Sunday, August 28, 2016

Don't Think Twice

         The new Indie comedy/drama from writer & director Mike Birbiglia is much more drama than comedy even though its plot revolves around a improvisational comedy troupe.

          When two members of the fictional group, "The Commune" land auditions with the fictional TV show "Weekend Live" ( a very obvious Second City/Saturday Night Live analogy), the group dynamic starts to crack and relationships are strained to a breaking point.

           The film stars Mr. Birbiglia as Miles, the de facto leader of "The Commune" along with Keegan-Michael Key, Gillian Jacobs, Kate Mucucci, Chris Gethard, and Tami Sagher as the rest of the troupe. Everyone is so natural in their part, the film could almost serve as a "behind the scenes"  documentary about the world of improvisation.

           Bitingly honest, sharp and witty, the film is ultimately sad and bitter sweet as the group realizes life is interfering in the intimate world they have created as "The Commune". Surprisingly, there are many heartbreaking scenes that fill the viewer with emotions that linger long after the credits roll.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

War Dogs

      Based on a true story (but heavily fictionalized) this new film from director Todd Phillips is fascinating in its subject matter and entertaing enough due to it's stars, Jonah Hill and Miles Teller.

       It's far from a great film, containing too much unnecessary profanity that I found distracting, but Mr. Hill and Mr. Teller keep it interesting. What drives the story is the reality that two young "bros" from Miami managed to become international arms dealers making millions selling weapons to the U.S. military. 

      Bradley Cooper is a co-producer and has a supporting role that amounts to little more than a cameo. The film also co-stars Ana de Armas as Mr. Teller's girlfriend.

      Is there fun in watching bad men doing bad things that end badly? As outsiders looking in, there is a certain visceral thrill for the audience watching Mr. Hill as the vulgar and just a bit psychotic, Efraim, lie, cheat and double cross his way to a fortune. While at the same time, Mr. Teller, as David, loses his moral compass by the lure of easy money.

         To keep the story more entertaining for a general audience, many scenes have been fabricated but serve their purpose. There is an ugly truth in this morality tale that our government's shady global dealings only prove war equals profit for far too many people.  

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Hell or High Water

          In today's hard economic times, two Texas brothers decide to rob branches of the bank that hold the mortgage to their mother's ranch. On their trail is a pair of Texas Rangers, one, days way from retirement. It's a simple story that we've seen variations of in the past but everything about this film works beautifully. Written by Taylor Sheridan and directed by David MacKenzie, this little crime drama is a near perfect film. 

         The script has a lot to say about these rough times, especially in small towns across America. It's familiar territory but unexpected moments of humor and violence mix things up and the outcome is never certain. There is never a false note in the dialog. Mr. MacKenzie's direction, along with the beautiful cinematography paint amazing pictures across the bleak Texas landscape. You can feel the dust in your face, the heat on your skin and the cold beer in your mouth throughout the film. I also can't say enough of the original music by Nick Cave and the terrific soundtrack that blends perfectly into the story.

          Playing the brothers are Ben Foster, who makes a living playing hard nosed psychopaths with just enough of a tender side to surprise you and Chris Pine who breaks his own image with a character dirty and gritty in his desperation and determination. The Texas Rangers are played by a brilliant Jeff Bridges, who slips into his character like a well worn second skin and Gil Birmingham, as his partner Alberto, who matches Mr. Bridges step by step. Their chemistry together is just wonderful to watch.

         The film takes it's time to tell it's story and some may feel it's too slow but the deliberate pace slows things down just enough to savor the little moments in this terrific crime noir.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Cafe Society

      Woody Allen returns to one of his best loved periods, the 1930's for this new romantic comedy. The film covers no new ground as it's story and structure are pretty common in Mr. Allen's filmography.

       Always writing with himself in mind for the lead but far to old to play the part, Mr. Allen finds a very capable substitute in Jesse Eisenberg as Bobby Dorfman. Bobby is a young Jewish man from the Bronx who seeks his fortune in Hollywood, hoping his Uncle Phil, a powerful Hollywood agent, will find him a job.

      Mr. Eisenberg is perfect in the role, capturing the mannerisms, vocal cadence, and rhythms of a young Mr. Allen perfectly. His Uncle Phil is played with confidence by Steve Carell, who is reluctant at first to help his nephew but grows to like him enough to give him a menial job. Once at the Agency, Bobby becomes smitten with Vonnie, Phil's secretary, played by Kristen Stewart. Ms. Stewart seems an odd choice for the love interest and while her performance is good, I can't help feeling she is miscast.

            Back home in the Bronx, Bobby's parents, Rose (played by Jeannie Berlin) and Marty (Ken Stott) worry about Bobby, his older brother Ben (a gangster played by Cory Stoll) and their daughter Evelyn (played by Sari Lennick). Blake Lively and Parker Posey round out the cast as other women who come into Bobby's life. The sub-plots involving Evelyn and her husband as well as Ben's gangster life are fillers for the central plot and exist as typical Allen characters giving voice to his common themes.

             The film has its charms (as expected from Mr. Allen, it has a great Jazz soundtrack) and is entertaining enough but it is middle of the road Allen writing, neither a hit or a miss but rather a well hit foul ball.


       Based on the novel by Phillip Roth and written for the screen and directed by James Schamus, this is an excellent adult drama with a star turn by Logan Lerman.

        Set in 1951, during the Korean War, this is a coming of age film with an unorthodox (in more than one sense of the word) love story. Mr Lerman plays Marcus Messner, a young man of Jewish descent who enters a small Ohio College on a scholarship, thus avoiding the draft.

          Glad to be away from his overly protective parents, especially his father (played by Danny Burstein), Marcus rooms with two other Jewish boys in a school where they are very much in the minority. It is there that he meets Olivia Hutton (played by Sarah Gadon) and a relationship develops.

            The dean of the school is played by Tracy Letts and the scenes with Marcus that take place in his office are powerful and speak to the core of the film. Mr. Lerman has found his perfect role and he embodies Marcus so deeply, we are fully engaged as an audience.

             Ms. Gadon brings a sadness to her character than adds depth to a part many would consider stereotyped. Mr. Letts is a towering authority figure and Mr. Burstein, along with Linda Emond are engaging and surprising parents. 

               Mr. Schamus captures the mood and texture of the period very well and while there are moments of humor, rest assured, this is a serious drama...well written and well acted.

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Suicide Squad

           DC tries again after the critical drubbing of "Superman/Batman: Dawn of Justice". This time they flip the script and put their villains front and center as a bad team doing good. Based on the comic created by John Ostrander (nice subtle nod to him in one scene), the film is written and directed by David Ayer.

               The film tires hard to be edgy like "Deadpool" and snarky like "Guardians of The Galaxy" but fails on both accounts (with the exception of Harley Quinn, who deserves her own film). 

               Margot Robbie brings Harley to life right off the comic book pages. She infuses her character with energy and has lots of fun with the role.  Jared Leto as usual, completely inhabits his turn as The Joker and owns his version but since this is about the "Squad", we get too little of him. His scenes with Harley, however are priceless. Viola Davis plays Amanda Waller, the government agent with her own nasty streak and she is always a professional, even when playing a comic book villain. 

                 The rest of the cast are as flat as their original comic pages.  Even Will Smith (who gets a large piece of screen time as Deadshot) disappoints and was far better as "Hancock". The major threat is completely ridiculous and is a minor league version of the climax of "The Avengers: Age of Ultron film"(which itself was a ripoff of the first Avengers climax). Mr. Ayer tries hard to give each character at least one major scene but it all comes back to Harley Quinn as the most interesting character in the film.

                    Even a cameo from Ben Affleck's Batman can't save the day. I'll stick to the graphic novel.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Jason Bourne

        The latest installment in the Bourne series could easily be called "Jason Yawn" considering we have seen it all before. Not only is the film redundant but this time around it doesn't even have a plot to speak of....just evil CIA director Tommy Lee Jones chasing Matt Damon all over the world.

         Mr. Jones considers Bourne a threat so he hires an "asset"/assassin played by Vincent Cassel to kill scores of innocent bystanders in order to find and kill Bourne. Julia Stiles returns for a too brief cameo and the key female role this time is played by Alicia Vikander. Ms. Vikander plays a CIA analyst who ends up helping Bourne for her own secret agenda.

           It's a very nice travelogue with stops in Greece, Germany, Rome, London and Las Vegas but it's all the same mind numbing chase scenes from every other film in the series. A story with some real depth would have us caring a lot more for what transpires.

           Matt Damon wears the character like a second skin and he is still a terrific action hero but with a flimsy motivation behind his actions, who really cares? Director Paul Greengrass (who also co-wrote what passes for the story), moves the film at his trademark breakneck speed from place to place avoiding any time for the audience to realize it's all style without substance.

              For me, this was "The Bourne End of the Line".