Monday, August 8, 2016

July 2016


     As much as audiences love to see familiar characters on the screen, the more we know about them the fewer surprises a film can offer. Case in point: No longer am I impressed when Jason Bourne finds a way to escape the most inescapable situations. It’s like worrying about a bullet fired at Superman.
     After three of the best chase films ever made, we all know “they” will never catch him, yet when it comes to summer movie entertainment, I’ll take another Paul Greengrass-directed “Bourne” over anything Hollywood’s cookie-cutter machine has to offer.
    Almost 10 year ago, when we last saw Bourne (an especially stoic Matt Damon), he had discovered that he had been brainwashed/conditioned as part of a secret CIA operation to serve as a government-controlled killing machine.
    He’s brought back into the game by his old ally and ex-CIA operative Nicky (Julia Stiles), who brings him additional classified info on his background and the black-ops program.
     This computer breach is quickly spotted by the agency’s young tech specialist Heather Lee (a steely Alicia Vikander, last year’s breakthrough star) and the new Langley chief Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones, as pissed off as ever) who fear Bourne will destroy their latest scheme. The chase is on.
    Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse bring it all together in a car-slamming finale in Las Vegas, which seems more suited for the “Fast and Furious” franchise in its nihilistic excess.
     The director, utilizing hand-held cameras almost exclusively and an editing style that renders a walk down a hallway into a thrilling action sequence, never lets up on the accelerator, showing his best work in orchestrating a chase in the midst of a political protest in Athens.  
       More interesting than the machinations to track down Bourne are the underlying reasons why he’s so feared: The documents stolen by Nicky detail plans for unprecedented government access to users’ personal information aggregated by a social media firm’s latest upgrade.
      While the American intelligence community has always been the bad guys in this series, “Jason Bourne” ups the villainy a notch—it’s not just that there a few out-of-control, overly patriotic types ignoring the Constitution, but the entire high-tech government machinery of the Twenty-first Century (sorry to sound like Snowden) have stripped all of us of any semblance of privacy. The ease in which they track down the movements of even a pro like Bourne (I assume it can’t be far from reality) is more disturbing than the most ominous dystopian fiction.

     Woody Allen’s forty-sixth feature, mining similar ground he explored 30 years ago in “Radio Days,” is one of his most inconsistent, containing pages of clichés alongside of insightful, touchingly humorous scenes.
     Like “Radio Days,” a highly verbal, combative Jewish family from Depression-era Brooklyn serves as its center, but this time the youngest son (a miscast Jesse Eisenberg) heads to Hollywood. He has no real plans, except that he expects his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell, trying way too hard), a high-powered movie agent, will find him a job.
      The character of Phil all but sinks the entire Hollywood section of the film as he does nothing but name drop (“I’m having lunch with Ginger; does Bill Powell want the role?” kind of lines), which is amusing for about five minutes and then grows tiresome, especially when it seems to be legit; he’s not just a blowhard. Then there’s his relationship with his nephew. For the first two weeks Bobby is in town, his uncle ignores him—can’t find five minutes to shake his hand and say welcome to L.A.—then, suddenly, he treats him as a protégé and before long he’s promoting him in his office.
     If it wasn’t for Vonnie (Kristen Stewart, so real that you think she walked in from another movie), Phil’s assistant who shows Bobby around town as he falls hard for her, the first half of the film would be nearly unwatchable. As their relationship grows, the audience, but not Bobby, can see it’s doomed as she clings to the hope that her older, married lover will divorce.
    Allen narrates the film, offering short sketches of various characters as the camera moves through its many party scenes (cinematography legend Vittorio Storaro, working on his first mainstream film in 18 years, makes them sparkle) and then fills in the narrative gaps, making the story seems as if it’s lifted right from the pages of a short story collection.
     And while I hope Allen continues to direct films until he’s well into his 90s, I’m not sure if his somewhat shaky 81-year-old voice is right for movie narration; a younger, smoother voice would have been more effective.
      The film comes alive when Bobby finds great success back in New York managing the nightclub owned by his mobster brother (the always fine Corey Stoll). It’s in the nightclub that the director’s narration works best as he describes the characters that populate this hip nightspot. Back in New York, the script comes alive and feels real, especially when the parents (‘70s star Jeannie Berlin and Scottish actor Ken Stott) and the older daughter (Sari Lennick) are given their moments to shine.
     Despite the inconsistencies, there are enough interesting elements, especially Stewart’s unforced seductiveness and the reimaging of 1930s high society, to make the film worth seeing. Of course, I wish Allen would stop his lead actors from imitating his mannerisms; mediocre actor Eisenberg fumbles badly. Yet clearly this is Woody’s life story: flirting with Hollywood and its exquisite beauty, but ultimately feeling more comfortable in the hothouse atmosphere of a darker, grimier New York.
      While “Café Society” could have used a rewrite as he struggles to balance the satire and straight-up romantic comedy, Allen nails the ending, poignantly reminding that even the best of lives are marked by painful regret.

HAIL, CAESAR! (2016)
     Was there something in the water last year that inspired both Allen and the Coen brothers to tap into Hollywood history? While the glamour of the movies are a backdrop for “Café Society,” the most recent film from Joel and Ethan puts it front and center, setting the film inside the world of a fictional movie studio (in the 1950s) and devoting nearly half the picture’s screen time to scenes of various genre movies being shot by Capitol Studios. 
     Even for someone interested in how things worked in studio-run Hollywood, these “recreations” become tedious quickly. Brief moments of a B-Western, a shore-leave musical, an Esther Williams-like extravaganza, a Biblical epic and theatrical adaptation would have sufficed instead of the long scenes the Coens depict. But without those time fillers they would have had to invent an actual plot, rather than the flimsy idea of a witless movie star (George Clooney) kidnapped by a gang of screenwriters.
      Last year, the only laugh-out-loud moments I experience at the movies were the dozen or so times I saw the trailer for this film. I laughed every time I saw it. Then, finally, watching the actual film I didn’t laugh once. It wasn’t that I knew the punch lines were coming; it was that in the full cut of the scenes, they had no punch.
     Josh Brolin stars as Eddie Mannix, a real guy who worked as a “fixer” for MGM for four decades, but who, in the Coen’s world, runs Capitol, overseeing every detail of the student’s business, from keeping productions on schedule to arranging for a star to secretly have her baby. Brolin’s role is as the straight man to all the lunacy around him, but the script never provides any laughs. Clooney comes closest, just being his goofy self, while Scarlett Johansson is perfect as the swimming star whose off-screen life isn’t as innocent as her on-screen image.
     Yet in scene after scene, I waited for some great bit of screwball comedy, but it never showed up.

      Like so many post-war crime pictures, “Tight Spot” opens in such dramatic fashion that the rest of the film is inevitably disappointing. Usually it’s a robbery gone wrong or the sullen anti-hero arriving in town; here it’s a car ride to the courthouse, with the gangster witness squeezed between two feds in the backseat.
    Director Phil Karlson and his impeccable director of photography Burnett Guffey (“From Here to Eternity,” “Bonnie and Clyde”), shoot the trio in tight close-up, in glorious black-and-white, on their early morning ride. Then, shooting wide from across the street, the filmmakers show the men walking up the long, empty steps of the courthouse until…a shot rings out and the witness is dead.
     The next scene opens in the laundry room of a women prison, where Ginger Rodgers plays Sherry Conley, a gum-smacking party girl serving time for helping out the wrong guy at the wrong time. She’s suddenly escorted by lawman Vince Striker (Brian Keith) from the prison to a downtown hotel to meet District Attorney Lloyd Hallett (no less than Edward G. Robinson) who wants her to testify against the mobster who just had the other witness killed.
      It’s the best cast Karlson (or almost any B-director) ever had to work with, but the story, even with plenty of rounds fired at Sherry and a surprising turn in the last act, never matches the energy of the director’s “Kansas City Confidential” (1952), “99 River Street” (1953) or “The Phenix City Story” (1955).
      Keith and Robinson are fine in roles they could pull off in their sleep, but Rogers struggles portraying the low-class tough girl; she tries so hard it shows. Noir veterans Audrey Totter or Gloria Grahame would have been better bets for the role, but they wouldn’t have generated equal box office. Rogers, though well past her days as a megastar, dancing with Fred Astaire or starring opposite James Stewart or Katharine Hepburn, was still a giant name in Hollywood.
    Keith’s a fascinating actor, who went from playing sour tough guys in the 1950s to gaining bigger fame as the cloyingly sweet uncle in “Family Affair” on television starting in 1966. He never rose to the top ranks of film actors, but could be effective, notably in “Nightfall” (1956), “Run of the Arrow” (1957) and “The Deadly Companions” (1961), Sam Peckinpah’s film debut that Keith, who had starred in the director’s TV series. “The Westerner,” orchestrated.
     While never reclaiming the intensity of the opening, “Tight Spot” is a fast-paced, well-acted minor crime movie with an unusually star-studded cast. 

      For those who aren’t jazz aficionados, Miles Davis, trumpeter, composer, arranger and bandleader, soared for 40 years as one of the most influential musicians of the Twentieth Century. While this challenging movie—co-written, directed and starring Don Cheadle—makes attempts to show his musical brilliance, it primarily focuses on Davis’ drug-fueled, gun-waving, chaotic period in the 1980s, near the end of a long stretch of unproductive years for the trumpeter.
       While the accuracy of some of the film’s specific incidences may be in doubt, there is no question that Cheadle, both as an actor and director, truthfully captures Miles, a self-destructive, egotistical, profane, paranoid misogynistic bully who treated everyone as an unwanted intruder. The wild adventure at the center of the film—a stolen tape of Davis’ latest work—is abated by a freelance journalist (a breathless Ewan McGregor) looking for a story who ends up serving as the driver on a two-day rampage through the streets of Manhattan.
      The first-time director utilizes some interesting devices—at one point Miles opens the back of the elevator at Columbia Records—to flash back to the prime of the musician’s career in the 1960s, when he met and married dancer Frances Taylor. Though younger and well-groomed, Cheadle’s Davis shows the seeds of his destructive personality that grew out-of-control 20 years later.
      Cheadle offers a chillingly realistic performance as Davis, looking like him (especially in the later years) but, more importantly, mimicking his distinctive voice and gait and replicating his omnipresence piercing stare, reflecting his seemingly unceasing anger.
     While I was quite aware of Davis’ childish lifestyle in the ‘80s (the autobiography he wrote with Quincy Troupe is shockingly revealing), but seeing it played out on screen was simply sad. A man who stands with Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Gillespie and Coltrane as the most innovative performers in jazz history lives life in his middle age as a if he was an unstable street junkie.
    I have nothing against drug use; just don’t let it define your entire life. For Davis, his troubled life is best left to the historians—I don’t think there’s even much of a moral lesson to be gained. 
     I prefer to enjoy his timeless music, as beautiful and emotionally revealing as the day it was recorded, and remember the searing performer I saw on stage near the end of his life (he was only 65 when he died in 1991). Give a listen to “So What,” “Milestones” or his version of “Someday My Prince Will Come” and you’ll hear American music at its finest. That’s worth remembering.

      Bryan Cranston has carved out a nice little niche as the “everyman” put in extraordinary situations, from his “Breaking Bad” television series to last year’s “Trumbo,” which earned him an Oscar nomination, and this new film, in which he plays a real-life federal agent.
    While the movie is a messy collection of often hard-to-connect incidents in a U.S. operation to disrupt Pablo Escobar’s massive drug business in the 1980s, Cranston and the supporting cast turn it into an entertaining picture.
    Set in the Reagan administration, when cocaine was the era’s Starbucks, abetted by American and international bankers, gangs in every city and, in some case, local and federal law enforcement, “Infiltrator” details DEA agent Bob Mazur (Cranston) maneuvers to win the trust of various players in the Colombian drug mob. With the help of street-wise agent Emir Abreu (an edgy John Leguizamo), he convinces the syndicate that he’s a Mafia-backed money launderer who will keep their money away from suspicious feds.
    Early in his posing, he uses the excuse of having a “fiancé” to avoid having sex with a drug-lord-provided call girl. That turns out to be a crucial turn in the operation as Mazur and agent Kathy Ertz (Diane Kruger), as his fiancé, quickly become close friends with Escobar lieutenant Roberto Alcaino (played to perfection by Benjamin Bratt) and his wife.  
     With a better director (Brad Furman, best known for “The Lincoln Lawyer,” never finds a tone) and a better structured screenplay (by Ellen Brown Furman, from Mazur’s book)—though the dialogue is sharp and believable—this could have been a really good film.
    As much as I admired Cranston’s and Leguizamo’s nonstop bickering as they create characters who are regular guys doing a job, not fearless superheroes, Bratt gives the film’s outstanding performance. He became a TV star as Jerry Orbach’s partner in “Law and Order” from 1995 to 1999, when it was the best drama on television. But before this film, his best movie role was as Sandra Bullock’s keeper in “Miss Congeniality” (2000). In “Infiltrator,” Bratt is a smooth charmer whose ruthlessness lies just beneath the surface.
      Also not to be missed is veteran Olympia Dukakis’ turn as Mazur’s Aunt Vicky, who has the smarmy presence of an aged Connie Corleone. 

    While I was never much of a Hugh Grant fan, I was surprised by his sudden disappearance from major film roles over the past dozen years. “Rewrite,” which barely opened in this country early last year, didn’t do anything to revive his dormant career, but it’s an enjoyable, well-written romantic comedy that even I found amusing.
     Grant plays Keith Michaels, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the beloved hit film “Paradise Misplaced,” which, from descriptions, sounds simply awful—angels that get lost seeking heaven. Yet he’s never duplicated that success (a common ailment of screenwriters) and his career is sputtering.
     His indulgent agent (a feisty Caroline Aaron) suggests he take a position in the upstate New York college of University of Binghamton, teaching, of course, screenwriting. Though he firmly believes that noting of values, especially writing, can be taught, his dire situation forces him to accept the position.
     In case it wasn’t clear that Keith is totally unsuited for academic life, during his first night in the college town he meets a student, the seductive Karen (Bella Heathcote), who has applied for his class, and spends the night with her.
     Continuing his clueless, Hollywood-privileged ways, he insults, at a staff reception for him, the uptight professor (Allison Janney) whose life is devoted to the work of Jane Austen, ridiculing Austen’s novels as trite and without merit. While this confrontation is necessary to create an antagonist for Keith, it plays out in ridiculous fashion, even for a comedy. Not even someone in showbiz could be that insensitive.
      But Keith doesn’t take anything too seriously; in fact, rather than reading the scripts submitted by the students seeking to take his class, he looks up their student profile online and selects the cutest girls (including Karen, who he continues to sleep with) and a couple of nerdy guys. Then, on the first day of class, he instructs them to work on their script and reassemble for class in a month. End of class. Did he really think he could get away with that? He’s getting paid; of course, in Hollywood many people get paid very well for doing nothing.
       A persistent older student (Marisa Tomei) persuades Keith to actually read her script and allow her in the class, giving him an age-appropriate female to banter with and, eventually, fall for.
     The film has many of the elements of Woody Allen’s “Irrational Man,” also released last year, about a new professor who becomes involved with both a student and a woman closer to his age. In both films, and in most Hollywood pictures, middle-class morals prevail and the May-September romance implodes. Though Allen receives constant criticism for his portrayals of romantic matches, rarely do the older man-younger woman involvements turn out well in his (or any other’s) films. Yet Allen is the perfect example: he’s been married for almost 20 years to a woman 40 years his junior. 
     Needless to say, Keith eventually takes to teaching, becoming involved (in the right way) with his students and sees the appeal of Tomei’s Holly. He even considers writing a sequel to his hit, something he labeled creative suicide in the past (“that was when I was young and believed in myself”).
     Despite all the ridiculous, overly convenient plot developments, the fine cast—clearly someone thought this could be a hit—carries the film.
     Grant, now looking more like a man who has faced some rough spots in his life, still can deliver low-key sarcasm with ease while evoking the character’s overarching depression.
    The supporting cast is first rate, led by J.K. Simmons as the ex-Marine department chair who tears up at any mention of his family; Janney, who makes her cliché-based character somewhat real; newcomers Heathcote as the dangerous Karen, Annie Qian as the class’ cool chick and Steven Kaplan, as the most talented of the students; along with Chris Elliott (David Letterman’s long-time stooge), who plays a lonely Shakespearean professor who lives next door to Keith.
     Writer-director Marc Lawrence, who directed Grant in “Two Weeks Notice” and “Music and Lyrics,” seems content to let the actors carry the show and, up to a point, they do. Grant’s next comeback attempt will begin this week in a supporting role in the Meryl Streep vehicle, “Florence Foster Jenkins.”