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Blood Father (2016)
A taut thriller with nothing new except Mel.
When fathers save daughters (think Liam Neeson thrillers), there will always be blood. In Blood Father, there's more lamenting mistakes that left a 16 year-old Lydia (Erin Moriarity) to drop out of sight for a year while father, Link (Mel Gibson) is miserable over the loss. Meanwhile he keeps in contact with his parole officer.
The strength of this film, a modern Western-like fable, is certainly not the plot, which has been told beforeshe got involved with some bad dealers, and he did some bad things while hooked up with a motorcycle gang (Michael Parks, ever near bikes in movies, is Link's surrogate dad). The real interest is seeing Mel Gibson playing a Mad Max dad with dexterity to remind us of his salad days as an actor.
Link is hard and soft, a rounded character Gibson plays well enough for us to care what happens to him. Whatever charm Gibson has seems present in this distraught father who won't let his daughter go once he finds her again.
The stereotypes are present such as the very bad, tattooed Mexican drug dealers, and the shoot out that requires hero dad to out fox even the most seasoned outlaw.
Hardly a liberal idea anywhere except maybe dad and daughter riding in the back of a truck and wondering if the Mexicans aboard are legal. Beyond ideology, Blood Father is a taut little thriller returning Mel Gibson to front and center.
Don't Think Twice (2016)
Uncommonly insightful about comedy in general and improv in particular.
"I think for anyone - male or female - in improv, the biggest thing to get over is the fear. I think every improviser has that." Rachel Dratch
Don't Think Twice makes you think more than once about not just the enormous demands of comedy, including fear of failure, but also about doing anything for a profession that may give you little to no compensation other than the joy of doing what you love and are good at.
More than anything else, this comedy makes a poignant comment on the irony of talented people making it while other talents struggle never to be recognized. Miles (writer-director Mile Birbiglia) feels it painfully as he sees Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) win a spot on Weekend Live (no doubt, Saturday Night Live) while Miles and his other colleagues labor in the lesser venue of NYC on the improv team, The Commune.
As the title of their improv group suggests, their work is communal, depending on an effort for which individual spotlights have no place. Ironically, Jack wins the Weekend Live job partially by standing out doing a solo routine even though his colleagues warned him against it.
Don't Think Twice does an effective job of showing the inherent contradictions of communal support and individual talent. In the matter of a romance between Jack and Sam (Gillian Jacobs), the tensions between their emerging rewards for their talent and sacrifice are subtly displayed in their loving routines and their personal love.
You would not be surprised to know how difficult it would be to determine which bits in the movie are improv and which are rehearsed, so good are the performers. Even that puzzle supports a theme about the intersection of reality and artifice, a benign clash between the creative improvisation and the spontaneity of life itself. Both bring their rewards and disappointments.
Here is a comedy with touches of real life--hey, I think that's what life itself is all about.
Don't Breathe (2016)
Downright scary and inventive.
Almost 50 years ago I was thrilled by Wait Until Dark, a horror film in which a usually demure Audrey Hepburn, playing a recently divorced blind woman, turns the tables on three thugs who invade her home. Today in Don't Breathe the tables are turned a different way: a blind man (Stephen Lang) gives as good as he gets while three young thieves try to rob his home. As for home invasion, Straw Dogs, with no blind motif, left me hoping for more of it all.
Set in decaying Detroit, the thieves, Rocky (Jane Levy); Alex (Dylan Minnette); and Money (Daniel Zovatto) are themselves rotten robbers, hitting homes for which Rocky's dad's security business unwittingly supplies the keys. In this blighted neighborhood the blind man is the last holdout, although he's well equipped for trouble with his Vietnam experience, a vicious Rottweiler, and $300,000 to protect.
Although nothing scary is outside the purview of the standard horror film, director Fede Alvarez and DP Pedreo Luque take the steadicam to new heights of ingenuity by tracking through the claustrophobic corridors and air ducts along with wounded thieves and the rabid dog. The bird's eye shots outside the house, rather than giving hope for relief, serve well to isolate the proceedings with nary a hope for relief for anyone in the house. The jump scares are standard horror, but somehow they feel new or at least unexpected.
Most everyone in Don't Breathe gets a comeuppance, some more deserving than others. A sense of justice pervades the proceedings just like the appropriateness of the decay motif. However I want to spin the themes, even ones that comment obliquely about the war in Vietnam and urban blight, what is most important for the horror genre are scares.
You may not breathe during the many scary set pieces, and as you consider their allegorical implications, you'll be glad you had the bejesus scared out of you because that's why you're there.
Learn about IPOs and be scared.
"As you become more successful, the gender barrier disappears. The credibility challenges you have during your growing up years starts disappearing when you start demonstrating success." Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw
Besides the obvious financial meaning of the title, Equity, this female-driven thriller shows how women can screw and be screwed in the Stock Market sweepstakes as well as men. Naomi (Anna Gun) is a senior investment banker in charge of securing the best IPOs for emerging companies, and the current one for the company Cachet has intrigue to make John le Carre envious.
In most of the drama, directed by Meera Menon, Naomi is dealing with the usual shenanigans afflicting high-powered operatives (think Wall Street and Wolf of Wall Street with a bit of Margin Call and The Big Short): a lover, Michael (James Purefoy), who is a hedge funder with interest in sabotaging her current IPO; Samantha (Alysia Reiner), an assistant with ambition on her mind; and Erin (Sarah Megan Thomas) a prosecutor-lesbian who exists to make high-powered execs like Anna nervous.
A disappointment is the feminine power motif. While Anna has an equal place at the table, there are times when womanly intuition causes her to pause for too long and feminine sexual politics seems to compromise the equity position I so looked forward to. Writer Amy Fox rather relies lamely on a boxing motif to show Anna's aggressive side and the number of chocolate chips in a cookie to reveal the misogyny that underlies some of the major events in the film.
The pattern of inequity is counterbalanced by Naomi's speech about appreciating money and its cousin, ambition, but not enough to let the film slip into clichés about the vulnerability of women in the workplace. I'm just not sure Equity takes us much further than Working Girl when in fact real life examples abound about the pre-eminence of women in the work place.
Mostly the film, while instructive about investment banking, is slow, lacking the zing of the trading floor and the tantalizing plot twists in the best Wall Street films. Maybe that's because in films men are still having most of the fun.
One of the best resistance stories in film history.
"Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once." Shakespeare's Julius Caesar
If you delight in the fantasy violence of summer blockbusters, you will lose any romantic notions about it when you see the real deal in Anthropoid, a based-on-actual-events biography about seven WWII resistance fighters who parachute into Nazi-held Czechoslovakia. Their job: assassinate the third highest ranking officer of the Reich, Reinhard Heydrich (Detlef Bothe), the Butcher of Prague.
As in all dictatorships, never a safe moment exists, and writer-director Sean Ellis, along with writer Anthony Frewin, emphasizes both the bravery of the fighters and the brutality of the Nazis in a quagmire of deceit and fear. No sympathy for any of occupiers but much to admire in the freedom fighters, the best examples of the "valiant" Caesar mentions in the above quote.
The two lead fighters, Jan (Jamie Dornan) and Josef (Cillian Murphy), crystallize the film's impressive depiction of understated bravery and humanity: Both take life-threatening chances -- Jan has realistic moments of cowardice and bravery while Josef is steadfast. Both fall in love in mature circumstances that brook little romance.
If there are any faults in Anthropoid, one would be the overly-long fight scene in the church hideout. After a few minutes, one can get the idea of the mayhem that lasted in reality about 6 hours. However, this scene certainly shows the valor of the fighters against the relentless Nazi machine.
In the end, Anthropoid is the story of heroism crucified by almost unstoppable, and certainly unfathomable, evil. Although we are buoyed up by any resistance victory, that joy is seriously tempered by the triumph of the enemy's will.
As the title suggests, subhuman Nazi anthropoids rule the landscape: in one instance, they bring in the severed head of a resistance sympathizer to torture her son. Yet, real loving, hurting humans try to survive the horror. Anthropoid makes Planet of the Apes look like The Sound of Music.
After Army of Shadows, Anthropoid ranks as one of the best resistance stories in film history.
"Satan understands the power of men and women united in righteousness." Sheri L. Dew
Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)
The other Grant would approve.
"No mockers and no scoffers." St Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant)
Florence Foster Jenkins has an entertaining and instructive ambivalence informing it. Based on true events about the titular heiress who longed to be a singer, director Stephen Frears and writer Nicholas Martin deftly navigate around mockery and scoffing about her poor voice and offer admiration for someone who pursues her dream while she does good for all.
Although the concept of a talentless singer is not new (just reverse the motif in Citizen Kane), here it is infused by the innocent and well-meaning patron, Florence, and played by the consummate actress, Meryl Streep, with a sense of the goodness of her character. Aiding and abetting her emergence as a "singer" is her second husband, Bayfield, who leads an ambivalent life as well, a husband with a lover.
The film is overseen by two points of view: One has her being a fool laughed at by the public; the other is a charity maven admired by arts lovers and philanthropists who would never call her on her lack of talent. In between is her husband, who loves her beyond honesty about her voice. As brought to life by Hugh Grant, who has always played a top-drawer innocent in wolf's clothing, her husband carries the burden of the audience that both admires and denigrates her singing.
The duality of this comedy drama is expressed in a variety of amusing ways such as the site of a bathtub full of potato salad (a fav food for Florence) to her pianist, McMoon (Simon Helberg), hilariously realizing she can't sing, while everyone around the room ignores the cacophony. The film reveres her while she in on the brink of collapse from pursuing her dream of stardom, a goal they all know is impossible.
After four plays, one documentary, and two feature films, the subject of Florence Foster Jenkins' would seem to have run its course. Yet, this recent film shows the subject's ability to be fresh, perhaps because the innocent following an impossible dream (Quixote, anyone?) is eternally in the hearts of all romantics and those who seek more out of life despite the odds. On the other side of the argument, the subject does seem to be tired and clichéd at times.
Although Meryl Streep may be Oscar nominated again (she holds the record), Hugh Grant deserves the nod for his first time. Cary Grant would approve.
Suicide Squad (2016)
It's summer, it's fun, but it's not a memorable movie.
"What is this? Cheerleading tryouts?" Deadshot
Suicide Squad is the most recent entry in the summer mayhem action movies, and it's distinctive only in its conceit: Assemble the baddest asses in the world from Louisiana's Belle Rive prison to eradicate even badder ones from somewhere else in the universe. Kind of like making a conscience-deficient dictator next president of the USA.
Led by Deadshot (Will Smith), six dead souls, including the randy and dangerous Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), are recruited from lockup by the questionably-ethical government agent, Amanda Walker (Viola Davis). Their mission: Execute a black ops mission and receive clemency. Most sane operatives would not touch this group, much less give them license to kill, but these are desperate times because bad must beat bad as good has gone AWOL.
What ensues is full of explosions and innumerable rounds of bullets, and oh, yes, a nice touch of a very sharp sword. If you can wade through the cacophony and carnage, there are a few lines like the one at the head of this essay worth noting and another: "It's taken me some time, but I finally have them. The worst of the worst." (Amanda Walker)
I know what you're saying to yourself, can this be the best of the best lines, and I say it's difficult to find better. So focused is director David Ayer on the gymnastics of violence that he forgets crisp dialogue, or at least sardonic talk, such as in Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool, is more lethal than all the munitions you can muster.
To show how off-center director and writers are, most of the first hour of the film is dedicated to the presenting the vitae of the six bad heroes. Then, when they finally meet each other, it seems we almost go through the bios we had in the first part of the film.
Mostly it makes the dark Batman v Superman look like a birthday party. Even the love affair between Harley and The Joker (Jared Leto) is more like Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, so full of over-the-top posing it is. Suicide Squad's squandering will make you remember the forgettable Fantastic Four. Yep, that boring.
Café Society (2016)
Some great Woody here but not enough.
"Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer." Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg)
No one has ever accused Woody Allen of being sadistic, but as he warms over themes and tropes from his other comedies for Café Society, he is beginning to be downright cynical about his work if not a bit so about humanity.
It's Depression-era Woodman, jazz in the background, partly in LA and NYC, wardrobes and backgrounds bathed in a glow that replicates my nostalgic impression of an era past and some obscure references for those younger than I. After all, can you expect most millennials to know who Joan Crawford and Adolph Menjou are? The pop-cult actors of the period referenced throughout are just too many.
Agreed, Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a Hollywood mogul, must deal with stars all day, but for 96 min. references to them are to be expected. Phil and his nephew, Bobby, who as a greenhorn from NYC comes to work for uncle in Hollywood, are both in love with Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), Phil's secretary. She has more glamour than most of the stars appearing on Woody's screen (exception: Blake Lively as Bobby's wife is every bit a star).
I love Allen's nostalgic pieces, most notably the wistfully romantic Midnight in Paris, whose imaginative conceit of visiting the '20's at Midnight is magical, as opposed to the expected glamour of the sets and costumes of Café Society. Even having Bobby in white tux managing a famous nightclub when his former love Vonnie comes in on the arm of her famous husband, Phil, doesn't provide any of the crisp dialogue and smoldering romance Casablanca had.
Although it's not fair to compare any film with that classic, the comparison is instructive about what Café Society lacks.
Hardly magical or imaginative is the basic plot of a triangle that includes the usually diffident Bobby, whose naiveté is understandable given his youthfulness. Yet no new ground is covered despite the comedic possibilities of uncle and nephew vying for the same young lady.
At times Allen has witty lines like the one at the beginning of this essay and this exchange between Bobby's mom and dad: "I accept death, but under protest," Dad says. "Protest to who?" Mom retorts. However, those gems are too few, at least given the rich Allen films that precede this one. His nostalgic comedy makes me nostalgic for him in better films.
Bad Moms (2016)
Ribald and Raunchy--an enjoyable companion to new Ghostbusters.
Part raunchy comedy and part sharp social commentary, Bad Moms should please those seeking a Bridesmaids relief in the summer doldrums and those seeking insight into modern motherhood. Directors and writers (Hangover) Jon Lucas and Scott Moore have a bold entry into summer comic stakes already well represented by the female-driven Ghostbusters.
Amy (Mila Kunis) is a highly functioning mom with 2 adorable kids, a demanding job, and a slacking husband, Mike (David Walton). I like the set up because it is all too realstressed out modern mom trying to be perfect.
What ensues is liberation of the motherly spirit, with a little help from her two buddies, Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn). Booze and rowdiness ensue with some crisp dialogue (pop culture allusions abound e.g. Ike Turner and ISIS), the kind I found lacking in the other buddy film recently, Absolutely Fabulous.
Although combat with the uptight PTA president, Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), has an arc you could predict, the commentary about the clash between good-mom and bad-mom is frequently spot on, especially as Amy parses the meaning of "bad mom." It's not what you'd expect, but it is so insightful and encouraging that all good moms and dads will embrace the bad.
Some of the sexual humor, notably from socially-rough Carla, downright challenges the R rating but in a good way because without it the bad mom theme has no strength or rather is just too boring to stand on its own. The adults in our preview audience roared as the humor became bluer and bluer, and not just because they were at a free film.
If you are a mom of any color and size, or a dad who cares, this fantasy will move you to shake your head in agreement that being a good mom means you have to be a bad one. Go figure.
Jason Bourne (2016)
Same high-class thrills from a great franchise.
"Why would he come back now?" CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones)
"He" is of course Jason Bourne, super spy, and the actor, Matt Damon, comes back to the franchise for at least the chance to work with action director Paul Greengrass and make multiple million dollars. As for Bourne, he's always catching up with himself, be it his faulty memory or finding his father.
If you're going to produce a thriller, then it better be thrilling, as the film Jason Bourne is for practically every minute of its two hours. Although I'm sated with car chases in many thrillers, Greengrass makes the several here a delightful adrenaline rush. Perhaps his are outstanding because they add to the fabulous nature of the franchise and the mystery of who killed Jason's dad.
That's what he's looking for, not to bring down the hyper-surveillance machine called the CIA, and its director, Robert Dewey. Wait, Wait, I think there's a germ of a good idea lurking behind the fisticuffs and bullets: Are our treasured institutions invading our privacy? The agreement pending between the CIA and a Facebooklike company would severely compromise each citizen's privacy, and like the young-adult film, Nerve, even the entertainment of our youth is replete with danger.
Jason Bourne is certainly home to many of the thriller genre's tropes, including illogical good luck in gun fights and car chases and the usual surprises about characters you thought you knew. The final fight between good and evil is de rigueur. Although I was half-way rooting for bad guy Asset because Vincent Cassell plays him so menacingly well, I didn't want him to beat Bourne.
Enjoy your summer thrills with this entertaining speed machine of a movie, and remember, there's always more to Jason Bourne than just the thrills: "I volunteered because of a lie. They said my father was killed by Terrorists! He wasn't killed by terrorists, was he?"