it way down deep. And I just pretty much ignore it.
Calvin: That sounds ... really unhealthy, Bob.
The movie has a few such laugh-out-loud moments, and this was my favorite. I’ve loved The Rock since late ’90s WWF (I actually watched that shit for awhile), and Hart since seeing “The Z Shirt” sketch on SNL, and the two have great chemistry together. They’re the reason the movie works as well as it does. Plus we get a few choice cameos—particularly Jason Bateman as the former high school bully who may or may not have found religion.
But overall? Meh.
It’s another opposites-attract buddy action-comedy, with Hart playing the staid guy and Johnson the well-meaning but potential crazy CIA agent who may have gone rogue. This last bit is supposed to provide tension throughout—is Bob really a traitor?—when it does no such thing. Might as well ask: Is The Rock a traitor? No. So why bother? Because it gives Calvin no way out since even the CIA is after their asses? I guess. But the way the filmmakers prolonged the tension into the last reel was insulting.
Not to mention this: In the end, Bob gets his redemption at the high school reunion while Calvin gives up his staid job for a life of action in the CIA. I.e., he leaves behind the job most of us have (if we're lucky) for something that, when I was growing up, was morally suspect. Cf., Col. Flagg. Of course, since 1995, the CIA has had liaisons in Hollywood and have looked better as a result. Maybe accountants need a liaison.
The screenplay was written by two “Mindy Project” dudes, Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen, with an assist from director Rawson Marshall Thurber, who also wrote-directed “Dodgeball” and “We’re the Millers.” His next project is “We’re the Millers 2.” Yes. Sadly, we are.
Movie Review: 20th Century Women (2016)
“20th Century Women” is a coming-of-age movie set in 1979—the year before we elected Reagan and everything began to go to hell.
It’s bittersweet, as all true coming-of-age movies are. The sweet is youth and discovery; the bitter is all that’s left unsaid and undone. It’s about the moment that’s gone forever and can never be reclaimed except through art.
I’d call the movie a character study but it’s really a characters study. The 15-year-old protagonist, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), lives with his iconoclastic mother, Dorothea (Annette Bening), in a big, drafty, fixer-upper in Santa Barbara populated by two renters: the mellow, ex-hippie handyman William (Billy Crudup), and the 25-year-old cancer survivor/photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig), who teaches Jamie about punk rock and encourages him to get out. Meanwhile, his best friend, Julie (Elle Fanning), two years older, is half an adolescent boy’s wet dream. She’s the pretty girl who climbs through his bedroom window to sleep with him. Except it’s just that: sleep. No fooling around. She fools around with other guys, but with him it’s “just friends.” He handles this with more equanimity than I would have.
Still, his mother is worried. She was born in 1924 (I love that the movie tells us when every character was born), came of age during the Depression and World War II, and, while generally liberal in outlook, doesn’t get what the world is coming to. She doesn’t get punk music and its fashions, and can’t understand why teenage boys would engage in something as stupid as “the fainting game,” in which another kid pushes on your diaphragm and you keep breathing out until you faint. Jamie’s faint lasts a half hour and includes a trip to the hospital. After that, Dorothea decides she needs help raising him. She turns to Abbie and Julie, who question her choice. “What about William?” they ask. But Jamie doesn’t connect to men, says the mother; he connects with women.
It takes a village
Let me add: I love this movie. It’s almost tailor-made for me.
In 1979, I was about Jamie’s age, 16, and the product of divorce, as he was. Except my family split up along gender lines. I stayed with my father and older brother in south Minneapolis, while my mother and younger sister moved to Timonium, Maryland, a suburb of Baltimore. We saw each other twice a year. Our side was all testosterone: the liberal, bookish, short-tempered version.
You know what I needed back then? This movie. Its matter-of-fact sexual lessons. Mine came from the usual wrong sources—Hugh Hefner, Hollywood, the shadowy intel of peers—while Jamie is helped out by a houseful of women. Abbie gives him two books, “Our Bodies, Our Selves” and “Sisterhood is Powerful,” a 1970 collection of feminist essays. There’s a great scene at the skate park when another kid brags about his sexual prowess and Jamie attempts to educate him about how women have orgasms. That, and the Talking Heads shirt Jamie is wearing (instead of true punk like Black Flag), leads to a fight, and a great moment when Dorothea is doctoring Jamie’s wounds back home:
Dorothea: What was the fight about?
Jamie [after a pause]: Clitoral stimulation.
It’s a crime Bening didn’t get an Oscar nomination for lead actress. Dorothea has this piercing look as she tries to fathom the world, and even though she comes away dumbfounded she keeps doing it. She keeps trying. But at 55, the world keeps getting away from her.
She’s there, all the time, whether inviting the fire chief to her house for dinner without a hint of flirtation, or with face scrunched as she tries to figure out what Black Flag is singing about. It’s a great homage to that generation of women—the ones who went to work during World War II and never lost the taste for it; who didn’t go quietly back into the home. Apparently it’s an homage to writer-director Mike Mills' own mother, just as his previous work, “Beginners,” from 2011, with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer, was an homage to his father. I think this movie is better. A lot better. There’s more life in it. There’s wisdom.
Here’s Abbie to Jamie:
Whatever you think your life is going to be like, just know it’s not going to be anything like that.
Here’s Jamie and Julie discussing women’s orgasms. She admits neither she nor her friends have them. So why have sex? he asks.
There’s other reasons. The way they look at me, the way they all get a little desperate at some point. The little sounds they make. [She imitates.] And their bodies. You don’t know exactly how they’re gonna look or smell or feel or whatever until you do it.
Julie, at this point, is worried she’s pregnant but she isn’t. Abbie is worried that the cancer will prevent her from having kids, but she has them. We keep finding out where our characters will wind up, and it helps heighten the current moment. Seeing Abbie in her early 30s, with her husband, house and two kids, which is everything she wanted in 1979, it’s nice but melancholy. We’re happy for her but she’s become someone else. Who is this guy she's with? Where’s the girl we knew?
I’ve always had a problem with Greta Gerwig but I love her here. Crudup gives one of his best performances, as does Bening in a career of great performances. Is Mills some kind of genius? It’s beyond the dialogue. If you take the original meaning of director—one who directs actors—who was better in 2016?
Longing for meaning
Some of the movie’s wisdom is even presidential. There’s a scene at one of Dorothea’s dinner parties where everyone gathers around the TV to watch Jimmy Carter giving his infamous “malaise” speech. Afterwards, the men in the room all declare him dead in the water, while Dorothea calls the speech beautiful. Both are right. Telling people they have no confidence isn’t a great way to give people confidence. At the same time, Carter nails what’s wrong with us:
There is a growing disrespect for government, the schools, the news media, and other institutions. ... Too many of us now tend to worship self indulgence and consumption. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We always believed that we were part of a great movement of humanity itself, involved in the search for freedom. We are at a turning point in our history. The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.
And we went that route. It’s kind of astonishing to listen to today. Carter was treating us as adults but we weren’t. “20th Century Women” is about a boy progressing just as the country was regressing. That second part isn’t bittersweet; these days, it's just bitter.