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Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abilgail Breslin

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abilgail Breslin

“MAGGIE”  My rating: C+

95 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Not only does “Maggie” offer a “serious” look at the zombie apocalypse, but it features Arnold Schwarzenegger in what may prove to be his best performance.

Makes me wish I liked the movie more.

Short on mayhem and long on angst, this debut feature from writer John Scott and director Henry Hobson stars Schwarzenegger as Wade, a Midwestern farmer who braves a terrible pestilence to drive to the big city (Kansas City, we’re told) and retrieve his teenage daughter Maggie (Abigail Breslin). She has contracted the mysterious disease and is being held in a special hospital ward.

The big brains call the bug the necroambulist virus — basically it turns human beings into zombies over the course of several weeks.  What makes this so terrible is that those bitten know they are doomed, that little by little they will lose their individuality and become snarling, stumbling monsters.

Wade brings Maggie back to the farm he shares with his second wife, Caroline (Joely Richardson), and their  two young children. For the wee ones’ safety they  are sent off to live with a relative  while Maggie  deteriorates.  When the disease reaches a certain stage — but while she still has her wits about her — emergency rules dictate that she will be taken by the local police to a camp where the infected will be destroyed.

Sounds grim…and it is.

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Chris Stamp, Kit Lambert

Chris Stamp, Kit Lambert

“LAMBERT & STAMP” My rating: B- 

117 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The new doc “Lambert & Stamp” makes the case that Chris Stamp and Kit Lambert were pivotal figures in post-war pop culture.

Never heard of them? Not surprising.  They weren’t performers. But as the managers of The Who these two Brits exerted a powerful influence on that band and triggered ripples that affected much more.

Stamp (who’s still with us) and Lambert (who died in 1981 in a downward drug spiral) were unlikely soulmates.

Stamp was a workingclass bloke who took a job as a stagehand for a ballet company because he’d been told (by his brother, actor Terence Stamp) that it would be a great way to meet women.

Lambert was the posh, Oxford-educated son of a famous classical musician. He could converse in several languages and was more or less openly gay at a time when homosexuality was a crime. (He bears more than a little resemblance to Brian Epstein, the wildly creative but doomed manager of  The Beatles.)

Both young men were obsessed with self expression and the films of Jean-Luc Godard. Both had worked a variety of jobs in the English film industry and were looking for subject matter they could tackle as their directing debuts.

They glommed onto Britain’s fashion-savvy and musically aware mod scene, and in particular a struggling rock quartet called the High Numbers (soon to be rechristened The Who).  Their idea was to manage the band — neither knew anything about the music business — and make a documentary about how they had molded the group into a pop phenomenon.

The movie never got made.  The Who, however, became one of the greatest bands in rock.

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James Marsden, Jack Black

James Marsden, Jack Black

“THE D TRAIN” My rating: B-  

97 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The D Train” begins in familiar, comforting territory.

Jack Black plays an overgrown manchild attempting to relive — and retroactively improve — his outsider adolescence by planning his 20th high school class reunion.

Black’s Dan Landsman is so desperate to be cool and in charge that he’s painful to behold. At the same time, Dan‘s reunion mania leaves little time for him to appreciate the genuinely positive things in his life — the Missus (Kathryn Hahn), their 14-year-old son (Russell Posner), and his good-guy boss (Jeffrey Tambor).

(In fact, Dan is such a miserable sad sack that I found it hard to laugh, even when the frustrated character explodes in furious karate kicks like the ursine warrior Black depicts in the animated “Kung-Fu Panda” franchise).

Dan concocts a scheme to boost reunion attendance by enticing Oliver Lawless (James Marsden), once the school’s dominant BMOC, to return. Oliver is now an LA actor with a national TV ad peddling suntan lotion.

This will require a trip to California to corner Oliver in his natural environment. So that his employer will cover his air fare, Dan lies  that he’s tracked down a big business prospect in Hollywood.

It soon becomes evident to everyone but the starstruck, uber-square Dan that Oliver is a drug-scarfing, bed-hopping bottom feeder who has gotten all the mileage he can out of his hunky good looks. Still, the failed actor is more than happy to engage in a drunken carouse paid for by this this barely-remembered figure from his high school days.

For Dan it’s a chance to get up close to the classmate who previously wouldn’t have given him the time of day.

Then  “The D Train” drops a plot development that is guaranteed to raise eyebrows, appall some viewers and turn the movie inside out. If you want to read the spoiler — and there’s no way to not mention it in a thorough discussion of the film — continue.

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Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche

Kristen Stewart, Juliette Binoche

“CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA” My rating: B 

124 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Juliette Binoche is just about perfect in “The Clouds of Sils Maria,” playing a middle-aged actress wrestling with issues of aging and art. Of course we expect excellence from Binoche.

What we don’t expect is that Kristen Stewart, the sullen star of the “Twilight” blockbusters,  would more than hold her own with the veteran French actress in an extended battle of one-on-one acting. (If you’ve seen Stewart’s work in indie efforts like “The Cake Eaters,” “Adventureland,” “On the Road”  or “Stil Alice” you know she’s got chops never put to use in her over-inflated vampire saga.)

Stewart — who won a French Cesar Award for her performance — plays Val, the personal assistant to Binoche’s Maria, and from the film’s first frame she is an organizational dervish, simultaneously fielding calls on two cellphones, scheduling appointments and running interference for her famous employer.

Val is more than just a competent social secretary. She is Maria’s confidant, booster, career consultant and, on some level, friend. When Maria has trouble making up her mind or second-guesses her choices — all too common occurrences — Val knows just what buttons to push, what issues to raise to nudge the older woman to a decision.

Writer/director Oliver Assayas’ film centers on a new stage production of the play that made Maria a star at age 18. Back then she was cast as the young office worker who seduces and gradually destroys her boss, a woman 25 years older.

Now, though, Maria will play the older woman. Her cruel young lover is to be portrayed by Jo-Ann (Chloe Grace Moretz), a charismatic young star whose talent is frequently eclipsed by her Lohan-esque bad-girl behavior.

The bulk of the film unfolds in a house on a mountainside in the small Swiss enclave of Sils Maria, where  the low-lying clouds are bizarre and beautiful.

Maria and Val have taken up residence there to prepare for the production. They spend much time running lines from the play — Val reads the younger woman’s role — and dissecting Maria’s conflicted feelings about having to renegotiate the drama from the perspective of a mature but insecure woman. Continue Reading »

Photographer Salgado

Photographer Sebastiao Salgado

“SALT OF THE EARTH” My rating: B (Opens May 1 at the Tivoli)

110 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

Like the late Ansel Adams,  photographer Sebastiao Salgado has an immediately recognizable visual style.

In more than 40 years of shooting (he didn’t pick up a camera until he was in his 20s) the Brazilian-born Salgado mostly has photographed other human beings struggling to survive.

His work has taken him from huge gold mining pits in South America (where 60,000 laborers manually lug bags of dirt up treacherous ladders — looking like insects swarming over an anthill) to refugee camps in Africa and a still-primitive tribe in the jungles of New Guinea.

Photo from Salgado's series "The Miners of Serra Pelada"

Photo from Salgado’s series “The Miners of Serra Pelada”

His work, invariably in black and white, is unsettling. For while his politically-charged subject matter is often disturbing (the corpses of African children dead of starvation, the Rwandan genocide, civil war in the former Yugoslavia), his artistry is overwhelming.

Shooting rapidly using natural lighting, he instinctively finds the right angle, the right composition, the right moment to push his shutter button. He discovers beauty in ugliness. (Though it’s not mentioned in this doc, some critics have accused Salgado of prettifying human misery for Western bourgeoise consumption.)

“The Salt of the Earth,” an Oscar nominee this year for best documentary feature, follows Salgado’s career through his photographs and his personal commentary.

Directed by the great Wim Wenders and Salgado’s son, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado, the film is an overwhelming sensory experience even as it tugs at our political consciousness.

From Salgado's study of  an Ethiopian refugee camp

From Salgado’s study of an Ethiopian refugee camp

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xxx as Ava

Alicia Vikander as Ava

“EX MACHINA” My rating: B+ 

108 minutes | MPAA rating: R

The computer or robot that turns on its human creators is one of science fiction’s more popular tropes, sparking films as diverse as “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “The Terminator.”

“Ex Machina” offers one of the more disquieting takes on that idea, delivering a compact four-character pressure-cooker drama that leaves audiences convinced that the creation of artificial intelligence inevitably will lead to humanity’s destruction.

The directing debut of Alex Garland (the screenwriter behind “28 Days Later…” and “Sunshine”), unfolds on the remote estate of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a Jobs-ian genius and multi-billionaire thanks to the Internet search engine he created at age 13.

We meet Nathan through Caleb (Domhall Gleeson), a lowly computer programer who has won a company-wide contest to spend a week with his boss. This is a very big deal, since Nathan has not made a public appearance in years and lives alone in a high-tech home/laboratory built into a mountainside near the Arctic Circle.

Caleb is what you expect from a computer programmer — smart and dweeby. Nathan, on the other hand, is a force of nature, a sort of scientific Paul

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Domnail Gleeson and Oscar Isaacs

Bunyan with shaved head and Mennonite beard who, when he’s not playing mad scientist, is furiously lifting weights.

Early on Nathan — who works overtime to give the impression that he’s just one a normal dude — confides that Caleb is here to help him test his newest creation. It’s an android he calls Ava (Alicia Vikander), and he wants the programmer to perform a series of “Turing tests” — conversations with Ava from which Caleb will deduce whether she’s just a smartly programmed machine or a genuine individual capable of original thought and emotion.

Caleb is wowed by his first encounter with Ava, whose body consists of a mesh exoskeleton through which he can see her metal “bones” and the blinking lights of various hard drives. Her movements are accompanied by the hum of her internal hydraulics. Only her face, hands and feet have been covered with a material that approximates human flesh.

Over several days Caleb befriends Ava, who evolves from a sort of quiet diffidence to eager participant.

“Are you attracted to me?” she asks, remarking on “the way your eyes focus on my eyes and lips.”

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Russell Crowe in

Russell Crowe in “The Water Diviner”…the war goes on

“THE WATER DIVINER” My rating: C 

 111 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Russell Crowe’s acting is marked by fierce physicality and an equally intense  intelligence.

The Australian icon once again embraces those qualities in his feature directing debut, “The Water Diviner.” But the results are at best desultory.

Maybe Crowe bit off more than he could chew in tackling this  convoluted World War I yarn with epic ambitions.

He certainly should have been more discerning when it came to the muddled screenplay by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios, which throws together big themes, cheesy romance and an approach heavy on flashbacks.

The film begins with the 1915 attack on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey by British and Australian forces.  After months of savage fighting and thousands of casualties, the invaders are repelled and retreat across the sea.

Cut to Australia several years later where farmer Joshua Connor (Crowe) battles drought by using dowsing rods to detect underground water. He appears to have a real talent — possible psychic — for knowing where to dig.

Joshua and his emotionally devastated wife (Jacqueline McKenzie) lost their three sons in one day of fighting on Gallipoli. With the death of his spouse, Joshua decides to honor her last wish — that her boys’ bodies be recovered and buried beside her.

It’s a tall order. It means traveling to Turkey, navigating (or defying) the red tape of the British occupation, getting to the battlefield (from which civilians are banned because of the live ordinance still littering the landscape) and somehow finding three skeletons among the thousands buried in mass graves.

If you think Joshua’s dowsing abilities will come in handy, you’re right.

But there’s a lot more to this overly-busy yarn.

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