Tuesday, May 22, 2018
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

first reformed 1 First Reformed (2018) Movie Review

A24

First Reformed

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 05/18/18; Performer: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer; Director: Paul Schrader; MPAA: R

Back in the 1970s, Paul Schrader was one of the most original and muscular voices of the New Hollywood generation. He also seemed to be one of the most troubled. Before writing such provocative screenplays as Taxi Driver and Rolling Thunder, which got inside the heads of disturbed loners hell-bent on almost-Biblical quests for righteous vengeance, Schrader grew up in a strict Calvinist household where movies and other pleasures where forbidden. A kind of extreme existential searching has informed his art ever since. His movies are like wrestling matches between the sacred and the profane.

Since the early ‘80s, however, Schrader’s films have been decidedly hit or miss. Whether as a writer or director (or both), his highs have been as high as anyone’s (Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ) and his lows as low (The Canyons). Schrader’s latest, First Reformed, isn’t quite as great as his most powerful works, but it’s easily his best — and most personal — movie since 1997’s Affliction, thanks to an unshakeable performance from Ethan Hawke.

Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a small-town priest and former Army chaplain grappling with his faith. Toller’s church is tiny, historic 18th-century shoebox built by Dutch abolitionists, but his flock has shrunken to the point where most of the pews are empty. Especially compared to a neighboring megachurch called Abundant Life run by a genial pastor played by Cedric Kyles (a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer). Toller half-jokingly refers to his outpost as “the souvenir shop.”

Toller once had a wife and son, but he’s alone now. His son was killed in Iraq and his marriage buckled under the strain. He’s also wrestling with his mission – sick both spiritually and physically, chasing tumblers of whiskey with medicine for his stomach. Into all of this comes a pregnant parishioner named Mary (Amanda Seyfried) seeking advice when her environmental-activist husband (Philip Ettinger) is mired in deep depression at the thought of bringing a new life into such a cruel world. A suicide vest that she finds in their garage hints that he may be thinking of taking others with him.

None of this is particularly surprising. In Schrader’s films the world really is a cruel place. The problem is, Toller doesn’t exactly disagree with him. How can he talk a man out of something he himself has probably considered late at night? This is pretty bleak stuff, to be sure. But Hawke, whose weathered, etched face conveys soul-sick malaise, makes a convincing messenger. His Toller writes his deepest doubts into a long-hand diary – a confessional of sorts. And in voiceovers, we listen in as he seems to pace his own stations of the cross, coming more and more unraveled much like Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle did in Taxi Driver. It’s just a matter of time before he finds salvation either through God or violence.

First Reformed is a bleak, punishing movie and the furthest thing imaginable from an easy crowdpleaser. But Hawke juices it with an austere sense of grace. I found it hard to follow Toller down every path he takes — some are harder to buy than others. But I never doubted Schrader’s belief in his characters, their sins, and the severity of their troubled souls.

chesil beach 2 On Chesil Beach (2018) Movie Review

Bleecker Street

On Chesil Beach

Type:  Movie; Release date: 05/18/18; Performer: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle; Director: Dominic Cooke; MPAA: R
In almost every Ian McEwan story there’s a terrible, decisive moment — a fatal word or misstep that divides everything that follows into before and after. In Atonement, it was a little girl’s urge to tell a lie; in Enduring Love, a hand that slipped from the tether of a hot air balloon.

It seems mean to reveal exactly how that moment arrives in On Chesil Beach, but also fair to warn that it will. Adapted by McEwan from his own Booker Prize-winning 2007 novella, the movie stars Saoirse Ronan (miles away from her unleashed Ladybird) and Billy Howle (Dunkirk, The Seagull) as naïve newlyweds on the cusp of their first night together as man and wife in circa-1962 England.

Her Florence is sweetly demure, with the hint of something steelier at her core; a gifted cellist with a face as smooth and open as an obelisk. His Edward is a little rougher around the edges, a fan of Chuck Berry and fistfights, but clearly in love. As the movie opens, they’ve gotten through the (unseen) ceremony, and are settling into dinner in their honeymoon suite — as if anyone would want to sit down to a Flintstone-size shank of roast beef and boiled potatoes before being introduced to the mysteries of sex.

As the narrative moves back and forth between the hotel room and their courtship a clearer picture comes together, though the nuance of McEwan’s storytelling inevitably loses something in its transition from the page. (Particularly a crucial bit about Florence’s upbringing, which is heavily implied in the book but nowhere here onscreen.)

Director Dominic Cooke is mostly known for his Olivier Award-winning theater work, but Chesil never feels stagey or static. It’s beautifully shot, and he pulls lovely performances from both his leads. If the drama stumbles into sentimentality near the end, it can almost be forgiven as course correction for a storyline whose pivotal turn is so wrenching, and so utterly avoidable, it’s actually physically painful to watch — the kind of movie whose quiet power you can’t help but appreciate, even as you know you’ll probably never want to sit through it again.on chesil beach ver3 On Chesil Beach (2018) Movie Review

Deadpool 2 Deadpool 2 (2018) Movie Review

Marvel’s foul-mouthed antihero learns to play well with others (sorta) in a sequel from ‘Atomic Blonde’ director David Leitch.

Glance quickly at the poster for Deadpool 2 (tagline: “From the Studio That Killed Wolverine”) and you might worry slightly. Look at all those characters, most of whom you don’t know from the last film. Are you walking into the same kind of costumed glut that threatened to turn the most recent Avengers film into Infinite War on Character Development?

Rest assured that, as in all things Deadpool, there are some very self-aware, very funny jokes built into this overstuffed poster. (And some very fun things left out of it.) The fact is, while this sequel does move the fan-favorite “Merc With a Mouth” toward the kind of hero-team storytelling favored by “universe”-minded entertainment megacorps, it does so on the snarkster’s own terms; actually, this pic arguably feels less beholden to convention than the climax of the first film. Deadpool might make a joke about climaxes at this point, but let’s keep things clean. Deadpool 2 is, if less of a surprise than its predecessor, just as funny; if it’s less sexy, that doesn’t mean you’re not going to get to see the protagonist walking around with no pants. (It just means that if the sight turns you on, you ought to be ashamed.)

As we start, Ryan Reynolds’ Wade Wilson/Deadpool is roughly where you’d expect him to be two years after the first movie. He’s using his new powers to slice and dice much bigger opponents, taking out whole gangs of bad guys at a time, still getting his jobs through the divey hitmen-only bar called Sister Margaret’s. (Returning as that bar’s proprietor, T.J. Miller is sufficiently underused here that, if it’s true his offscreen troubles have led to his firing, few fans will miss him in future films.)

Wade still lives in erotic bliss with girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin); heaven help them, they’ve just started talking about having kids. You see? Deadpool wasn’t lying when he told us a few minutes ago that this filthy-minded picture was “a family film”! But what about that part right after, when he warned us he was going to die?

Before long, a shocking attack has brought Deadpool so low that he’s ready to follow Logan into the Marvel-hero hereafter. But if you thought Infinity War‘s milk-every-moment finale encouraged a cynical attitude toward superhero deaths, don’t worry: Deadpool‘s screenwriters aren’t going to make you wait a year to learn where to direct your grief.

Soon, Wade is being cared for at Professor Xavier’s estate, and being none too careful with the furnishings. Colossus (the CG metal hulk voiced by Stefan Kapicic) wants to cure Deadpool of killing people and make him an X-Man — X-Man trainee, people keep reminding him. But on their first official-ish outing, Deadpool gets into trouble trying to rescue an emotionally disturbed young mutant, Russell (Julian Dennison, of Hunt for the Wilderpeople), who calls himself Firefist for reasons that will be self-evident.

Long and twist-filled story short, Wade is soon going it alone, trying to rescue Russell from a time-traveling cyborg soldier played by Josh Brolin. This Terminator-tough character is called Cable, though you, like Wade, may slip up and call him Thanos once or twice. (Deadpool mocks everybody from Hawkeye to Green Lantern here, at one point deflating the entirety of the Zack Snyder-ized DC Universe with an on-the-money zinger.)

Cable has brought some nigh-unbeatable weaponry along from his dystopian future, and Wade realizes he’ll need help. He recruits a slew of new superpowered oddballs for a crew he dubs X-Force. Most exciting of these newcomers is Domino (Atlanta‘s Zazie Beetz), whose mutant power is that she’s lucky. Again, you may share Wade’s fourth-wall-breaking concern that this alleged gift will be hard to dramatize onscreen. Leitch puts those worries to rest in one of the picture’s more enjoyably violent episodes.

There’s action aplenty throughout the film, but Deadpool 2 doesn’t bog down in it as many overcooked comic-book sequels do. With Reynolds’ charismatic irreverence at its core, the pic moves from bloody mayhem to lewd comedy and back fluidly, occasionally even making room to go warm and mushy. On the latter front, the filmmakers walk a fine line between embracing Deadpool’s mock-everything appeal and needing to make Wade a credible, emotional human. Whenever it threatens briefly to slip into corniness, though, the movie regains its balance. If sequels built on the backs of X-whatever mutants are going to thrive into the future, this installment needs (as did The Lego Batman Movie) to convince its loner protagonist that a family of trusted partners isn’t something to fear. And after one surprisingly moving version of A-ha’s “Take on Me,” it manages just that.

One final note: It should go without saying at this point, but any moviegoer who hops up once the credits begin will be sorry. While its most delightful surprises are toward the beginning of the credit roll, it’s worth sitting through to the end — especially for any viewer who was too distracted by the decapitations, fireballs and impalings of the final battle sequence to make out the lyrics of the Carmina Burana-ish chorus playing in the background.deadpool two ver8 Deadpool 2 (2018) Movie Review

Production companies: Kinberg Genre, Maximum Effort, Twentieth Century Fox
Distributor: Fox
Cast: Ryan Reynolds, Josh Brolin, Morena Baccarin, Zazie Beetz, Julian Dennison, Karan Soni, T.J. Miller, Stefan Kapicic, Brianna Hildebrand, Eddie Marsan

Director: David Leitch
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick, Ryan Reynolds
Producers: Simon Kinberg, Ryan Reynolds, Lauren Shuler Donner
Executive producers: Stan Lee, Jonathon Komack Martin, Kelly McCormick, Rhett Reese, Ethan Smith, Aditya Sood, Paul Wernick
Director of photography: Jonathan Sela
Production designer: David Scheunemann
Costume designer: Kurt and Bart
Editors: Craig Alpert, Elisabet Ronaldsdottir, Dirk Westervelt
Composer: Tyler Bates
Casting directors: Marisol Roncali, Mary Vernieu

Rated R, 119 minutes

hansolo Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Movie Review

Alden Ehrenreich engagingly conveys young Harrison Ford in this throwback origins story directed by Ron Howard.

It’s no accident the posters for Solo: A Star Wars Story convey a retro, ’70s-tinged vibe.

Especially when following in the turbo-charged footsteps of last winter’s The Last Jedi and other recent Star Wars epics, this origins story represents a return to the saga’s more humble, original space Western roots — one that places a premium on character development over kinetic, adrenaline-fueled action sequences.

That emphasis certainly plays to the talents of director Ron Howard, whose most memorable films tend to be known for their colorful protagonists rather than their pulse-pounding battle sequences. As a result, Howard, who took over the reins from original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller some five months into shooting (the original team departed over creative differences), gets plenty of entertaining mileage out of Han Solo & Co.’s formative years, even though he never quite manages to launch the Millennium Falcon into hyperdrive.

Despite the intermittent lags, the production proves to be more than a salvage operation thanks mainly to those engagingly choreographed performances, led by an irresistibly charismatic title turn from Alden Ehrenreich who ultimately claims Solo as his own even if he doesn’t entirely manage to convince us he’s Harrison Ford.

Although the end result will not likely find itself occupying an upper berth in the Star Wars movie pantheon, there’s enough here to satisfy the fan base and give Disney a very strong turnout (it received its Cannes premiere on Tuesday) when it opens Memorial Day weekend.

In order to preserve the various character reveals and surprise plot points in the script by Jonathan Kasdan and his dad, Lawrence (who had returned to the Star Wars fold to pen The Force Awakens), suffice it to say the story tracks Solo from his teen smuggling days on his home planet of Corellia with his partner in crime, girlfriend Qi’ra (Game of Thrones‘ Emilia Clarke), to the trenches of the war-torn mud planet Mimban.

There, Han joins forces with a band of mercenaries headed by career criminal Beckett (Woody Harrelson), along with the take-charge Val (Thandie Newton) and four-armed Ardennian pilot Rio Durant (voiced by Jon Favreau).

Of course, one need not look any further than the poster to know that, along the way, Han will also meet up with faithful companion Chewbacca (former basketball player Joonas Suotamo) and, equally notably, Lando Calrissian (the wildly magnetic Donald Glover doing Billy Dee Williams proud in a casually scene-stealing turn). Also figuring into the lively character mix is Paul Bettany’s power-hungry sociopath Dryden Vos, and the criminally too-briefly-seen L3-37 (a hilarious, motion-captured Phoebe-Waller Bridge), truly a self-made astromech droid — she built herself up from various parts she’s acquired — who has an emotionally complicated relationship with Calrissian.

Obviously, the person with the most to prove here is Ehrenreich, who previously managed to steal a few scenes of his own as aw-shucks cowboy actor Hobie Doyle in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar!, and he captures enough of Ford’s genial swagger to earn Solo bragging rights — even if the performance could have withstood a few smirks and winks.

But while Ehrenreich’s Solo proves adept at maneuvering the Millennium Falcon out of some tight spots, the picture itself follows a safely predictable course. Missing here are the sort of plot-related or visual curveballs thrown by Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi or Gareth Edwards with Rogue One.

The unexpected aspects in Solo are less of the “didn’t see that coming” variety than the sort of reveals that lead to the anticipated Han-Chewy encounter or how Han and Lando first crossed paths.

And if Howard might have had a bit of a challenge initially getting the proceedings out of the gate and up and consistently running at full speed, composer John Powell provides plenty of cues with amped-up orchestrations that incorporate several iconic themes by John Williams, as well as a newer Williams composition, “Han Solo Theme.”

From a visual standpoint, the production admittedly looks quite lovely, with cinematographer Bradford Young and production designer Neil Lamont establishing some strikingly resonant delineations in the contrasting industrial/desert/alpine intergalactic landscapes.

Although Howard dependably steered the production back on tonal course after the original directors reportedly took it in a different, less traditional direction, the realignment has ultimately resulted in something that feels a bit too comfortably familiar.

This time around, that galaxy far, far, away doesn’t seem quite so out of this world.solo a star wars story ver40 Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) Movie Review 

Production company: Lucasfilm
Distributor: Disney

Cast: Alden Ehrenreich, Joonas Suotamo, Woody Harrelson, Emilia Clarke, Donald Glover, Thandie Newton, Phoebe-Waller Bridge, Paul Bettany, Jon Favreau, Linda Hunt
Director: Ron Howard
Screenwriters: Jonathan Kasdan & Lawrence Kasdan
Producers: Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, Simon Emanuel
Executive producers: Lawrence Kasdan, Jason McGatlin, Phil Lord, Christopher Miller
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Neil Lamont
Costume designers: Glyn Dillon, David Crossman
Editor: Pietro Scalia
Visual effects supervisor: Rob Bredow
Composer: John Powell
Casting director: Nina Gold

Rated PG-13, 135 minutes

book club ver2 1 Book Club (2018) Movie Review

Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen star as friends who undergo romantic awakenings after reading ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.’

Having sold a gazillion copies and been made into three movies, the Fifty Shades trilogy now receives a product-placement tribute in Book Club. For the quartet of accomplished sexagenarian characters in this glossy rom-com, the S&M erotica is not just reading material but a catalyst for seismic change. In other words, abandon your disbelief at the multiplex door.

Instead, sit back and watch four dazzling pros inhabit a sitcommy world like nobody’s business, providing whatever dimension it has and selling lines that have no business being sold. The movie is a testament to the star power of Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen, who, as the longtime friends at the center of a run-of-the-mill comedy, are the only reasons to see it.

Under the flat, utilitarian direction of Bill Holderman, who wrote the alternately sharp and mushy screenplay with Erin Simms, the film interweaves its gags (Viagra warning!) with lessons in self-worth, often pushing too insistently. As far as it goes, Book Club is a mostly painless ride, with a few laugh-out-loud moments, but as Peggy Lee memorably sang, Is that all there is?

An early nod to Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying is a nice touch, and also, in its fleetingness, an indication that the movie isn’t about to delve into the generational experiences of its characters. Even their professions are more window dressing than grounds for exploration, although the go-getter business acumen of Fonda’s aptly flame-haired hotelier, Vivian, fits her particular romantic challenges. She’s the one who brings Fifty Shades of Grey to the monthly reading club of Sharon (Bergen), a divorced federal judge; Diane (Keaton), the recently widowed mother of two bossy adult daughters; and long-married Carol (Steenburgen).

Vivian is also the group’s only sexually active member, but she’s averse to emotional connection and treats sex as a contact sport, not an act of intimacy. That’s a problem when Arthur, a boyfriend she hasn’t seen in 40 years, shows up in the lobby of her luxury resort. In a bit of six-degrees trivia, he’s played by Don Johnson, whose daughter Dakota played Fifty Shades‘ Anastasia Steele. Though the movie drums up not the slightest will-they-or-won’t-they suspense, Fonda injects toughness and humor into a thinly conceived part. Just as she and Lily Tomlin elevate their Netflix series, Grace and Frankie, with their killer comic timing, the fun she’s clearly having as Vivian is infectious.

Reading E.L. James’ best-seller puts Carol, whose sex life with husband Bruce (Craig T. Nelson) has gone cold, “in a tizzy,” and the initially horrified Sharon ventures into the dating pool for the first time in almost 20 years. While Sharon makes online and IRL connections with single men (Richard Dreyfuss and Wallace Shawn, the latter unfortunately used as some sort of weak punchline), Diane stumbles into romance with dreamy airline pilot Mitchell (Andy Garcia). Keaton puts her signature stamp on the awkwardness of a first-date good-night and the openheartedness of a shared memory. More formulaically — in a movie that’s built on formula — Steenburgen’s aching, horny Carol does everything she can to get her hubby in the sack, until, finally and affectingly, she can only dance her heart out.

With her nonpareil acerbity, Bergen (who delivered a superb cameo in last year’s underappreciated The Meyerowitz Stories and here whets the appetite for her return to the small screen as Murphy Brown) puts the zing in half-baked zingers. (To be fair, a few of the jokes, as written, would be stingingly good even on paper.) But Bergen, whose character is the most nuanced and memorable of the bunch, also communicates Sharon’s vulnerability in taking the leap, and in her confrontations with her ex (Ed Begley, wordlessly conveying male midlife crisis) and his much younger fiancée (Mircea Monroe).

Keaton, too, taps into what’s poignant as well as comic in her role, not just in terms of romance, but also in Diane’s struggle to withstand the intrusions of her ridiculously overprotective daughters (Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton). Convinced, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that their healthy, active mother is incapable of an independent life, they’re determined to fast-track her to a basement apartment in one of their homes in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Like Fifty Shades, the movie is in thrall to aspirational romance-novel trappings. With its constant flow of wine and array of Nancy Meyers-style luxe comfort, it casts suburban Los Angeles in a bland travelogue sheen. Other than a quick glimpse of Beverly Hills’ shopping district, there’s no there there.

That goes too for the movie’s two chief love interests. Johnson and Garcia provide the requisite silver-fox twinkle, but their characters are paper-thin dreamboats with no true sense of personal history. A two-sentence explanation of Garcia’s character’s wealth stands out as a rare acknowledgment of financial reality.

Holderman and Simms wrap each of the central characters’ stories in ways that are satisfying and feel thoughtful rather than perfunctory. But while the film unsubtly pleads its case for the viability of older women, it’s the four leads, and the long bodies of work they bring to their performances, that speak volumes without trying. The actresses, whose ages range from 65 to 80, are as creatively vital as ever, and, to quote not Peggy Lee but Joni Mitchell, amid all the predictable rom-com business, they effortlessly give us women of heart and mind.

Production companies: June Pictures, Endeavor Content, Apartment Story
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Craig T. Nelson, Richard Dreyfuss, Andy Garcia, Don Johnson, Alicia Silverstone, Katie Aselton, Ed Begley Jr., Wallace Shawn, Tommy Dewey, Mircea Monroe
Director: Bill Holderman
Screenwriters: Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Producers: Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Bill Holderman, Erin Simms
Executive producers: Ted Deiker, Alan Blomquist
Director of photography: Andrew Dunn
Production designer: Rachel O’Toole
Costume designer: Shay Cunliffe
Editor: Priscilla Nedd-Friendly
Composer: Peter Nashel
Casting directors: Kerry Barden, Avy Kaufman

104 minutes

rbg ver2 RBG (2018) Movie Review

RBG

Type: Movie; Genre: Documentary; Release date: 05/04/18; Director: Betsy West, Julie Cohen; MPAA: PG

RBG is a fierce, funny tribute to the trailblazing justice

RBG is an unapologetic valentine to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but a sharp and spiky one too — a celebration of the scrunchie-wearing octogenarian not just as a pop-culture folk hero and millennial meme but as a wife, a warrior, and a true iconoclast, famed for her fierce legal mind and the cutting wit of her dissenting opinions. (Though it also quickly lays waste to the lie that she’s some kind of wild-eyed left-wing zealot; an analysis of her decades-long voting record lands her squarely at the center of the court.)

Born June Ruth Bader in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1933, she graduated from Cornell and within two years made the rarefied ranks of the Harvard Law Review, even with a husband and young daughter already at home — and a school dean who habitually asked the few women in her class what they had done to deserve a spot that could have gone to a man.

RBG doesn’t stint on the moments that have contributed to the pleasing myth of Ginsburg as a geriatric badass, a sort of pint-size superhero in a knitted lace collar: holding planks and doing tricep dips in her daily workouts; welcoming her connection to the legendary late rapper who spawned the nickname Notorious RBG (they’re both Brooklyn kids, and dreamers); reading excerpts from several of her now-iconic Supreme Court dissents. Filmmakers Julie Cohen and Betsy West even get their subject to sit down and watch Kate McKinnon’s giddy, smack-talking impression of her on Saturday Night Live. (Ginsburg calls it “marvelously funny,” even if it resembles her “not one bit.”)

But the film also walks methodically, if swiftly, through her first encounters with the highest court in the land — as a Rutgers professor who fundamentally altered the rule of law in gender equality by winning five out of six landmark victories regarding fair pay, housing, and education (including a 1975 case she fought for a widowed single dad denied Social Security benefits that were, at the time, preserved for women).

And it doesn’t skimp on her personal life either, particularly her romance with fellow Harvard student Martin Ginsburg that spanned more than half a century and was clearly the love story of a lifetime both of them. Martin, she recalls, “was the first boy I ever knew who cared that I had a brain.” He’s also the one who campaigned tirelessly to get her on the short list for the high court nomination in 1993, wildly tooting the horn his shy, quiet wife hardly felt comfortable even holding.

RBG spills over with talking heads, from Gloria Steinem to Bill Clinton to Ginsburg’s own Harvard Law graduate granddaughter — and even takes the 85-year-old sternly to task for her tradition-flouting public criticism of Donald Trump weeks before the 2016 election — but the presence that matters most is Ginsburg’s own: tremulous and sometimes hesitant with age now, but still a tiny dynamo of undimmed intelligence, pure will, and truth to power.

Breaking In 1 Breaking In (2018) Movie Review

Paul Sarkis/Universal

Breaking In (Movie)

Type: Movie; Genre: Thriller; Release date: 05/11/18; Runtime: 88 minutes; Performer: Gabrielle Union, Billy Burke, Jason George; Director: James McTeigue; Distributor: Universal Pictures; MPAA: PG-13

It’s Movie Survival 101: Don’t go into the creepy basement, don’t mess around with ouija boards, and never, never get between a mom and her kids.

Just in time for Mother’s Day, Gabrielle Union stars as a mom on a mission in the thriller Breaking In. The Being Mary Jane star plays Shaun, a woman who heads to her late father’s isolated Wisconsin mansion with her two kids (Ajiona Alexus and Seth Carr). Her plan is to get it ready for the real-estate market, but apparently, dear old dad had some secrets, and he’s been hiding a safe stacked with millions of dollars in cash. (He has also outfitted his house like a fortress, complete with a top-notch security system and impenetrable walls.) A quartet of homicidal home invaders come knocking, led by Billy Burke’s villainous Eddie, and before long, Shaun finds herself locked out of the house, with her two children trapped inside.

And so ensues a midnight chess game, as Shaun tries to outwit the killers and find a way in to save her children. It’s a fun, pulpy premise, but sadly, the film takes a route that’s too silly to be taken seriously and too tame to be any fun. Director James McTeigue can’t seem to decide whether he’s making a gritty revenge thriller or a lightweight crowd-pleaser, and the result is a jumbled mess that can’t seem to settle on a tone. (It’s hard to take Eddie seriously as a cold-blooded master villain when he berates one of his lackeys for being a “frickin’” idiot.) There are a few fun face-offs between Shaun and the various baddies, but the action is undermined by the uneven script. Rather than actually searching for the safe and moving the plot along, Eddie spends long, heavy-handed scenes monologuing about why you should never underestimate a mother.

The true hero of the film is Union, who grounds the story and imbues a flimsy character with pathos and grit — whether Shaun is trying to comfort her kids or stabbing someone with the stem of a wineglass. Just like any mom, she’s working harder than the rest of the family combined. Here’s hoping there’s an action thriller in the pipeline that makes better use of Union’s talents. 

The Seagull The Seagull (2018) Movie Review

Nicole Rivelli/Sony Pictures Classics

The Seagull (2018 movie)

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 05/11/18; Runtime: 98 minutes; Performer: Annette Bening, Saoirse Ronan, Corey Stoll; Director: Michael Mayer; Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics; MPAA: PG-13

Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull is so quintessentially theatrical — a play constructed from drawing room conversations and a sprawling cast of lovesick characters — that some critics might be unwilling to accept any adaptation that attempts to fold it into a film.

Fortunately, I am not one of those critics.

Directed by Michael Mayer, with a screenplay from Stephen Karam (whose play The Humans won a 2016 Tony), The Seagull is lush and dreamlike, leaving the drawing room for lake, field, and forest. Though we lose some of Chekhov’s claustrophobic talkiness, the dense poetry of his language, Mayer fully captures Chekhov’s sharp humor. (“I’m in mourning,” Elizabeth Moss’ Masha says when asked why she always wears black. “For my life.”)

For the uninitiated, The Seagull takes place at the summer estate of Sorin (Brian Dennehy), where a bevy of guests arrive: There’s Mikhail (Michael Zegen), a poor teacher who’s in love with Masha, who’s in love with Konstantin (Billy Howle), who’s in love with Nina (Saoirse Ronan), a neighbor girl who’s in love with the famous writer Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll), who’s the lover of Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening), who’s only in love with herself.

The true magic of the film lies in its performances. Bening is the best she’s ever been as the vain, aging stage actress, with a perfectly naïve Ronan as Nina just discovering her sexual power. If nothing else, this adaptation will be a master class for college theater students rehearsing their scenes — every single actor dazzles in their role. Moss is laugh-out-loud funny, granted the best one-liners as the depressed Masha; Stoll is the perfect combination of smug and insecure; Howle (who also costars with Ronan in the upcoming On Chesil Beach) pouts and pontificates like a boy Hamlet who only grows up when it’s too late.

Of course, The Seagull is a lengthy work, and even with cuts the film drags slightly in the middle, especially to those who know how many acts are left to go. Even so, it would be worth watching the film for Bening’s performance alone, as an hour-and-a-half actor showcase. To Mayer’s credit, the film never feels like a filmed stage production; it’s dynamic and unstuffy, beautifully shot and wonderfully accessible. If you don’t think a movie version of The Seagull is sacrilege, this is the movie version to see.seagull The Seagull (2018) Movie Review

Life of the Party 1 Life of the Party (2018) Movie Review

Hopper Stone SMPSP/ Warner Bros.

Life of the Party (2018)

Type: Movie; Genre: Comedy; Release date: 05/11/18′ Performer: Melissa McCarthy, Gillian Jacobs, Maya Rudolph, Julie Bowen; Director: Ben Falcone; MPAA: PG-13

Like Rodney Dangerfield in an Ogilvy home perm and a needlepoint Proud Mom sweater, Melissa McCarthy is going back to school. She will find a nice oaky chardonnay at a frat party; bake a lovely homemade lasagna for her daughter’s self-doubting sorority sisters; and yes, maybe bang a 22-year-old in the library stacks until he calls her his “sexual Dumbledore.”

That’s about 90 percent of the premise for McCarthy’s latest big-screen vehicle — a vaguely movie-shaped casing designed to contain, more or less, her loopy one-woman-band brand of comedy. If that’s your bag (and her metaphorical duffel feels a lot roomier at this point than, say, Adam Sandler’s) Life of the Party is a charming and generally painless way to spend two hours. It’s not nearly as sharp as some of the best stuff she’s done, but it’s pointedly kinder too, wrapping even its nastiest characters — including a pair of sneering, crop-topped Mean Girls — in a cozy Slanket of forgiveness.

McCarthy stars as Deanna, a blithe fortysomething housewife whose only child, Maddie (Molly Gordon) is about to start her senior year at the fictional Decatur University. Deanna doesn’t know that her husband, Dan (Veep’s Matt Walsh), a dour tightwad with a droopy dad mustache, is about to make his own life change; he’s fallen in love with a local real estate agent (Julie Bowen) and decided to “upgrade,” effective immediately.

Blindsided but encouraged to move on by her best friend (Maya Rudolph), Deanna decides to finish the degree she abandoned more than 20 years ago when she got pregnant with Maddie. That means moving into a dorm room with a heavy-lidded agoraphobe (SNL’s Heidi Gardner, so dry she’s a sand dune), getting to know her daughter’s friends (including Gillian Jacobs as an eccentric older student whose college career was waylaid by an eight-year coma), and rediscovering the joy of coed hookups (with Luke Benward, a sweet golden biscuit of a boy).

Somewhere too, will come the obligatory makeover scene, an ’80s-themed dance-off, and several life lessons on the importance of friendship and self-esteem and finding your own path. Director Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s husband and partner on previous outings Tammy and The Boss) still doesn’t quite know how to give a movie any real arc; Party doesn’t have a plot so much as a series of small episodes and improvised riffs leading toward graduation.

What it does have is its star and her sheer, loony life force — a well she’ll keep drawing from (there are at least three more projects on her production slate now) until she, or the audience, moonwalks away.

terminal Terminal (2018) Movie Review

Margot Robbie plays a waitress/stripper/killer in Vaughn Stein’s neon-lit pastiche.

An airless debut that says much about its writer-director’s cultural diet and little about anything else in the world, Vaughn Stein’s Terminal blends tropes from several sorts of crime flicks into a soundstagey affair that’s more brittle than hard-boiled. Attention will be paid thanks to star Margot Robbie (one of many producers here) and supporting players Simon Pegg and Mike Myers, but the box office will quickly forget this outing for the I, Tonya actress in anticipation of more sturdy vehicles to come.

One of those roles (just officially announced) will be that of Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, whose writer-director Quentin Tarantino has an influence here that is obvious long before Stein starts nodding cutely at him. (He recreates QT’s signature trunk-opening shot; he has Robbie plotting “bloody revenge” and brainstorming ways for Pegg’s Bill to kill…Bill.) In addition to Robbie’s revenge-minded diner waitress Annie (who goes by “Bunny” when she’s stripping at a nearby club), Stein offers two talkative hit men (Dexter Fletcher and Max Irons’ Vince and Alfred, respectively) whose chemistry and banter will not push Pulp Fiction‘s Vincent and Jules from any fan’s mind.

The two are working for the mysterious Mr. Franklin, who puts out contracts anonymously via voice-modulated phone calls, briefcases stashed in train terminal storage lockers and other tricks you may be able to imagine for yourself. (When his identity is finally revealed, it’s via a gag straight out of The Usual Suspects.) Franklin has instructed the fellas to camp out in a hotel room for days, waiting to shoot someone who will appear in a room across the street. They get testy with each other during the wait, but they have other problems they’re not aware of: At the film’s start, we saw Annie (hiding her identity under a Mia Wallace wig) promise Mr. F that she’d kill all his go-to hit men so he’d have no choice but to hire her instead.

That scene is an inauspicious start for the pic, as Stein keeps bouncing between extreme close-ups of Robbie’s eyes and lips, unsure what to do next. But his direction quickly becomes less distracting. The film warms a bit with the arrival of Pegg’s Bill, who is standing on a platform waiting sadly for a train he can throw himself under. But it’s the middle of the night, and a station janitor (Myers) informs him there won’t be another train for hours. So the suicidal English prof drags himself to the terminal’s sole diner (dubbed End of the Line), where Annie has no other customers to keep her company.

As the two discuss Bill’s plight and Annie’s excitement about helping him end it, the movie bounces back to watch her manipulate Vince and Alf both in the diner and in the strip club. Stein piles up the femme-fatale indicators, all but hanging a “steer clear” sign around Annie’s neck, but Alf falls for her, calling her “sugarplum” and scolding Vince when he uses less respectful nicknames. Then the men go off to their dingy stakeout, returning us to Bill and his discourse on the literary device called the pathetic fallacy.

Somewhere in here, the script goes crazy with Lewis Carroll allusions, which at least shakes things up. The pastiche and pretentiousness would be forgivable if there were something human underlying it all. But even the film’s own characters eventually acknowledge they’re in an “over-elaborate scheme” concocted by somebody who likes to have all his toys lined up tidily on the shelf. If Stein wants Terminal not to be the last stop on his filmmaking career, he’s going to need to think less about ways to arrange his pretty toys and more about the stories they might tell.

Production companies: LuckyChap Entertainment, Beagle Pug Films
Distributor: RLJ Entertainment
Cast: Margot Robbie, Simon Pegg, Dexter Fletcher, Max Irons, Mike Myers
Director-screenwriter: Vaughn Stein
Producers: David Barron, Molly Hassell, Arianne Fraser, Margot Robbie
Executive producers: Matthew Jenkins, Tristan Lynch, Shelley Madison
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Richard Bullock
Costume designer: Julian Day
Editors: Johannes Bock, Alex Marquez
Composers: Tony Clarke, Rupert Gregson-Williams
Casting director: Neely Eisenstein

95 minutesterminal2 Terminal (2018) Movie Review

tully Tully (2018) Movie Review

Kimberly French/Focus Features

Tully (2018)

Type: Movie; Genre: Comedy, Drama; Release date: 05/04/18; Runtime: 96 minutes; Performer: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass; Director: Jason Reitman; MPAA: R

Sometimes a little pinch of the unexpected can make all the difference. Take the new Charlize Theron movie Tully, which was written by Diablo Cody and directed by Jason Reitman, the creative team behind 2007’s Juno and 2011’s Young Adult. Based on the trailers, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film was an acerbically fizzy comedy about the thankless, stretched-thin hardships of motherhood and the sunny nanny who swoops in to save the day — Mary Poppins meets a sarcastic eye-roll emoji. Tully is that … kind of. But it’s also something far richer and weirder, and ultimately more interesting.

Theron stars as Marlo, a former Brooklyn free spirit who once upon a time got married and moved to the suburbs and now somehow finds herself as a put-upon, stressed-out mother of two, with a third on the way in a matter of days. Her husband, played (or rather, nicely underplayed) by Ron Livingston, is the kind of guy who means well but who’s also largely absent at work all day while she teeters precariously on the edge of losing it, from either her son kicking the back of her car seat, or his principal suggesting a tutor she can’t afford, or the judgey comments from people who look at her sideways when she orders a decaf coffee because as a pregnant woman she should know that decaf has trace amounts of caffeine and therefore she’s a terrible person who doesn’t care about the health of her unborn child. Something’s gotta give — and it’s going to real soon.

Then Marlo’s rich-jerk brother (Mark Duplass, nailing it with his Mercedes G-wagon and smug, Polynesian-themed man cave) gives her the gift of a night nurse after she gives birth. It’s an extravagant, un-jerky gesture even if, to her, it reeks of condescension — his way of implying she can’t handle being a mom. But after too many sleepless nights filled with spilled breast milk and toes stubbed on Legos, she gives in. And after dinner one night, salvation arrives in the form of Tully (Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis), a smiling, funky, New Agey 20-something panacea in a belly shirt. That evening, Marlo not only gets her first decent night’s sleep in years, she wakes up to find the house spotless.

Tully quickly becomes more than just an after-hours nanny. She becomes a confidant as she and Marlo stay up late talking and drinking sangria. She’s like a younger, less jaded version of the person Marlo once was. She even manages to help jump-start Marlo’s stalled relationship with her husband, whose only real interest in the bedroom is putting on a headset and playing videogames.

As Marlo, Theron reaches deep and sells every scene she’s in (which is pretty much all of them) with conviction, desperation, yearning exhaustion, and, yes, even humor. In our society, there’s something almost transgressive in speaking up and admitting that motherhood is hard and occasionally unrewarding when everyone is quick to point out what a “blessing” it is. Being honest about that — especially in a product of the Hollywood dream factory — feels almost taboo. But it shouldn’t be. Maybe that’s why Theron’s performance feels as jumpy and dangerous as a downed power line.

Cody, who until now has been a writer more comfortable trafficking in hipster quips and toying with easy archetypes, has written a story with real characters grappling with real issues in a way that doesn’t feel like a pose or in airquotes here. Tully feels like the work of a writer who’s matured and lived and become less superficial without giving up any of her natural gift for finding humor in the absurd. She’s also become bolder and more experimental. Without going into the second half of the film, all I’ll say is that Tully takes some daring detours that I didn’t see coming. And it’s a better, less predictable movie for it. It may not end up being the quirky slice of comic misanthropy the trailers are hawking to get you into the theater. Not by a longshot. But it doesn’t matter. Because Tully is better than that movie.

anon ver2 Anon (2018) Movie Review

Clive Owen and Amanda Seyfried star in this timely Netflix-bound cyberthriller from ‘The Truman Show’ and ‘In Time’ creator Andrew Niccol.

Clive Owen looks glum and bored for most of Anon, and many movie fans will empathize. Touching on timely themes like online surveillance and shady government data-mining, writer-director Andrew Niccol’s latest dystopian sci-noir thriller takes place in a near-future North America where privacy has been erased by technology. The premise is smart, the ingredients classy and the overall look stylish. But Niccol’s paranoid anxieties about the totalitarian dangers of cyberspace feel oddly glib and dated, light on thrills or narrative logic.

New Zealand-born Niccol has built up a respectable catalog of techno-angst parables, including his darkly glossy feature debut, Gattaca, and his Oscar-nominated screenplay for Peter Weir’s classic reality TV satire The Truman Show. But his latest detour into the Twilight Zone is a minor effort marred by clumsy plotting, listless pacing and an overly tasteful minimalist aesthetic that borrows brazenly from his past work. Opening theatrically across much of Europe this week, Anon makes its U.S. debut on Netflix on May 4.

Mostly shot in Toronto with a side order of Manhattan, Anon is set in an unnamed metropolis where government cybersnooping is a universal form of social control. Every citizen is hardwired with vaguely explained high-tech gizmos that broadcast their full ID details at all times. A permanent first-person visual record is also collected and archived. For detectives like Sal Frieland (Owen), this vast information archive is instantly accessible across the Ether, an augmented-reality version of the internet that turns every citizen into a permanently open book, and thus keeps crime rates low.

But something is rotten in this digital Denmark. An off-the-grid mystery woman using the online alias Anon (Amanda Seyfried) has figured out a way to hack into the Ether, and she is charging big money to shady clients in return for wiping incriminating episodes from their visual record. In a macabre twist, it appears she then has sex with her clients before killing them. Her ingenious murder method, hacking the live visual feed of her victims and replacing it with hers, not only renders her prey helpless but also conveniently leaves no record of the killer’s face.

Frieland sets a trap for his hacker nemesis by going undercover with a fake identity as a banker with murky secrets to hide. She takes the bait but, inevitably, there are deeper layers at work in this mind-bending conspiracy plot. As the obligatory sexual chemistry sizzles between Owen and Seyfried, powerful phantom enemies start to pose a serious threat to cop and criminal alike.

Frustratingly, Anon has the makings of a superior future-shock suspense thriller, but Niccol drops the ball on too many fronts. His sinister surveillance society is so thinly delineated, it lacks any real sense of danger. His protagonists are slaves to absurd dramatic contrivance. His big twist concerning the killer’s identity is just plain silly.

Haunted by family tragedy and an estranged ex-wife, Owen’s brooding boozy-loner detective is a lazy bundle of stock thriller tropes. But the female characters in Anon fare worse, defined as they are by depressingly trite male-gaze fantasy. A recurring shot of Seyfried’s naked breasts is just pointless titillation, as is an incidental sex scene involving two hot young lesbians in skimpy lingerie. Mildly salacious trash is a cinematic staple, of course, but at times it feels like Niccol is torn between either remaking Inception or going fully Basic Instinct. His track record is way smarter than this.

In visual terms, Anon is all tastefully cool understatement. The boxy wireframe graphics that dance through the Ether have a slightly lame retro feel, but the reality-bending hallucinations beamed by hackers into Freiland’s brain to throw him off the scent are well-staged. Typically strong on production design, Niccol fully indulges his love affair with midcentury modernism here, paying direct homage to Gattaca with a handsome array of vintage cars, classic suits and lovingly shot brutalist architecture. Cinematographer Amir Mokri drains the color palette to an almost monochrome backwash of muted grays, blues and browns. The overall effect, much like the film itself, is elegant but flat.

Production company: K5 Film
Cast: Clive Owen, Amanda Seyfried, Colm Feore, Sonya Walger, Mark O’Brien, Rachel Roberts
Director, screenwriter: Andrew Niccol
Producers: Andrew Niccol, Oliver Simon
Cinematographer: Amir Mokri
Editor: Alex Rodríguez
Music: Christophe Beck
100 minutes